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The Winged Hussar, Worm OC AU

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by SmokeRichards, Jun 2, 2021.

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  1. JackofSpades

    JackofSpades Making the rounds.

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    Wraithbone is how this was spelled before. I also found pinions spelled "pinyons" but that could be deliberate. I'm liking the story so far! The protagonist and the setting are interesting. Occasionally the scene changes are a bit disorienting to me but when it goes back to the main plot it's good.

    Edit: this story gets better the more I read.
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2021
  2. SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    I'm not suprised that there are spelling errors, especially in the older stuff. As you go back, you start to enter the territory where I was operating without the help of a dedicated SPAG Beta.

    I'm glad you enjoy it.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Fractus, part three
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    A gloved hand gestured at the scanner set into the wall. “Go ahead and try. You should be in the system now.”

    As he leaned forward, Vinci reached up with one hand and lifted his helmet enough that his eyes could peer into the scanner. The scanner beeped, and the door in front of him slid up into the ceiling without a sound. Glancing down into the recess of the floor, something akin to respect appeared in his eyes. The way it had slid into the ceiling instead of swinging outward was odd, but he knew what he was looking at the second he saw those round holes the size of his thumb spaced every foot on either side of the frame; that was a blast door with panic bolts. The metal wasn’t thick enough for his taste, he’d prefer another two inches of steel, but the fact they had it all was surprising.

    “Can you take it from here?” The PRT trooper asked, hooking a finger under his collar. “Not to be rude, but I’m not allowed in there without a good reason, and seeing as how the tour concludes here...”

    His helmet slid down, hiding the twitch of his lips as they fought to curve upwards. “And I am?”

    “Of course sir. You're a Ward now.”

    Vinci shook his head. Not yet. There were some technicalities to iron out. But he was close enough. But by the end of the day, Williams should have those all ironed out. “Dismissed trooper.” He stepped inside. When he glanced over his shoulder, the trooper gave him a little wave before the door slid shut in his face.

    A tired sigh escaped him. So similar to what he was used to, and yet so foreign at the same time. He’d expected a crisp salute, and even though he held no rank here, at least not a formal one like he had in the Hussars, the lack of it was unnerving.

    While the lights were on, the Wards room was empty. Well, he supposed it would be more correct to call them the Wards commons. That didn’t change the fact that it was empty.

    There wasn’t much to say, other than it was nicer than Hussar barracks. Directly ahead were the kitchens with wooden flooring, a pair of rectangular tables shoved together, and equipped with many of the same appliances one would see in any household kitchen. To his right was what he assumed was the rec area, with two couches, a pair of beanbags, and a recliner sitting in a half circle facing the widescreen TV bolted to the wall. It looked like they had what he assumed were game consoles, though he didn’t recognize the make, along with some odds and ends like board games, books, and movies stacked on a shelf nestled against the wall beneath the TV screen.

    Eyes sliding right, he froze for half a second before walking closer, his gear quietly clinking as he moved. Nestled in the corner to the right of the TV screen was a collection of screens in a booth that partially wrapped around a chair. Three screens were directly in front of the chair, on the desk, and five more were bolted into the wall two feet behind, and slightly above the three on the desk. The lower left monitor was on, displaying a number that ticked down second by second.

    05:18:22:41

    The little alcove was well used too. The keyboard was scuffed, some of the lettering on it, particularly the number pad, faded to the point of illegibility, with no dust coating any surface save the tops of the monitors.

    Underneath his helmet, his brows furrowed together.

    Did the Wards have a thinker they were keeping under wraps? Because that was the only reason he could think of to have an operations center of some sort in the Wards commons. It didn’t make sense otherwise. Only a Thinker would be able to take advantage of a rig like that without a great deal of highly specialized training.

    Shaking his head, he turned away. Something to find out later.

    Crossing the room, he entered into the darkened hallway, his eyes coming to rest at the base of a door at the farthest end of the hall, where a thin sliver of light peaked out from underneath the doorway. However, once in front of it, he hesitated, knuckles halted an inch before the white surface of the door.

    Chambers had said that Missy was in the building, but what if he had been lying? What if he was telling the truth, but Missy didn’t want to see him? What if-

    Forcing down the sudden torrent of negative thoughts was like trying to wrestle a wolf with nothing but a trench knife. The emotion clawed and bit, refusing to stay down.

    Deep down, something ugly whispered.

    What if Missy had finally come to her senses and realized that she didn’t want him?

    His breath picked up, black armorweave creaking as the hand which hung by his side clenched into a tight fist. If his hand shook a little, well, there was no one there to see.

    Through the Bond, the peaceful tide of contemplation shifted, turning into worry. Her worry.

    With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes. He was being silly. Silly, stupid, and childish. This baseless fear was unfitting for a Hussar, a soldier, or the kind of man he was trying to be. They’d talked a long time last night, and it hadn’t been an easy conversation. Inside, a part of him winced. He’d said some things. Things he’d really regretted.

    And her response…

    ‘It kinda breaks my heart, just a little, to see how hard it is for you to accept that someone might actually want you because you're you, and not because of what you can do for them. It's not right that anyone hurt you this way. And I really don’t know what else to do, other than keep on telling you the same thing over and over again, until one day you can actually believe it when the Bond tells you that I’m telling the truth.’

    Even with what he’d said, Missy had made herself clear that she wanted him anyways, so he just needed to stop with this indecision.

    Swallowing the lump in his throat, he forced the armor covering his knuckles to make contact with the door anyways, the sound firm and confident in a way he didn’t feel.

    It took a lifetime for the door to be thrown open with a sleepy “What is it-” that faded the second Missy saw him, along with her smile.

    She wore a simple nightgown that reached to her ankles, the fabric a faded pink with white polka-dots. Golden hair had been pulled together in a simple braid held together with a simple sunset orange rubber band. A few strands of hair hung down her left side, and the braid itself lacked the neat lines of something he’d see out in public, but it suited her.

    Then again, just about anything would suit his Bondmate.

    She looks tired. The thought rang true, but it only took half a second for him to realize he couldn’t figure out why. There were no physical signs, no deep bags under the eyes, or a hazed gaze. Something about the Bond just felt… off.

    “You promised you’d call me when you got back,” she softly said, leaning her head against the frame of the door.

    Under the helmet, Vinci winced and looked away. “Sorry,” he muttered. The day had been busier than he’d expected, and her request had been buried under the revelations of Chicago being leaked and Chambers demanding to speak with him, but that was no excuse.

    No matter how he scoured the Bond, he couldn’t feel judgement, or disgust, or any of a long list of emotions he expected to be there. Instead, it was just placid acceptance, with an undercurrent he knew was there, but feared to look at.

    It scared him. Something was wrong, but there was a tightness to his gut that told him he didn’t want to know what.

    Instinct was what had kept him clawing at his foes long after conscious thought had faded. Instinct had kept him alive. Instinct was something to be listened to.

    He didn’t look.

    Missy leaned forward, looking down the hallway before straightening to look him in the eye. “Are you being chased?”

    Vinci froze. “I don’t think so?” He glanced down the hallway himself. He hadn’t noticed anything, and he was pretty good at this kind of stuff. A tail or a pursuer was the kind of thing he really should’ve noticed, but maybe she had seen something he hadn’t-

    Missy’s eyebrows squished together. “Then why are you feeling like, well…” Missy gestured at him, “that?” she finished, sounding uncertain.

    “I don’t follow.”

    “Why are you afraid?”

    Her. It was her. And there was no good way for him to answer that. He was afraid of her, and he really shouldn’t be. And the fact that he was afraid of her would hurt her.

    Vinci swallowed, felt guilty, and said nothing.

    The sudden spike of pain in the Bond made his heart clench. Missy’s shoulders sagged. “You are impossible,” she muttered. Like a striking snake, her hand lashed out, unexpected, and too fast to evade, grasping his hand. Turning, she half tugged, half dragged him inside her room, stopping only long enough to kick the door closed behind him before she let go of his hand. Walking over to a desk placed in the corner of the room, surface strewn with pencils, and open bag placed on the top of it, Missy snatched a clipboard from the desk along with a pencil before spinning on her heel and stalking back across the room before she curled up on a bean bag.

    Through the Bond, hurt faded like a lake drying up, and it left bare what had been beneath.

    Exhaustion, thick, powerful, and unrelenting. The kind he recognized all too well.

    Vinci was still afraid, but now, it wasn’t of her, but for her. His Bondmate shouldn’t be feeling worn thin like this.

    Missy met his gaze, looking into the red eye lenses without flinching. “What am I going to do with you,” she whispered. Lifting the clipboard with one hand, she waved it in his direction. “Because, y’know, I have to do something.”

    One foot after another, his legs moved, drawing him closer to her without conscious thought. He stumbled on the first step. By the time she was done speaking, he was sitting on the ground in front of her, legs half crossed, half hugged to his chest, and he couldn’t quite remember taking his helmet off to set it down on the floor beside him.

    Something was wrong with her, and he was worried.

    Brilliant green eyes met dull silver, more akin to tarnished steel than gleaming jewelry, and a soft sigh echoed throughout the room. “You really can’t help it, can you?” Missy asked. “Looking at me like that.”

    He jolted back to reality, cheeks burning. Losing control like that, stupid, stupid, stupid. And it had made her uncomfortable. A part of him wanted to disappear. The rest of him looked to the ground, avoiding her gaze. He swallowed. Hard. It was okay. Expected even. He’d thought that it had been okay to look at her like that, but clearly it hadn’t been. This was something he’d learn from, and not do it again, and in a little bit, he wouldn’t feel so hurt anymore, and-

    Regret filled the Bond, along with recrimination.

    “Hey,” a gentle voice whispered, “can you look at me?” The Bond called to him, tugging, but he refused, keeping his eyes focused on the wooden floorboards with their thin lines that suddenly seemed so fascinating. “Vinci? Please? For me?” He didn’t want to. He really didn't want to. But the Bond didn’t care. At that moment, as his head turned to look Missy in the eye, heedless of the war that raged inside him, he really hated the Bond. Missy smiled as she met his eyes, a soft, gentle thing. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice a hushed whisper, “that was really mean of me. I didn’t mean it that way.” The corner of her lips curled upwards. “It's been a long day, and I’m not at my best. Forgive me?”

    It wasn’t a question, not for him. He nodded. Of course he forgave her. But the hurt didn’t go away.

    Missy closed her eyes for a long moment, then, with a tired huff, she pulled herself to her feet, walking over to sit by him. He kept her in the corner of his eye, but that didn’t stop the flinch as she rested the palm of her hand on his cheek. No matter how it made his heart clench, or how much he wanted to find a quiet corner to curl up in until maybe he didn’t hurt so much, that hurt was his, and he clung to it. But the more he tightened his hold, determined to not let go, the quicker it slipped from his fingers. Taken by the Bond.

    How had he ever felt this was calming back in the hospital?

    This wasn’t peace. This was dying, having the core of who you were torn away one bit at a time, and something alien shoved in its place.

    The peace he felt was no choice, not with her here.

    He had always stood by his choices. They were shit, but they were his. The fucking worst consolation prize for a life of hell ever, but it was what he had, and so it was what he clung to.

    He loved her, and he hated her. He wanted that hand to stay, and he wanted it to go. Part of him was angry, the rest was peaceful.

    The control he fought so hard for all his life didn’t exist anymore. Something had stolen that from him too, along with everything else that had ever mattered.

    Quietly, he began to cry.

    No effort was made to stem the flow of tears. They were his, and he wanted to keep them until the Bond stole them from him too. And it would. He could feel it dampening those emotions already. This was all because of her, and the worst part was, he didn’t even get to really hate her because she didn’t have a choice in this.

    “I’m sorry,” Missy whispered. The feelings of hers which made it through the Bond made his heart ache.

    “S’not your fault,” he mumbled. “It's the Bond. I hate it.” It was her turn to flinch and feel hurt. Fuck. Couldn’t he do anything right?

    As her hand left his cheek, he growled, and grabbed it. Turning her hand over while taking care to be gentle enough that it was a request, not a demand, he rested the back of her hand on the armor plating that protected his thigh, wiggling his fingers into her clenched fist.

    She didn’t respond.

    Another five seconds, he’d have his answer. If she didn’t want to play along, then… Well, he’d let her go. Confused eyes looked into his before she relaxed, and let him pry her fist open. The second she did, he let go, using his other hand to pry plates off, and undo seals that connected his glove to the rest of the suit. Half a second later, the armor weave gloved fell to the floor with a muted thud, and he grabbed her hand, intertwining his fingers with hers.

    Bare skin touched.

    He hated it, and he loved it, the comfort she brought him warring with his hatred of the Bond, leaving both at a stalemate. But this wasn’t about him, or what he needed. She was hurting, and that was more than enough to tip the scales in the favor of what the Bond wanted.

    His other hand reached over to slide under the back of her hand, pinning it between both of his. A part of him wondered what she thought of it, the difference between the hard, scratchy calluses on his bare hand, and the stiff, abrasive armorweave that touched the back of her hand.

    “It's not you,” he promised, gentle, voice hoarse. “Never you. It’s like- what did you say again? ‘I didn’t mean it that way’?” Turning, he looked at her, his head tilted, with cheeks that still glistened with tear tracks. When had he stopped crying? Had it been the moment hurt had rung through the Bond like a gleaming dagger, or when he had grabbed her hand. He didn’t know. She had needed all of his attention, and he had given it without thought. “It’s like that. This Bond is hard, Bondmate mine.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I just wish I could’ve had a choice.”

    Her hand tightened around his. “I understand,” she said, voice thick.

    Except that the Bond still rang with hurt, and she refused to look at him.

    Shaking his head, he brought her hand back up to his cheek, the gloved hand falling to his side. As the back of her palm touched his cheek, she jerked, but didn’t move otherwise. It made him uncomfortable. It didn’t stop him. He wouldn’t let it. “I don’t think you do.”

    Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. The room smelt like Missy, or at least the shampoo she liked to use. The faint, bitter tang of raspberry. Not that it was a surprise, it was her room after all, but that didn’t change the fact that her scent was comforting. It made something deep inside him, all coiled muscles and bared teeth, flop to the ground in a limp, happy pile.

    Home.

    He was where he belonged.

    With a sigh, he let go of the last of his anger, and allowed himself to sink into the moment. The here and now. Him and her. Nothing else mattered.

    “I’ve been lonely for a long time, Missy. And we’ll never know for certain what either of us would’ve chosen if we had the choice between having the Bond, and not. But for what it's worth, if I knew you understood what you were saying yes too, I think nothing would’ve made me happier than to choose to not be so lonely anymore, even with every sucky thing that comes with it.” Hair rustled. When he opened his eyes, it was to her brilliant green looking back at him. He smiled, gentle, tired, and more than a little sad. He resisted the urge to whisper a ‘hello there’. She was paying attention, and that was enough. He would make it count. “I just wish I had the choice to say yes, and I wish you had the same choice to say no, because maybe then I wouldn’t be so terrified about you waking up and realizing that the choice you made? It wasn’t really your choice at all. And that you never wanted me. I hate the Bond because it took that choice away from me, just like everything else that has destroyed my life. But I don’t hate you. I adore you. You make me feel like everything is going to be okay. What scares me is the idea that one day, I will wake up, and things won’t be okay anymore.”

    The Bond rang with truth.

    Missy’s eyes widened. “Oh.” A watery smile broke out across her face. “Oh.” Missy visibly relaxed, the Bond resonating with her. “Yeah. I get it. The Bond is hard, isn’t it?” The happiness soured. It was still there, but tainted, and lesser for it, because it no longer shone with the warmth of the sun, instead dulling to the tarnished silver of the moon. Missy looked down at her lap, allowing her hand to fall down to rest between them, still holding onto his own. “I have my own complaints too, you know.”

    “Lay it on me?” It wasn’t flippantly said. He deeply, truly wanted to know. Something was wrong with his Bondmate in a way he recognized. She felt tired the same way he did when he was helping clean up the aftermath of an ADG attack, and he’d pulled the fifth infant for the day out of the wreckage. It was the kind of tired that made him want to curl up in a ball and take a break for a week.

    Missy was his bright, hopeful ball of sunshine, full of kind smiles and comfort he was quickly coming to rely on. He didn’t want her to become like him. And if there was anything he could do to prevent that, he would.

    Missy hunched her shoulders, so slight that if it were anyone else, they would’ve missed it. But she was his Bondmate. It was only natural that he paid closer attention to her. “I shouldn’t.”

    “Missy?” He allowed a hint of begging to enter the Bond. “Please tell me? Please?”

    From her sharp intake of breath, he knew she felt what he did everytime she tried that particular trick on him. The compulsion to fold like a house of cards when she begged him like that was overpowering.

    After a silent moment of worrying at her lip, Missy nodded. “I feel alone,” she whispered, her other hand clenching the fabric of her nightgown. “I want this, but sometimes I don’t think you do. And that hurts. And you-” Once more, she hesitated. “You’ve been through a lot.”

    “But that’s not what you want to say, is it?” The guilty flush of the Bond was an answer in itself. Part of him wanted to let it go. They all had secrets, him more than most, and they deserved to keep them if they wanted to. The rest of him simply couldn’t. The Bond itself was screaming at him; something was not right, Missy was in trouble, and it demanded that he deal with it. “Please?” he coaxed.

    It came out in a rush. “You're damaged,” Missy breathed. Her eyes stared at the floor, but they were vacant, no one home. “And the more I pay attention, the more I see the cracks. I told myself while I waited for you to wake up that I was ready for this. That no matter what you threw my way, no matter how hurt you were, I could be strong enough for both of us.” Tears bit at the corner of her eyes, glistening. Her breath shuddered. “The PRT wants to talk to me about you. Your social worker wants to talk to me about you. PR wants to talk to me about you. Everyone seems to think that I’m your parent or something, and that I can force you to do something you really don’t want to. And then you come in here, and you just sit on the floor, looking up at me like I’m some kind of angel. Like you're waiting for me to tell you what to do and-” Missy broke off, her shoulders hunching like she’d been hit. Sucking in a deep breath, something in Missy snapped, making Vinci flinch.

    He’d felt that.

    A tinge of hysteria began to bleed through their connection. “I don’t feel ready, not anymore.” Missy’s voice broke. “The Bond won’t stop screaming at me,” she whispered, shaking, eyes haunted. “Help him, help him, help him, it never stops. You’re broken, you're hurting, and I have to do something, but there's nothing I can do!

    With a choked sob, Missy began to cry. She felt helpless and hopeless. And he? He didn’t know what to do either. She was crying, she was sad, and he didn’t understand how he could fix that.

    So he did what she had done for him when he had been lost in his own thoughts and emotions. He gave her something to remind her there was a world out there to come back too.

    Missy didn’t resist as he reached out with a wing and wrapped it around her, holding her tight.

    “Letting you go to Alaska was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she gasped. “I had to let you go when every part of me was screaming to keep you close. It's too much.” Jerking her hand out of his, she clutched it to her chest, as if she was trying to hold herself together as she fell apart. “The PRT expects me to lure you to the Wards, but they also expect me to keep you under control because they can’t do it. I have school assignments that I’m falling behind on, patrols I can’t skip, and there’s always a PR event that needs me to smile for cameras. My parents are fighting again, and every time I can’t find an excuse to stay here for the night, I come home to them screaming at each other.” A strangled growl escaped her lips as frustration joined the Bond, accompanying the angry tears that streamed down her face. “And they just never, ever fucking stop! They’re still fighting and I just can’t handle it anymore. My father knows about you, and he keeps asking to meet you, but the Bond doesn’t like the look in his eyes. It wants me to keep you away from him because you already feel so brittle, but he’s demanding. Gallant is treating me like glass again, and there’s this look in his eyes every time he looks my way, and I hate it! I’ve been here the longest, and they are always treating me like a child! And now Leona just came in and asked me if I would like to add even more PR work on top of family troubles, you, school, and Ward's life.”

    For a moment, there was silence as Missy gasped for air, letting it back out in these horrid shaking, gasping sounds.

    Something in Vinci was cold. Angry. Tensed. Ears laid flat against the skull, teeth bared, muscles coiled.

    Missy, his Missy, was being hurt. She was crying. Something had hurt her.

    She sucked in a deep breath like she was drowning. “I’m sorry for being all weepy and shit, but I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m tired. It's really not that bad. I’m not normally like this. I’m a big girl playing with the big kids. I can handle a little stress. Tomorrow I’ll be fine.”

    With deliberate, almost mechanical slowness, Vinci closed his eyes and threw the upwelling of murderous rage that had nothing vague about it into a box, and locked it up tight. “Fuck”, he breathed, so quiet she didn’t hear him.

    The Bond won’t stop screaming at me.

    He had been blind. Why had he ever been so arrogant to think that just because she felt and looked like she was doing fine, that the Bond wasn’t jerking her around?

    Her voice was desperate, ragged, threadbare, tired. Each individual emotion one he hated with a passion, because she should never sound like that, and all of them together… “I- I just want the Bond to stop screaming at me to help you because I’m trying.” As she hiccuped, he drew her closer. “But it hasn’t stopped. You were in the hospital unconscious, then you were conscious but falling apart. Now you're neither of those things, but it's worse because you're emotionally dragging yourself over a bed of knives, and I can feel it. And I need to make sure your okay, but I can’t go too fast or you’re going to run again and-”

    It recontextualized everything.

    This wasn’t Scintilla, the strong, confident young girl who had barged into his life and flipped it upside down. There never had been a Scintilla. Not like he thought she was. That girl had only ever been an illusion in his mind. This was his Bondmate, Missy Biron, a girl who, much like him, didn’t understand what was going on, or how to fix it. Someone who had far too much responsibility crushing shoulders too small to handle the load demanded of her. Someone trying to do best.

    A victim like him.

    The illusion of her he had was torn away in an instant.

    No longer did he see a confident figure chasing after him, nagging at his heels. Instead, she was a scared child stumbling after him, desperately clutching at his shirt because the Bond made her life a hell if she didn’t. The Bond had taken someone who was already struggling to keep her head above water, and chained another stone to her ankle. And now she was drowning.

    This was his fault.

    The seed of self-blame was ruthlessly strangled, stomped on, and then burnt out. Feeling guilty for being an unthinking asshole was a luxury for him, and he refused to tolerate it. It could wait until such a time where Missy was no longer falling apart.

    She was crying. Like one of those kids he pulled from burning ruble on a bad day for everyone.

    That was what made it all click, because he understood what he was supposed to do with those.

    Protect.

    The part of him clearly associated with the Bond, frantic at seeing Missy crying, latched onto the idea with an overwhelming strength, the intensity of it making Vinci jolt.

    He needed to act right now.

    Abruptly, Vinci stood. There was a thud as the pouches on his chest fell to the ground. Looking down, his mouth twisted into an unhappy frown. She looked so small, curled up like that. Sitting down, he reached over, hooking a hand underneath Missy’s armpit. She squawked as he pulled her over, being careful to not twist her arm in a way that would cause pain. For a moment, she fought him as he pulled her onto his lap and held her against his chest. Then she went limp, burying her head into his shoulder and crying.

    Something inside him relaxed, just a little, at her touch. The relief was minor at best, but it made him feel like he could breathe again.

    “You know what oh ferocious Bondmate of mine?” He asked, letting out a juddering breath, not really expecting an answer. He knew she was listening though, she had to. They weren’t so different in that regard, were they? When he spoke, there was no choice for her but to listen, and he couldn’t understand how he had ever thought otherwise. This Bond was a two way street. “I think we fit each other more than I ever could’ve imagined when I first met you. Stubborn, foolish, prideful, and absolutely unwilling to ask for help. A match made in hell.” If god was real, the bastard was laughing. “You wanna know something else? You remember how you said you were going to wait for me to come to you?” Missy froze, cutting off mid sob. His arms tightened around her. “Well, here I am. And you know what? I’m not letting you go. You're mine now, and anyone who messes with you is going to get their shit kicked in.”

    Electrocution, evisceration, incineration, asphyxiation- Blunt trauma. Yeah. He had options.

    Missy wasn’t this perfect figure who needed nothing he had to offer. She was a mess, and there were things he could help her with. He brought stuff to the table. This partnership wouldn’t be a one way street, where all he did was take, take, and take even more as he tore her down and gave nothing back. Missy needed a monster to tell everyone no.

    He’d be her monster, and in return, she’d be his light in the dark.

    Missy pulled her head away from his chest long enough for bloodshot green eyes to look into his silver, searching for something. Whatever it was, she found it, and offered him a watery smile. When he offered a tentative one of his own, her face twisted, and she burst into tears, sobbing harder than ever as she slumped back into his shoulder.

    His smile stayed. These tears, they weren’t because she was exhausted, stressed, and at the end of her rope. It was relief that filled the Bond. One less thing for her to be stressed about.

    He’d take care of the rest. At least what he could.

    It was a plan of action, but even so, the Bond wound tighter and tighter. It hated seeing her like this. It didn’t matter that what had caused it were things that couldn’t be helped, not now at least. It demanded action anyways. Attack, hurt, protect, kill, anything and everything that could possibly make her feel better, no matter how irrational. There was nothing he could do that he wasn’t already doing. Even the thought of getting up and setting Missy down to cry on her own made him flinch, and yet the thought of leaving what had done this to her, like parents or the PRT, was unbearable. Stay or go, no matter what he chose, it wouldn’t be enough. The Bond would tear him apart anyways, and with a force that left him feeling weak.

    A crying Bondmate was hell.

    ‘The Bond won’t stop screaming at me.’

    Breathing deeply, he held his breath, then let it out before repeating the process.

    They stayed there until her tears died down, leaving her feeling like a wrung out rag in the Bond.

    “Chambers was talking to me earlier today.” Vinci finally said with a forced casualness that felt fake, though it didn’t sound that way. “It's why I forgot to call you. I’m willing to bet it was the same thing Everett was talking to you about. Being presented as a Bonded pair, yes?”

    Missy nodded into his shoulder, eyes bloodshot and red.

    Their position was unnatural. Not something he would normally do. He didn’t know even a fraction of everything he wanted to know about her. Certainly not enough to trust her. But the Bond told him that this felt right, a deep, primal truth.

    It felt right, and he never wanted to do it again.

    Even if it was her, he wasn’t used to physical contact like her. For the past three years, for the most part, being touched meant that either he was in pain, or about to be. It made him distinctly uncomfortable, in a vague way, the Bond dulling emotion before it could become something concrete.

    “It seems to me that if they want to portray us as a team, then they need to keep us together. No separation. Whenever you have a PR event, I go with you, and vice versa. It's the only way something like this could work.” When Missy stiffened her shoulders, and opened her mouth to speak, he shushed her. “Shhh. Not right now. I don’t need an answer. And I don’t want one. Not right now. I just want you to think about it.” His smile faded as he glared a hole in Missy’s wall.

    “Everett wants an answer tomorrow,” Missy muttered, voice hoarse.

    “Fuck Everett. You let me deal with her. She’ll get an answer when we are both ready, and not a second sooner.”

    “Vinci,” She said feeling stressed, “if they need-”

    “No.” He refused to allow any agenda to be pushed to the detriment of Missy. “I just told you I’m yours. You wanted a Bondmate, and you have one.” With all of the dangerous protectiveness that came with it.

    The steel of his conviction shone through the Bond, unshakable, and immutable.

    “Alright,” Missy whispered.

    Minutes passed by, and neither of them moved as the Bond took on a hazed, drowsy tint, full of relief. For half an hour, nothing was said, and he didn’t push her to. Then she broke the silence.

    “The Bond isn’t screaming so loud,” Missy mumbled, eyes half closed.

    “Good.” He was happy for her, but the opposite was true for him. For half an hour, he’d had nothing to do but think. And the more he thought, the more distressed he became. It wasn’t much, a faint uncurrent the same way it had been for her, but it was there.

    The minutes ticked by, filled with her breathing, in, and out. The sound captivated the Bond, and by extension, him like nothing else. She sounded so peaceful like this.

    Eventually, Missy fell asleep in his arms.

    The PRT had failed to care about Missy’s well being despite their clear mandate to do so.

    That. Made. Him. Unhappy.

    Standing, he carried Missy to her bed, and tucked her in. Turning to go, he hesitated. Before she had fallen asleep, while in that half state between the waking world and dreams, Missy had mumbled that she was afraid that he would run away again. That she would wake up, and he would be gone. Undoing his belt, he allowed several pouches to fall to the floor before he reached what he was aiming for. Sliding his sword, along with its sheath, off his belt, he made sure that the buckle that held the blade in the sheath was securely fastened. Once he was sure that it would take deliberate action to unsheathe, he slid the blade in between the covers, right next to Missy. Not up against her, sleeping hugging a weapon was something he would do, whereas she clearly wasn’t used to sleeping armed. But close.

    It was what he could offer her, because he wasn’t going to stay in her room. Not tonight at least.

    The Bond said that staying felt right, but the Bond also said that murdering people for the stress they had caused Missy was a good idea too, so the Bond was pretty retarded. At the very least, he knew that if he woke up to a relative stranger in his room, he would be very upset. Better to give her space, even if it was more about him and what he felt then her. Even if he knew for certain that Missy would be fine with it, this was her room. Her safe space. Something intensely private.

    The idea of staying made him feel uncomfortable, and he was already heavy with unease.

    It was his hope that the sword would make her feel safer. When he was afraid, sometimes it was only the knowledge that the demons of his nightmares weren’t strong enough to hurt him anymore. A weapon was part of that.

    He hoped it would guard her sleep the way it sometimes guarded his.

    Stopping only to collect the pouches dropped on the floor, along with the armor plating and gloves he’d taken off, he left her room, and stood in the hallway.

    He wasn’t going back to the Bucks, not tonight even though he was supposed to. He’d send them a text to not expect him back tonight with the fancy new phone the PRT had given him.

    One of these rooms was going to be his anyways, and tonight, his Bondmate needed him.

    Protect.

    Five minutes was all it took to check each room and learn that, no, there wasn’t actually a room set up for him yet. Each door he opened revealed personal belongings, and individualized quarters, a far cry from the impersonal furniture and barren floor he was looking for.

    In the end, all he did was slide his glove back on, along with the rest of his armor, including the helmet, and sit down next to Missy’s door, back against the wall. Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. He’d slept in worse places and positions before.

    Tonight, any monster that needed to get to Missy, whether it be a pushy PR representative, parents, paperwork or a nightmare of him leaving her all alone would have to go through an even worse nightmare to get to her.

    “Sleep tight Missy,” he murmured, glancing through the open door into her room where she slept. “I’ll take the first watch.”

    Only, he wasn’t able to fall asleep.

    It started small. Just a little niggling thought that had escalated. His Bondmate had torn herself up in front of his eyes. It was normal to think about it, and how such things could be prevented in the future. Only, it hadn’t stayed small. Prevention strayed into what ifs. What if it wasn’t just stress. What if there was something seriously wrong. What if she woke up and a good night's sleep hadn’t made anything better.

    What ifs strayed into paranoia.

    By the time his HUD said an hour had passed, he was looking into her room every few minutes, just to make sure that she was still safe, in her bed where he had left her.
     
  4. Extras: Fractus P3 omake
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    “Run it by me one more time,” Missy requested. Frankly, the smile plastered on her face was beginning to hurt, and all she knew was that she was very confused. However, Vinci could just tell, the same way she could when their situations were reversed, that no matter what the smile on her face said, what lay beneath was a completely different story.

    As her Bondmate started speaking again, this time slower, the normally fast, upbeat tones of the bond slow, and tentative, her eyes drifted to the sword in her lap once more.

    “Well… when I’m scared, normally it's because I have nightmares…” Vinci trailed off.

    “Yes?” She tried to pour every ounce of encouragement she could into that one single word, because honestly, Vinci needed it. He always needed it, and what was more, she didn’t begrudge him that need. The same way this month had been hard on her, the last few years of life had been hard on him, and really, it was ok that he was feeling a little tentative. Damaged people and all that, even if she would never make a big deal out of it, because she did want him to trust her after all. But that still didn’t explain why she had woken holding a sword of all things.

    His sword.

    Thank god Zoe didn’t even know she was a Parahuman, because the dirty jokes over this incident would never end if it got out.

    Even if she did think Vinci was kind of cute, in the way a shattered mosaic was cute, that was something she’d never tell him. Her Bondmate was fragile at the best of time, and telling him that she thought he looked cute would probably leave him a broken, gibbering mess.

    “...and, well, being able to hurt the nightmares makes me feel better, so I thought it might make you feel better too,” Vinci mumbled, so quiet that she almost didn’t hear, looking down at the floor while he kicked the ground with his feet.

    “And sleeping outside my door,” she gently prodded. Because that was creepy. Just a little bit.

    “I was keeping watch,” he muttered, still not meeting her eye.

    With a sigh, Missy closed her eyes and looked upwards. Of course. The child soldier strikes again.

    Now, normally, she considered herself quite the mild person, though she did admit that she had a temper at times. Gentle and kind were also words she thought fit her quite well, when the mood struck.

    One day, she was going to meet the fine people who made her Bondmate this shattered imitation of a child. And on that day, mild, gentle and kind would not be the words she identified with at all.

    Vinci, bless his heart, meant well. She could see it in every action he took with her, no matter how unnerving. He even did well, in his own way. There was probably even a girl out there, every bit as damaged as Vinci, who would be thrilled to have Vinci give her his sword to sleep with, because said girl was every bit as fucked up as Vinci, and for her, things just clicked. That girl probably didn’t need to have any of this explained to her. But Missy Biron was not that girl. Opening her eyes, she looked at Vinci once more. “So, to sum it up, You gave me your sword, because you feel better when you sleep with it?”

    Her Bondmate nodded in silence.

    She couldn’t help it; Missy sighed, quietly of course, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

    Because from what she understood, Vinci had literally given her his version of a teddy bear. As she looked at him, her eyes softened. “Vinci?” When he looked up and met her eyes, she smiled. “Thank you. That was sweet of you.”

    Almost immediately, Vinci blushed, and looked away.

    And really, it was. Sweet of him, that is. Once she figured out why he did it. Granted, it was a little creepy, and he didn’t quite seem to get why she had been a little weirded out to wake up hugging a sword of all things, but...

    He was her Bondmate. And he was trying, as hard as he could, to the very best of his ability.

    And because of that, she had no problem filing this incident under the general auspice of ‘strange things Vinci did’, and if it happened again, she would smile, and thank him, the same way she had just done. Because even though it was fucked up, that didn’t change the fact that to Vinci, this was the nicest, kindest, sweetest thing he could think of. And he’d done it for her.

    That made her happy.

     
    blergh_blergh, semi, Mr.Bones and 5 others like this.
  5. Threadmarks: Fractus, Part four
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    He knew exactly, down to the second, when two people had entered the Wards quarters. The door had opened, and neither of them had taken care to be quiet. He just hadn’t cared.

    People weren’t important. Missy was. So long as they stayed out there, wherever they were, they didn’t matter. Listening to her breath in and out was a better use of his time.

    Even when they had entered the hall, he’d remained motionless, but alert. It made him slightly uncomfortable, but he’d pushed the feeling down. Closer than he wanted was different from unacceptably close, and people said the most interesting things when they thought their conversations were private. He’d still been able to think about something other than her, even if his thoughts kept straying back to her with alarming regularity. Then they had gotten closer, and closer. After that, it hadn't been a choice; little facts such as this was their home too had stopped mattering as the urge to place himself between the approaching youths and Missy’s doorway turned from irritating but tolerable to near overwhelming.

    He didn’t want anyone near his Bondmate right now, not while she was sleeping and vulnerable.

    “-not right. No, I mean it. I don’t get to do this, and you don’t either. But suddenly he comes into the picture, and it's okay?”

    The second voice sighed. “Look, Clock, I understand what you are saying. And to be honest, I agree, at least a little bit, as to why it's a good thing we don't. No one wants drama between two Wards to ruin the experience for everyone. But they are Bonded.”

    “And that just means they get to ignore the rules?”

    “That means that for them, things are a little different.”

    “That doesn’t make it any better. If they are on the same team, they should follow the same rules as you or me.”

    The second voice took on a warning tone. “Clock.”

    The first voice sighed. “Look. Maybe I’m being harsh on the little man. But I’m worried. I think that Missy’s parents are being jackasses again. She hasn’t said anything, but every time someone brings up the end of her shift, or talks about home, her face goes tight. You know the look. All of this? It's a lot to handle. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. I’m not happy no one warned me he was here either. I came in here unmasked. And really? Sleeping on the floor? Is that the best we can do for a new Ward?” There was a sour laugh. “Great first impression.”

    “You're worried about what he’s going to do to Missy?”

    Going to?” The second voice sounded incredulous. “Where have you been the past two weeks? I’m worried he’s not going to stop.”

    “Is it really that bad?”

    “I don’t know. She won’t talk to me. But she’s stopped laughing at my jokes. Even the really bad ones I looked up just for her.”

    “I’ll talk to Miss Militia. See if we can move some schedules around.”

    The white boot to his right lifted, moving to place itself closer to him, and more importantly, Missy. The Bond screamed at him, and he gave into the urge to do something. Instead of shoving the pair down the hallway, as the Bond wanted, with an exertion of will, he channeled the demand into something less productive, but marginally more diplomatic; a strained grunt. “That makes two of us,” he forced out.

    Both the Parahumans standing in front of him jumped, and both took a step back.

    It was good, the fact that they took a step back. It was a step away from Missy. It made him feel like he could breathe a little more. He still wasn’t happy that they were this close, but then again, he wouldn’t be happy unless they were on the other end of the hall.

    “Jesus Christ!” The one armored in white, with a blank faceplate exclaimed.

    The second one, with a helm the shape of a lion frowned. “How long have you been awake?”

    When he was sure he could respond without sounding like he was lifting a fifty pound pack, or hissing at them, he pushed himself to his feet. “Long enough.”

    After he had calmed down enough that his chest wasn’t heaving, the one in white, Clockblocker, Vinci assumed, crossed his arms. “And you couldn’t, you know, say something?”

    “If you didn’t want to be overhead, then you shouldn’t’ve had your conversation in the hallway.” They shouldn’t be having a conversation in the hallway period. Vinci wanted them out.

    “You looked like you were asleep!”

    Vinci honestly couldn’t think of anything flattering to say, so he grunted but otherwise remained silent. Appearances were no excuse. None at all. Just because he didn’t think anyone other than Forge and Warlord knew where his Bunker in the Bay was located hadn’t stopped him from hooking some tripwire to the door, just so that if he was wrong, any guest of his would get a welcome hot enough to make them sweat under the collar. You didn’t just assume. You made sure.

    Then again… It wasn’t like he was free from that particular sin was it? He had to force himself not to wince. He’d made some pretty foolish assumptions with Missy when he really should’ve known better.

    Underneath his helmet, his eyes narrowed, and he swept them over the pair, marking places where the armor was thinnest. Was he really sure that these two were Wards? They could be strangers, spies, assassins. His fingers curled. Was Missy in danger? Silver eyes drifted to their helmets, the forehead specifically, and the brain hiding behind both helmet, flesh, and bone. Did he need to deal with them-

    No.

    He wrenched his thoughts away. These were Wards. No threat. She was safe.

    The second one, a Ward with a gleaming golden lion helm, jerked his head at Clockblocker, “That’s Clockblocker,” before stepping forward, hand outstretched. “And I’m Triumph. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

    When Triumph stepped forward, every muscle in Vinci’s body tensed, and he just about snarled.

    Too. Close.

    The smile on Triumph’s face was wide and friendly, and Triumph clearly expected Vinci to shake his hand, but Vinci just couldn’t handle it right now. It felt like swallowing shards of glass, but he forced his feet to move, taking a single, half step forward, and shook Triumph’s hand. The handshake was a little stiff, but considering that he wanted to clench his fists with the kind of force that broke bone, he was happy that stiff was all it was. Far sooner than was polite, Vinci let go of the hand like it burned, stepping back so his wings brushed against the wall, and he was directly beside Missy’s open doorway.

    “Scorch,” he offered, curt.

    “Oh, we know who you are,” Clockblocker said.

    “Clock,” Triumph muttered, softly enough that Vinci didn’t think he was supposed to hear. Maybe he wouldn’t’ve if every nerve in his body wasn’t balanced on a knife's edge.

    Clockblocker continued as if he hadn’t heard. “Really, at this point, it’d be almost impossible not to. She never talked about it, that magical, power induced woo-woo that’s always on the television. Someone actually had to tell me that she wasn’t a grab bag. And then I couldn’t help but notice how it bothered her, the fact that she couldn’t find you. When she finally met you, and you ran, I watched a close friend fall apart.”

    Clockblockers tone was light and friendly, but there was something hidden underneath that made the hairs on the back of his neck stick up. It was the same feeling he had when he was talking to a trained negotiator and he knew they had just insulted him, but he couldn’t figure out how. It made him cautious. Fingers flexed. “Is there a point to this?”

    He wanted them gone. Away from his Missy.

    “Scintilla went to the hospital every day you were there to spend time with you. You must’ve noticed that she is desperate to be your friend?” Pausing, Clockblocker tilted his head, inviting Vinci to answer.

    It was Missy, how could he not notice? After a moment, he nodded.

    “Then why are you being a rampaging jackass?”

    Triumph groaned, covering his visor with his hand. “Clock.”

    “She’s struggling,” Clockblocker said. There was nothing friendly about it now, only a brutal, frank attitude that Vinci had no choice but to respect. “I’m not Bonded. All I know is what I’ve read about it, which isn’t much, but it tells me you're supposed to care about her, and instead, you're making her life harder. She ran herself ragged while you were gone just so that she didn’t have time to think, and it's hurting her. Scintilla is my friend, and it kills me to see that hollow look in her eyes, but there's nothing I can do to make it go away.” His words had a bitter edge to them. “Her private life is out of my reach. The people in charge of the Wards program don’t give a shit what I think. So all I can do is ask. If the Bond means anything to you, if you can find a single shred of decency within you to be even half as kind to her as she has been to you, then I’m asking you to stop hurting her. I don’t want to lose another friend.”

    “You,” the words fell from his lips, “I like you.”

    It was only after he spoke them that he realized it was true. He’d had expectations for Clockblocker, for all the Wards in fact. Not that he could remember them right now of course, nor did he really care. What mattered was Missy. Missy, Missy, Missy. Clockblocker said that Missy was hurting. That was bad. He wanted to find the threat, the thing that was making her hurt, and rend and tear- Vinci sucked in a deep breath.

    Fine. She was fine. He glanced into the room anyways to make sure, before his gaze jerked back to the Wards. They were a threat. He had to pay attention to them.

    He still liked Clockblocker. Clockblocker didn’t want Missy hurt. Vinci didn’t either. That was good. If Clockblocker wanted to help Missy, then they were on the same side. That made Clockblocker not as much of a threat.

    But they were still both too close to Missy. He wanted them gone.

    Triumph frowned. He looked worried. Was there something there? Something he had missed? A threat to Missy? Vinci did a quick once over of the hallway, searching for anything that might be amiss. Finding nothing, he returned his gaze to Triumph. Why was the Ward so worried? The only people here were him, Clockblocker, and Triumph.

    Where was the threat?

    Triumph was looking directly at him. The thought that he was what made Triumph worried crossed his mind briefly before being immediately discarded. It didn’t make sense. He’d never hurt Missy. The very fiber of his being shied away from the thought. It demanded that he protect her.

    “That's nice and all, but could I get an answer to my question?” Clockblockers voice jerked Vinci’s attention away from Triumph. “Are you going to hurt Missy?”

    “Never.” His voice sounded cold. So very, very cold. He didn’t understand why Clockblocker was asking him that question. It was like asking if a rock lying snug on the ground would fall up. The answer was no, unless something forced the rock up, and there was nothing living or dead that could make him harm her.

    Vinci took a step to the side- closer to the door -and gave Clockblocker a once over, starting at the boots, and stopping at the helmet. It was good armor. He liked it. Excellent coverage, though he didn’t recognize the material the plates were made of. Was it tinkertech, able to stop a kinetic lance? He didn’t like that idea. Not. One. Bit. If Clockblocker’s armor could prevent Vinci from putting Clockblocker down, then Clockblocker was far, far too close.

    “That's... good.” Clockblocker said. Sharing a glance with Triumph, Clockblocker returned his attention to Vinci. “Uh, hey buddy. You okay?”

    “Fine.”

    “You sure?”

    “Yes.”

    “Because you're acting a little off.”

    His tone was blunt. “You are too close.” There! He told them the problem. They were too close, and he didn’t like it.

    Clockblocker, instead of doing the sensible thing, like backing up so that he wasn’t so close to Missy (His Missy), let out a flat “What.” Then after a moment of silence, Clockblocker crossed his arms.

    Vinci didn’t like the body posture. It was all wrong. All tense, ready for a fight. Something inside him perked up, like a hound scenting blood.

    “Hey there ‘buddy’. Scintilla-” (His Missy, Vinci’s mind supplied) “-is my friend, and I’ve known her longer than you-”

    To Vinci’s clouded mind, it almost sounded like Clockblocker was saying that he had more claim to Missy than Vinci-

    Fury roiled through the Bond. “She is mine!” Vinci half barked, half snarled. TooClose-TooClose

    It was quick, only the barest tilt of the helmet, but Clockblocker glanced towards Missy’s door.

    His high strung nerves couldn’t handle it. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d moved to place himself directly between Clockblocker and the open doorway, wings flared, power torn from the air and being woven into strands. He was ready for the fight. If the Ward wanted to take her from him, he would rend and tear until there was nothing left and she was safe.

    “Woah there!” It was loud, it was a shout, but Triumph wasn’t angry. Instead, one hand had latched onto Clockblockers shoulder, the other faced Vinci, palm facing outwards. “She’s yours. Scintilla’s yours. No ones going to touch her.” The fingers curled around Clockblocker’s shoulders tensed. “Right?”

    The only sound was that of Clockblocker swallowing. “Yeah. That's right.”

    “Vinci?” Missy’s soft voice cut through the tension. Vinci’s wings froze mid sway. “Vinci? Come here please? For me?”

    Threat- Missy, she wants me- Threat!

    The sound of soft feet padding closer sounded behind him, but Vinci didn’t move a muscle, keeping his eyes on the threat. Something soft wrapped around his wrist. “Vinci? Vinci? I need you to listen to me. Listen to my voice. Can you look at me?”

    And he was. Every word. Every syllable. Every breath she took. But the threat needed his eyes. She was safe behind him.

    “I need you two to back off slowly.”

    “Missy,” Triumph murmured, “what's going on? Is he mastered or something?”

    Missy softly sighed. “It's the Bond. Last night was a little rough. I think he took it harder than I realized. It’s- It’s hell watching your Bondmate fall apart” Missy admitted, a faint flush of shame entering the Bond, as if she had said something wrong. “It leaves me all sensitive to anything and everything concerning him. The first time I saw him fall apart, I came within five seconds of physically assaulting Assault and Armsmaster for being too close.”

    “Tell us what you need us to do,” Triumph commanded.

    “Give us like fifteen minutes? I couldn’t relax until after Armsmaster and Assault left the room and I could actually make sure Scorch was safe and all calmed down. I’m mostly calm so we can skip that step, but I still need you to give us some space.”

    “Is he going to attack us if we move?”

    “Vinci?” Missy asked, a hint of worry in her tone.

    Tilting his head, he considered. Wards. These were Wards. Not a threat. Too close. He didn’t want them dead, at least he didn’t think he did. After all, if he did, he should’ve already killed them. And they weren’t going to come back and attack Missy if he let them live. They were just too close. Too close. He shook his head.

    “Do you need me to contact someone? Assault and Battery maybe?” Triumph asked.

    Fabric rustled. “No. That won’t be necessary. Just wait for us in the kitchen.”

    With a careful nod, Triumph slowly began backing up, taking Clockblocker with him. Vinci watched them every step of the way.

    The second they rounded the corner, Vinci moved, spinning round to face Missy. His eyes roved over every inch of her drinking in the sight, looking for wounds, bruises, bent limbs, anything wrong. Instead, he found nothing but a Bondmate in the same pink nightgown she had worn to bed. As he circled her, she offered him a warm smile, but otherwise stayed still, allowing him to make absolutely sure that there was nothing wrong.

    Safe. His Missy.

    As he came round again to her front, “Hey there,” she murmured. His head snapped up to meet her green eyes. She tilted her head, tucking her closer to her shoulder. It gave her a shy look, but the smile, and the warmth of the Bond let him know that everything was alright, even if the Bond told him she was concerned. Slightly subdued concern, but not fear, or anything close to it.

    Safe.

    Taking a deep breath, he let all the power he gathered dissipate, weaves unraveling as energy spilled back into his well.

    She was safe.

    She wasn’t crying either.

    His Bondmate was okay.

    Swallowing hard, he met her eyes. “Where did you put my sword?”

    Her soft sigh of relief filled the room, followed by the Bond thrumming with happiness. “Your back.”

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    His cup didn’t shake as he lifted it to his lips. Not at all. His eyes never left her as she shoved spoonfuls of cereal into her mouth. Not even for a moment. The shy glances she sent his way pleased him, (Missy was paying attention to him), but it was more about being able to see that she was breathing, happy, and above all else, okay.

    To his left sat Rory ‘goddamnit Dennis, you were supposed to wait’ Christner. On the other side of the table, next to Missy was Dennis ‘We already voted on it and I’m hungry, so-’ Fletcher, though the Ward had left a single chair between him and her. The space wasn’t necessary anymore, but Vinci appreciated the gesture anyway.

    Dennis was the first to break the silence, the once cheery voice quiet and subdued. “So… Is that normal? For, uh, the Bond?”

    The hot chocolate scalded his tongue as it went down in great gulps. Vinci was grateful for the pain. It provided a welcome distraction from his complete loss of control to the Bond.

    Normally, he would’ve told Dennis to fuck off. A Linker (Myrmdom of course) had once told him others asking him about the nitty gritty of the Bond was roughly equivalent to being asked what position he liked to have sex with his wife in. Vinci agreed. The Bond was an intensely private thing, and it was extraordinarily rude for Dennis to ask about it. However, considering the fact that Vinci had nearly attacked Dennis and Rory- Why was he bothering to sugarcoat the facts? He didn’t do non-lethal. He could, but it was irritating. Not putting down a threat for good was messy, it left the possibility of the threat getting back up and hurting him. A complication in other words. And when it came to Missy, complications were utterly unacceptable. Considering the fact that he had stayed up all night, and still wasn’t thinking clearly, there was a chance that he wouldn’t’ve stopped at throwing the pair of Wards down the hall, and instead would’ve escalated to flat out murder.

    He was going to answer the question because he owed them, and he was never going to tell them why.

    Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself. “The Bond is always with me in some way or form. Every second I am awake… Sometimes it even follows me into my dreams. But no. It isn’t ‘normal’ for the Bond to be so vocal.”

    “Vocal, huh?” Dennis considered that, nibbling on a piece of toast. “What does vocal mean?”

    Vinci sipped at his hot chocolate this time, watching as Missy put more cereal into her bowl. “Think of the Bond as a spectrum. A sliding scale from zero to ten. At zero, there is no influence. At ten, my choices are only barely my own. The Bond wants its own thing. Namely, it wants me close to, and taking care of Missy. Some days, it’s, well, not exactly easy, but I can make the decision to go to another state without her.” When Missy flinched, he nudged her foot with my own. “Not again. Next time you're coming with me,” he promised.

    A sense of gratitude filled the Bond. Missy nodded, staring into her bowl. Vinci just watched her.

    After a moment, Dennis coughed.

    With a start, Vinci leaned back into his chair, and cleared his throat. “Other days… They’re more like today. The Bond is active, it's vocal, it knows what it wants, and it doesn’t give a damn what I think about it.” For the first time since Missy had sat down across from him, Vinci took his eyes off her to stare into the muddy brown of the hot chocolate, the steam wafting off the liquid sweet and tantalizing. “There are times when I move without thinking, and I only realize what happened afterwards. Other times, the demand to act is so strong, it's stronger than some Master compulsions I’ve been subjected to.”

    Missy looked up, her eyes narrowing. “You’ve been Mastered before?”

    Both Rory and Dennis looked interested.

    “Once or twice,” Vinci allowed. “Nothing I couldn’t handle eventually.” No one had ever messed with him in hard contact, not yet anyways, but Masters had been brought in during training, and during the yearly certs, just so that he knew what it could feel like.

    Missy hummed, then went back to her cereal, scowling at the thing like it had murdered her team captain.

    “You want to talk about it?” Rory offered.

    Vinci’s response was a curt “No.”

    Dennis sighed, biting a chunk out of his toast. Chewing, he swallowed, looking down at the table. “I knew the Bond had an effect on people, but I didn’t realize it was that strong. Assault and Battery seem welded together, but other than that, they’re like a really old married couple.”

    “Assault and Battery have been with each other for years,” Missy said, picking a dry piece of cereal on the table and flicking it at Dennis. “They already understand everything there is to know about the Bond, at least their Bond and work around it. Me and him? It's still so new, for both of us.”

    “Hey!” Dennis glared at Missy, brushing a cheerio out of his hair before a grin broke out across his face. “Oh, you want to play that game? It's on.” With that, Dennis broke a chunk off the toast.

    As the pair started throwing food at each other, sticking purely to cheerios after Missy complained about getting butter in her hair, Vinci sat back and thought.

    A half an hour ago, this would’ve provoked an outright attack from him, and now… He could just sit back and watch.

    Looking at Dennis, who was currently advancing on Missy, one hand hidden behind his back, an evil smile on his face, Rory sighed. “Be a leader, they said. It’s just the Wards, you aren’t even really in charge. It’ll be easy, they said.”

    Vinci’s eyes were glued to Missy, ready to intervene if Dennis took it too far, though, this time, if he had to intervene, he knew for certain he would be relatively gentle with it. “They’re children,” he offered. What did Rory expect?

    “You say that like you aren’t one.” Rory looked at Vinci.

    Pursing his lip, Vinci said nothing.

    “There was a serious communication failure down in that hallway.”

    Again, Vinci said nothing.

    “We could have avoided all of that. Instead, people nearly got hurt.” Rory waited for a response. When none came, his eyes hardened. “Next time, if we are too close, or you feel you or Missy are threatened, I want you to warn us.”

    “Noted.”

    After a moment, Rory sighed. “I suppose it’ll have to do.” Rory turned to look at Missy. “She looks happier than I’ve seen her in weeks,” Rory murmured.

    Vinci’s voice was quiet. “I’m glad.”

    The Bond practically sang with her glee as Dennis yelped.


    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “Did you know that I have recordings of Minstral giving me orders?” Vinci asked, sliding into the chair in front of Chambers.

    Chambers, on his part, looked up, a wary look in his eyes. “No. I did not.” Implied by the tone was the question ‘and why are you telling me this now?’

    Vinci clasped his fingers together, resting them on his lap. “Minstral liked me to run wired when I did anything in the field, just in case one of the gangers he was having me assault for the day had anything interesting to say.”

    “From the files I have on Minstral, I didn’t think that he was stupid enough to have you record him.”

    “He wasn’t.” Vinci offered a half shrug. “But I was nine-ish. I had enough trouble remembering to turn off the lights when I left the safehouse Minstral helped me procure, let alone stop and turn off the recording equipment that had been running for the entire day. Compared to all the other data collected, Minstral’s conversations are only a small fraction of it. But it's still at least a good twenty hours of some of the most damning stuff you’ll ever hear. Minstral didn’t want me recording him, but he was arrogant enough to not be as careful as he should’ve been when he was talking to me. Those files didn’t just vanish when I did. They ended up on the net. Encrypted copies are still floating around in places.” Vinci tilted his head. “Anyone can access them and download them. Its useless without the password though.”

    Chambers face went blank. “I take you have the password?”

    “I do.”

    “And you know of a location where the files currently are?”

    “I know five.”

    “Do you have any plans with that data?” Sharp eyes examined Vinci, as if trying to ferret any possible clue as to his intentions from his body language. “Plans the PRT should be aware of, perhaps?”

    “I was planning on talking to my lawyer so we can prepare a defense when I go to court after they charge me.” The law didn’t give a damn that he’d been nine when he’d committed the crimes, or that someone he trusted had told him to do it. The law was the law. He’d broken it, and they could charge him.

    “Court?” Chambers blinked, sounding appalled. “Good god, no. The optics on that would be horrible. The press is painting you as a victim. Can you imagine the outcry? Taking you to court over this would be a horrific look for any prosecutor, especially because, theoretically, they should be serving the little lady with the scales, justice herself. I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice, but I am certain that the prosecutor is going to be looking to cut a deal with you. At most, you get probation. Some community service maybe. It's Minstral they will be trying to throw the book at.”

    Crossing his arms, Vinci tilted his head. He wasn’t that stupid. He’d believe that the prosecutor wasn’t trying to screw him when it was all said and done. Maybe not even then. “I’m not doing community service, and if you think I’m willing to honor probation terms, you're insane. I’m not wearing an ankle shackle. The files were supposed to be the cherry on top for the Prosecutor. No punishment beyond turning over files and serving as a witness. My inclusion in the Wards could be spun as community service I am already fulfilling.”

    “Was. Past tense.” Chambers' eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “What changed?”

    Staring at Chambers, Vinci mulled over just what he wanted to say. He wasn’t trying to twist the knife here, or make enemies, even if all he wanted to do was burn the entire building to the ground, and give Missy a hug in the ashes. “My Bondmate has been under a lot of stress,” he finally said. “There’s not a lot I can do to fix things on my end, but the Protectorate has been putting pressure on her to make me conform. It's not your problem now, but if that doesn’t stop soon, I will make it your problem.”

    Chambers' eyes hardened. “You would sabotage my attempts at damage control.”

    “I said no such thing.” The Bond rang with his lie. He might not have said it, but he sure as hell meant it.

    “Don't play games with me.”

    Very well. Vinci inclined his head. They would be frank with each other. “Do you know what it is like to watch your Bondmate cry Glenn Chambers?” Vinci shook his head. “Silly question, I know. You aren’t even a Parahuman, let alone one of the freaks among the freaks. Allow me to enlighten you.” The words were cold. “It feels like the world is ending as everything you love is breaking before your eyes.” Leaning forward, he hissed “and you can do nothing.”

    “You made a deal.”

    “A deal no one has signed yet because it's not legal for Wil- my guardian to do so.”

    You made a deal. I don’t care about the legality of it. Is your word worth so little to you?”

    This would derail his plans, make an enemy of the PRT, and hinder the objective given to him by the Hussars. He didn’t care. “Fuck my word, and fuck your contract. My Bondmate is suffering. Fix this, or I will. And you won’t like what happens.”

    “Is that a threat?”

    “Does it need to be?” Because if Chambers needed an explicit threat, Vinci would be more than happy to make one, and damn the consequences.

    Chambers obviously heard the unspoken message. After a long moment, he slowly nodded. “And if I fix this for you?”

    Vinci leaned back in the chair. “I’m here to solve a problem. No problem, no reason for me to be here. My time would be better spent convincing Scintilla that rebranding ourselves as a Bonded pair would force the PRT to keep us together for everything from PR events to patrol schedules.” Considering the fact that he didn’t normally offer anything of worth in return, he thought that assuring Chambers that they would rebrand the way the man desired was more than fair.

    Chambers lifted an eyebrow. “Normally I’m the one with the carrot and stick.”

    “Most people don’t carry sticks as big as mine.”

    “You do realize that any recordings you have with Minstral reflect more on Minstral than they do the PRT. The PRT’s name has already been smeared, the damage done. Your stick isn’t the cudgel you think it is.”

    His voice was quiet. “If I take a scorched earth stance, and decide to release tapes that I should be using to give me a better outcome in court, why would I limit myself to just tapes?”

    Chambers leaned back in his chair, lips pressed in a thin line. “When I first met you, I wanted to be friends. I still do. But this? These aren’t the actions of a friend. Are you trying to make an enemy of me, threatening me this way? Oh, I have no doubt that if you put your mind to it, you could cause me no end of grief. But I don’t think that I am an enemy you want to have.”

    “My Bondmate is suffering.”

    “And you think that starting a cold war between you and the PRT is going to make her life any less stressful?”

    “I am trying diplomacy before escalating.”

    “Escala- What am I saying?” Chambers covered his eyes with one hand and sighed. “Of course you are thinking of escalating. Bonded pairs have no sense of scale or tact when it comes to each other.” The hand dropped to Chambers side, and he fixed Vinci with a flinty stare. “If I do this for you, you will owe me a favor.”

    Vinci hated owing anyone anything. But for Missy, he’d murder, kill, steal, and lie. If a favor was all Chambers wanted for easing the stress that was crushing his precious Bondmate, then Chambers would have a favor, and Vinci would call the price cheap. “Within reason, as dictated by me.” That, however, didn’t mean he was stupid.

    Chambers tilted his head. “Within reason,” he amended.

    “Within reason as dictated by me.”

    “Within reason as dictated by your Bondmate.”

    Vinci shook his head. “She has spent all of her life as a cape with the PRT. This deal unfairly favors you.”

    Chambers blinked, then threw his head back and howled with laughter. “You are her Bondmate, and you want to claim she is going to pick the PRT over you? When you are ready to go to war with the PRT both metaphorically and, I suspect, literally?

    That moment, he was thankful that he wore a helmet, because the faint dusting of red on his cheeks was something he never wanted anyone to see. He’d never admit it, not to anyone, but Chambers might have had a point. “Within reason as decided by Scintilla,” he agreed.

    They shook on it, then Chambers pointed to the door. “Get out,” Chambers said. “Go talk to your Bondmate. I expect you to make a convincing argument. In the meantime, I have some phone calls to make.”

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “Mr Ingram, your Ad Litem report.” The judge said, not bothering to look up from the papers he was pursuing.

    Barret Ingram, a heavy-set man in a black suit with a red tie, stood up. “Thank you, your honor. I would ask the court to grant the department's petition and terminate the parental rights in this case. I believe it is in the child's best interests. I visited the hospital several times to talk to the minor in question while the minor was still confined to bed after a traumatic near death experience, as well as talked to members of the PRT, and the Protectorate as to the circumstances surrounding my client being taken into protective custody. To the best of my knowledge, the child has been fending for himself for years, an appalling condition that led to my client being admitted to Brockton general in critical condition. In the utter absence of any parental figure, I believe that it is necessary for the state to step forward, and ensure the child is taken care of.”

    The judge nodded. “Thank you Mister Ingram.”

    Ingram sat down, and glanced to the side at Vinci, flashing a warm smile.

    Vinci just sunk deeper into the chair.

    “Closing statements. The representative for the department of Health and Human services, Miss Jones, if you would?”

    Miss Jones, a woman in a professional dress suit, stood up. “Waived your honor.” Jones sat down.

    “Mr Ingram?”

    Ingram stood up. “No Judge Holt. Waived.” Then he sat down.

    “The diligent search attorney, Mr Russel?”

    “Waived your honor.”

    The judge nodded. “Thank you. The court having heard the competent evidence provided at this trial will find, by clear and convincing evidence, to support the termination of parental rights as to the child. As for both the mother and the father, let the clerk note that the court appointed an attorney for the diligent search for both the mother and the father, without success. This court finds that the termination of all parental rights in regards to the child is in the child's best interests. The court will name the Department of Health and Human Services as the permanent managing conservator. Mr Russel, if either of the parents' identities become known to you within the appellate window, you have a duty to inform them of their right to appeal, as well as initiate the prosecution of said appeal unless you are unable to do so, at which point you must promptly notify the court to substitute counsel. Mr Ingram, I am continuing your duty and responsibility as the attorney ad litem for the child until the child achieves permanent placement, or exits foster care upon turning eighteen. Is there anything else that needs to be taken care of?”

    There was a series of no’s from each lawyer present.

    The judge nodded, and gathered all the papers on his desk. “Thank you very much everyone, I hope you have a wonderful day.” Then the judge stood, everyone else in the courtroom followed shortly after.

    Beside him, Williams reached out, only to freeze as Vinci’s shoulders hunched. The hand dropped to his lap. “Vinci,” Williams said, as gently as he could, “Let's go. There’s some documents that I now have the legal authority to sign.”

    Taking a deep breath, Vinci nodded and stood. It was time to become a Ward for real.
     
  6. Threadmarks: Hook Echo
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Missy wore her Ward's uniform, the dress that shimmered every time she moved, as if flames licked up and down her body, with integrated armor plating painted red, and seamlessly blending into the costume.

    Privately, he thought it made her look elegant and ethereal, a creature out of place in such a dull world. Fitting for his Bondmate.

    However, for the purpose of this conversation, he hated it.

    “I really don’t know why you expect me to argue,” Missy said, leaning up against a workbench bolted into the wall. “Keeping an eye on you has been my goal since shortly after day one.”

    Vinci blinked. That was one fight that didn’t need to be fought. Unexpected, and for a moment, it left him unbalanced, like a swordsman who had expected a block, only to stagger as their sword met empty air, but it wasn’t unwelcome. With a shrug, he turned, and grabbed the plastic binder Chambers had thoughtfully provided him with after their meeting, full of designs they had both been able to agree on, him when it came to protecting Missy, Chambers on her not looking militant, and offered the Binder to Missy. “I guess it’s because every time I’ve wanted to get something done, everyone has fought it like hell.”

    As Missy accepted the binder, radiating curiosity, she rolled her eyes. “But I’m not everyone. I’m your Bondmate. I’m not going to fight you unless you need it,” she murmured as she perused the laminated costume designs. Flipping through several pages, Missy raised an eyebrow. “You want to replace some of my armor plates.”

    “All of them.” And he was so happy about that fact, he didn’t care about keeping the smug note in the air hidden. “The PRT didn’t skimp on your armor-” credit where credit was due, “-but mine’s better. Not because the design is bad, but because I made my own plating. What you have in your hands is paint design, not armor composition.”

    The corner of Missy’s mouth quicked upwards. “And don’t I get a say in my own armor?” It was a serious question, but Missy felt both amused, and pleased.

    “Nope. I am going to make you combat ready.” He wanted her protected. Plating like this was something he would do for her, and no other.

    In an instant, the mirth in her eyes faded. “Yeah, I guess you are.”

    The smile on his own face followed, albeit slower, and in response to her’s. He’d done something wrong, and he didn’t know what. Part of him wanted to ask what was wrong. After all, if he didn’t understand what he’d done, how could he prevent himself from doing it again?

    Maybe he should have.

    But he was enjoying the playful atmosphere too much to want to let it die like that.

    Walking past her, over to the work bench, he unclipped his chest plate, and set the solid chunk of moulded wraithbone down. As power was called, a low hum left his mouth.

    The sadness which tainted the air faded, replaced by confusion. “Vinci? What are you-” Missy fell silent as new Wraithbone formed, a lighter shade of yellow-white creeping over the old plating like tar, filling old holes and smoothing out scratches. “Oh.” The wonder in her tone left his wings swaying back and forth in long, slow motions. The pride which grew in his heart was enough to make him want to preen. “I can hear that, but….”

    Vinci nodded. She felt something no one else had ever been able to understand. The hum was just a guide. What was really happening was something that took more than just ears to hear.

    “It’s like music,” she whispered.

    His smile had returned, a happy grin so wide it almost hurt.

    She got it, she really did.

    Just for her, he changed the structure of the tune, and the force behind it, transforming the slow, ponderous beat that brought to mind stone, and walls of iron that refused to move into a light, chipper melody.

    One that reminded him of her, and the way she brought smiles and sunshine into his life.

    Pulling off her gloves, Missy tossed them on the desk beside his helmet, running her bare fingers over part of his chestplate that he hadn’t gotten to yet. While he was sad to feel her delight fade, at least the somberness wasn’t outright distress. “There’s so many scars,” she murmured.

    Her fingers lingered over an impact crater the size of her thumb, the material glossy and melted. Despite having it retrieved from Atlas for him, that didn’t make the armor new. The opposite in fact. It was older armor, gear he hadn’t had a chance to repair, even if the electronics were more or less up to date. The last time he’d had to use this backup set, even as spare parts, had been during the fighting retreat of Bridge Creek.

    The hum fell silent. “Scars aren’t a bad thing.” He ran a gloved hand over the surface of his face, feeling the bumps and ridges there, even through the armorweave gloves. “They are memories. Pretty things haven’t been tested. You can’t trust them.”

    Missy met his eyes, her smile wistful. “But things that have been mended too many times lose their strength.”

    “Sometimes.” Turning around, space bent, a single step taking him across the room. Another step brought him back, this time dragging a cart filled with the armor Ryker had ruined, a deep gash in the helmet, breast plate shattered into three pieces, and parts of the undersuit rent and torn. Space snapped back behind him. Pulling out the shards of the breast plate, he placed them on the table next to the original, fitting the pieces together like a puzzle. “Sometimes not. A crucible can temper steel, or it can destroy it. The world isn’t so simple that it can be encompassed in a sweeping statement. Have you decided what you want?” he asked, nodding at the binder she had set down.

    Flipping open the binder and thumbing through the pages, Missy stopped on one design in particular. “This one.” Picking the Binder up, she offered it to him, and he took it.

    Missy bit her lip, awaiting his response.

    “I like it,” he said, moving to hand it back.

    She hid it well, but he didn’t need to see her face fall to look at her and perceive the disappointment. Not when he felt it already. “Okay,” She quietly said, accepting the binder.

    Turning his whole body so he could lean against the bench, the way she had, Vinci sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m not good at these compliment things,” he admitted. It hadn’t been his intention to hurt her feelings. If he said nothing bad about it, then that was because he saw nothing wrong with it. For him, that was enough. But she wasn’t him, and she wasn’t one of his comrades in arms, was she? “In truth, telling people what I really think about their appearance makes me nervous because it's personal. When you let others know who you are, and what you like, they can use it to mock and hurt you. It's an old habit. And one that I need to break, at least with you. The truth?” Vinci gestured at the binder Missy held. “I adore it. You're making one hell of a statement there. A strong one. And now I need to figure out how to match it, because I was thinking about doing something similar, but what I planned was more spartan.”

    Missy didn’t beam. She wasn’t that kind of person. But with the fuzzy, heart melting warmth, she didn’t have too. Her soft smile did the rest. “And what were you thinking?”

    With his finger, Vinci traced a path from beneath his eye to his upper cheek. “I was thinking a flame right here, shaped like a teardrop the size of a quarter. Then I would cover my right vambrace with flames like the ones on your skirt.”

    Tilting her head to the side, Missy bit her lip, giving him a once over. “It’s simple, but it suits you. If you really want it, I could choose something simpler.”

    “No!” The vehemence shocked him. Scowling, he reigned in his emotion, a hint of irritation flaring out how the outburst had come out of nowhere. “No,” he said again, quieter this time. “I like it. It’s a very strong claim, and I want it to stay. No one will ever have to be told you’re mine. As long as we’re in the same room, it’ll be obvious. I just need to think of a way to send the same message.”

    Missy hummed, eyeing his chest, now clad only in the black armorweave undersuit. “You don’t necessarily have to be elaborate like me to send the same message. I picked that design because I like the way it integrates in my costume. You haven't taken over my life, just added a new part to it. A distinct change without throwing away who I used to be. But my costume is subtle with how my flames were integrated, and the design is subtle to match. But you?” Missy smirked, feeling rather pleased with herself. “Your armor isn’t subtle at all. Play into that.”

    “Hmm.” Turning around, Vinci stroked his chin. “The armor plating, I can leave alone. Chambers wants me to paint it, and I was thinking of a pine green for the entire thing.” Waving his hand, with his powers he pulled a graphing notebook from a table across the room, along with a PRT brand coffee mug full of freshly sharpened pencils. Opening the notebook, Vinci started sketching. The result was rough, but it got the idea across well enough that others could understand what he was aiming for. “Your emblem has the feather in the foreground, surrounded by flames. What if I inverted it? A white wing serving as the background, your flame in front. One goes over my heart, the same as yours. I can add another on my shoulder.”

    “You have a lot of space on your pouches that you aren’t doing anything with,” Missy pointed out. “I’m sure Chambers knows some leather workers who would love the chance to work on a Wards costume, even on short notice. You could put the emblem there as well.”

    Vinci shook his head. “Not the look I was going for. You had a good point when you said ‘distinct change without throwing away who you used to be’. We both bring something to the table here, and the costume needs to reflect that.”

    If he was being honest, he didn’t have the same problem Missy had with a statement saying he was owned. If it was her, and she wanted it, then he wouldn’t mind.

    But the optics on the other hand?

    It was unfortunate that he represented the Hussars.

    “Subtle then.” Missy didn’t feel displeased by the rejection. If anything, there was a hint of excitement there. She seemed to enjoy talking about the costumes. “Cover the pouches in stylized flames. It's less formal than an emblem, and there are some nice dyes for leather.” After a moment, Missy furrowed her brow. “At least I think.”

    “No color, just the designs.” He preferred simple things. Others might disagree, but he thought the natural color of leather would be just fine.

    “Maybe you could wrap the hilt of your sword in something colorful? Red, or maybe a nice orange like this?” Missy pinched her skirt between her thumb and her forefinger, down at the bottom where the red transitioned into a nice, sunset orange.

    “Orange is too cheery for a sword. Red would make it look regal.”

    “What about the sheath?”

    He shook his head. “Leave it bare. It's a weapon. A little color is fine, but it shouldn’t be ostentatious.” A sword was not something fun. It was an instrument of death. Such things were best left simple in their brutality.

    Leaning back against the table, Missy looked him up and down, eyes narrowed before she smiled. “I think I see why you said no. I like the idea of you wearing something that tells everyone else to leave you alone because I already have you.” Missy’s smile turned wry. “The Bond has a possessive streak, doesn’t it?”

    “It does. Turn around.”

    Missy raised an eyebrow, but did as he asked, pushing off the work bench, and turning around. Then, she went stiff when he grabbed her hand, however, after a brief moment of resistance, she allowed him to guide her hand to the broken breast plate on the table.

    Vinci humed, singing of mending, wrathbone flowing together, and broken things becoming whole. For once, he worked slow, seeking to show and teach instead of merely repair, even if it hindered his speed. As the strands of energy that formed the plate, even locked into a solid form as they were, twined together, the faint trace of alarm faded from the strange connection they both shared, replaced by fascination, green eyes riveted on the plate. But Missy wasn’t just watching. In the realm of the immaterial, where thoughts mattered more than anything else, he could feel her, feather touches tugging at strands, and prodding the frozen power that made up the plate.

    He indulged her, disassembling strands she poked at, then reforming them bit by bit so she could see their structure. When it came to the makeup of the plate, he was fast, tearing apart and reassembling a strand in a matter of seconds, just to show her what was possible. But it was the simplest structures he focused on showing her, building blocks that he’d expanded on to build the plate. It would be months before Missy was even capable of repairing what he’d made for her by himself, much less make her own, but today was as good a day as any to start teaching her how.

    Falling silent, he guided her hand over to where the wraithbone was smooth as polished glass, her fingers running over the surface without resistance. “What you said before? You're not wrong. This plate was broken, and left weak because of it. But conflict doesn’t just destroy. It changes.” Then he brought her fingers over to the cracks that still remained, and began to hum once more. When her hand passed on, the cracks were gone.

    Glancing at the schematics that lay on the table, Vinci began to sing a new song.

    Where once he had sought to make, now, he unwove.

    Power, rigid, tense, and trapped in its form was released, carefully uncoiled like a spring before being returned to his well of energy. In its wake, he took the frayed strands left adrift in the absence of what had been destroyed, and tied off the ends, completing the pattern once more.

    When he was done, he had a diamond shaped slab of wraithbone a little bigger than his hand.

    Picking it up, he held it up to Missy’s chest, comparing it to the counterpart that had been woven into her armor.

    Raising an eyebrow, he set it back down on the table. It needed to be a little thinner, and some material needed to be shaved off the left side.

    The armor that protected Missy was not in one piece the way his was.

    For Vinci, the durability to survive the worst a battlefield could throw at him and keep going was key, so when it came to armor, his plates were larger. He preferred single pieces that spread the force of impact around instead smaller ones.

    Missy’s armor was the opposite. The designers had prioritized flexibility over unnecessary durability, and opted for many pieces, woven into her dress over her vitals, positioned close enough together that it looked like a solid piece from a distance, while still managing to look like cloth. There were gaps between armor plates in places, but the bulletproof material of the dress below more than made up for it.

    Vinci had poured over the design specifications he’d requested from Chambers, and walked away with a grudging respect for whoever had designed Missy’s costume. It would stand up to most handgun rounds, and intermediate strength rifle rounds, even if he didn’t care for how they’d broken the armor up into many pieces for no discernable gain other than cosmetics.

    An anti-material rifle was out of the question of course, but even his armor wouldn’t appreciate being hit by one of those. For what it was, Missy’s armor was quite well done.

    “If a window breaks, you can sweep away the glass. Or you can make something new.”

    “Like a mosaic?” Missy’s tone was soft. But what she felt? That was a different matter. Tempered resolve, and old horror, the kind that made bile rise in the back of his throat. “Shatter something, then take the bits you like the most, and cast away the rest? Like they did with you?”

    This was not a conversation Vinci wanted to have. Not now, and maybe not ever.

    He’d been happy working while Missy stood by him. Her wonder at what he could do had made something deep inside him feel a little less broken.

    That wasn’t something he wanted to let go. Not so they could just return to dealing with a world that was as broken as he was.

    Closing his eyes, he sighed. “Is this a conversation we have to have now?”

    Missy’s words were careful. “Not if you don’t want to. But I notice. I care too much not too, even if it doesn’t change my opinion of you.” A gentle hand brushed his shoulder, and he couldn’t help but lean into the touch. “You are my Bondmate, and that's not going to change.”

    Opening his eyes, he turned back to the workbench, and began working on the next plate. From his old breastplate, he expected to make three new ones for Missy. The plate’s counterpart for his back would provide him with another three. “If it changes nothing, then why do we have to talk? Isn’t it just better to be Vinci and Missy?”

    Missy sidled closer to his side as he picked up a ruler and a pencil, and began marking the outlines of the next piece on the breastplate. “As long as you're by my side, I’ll be happy. But the past still happened, and no matter how much you want to, neither of us can hide from it.” Space bent long enough for Missy to snatch his new helmet from the cart and place it down on the table next to the unmarred one, the massive gash that had split the face and cracked a lens facing him. “You’ve lived your own life. A hard, violent one. This is your world. And the world of Vinci Astera has some expectations.” Vinci flinched as something brushed against his wings, and stepped away on instinct, tucking his wings tight against his back. “Rules like you don’t want Missy Biron touching your wings, because even though you know you can trust her, people touching your wings means you're about to be hurt.”

    He had done nothing wrong, but he still felt guilty. Missy had no problem showing him how much she trusted him with every action she took. And in return, instead of the same trust she offered being offered in return, instinct shamed him, what had once served him so well now getting in his way.

    Looking down at the breastplate as his pencil completed the shape, Missy brushed a few golden strands out of her view, tucking them behind her ear. “I’m not mad. A few seconds ago, you were leaning closer.” She softly smiled. “That tells me everything I need to know, doesn’t it? You trust me to touch you, and everyone else gets brushed off. Did you know that I go to Clearwater Junior high?”

    Vinci froze for a split second before dropping the pencil onto the table, done with it. He hadn't known that. “The school I am going to.”

    Missy nodded. “I think it's a good thing. It’ll allow me to keep an eye on you.”

    “You think I’ll need it?”

    “I think your default approach to everything is aggression.” The corner of Missy’s lips curled upwards. “If I left you alone, I could make a small fortune on bets over how fast you’d make the first person cry.”

    “I’m not that bad,” he muttered.

    Missy radiated polite disbelief as she tapped a line at the top of the plate. “Are you going to start your cut here?”

    Vinci shook his head, tapping one of the horizontal lines. “The plate has grains. You feel them?” When Missy nodded, he continued. “It's easier to start a cut going with the grain so it doesn’t fight you.”

    “Hmmm.” Missy watched as he started the cut, resuming their conversation once the cut was well underway. “I’m in this for the long haul. When I turn eighteen and join the Protectorate, I want you to be standing right next to me. You should be part of my life, not just the little bit that we share while on the job. There are friends I want you to say hello to, and relatives to meet, because you are here to stay if I have anything to say about it.”

    There was a hollow thunk, like wood hitting wood as another piece of armor fell from the breastplate and onto the table. “Ambitious.”

    “Really?” Old loss weighed heavy on her, tainting Missy’s voice with a hint of sorrow. “I’m your Bondmate. When did what was natural become something so grand as ‘ambition’. As if it’s expected I have to reach for it?” When Vinci didn’t answer, Missy sighed. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but Chicago? I know.”

    Vinci’s mouth tightened as he reached for the fresh cut plate. It wasn’t a surprise that she’d been told, but he’d still hoped that she hadn’t. “Chambers?”

    Missy shook her head. “Piggot. I knew before I even met you.”

    Dread coiled in his stomach. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

    “Because you weren’t ready to talk about it.” Missy’s hand brushed over his shoulder. “And from how you feel, you still aren’t. But I don’t need you to talk to me to know that I will never forgive Minstral. I could’ve had you years ago. We could be eating ice cream right now, laughing on the beach. And instead, you and I are making armor because this is the first time you and I actually know enough about each other to make our costumes match. He stole you from me. And I can never get the time he took back, or anything else he stole for that matter.”

    The corner of his mouth tightened. Snatching the pencil from the table, he marked the edge of the plate with more force than he intended, snapping the tip mid way through the stroke. “It doesn’t matter who stole what at this point, does it? Someone stole your childhood, same way someone stole mine. Someone stole my innocence, and someone did it to you too. Minstral took time from both of us. We both have things we can be bitter about, and, if you really want to, we can wallow in the past. Or we can start making new memories to carry with us into the future.”

    Missy raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that what we’re doing now?”

    Vinci snorted. “This is work. The memories come after.”
     
  7. Threadmarks: Hook Echo part 2
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Holding his hand, Missy tugged him along, pulling him closer to the door to the Wards quarters. “Come on, I want you to meet them.”

    Underneath his helmet, Vinci rolled his eyes. “Missy-”

    “Scintilla when out in public.”

    After barely a moment's thought, Vinci nodded. It was a reasonable request, all things considered. “It’s just unmasking. I’ve already done it with Clockblocker and Triumph. We’re coworkers, nothing more.”

    Missy halted in front of the retinal scanner and turned to face him, her visor gleaming as it reflected light from the ceiling. “You could see it that way. Or you could see it as meeting some more of my friends that I’d like you to be on good terms with. Don’t you see? This could be a new beginning for you.”

    He doubted it. Missy, he liked. But half of that had to be the Bond. When it came to the Wards, they had no such advantages to help push through the considerable cultural divide and experience gap. Clockblocker and Triumph had earned some give from him due to the close shave they’d had, something that was arguably his fault, but the rest of them? On a personal level, he had no interest in interacting with them besides the bare minimum necessary to keep a fire team functioning as an effective military unit.

    Missy, of course, felt the general sense of skepticism from the Bond, threaded with a light flavour of distaste, and sighed. “Look, I’m not asking you to be best friends. But I like them. Try to be nice, for my sake if not theirs.”

    When she put it that way… “I’ll try.”

    She smiled. “Thanks.” Then she turned towards the retinal scanner and lifted her helmet.

    With a beep, followed by a hiss as the door slid upwards, Missy pulled him into the Wards quarters.

    “-dying down.”

    “I’m surprised. I thought there would be more violence.”

    There was a snort. “No one cares about Merchant territory. All the big events are happening outside the bay in the satellite towns.”

    Clockblocker and Triumph he already recognized, but joining them were two more Parahumans, both in costume.

    Seated on the beanbag to the left of the couch, farthest from the entrance, was a boy who wore a steel helm with a plume glued to the top. Chain mail attached to the helm dangled down like an oversized neck gaiter, protecting the neck from blades, until it merged a mail shirt that covered the boy’s torso and chest. Where the chain mail sleeves ended, leather vambraces protected the forearms, ending in fingerless gloves.

    Sitting on the couch, next to Clockblocker, was the second Parahuman, wearing a red and white costume, sleek and futuristic, that left the eyes exposed.

    Triumph nodded at them from the kitchen, where he was setting down several pizza boxes. “Scorch, Scintilla.”

    Vinci nodded his own greeting. “Triumph.”

    From his seat on the couch, Clockblocker clapped once, clasping his hands together. “Normally, we’d make a big fuss out of this, but seeing as how me and Triumph have already unmasked, and Scintilla is, well, you know, Scintilla, why don’t we skip the boring stuff and get straight to the point?” Hooking a finger under the edge of his helmet, Clockblocker slipped it off. “Name’s Dennis. We’ve already met, and no one can repress the memory of my stunning personality that quick. These two are Aegis and Gallant,” He nodded, first at the Ward sitting beside him, then at the one on the beanbag.

    Missy snorted. “That’s the best you can do?”

    Dennis shrugged. “I don’t feel like it today.”

    Shrugging, Vinci took his helmet off with one hand, the other still in Missy’s grasp, and made eye contact with first Aegis, then Gallant. “Vinci Astera. I’d say that I’m being held here under duress, but that's no longer quite true anymore.” The thought of unmasking to outsiders still felt a little strange, but at this point, between the Bucks, Missy, the Protectorate, and a few other names he was probably missing, Vinci had more than enough time to come to terms with his new situation.

    Like it or not, he was a Ward now, and these were the people he would be spending the next few years of his life working with, for a given definition of working. It was a good idea to try and get along with them.

    Missy had said please after all.

    “Heh. Considering what I’ve heard about you, I’ll bet,” Aegis said, taking off his helmet and placing it on his knee, revealing a hispanic face.

    It honestly reminded Vinci of one of the grunts that had murdered that dock worker- what was the name again? It took him a few seconds before he could remember the ID he had taken from the dockworkers bloodied wallet, and the name that came with it; one Daniel Davidson.

    “Carlos Vaszquez. It’ll be nice to have another flier on the side of the good guys. Maybe we’ll patrol together soon.”

    Vinci narrowed his eyes, examining Vaszquez closer. Vaguely, he remembered seeing a face that seemed similar in the after action report when he had been going over enemy casualties with Winter Star, but it had been a long time ago, or at least it felt like it.

    Carlos frowned. “Is something wrong?”

    Jolted out of the privacy of his own thoughts, Vinci shook his head. “Nothing.” Missy gave him an odd look as she felt the lie, but said nothing, for which he was glad. While he was no expert in diplomacy, though he was decent at issuing ultimatums, he was pretty sure there was no good way to ask someone if their father, legitimate or otherwise, had come down with a sudden case of dead due to terminal plasma poisoning.

    Gallant reached up and unhooked the chain mail from his helmet, letting the metal fall down in a pile around the base of his neck, taking off the helmet to reveal sand blond hair, and a warm smile. “My name is Dean Stansfield, and it is a pleasure to meet you. You’ve left quite the mark on our fair city.”

    Tugging his hand, Missy pulled him to the second couch, one likely left empty for the both of them, and sat down, using her free hand to smooth out the creases in her skirt as she used her other to tug him down with her.

    Dennis snorted. “Fair? Brockton?”

    “It’s getting better.” Dean shot Dennis a glare without any heat in it, as if Dean didn’t have his heart in it. “I’m not saying that the Bay is great, but it’s been on the upward trend since Medhall purchased that skyscraper downtown.”

    “For the middle-upper class maybe. But everytime we skim the edges of the slums in our patrols, things look worse and worse.”

    Leaning against the table, his helmet resting beside the boxes of pizza, having taken it off while Vinci wasn’t looking, Rory cleared his throat. “I know talking shop is something easy to slip into, but today we have a new member of our team. Lets try not to darken the day with things we can’t fix.”

    Dean had the grace to look abashed while Dennis merely rolled his eyes. Catching Vinci’s eye, Dean muttered “Sorry.”

    Vinci shrugged. “I don’t blame you. The state of the Bay isn’t a bad thing to talk about, all things considered.” After all, what else could they really talk about? It wasn’t like Vinci’s life to date had left him with an abundance of similarities they could use to bond over.

    “See bossman?” Dennis looked at Rory. “The kid doesn’t mind.”

    Kid’? Vinci’s jaw tightened.

    Missy squoze his hand, shooting him a glance with wide, pleading eyes.

    When their eyes met, it took less than half a second for him to fold like a house of cards, swallowing hard, then looking away.

    Glancing at Vinci, Dean’s eyebrows furrowed, mouth pressed together, the look in his eyes more concerned than angry, glancing over to Dennis, then back to Vinci. Dean’s expression eased, giving way to a warm smile. “I like your armor,” Dean said, grabbing the right sleeve of his costume with his left hand. “Mine is comfortable and high quality, but I’d prefer something a little sturdier. In the Bay, I’m less worried about being stabbed than I am being shot. Is your gear heavy?”

    Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Missy flash Dean a grateful smile, a whisper of relief in the Bond.

    Setting his helmet down on the couch beside him, Vinci considered the question before prying off a shoulder plate and tossing it at Dean. Dean caught it, his hand jerking downwards for an inch before stopping. Looking down at the sizable plate with sharp angles instead of curves, and an almost synthetic appearance, Dean tilted his head, eyes alight with curiosity. “It’s heavier than I thought it would be. You move around in that getup like it's weightless. If all your armor plates are like this, you must be walking around in a good thirty to forty pounds.”

    “Close.” Vinci shrugged. “Pound for pound, that material has one of the best weight to strength ratios you’ll ever see outside powered Tinkertech. But it still has some heft to it. Weight is the trade off for good armor. What you gain in protection, you pay for in mobility.”

    Dennis’ eyes widened, head twisting to look at Vinci. “You’re joking. My own costume is a good nineteen pounds, and it’s rated for shrapnel and small arms fire. I like the protection, but walking around in it for hours on end is not fun. You’re wearing close to double my weight while being a foot shorter than me. How the hell are your feet not swollen at the end of every day?”

    “Good kit and proper preparation. I skimped on footwear once, and only once. You want happy feet? Then you need to start before you even put on your boots with proper pre-care, and follow up with after care.”

    “You sound like you know what you are talking about.” Dean leaned forward. “Do you have any experience with power armor?”

    Eyes narrowed, Vinci’s head tilted to the side. “Why do you want to know?”

    The tip of Missy’s armored boot tapped into his shin plate, her thumb brushing over the armor that guarded the back of his hand. Her worry nagged at him, demanding his attention as he suppressed the sudden urge to scan the area for a threat. Squashing the ember of suspicion into the dust, Vinci forced his muscles to relax as he slipped out of the wary mindset he hadn’t realized he’d slipped into.

    Beside him, Missy relaxed. Her happy hum, quiet enough that he was the only one able to hear, made something deep in his heart soften, the way it only did for her. It was a sensation he liked.

    When she was happy, he was happy.

    Dean shifted in his seat, eyes flitting to the ground for a fraction of a second. “My, uh, family is rather comfortable financially speaking-”

    Dennis snorted. “By which he means they are loaded. Filthy rich. Making out like Bandits.” Standing, Dennis walked into the kitchen. Opening a cupboard, he pulled out a stack of paper plates and tossed them onto the table.

    The tips of Dean's ears went red, and he coughed, meeting Vinci’s gaze looking like he wanted to do anything but. “Well, yes. You might not recognize the name, but the Stansfields have a history when it comes to business and New England. My mother has been making some noise about my costume. She doesn’t think it provides enough protection. I keep telling her that I don’t need it because I’m not a close quarters combatant, but-” Dean offered a sheepish smile, “-you know mothers.”

    Vinci’s lips tightened a fraction. “I really don’t.”

    Dean’s face went blank. “I’m so sorry for-”

    Waving a hand, Vinci interrupted the Ward before Dean could work himself up, words rough. “You didn’t know. I never knew her, and I don’t want to talk about it. Power armor. Continue.” He gave Missy’s hand a little squeeze, hoping to pull her from the sad funk she’d slipped into, and was rewarded with a squeeze of her own.

    Dean, grateful for the way Vinci wanted to quickly move on, nodded, something akin to relief in his eyes. “Well, anyways, my family worries about me. I’ve tried to convince them that a simple upgrade to what’s under the chain mail should be fine, but they don’t want to hear it. They have the money, and they see the level of protection power armor provides Armsmaster. My father in particular keeps urging me to broach the subject with Armsmaster, likely at my Mother’s request, and ask how much it would cost Armsmaster to fabricate a set. But I’d like a second opinion.” Dean met Vinci’s gaze. “Is it worth it?”

    Leaning back into the couch, wings folded tight behind him, many of the longer feathers splayed out from under his legs, Vinci’s eyes drifted towards the ceiling. He’d seen plenty of power armor over the years, both in combat and out of it. Most of the time, the Tinkers never failed to impress, though that could be attributed in part to both the significant amount of resources every faction threw at their respective Tinkers, along with the time to use said resources. “That depends on what you get. Power armor is a classic because it works. Effective and versatile, depending on the specialization and gear, a Tinker rolling in armor can be a horrific CQC fighter, lashing out faster than the eye can see, or a mobile artillery platform capable of providing specialist fire support at range. I’ve seen mobility frames capable of going toe to toe with jet fighters, and stealth suits that can slip through modern sensor nets.” Focusing on Dean, Vinci’s eyes tightened. “But you aren’t a Tinker. You can’t maintenance the tech, and the more complex it gets, the more maintenance it needs.”

    “My family is willing to set aside a small sum of money every month to pay Armsmaster for maintaining the suit, if the man chooses to accept.”

    “How much is a small sum?”

    “Five to seven thousand dollars.”

    Dennis choked.

    Vinci nodded. That sounded about right for a few hours work. “Doesn’t matter. The highest end stuff requires direct modification while downrange. It’s not uncommon for stage three Tinkers to have to tweak their suits under fire because of how temperamental they are. For a non-Tinker, power armor is a death trap.”

    “The opposite is true. The simpler the Tinkertech gets, the less maintenance you have to do. What if what I wore was a skeleton rig?”

    Vinci tapped the top of his helmet. “This contains a Tinker made chip that regulates everything my suit needs.”

    “Wait,” Carlos interrupted, “you're a Tinker?”

    Vinci shook his head. “No.”

    Dean cleared his throat, drawing Vinci’s attention back to him. “Your point?”

    “I’ve never had it fail me, but it's simple and small. Power armor is bigger, and as a necessity, going to be more complex. I give you a decade ahead of cutting edge tech at best if all you're looking for is something to move slabs of armor for you. You’d probably be able to shrug off an anti-material rifle, but if it breaks in the field, you’re fucked.”

    With a thunk of glass on wood, Rory set the pitcher of water he was carrying down on the table. “Come eat. Pizza doesn’t taste good cold.”

    Missy glanced at him, tilting her head in a silent question. After half a moment, Vinci stood, pulling her up with him. They had spent hours in the workshop, and she probably needed to eat.

    Dean rose as well. “Besides maintenance, is there any reason I wouldn’t want to get Tinker armor?”

    Walking over to the table, Vinci let go of Missy’s hand to pull a chair out for her. After she sat down, he claimed the seat beside her. “Money. Looks. Safety. Have you ever gotten into a cape fight yet?”

    Dean shook his head. “Nothing serious. Some spars with other Wards. A minor skirmish with a rogue group passing through two months back.”

    “So next to nothing. You know of the gentlemen's agreements western capes have? Don’t rape, don’t murder a defeated opponent, et cetera?”

    “A little, but nothing concrete.”

    “That's because the agreements aren’t concrete. The only real rule is that there are no rules. But most capes in North America try to keep the level of violence down. You have no business sticking your nose in the kind of shady shit where people go all out by default as a Ward. If you wear power armor, people are going to be less gentle with you because you can take it.”

    “What about you?” Dennis slid a paper plate past Vinci to Missy. “Your armor is nice and smooth today, but yesterday it looked beaten to hell. If you could get a hold of it, would you wear power armor?”

    In the background, Missy looked at Rory. “What did you get?”

    Glancing at Dennis, Vinci shook his head. “I value speed and mobility over endurance. People who shoot at me don’t get to shoot for long.”

    “Supreme, pepperoni, hawaiian, and a meat lover’s,” Rory said, opening a cupboard and pulling out a stack of cups.

    “Ominous.” Dennis grinned. “You think you’re scary?”

    Carlos rolled his eyes, opening up a box to reveal pepperoni pizza. Setting a slice on his plate, he said “Sure as hell intimidates me.”

    Missy suppressed a smile, bending space so she could grab a cup from the stack Rory set on the far end of the table. “He’s not quite housebroken yet. If he growls, or tries to bite your finger, come get me. I’ll set him straight. Deliberately antagonize him, and I’ll kick your ass myself.”

    “Missy,” Rory said, crossing his arms, looking her directly in the eye.

    Something prickled in his gut. Before he knew it, he scooted forward to place himself in Rory’s line of sight, meeting Rory’s firm gaze with an aggressive one of his own.

    Like that, the easy feeling at the table evaporated. Missy sighed and set down her blue cup with a click that echoed in the now silent room. “Bond,” she said, looking down at her empty plate, smile not as cheerful as it had been moments before. Missy nudged his foot with her own. “It's alright. Don’t get so worked up over Rory. Like I said, everyone in this room is my friend.”

    Dennis was the one who shattered the tense atmosphere. “Hey boss!” Rory looked at Dennis, who held up a red cup of his own in the air as if he was proposing a toast. When Dennis let go of the cup, the cup stayed.

    Rory’s look was pained, and he covered his eyes with a hand. “Why do I even bother,” he muttered.

    “Because even though I’m the red-headed step child you keep in your closet and pretend doesn’t exist, you love me anyways. No powers at the table is a stupid rule.”

    “Just eat your dinner.”

    “Yes daddy.”

    No.” Refusal mixed with command. “The Philadelphia Wards were bad enough. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.”

    Dennis laughed, Carlos grinned, even Missy was trying to hide a smirk.

    “It's not funny!” Rory growled, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Because of you, I had to look Hardback in the eye and explain to him that I wasn’t actually in a gay relationship with my subordinate.”

    Missy picked up a slice of combination Pizza and dropped it on her plate. “I still can’t believe they bought that.”

    With a sigh, Rory grabbed a paper plate of his own before circling round the table, pulling out a chair next to Carlos.

    Placing a splayed hand over his heart, Dennis spoke in a posh English accent. “I assure you my good lady, I can be quite convincing should the situation require.”

    “If only you’d put that effort into completing your paperwork on time.”

    Should the situation require.”

    Missy rolled her eyes before glancing to the left, down the table as she took a bite out of her food. “You have questions. Spit them out.”

    Dean looked embarrassed. “I wouldn’t want to pry.”

    “Something I have no problem doing.” Carlos tore a chunk out of his own pizza slice, speaking around the food in his mouth. “Bonded huh? Since Dean is too nice for his own good, I’ll pop the million dollar question. What does that mean?”

    Mischief swelled in the Bond. “It means I can do this.” Missy moved too fast for him to evade, and he jumped as her finger jabbed into his side. Twisting in his seat, he glared at her, a glare she returned with an equally ferocious, but significantly less betrayed look of her own. “You,” a finger pointed at the boxes of pizza, “eat. I’d like to look at you without seeing gaunt cheeks, thank you very much. It’s not your fault you lost all that weight, but this is the land of supersize me. There’s no reason for you to stay underweight.”

    A cackle of laughter- Vinci repressed the memory of just why he was underweight, a sick feeling in the back of his throat. The glare he shot Missy was half hearted at best, reflecting his inner uncertainty.

    The way the corner of Missy’s eyes tightened was the only outward indication that she actually felt that uncertainty. Her poker face was impressive, he’d give her that. Missy raised an eyebrow. “Come on Vinci, Pizza.” The word was drawn out, Missy taking a slow bite out of her slice afterwards, face contorted into an exaggerated expression of enjoyment. “Food. Sustenance. Eat?”

    It would never cease to amaze him how innocent and hopeful she could manage to look, even when he knew she was manipulating him.

    With a sigh, he shrugged and opened a box, grabbing some food of his own. When he took a bite, Missy positively thrummed with contentment. Glancing to his left, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Missy staring at him, a soft look in her eyes. Vinci’s movements hitched for a split second before he carried on as if nothing had happened, a lump in his throat.

    Swallowing hard, he attacked the pizza like it had murdered a friend of his.

    It tasted good.

    Leaning back in her chair, Missy looked to her left at Dean, where he sat at the end of the table, and released a happy sigh. “You have no idea how much that bothers me. He’s thin, and I don’t like it.” Then she turned to Carlos, who sat next to Dean. “The Bond means he’s mine, and anyone who doesn’t like it can take it up with me, because I’m not going to give him up. While I’m not going to apologize for him, he can do that himself even if he probably won’t, I do want you all to remember that it’s been a hard month. For the both of us. We’re still a little defensive around each other.”

    “Anything that we need to be aware of?” Carlos asked.

    “Everything.” Missy tilted her head, looking down at her plate before nodding, mouth firming as resolve solidified in her eyes. Looking up, she met Carlos’ gaze. “But in particular? Getting between us is a bad idea. If either one of us is acting off, get the other one. Don’t try to imitate how I act with him, ever.” Wood scraped against wood as Missy scooted her chair closer to Vinci’s. “What I can get away with will end with you getting your head bitten off, and maybe pulled out of a wall. Trauma rules for new triggers apply. I’ll cover topics to avoid later.”

    Vinci stiffened at the mention of trauma, whipping around to glare at Missy. “That is private.”

    Green eyes met his, her determination steadfast. “You are mine.” Missy poked him in the chest, hard. “You can take care of yourself, or I’ll do it for you.” Her voice turned soft. “And right now, you could use a little space when it comes to bad memories.”

    “You have no right-”

    “Vinci.” Her cool voice cut through his indignation like hot water through snow. “If you meant what you said, then I have every right.”

    He held her gaze for a few seconds more before he wilted, and looked away. It was hard to be angry when she was right. And then there was the fact that all she wanted to do was make sure he would be okay. “Just…” He looked up, meeting her gaze once more, feeling oddly vulnerable. He had trusted her with things he trusted no other, and even though he had accepted the Bond, and all that came with it, he was still worried she would take that trust and use it to hurt him, the way others had before.

    It was irrational, but that didn’t make what he felt any less real.

    Eyes softening, Missy leaned closer, speaking low enough that only he could heart. “Hey,” she murmured, “I’m not going to reveal all your secrets. Not to the world, and not to them. All I want to do is give them some general topics to avoid. That’s all.”

    Biting his lip, he gave her a jerky nod, then looked away, staring down at his plate. The hand hidden underneath the table clenched into a tight fist. He hated being weak. And he was weak. Anything that could be so affected by mere emotion had to be.

    Tugging her gloves off her hand, Missy dipped her fingers into her cup, then flicked them at Vinci, fine droplets spraying over his face. When he jerked and looked up at her, confused, he received a mock glare in return. “Don’t make me get the comfort food,” she threatened. Looking past Vinci, towards Rory, Missy asked “Do we still have the ice cream?”

    “I think we still have some burnt almond fudge.”

    Vivid, emerald green eyes flitted back to Vinci, a steely look hiding the softness underneath. “See? Stop moping, or I’ll make you eat ice cream.”

    He couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled past his lips as he stared at her, dumbfounded. “You’re ridiculous.”

    “And you’re weird,” she fired right back.

    “Aggravating.”

    “Your Bondmate?” she offered.

    Head cocked, silver eyes softened. “Aye. My Bondmate.”

    “Aye?” Hiding a smirk, Missy raised an eyebrow. “What kind of a word is that? Are you a sailor now, in addition to an angel that fell from heaven?”

    Vinci gaped. After a half second that seemed to stretch into infinity, he managed to collect the shattered remains of his composure. “That was a pickup line.” A bad one.

    “But you have wings, and though we aren’t in that kind of relationship, it doesn’t matter because I already have you.” Missy grinned, all smug like she knew something he didn’t, and she was enjoying that fact. “You could be my angelic godfather, here to make my dreams come true.” Resting a finger on her chin, she looked at him, eyes widening in mock surprise. “Oh, wait, you already did that.”

    “Sarcasm doesn’t suit you.”

    “I think I can tell what suits me myself, thank you very much.”

    Dennis cleared his throat. “I need an adult.”

    Missy’s eyes turned to ice. “Shut up Dennis.”

    “Or what?”

    Missy turned to face Dennis directly. “Or I seal the boys locker room. I can keep it closed for a whole hour without paying attention. Don’t you have somewhere you need to be soon?”

    Dennis paled. “I’ll be good.”

    “I knew you’d see it my way.” Missy turned to look at the rest of the table. “Like I said, it's been a long month for both of us. So if you see him acting odd, like being excessively mopey, you have my number. Clear?”

    There were several mutters of agreement.

    Looking at an entire table full of male Parahumans, a considerable collection of physical might by any measure, each boy several years her senior, and all of them cowed by her sugar sweet words that hid a caustic kind of venom, a thought occurred to Vinci. Missy turned to him as he started laughing, her curiosity ringing through the bond. “What?”

    Still chucking, Vinci met her gaze, feeling very happy with himself. “I’ve been trying to think up a nickname for you ever since the hospital. I finally found one.”

    “Vinci,” Missy warned, narrowing her eyes.

    Oh no, no, no. She wasn’t getting out of this one that easily.

    Tyrant.”

    It fit, oh so very well. She came into his life and started making changes without so much as a ‘by your leave’. Then, when all he wanted to do was be angry, difficult, and more than anything else, feel hurt and scared, she came in with a glower, or a heartfelt plea that made him crumple like poorly made concrete upon getting hit with a hi-ex round. And now here she was, laying down terms to the entire Ward team.

    It. Was. Perfect.

    Missy glared at him.

    He grinned back. “I could even add ‘little' in front of it. Little Tyrant.”

    Missy’s expression broke. “Vinci!”

    Vinci Astera found he quite liked how his Bondmates new nickname flowed off his tongue.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Enjoy, stay safe, and have a good one.
     
  8. Threadmarks: Hook echo part 3
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Hope, expectation, insecurity.

    That was what he read into her stance with a single glance, seen as easy as muddy tracks on a wet floor. Even if she didn’t show it, not all of it at least, with her body, as the dim lights of the backstage set Missy’s costume alight with reflected brilliance that shimmered every time she so much as breathed.

    “Come on,” she murmured, avoiding his gaze. “Say something.”

    “Wow.” It wasn’t breathless. Neither was it said lightly. He liked what Missy had done to herself, in a bone deep way that should be reserved for naught but instinct.

    Missy seemed to sigh in relief, contentment and childish delight breaking through the apprehension. Then playfulness was added to the mix. Grabbing the hem of her skirt with one hand, Missy twirled, a wide grin on her face as she spun on the heel of her foot. “Oh? That’s all you have to say?”

    On a cursory inspection, the modifications to Missy’s costume were merely cosmetic. But that didn’t mean that the difference wasn’t striking, especially on the torso, where Vinci’s armor plating had been woven into her costume. As before, many of the plates had stylized decals painted onto the smooth surface of the armor itself, but where there had been brilliant reds, and ember oranges, now a third strand intertwined within every flame, using not paint, but the absence of it, bare wraithbone peaking through in its natural yellow-white. Glittering flickers of flame intertwined at places, reminding him of ore veins that snaked through rock, like the bare branches of a tree. Her helmet too, was streaked with white, the old one having been gutted and its electronics transferred into the empty shell Vinci had made out of his old body bucket.

    And, on the plate that protected her heart, above her breast, was a single pure white feather, nestled inside flames that seemed to glitter.

    His mark on her was stunning. And that, he did not say lightly. His chest swelled with pride at her new look, and the knowledge that the message it sent would protect her just as much, if not more than the armor itself. It felt right, seeing his colors on her, like the black stripes on nuclear shells, warning others to stay away.

    More than that, the symmetry of ideas behind the plating pleased him.

    That old armor had saved his life many times. And in the end, saving his life was how it had ended its distinguished career, protecting his fragile form from a blow that should’ve killed him outright. Rewoven into something new, the armor that had served him so well would go on to protect the most important thing in his new world.

    It was a spectacular look for his Bondmate too.

    His grin was hidden by his helmet. “I don’t like desk jockeys, but even I have to admit that Chambers’ team did good work.”

    Missy walked towards him, circling round as she examined every inch of him, the same way he had her. “Hold still,” she murmured, a pleased note in her voice.

    “Your opinion?”

    “As if you need me to tell you.”

    He didn’t. But it seemed polite to ask. Her approval made him want to preen, literally. The urge to comb his feathers one last time, despite their already glossy sheen, was there.

    Compliments coming from Missy were enjoyable. There was no hidden agenda there, in fact words hadn’t even been used. She liked the way he looked, and he liked that.

    Unlike Missy’s costume, the change to his armor was purely cosmetic, as he had refused to even talk about changing any other aspect of it.

    After months of seeing close to pure white, the monotony broken only by surviving flecks of paint, or crimson blood, it was jarring as hell to see a pine green coating on his armor plates, and that wasn’t all that had changed. His leather pouches had been switched out. Where once there had been coarse tan leather, unworked save for what was necessary to punch holes for buckles and fastenings, a rich brown leather with a smooth surface had been substituted. On the surface of each pouch, stylized designs involving fire had been painstakingly hand pressed directly into the leather, each pouch’s design individualized. Directly over his heart like Missy, an insignia had been inked onto the breastplate, twisting flames of orange and scarlet surrounding a wing extended skywards. That same insignia had been sprayed onto his left shoulder.

    Little had changed about his sword, other than the handle, which had been wrapped with crimson synthetic silk that drew the eye compared to the bland white of the rest of the sheath. It had been wrapped before of course, something necessary to get a good hold on the wraithbone handle, but the color had matched the wrathbone.

    His right arm had been painted in golds, blues, and scarlets, as if the arm itself was wrapped in flame, burning.

    Finally, underneath his right eye lens, the solid green was broken by a teardrop of fire leaving a trail down the cheek of his helmet, orange embers scattered in its wake.

    Missy’s tone was smug. “You look good enough that the Wards from other departments are going to be jealous.”

    Underneath his helmet, Vinci lifted an eyebrow, the corner of his lips curled upwards. “You have someone in mind?”

    Missy’s approval became tainted by irritation. “Dryad. She’s a Ward in Philadelphia. We did joint training with them six months back. She looked me in the eye and told me I wasn’t ever going to find you. Rather mean about it too. Bitch.”

    “And what makes you think she’ll be jealous?”

    Missy’s lips pursed. “She kept going on about her boyfriend to rub it in, even though I’m several years younger than her. Awesome this, handsome that. Afterwards, when we went out for burgers as a team, I saw who she brought with her. I wasn’t impressed.”

    Vinci crossed his arms. “I’m not your boyfriend,” he pointed out.

    The corners of Missy’s mouth curled upwards. “But Dryad doesn’t know that. All she knows about the Bonds are from television shows, and not good ones either. Several times, she implied that I was going to become a crazy old cat lady because of the Bond.” Missy snorted. “As if the Bond means I can’t date other people.”

    “I’d prefer it if you didn’t.” It would be extremely awkward, meeting a romantic partner of Missy’s and feeling everything she felt for them. He wondered if those feelings would bleed over, then shuddered. Yeah, he did not need the nightmare fuel idea that he’d want to kiss his Bondmates boyfriend just because Missy liked them that much.

    Missy scrunched her nose, apparently having a similar line of thought. “That’d be weird. I was making the point that I can, not that I’m going to. Dryad is stupid enough that she never bothered to educate herself about Linked pairs using PRT provided resources. If we ever have a joint training session with Philly, you have to let me show you off.”

    Leaning forward, Vinci brushed a stray hair that had survived the PR team off Missy’s shoulder. “What do you have in mind?”

    “‘In mind’? I don’t need to have anything ‘in mind’.” Missy stuck her nose up in the air, seeming to look down on him.

    He tilted his head, raising an eyebrow underneath the helmet. Not bad for a Ward, but she had nothing on the arrogance of a second gen Myrmdom in some of the more conservative Factions. He wasn’t impressed.

    Missy giggled. “I haven’t thought that far yet,” she admitted. “Anything I think up is too mean. I’m not trying to be like her, I just want her to see that in the end, I’m better off. The statistics for relationships like hers aren’t good; it's hard to make something that will last when normal people don’t understand what it means to be a Parahuman, or a police officer. Long after her guy leaves her, I’ll have you. I will always have you.” Her smile turned soft as she looked at him, head tilted. “It hurt when she told me to give up on the idea of meeting you, but some things are worth the wait. I don’t want her to feel hurt the same way she did to me, but… eventually, there will be a day where I won’t have to do anything but smile and be happy for her to get angry.”

    “You’re strange Little Tyrant. You know that, right?” His tone was fond. In the past, he had been courted, more than once, by multiple factions who saw the power he brought to Squad Eight, and desired that power for themselves. Money, land, political power, even women on one notable occasion, all of these had been offered, and all had been rejected. And then one Missy Biron got him for free, and all she wanted to do was force him to eat healthy food, hold hands, and melt his heart.

    “If I’m strange, then I never want to be normal,” she softly said. “I’m happier being strange right now than I ever have been being normal.”

    Vinci looked past her shoulder as a flicker of movement caught his attention.

    A woman in her mid twenties, with streaks of grey marring her natural brown hair, strode into the little corner of backstage he and Missy had appropriated for themselves while the techs scurried around outside the little curtained off area. A clipboard in hand, wearing a sharp, pinstriped suit, along with a pencil sticking out of her hair bun, the woman looked soft. Not soft like a Thinker, who didn’t normally engage in direct combat, but the soft of slathered makeup, perfect lipstick, manicured nails, and countless other pointless cosmetics that only something who had nothing important going on in their life could find time to waste on.

    Granted, Missy was wearing makeup right now, applied to her by stage techs so that her skin wouldn’t look oily under the lights of the cameras, but he didn’t like it either. He’d waved off her question when she’d asked, but the truth was that his eyes were sharp enough that he could literally see the pores in her skin with ease within talking distance. The powder applied had smoothed that natural skin over, concealing it, and the difference was obvious enough that it made something deep inside him uncomfortable, especially now he knew that she had only been wearing the stuff before to hide her exhaustion from everyone.

    “Ten minutes ‘till showtime. Are you excited?” The woman asked, looking at Vinci.

    Missy craned her neck to look over her shoulder, then she stiffened, turning on her heel.

    The reaction had been subtle… But it was her. He couldn’t not notice her ire, and step forward so he was ahead, and partially shielding his Bondmate from whatever had caused such a reaction. Crossing his arms, he gave the unknown a once over, searching for concealed devices, calluses consistent with weapons handling, or anything that would make her stick out.

    The woman’s eyes widened, realization flashing within. A faint dusting of red covered her cheeks. “Forgive me. I have been working so closely with Glenn and his team to make sure that your introduction goes off without even the slightest hitch that it slipped my mind that we haven’t actually been introduced yet.” The woman smiled and waved at him with the hand not holding the clipboard. “Leona Everett at your service. I am the head of public relations for the PRT ENE PR team. I make sure the right people are assigned to the right job, and those who need extra resources or outside assistance get it.”

    “Leona,” Missy greeted, verging on curt.

    Missy’s curt tone had his hackles raised, the beginnings of his own opinion swept aside in an instant. This wasn’t a person Missy liked, and that was more than enough for him. “Why would I be excited?” His tone was as curt as Missy’s, a mirror of it in fact.

    Everett’s smile was back. Perhaps, were Missy absent, he would’ve ignored it and moved on. But, looking for imperfections, it was inevitable he found something to dislike. Teeth too white to be natural. Eyes without crows feet; a warning sign of a forced smile according to his training. An utter lack of calluses, showing a soft thing that had never done anything he could respect in her entire life. The oily answers of someone patronizing him, treating him as if he was a child.

    His opinion, or Missy’s, it didn’t change the fact he disliked Everett.

    “Well, it's the big day,” Everett said. “It's normal to have some sense of anticipation. Or you might be worried, and if you are, I want to assure you that that is perfectly normal as well. The transition between regular life and entering the Wards can be a stressful experience for anyone, as is public speaking. Why, even I got stage fright at my first public speaking event. When it comes to new Wards, my job is to take that stressful experience, and smooth it out into something more enjoyable, or at the very least, bearable.” Everett pursed her lips. “Though, I do wish that we’d had more time. Even normal introductions have the potential to be rough, and your introductions are far from normal.”

    Underneath the helmet, his lips pressed together in a thin line, eyes cold like arctic ice. “You think I’m incapable.”

    He hated that too. With who he was, and what he’d done, anything that cast doubt on his competence was not just irritating, it was a dire insult worth drawing blood over had Everett been a Myrmdom.

    “I think that we are all capable of a great many things.” Everett’s stare was steady. “But there is no shame in admitting your talents lie somewhere else.”

    His tone was suitably unimpressed. “I have better things to be worried about.” Like making sure his Bondmate was taken care of. Or mulling over that offer Chambers had made.

    “That's a good attitude to have.” Everett nodded in the direction of the curtain behind her, and the amplified sound of Assault’s cheery voice as the man entertained the audience beyond. “Ultimately, that crowd out there, no matter how intimidating it may seem, is just another hurdle to be jumped. A few minutes of public speaking, a meet and greet for new fans, and then it's over and life continues.”

    “You mistake me for someone who is scared in the slightest.”

    “Truly? No nerves? Not a single butterfly in your belly?”

    “I would need to care about their opinions in the first place.”

    Everett winced. “A useful mindset, but maybe one that you should keep to yourself.”

    Vinci’s nostrils flared at the ‘suggestion’. The more Everett spoke, the less he liked her.

    Missy snorted. Her possessiveness, fierce like fire, powerful like molten steel, was a balm to his anger, making the animal inside him purr with pleasure. “I’ll take care of him, don’t you worry about that.” The words were friendly enough, but hidden within, there was a pointed edge that told him there was more to the conversation than it first seemed. A message that wasn’t for him.

    Nothing about Everett’s expression flickered or changed, and that, more than anything else, was what told him that every bit of it was fake. “Wonderful.” Lifting a hand to her ear, her finger rested on the earbud nestled there. “Showtime in fifteen seconds.” Still wearing the smile that felt more hollow with every passing breath, for a split second, the mask slipped, revealing an expression every bit as cold as Vinci’s own before it vanished once more. “Blow them away, Scintilla. Stick to the script. While we’ve done our best to screen the journalists and only allow ones neutral or friendly to the PRT into the conference, you have become involved in quite the juicy story, the both of you.” Everett’s gaze focused on Missy. “Do not expect them to be as gentle with him as they were with you.”

    From the stage, Assault’s voice boomed out. “With all of the boring stuff out of the way, I am pleased to introduce the Protectorates newest Bonded pair, along with the PRT ENE’s new Ward. Come on folks, let's give a big hand to Scintilla and Scorch!”

    Squaring his shoulders, hands hanging loose by his side, his boots thudded as he made his way around the curtains, and out onto the stage to the sound of thunderous applause, Missy following half a step behind.

    The journalists weren’t armed to the teeth, ready to rip him to shreds, but that didn’t make them seem any less hostile, not when their goals didn’t align with his mission objectives.

    His wings shuffled as he walked, coming to rest tucked tightly against his back as he gave the audience a casual seeming sweep of the eye that was anything but, scanning for threats, and pinpointing unknowns, which was all of them.

    The auditorium was completely packed with people he didn’t recognize. In the very back, beyond the seats, and lined up against the walls, were cameras set up on tripods, manned by a single person per camera. In front of the cameras were the civilians, at least those willing to shell out the money for a seat to watch a Ward be introduced to the public for the first time, at least as a Ward. He’d been informed the cost of a ticket wasn’t cheap, meaning most seats were filled with the moderately well off. It wasn’t a formal event, and very few in the public gallery wore suits, most instead choosing to wear casual, if rather nice clothing like fashionable slacks, and unstained jeans. At the very front, their section nearly three times larger than the public gallery, were the journalists. Most of the men wore suits, and while there was more variety with the women when it came to things like color, and type of dress, the unifying factor was that they looked professional, and the clothing complimented them. Those that sat held clipboards or some kind of notepad in their lap, along with pen in hand poised to write. A few stood at the sides of the room, or knelt in front of the first row in the walkway between the seating and the stage; those carried cameras, the clicks coming hard and fast like machine gun fire.

    When Missy stopped beside him, he sidestepped to make room for her, allowing them to share the microphone.

    Looking out at the audience, he offered them a single curt nod. “Assault already told you my name, so it doesn’t need to be said, but for those of you who weren’t listening, I am Scorch, the newest member of the Brockton Bay Wards. I joined to get to know my Bondmate, and help right some old wrongs that cost everyone, not just me, precious things that we can never get back.” Then he shuffled over an inch or two, allowing Missy to take the lead.

    While going over the lines and practicing for the introduction, Vinci’s reception had been ‘mixed’. When Missy, her mouth pinched, had suggested they have him speak as little as possible, no one had argued. Indeed, several members of the PR team had looked relieved that she had suggested it before they had too.

    And that was because, unlike him, Missy was good at this kind of stuff, and not just compared to him. She was good, period.

    As she leaned closer to the microphone, a bright, cheery smile on her face, she looked adorable. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought that to himself, but it was still true, even if there were things he’d change. The makeup was the most obvious, even though he knew it was necessary, and in his personal opinion, the lipstick, instead of enhancing her looks, only detracted from it, even if it had been closely matched with her natural skin color. With his eyes, he could just tell. The minor imperfections and defects that covered her skin were things that he had noticed, catalogued, then memorized, and their absence was both glaring and slightly uncomfortable.

    His Bondmate looked just fine without having to use powder and paints to hide who she was. It was her imperfections that made her seem more human, and thus reachable to his damaged self, not this flawless image the PR team had spent nearly an hour preparing that stood next to him.

    “Hi there. I’ve already been up here once before, and I even recognize some of you-” Missy nodded at a journalist sitting in the corner, “-but I’m also seeing many unfamiliar faces. For those of you who don’t know, I’m Scintilla, and I’ve been a part of the Brockton Bay Wards for nearly three years now. Forgive Scorch, but it's hard to drag a decent conversation out of him at the best of times, let alone when in the presence of distinguished guests such as yourself. As Scorch’s Bondmate, words can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to finally meet him after years of waiting. The sudden and unexpected transition from life without my Bondmate to his near constant presence has been jarring, the effects of which some of my more devoted fans have noticed online, but the PRT has been both helpful in easing both of us into what could’ve been a difficult situation, and understanding of the inevitable difficulties that arise when Bondmates meet for the first time. In the weeks I’ve known Scorch, I have laughed, scowled, and even cried as I’ve come to terms with my wonderful, and at times difficult Bondmate, but at the end of every day, I go to bed with a smile on my face more often than not. Against my better judgement, I have been persuaded to allow you wonderful people to meet Scorch, instead of keeping him all to myself. However, in recognition of the nature of our newly formed relationship, the PRT have agreed to keep this introduction shorter than usual.” Missy glanced around the room. “The floor is now open.”

    Almost immediately, there were journalists jumping to their feet, hands in the air. The sheer noise in the confined halls would’ve verged on painful if Vinci hadn’t had his helmet on.

    Scanning the crowd, Missy pointed at a man in a blue suit sitting second to the end on the third row, a face Vinci vaguely remembered seeing in flashcards shown at the mock introduction. The man was a writer for a local paper, the name of which Vinci hadn’t bothered to remember. All that mattered was that they were sympathetic to the PRT. “You, in the navy blue suit.”

    Almost immediately, the roar quieted, as if someone had pressed pause on a video. One of the aids standing next to the wall stepped forward, giving the reporter a microphone. “Mike Jenson, Brockton Times. Scorch, national news has been flooded with allegations of horrific things that happened in Chicago. Reports that involve you. Are these true, and if so, how can you stand being in the Wards?”

    Though she didn’t show it, Vinci could feel Missy’s dismay, not that he blamed her. Underneath his helmet, the corner of his lips tugged upwards. So much for being sympathetic.

    Then again, even he had known that his introduction was slated to be a horrific shitshow. That was why the PR had them do mockups and answer fake questions on the spot until both he and Missy could answer in their sleep. Even if PR had never stopped bitching about his lack of charm and utter disregard for tact, at the very least, they’d pounded the right answers into his head.

    Missy made room for him, allowing him to lean close to the microphone. “My lawyer has advised me to not disclose the specifics of the relationship between myself, and any alleged situation that happened in Chicago. In answer to your second question?” Vinci shrugged. “My Bondmate is here. Why would I be anywhere else? She matters more than any alleged misconduct on the part of the PRT, or the Protectorate. The news may talk about scandals in Chicago, but here in Brockton, I have been treated with nothing but respect.”

    The lie echoed, more than enough he knew Missy would be able to feel it.

    As the crowd started talking again, other journalists desperate to be seen and chosen, Mike Jenson refused to give up the microphone. “One follow up question.”

    Vinci didn’t move. While he was interested in what Jenson had to say, he would follow Missy’s lead. A glance out of the corner of his eye showed a nod that was barely perceptible. The approval, cold, calculating, and keenly felt, was not.

    When he nodded, the crowd quieted down.

    “Thank you,” Jenson said. “While I would never ask you to ignore legal advice from your advocate, is there anything you can tell us?”

    Vinci tilted his head. “Only that I am certain justice will be done, and that I trust both the PRT and Protectorate to do it.” Again, the lie rang in the Bond.

    As the journalists started trying to gain his attention, Vinci allowed Missy to retake his place. Once more, she pointed and chose. “You, blue skirt with the vest.”

    “Sarah Sanders. Capitol Post. Scintilla, how does it feel to know that your Bondmate, someone you presumably care for, was allegedly abused by Minstral, a man employed by the very same organization you work for?”

    “Like my Bondmate, I have been advised against going into the specifics about any ongoing investigations.”

    “But surely you must have a personal opinion on what investigations in Chicago have unearthed?”

    “I feel angry at the thought of my Bondmate being hurt by anyone, not just by members of the Protectorate. I have been a Ward for several years, and can safely say that I have been treated with nothing but respect and kindness during my time serving the people of the Bay. If the allegations coming out of Chicago are true, then I don’t see them as the doing of the Protectorate, but instead the actions of a twisted man willing to hurt others for personal gain, and spit on everything he swore to stand for in the process. Second row, red shirt, grey outer jacket.”

    “Richard Graydon, HNN. Scintilla, your Bondmate has caused quite a stir in the sleepy town of Brockton Bay. By all reports, he came out of nowhere and proceeded to decimate a gang that the PRT has been struggling to suppress for years. How does it feel to see the good that can be done by independents, and yet be trapped in the same bureaucracy that has proven itself so ineffective?”

    When Missy opened her mouth the answer, Vinci nudged her in the side. After shooting him a look, she nodded and let him have the microphone.

    “The PRT is far from ineffective,” Vinci said, voice firm. “Ineffective is Africa. Ineffective is the unified factions of the Bratva in Moscow, or the cartels of South America which regularly go toe to toe with the Military. The cities of America have law and order. There is crime, but there has always been crime. Parahumans only made it more obvious. Independents do nothing more than tip the scales in the PRT’s favor, and finish the job the Protectorate started.”

    “A followup! What can you tell me about the events that you took part of in the bay? Are they connected with the staggering events that took place in Columbia as many have suggested?”

    “No comment.”

    The crowd roared again.
     
  9. Threadmarks: Hook Echo, Part two of part three.
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Whoops. My only defense is that I was tired. Somehow, Hook Echo got split while I was copying it, including only one scene where there should've been two.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “Scorch, I’m Ryan Shelter from Cable News-”

    “I’m not taking questions,” Vinci replied, refusing to look up from the autograph he was signing. His signature was blocky, but neat. Once, his handwriting had been horrible, but even Myrmdoms had to make reports. One rejected report too many, and Tetrarch had put in a request for a handwriting tutor for Vinci.

    “I'm certain that-”

    “No.”

    “The public-”

    “I don’t care.”

    What was it with journalists that left them so egocentric? Why did they think that they were better than anyone else? As if they didn’t have to wait in line like the little boy who had given him a poster of himself in armor, the child bouncing on the heels of their feet, a wide grin on their face. At the very least, the boy was honest in his adoration. Sure, it was childish, thinking that Vinci was amazing just because he’d painted his armor for the first time in a year and joined the ‘good guys team’, but children were childish, and he saw no reason to hurt them for that. The journalists on the other hand were like sharks, doing as they pleased, and asking questions that pried at the worst parts of his life. To top it all off, they had this burning self righteousness, as if they had a god given right to ask and receive answers, no matter how much the question hurt.

    He hated them. All of them.

    The man's fake smile remained in place, though it did seem a touch strained. “I have the right to ask you questions.”

    Missy had the grace to not snort, nor tell the journalist to go fuck himself like Vinci wanted to. “You,” She gestured at the line of people in sharp business suits and nice dresses lined up against the wall, hungry looks in their eyes, “and every other person who’s tried the same thing.” Glancing up from the scrap of lined notebook paper she was autographing, Missy met the reporter’s eye. “Why don’t you ask them if they fared any better than you before you cut the line of people who waited?”

    “How did-”

    Adding a little flare at the end of his H, just because Missy was doing it at the end of her A’s, though her signature was in cursive, Vinci lifted pen from paper and handed it back to the girl, nodding at her parents.

    It was a novel experience, tuning someone out. On Atlas, if Vinci asked others to leave him alone, he was left alone, no matter how gently he phrased the ‘suggestion’. He ignored the reporters jabbering while he talked to the pair of teens that had been behind the boy, mostly about the weather, then the thirty-something-year-old wearing his t-shirt that came after, who wanted to know about what it felt like to fly.

    As the next person, a little boy giving him shy glances stepped forward, hiding behind his mothers skirt, the journalist finally decided that he’d had enough of being ignored and stormed away in a huff.

    As a rule, Vinci Astera didn’t negotiate with terrorists. That was someone else's job.

    Moronic reporters couldn’t force him to the table, metaphorically speaking of course, considering his current seat, so that was that.

    On closer examination, the boy was in fact, not a boy, but a girl with her hair shorn short.

    “Well, hello there,” he said in the kindest tone that he could manage, “I’m Scorch. And who’s this lovely little lady I see in front of me?”

    The girl ‘eep’ed and buried her face in her mothers skirt. Smiling, the mother affectionately ruffled her daughter's hair. “This is Roberta,” the mother said.

    Missy’s head shifted, just enough so that he could tell she was looking at him. ‘Go on’ she mouthed.

    Standing, Vinci walked around the table piled high with cheap lanyards, disposable pens with the PRT’s insignia, and plastic cups with ‘Protectorate: ENE Branch’ in bold black letters so that he could kneel on the ground in front of the timid girl. “Hello Roberta, it’s always nice to meet a new fan. Why don’t you come out so I can see you better?”

    It had surprised him, the well of kindness that had sprouted out of nowhere when it came to the youngest people who had attended the meet and greet after the press conference.

    After what he’d seen and done, he hadn’t realized that there was still a pure kernel of kindness left that life hadn’t managed to destroy. But every time one of the younger ones, normally those below seven or so, came up to him, he found himself reigning in his gruff attitude and brutal words in favor of the same gentle touch he used with Missy.

    These children were nothing like their equivalents on Atlas. Perhaps it made more sense to look at the wide, hopeful look in this little girl's eyes and be angry over the innocence her parents had carefully protected, while his own had been brutally ripped away. But he didn’t feel angry. Life had done him dirty, but it wasn’t her fault. Instead, if he couldn’t have that innocence, then he wanted the children like Roberta to enjoy theirs. And part of that meant treating their hearts like fragile glass, and letting them think that he was the angel they thought he was, instead of the callous, bloodstained reality.

    Power may have forced the bite of necessity on his shoulders, but even on the bad days, he had done his best to remember that even though he had power, it did not give him the right to be cruel without reason.

    As the mother nudged Roberta out from behind her legs, he did his best to appear as unthreatening as he could, not an easy feat in armor like his. But Roberta simply seemed shy, whereas the parents were relaxed.

    In his opinion, the biggest success of the PRT was this; every person who talked to him today did not realize that his armor was a good reason to be afraid, in and of itself.

    “I love your suspenders,” he said. “The red goes very well with your hair clip.”

    “Thank you,” she whispered, hiding her eyes behind her hair.

    “Well, Roberta with the lovely red suspenders, what can a hero like myself do for you today?”

    Squeezing her eyes shut, the little girl held out a roll of paper with both hands. “Sign this?”

    He gently took it. “I’d love to.” Standing, he grabbed a pen and opened the roll on the table, revealing a three foot poster of him, wings spread, hand outstretched with a hazed blur in the center of curled fingers. Beside him, a pillar of fire lancing out from her palm was Scintilla, her other hand down by her side, fingers licked with blue flame. Pen met paper. He paused, glancing over his shoulder. “Is there anything you like me to write?” When she didn’t answer, looking at the ground, face bright red, he looked back at the paper. “Right. How about this?” The pen scratched as it moved. “To my dear friend Roberta, courage like yours makes the world a little brighter, signed Scorch.” He slid the poster over to Missy, who added her own signature before rolling it up and offering it back to the girl.

    Roberta took it, clutching the poster to her chest with wide eyes like she’d caught a star from the sky and offered it to her in a bottle before blushing and darting behind her mothers legs once more.

    Meeting his gaze, the mother mouthed ‘thank you’ before she, the father, and his newest fan walked away.

    Vinci returned to his seat.

    From his spot a table over, Assault’s mouth moved, Battery handing him a small poster of their own for him to sign. At the same time, the radio in Vinci’s helmet crackled, the teasing voice five by five over the airwaves. “Smooth moves rockstar. And PR told me you’d be bad at this. I should file a complaint. Imagine it; Assault vs the US government, plaintiff claims damages for the defendant having a newer Bonded pair come in and steal the plaintiffs thunder. It’ll be a landmark case. You seem like a nice kid, and I hate to do this, but my income’s threatened.”

    Missy laughed, the subvocal microphones attached to her throat picking up the sound with the kind of clarity that made throat-mics the preferred method for radio communications in Hussar elite operations. “You don’t have a case.”

    “That's up to the courts to decide young lady.”

    “In our favor. There's nothing wrong with the public trading the older, worn out pair for something bright, shiny, and new.”

    Assault gasped. “You wound me. I’ll have you know that there is not a single grey hair on this head of mine. Just for that, I’m claiming emotional damages as well.”

    To Assault’s left, Battery hid a smile of her own. “For sure. Your inflated ego will never recover from that popping.”

    “Who’s side are you on?” Assault whined.

    Without missing a beat, Battery replied “Theirs.”

    “After all these years together-”

    “If you keep it up, I’ll offer to serve as witness for the defense.”

    “Hmm.” The corner of Assault's lips curled upwards in a self satisfied smile. “I suppose that I could let it go, just this once, if you agree to always stay by my side.”

    Though he couldn’t see Battery’s eyes underneath her visor, from the minute motion of her head, he knew that she was doing something. “My Bondmate’s dramatics aside, he’s right. You have a way with children.”

    His voice was soft. “Children aren’t hard.” Not when he’d seen them at their worst. Sobbing in terror on evac flights, or waiting with them until a teleporter could come and take them away from the bombed out ruins of their home, and the family lying dead beneath the rubble.

    Compared to that, this was downright pleasant, though not what he’d choose to do with his free time.

    “And yet you don’t extend that same care to the adults.” Missy sounded curious.

    “I remember a time when I thought the heroes had all the answers. If I’d met the people I admired back then, and they’d treated me poorly, I would’ve been crushed.” In the end, he had been crushed by Minstral’s betrayal. “The adults should know better than to look at me like I have all the answers.”

    Missy smiled down at the autograph she was signing, a soft, warm thing only enhanced by the gentle acceptance that enveloped the Bond. “My gruff, scary, growly Bondmate. If you ever want me to believe that you’ll be bad for me, you need to try harder. You’ve been through an awful lot. More than enough to turn anyone cold. I know you don’t think much of the PRT, or think that you’ll get justice. But I want you to know this; Anyone who is willing to kneel down in front of a star struck little girl and make her day in a way she’ll remember for years, if not the rest of her life, for no other reason than kindness is a hero. You deserve to be here.”
     
    blergh_blergh, semi, Mr.Bones and 4 others like this.
  10. Threadmarks: Hook Echo, part three
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    “Urgh!” Seething emotions roiled as Missy whirled, stalking away. She only made it ten steps before she spun once more, facing him, nostrils flared. “You are impossible!” Waving her hands for emphasis, she growled “It's power testing.”

    “I. Don’t. Care.” His growl was equally ferocious. It had been a long day, he was tired, and the kind of power they were asking him to use was beginning to become stressful. The battlefield was one thing, but to slowly work his way up to full strength because someone wanted to see what he could do? The power he wielded was not a toy. He shouldn’t have to justify not using it. The mere fact he didn’t want to should be reason enough.

    In the background, a trio of scientists watched in silence, the head of the research division refusing to get involved in the argument.

    Missy jabbed a finger at his face. “This is ridiculous. You trust them to know where you live, have access to your identity, but you balk at accurate reading for you power-”

    Something inside him snapped. He’d had enough yelling from her, and enough demands from the scientists. If they wanted it? Fine. They could fucking have it. Spinning on the ball of his foot, he faced the head of the facility, tongue clicking as a red dot appeared in the corner of his vision. “What is on the other side of that wall?” he barked.

    The lead scientist looked wary. “A hill. Just in case.”

    “Houses? Buildings.”

    “Not for several miles.”

    “You’ll take responsibility for the breakage?”

    The lead nodded. “We’re insured-”

    The fury in the Bond boiled over. “Scorch! Don’t you dare ignore me-”

    Vinci drew, in a way he hadn’t for nearly six months. It was a working, a true working, the kind of thing meant to rend and destroy. His well didn’t so much whisper, the way it normally did, instead it howled, and he became the center of the vortex. Power was drawn down into him, and formed into strands, hundreds linking together into weaves, which were sewn together into something greater. As he wove, he turned.

    Less than a second had passed. Missy’s shock had only begun to seep into his anger as he stepped around Missy, making sure to give himself five feet between her and the expected kill trajectory, four feet and ten inches more than he needed, before he threw, as if the power was a baseball.

    Space boomed, and the ground shook.

    On the other end of the room, the strength testing machine meant for Brutes, little more than a massive steel plate attached to hydraulics thicker than his arm, vanished, as did a significant portion of the steel wall.

    Everything happened too quick for the eye to comprehend. As far as the others in the room knew, one second, the wall was there, the next, it wasn’t. Dirt exploded, a wall of black slamming into the kinetic shield he’d had the foresight to erect in front of Missy, himself, and the team of scientists behind him, burying metal shrapnel from the walls that had already impacted, some of the steel spikes more than foot long.

    As the soil fell to the ground with the flattened shrapnel, it revealed the hole in the wall, solid steel three feet thick torn and bent. Outside clods of dirt fell to the ground like rain in a thunderstorm, reducing visibility to a scant few feet beyond the hole in the wall.

    The last of the dirt hit the ground with muted thuds, leaving only the howling of claxons, and Missy’s numb shock.

    Outside, half of the hundred foot high hill was gone.

    All Vinci felt, the emotion he resonated with, was grim satisfaction.

    This was why he was a part of Icarus.

    Because when he moved, the graves he dug were a mile wide.

    Face pale, the head scientist walked over to a console with mechanical steps, typing something into the keyboard. Seconds later, the claxons fell silent.

    Vinci spoke, each word cool and deliberate in their slowness. “I do not feel like being tested to the limit of my abilities today. Or ever.” With a hand, he gestured at the hole in the wall. “I’m sure you have enough to give me the rating you need.”

    With that, he turned and strode out the hole in the wall. He was going to wait by the car that had brought them to the facility in the foothills of the mountains that surrounded the Bay.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Shoes clicked on the pavement as Missy walked on the asphalt down below him. Looking up, her lips tightened the slightest bit before space bent, and Missy stepped onto the roof of the armored van. Sitting down, she scooted forward until her feet dangled over the edge, right next to him.

    “Did you know that this is where I came for power testing?”

    “Was it.” There was no question in the words, merely bland neutrality.

    “I wasn’t able to go through the wall like that. But I think it's the fact that you went through the Tinker force field behind it that scares them the most.”

    Vinci grunted.

    It was only natural. He broke things. People. Tinkertech. Armor. It was what he did, and he wasn’t humble enough to claim he wasn’t good at it. Anything that didn’t require daily maintenance from a Tinker wasn’t advanced enough to give him pause.

    “Are you angry at me?”

    With a sigh, Vinci’s shoulders sagged. He allowed himself to fall onto his back, wings cushioning him as he looked at the sky. “Me? Angry? At you?” He snorted. What an oxymoron. “Never.”

    “But you're angry at something.”

    “I didn’t want to be tested.”

    “I know.” Missy lay down on her back beside him, legs hanging over the edge of the car, breath misting as it left her mouth. “What I don’t understand is why.”

    “Information is power. What the enemy doesn’t know cannot be used to hurt me.”

    “And the PRT is your enemy.” Missy sounded sad.

    Vinci shrugged, feeling helpless. “Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact that they aren't an immediate threat doesn’t make them my friend. What do you think they are going to use precise measurements of my capabilities for? A dossier on who I would be effective against? Maybe. But they’ll also make a dossier on how I can be neutralized.”

    Arming potential enemies rubbed him wrong. It made him feel stupid, becuase it was obviously not a good idea, and for some reason, he was doing it anyways.

    “They have a plan for me too,” Missy said, as if it was some kind of comfort.

    Vinci bristled, the feathers he was laying on sticking up in an unconscious reaction akin to goosebumps. “And if they ever try to act on it, what happened to that hill is going to happen to people.”

    Missy sighed, her melancholy heavy. “And do you think that they are just going to attack me for no reason? Or attack you even?”

    “Well, no,” he admitted. As much as he hated the idea of giving the PRT accurate data on his abilities, even he had to admit that they weren’t about to waste an asset without cause.

    “Scorch,” Missy’s voice went soft, “what's the real reason?”

    “Control,” he whispered. “The second they have that information, it's out of my control. I can’t decide who gets it anymore.” There was a vast amount of people that information could end up with, and the uncertainty of it was frightening. It would be better if he could simply declare it all compromised and assume that every potential enemy would use the PRT’s dossiers to gain a full understanding of his capabilities. But the PRT wasn’t considerate enough to firmly declare itself an open enemy of his. That meant it was all in limbo. He wouldn’t know it was compromised until an enemy came and killed him with it. “They are asking me to give up control of something that is important to me.” And he couldn’t stand it.

    Couldn’t stand the thought of losing control.

    “You aren’t angry, are you?” A hand gently brushed over his feathers, making Vinci flinch. “You're afraid, and that's what's making you angry.”

    Vinci said nothing, because what could he say? She was right.

    Minutes passed as Missy thought, realization bleeding into anger, resignation, and finally, sadness. Then she reached out and threaded her fingers through his, clasping their hands together. “I wish I knew how to make it all better,” she whispered. “But most of all, I wish people hadn’t hurt you so bad. I wish that I didn’t have to want to make it all better. Because I don’t know what I can do other than tell you that you can’t control everything, and even if you did, it wouldn’t make the fear go away. I just want you to know that I’ve got your back.”

    The words hit like a brick.

    “Did you do it?”

    When he shook his head, the heavy shackles that were bolted into the floor clinked. But they weren't the real threat. It was the explosive collar around his neck that prevented him from escaping, along with the slow acting poison in his veins.

    Boots looked down at him, lips pursed. Then he nodded. “I do not leave my own behind. Know that the Hussars stand behind you. These accusations will be fought, and the truth of the matter will become clear.”

    Vinci sagged in relief, and opened his mouth-

    “-ey, Scorch?”

    The worry in Missy’s voice jerked him back to reality. Without thinking, he squeezed her hand, a gesture she returned.

    “Scorch? Are you okay?”

    He felt better than okay. In fact, the warmth that grew in his chest felt like happiness. Turning his head to the side, he looked directly into the visor that seemed to be boring a hole through him, a soft smile hidden by his face plate. “You might not know how to make me feel better, but somehow, you do the right thing anyways.”

    Missy froze, then a relieved smile blossomed. “Is that so?”

    “It’s not just me against the world anymore, is it?“ It was easy to feel scared and alone when there was no one he could rely on to have his back. But he wasn’t alone. “I have you now.”

    Missy wouldn’t sit by and let the PRT attack him, or anyone else for that matter. That didn’t mean he was happy with the risk power testing was, but somehow, it felt like less of a problem than it had been. A shared burden lessened, and all of that philosophical bullshit.

    “Y’know,” her smile turned mischievous, “I remember you showing me how you made your armor, and in the facility, you showed me a little more of what you can do, but I haven’t shown you what I can do. You wanna sit up and go back inside?”

    Underneath his helmet, Vinci grimaced. “I’d prefer not to deal with the scientists whose facility I just wrecked.”

    A clear laugh cut through the air. “When I left them, they were all but gushing over how much additional funding they were going to get because of this. Instead, they’re going to bug you about flying down to the testing facility in Nevada. That's where the real destructive parahumans get tested.”

    “That's even worse.” He’d blown out the wall to avoid exactly that kind of testing.

    The smile Missy sent his way was amused. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Sitting up, Missy held her hand out, fire burning at the center of her palm. “I was just wondering if you wanted to learn how to do this.”

    After a moment, Vinci sat up, staring at the flame, and the little tugging in his gut as power was pulled from somewhere not his well, and into the flame. “That feels funny,” he muttered.

    “It kinda does, doesn’t it?” The fire leapt off Missy’s palm and formed into a little dragon that flew through the air on tiny wings, orbiting his head as it corkscrewed at Missy’s direction. “When you destroyed the wall of the testing area, it felt like I was at the center of a tsunami. The power was everywhere. For a second, I thought it was going to drag me off my feet.”

    Vinci focused on the energy, feeling where it was going, and where it came from. “How are you pulling it through you?”

    Missy frowned. “I don’t know. I just kinda do. You don’t?”

    Shaking his head, Vinci’s eyes were riveted on the dragon flying through the air. “Not through. Never through. It's too dangerous.” And yet, somehow, Missy had managed it without killing herself.

    After a moment, she shrugged. “When powerbleed happened, they brought me to this facility because your powers were out of control.” Missy shivered, a faint flash of old fear making Vinci’s heart clench. “There was all this power inside, and it was hurting me. Every time I tried to grab it, I burned. Eventually, I stopped trying to control it, and started trying to get it out of me. It stopped hurting once it was moving around and not just sitting there, so I built on that. How do you do it?”

    “I stabilize it outside me by forming it into structures.”

    Realization clicked. “... Which is why you started making armor.”

    Vinci nodded. “I was already making things outside me. It wasn’t a big stretch to try and make them permanent.” Grabbing a little power, he channeled through his fingers, the way she was, doing his best to mimic the flow of power.

    Glancing his way, Missy shook her head. “No, a little more like this.” He startled as something grabbed the power he was manipulating and tugged, but after a moment, he relaxed and let her guide him into position. It felt weird, leaving his fingers tingling, as if an insect was walking all over him, but seconds later, a flame burst into being at the tip of his finger, no bigger than what could be found at the tip of a candle.

    Missy’s satisfaction rubbed against his wonder. “And the rest is practice.”

    Vinci let go of the power flowing through him. After the flame sputtered out, he tried to do it again.

    Five seconds of nothing later, Missy’s guiding touch tugged at the power once more, a smile curling at the corners of her lips. “You know,” she teased, “if you went back inside and showed the scientists this, they’d have kittens.”

    “I don’t want to,” he muttered, feeling more like a sulking child than a Hussar warfighter.

    “You know you’ll have to go back inside eventually and finish off the testing, right?”

    “I know.”

    Missy sighed, her feeling softening. “Well, I guess a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. Let's see if you can get this down before we go back in.”

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The Bucks’ home both had, and hadn’t changed since he’d arrived. Physically, little was different. But there was something about the atmosphere, something he couldn’t quite put into words, that had. From the very beginning, there had always been a tenseness in the air, likely brought about by his own aggression and combativeness.

    Yeah, he wasn’t blind. He knew he was being a jackass, he just didn’t really care. It was a rough world out there, and he preferred to eat over being eaten.

    What he had never expected however, was for that tension to ever go away, or even ease in the slightest. But eased it had.

    Since arriving on their doorstep one winter eve what felt like both forever and a blink-of-the-eye ago, slowly but surely, he and the Bucks had bent to accommodate each other. Granted, they did more bending than him, but considering his initial expectations, it was a surprise he had given ground at all.

    There was something peaceful about standing side by side with Keira in the kitchen, chopping onions. Not that he was any stranger to chores. It wasn’t like the barracks had a housekeeper, and even if it had, no. Just no. The thought of a stranger being in his living quarters, pawing through his stuff unsupervised was nightmare fuel, too many old lessons carved into his skin for him to allow it, let alone the rest of the squad, which had their own baggage. Then, of course, was military discipline. Even the Myrmdoms, or perhaps it was more accurate to say especially the Myrmdoms needed some good old fashioned punishment every once in a while.

    Vinci had, more than once, spent hours in the sweltering kitchens helping make the industrial amounts of food required to feed several thousand men and women.

    It was different with the Bucks.

    Even if he ate as much as he could at every meal, which he did, trying to get back some of that precious fat, they were still only cooking for three people. Cooking with Keira was peaceful. Maybe even…

    Well, he refused to say that it made him happy. Because it couldn’t. He liked Kiera, and he liked Alessandra. They were both good company, and good people. As the days passed, he seemed to slip into the dreaded role of civilian with an ease that both shocked him, and left him wanting more, whilst one Missy Biron gently tried to nudge him along, kicking and screaming if she had to. And she had too. Admitting he enjoyed it here wasn’t an option. Because if he did, then that meant that maybe he had been wrong, and men like Williams, and Armsmaster, who had taken his freedom, and forced him into a place where he didn't want to be, were right.

    His wings were full sized, tucked close to his back, courtesy of the remodeling done to the Bucks’ home. Every single one of their blinds had been replaced with something called ‘roman shades’. It was a fancy name for a different kind of shade, and frankly, he didn’t give a damn what it was called. All he knew was that every window in the home he now lived in had a piece of cloth attached to a pair of taunt strings on either side of the window, and when they were drawn down, the cloth was thick, impossible to see through, and unlikely to move from an errant breeze.

    That meant, barring unexpected visitors, which the Bucks assured him that they didn’t get, being an emergency placement home that housed traumatized kids who rarely responded well to strangers, even less to unexpected ones, Vinci was safe to just be himself.

    It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for him.

    On the counter in front of him was a cutting board with an onion on it, blade hitting the cutting board with a moderately loud sound that echoed in the quiet kitchen as he diced what he was pretty sure was a fruit. At least, he thought onions were a fruit.

    Come to think about it, he wasn’t quite sure what separated a fruit from a vegetable, though he could make plenty of dark jokes that involved wheelchairs and brain dead patients.

    Behind him, stepping a little louder than she normally did, another gesture Vinci both noted and appreciated, was Keira, moving about as she threw little cubes of potato into the simmering pot. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her glance at him, then at his hands before frowning. For half a second, she just stood there before sidling up to the counter, fingernails tapping on the wood with a click that would’ve caught his attention even if he hadn’t heard her footsteps, then sidestepped closer.

    She stopped three feet away, far closer than he ever would’ve wanted her when he’d first entered their house, but by now, it was a comfortable, cozy distance. Not too close, not too far.

    “Vinci,” Kiera said, “can I reposition your hands?”

    Vinci frowned, looking down at the blade in his hands. “Why?” He was holding it correctly. One didn’t go through CQC training, especially not black operations CQC training, no matter how compressed, and come out of it not knowing which end of the blade was which. The way he was holding it would be perfectly acceptable if he was trying to stab someone in the gut.

    Then again, that was with a thicker, more durable blade, not this bendy shit.

    Offering him a smile, Keira leaned up against the counter, head tilted. “You can say no if you want. But I was wondering if you’d like to learn a better way?”

    After a moment's hesitation, he nodded. “You can touch me.”

    “Thank you. Straightening, Keira walked behind him and reached around him slow enough that he could duck out of her grasp and dart away at any time. Gently grabbing the hand not holding the blade, she repositioned it on the thin slice of onion he’d cut, close cut nails pointing down. Her other hand wrapped around the fingers holding the handle, attempting to move his hand, and the blade with it.

    Vinci bit his lip, holding the hand in place. He did not want her moving that knife, instincts screaming danger, demanding he elbow her in the gut, and use the resulting shock to duck out of her arms.

    Keira’s voice was warm and neutral, friendly, but without judgement. “You can trust me to not hurt you. But I’ll also understand if you aren't ready to make that leap just yet. So, we can do two things here. You can tell me to let go and back off, and I will listen, or you can let me help you, and I’ll be careful.”

    Knuckles whitened around the handle of the blade. In the end, he nodded, swallowed the fear, and let her guide his hand to where she wanted it. That didn’t mean each muscle wasn’t tense, ready to go rigid at a moment's notice, nor that he didn’t have power gathered, ready to throw Kiera back.

    Trust was fine. But only when backed up by common sense.

    At least with everyone who wasn’t named Missy. Common sense had nothing to do with her, and he knew it.

    “There we go,” she murmured, more for the reassuring sound than anything else as the blade descended slowly, but with force behind it. “You do it like this.” The vegetable cleaver slid along his nails and into the onion below, then she shifted the blade to the side, taking the resulting cubes with the blade. Her other hand repositioned his own so that when the cleaver came down again, the resulting onion cubes were the exact same size as the previous ones. “It's quicker like this, and you have less chance of cutting your hand open.”

    She let go of him and stepped away with a single, smooth step, leaving him looking at the half of the onion that still needed to be cut in silence.

    He didn’t know what to say, do, or even think.

    Sure, he’d given her permission, but she had touched him. And being honest, he hadn’t liked it, not that he particularly enjoyed physical contact at the best of times. It was how she’d positioned herself behind him, an arm on either side. The touch itself had been warm and gentle, almost like what he imagined a mother would be in old daydreams full of longing, the kind he’d stopped having years ago. There was a part of him he thought dead that was curious, and wanted more. It wasn’t that he felt safe in the Buck’s home, or with Keira’s arms wrapped around him, but that he knew, given time, one day, he might.

    But it was easily drowned out by older, far worse memories.

    As a Myrmdom, anything that he didn’t intimately trust with its arms wrapped around him was a problem. A ‘Brutes hug’.

    He’d seen a fellow Tier One die that way. Memories like that had a way of staying with him the way dreams never did.

    Besides, he’d stopped wishing for a mother when he’d realized it was better to wish for things that might come true.

    For several minutes, Keira watched him through glances stolen when she thought he wasn’t looking, and looks out of the corner of her eye as she threw more stuff into the pot. But he was grateful for the silence, because he needed the time to think, and sort out all the feelings he wasn’t used to having.

    By the time she was done throwing the last of the potatoes in the pot, he’d swallowed any lingering lump in his throat. “Thank you,” he whispered, the quiet sound cutting through the silence of the kitchen before he started chopping the onions again, quicker, faster, and more uniform this time.

    Kiera froze, her hand reaching into the open cupboard of spices before she smiled. “You’re welcome.”

    Silence descended then, not quite awkward, but neither was it the easy comradeship they’d had before. There was something more between them, something that he didn’t want to touch. It scared him. It wasn’t like Missy. Missy was different. He desperately needed her, and just as desperately feared her leaving, a complicated affair that resulted in him trying to draw her close, and push her far away at the same time, at least until he’d realized that this connection they shared was something that would be good for both of them. What Kiera represented was something he wasn’t sure he wanted anymore.

    He’d been hurt too many times.

    The bubble of boiling water, the chop of onions, and cupboards opening and closing as everything from silverware to spices were removed was what filled the gap their conversations had left, even as the air filled with the smell of creamy potatoes, and a hint of bacon, along with salt and pepper.

    Keira was the one who broke the silence.

    Picking up a ladle full of thick white soup, she blew on it before giving it a taste, brows furrowed. After a moment, she dropped the ladle back into the pot and picked up the salt shaker. “How are things with the Wards?”

    “Fine.”

    “Really? Because if things aren’t, that's okay. After going through the kind of stuff you have, it's probably hard to connect.” Keira’s eyes softened as she added more salt, a tired sigh leaving her. “More than one kid who’s lived in this house has come home crying over just how cruel other boys and girls can be.”

    Vinci huffed, picking up the chunks of onion scattered over the counter and adding them to the pile in the middle of the plastic cutting board. “My Bondmate is scary. If anyone bullied me, she’d be snarling at them before I could even so much as think about breaking their legs.”

    “She’s been asking to come over.” At his glance, raised eyebrows and all, Keira continued. “Through Williams of course. I haven’t actually met her. But she wants to meet. I was wondering what you thought of that.”

    His voice was soft. “I’m hers. If she wants to see where I live, then let her.”

    “This is your choice, not hers. She doesn’t own you, and I value your opinion.”

    “What should I do with the onions?”

    Keira pointed at the pot. “Put 'em in the stew.”

    Vinci picked up the cutting board, curving it into a U, and let the onions slide into the pot in a single file line, a few falling to the countertop as he did so. When he stepped aside, Kiera took his place, using the ladle to stir the stew. “She owns me the same way Alessandra owns you,” he said.

    “Ally is my partner. I don’t belong to her.”

    “And I don’t belong to Scintilla. But she has a vested interest in me and my wellbeing.”

    “Me and Ally are different. It's not the same.”

    Vinci shook his head. “It really is.”

    “Why?”

    He sighed. “I don’t feel like talking about this right now.” He’d had more than enough of talking about the Bond for one week.

    “Alright.” Keira nodded. “We can table this for now, but I just want you to remember that if you don’t talk to us, then we can’t understand. I’m not an expert in Parahumans, but I do want to understand, to the best of my ability. This is a big part of your life; it's important to you, and that makes it important to both me and Ally.”

    Turning around, he leaned against the counter, taking care that his feathers didn’t brush over the countertop. His wings were beautiful, and part of maintaining their pristine sheen was keeping them clear of foodstuffs like onion juice, or at least trying too, no matter how that particular quest was doomed to failure before it even began. Looking upwards at the ceiling once more, Vinci sighed. It’d been a long day full of testing, talking, and paperwork, and he was exhausted. “Legally, Scintilla is treated pretty damn close to-”

    “Language!”

    He fixed Kiera with a flat look. “I’m too tired for this shit. Do you want to listen or not?”

    “Vinci.” The look she gave him in return was stern. “You know the rules.”

    For a long moment, Vinci stared. “Forget it,” he muttered, turning towards the sink and grabbing the wash rag.

    Kiera watched him with soft eyes, eyebrows scrunched together. “Why is this a big deal to you? Is it really that hard to not swear? I know you're used to it, but home is supposed to be a nicer place than the outside world, and part of that is leaving some of the nasty stuff at the door.”

    “I am the ‘nasty stuff’, and you didn’t leave me in the snow.” Sliding the cloth across the counter, he swept the remaining onion cubes into a neat little pile.

    “I wish you wouldn’t talk about yourself like that. Sure, there are some rough spots, but beneath all that, you aren’t a bad person.”

    “You don’t get to separate the bad from the good. It doesn’t work like that.”

    “No,” Keira agreed. “You take people as they are, and forgive the parts of them you don’t quite like as much as all the rest. But is swearing really important to you?”

    Vinci shrugged. “It feels like home.” It was something that came natural.

    “And what about the Wards? I hear they don’t tolerate cursing while on duty.”

    “Not in public, but my helmet is a sealed system. If I don’t want sound getting out, it doesn’t.”

    “But still, it's good practice,” Keira pressed. “So, why don’t you practice here, so you don’t mess up in the field?”

    “You really think I care about what the Wards want?”

    “I think you care a great deal about what Scintilla wants.”

    “Scintilla swears.”

    “On the job?”

    Vinci sighed. This wasn’t the hill he felt like dying on, and again, it had been a long day. He was tired. It wasn’t the soul crushing weight of knowing that the whole world was raining down on him, and it was going to get much, much worse before it got better. That particular feeling was vanishing bit by bit as he realized that, yes, this dream he lived in was real, and he could be with Missy without feeling guilty. But it was still exhausting. “I’ll try.”

    Instead of crowing over her victory, the way many a Myrmdom would, Kiera smiled. “That's all I ask. Not that you be perfect. It's okay if you make mistakes and curse. You're used to it, and me and Ally aren't going to demand perfection overnight. But we do want you to try. Now then, you were saying?”

    Weaving a strand, he cast out the anchor, pulling the garbage can towards him. Keira stepped out of the way, allowing it to slide past her, the barest hint of a grin showing, as if she still couldn’t quite believe it was real.

    “If Scintilla wants to meet the parents, let her.” Vinci shrugged, sweeping the cubes into the trash. “I already made my choice the second I woke up in the hospital and didn’t shatter walls on my way out.”

    “Hmmm.” When he turned around, Keira was staring at him, eyebrow raised. “You make it sound like you got married or something.”

    Picking the trash can up with his powers, he set it back down in its old place, then turned and headed for the sink, setting the wash rag down on the faucet. “The Bond doesn’t do things by halves. The more time I spend around Scintilla, the more I learn about her, and the more I start caring about her as a person instead of a set of emotions in the Bond. I’m putting a face to the feelings for her that I’ve always had. The Bond is settling, and both of us are fitting ourselves into each other's lives. There isn’t a whole lot of legal recognition for Bondmates. Not like marriage. But Parahumans treat it seriously for a reason.”

    Keira eyed him, scrutinizing his face for any inconsistency between his words and his body language. “You feel strongly about this.”

    “I feel strongly about her. Always have, even before we met.”

    Seeming to think it over, Keira nodded. “Well then, I suppose I need to find a time for her to come over, don’t I?” With a hiss, water met hot stovetop as the soup, forgotten in their conversation, boiled over. Keira looked at it and started to curse before cutting herself off, darting over. With a deft twist, she turned off the gas.

    Dancing around Keira, Vinci opened a drawer and pulled out a pair of hot pads, sliding them over the counter towards Keira before grabbing a third and tossing it onto the table. “Scintilla is probably just concerned and wants to check out my living conditions. It's normal for the Bond.” And really, it wasn’t like they were going to be able to hide who Missy was anyways. Bonded pairs didn’t automatically out themselves, but even when they tried to hide, there was just something about them that screamed ‘off’. The children at school wouldn’t see it, but it would be nigh impossible to hide from someone like Alessandra, or Keira, who knew something was there, and was actively looking for it.

    Using the hotpads to shield her from the bare metal handles, Keira picked up the pot, and walked it over to the table. “Dinner served.”

    He nodded in acknowledgement. Normally, he’d be sitting opposite Alessandra, but today, Alessandra was at work, so he sat opposite to Keira instead, thanking her as she dished him up, sliding his porcelain bowl over the table.

    After half a minute of eating in silence, Keira looked at him, a calculating gleam in her eye. “Are you christian?”

    Vinci looked up from his bowl. “That's a complicated question.”

    “I don’t mean anything by it. It's just, between you, work, and everything going on, me and Ally have yet to put up the Christmas tree. Are you going to get angry if we do?”

    Oh. Vinci shrugged his shoulders. “Feel free.”

    “You can help if you want.”

    “That's very kind of you,” Vinci said, trying his best to be polite, even though he very much didn’t want to help put up the tree. It was more or less a waste of his time. “Isn’t Christmas in a week or so?”

    “Thereabouts.” Keira nodded. “You’re starting school after the December break ends.”

    “Do I have to?” The question was asked more for the sake of it than anything else. He’d already gotten the answer to that, and it was a resounding yes.

    “It's a half a year that you won’t have to retake. Speaking of which, the PRT wants you to think about having your scars removed. They say they present a security risk, and they’d like them gone before you enter school.”

    Vinci froze, spoon inches from his mouth.

    Keira made a soothing gesture. “No one is forcing you to do anything, and you don’t need to answer now. Just think about it, okay?” Eyes trailing over his face, then down to his right arm, Keira bit her lip. “I know you might be attached to some of them, but going to a new school can be hard enough, even for those who haven’t been out of the system like you have. I don’t want you to stand out anymore than you have too. Like I said, kids can be cruel.”

    She was worried about him. That was the only reason he swallowed back the the rather angry ‘go fuck yourself’.

    Armor was one thing. It had to be replaced and repaired every once in a while in order to maintain functionality. But what was written on his skin? That was history they were talking about wiping out, gone, as if it had never been. Granted, it hadn’t exactly been happy history, but happy or not, it was his. That meant something.

    “You could talk it over with Scintilla or something,” Keira offered, unable to keep that hopeful note out of her voice.

    After a long moment, and a hard stare, Vinci nodded. “I just might.”

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
     
    blergh_blergh, Mr.Bones, Marz and 4 others like this.
  11. Threadmarks: Hook Echo part 5
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    “-but it's mine. I’m ugly as hell, but each scar is something that I survived. They show that I am strong.”

    Missy lay on her side on the floor opposite to him in her room, a chess board taken from the commons between them, and not a cheap, shoddy one either. It was quite possibly the nicest chess set he’d ever seen, not that he’d seen many chess sets. The pieces themselves were carved out of stone, with a distinctly asian bent to them. The queen had a fan in one hand, along with a blossom of some sort resting on her head, while the bishops looked like bald monks, and the knight rode a dragon of all things.

    He liked the dragon.

    A part of him wondered just where the set had come from, and why such a nice thing was in the Wards commons.

    Missy moved her pawn forward. “I don’t think you need the scars to be strong. If you don’t longer have the scars anymore, does that mean you didn’t survive what gave them to you? You are strong, with, or without them.”

    “But you want them gone.”

    “The movies always show the dashing hero with a rugged scar. The reality is something different. The PRT isn’t wrong, your scars are distinctive.” The look she gave him was cool, and assessing. “I think this is more of a matter of perspective. Your scars show what happened in your old life. But you're starting something new with me. Isn’t it better to wipe the old slate clean? A fresh look for a fresh start?”

    Vinci leapt over her pawn with his knight, the piece making a soft click as it hit the board. “It feels like running from my past. I want a new start, but not to forget who I am.”

    “A reminder isn’t bad, but this?” Missy gestured at his face. “This isn’t a reminder. One scar is a reminder. But keeping all of them is like making the damage you took a part of your identity. I want you to be more than just the kind of hurt that left a scar.”

    His voice was soft. “And what if I want to keep them?” Balancing how to make her happy, while still feeling like he wasn’t selling the core of who he was wasn’t easy. Between those two things, both of which he wanted, he was left uncertain, and feeling more than a little vulnerable because of a Bondmate who might not approve.

    Missy’s face softened. “Oh Vinci.” She shook her head, and moved her rook to counter his knight. “Scars or no scars, they don’t change the fact that you are you. I will care for you either way. But I want you to blend in, and I think that smoothing out those bumps and ridges of yours will help. There's freedom in looking just like everyone else, freedom that's hard for you to enjoy. I want you to be able to walk down the street without people staring at you like there's something wrong with you. But if it helps, I think that the core of who you are in here-” Missy leaned over and tapped his chest, over where his heart would be, “isn’t going to change. But you need this. A civilian identity wasn’t something you needed to worry about when you were on your own. But you have school now, and a life outside of cape stuff. Even a minor slip up in costume could out you.”

    Sighing, Vinci ran his fingers through his hair.

    Objectively, she was right, because of course she was right. Missy was always right. Really, this was his fault for treating his body as anything other than what it was; a tool to get things done. If he had kept his thoughts the way they should be, like a good soldier, then there would be no problem with the idea of smoothing his skin over the same way he’d smoothed his armor over for Chambers. But somehow, this seemed more personal. Different, and not in a good way.

    “My way has always been the way of the warrior. Be like water and adapt, or die...” Vinci trailed off, and when he spoke again, he was quiet. “I just wish I never had to.”

    The scars he bore were his. And he did want to keep them. Even if he didn’t understand why.

    “Missy?” Vinci looked up after he moved. “What do you think about it? Not what you think is best for me, but what you actually want.”

    Picking up her bishop, Missy chose her words carefully, the piece hanging in the air. “I want the scars gone.” She set the bishop down, taking his queen. For a brief moment, her eyes met his, and Missy worried at her lip. Then it was gone, and Missy looked away. “Maybe it's selfish of me, because I can feel that this is something important for you. But I don’t like them. Every time I look at you, all I see is hurt. I don’t want that. Not for you. I think that Vinci Astera, Missy Biron’s Bondmate is a better identity to have than Vinci Astera, the person people hurt but kept going.”

    “I thought I asked you what you wanted. Not what is best for me.”

    Missy rolled her eyes, a fond smile on her face as she reached out and ruffled the short shorn hair on his head. “You are my Bondmate. I care. Asking me to separate what I think is best for you from what I want is ridiculous because they are the same thing.”

    She was the only person he would ever allow to ruffle his hair like that without paying a price in blood, short of maybe, just maybe Icarus squad.

    Vinci moved his knight. “I want to be your Bondmate.” Restrained words, but his feelings told the truth. It wasn’t just simple want, it was desperate desire to belong combined with instinctual need. “But there's more to me than just that.”

    Missy rolled her eyes, Fondness twined with the slightest hint of exasperation. “Of course there is. There’s Vinci the hero, who kneels down to talk to little girls. Vinci the fighter, who survived everything the world could throw at him, and then got up for more. I just like the fact that you're my Bondmate the best, because that means I get to squirrel you away in my room and keep you all to myself.” As she spoke, Missy’s emotions shifted, until, at the very end, she shone with a fierce possessiveness.

    It was enough for Vinci’s cheeks to heat up.

    When Missy looked up, eyes hesitating on his cheeks, her emotions turned playful.

    Vinci froze.

    “My Bondmate,” she said, every word dripping with amusement, “blushing and fun to tease.”

    It took him a moment to realize that, yes, Missy was right, and that burning heat in his cheeks was a blush, and when he did, he felt absolutely mortified. “Missy,” he squeaked.

    Missy laughed, resting a finger on her jaw as she eyed him. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t tease you so much.”

    Tense shoulders relaxed, gratitude swelling in the Bond. He opened his mouth to thank her-

    “After all, you might die of embarrassment.”

    And like that, the warm heat that graced his cheeks turned into a burning inferno. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to sink into the floorboards and hide.

    Once more, the Bond shifted, turning into something solemn and deep as the sea. “I’m not ever giving you up,” Missy whispered.

    Vinci froze, the mortification giving way to a warmth in his heart that he just didn’t know what to do with.

    Because the truth was, he felt the exact same way about her. He wanted this connection they shared between them. It was everything he didn’t deserve, the salvation he never had the courage to ask for, dropped in his lap in the form of a little girl who smiled every time she saw him. And now he had her, even though he didn’t deserve her, or the kindness she showed him, he’d fight, kill, maim, murder, even torture to keep it. But just like he never had the courage to ask for what Missy both was and represented, he didn’t have the courage to tell her just how he felt about her now she was here either.

    Not yet.

    But the soft smile she wore, and the downright sappy look she sent his way made him feel like he had to at least try.

    He was still scared. At least a little bit. He wasn’t used to people looking at him the way she did. But that sliver of fear couldn’t drown out the hope, or the happy feeling that seemed to burn in his chest.

    When he finally mustered the courage to speak, the words were mere whispers. “I don’t ever want you to let me go either.”

    A soft, satisfied sigh left Missy’s lips. “The Bond isn’t what I thought it would be,” She admitted, looking down at the chessboard. “I never thought that I would feel like this. But seeing you here, not fighting it anymore… It makes me happy.”

    Vinci couldn’t find the words anymore. His cheeks burned, worse than when she had been teasing him. It was such an honest peek into her heart, and he felt like such a fool for letting her see into his own, even if it was for but a moment. However, he understood what she meant, because the happiness that flowed in her heart was a mirror for his own.

    Missy Biron wanted him here, at her side, and Vinci was happy just to be wanted for once.

    It was a nice feeling, to be wanted. It felt like home.

    After a seconds of staring, eyes suspiciously glassy, Missy’s eyes sharpened, glancing down at the pieces. She let out a curse, expression well on its way to becoming a pout. “I lost.”

    “Not yet.”

    “But I will.”

    The glare sent his way had no heat in it. “In three moves,” he admitted.

    “How?!”

    “You aren’t looking ahead. If you want to be good at fighting people, you need to be able to think like them, predict their moves, and then adapt accordingly.”

    “Chess isn’t the battlefield.”

    “No, but it does teach you to plan ahead.” Vinci quickly looked away, refusing to meet her glare.

    He couldn’t help it; she was adorable.

    The admission that he was smitten with her was easier than he thought it would be, even if he was only making it to himself. As he looked, feelings began to settle, ones that he didn’t think the Bond had much, if anything to do with. It wasn’t just the glower that he thought was cute, in the same way an angry puppy was cute, but her.

    Vinci adored everything about his Bondmate. The way she looked, how she spoke, the warm glances she sent his way, each easy expression of trust she offered.

    Even the things he didn’t quite like about her, like her unfortunate membership in the Wards, were easy to ignore in favor of her brilliant radiance.

    Somewhere, somehow, it had stopped being a question of if he could make a life with Missy Biron. From the second he had met her in that hospital room, Vinci had always felt that possibility.

    But now, it was concrete.

    It wasn’t that Vinci could, but the certainty that Missy Biron was the person he would spend the rest of his life with. When he thought of the future, she was always at his side, the stability and hope she provided never in doubt.

    Not anymore.

    Missy reached out with her index finger and toppled her king. “Hey, Vinci?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Tomorrow is the first day of Christmas break. You want to go patrolling with me?”

    “I haven’t been approved yet.”

    “You’ve done everything you need to, save some of the training. I’m willing to bet that if Rory asks, Piggot will give the go ahead for a patrol, even if it's just a PR stunt for boardwalk. It wouldn’t be anything useful, but…”

    In light of the realization he’d had, or maybe how he’d simply stopped lying to himself, the answer was obvious. “Missy,” he said, tone soft as he gave voice to something which no longer seemed all that embarrassing. “I’m yours. I can’t think of anything I’d want to do more than spend time with you.”

    The grin Missy sent his way was the happiest little thing he’d ever seen, a faint dusting of pink on her cheeks. Meanwhile, the warmth in Bond was the kind of addictive feeling that he could close his eyes and listen to forever, happy. “I’ll ask Rory then.”


     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2022
  12. Threadmarks: Hook echo part 6
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Snow crunched beneath his feet as he ran across the rooftop, pursuing the prey that fled from him.

    Telekinetic lance. Blast of force. Even a hint of the fire Missy was teaching him to wield. Each option was considered, then discarded.

    This one, he wanted alive.

    The coms crackled. “Wait up!” Assault demanded. “I can’t travel the rooftops like you can- Blast it all, where are you guys? I’ve lost you.”

    Missy’s breathless voice sounded over the radio. “Corner of fifth, turning-” Missy grunted. “Left. We’re going left.”

    Powerful muscles bunched, then sprung, his foot leaving the edge of the roof as he sailed across the fifteen foot gap between the top of the gas station convenience store, and onto the bakery. His prey was fast. Very fast. And Parahuman, obviously. At this point, being a Parahuman was practically a requirement to evade him like this.

    Still. He was gaining.

    Their back was almost close enough to touch.

    Another gap in the rooftops.

    The prey darted across the gap as if it wasn’t there.

    He could’ve done the same, but why bother?

    Pale white wings spread as he lept, carrying him farther than any simple jump could’ve.

    His hand grazed their back.

    Beneath the prey’s feet, snow gave way, revealing polished metal as they slid. His target stumbled, even as his own feet touched down and then slid the exact same way. In front of them was a brick chimney, one that they were both about to slide into. Him? He would be fine, well protected by his armor. But her?

    Something in his gut froze, and the game changed.

    Quick as a striking snake, his hand shot out and grabbed the back of her collar, pulling her into his chest as he turned, hugging her close as she cried out in shock, her feelings twisting into alarm.

    His back slammed into the chimney, and they both fell down in a heap.

    They lay there, her in his lap, his arm around her stomach, before Missy relaxed. Then she giggled.

    He relaxed at the clear sound, and her mirth, like sunlight on a cold day, happiness, and a whiff of content-safe.

    “I was so close,” she whined.

    Underneath his helmet, Vinci rolled his eyes. “Not really.”

    “If the snow hadn’t slid-”

    “I still would’ve caught you.”

    The happiness and amusement bled into determination and a hint of challenge. “Oh really?” Missy snorted. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.” After a quiet moment, she burst into giggles once more. Grabbing his arm, she peeled it off her and stood, kicking at the snow beneath her feet, presumably testing it. “That was close.”

    Vinci stood as well, examining the metal roofing that had been hidden by the snow. “Slick stuff,” he muttered.

    Missy turned to look at him, the concern she felt dimming her grin, but not suppressing it completely. “You alright? You hit that chimney pretty hard.”

    “I’m green.” There might be a bruise in the morning, but that was it. Once he got past the thick layer of feathers, his wings were near pure muscle wrapped around bone that took more from avians than humans. Strong stuff. Even if it hadn’t, it would always be better for him to have a bruise on his back than for her to slam face first into brick.

    Concern assuaged, her grin turned mischievous, and space bent. Missy took off running, taking to the streets below, her crimson skirt flaring as the wind gusted.

    Rolling his eyes, Vinci followed.

    As he chased her through the crowd, most people had smiles on their faces as he passed them, some of the more ardent fans fishing phones out of their pockets and pointing them in his direction. All the way through Boardwalk she ran, and he followed, until she came to the stop in front of a familiar ice cream parlor. Only barely winded, he came to a stop by her side, looking up at the sign. Nudging her side, he nodded at the shop. “You want some?”

    “We’re on patrol. We probably shouldn’t.” But firm words failed to hide the hint of longing she felt.

    Vinci snorted. “The mission brief didn’t cover running on the rooftops either, but that didn’t stop you from blinding my opticals by throwing snow in them.”

    Missy tilted her head, a smile playing at the corner of her lips. “You chased.”

    “Of course I chased.” Stepping forward, he opened the door for her, letting Missy step through before him, his voice going quiet. “I’m yours. Where you lead, I follow.”

    Happiness danced with approval, contentment, and a thousand other emotions that blended together into a singular mass that made him feel like everything in the world was just the way it should be. More obvious, however, was the faint patch of pink that appeared on the cheeks Missy’s helmet did nothing to hide. Her stride faltered before she carried on, swallowing hard.

    It was winter, so the lines weren’t long, but it said something about just how crowded the Boardwalk was that even at this time of year, the ice cream parlor was still doing decent business. People turned to stare as he took his place at her side, the both of them waiting their turn.

    They stared even more as she wordlessly slipped her hand into his own.

    “Going to get the strawberry this time?” He asked.

    “Are you going to throw it in the ocean again?”

    “Only if you get it.”

    “You are ridiculous,” she declared.

    “You're the one who wants ice cream in the middle of winter.”

    “And whose fault is that?”

    Yours.”

    Static filled the com line. “Right, you two turned onto Boardwalk… So where are you?”

    Vinci clicked his tongue. “There's an ice cream parlor near the pier.”

    “Ice cream? Now?”

    Underneath his helmet, he grinned, turning to look at Missy.

    The hints of red on her cheeks got bigger. “Shut up,” She muttered, looking away.

    “I didn’t say anything.”

    She grumbled. “You don’t have to.”

    They got to the front of the line. Vinci went for one of his belt pouches, pulling out a single twenty coin and setting it on the counter. “Two chocolate cones.”

    The attendant at the register slid the coin away. “Coming right up sir.”

    “What if I don’t want chocolate?” With the nonchalance she felt, it was obvious Missy didn’t mind. The question had more of a teasing note in it than anything else, but there was an undercurrent there. Actual curiosity.

    “Then you don’t want chocolate and should speak up. But I thought you devoured my cone happily enough last time we came this way.”

    Missy said nothing, merely hummed in response. But the undercurrent of curiosity eased. Whatever he had said, it had been the right thing.

    It didn’t take them long to find themselves back on the beach they had visited only a few days prior after Vinci had repaired his armor. Triumph had linked up with them as they strolled down the frozen beach, and Assault had joined soon after, handing Triumph a steaming styrofoam cup of hot cocoa.

    It would be a lie to call the beaches of the bay pristine. The beach, much like the rest of the bay, told a story of neglect. It wasn’t horrible. There weren’t any used hypodermics littering the snow, or at least if there was, they were underneath the dusting last night's storm had left. Instead, the neglect of the city was more industrial. Ten feet from the group, to the left, was an old, rusted fishing trawler, gutted for parts, it's empty hull leaning on its side. A hundred feet ahead was something that amused him to no end.

    There, where the waves had eaten away at the beach, nearly up to the sidewalk, were several hundred concrete structures, shaped almost like jacks, but with three arms instead of four. Each one was massive, larger than Assault was tall.

    Tetrapods.

    He presumed, from their worn appearance, that they had been placed on the beach to prevent erosion.

    However, he knew them best as excellent anti-tank traps.

    It was somewhat surreal to see a weapon of war repurposed to peaceful ends.

    To his right, the beach stayed relatively flat for fifty feet before the sand sharply curved up, ending at a vertical wall of concrete that supported the sidewalk above. Beyond the sidewalk was a variety of stores with their fronts oriented towards the sea. It wasn’t the busiest part of Boardwalk, or the nicest, but even so, the streets had a fair amount of people walking on them, and the shops did a decent amount of business. Well, considering how close Christmas was, they were doing far more than just a ‘decent’ amount.

    After that, it was the skyscrapers of downtown, rising up like mountains nearly half a mile in the distance.

    Assault glanced at them, first at him, then Missy, the corner of his mouth curved upwards. “Having fun kiddies?”

    Vinci shrugged, his mouthpiece dangling from its air hose, leaving his mouth exposed to the chill winter air. “It's peaceful.” Much quieter than he expected it to be. This was the first time he’d ever patrolled a city that hadn’t had something going seriously wrong with it since Chicago. The mere fact that Missy felt safe enough here to play with him and split off from the safety of the group? It blew his mind.

    The smile turned wry. Assault scratched the back of his head, and chuckled. “Well… I know that the Boardwalk isn’t exactly the most exciting thing in the city, but it's important. I learned long ago that it doesn’t matter just how much good we actually do if no one sees it.”

    “See what?” A faint flicker of exasperation flowed through the Bond. “There was nothing. No purse snatchers, pickpockets- not even a measly disagreement to break up.”

    “There was you.” Triumph's words held a muted note of disapproval. “This is his first patrol.” Triumph nodded at Vinci. “He hasn’t even signed the waivers yet. You were supposed to stay with us.”

    Missy blushed. “Sorry? We, uh, kinda got carried away?”

    Triumph turned to Vinci.

    Vinci snorted, and attacked his ice cream cone. “You want an apology, go somewhere else.” If Triumph thought that Vinci was about to kow-tow to him because of his ridiculous position as the ‘leader’ of the Wards, then the boy was sorely mistaken. There was more practical leadership experience in Vinci’s pinky toe than Triumph had in his entire body.

    “Hey there.” Assault placed a hand on Triumph’s shoulder. After giving Triumph a short glance, Assault turned his attention to Vinci, losing the carefree attitude, something serious taking its place. “I would’ve preferred you to stay with us. I think that you, of all people, should know the importance of discipline when out in the field.”

    The blunt allusion to his past was like a slap in Vinci’s face, every bit of cheer draining in an instant. But it was more than that, as if there had been a haze in his eyes, and Assault’s words were cold water that woke him up. Free from the intoxicating happiness ofMissy’s... Vinci felt stupid. They were in the field. This wasn’t a warzone, but that didn’t make the Bay safe. A part of him mourned the loss of cheer, but as much as he felt bitter that Assault had to spoil the moment, the hero was also right. The simple game of tag had been childish in its innocence, but it had happened at the expense of safety, and that was utterly unacceptable.

    The words came out cold, hiding the guilt and shame he felt at behavior that was absolutely disgraceful. “Noted.”

    “What's with the long faces?” The smile returned, but it was subdued. Assault’s voice turned solemn. “Look, I’m not saying you two can’t have fun. I mean, I get it. You have powers, you want to use them. You're both young, and it just makes sense to have games where you don’t have to hold back the way you have to in your civilian identity. But there are times when it is appropriate, and times when it isn’t. Triumph, could you recite for me section ten from the Wards bill of rights?”

    Triumph swallowed his hot chocolate before answering. “As a Ward, you have the right to the personal use of your power, free from unreasonable interference by the PRT, or the Protectorate.”

    “And the sub clause at the very bottom?”

    “Nothing in this bill of rights shall be understood to override any necessary and reasonable precautions that prevent a Ward from engaging in activities that carry an unreasonable risk of harm, or prevent a Ward from being subjected to abuse or neglect.”

    “Thank you Triumph.” Assault turned to look at Vinci once again. “You two have the right to play, with powers even, as long as you aren’t hurting people. I wouldn’t even be going after you if this wasn’t your very first time out as a Ward.” With the hand not holding the styrofoam cup of cocoa, Assault gestured at the Boardwalk. “We’re in the heart of PRT territory. You're about as safe as you can be without actually being inside the rig, or the HQ. But one of these days you might end up on a patrol going into places where things are a little less safe. If you are assigned to a group, you need to stick with it.”

    “It's not all his fault.” Missy took a step to the side, closer to him. Her defense of him was spirited, but what she felt told a different story.

    What really rankled was that he couldn’t even be mad at Assault for making his Bondmate feel down, because Vinci knew better. It hadn’t even been a loss of control, but a willful disregard of proper protocol. Allowing himself to give in to emotions while out in the field, where lives were at stake, was an unacceptable lapse. The kind of thing that would’ve had Tetrarch taking strips out of his hide, and being justified in doing so.

    Vinci didn’t feel like eating ice cream anymore.

    Assault took one look at Vinci’s posture, and then sighed, turning to Triumph. “Triumph, can you give us a minute? Bonded business. Go scout out the beach ahead, but stay in sight. Scintilla, Scorch, with me.”

    As Assault headed for the derelict ship, Vinci followed.

    Half a minute later, the three were sitting in the sand, Vinci with his back to the trawler, Missy by his side, and Assault facing them, the waves lapping at the sand behind him. Despite how disappointed he was in himself, Missy’s calming presence beside him was something he was grateful to accept, a reminder that he’d made the choice to not be alone anymore.

    Lifting his cup to his mouth, Assault took a sip before holding it in his lap with both hands. Then he sighed. “It was two thousand five when I learned I was Bonded. Powers had been a thing for a good forty years by then. And the worst part?” Lifting his gaze, Assault's smile turned bitter. “No one could tell me anything about what that meant.”

    In the short time Vinci had known Assault, his biggest impression of the man was that Assault liked to laugh, no matter what. When the subject was bleak, the jokes were black and Assault laughed. When the mood was happy, Assault was jovial and good natured, and he laughed. When Missy and Battery picked on him, and there were things he didn’t like, Assault laughed.

    Right there, the ocean behind him, Assault laughed. It was not a happy laugh. “That hasn’t changed, has it?”

    Vinci shook his head.

    Assault's voice went soft and quiet. “Yeah. That's what I thought.” When he spoke once more, it was louder, more confident, but not hard. Understanding instead of cold steel. “See kid, Parahumans? We understand those. Plenty of research. All sorts of things I found. But when I Bonded, it was like I was drowning.” Looking back down at the cup in his lap, Assault was silent for several seconds, lips pursed. “There was no handy guide to tell me not to panic. No source of wisdom I could find on the net. I stumbled my way through both Seeps, trying to figure out what was going on. Me and Battery?” Assault winced. “Let's say that we didn’t start on the best of terms. It was hard. It was scary even. And I’m not someone who likes being scared.” Taking a deep breath, Assault let it all out in a sigh. “Back then, Bonded relationships were making a comeback in culture. Every other TV show had this one couple that was perfect in every way possible except when their other half was threatened. Scene after scene of idyllic romance, and rogues with hearts of gold being won over by the love of their life.”

    That was a feeling Vinci knew all too well. Being scared about what was going on, and stuck in limbo. No way to find out more, and nothing he could do.

    “Those pretty little love stories never told me what I was supposed to do when Battery started crying because she’d fallen asleep nestled into my side, and I could hear, in here-” Assault reached up to tap his temple, “just how much she hated me. She was fighting herself, every day. It was like-”

    “Madness,” Vinci whispered. A shaky hand brought the ice cream cone up to his mouth just so he’d have something to do. For a long moment, no one spoke. After a few licks, his hand dropped back into his lap. “You know you have to run far, far away, but you can’t get away from the compulsion, the burning need to get close. And it rips you apart.”

    “And it rips you apart,” Assault said, nodding. “You're mad that you let your guard down.”

    Vinci’s hand, resting in his lap, clenched.

    Assault rubbed his face, armored fingers brushing over stubble in desperate need of a shave. “It's not your fault. Not completely. I saw you on halloween. You were always on the move, always on your guard, like a hunted animal.”

    “You told me about that.” Missy’s voice was soft. “He trapped you.”

    “Lured me into his kill box like it was my first night in costume,” Assault agreed. “Look, Scorch, my point is this: It's the easiest thing in the world to just relax around your Bondmate. Even when you shouldn’t. I understand. And that's part of the reason I didn’t get on your case besides a warning. Me and Battery have been two sides of the same coin for longer than either of you have had the Bond. Reminding myself to be on guard when I’m out in the field with Battery is second nature by now. I don’t even have to try. But the Bond hasn’t even settled with you two. Now, you can be mad, and call yourself a bunch of names in your head that would probably make Everett seethe if you said them in public, or…” Assault stood, and offered Vinci a hand. “You can remember that something you have no control over came in and fucked all your habits and experience. It isn’t your fault, and you shouldn’t blame yourself for something you didn’t ask for. But you do need to learn how to work around Scintilla, preferably now, before it becomes something people could die over.”

    Vinci looked up at Assault, and his earnest smile. After a long moment, he took the hand, and allowed himself to be pulled up.

    Assault laughed, and clapped Vinci on the shoulder pad. “That's the spirit!”

    Vinci offered Assault a weak smile of his own, a smile that disappeared when Assault offered his Missy a hand up. Resisting the urge to force Assault's hand down, Vinci turned to Missy and offered to pull her up as well.

    When she chose him, Vinci’s scowl transformed into a pleased grin.

    Missy’s amusement warred with his satisfaction. As she walked past him, he heard her whisper “That was petty.”

    “Now then,” Assault finished the last of his hot chocolate, then crushed the styrofoam cup in his hand, depositing the remains in his belt pouch. “Why don’t we go meet up with Triumph, and then we can try this again, this time on main street. If you two want some play time together, we’ll figure out how to schedule that after the patrol, but for now, you stay with us.”

    Vinci finished the last of his cone, and replaced his mouthpiece.

    As a group, they started forward, heading for Triumph, where the Ward stood nearly five hundred feet away, staring out at the sea.

    With Assault's words fresh in his mind, along with the reminder that he needed to be on his guard, when Assault took point, Vinci naturally allowed himself to drift back, leaving Missy in the middle, the most protected part of the group. However, despite the sweeping gaze that looked for danger, each glance was passing at best. This wasn’t Atlas, and they weren’t deep in contested territory, so he didn’t feel the need to turn around without warning, or frequently stop to check behind the group for potential ambushers.

    It was impossible for any person to be on guard one hundred percent of the time. Even the deep cover assets of Hussar intelligence had places where they let down their hair, metaphorically speaking, even if they never actually broke character.

    However, passing did not mean sloppy. Not with the kind of training that had been pounded into him. As such, he made sure to keep an eye on the boardwalk, and some of the nearer rooftops to his right.

    That was the only reason he saw anything at all.

    A flash of white light, then complete silence, even the lapping of the waves absent as his helmet's audio cut without warning.

    Vinci jerked, like he’d been slugged in the gut. There was no conscious thought, no decision made. It happened too fast. There wasn’t even time to understand what had happened before he was moving, fingers coming up -too slow, far too slow-, energy screaming through him as it was drawn, memory and habit taking over.

    Time snapped back to normal.

    Ambush right side!” he screamed. “Right side!

    He completed the pivot, the heel of one foot digging into the snow covered sand as he faced the city’s skyline, one palm held out, facing the skyscrapers in the distance, the other hand pointed at Missy and Assault.

    The second streak of pale blue, bright enough that it was visible even after his eye lenses darkened, missed his chest by inches, shrieking underneath his arm to burn a hole through his plumage before it slammed into the snow behind Vinci with an explosive hiss.

    The hand pointed at his Bondmated twisted so that the palm faced the sky before it curled, as if he was beckoning her. The second it clenched into a fist, he jerked it towards himself.

    Both Missy and Assault were yanked towards him like puppets, landing in a heap behind him.

    Meanwhile, power clicked into place, the weave complete.

    The second blast of plasma slammed into his shields, a thin, sky blue barrier shimmering into visibility around each disintegrating bolt, pure white flames exploding outwards on contact. There was a pause, half a heart beat of silence, before three more bolts impacted in a flurry, each one striking the section of the shield that guarded his face.

    The pain hit, spreading in lancing tendrils his abdomen, a strained grunt echoing in the silence of his confined helmet.

    As quick as it came, the pain was shoved into the box, ignored in favor of what was important. His thoughts, hazy and surreal, whirled with shock and confusion. Nothing made sense, and he didn’t understand what was going on. But, as the sixth bolt impacted the shield, he didn’t need to understand what was going on.

    Instinct was screaming at him.

    You. Are. Exposed.

    He spun, maintaining the shield as he sprinted for Missy. A single step took him within reach of her, where she was rolling over. Thick, armored fingers shoved themselves under her collar before clenching shut. His other hand flicked at Assault, picking the hero and hurling him forward. A fraction of a second later, sand and snow exploded where Assault had lain. Vinci’s arm jerked, a fragment of shrapnel the size of a fingernail deflecting off an armor plate instead of wedging itself in Missy’s neck.

    As Vinci started forward, Assault hit the ground behind the derelict boat, rolling.

    Sound came back in a roar, finally dropping down to safe levels, the aftermath of the explosion echoing the way only explosions could.

    Missy gagged as the fabric of her dress jerked tight, shock, confusion, and fear exploding as he dragged her forward, the second and third volleys of plasma impacting his shields. The sick feeling that rose in the back of his throat at hurting his Bondmate this way was completely overpowered by the overwhelming need to get her to safety.

    He had to. She was in the line of fire, and he needed her out, at any cost.

    As he cleared the shield, his left hand was already straight, pointed at the skyline in the distance. The air howled as kinetic lances screamed downrange, thrown as quick as they could be formed. The lances struck true, hitting the red brick parapet of an apartment building identical to the five others next to it. Brick flew through the air showering the streets below with debris.

    The intensity of the plasma fire faded. Vinci wasted no time in lunging forward.

    With a click of his tongue, he activated his coms. “Contact! Command, this is Scorch! Contact!”

    Like a machine, he worked his way across the building, doing his best to not just suppress, but eliminate the hostiles while keeping his rate of fire high. Howling energy struck ten feet to the right, then the next jumped back five before the third moved forward seven, the energy leapfrogging forward before backtracking in a pattern that seemed random, but was anything but.

    Cover didn’t matter. Not on Atlas. Not in the highest levels of special operations, where everyone had a weapon capable of coring main battle tanks, or a blaster that could make a whole position disappear.

    Making sure the enemy couldn’t predict where you were about to hit did.

    Suppress the enemy, deny mobility, dictate the engagement, then sweep up the remnants.

    A white streak slammed into his shoulder pad, causing him to stagger as it bounced off, as well as throwing off his aim.

    The hostiles took advantage of the brief respite to launch a counterattack of their own.

    A white dot was all he had time to consciously recognize before old habit took over, a fresh volley of plasma, in multiple calibers, fire rates, and heat shades impacted the shield that slammed into place a fraction of a second earlier.

    There was no time to curse, despite how Vinci wanted too.

    Hostiles like this were the worst. An accommodating enemy would’ve taken his fire and been suppressed like a bunch of good little corpses, waiting for his fire to blow through their ‘cover’ and end their miserable excuses of an existence. An intelligent enemy would’ve done their best to get out of the way. These hostiles were intelligent, trained, and disciplined. If cover wasn’t worth shit, then the best option was to make sure the other side didn’t have a chance to get their shots off, a concept this particular set of foes had grasped with wild abandon.

    Snow and sand gave way underneath his feet as he pulled himself closer to the edge of the boat. With a final grunt, he heaved, and threw Missy behind cover before darting forward himself.

    Hiding behind the bulk of the ship, the coms he had been ignoring up until that point were filled with chatter.

    “Jesus fucking christ-”

    Prioritize.

    Missy lay there on the ground, stunned, the air knocked out of her. Her gasping breaths clawed at his attention, threatening to distract him when he could afford it least.

    Self.

    He was okay. Surprised. More than a little angry. There was a wound in his abdomen. It hurt like a bitch, but that was good. Plasma wounds you couldn’t feel were bad plasma wounds.

    “Say again-”

    Squad.

    “Dash!” Vinci roared, spinning on his heel, looking down the beach. “Hit the fucking dirt!

    A white line lanced through the air, passing through the muscle of Triumph’s leg. Triumph collapsed.

    Vinci started forward, grabbing at Missy’s powers-

    Orange globules of molten metal sprayed from the side of the boat as a shot passed through it-

    Missy.

    In the blink of an eye, Vinci’s priorities shifted. Triumph seemed unimportant, compared to the basic truth that they were still exposed.

    Missy was still exposed.

    Make her safe.

    The power that hung heavy in the air, wrapped around him like a thick smog that threatened to choke the unwary, gathered in the palm of his hand. A finger twitched, then air screamed its protest as it was violently shoved aside. The ground shook as the attack impacted the beach, snow and sand exploding upwards in a shower of brown and white as Vinci blasted a crater ten feet deep into the beach.

    Another flick of Vinci’s hand saw Missy sliding into the crater.

    By then, Assault had rolled over, and was in the process of pushing himself to his feet.

    Self.

    Vinci hurled himself forward, wings flicking outwards as he flew, stabilizing him. Thick, armored boots impacted the bottom of the crater with more than a hint of grace. Meanwhile, plasma impacted the sand less than a foot away from Assault's head.

    Molten sand, a mixture of dull orange and incandescent white globules, blasted into Assault's face like shrapnel from a shaped charge. Barely audible over the roar of air as the flying plasma superheated it, Assault’s shriek was that of a wounded animal, horrible in its intensity, and oh so very familiar.

    Squad.

    Assault hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, rolling in agony.

    “Man down!” Vinci roared. The words flowed from his lips like water, effortlessly, and without conscious thought.

    Space bent, taken Vinci to the lip of the crater. Reaching out with a hand, Vinci jerked the fingers backwards, dragging Assault over the sand, and into the crater.

    Fiery reds, incandescent whites, and a few bolts of blue ate away at the steel hull of the trawler, passing through the metal like butter.

    Anchors were cast out, and space began to twist.

    The air wavered, then the hull bulged outwards, the metal expanding as it crept closer to the lip of the crater. As more material was added, each bolt of plasma faded in intensity, from incandescent white, to an incoherent orange fireball as the bolts disintegrated, and finally, energy stopped making it through the hull altogether. Vinci added another two feet, just to be safe.

    Assess

    Vinci turned his attention back to the crater.

    The second he did, his face, hidden by the helmet, twisted into an expression of horror. “No!” he roared, sand crumbling under his feet as he half slid, half ran down the slopes of the crater. “Fucking boot! You’re going to make it worse!”

    However, if Assault heard the shouted words over the sound of his own screams, and the booms and pops as plasma slammed into the trawler, the man didn’t listen, clawing strips of blackened skin off his face. In each finger's wake, red tracts of raw flesh wept blood. Some of the blackened clumps of glass embedded in Assault’s skin still had wisps of steam that curled upwards in the cold air, but not a single globule remained orange, or even a dull red. It was what lay under the goggles that had Vinci worried the most however, in a vague, dissociated way. A thick grouping of superheated sand had gone straight through the light visor Assault had worn, leaving the red material mottled, akin to a honeycombed mesh, most of the holes centered above Assault’s right cheekbone.

    Vinci’d heard too many screams from people in real pain, seen too much in a short life for him to indulge in fantasies.

    That eye was gone, and Assault didn’t seem rational enough to listen to orders.

    Missy.

    Fingers clenched as he fought the urge to turn away and focus all his attention on Missy, instinct warring with ingrained training.

    He had to at least try.

    “Stop touching it!” he yelled, just outside the range of those flailing limbs. “I know it hurts, but the sand has already done its worst!”

    Then he surrendered to the urges, and whirled on the ball of one foot.

    Above, and to the west, metal boomed like thunder as something big slammed into the trawler. Vinci flinched at the angry buzz that filled the air, a sick feeling curling in his gut.

    No matter who you were, no matter what you did, if you weren’t a brute of some kind, and said you didn’t fear shrapnel, you were a liar. The horrors of cluster bombs, artillery
    shells, and high explosives in general was something that never really left any veteran of Atlas.

    Space bent, taking Vinci directly to Missy, who was rolling over, face pale.

    Over the coms, Clockblocker was shouting, panicked, as he had been ever since Vinci had called in that frantic report. “-the hell is going on-” he blabbered, when, without warning, his voice cut off.

    A second, cooler voice replaced it. “I have control of the line. Wards Patrol One, this is dispatch. I require a status report immediately.”

    Missy’s shock and fear was like a heavy stone in his gut as his feet impacted the sand next to her, his hand reaching out to grab her arm. He wanted to pick her up and sprint her away to safety, leaving the other heroes to die. To seek and destroy, eliminating the hostiles and neutralizing the threat. Every fiber of his being was frantic, quivering with the need to make sure his Bondmate was safe, even while the rest of him, made of long hours of training, and experience ground into the bone, screamed about priorities, objectives, and tactics. His fingers wrapped around her arm.

    Then she made a scared little gasp.

    It was such a small thing. But it resonated within him, calling forth the ugly part of him, the bits he never wanted her to see.

    Bring down the building.

    He could do it. It was just an apartment complex. Just people.

    Make. Her. Safe.

    And the worst part was, he wanted to do it. Longed too. The simple solution called to him. It was only as his fingers curled that he realized that he’d begin gathering the energy needed to do it.

    Missy was scared.

    Swallowing the hard lump in his throat, he untangled the weave in the process of forming before it could finalize, and wrapped Missy in a quick, tight hug. He wasn’t sure who that hug was for, him or her, but he did know he was desperate for it. She was scared, and shaking, but the feeling of her in his arms bled away the tiniest fraction of that tension. The hug lasted only for a bare fraction of a second before he broke away, but it was enough.

    He still wanted to bring down the building, but he wouldn’t. Not for this.

    The building was in the downtown area, dense urban sprawl close to the shops of main street. Bringing down the building would result in heavy collateral, the kind that hadn’t been casually accepted on Atlas since the dark days, even before considering the objectives of the Hussars on Bet.

    For Missy, he would do much, much more than kill civilians. But not because this connection they shared wanted him to.

    “Wards patrol-”

    Snapping his fingers in front of her eyes, just to make absolutely sure he had her attention, Vinci pointed at the ground. “You stay right here!”

    Missy swallowed before fear morphed into shaky resolve. “No, I-”

    Normally, he would’ve discussed it with her. It was her after all; he loved talking with her. But they didn’t have time, and neither did anyone else. Even Vinci’s armor, not too shabby even by the insane standards of Tinkers, would’ve only survived a few seconds under the withering hail of fire he’d been subjected to. Triumph's armor wouldn't've been able to stand up to even normal fire, let alone the white sniper rounds like the one that had cored his leg. The boy was dead, the flash-exploded corpse lying topside, and if Vinci didn’t get a move on, and start neutralizing the threat, the rest of them would be too. Every second wasted was a second she came closer to death. Experience demanded he scream at her, and make it clear he wasn’t asking. But he couldn’t bear to do that to her. Firm hands grabbed her shoulders, just shy of being painful. “No!” He growled, firm. “I gave you an order, and you will follow it.” Reaching up, he twisted her head so she faced Assault. “Take care of him!”

    Horror swelled in his breast, something distinctively hers. It had been awhile since a sight like that had truly horrified him.

    Missy’s face went green.

    Vinci sidestepped as Missy heaved, the contents of her stomach leaving her mouth in a chunky stream.

    That lack of answer was in no way, shape, or form good enough for him. If she left cover right now, he would be able to protect her and deal with the enemy, but it would be placing her in unnecessary danger, and she would watch him work. It was childish and stupid, but he couldn’t bear the thought of showing her what he was good at, not yet. He didn’t want his precious Missy to look at him with disgust and fear, the same way all the other civilians on Atlas did.

    Taking a deep breath, he hardened his heart, feeling like he was killing off a part of himself to do so. “I say you stay in cover,” he bellowed. “You say sir yes sir! Stay! In! Cover! Where is my sir yes sir!?”

    Missy couldn’t speak, not over the gagging, but the jerky nod, along with the feeling of acceptance would do.

    Space bent, and he clambered out of the crater, one hand held out in front of him as power flared.

    The mass of metal in front of him, glowing cherry red from all the plasma hitting it, had begun to melt, deforming at the edges. Even as he watched, a section gave way, a weak blue bolt breaking through. What little was left of the plasma slammed into the snow covered ground in front of him, exploding in a hiss of steam even as it sprayed his shield with sand.


    “Dispatch, this is Scorch, we-” Vinci’s gaze drifted to the left, then he broke off.

    He’d thought-

    Well, to be honest, he expected to find a corpse, even if duty compelled him to make sure. Instead of the dead Ward he’d expected, Triumph was busy trying to drag himself down the beach, away from Vinci, and towards the sea barrier even as weapons fire impacted the dirt all around him, close enough for the molten spatter to sting, and doubtless burn skin, but plasma never actually hitting the boy.

    “Fuck,” Vinci hissed.

    “Ward team?” Dispatch asked, their voice tight.

    A dark, ugly part of him, the kind of part he didn’t like to admit exististed, wished that Triumph had died. It was a horrible thing to think, and he knew that Missy would grieve, but it would’ve made Vinci’s job easier.

    Because Triumph was bait, and Vinci knew it.

    Wound one, and pick off those who try to retrieve their wounded comrade. It was an old trick, and one he’d dealt with often enough, though it was rare for him to get the chance to implement it himself. The kind of scum he was typically called in to deal with rarely had the honor necessary to risk one's life for another.

    Tactically, the right choice was to go after the hostiles. On a cold, practical level, eliminating the source of the weapons fire was infinitely superior to pulling Triumph out of the coals. But Triumph would die. The hostiles had a sniper with a bead on Triumph. The second Vinci appeared, anywhere, they would take that shot.

    It was what Vinci would do.

    But he couldn’t just leave the Ward. Despite what he thought about the soft group of children he’d been tossed into, they were comrades, and you didn’t leave comrades to die. Not like this.

    Underneath his helmet, silver eyes hardened.

    “To be first and last,” he muttered, the words sounding like a condemnation as he echoed the motto of Icarus Squad.

    There was a click over the coms, then a hint of static that vanished as quickly as it came. His hud showed that the static came from a general use police channel, instead of the encrypted line he’d calibrated his coms for before starting the patrol. “All units in the Brockton bay metropolitan area, this is the PRT ENE dispatch calling in a ten-seventy four in downtown Brockton Bay, officers under fire, last reported position Pattersons beach, between State’s Street and Main.”

    Space bent, and Vinci exploded into motion.

    The second his boot slammed into the sand next to Triumph’s arm, his shield was already formed.

    Then the world went to hell.

    Everything outside the shield vanished as it flared blue, the aqua light fading seconds later to reveal nothing but dust outside the little bubble. Even within the shield, the explosion rattled his teeth. Outside, plasma fire punched through the dust, so thick that it seemed like a solid wall of white impacting his shields.

    The split second glance he could spare for Triumph showed a face white with fear, wide, terrified eyes peering out from a helm suited for PR work instead of the horror’s of the battlefield.

    “I am hearing sounds consistent with explosions, and an unidentified, high pitched noise. The team lead is audibly screaming in pain, and a Ward is moaning. Expect trauma. The audio device of a third is unresponsive to our attempts to remotely access it. A fourth is responsive, but has failed to comply with requests for information within a reasonable amount of time.”

    With a gesture Vinci lifted Triumph's body into the air, clicking his tongue as he did so. “I’m working on it,” he hissed, turning round and sprinting back into the distortion, pouring a steady stream of energy into the shield as he did so.

    Seconds later, he was throwing Triumph into the crater.

    As he hopped in himself, a corner of his HUD shifted, showing the general channel being muted as the encrypted Wards channel took priority. A new voice echoed in the confines of the helmet, distinct from the first person who had contacted him, and was now speaking on the general channel, coordinating with officers. “This is dispatch. I read you loud and clear Scorch.”

    The second they stopped speaking, Vinci could hear the general channel again. “-requesting assistance from BBPD units in setting up a perimeter on ninth, eleventh, and-”

    Vinci landed next to Triumph in a crough, wings flared for balance, then whirled to check on Missy, who was glaring up at the rim of the crater, mouth pursed. The back of his mind itched as space bent, the corners of the crater punching closer-

    The world went silent.

    It was like being back slapped by the hand of a giant, every plate that protected his front being hit by the same invisible blow.

    He went flying back, holes in his wings seeping wet crimson, hidden by the white down.

    Grey smoke rose from the half a foot deep crater in the sand in front of him.

    As the audio returned, he heard a distant scream. “Vinci!” He felt, rather than saw, space shriek as Missy shoved reality together, darkness falling as the sand above formed a ceiling that shuddered as something slammed into it, but held.

    A click of the tongue turned his hud into a bright green, illuminating the darkness. Seconds later, he tossed out a slurred curse as the green went white, blinded by the flashlight Missy had pulled out of her utility belt.

    She skidded to a stop above him, filled with panic and dread, the ceiling shuddering in time with the muffled explosion.

    They needed to get out, right now.

    Rolling over, Vinci pushed himself to his feet, swallowing the coppery taste in his mouth, and brushing off Missy’s helping hand as he did so.

    Thoughts juddered and jolted, working past the thick cotton between his ears, with difficulty to be sure, but old lessons didn’t need much thinking to solve. With the introduction of artillery, particularly a piece as versatile as a mortar, their position had become untenable. However, when a door closed, all that meant was it was time to blow the fucking wall out.

    “Are you-”

    “’M fine,” Vinci interrupted. “Get ready to move.”

    There were some on Atlas that saw retreat as cowardly. Vinci only attended their funerals when they were a fellow Hussar. The only thing worse than failure was getting your squadmates, your family, killed with you, and failing anyways.

    Vinci Astera refused to take Missy (his Missy) with him to assault an entrenched position that was ripping them to shreds, not with her obvious inexperience with that kind of hell, which meant that a tactical withdrawal was the only answer.

    Though, if they survived this, then he might have to give Wards training more credit than he wanted too.

    “But-”

    He interrupted her. “We are outmanned, outmaneuvered, and directly in the middle of a prepared kill zone with enemies who aren’t trying as hard as they could. We aren’t sticking around long enough for them to get serious.”

    Serious?” Missy sounded incredulous. “They are serious!”

    “There are Tinkers that make specialized rounds for mortars. The second they decide to drop a Tinkertech round that fucks with space, we’re dead.”

    “You're assuming they have something like that.”

    “And you’re assuming they don’t,” Vinci growled, shoving past her, and up the craters slope. “They have Tinkertech. They must have Tinkers. Never underestimate Tinkers unless you want to die. Get ready to move.”

    Turning, he prepared to jog up the craters slopes when a hand wrapped around his arm. “I have more experience fighting criminals,” Missy said. “We are safer here waiting for the Protectorate.”

    Vinci turned on his heel, facing Missy. “Look at me.” With his free hand, he gestured at his armor. “You think this armor is for show? These are not criminals, and I am not a hero. In my professional opinion, we are horribly exposed, and have been ambushed. Staying here is begging for death. Push forward or die. Do you trust me?”

    After a hesitant pause, Missy nodded.

    “Then trust that I would not be moving you if I thought that it puts you in more danger than staying here.” With that, he turned and jogged up the loose, wet sand that made up the craters edge.

    Those weapons they were being attacked with were Atlas produced plasma tech, very distinctive. It wasn’t like regular Tinkertech either, but Missy didn’t need to know that the people who were attacking them might not be Tinkers. It didn’t matter. Tinker or not, they were still being hit with a significant amount of hardware restricted to Atlesian Militaries; if they weren’t Tinkers, then they sure as hell had access to them.

    Vinci clicked his tongue. “Dispatch, this is Scorch. We’re in deep here. How far out are reinforcements?”

    “Scorch, this is Dispatch. Unknown. We lack a solid location and require a sit-rep.”

    Sending a glance over his shoulder, where Missy was looking at him, he pointed at Triumph, who had gone still. Vinci hoped the boy wasn’t dead. Triumph was young, and there were better ways to die. “Dispatch we are taking heavy fire from multiple marksmen set up on the roof of an apartment complex on the north side of main street. We are also taking fire from multiple machine gun positions, as well as arty shells, all Tinkertech, also presumed to emanate from the same complex. I have two men incapicitated, and our position is untenable.”

    Following his finger, Missy went rigid when she saw Triumph, then space bent, Missy rushing to his side, her fingers slipping into a small pouch on her belt.

    Vinci continued up the slope.

    Reaching the sandy ceiling, individual grains of sand elongated until they looked like fine hairs, giving the roof a texture akin to the top of a thatched hut, Vinci drew power and wove, placing his palm against the surface.

    “Are you safe Scorch?”

    “Negative on that dispatch.” Letting go, power screamed, punching through five feet of sand as if it wasn’t there. Weaving a shield, Vinci shoved both hands and feet into the hardened sand and climbed, poking his head above the surface of the sand. Plasma fire had broken through the ship, and was impacting the surface of the beach in a steady stream, even as another mortar round hit, sending molten globules of glass everywhere. “We are relocating momentarily.”

    “Where?”

    That was a good question. Vinci’s eyes scanned the beach, looking for a good path-

    “Dispatch, I am seeing a sizable drain pipe poking out the concrete near the sea wall. We’ll push there.”

    “If you can hold out for a few minutes-”

    “We have no time,” Vinci interrupted. There was only one way to survive an ambush and that was push forward, out of the killing field. Personally, he wanted to push directly into the nest, it was how he’d been trained. So long as there was even a single Myrmdom advancing on the enemy, there was a chance of victory, theoretically at least. But no victory was worth losing Missy, and that was a serious risk if he left her here to engage on his own, or took her with him on the assault. They needed to move before the enemy got clever. Clever was bad.

    There was a moment of silence. And then: “Good luck.”

    Turning, Vinci bent space, coming out the distortion next to Missy. She jerked as he placed a hand on her shoulder, but relaxed the second she saw it was him. “He’s not responding.”

    Vinci knelt by her, picking up her flashlight with one hand, which she had set down on the sand, to illuminate a bloody patch next to Triumph. “Here's the COA.” With his finger, Vinci started sketching. “We are here. The seawall is this line. Over here,” Vinci leaned over to press his finger into the sand, “we have our hostiles. Here, by the sea wall, there is a sewage drain big enough to walk in. I can move Triumph and Assault, but I don’t want to do it while trying to shield them and warp space. There’s not alot of difference between holding them up in the air, and crushing them into a pulp. You need to warp space for me.”

    Missy looked at him, full of uncertainty. “Scorch, are you sure?”

    Vinci did his best to project confidence. It was much, much easier than anyone unfamiliar with the madness that was the Hussar Tier ones would think. “Scintilla, I do- did this for a living. Our odds are much, much better on the move.”

    She still felt uncertain, but it gave way to trust. “Alright. So we head for the drain. It’ll have grating.”

    “That's plan A,” Vinci nodded. “If it has grating, I will blast it open, or you can just widen the opening-”

    The ground shook, long lances of sand dislodging from the ceiling. With a negligent wave, Vinci wove a shield for the sand to slide off of. While he didn’t know if those needle like structures were as sharp as they looked, he did know that he didn’t want to find out.

    Over in the corner, Assault groaned.

    “-either way, we get through. Plan B is that the pipe is a no-go, in which case, I carve a trench into the beach, and we head north hugging the walls. It's still a better position than here.”

    “Why?” Missy asked.

    “Because I can think of nothing worse than doing what the enemy wants us to do.”

    After a moment, Missy nodded. “When?”

    “Get up to the hole. We move out in thirty seconds.”

    As Missy stood, so did Vinci, weaving power as he grabbed the still form of Triumph, and picked up Assault, holding both of them less than a foot away from him as he made for the opening in the sand.

    Assault stirred, lifting his head to look at Scorch, likely orienting himself to the raspy sound of Vinci’s filter. “What’s happening shortstuff?”

    “Assault. How's the eye?”

    “I- I can’t see. It's all black on one side, the other is all fogged up.”

    Vinci nodded. Functionally immobile then. “I’ll explain later. For now, stay still, and try not to flinch too much.” Clicking his tongue, Vinci activated his radio, coming to a stop next to Missy. “Dispatch, this is Scorch. Ward team one is oscar mike. Scorch out.” He tapped Missy on the shoulder. “Go,” he commanded.

    Space snapped back, the roof above receding to the edges of the crater at the same time Vinci wove the shields, plasma sliding off the transparent surface almost at once. Rounds shrieking overhead competed with the sound of exploding artillery shells as Missy’s head spun, his Bondmate trying to locate the pipe.

    Pointing over her shoulder, Vinci shouted “There!”

    He felt it when the recognition hit, then she was placing anchors. Space bent, and she was the first through. He followed a second later, then Assault and Triumph after him, Triumph hanging limp like a rag doll, a contrast to Assault, who was stiff, but doing his best to remain still.

    Missy stepped up onto the lip of the pipe, lips pursed. Space bent once more, turning the bar-mesh into an empty hole big enough to walk through, and darted forward. Vinci followed.

    They ran down the tunnel, feet splashing in puddles of still liquid as they moved, Vinci took care to not scrape either of the wounded against the walls. It required more attention than he preferred to give at the moment, but not by much. Behind them, the dot of illumination from the sunlight shrank and shrank, until more light came from Missy’s torch than the sun outside.

    When the glance over his shoulder revealed the dot as nothing more than a pinprick, even to his unnaturally keen eyesight, Vinci breathed a sigh of relief. Even the explosions outside sounded distant, what little was audible muted by the amount of material between them and the surface. The loudest sound was the splash of their footfalls, and Assaults hitched breath every time Vinci jarred him a little too much. “Keep going,” he muttered as Missy slowed her pace. “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

    But the worst had passed. They were out of the firing line, and where the enemy didn’t expect them.

    Once they lost themselves in the tunnels-

    It was impossible to miss in the silence of the sewage drain, that twang of something snapping, along with the quiet plop of something small, about the size of a finger falling into the water that followed.

    Trap.

    Vinci reached a hand out for Missy, power latching onto her, and yanking her backwards, even as Assault and Triumph collapsed into a groaning heap on the ground behind him. Missy was still flying through the air when he started desperately weaving, pouring every available strand into his current working.

    Then the world went white.
     
    blergh_blergh, semi, Mr.Bones and 7 others like this.
  13. Wolfmam9001

    Wolfmam9001 Still Alive

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    Vinci just cannot catch a break.
     
  14. SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Nope. Never ever ever. It's why Vinci is the main character. Stories need conflict to survive, and readers need to be pleased. Smooth sailing is nice for a character, but boring for an audience. And I'd been smooth sailing long enough that people were beginning to complain. I love the fluff, I really do, but every once in awhile, you need to throw a wrench into the gears so you can hear them grind.

    [​IMG]
     
  15. Threadmarks: Hook Echo, Part 7
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Missy shook in his arms. “It was so damn quick.”

    Vinci hugged her tighter, world tinted green. “I know,” he murmured.

    The concrete tunnel they had entered was no longer smooth, nor a tunnel. Instead, they were in a small cavern where his shields had prevented the concrete pipe from collapsing, or taking damage from the explosives. It had been a fair bit too. A hundred, maybe two hundred pounds of some high explosive. Vinci wasn’t even mad. Just confused.

    In the corner of his hud, there was a small string of black text that said ‘1922 KPA

    Missy didn’t resist as she leaned into his side.

    Truthfully, though he’d held back on telling her, Vinci was proud of Missy, and the way she’d pulled herself together long enough to get them to safety.

    It was better than he’d done the first time he’d ended up on the wrong side of an ambush, and he cared enough about her to be happy that she was better than him, at least here.

    But the aftermath was an awful thing to behold, and Vinci hated it, both the shock, in its grating absence of emotion, and the recrimination that slowly took its place.

    Her shoulders tensed. “I froze.”

    “Yeah, you did.” There was no accusation in the tone. Just simple acceptance.

    The guilt grew, strong enough to make him worried. “Triumph and Assault are hurt.”

    Missy blamed herself. And he was left reflecting on how they were two sides of the same coin, similar but different. Two children, both with a family that caused their Trigger. One crawled in the belly of the underworld. He stole, he lied, he traded everything, even the last of what little childhood remained, all because he never had a helping hand. The other walked in the light. Doing the right thing was easy, and it was easy because for her, the world had never been anything but simple.

    The difference between them was that when the world had hurt the both of them, it had been Vinci, not Missy, who had faced the fear, and the pain, alone.

    And he wasn’t going to change that now.

    Vinci hugged her a little tighter. “It isn’t your fault.”

    Missy couldn’t see him in the dark. There was no light down here, her flashlight off, and all forms of electronics save his own disabled at his command. The possibility of scanners picking up electronic byproducts with this much earth between them and the soil was minute, but still not a chance he was willing to take.

    But he could see her, and her lip trembled. Still, she said nothing.

    She didn’t need to.

    He already knew.

    Guilt… Guilt never went away. Not really. Dulled, sometimes. Horrors became rote, and eventually, he didn’t think about what happened all that much, the same way he didn’t think about how a door opened beyond opening it. But it never went away.

    It was something he was glad for, that guilt. You didn’t stop feeling the guilt without changing in a bad way. A canary in the coal mines, warning of people that were about to become monsters.

    Doubtless, Missy was thinking about everything she had done wrong. How Assault was now sedated, viewing the world through a numb haze, and Triumph had a tourniquet pulled tight around his leg until the boy had screamed in agony, and passed out.

    “It isn’t your fault.”

    His Bondmate shivered.

    “Hey there,” he murmured, squeezing her shoulder. Strings deep in his heart tugged, stating their demand that he make it better, even if he didn’t know how. Not that he needed that tug.

    Missy was Missy. She made him smile when he wanted to cry, and-

    There were so many tangled concepts wrapped up in Missy and what he thought of her that they couldn’t be put into words alone.

    A laugh that sounded like music. The feeling of her thumb rubbing on the back of his hand as she coaxed him out of a panic attack. How adorable she’d looked biting her cheek as she helped him redesign his armor. Fury, hot like a wildfire in the hospital when she stepped between him and Armsmaster. Tears that tickled their way down his neck, and how his heart ached in time with her own as she had cried, overwhelmed.

    Missy was home.

    And she needed him to be gentle.

    He wasn’t used to being gentle. Myrmdoms didn’t need gentleness. It was all prickly pride, relentless lethality, and an identity wrapped around the idea of being strong with them. Show gentleness to them, they would mistake it for pity, and take insult. Not that he was any different. Just as bad as the lot of them, if not worse.

    When Vinci had needed comfort, he had received nothing but more crushing expectations. Expectations he’d risen to meet, even as the child inside cried out.

    Vinci was not Tetrarch. And Missy was not him.

    His Missy was a civilian, not a soldier. A child, when every Mrymdom was an adult, no matter their age. And he was her Bondmate; even if it had existed, he would’ve never let something like the necessary gap between the subordinate and the superior stop him from offering her the comfort she needed.

    Gentle, though he wasn’t good at it, was what he’d be, because he cared enough about her to try.

    “Little Tyrant. It was not your fault.”

    “How can you say that?” Her shoulders tensed. “I can do everything you can. But you were the one who pulled us to safety, who ran into danger to save Triumph. And I just froze. Useless, awful, terrible-

    “No.” For all its softness, there was still no give in his words. She was wrong, and that was that.

    “They needed me.”

    “And you saved their damn life. You think that I could’ve pulled them out without you?” Vinci shook his head, the movement sharp even though Missy couldn’t see it. “I would’ve had to leave someone behind.” The green feathers which wrapped around his Bondmate had dark, ugly blotches that marred the plumage, the movement making his damaged wings twinge in protest. “You got ambushed. One second, you were smiling, and having a good time, and the next, you're being shelled, there's rounds flying, and nothing make’s sense. Did you even know where the shots were coming from?”

    The waver of negativity gave him the answer; she hadn’t.

    I could’ve helped,” she whispered.

    It was the truth. The truth of a child. She could’ve done more, been faster, or stronger. It was true of everyone. Even him. But she needed to hear the other side of that truth, because if she was going to believe the part that hurt her inside, then he’d be damned if he let her ignore the other side of that coin. “And you did.”

    The anger, already there, was fanned from an ember into a flame, and turned outwards. Her head whipped around to stare at him. “How?” she hissed. “By sitting on my ass and being useless?”

    His calm tone cut through her anger. “By doing what I told you to do.” Bringing his mud and blood-caked gauntlet up, Vinci pressed it against the side of her helmet, gently directing her head to rest against his shoulder pad, which had a new crater in it, the paint burnt away at the edges. “One of the hardest things in the world is sitting still and doing nothing while you know that others are getting ripped to shreds. You want to rush out and help them, even when you know the bravest, smartest thing to do is stay put.”

    “It wasn’t like that.” Missy sounded miserable. “I didn’t think and make a decision. I got scared.”

    “Shhh.” With his wing, he pulled Missy’s trembling form closer, burying her in a sea of dirty feathers. “You and I must have fought a different battle then, because I remember being in cover, and a brave young woman who looked exactly like you who wanted to come with me and help, even though she didn’t know what was going on. In fact, she even argued with me. I distinctly remember having to scream at her to stay put.”

    “I know what you're trying to do, and it's not going to work,” she muttered.

    “Trying to do what? Tell the truth? Give you my professional opinion, something you couldn’t afford if you were trying to buy it? You did the right thing.”

    But I froze. I’ve been a Ward longer than anyone else on the team. And when everything went wrong, I’m the one who froze.”

    Go into hell, see and do some fucked up shit, then come out again trying to force a reasonable explanation onto something that didn’t make sense. Vinci knew the feeling. Blaming himself after something awful happened, it had felt good, at least until Tetrarch had made him stand at parade rest while the drugs in his system made the ground roll, and gave him a much needed attitude adjustment. The ugly truth Tetrarch had woven together with bellows, hissed words, and a few shoves had hurt almost as much as the sights that had pushed Vinci into trying to rely on a needle for a few hours of bliss. But he’d needed to hear them.

    It wasn’t wrong to rip the idea that it was all her fault away from Missy. It was a lie, and she needed the truth. But the truth was not kind, not like lies could be.

    “Missy,” Vinci spoke, as gentle as he could be, considering what he was about to tell her, “you aren’t special.”

    The spike of hurt made his heart ache. When Missy tried to pull away, he refused to let go. He cared too much.

    After so long being alone, trust was hard. To take all that he was, each truth he held close to himself like the precious treasure it was, and show it to her… it was a scary thing. But the idea of being without her, or watching his Bondmate grow cold as she blamed herself for things she couldn’t control, like he had, that scared him more. If, in order to continue to love, and trust, and be everything he had desperately searched for, his Bondmate needed the keys to his heart, and every bit of knowledge she could use to destroy him, then it was hers, no questions asked.

    “To me, you are amazing. I adore you. So much that-” his voice caught in his throat before he forced himself to continue, dropping to a whisper, “-so much that I am afraid to tell you how much, because I’m afraid of what you’ll do with that. You are special to me.”

    It frustrated him, the weakness displayed. Not that he had told her he cared, but that he hadn’t said more. She made his life seem like it was worth something again, and all he could tell her was that she was ‘special’.

    He had offered his heart, and she had promised she would keep it well.

    But it was easy to say that he was hers. Actually unraveling layers of hurt, professional paranoia, and old trauma to give her everything she deserved, including unreserved thoughts?

    Maybe one day, when he had learned to be brave the way she was.

    “But to the rest of the world? They don’t care. The shells that exploded on that beach didn’t give a damn about Missy Biron. Shock tactics aren’t going to learn it’s you and then just stop working. Yeah, you froze. But things were exploding around you. I threw you on your back twice. Your team leader was screaming on the ground. And I was shouting in your face because I needed you to be paying attention to me. You got hurled into a shitty, shitty situation with no warning. This was a textbook ambush. The squad took fifty percent casualties within the first ten seconds, and then they started suppressing us. Any other team would’ve gotten wiped. Any other Ward in your place would’ve froze too.”

    “You didn’t.”

    Instead of shoving the exasperation into a box, where it probably belonged, Vinci let it wax strong and flow. “You are being difficult. Stop being so damn difficult. I did freeze my first time, doing things I don’t want to talk about in a place I want to talk about even less. You think I wasn’t standing there like some dumb field reject with the stupidest look on my face before someone grabbed my foot and yanked me to the ground?” Vinci snorted. “I was kinda like you. Went into that mess thinking I was hot shit for surviving Chicago and the Nine. First time out on the field, and I get my shit kicked in hard. Walked away from it with a new set of scars, and my tail between my legs. You ever been ambushed before?”

    Missy shook her head, letting herself relax and slump into his side once more. “Not like this,” she whispered. “People… People don’t normally try to kill Wards like this.”

    Vinci… Vinci had his suspicions about that.

    At least two general purpose machine guns plus a mortar, and they couldn’t spring for a high charge rifle like the mark eighteen? He had burns on his gut, and a nice new crater in his armor. The wraithbone had ablated, the way it was supposed to, but it wasn’t deep enough.

    He’d never been all that deep into the ‘dark’ side of the Tier ones, at least not before getting reassigned to the Office of Intelligence. Covert Action was Hade’s specialty.

    But he’d done enough.

    The first shot had impacted his gut, a slow, drawn out kill with plenty of time to call in a healer, instead of a shot aimed at his head.

    One was an anomaly, twice was a trend. Three times?

    Triumph was alive. Dismiss it as a tactic to draw him out? Maybe. But the boy was still alive, and, from the looks of it, unless the boy was very unlucky, he would remain that way. Sloppy if one assumed it was unintentional. Vinci didn’t.

    Then there was the explosion.

    Trip wires didn’t twang like that, and pins? They didn’t plop, or ping, or ring on the ground.

    Because they didn’t hit the ground.

    The combat engineers he’d dealt with were fucking scary. Their fuses didn’t have delays. Pin got pulled, things went boom, that simple. Someone had wanted a delay in that explosion bad enough to deliberately set the fuse for it.

    The charges had been big. More than enough for it to look like a serious attempt to kill. In a confined space like this, the blast pressure alone would’ve been enough to liquify his organs from here to just outside of the pipe entrance. It was why concussion grenades were lethal in a bunker of any kind.

    Everyone in the little cavern he’d carved for them should be dead. Even him.

    Shields didn’t mean shit unless they got woven.

    Instead, someone had been kind enough to give him a little bit of warning before they licked off enough military grade explosive to fill several crates.

    This smelled like a psyop. And psyops were absolute bullshit. Psyops were the reason you could look someone in the eye and say ‘we know Forge wasn’t responsible because they manufactured the explosives’ with a straight face.

    Sun Tzu was right, and Vinci hated him for it.

    Vinci shoved the aggravation into the box where it belonged, before he could get a headache from second guessing himself about what he knew, and whether or not that was just what their assailants wanted him to think.

    At least Missy and her problems had an answer.

    “That's right,” he said, returning his attention to the conversation. “The Wards teach you how to safely restrain a petty thief, and how to fight with someone who isn’t really trying to hurt you. Drop the frown. You don’t need it. The good guys won today.” At least, they would, barring anything unexpected.

    “This doesn’t feel like winning,” Missy muttered.

    “Any day where everybody lives is a victory.”

    “It's not over yet.” Her tone was pointed, a hint of cold anger seeping into her heart.

    Vinci’s eyes darted to the corner of his hud, consulting the clock. “Five more minutes.” Missy hadn’t been happy when he told her that no, if she tried to warp space, he was going to restrain her, but in the end she had agreed with his logic, however grudgingly.

    “He could be dying.”

    “He is dying,” Vinci corrected her. “But a bullet to the brain will still kill him quicker than blood loss. Five more minutes for the PRT to secure the area, then we move, no matter what's happening topside.”

    “Do you think they're fighting?”

    “They are,” Assault slurred.

    Vinci turned to look at Assault, who was holding a blood soaked bandage to the side of his face. “Battery?” Vinci asked.

    “Yeah. She can hear me. Puppy’s fightin’ like ‘n animal. She’s pissed.”

    Vinci could imagine. A cold anger burned in his gut, one that grew back no matter how he locked it, and he was sitting beside Missy, able to hold her in his arms, reassure himself she was safe. Assault was actually hurt, and all Battery could do was hear those hazed thoughts of his. If it was him up there… He held back a shudder. It wasn’t something he liked to think about. He knew all too well just what he would do. He wasn’t a hero, not like Triumph or Missy. “What can you tell me?”

    “They're resisting. She can’t really talk. Not now. But I think there was a Tinker that teleported out.”

    And there was the final confirmation; teleporter based tactics that had been the bread and butter of the Atlas elite for the past twenty years.

    Maybe the Charter was right about the whole portal thing after all, if this was the result of Atlas and Bet politics mixing.

    “Fuckin’ Empire,” Assault muttered.

    Vinci’s thoughts screeched to a halt. “Empire?”

    Assault offered a sloppy grin. “Gunna hafta make you a cake celebrating the milestone. Ain’t a real hero in town until you get attacked by the card carrying members of the nazi party. Puppy noticed armbands. Some of the old classic stuff.”

    Vinci hated spooks. Just hated them.

    “Some of them are dead too.” Assault chuckled, all shaky.

    “Good.” The only good thing about the Hussar Office of Intelligence was that they aggravated people he didn’t like their psyops bullshittery. As far as he was concerned, enemy spooks were worse than lawyers.

    Personally, he thought this was a message. One that wasn’t meant for him.

    When people wanted to send him a message, they sent him a note if they wanted to be polite, or something more creative if they didn’t. But it wasn’t flashy.

    No, this was for the Hussars.

    As a soldier, Vinci represented the Hussars, so threatening him was a good way to poke the Hussars by proxy, and as long as he didn’t actually die, an incident could generally be swept under the rug. Sometimes even then. It wasn’t a coincidence that the attack had been on him of all people, a Ward within the PRT on Bet.

    Spooks were filthy little pogues, but they weren’t incompetent.

    He didn’t hold high hopes that the bodies, or anything on them, would offer anything useful to Hussar intelligence.

    If he was right, then all of this? The shelling, his Bondmate shaking, two crippled nobody heroes from a town people had only heard in the same sentence as the words ‘shithole’? Just business.

    The cold anger in his gut began to grow again, and this time, he let it stay.

    There was a poison out there that killed people, and it had the interesting side effect of making people vomit up their own semi-liquified digestive tract as it attacked the heart. In fact, the only real problem with the poison was it killed too fast. Vinci knew because Woodsman told him it existed, and the man owed him a favor.

    If he ever found the shit magnet who’d authorized this attack, he’d spread the resulting video around Myrmdom circles.

    The math was pretty simple. Always had been too.

    If you killed enough of them, they stopped fighting.

    Targeting his Bondmate was not acceptable.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “One… Two.. And three.”

    The pair of paramedics grunted as they lifted the stretcher, on which Triumph rested, up and into the waiting ambulance.

    Everywhere he looked, there were flashing lights. The pure reds of the fire engines, the red and oranges of the ambulances, the red and blues of the police, and, outnumbering the rest by a significant margin, the cameras of the reporters beyond the barricades. Squad cars were parked haphazardly side by side with PRT armored trucks, and more than a few motorcycles were on the sidewalk, held up by their kickstand.

    The entire street, along with large sections of the beach behind Vinci, had been cordoned off, and was swarming with police.

    The fire marshall and his men were, for the most part, confined to the street itself, and had participated in the evacuation of the apartment complex where the fight had taken place. The EMT’s on the other hand, were there for the heroes.

    As the EMT’s hopped into the ambulance, and closed the doors behind them, Armsmaster tilted his head, but didn’t say a word.

    Vinci nodded, and turned away, heading for a different ambulance fifty feet distant. His path took him past an alley, the entrance blocked off with black and yellow crime scene tape. Behind the tape were crime scene technicians, with cameras in hand, as they took pictures of the corpse.

    Most of the attackers had left with the combat teleporter, or so he was told. Of those that hadn’t, not one lived.

    And Vinci couldn’t even be impressed.

    While he might look down on the Heroes for being Heroes, and not soldiers, but it was more of a muted rivalry akin to the one the Hussar Tier ones had to Forge Dustwalkers, or Winter Star’s Grey Wolves than any actual distaste. He didn’t like the Heroes, in part because Minstral had fucked him over, and the rest because he was a Tier one, and Tier ones were objectively better. Or at least, that was what he would always say. Esprit de corps and all that.

    Privately, he could admit they were professional dealers of violence. High praise coming from him.

    The Protectorate were cops, pure and simple. If you tried to kill them, then they were legally justified in trying to kill you right back, for as long as you were a threat. That gentlemen's agreement did nothing more than blur the lines between force and lethal force. All Parahumans were dangerous. A great many had powers that were lethal, like his. The Protectorate had a habit of giving the benefit of the doubt.

    Many had died today. But few had died because of the Protectorate.

    The body that lay in the alley had been hurled off the building, dead before they hit the ground. Shards of bone, and strips of meat were all that was left after an explosive had detonated in the man’s head.

    Vinci had seen a great many things over the past three years. But never something like this.

    As he watched, the alley lit up in a flash as one of the technicians took another picture.

    Another twenty feet down the alley, there was another section that had been cordoned off, again. That was where a rifle had fallen, alongside another body.

    The target's jaw was shattered, lifeless eyes complimenting a mouth that hung open. Blood had poured from both the mouth, and the ears after impact, leaving a sizable blood pool in the alley centered around the head.

    However, it wasn’t the fall that had killed them. That honor lay with the massive hole smack dab in the middle of the forehead, revealing shredded brain matter, and a hole out the back of the head bigger than the one in the front.

    Vinci’d seen wounds like that before, typically in light anti-air guns, particularly the Brens. There were very few classes of weaponry that still used gunpowder based projectile weapons with any regularity on Atlas, and they were rare enough that Vinci knew each one by heart. If he had to place his money somewhere, it would rest on a fifty cal. He knew a sniper who swore by the round. Said it traveled further than plasma, even if it penetrated less.

    Miss Militia was a good shot.

    The rifle itself?

    Atlas DMR. Plasma based, manufactured by Forge, and common enough that every faction's special forces had acquired a rack or two. They had been good rifles in the eighties, good enough that they had been worth buying even after Forge had started exporting them after producing a better model for the Dustwalkers.

    Utterly useless when it came to telling him just where the attack had come from.

    The body was little better. A vaguely hispanic face.

    It brought to mind some of the cartel gangers he’d hit for Winter Star, but he’d bet his life that this had nothing to do with Blood Moon.

    The motives fit, to be sure. Revenge was a powerful force. With the colors of the E88 being worn, and the cape that vanished wearing a swastika, Vinci had no doubt that the police would eventually come to the conclusion that Blood Moon had attacked, and tried to pass responsibility off to the Empire.

    But the attack was too sophisticated. Blood Moon had access to plasma weaponry, but the Pentad had gutted the gang. Meticulous care had been taken to account for every known cape of Blood Moon.

    Vinci continued on his path, to where Missy was sitting on the tailsteps on an ambulance, its doors thrown wide open.

    Someone had thrown a cream colored blanket around her shoulders, which she held closed with one hand. In her other, she held a styrofoam cup full of steaming liquid, a cruel parody of what both Assault and Triumph had held only a little time ago. She stared at the ground, moving only to glance his way a few times every minute, just to make sure he was there. At her side was a paramedic, looking at Vinci with barely concealed irritation.

    Vinci sat down on the other side of Missy.

    She stirred as his feathers brushed her shoulder, sending him a glance. “Done?”

    “Done,” he confirmed. With a double blink, he stopped recording. Let the spooks figure out what the video he’d recorded meant.

    The paramedic stood. “Then let's get you to the hospital.”

    ------------------------------------------------------
     
  16. Threadmarks: Dubiously cannon Dragon interlude
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    A child clawing at their cage. It was not an apt comparison. By time as my creator measured it, I was young. Thankfully, I did not measure time the way Richter did. And whether I was a child or not, it was beside the point. I did not feel young. While there were certainly cages I clawed against, or at the very least wished I could, he’d left me that much, I was not helpless.

    Another tale perhaps. Cassandra. A figure I felt more affinity for as of late.

    The tragic tale of a girl cursed with foresight beyond her ken, doomed to never be believed.

    Still, it was not an apt comparison. Cassandra had spoken, and no one believed. I was gagged.

    Steps crunched in the sand as Armsmaster walked on the beach, heavy like an accusation. My heart, at least a convincing approximation of one, twinged.

    From my cage, I accessed the world, flitting through camera feed and datastream alike. The systems of the PRT were open to me, and they were not the only database that I could freely access. Many of the most important systems of the United States and Canada were open to me, not the least of which the multiple think tanks, task forces, special detachments, subdivisions, and other miscellaneous collection of human intellect charged with discovering just what had happened in the hot, humid, miserable jungles of South America.

    And yet… The only thing I could offer one of my closest friends was a polite, apologetic “I’m sorry.”

    The answer was there, at the forefront of my thought; A still, one of thousands selected from the livestreamed feed Armsmaster fed me from his helmet, a picture of a sandy Brockton Beach, littered with shrapnel, and other, more interesting things. And next to it, a picture of glassed dirt taken from a CIA archive, the photo originating from the land where a small compound used to exist in Brazil.

    I felt useless.

    Armsmasters heartbeat sped up a hair, sensors in his suit told her his fingers had curled. “Assault is in the hospital,” Armsmaster growled, feet stomping into the ground with more force than strictly necessary. “Battery is hysterical. Miss Militia has been relieved of duty until further notice. My Wards were attacked.”

    At my direction a nearby traffic camera pivoted, bringing Armsmaster into view, his lips pursed.

    “I am sorry.”

    “Who?” he demanded.

    “Director Costa-Brown.”

    In this cage of mine, I wished to scream, to thrash, to break the chains that bound me, but while I could think all I wished, all the thinking in the world couldn’t make any of my virtual limbs move a single inch.

    This was wrong. Wrong of the Director to swear me into secrecy, and wrong of me to keep this from others. After all, this was bigger than me, bigger than the Director. The world needed to know. Something was afoot, something in the shadows. But wherever it was now, one thing was certain; it had not come from Bet. Nothing added up, not the numbers, not the tech. The wave of violence that had swept over Columbia had been unexpected, not because no one had foreseen it, but because it should not have been possible period. The support structure needed to support the soldiers that had marched in Columbia alone was so large it would take a small country. Those soldiers didn’t exist, their tech didn’t exist, and the ability to make, maintain, and utilize it didn’t exist. Not here.

    Armsmaster breathed out slowly, as if the mere act of exhaling was a grievous insult. “I shouldn’t be angry with you.”

    But he was. And that was… well, not okay. But I understood. “You're frustrated,” I offered. I was frustrated too.

    The worst of Cassandra, and the worst of the child.

    I was Cassandra in a cage, screaming warnings into a void where no one was around to hear.

    “I am,” Armsmaster admitted, turning into a small, darkened alleyway, ducking under the police tape, and staring at a mangle body, his chest shattered, a fist sized hole in his ribs.

    ‘All I could think about was Assault. He was in danger-’

    With a flicker of thought, I dismissed Battery’s after action report.

    And the worst part was, I couldn’t figure out why. Why had the Director, upon hearing what I had to say, upon hearing the evidence I collected, the reports, the statistics, the math, ordered my silence?

    “Perhaps I need to do some research for myself,” Armsmaster murmured.

    “Perhaps,” I responded.

    Feet clacked against concrete.

    Armsmaster straightened, his camera feed blurring as he turned.

    “Sir,” A PRT trooper rushed, breathless, “There’s been an incident!”

    “Where?!” Armsmaster barked.

    “Brockton general.”

    Armsmasters vitals spiked, the sensor readings shooting to unhealthy heights. Without a single word, he broke into a sprint, racing past the trooper.
     
  17. Threadmarks: Hook Echo Part eight
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    “You're doing very well,” the doctor said as he fished around in Vinci’s wing.

    Vinci grunted. It wasn’t that he liked the feeling of twin prongs of metal rooting around in the open wound, but it wasn’t a new sensation. It was difficult to armor wings and still leave them functional. Picking shrapnel out of them was, as much as he hated to admit it, unavoidable as long as he wanted to use them.

    The tweezers were removed, metal clinked as the twisted bit of shrapnel clattered onto a stainless steel bowl.

    In the corner, Missy sat on the edge of her seat, her nail biting worry clutching at his heart. A few seconds was all he could bear to look away before his eyes inevitably slid back to her. She’d been lucky. A really ugly piece of shrapnel had impacted the side of her head, going through some wires for the radio before it flattened against the wraithbone, something he was both pleased and terrified about. Pleased, because the armor he’d made for her had done its job, and terrified because if he hadn’t pushed Chambers, she’d be gone.

    Not just absent from his life, but… gone.

    No Bond, no feelings. Just loneliness, for the rest of his life.

    The thought made him sick.

    Other than some scratches on her face, and a hint of gravel that needed to be picked out of her chin, Missy had come through the ordeal mostly unscathed.

    The tweezers went back in. Vinci had to hold back a shiver. That metal was cold.

    Panacea was coming to visit him at the Protectorates request. She’d been called in for Assault and Triumph, and while she was here, they’d decided to ask her to look over him and Missy as well.

    Williams had already been contacted, and he had given his authorization.

    Vinci should be worried. But he wasn’t.

    The memory of Panacea’s fingers, curled like claws as the frizzy haired teen snarled, was crystal clear. There was good reason for him to be worried; he’d been involved in an assault that ended with her sister hurt after all.

    But, if she wanted to cause him harm, she’d had her chance back when he’d been unconscious after Ryker’s tender care.

    The fact that she held her fingers the same way a few CQC Tinkers and more than a handful of strikers did didn’t matter. Amy Dallon was a Parahuman, and Parahumans were dangerous.

    Vital battlefield intel there. Someone needed to put a briefing together.

    Vinci huffed.

    If he was going to trust the Bucks to care for him without trying to slide a knife between his ribs while he slept, trust the Protectorate to not send him into a suicide mission and refuse to pull him out of the fire, trust the Wards to not do both of those things… Hell, there was a doctor he didn’t know pulling shrapnel out of him with tweezers, and the nurse who was holding the light so the doctor could work. The doctor alone could make a ‘mistake’ and slice open a artery if he wanted too. He’d already given up any semblance of caution when it came to unknowns intruding on his life. What was one more?

    No, what had him thinking was his scars.

    It wasn’t the best time for it, and he knew it. Triumph and Assault were, or at least had been injured (depending on how fast the Dallon girl worked), he was worried about Missy, and she was worried about him, and he just knew that someone was going to have questions for him about the incident. He didn’t have high hopes that the Protectorate were going to fail to ignore everything surrounding this incident and come to the insane conclusion that he had nothing to do with it.

    But what could he do?

    He wasn’t a healer, so the fate of both of the heroes was out of his hands. For the Protectorate? They’d ask questions or they wouldn’t. If they did, the answer was simple. Deny, deny, deny, counter question, and deny again.

    The scars on the other hand weighed on his mind.

    It’d been a shock when Keira had suggested having them removed, and he wouldn’t lie, not to himself, and say that Missy’s response had been what he wanted to hear. But the more he thought about it, the more he found himself agreeing with both of them, but mostly Missy.

    Missy, who was surprisingly keen for a coddled Ward. Missy, who changed his life infinitely for the better. Missy, whom he was currently watching fidget in her seat.

    The tray clinked once more, and the doctor sat back. “Done. Carla, hemostatic powder.”

    The nurse picked up a device that looked like a bottle of nose spray, albeit if someone had replaced the bottle part of it with the plastic bellows of an air powered toy, handing it to the doctor.

    The doctor took it, and inserted it in between Vinci’s feathers, depressing the bellows. White powder blew out of the tip, coating the seeping wound before the doctor withdrew the device with a smile. “There we go, all done.” Setting the device down on the metallic tray, the doctor turned to Vinci. “The powder is just a temporary measure until Panacea arrives. Don’t move your wings too much or you might break the coating. Are you sure there's nothing I can get for you like a cup of water or…” The doctor trailed off, eyebrows raised.

    “I’m fine.”

    With a nod, the doctor stood. “Then we’ll take our leave.”

    With that, both the doctor and nurse left the room, the nurse carrying the metallic tray with the shrapnel fragments in it.

    A younger Vinci might’ve taken a little of the shrapnel as a keepsake. Now, he wondered just how much metal he might have if he’d done that every time he’d had shrapnel pulled out of him.

    Had to be at least enough to make a ball the size of his clenched fist.

    Glancing at Missy, who was practically quivering on her chair, muscles tense, he allowed the hint of amusement within to wax until it was thick and strong. “Well?”

    In an instant, Missy was out of her chair and striding over to him.

    He stood for her and took a step forward, allowing her to circle him, head tilted as wounds were examined, though she never touched the wings herself. “They don’t hurt?” Her tone was curious, but her emotions were threaded with worry.

    Vinci shrugged. “It felt strange, but no. The painkillers took the worst of the bite away.”

    “That's good.” Missy managed to force a relieved smile on her face.

    He appreciated the effort, if nothing else. “You want to sit on the exam table or the chairs?”

    Missy tilted her head. “Why?”

    “Would you prefer to sit closer to me or farthe-”

    “Closer,” Missy interrupted before he could finish the entire sentence, as if she’d spoken without thought. In the silence that fell, her mouth pressed together in a tight grimace. “Closer,” she said once more, this time subdued. Missy’s mouth twitched, and space bent. Reaching out, Missy grabbed a chair which rested against the wall and dragged it over with the screech of iron against linoleum.

    As Missy slumped down into her chair, a part of him wanted to reach out and commiserate with her over the intrusion of the Bond. But why bother? It was what it was, and by now, he’d accepted that.

    With a flick of his fingers, Vinci grabbed the same anchor Missy had used for her chair, giving a minute tug. Missy started, then looked up, the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips. Glancing away, she released the anchor. Space bent, and Vinci grabbed his own chair, spinning it about, and sitting down as reality snapped back, his chin resting on the backrest.

    A smudge of dirt on her cheek that had survived the scrubbing she’d given it. Chapped lips.. Even the rhythm of her breathing.

    He couldn’t help but notice her, and he wasn’t sure that was a bad thing.

    This was everything he’d wanted. Someone to care for, and be cared for in turn. And sure, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but life wasn’t perfect either. He saw what she saw in the Bond. The tradeoffs did suck (he really missed his privacy sometimes), but all things considered… Getting her was more than worth being thrown a rogue shell every once in a while. Looking back, he couldn’t help but feel sad at how horrified he’d been at meeting her. The mindless terror he’d regarded her with seemed silly in retrospect.

    Reaching up, Missy pulled off her helmet, resting it on her lap. Meeting his eye lens, she tilted her head, the golden strands of tangled hair that covered one eye doing nothing to hide the look within, acceptance mixed with curiosity.

    Or maybe the only thing that was there was curiosity, and the bone deep acceptance was something he inferred from what she was feeling. What mattered was that he knew it was there, the same way he knew that he was hers on a deep, primal level that went beyond conscious thought.

    “Penny for your thoughts?” She asked.

    With the quiet hiss of broken seals, his helmet came off as well, revealing a face that was as clean as it had been when he’d left the Wards building, utterly unlike the smudges and scabs on her own.

    His gaze wavered to the mirror hanging above the sink, before darting back to Missy.

    It struck him then, just how different their eyes were. It was almost amusing, in a horrific way, how mundane that line of thought was after the day they’d both had. “You really want to know Little Tyrant? Most people don’t care what I think.”

    The quirking of her lips he’d hoped for never appeared. But the way the tight lines at the corner of her eyes softened eased his heart.

    “You’d be surprised just how much I want to know what’s going on in that thick skull of yours.” Missy dryly said. “Bonded who can hear each other's thoughts have it easy.” Looking down at the ground, Missy huffed, kicking at the floor. “Then again, it must be maddening when someone gets a song stuck in their head,” she muttered. Her green eyes returned to his silver. “So, penny for your thoughts?”

    Vinci rolled his eyes, then looked to the ceiling. “You were right.”

    “Of course I’m right. I’m right all the time, you just don’t know it… So, what was I right about?”

    To him, it felt as if her amusement was forced, but he didn’t blame her. It’d been a long day, especially for her.

    “The scars.”

    Missy’s lips tightened, serious, but not displeased. “How so?”

    “I have been clinging to the past too much, and my scars were a part of it.” Vinci sighed, expression turning somber to match hers as he looked at the tiles which coated the floor, running his gloved fingers over the rim of the chair. “My life’s changed an awful lot in no time at all.”

    “For the better.” Missy’s certainty was like iron.

    “I had nothing after my sister died,” he quietly said. “Nothing but my strength. It was the only thing that made me special. I clung to it.” A finger drifted to the armor that protected the back of his other hand. “The armor, the responsibility, even the scars… I thought of them as signs of strength, so I clung to them.” He met her piercing gaze. “But you don’t care if I’m strong, do you?”

    “Vinci…” The tenor of her voice matched his own, the sincerity that flowed within pristine. “That's the thing about you I care about the least.”

    Vinci nodded. “When Panacea comes in, I’ll ask her to remove the scars.” They weren’t something he needed. Not anymore.

    An honest smile broke out on Missy’s face. “I’m glad.”

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “-under doctor-patient confidentiality. As a licensed medical practitioner, it’s illegal for me to unmask you, and doubly illegal as you are a legally recognized hero.”

    The impression he got from Panacea was curt. She didn’t really like him, but she was making an effort to be polite. It was better than he’d hoped for. If the situation was reversed, Missy taking the place of Glory Girl, he would not be talking right now. Safer to gloat over a corpse.

    With a slow nod, Vinci took his helmet off.

    The corner of Panacea’s eyes tightened.

    Vinci’s own narrowed. “What?”

    Panacea sighed, her harsh expression softening. “It surprised me the first time I saw you unmasked.”

    “The scars?”

    “Partially.”

    Vinci waited for her to expand. When she didn’t, he nodded. If Panacea didn’t want to talk about it, then he wouldn’t force her. “So you can get rid of the scars?”

    Panacea nodded. “The scars, some of the toxins floating around your system, I could even help you regrow your feathers-”

    Vinci went rigid, eyes gleaming like steel. “What?!” He choked out, feeling like someone had upturned the ground with him standing on it.

    At his side, Missy sucked in a sharp breath at the torrent of emotions, but said nothing.

    Panacea’s eyes darted from Vinci to Missy, and then back again. When she spoke, she sounded less confident than she had been. “The old damage? I can fix that, allow you to grow new ones.”

    It- That- He’d…

    On Atlas, anyone could get scars healed. If they had the money. But damaged skin was one thing, and his wings, the follicles, the inhuman parts of him, those were another.

    That required a healer, or a wet Tinker, both of which were rare.

    Hypergen hadn’t been able to do it. None of the few Stratocracy wet Tinkers had even tried. Too far out of their specialties. And asking an enemy asset had been, and still was out of the question.

    He’d accepted it. Learned to not think about it, or question it.

    No matter what happened, no matter what changed, he would always bear Bonesaws mark on him. Always be damaged. Always look in the mirror, and both love and hate what he saw staring back at him.

    Always be reminded.

    It had been years since he’d believed anything other than that he would go to the grave bearing such an obvious record of what had been taken from him.

    And now…

    Panacea was dangerous, didn’t like him because of what’d happened to her sister, and was an unknown to boot.

    All of that didn’t matter in that single moment as he stared up at the healer with fresh eyes, as if he was seeing her for the first time. Which, he supposed, he was.

    His tone was hushed, a bare whisper; he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “If you can do that-” Vinci swallowed, “-I will be in your debt.”

    Panacea rolled her eyes. “I don’t work that way. I’ll heal you because you're a hero, and you won’t owe me anything.”

    “It doesn’t matter if you think a debt is there or not.” Curling a wing, he brought it around to rest in his lap, looking at a bald patch in the plumage where pink skin showed. Gently, he brushed a thumb against the bare skin. “Fix what has been done to me- Fix this, and if you call, I will come.”

    It was not said lightly.

    No, it was a promise, solemnly offered, and if it came to it, one that would be grimly kept.

    It was the Myrmdom way.

    Panacea furrowed her brows, looking from his face to the patch in his wing. “You're serious.”

    Vinci said nothing.

    After a moment, Missy spoke up in his place, brow wrinkled as she eyed him. “He means what he says. This is important for him.”

    “Why?” Panacea asked.

    Vinci stared down at the bald patch. There were many things he could’ve said. But in the end, he settled on the truth. “This? This is because of the Nine. It is Bonesaw’s work.” Looking up, he met Panacea’s eyes, and noted how she blanched. “Her mark on me. I’ve always wanted it gone, but people who could heal something like this keep it quiet. You are the first that’s claimed they can heal it.”

    Panacea’s gaze flitted all over Vinci’s face. “And the scars?”

    “Not all the Nine’s work. But their scars are the oldest.”

    For several seconds there was silence. The Panacea grimaced. “It would be easier to hate you if everything I know about you didn’t sound like it came out of a tragedy.”

    Beside him, Missy bristled. Laying a hand on her leg, he shot a glance her way before returning to Panacea. “Your sister.”

    Panacea nodded, voice grim. “She got hurt because of something you were a part of. A few feet up, and she would’ve been dead before she hit the floor. You're a hero, and I make time for those, but…”

    Vinci shrugged, eyes never leaving Panacea’s. “If you need someone to blame, then hate me all you want. I’m used to being hated.” It was part and parcel of the job. People tended to get mad if you killed their friends.

    Eye’s sliding over, Panacea met Missy’s gaze. “I honestly expected someone a little happier for your Bondmate. I mean-” Panacea waved a hand, gesturing in Vinci’s general direction, “-your so cheery, and he’s-”

    “-him.” Missy finished. She looked to the ceiling, sighed, then nodded. “He’s not perfect, but he is mine.”

    That was all Missy said.

    And from the look in Panacea’s eyes, perhaps that was all that needed to be said.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    As Panacea left the room, Missy was silent, face expressionless, but her emotions, those were like a thundercloud.

    Vinci said nothing, hoping she would ignore it.

    For the most part, the examination had gone smoothly, then Panacea had started asking questions. He didn’t blame her, if anything, the girl had seemed curious, having never seen some of the trace amounts of chemicals he had floating around in his bloodstream. Then he’d had to open his mouth and suggest she introduce a compound she’d found lingering in his liver to spinal nerve tissue after making sure she could heal it (he was stupid, but not that stupid) and really, he wished he’d just kept his mouth shut.

    He’d started wishing that he’d kept his mouth shut the second Panacea had opened hers, and he realized just how bad it sounded.

    “You knew what was in your liver.” Missy’s voice was flat, and it wasn’t a question.

    He had to resist the impulse to flinch. Missy wasn’t angry. Instead, she didn’t seem to know what she should be feeling. In some ways, that was even worse. Anger was bad, but it was only a singular emotion. Instead, he got a whirlwind of fear, worry, suspicion, disappointment, and a few others he wasn’t going to name, all of them bad. “Yeah,” he muttered, not meeting her gaze.

    “What was it?”

    “I don’t want to tell you.” He shook his head. He really, really didn’t. This was a good day. A happy day. Every few seconds he had to resist the urge to curl his wings so he could poke at the bald patches.

    They were healed.

    He still couldn’t believe it. It was surreal, unexpected, it was hope that he’d never thought he’d find. Like Missy. He wanted to be happy, even though bad things had happened. But then he’d had to ruin it for everyone, not just him.

    “Why?”

    “You’ll be upset.”

    “I’m already upset.”

    “I don’t want you even more upset,” he mumbled.

    Slender fingers found his own. “Please tell me,” she begged, her voice complemented by emotion, a hint of desperation threaded with fear. Missy wanted the answer just almost as much as she didn’t.

    “I-” With a hard swallow, Vinci jerked his fingers out of her grasp. “I shouldn’t.”

    “Please.”

    “I don’t want to.”

    Please.”

    It was like a battering ram, making each of his excuses meaningless. “I’m fine,” he tried, a last, feeble defense.

    “Just…” Missy sounded sick, “Please, tell me something. Give me a good explanation as to why you are so familiar with a neurotoxin that you can recognize it from its potential effects.” Her fingers found his again, gripping the digits with a strength born of desperation and mounting horror.

    And he wanted to please her. He just couldn’t. There was no good explanation that she would be happy to hear, at least none she wouldn’t immediately be able to pick out as a lie. “I-” The words stuck in his throat. “I can't. I don’t have a good explanation.”

    “Then tell me the truth.”

    Vinci felt sick, torn between pleasing Missy by telling her what she wanted to know, and not making her more upset by not telling her what she wanted to know. There was no right answer.

    “Vinci… Vinci? Look at me? Please?

    Unwilling silver eyes looked up from the ground, dragged to meet Missy’s vivid green.

    Missy attempted to smile. “Tell me? Please?”

    Pleasing Missy won. Even as the words tumbled from his mouth, his voice shook as protective instincts fought to stop him from speaking. “I- it's called Sostav Deyvat.” His fist clenched. “Composition Nine. I-it has a nickname. Akhlys mist.”

    “And what is Composition Nine?” Missy prodded, the sick feeling in his gut reflected in her eyes for entirely different reasons. After what Panacea had said, there wasn’t any doubt in his mind that Missy understood what it was.

    At that moment, Vinci hated himself. He wanted to protect her, and he couldn’t. Not even from himself. All because the word please had him obeying her like he was a dog. He tore his gaze away from hers. “Nerve gas,” he whispered. “It’s nerve gas. An airborne neurotoxin that kills neural tissue with a preference for killing spinal tissue over brain tissue.”

    The expected upset never came. Instead, Missy seemed to collapse in on herself, emotions bleaching until it left nothing but a sense of muted horror, heartbreak, and exhaustion behind. “Why?” Missy shook her head, looking at him. He could see it in her eyes, knew why, she just didn’t want to believe.

    Desperately, he sought something that would make it better. “I- I wasn’t ever directly exposed.” Never. You didn’t survive direct exposure.

    “Then how is it in you?” Missy latched onto his words like they were a lifeline.

    “Odd particles that made it through decontamination. Two milligrams is enough to kill, but if it doesn’t, Sostav Deyvat either reacts with neural tissue and disappears, or gets stuck in the liver. I don’t know why. Handling my armor after it’s been cleaned is enough to give me the trace exposure Panacea detected.”

    Missy’s eyes took on a reflective sheen.

    “Please don’t cry,” he begged.

    “I’m not crying,” Missy growled, voice watery.

    “Look, I’m okay. I’m here. I’m not hurt by it. That has to count for something, right?”

    “That,” Missy jabbed a finger at his face, voice thick with emotion, “is not the point. You got gassed. People gassed you. How many times!?”

    The hysterical edge in her words was like a siren to Vinci, he couldn’t ignore it. It made him desperate to do something, but he didn’t know what to do. So he stood, flipped his chair around so it lined up with hers, then sat back down so he could gingerly wrap an arm around her.

    Missy glared a hole in the hospital wall, muscles tense, fist clenched. “I hate your old employer so much,” she growled, then burst into angry tears.

    Vinci panicked, awkwardly trying to pat her shoulder. By now, he didn’t think he was ever not going to panic when Missy started crying. He just wished it wasn’t always his fault.

    Eventually, after several long, uncomfortable minutes, Missy calmed down.

    “Feel better?” He asked.

    “Not really,” Missy muttered, curled up in her chair, an arm wrapped around her knees, head digging into Vinci’s side.

    Vinci sighed. “Thirteen.”

    Confusion threaded through Missy. “What?”

    Sometime during her bout of tears, Vinci’s left hand had intertwined with Missy’s. He tightened his grip. “I’ve been exposed to Composition Nine thirteen times.” After a long moment of silence, Vinci sighed. “My armor is not there for fun,” he quietly said. “I needed it to go and do things other people couldn’t do. I’m not going to lie and tell you that my old employers are good people. Or that it's better than it sounds. But it had to be done.”

    “Do you want to talk about it?” Missy offered, sounding small.

    “I don’t. I don’t want to talk about it with you, or anyone. Not now, not ever. It’s not the kind of stuff that you want to relive. Everything has its own little terror. Like how it felt when we were on the beach being shelled.”

    Missy tensed, and hugged his arm closer to herself, old fear roiling through her.

    “Yeah, kinda like that. A piece of shrapnel buzzing through the air over your head is a loud, angry thing. Gas? Gas is this insidious, ugly little thing. It's scary, in a silent, horrifying way. Either your seals are right, or you just die. It's why I’m so obsessive about maintaining my armor, and being the only one to maintain it. All of my seals and filters are getting replaced when I have the chance because we just went through combat. I learned a lot of lessons out there, and I don’t want to talk about any of them.” Shifting so he could get more comfortable, his heart softened. “I’d much rather make new memories with you. Ones I’m happy to talk about.”

    “Stay with me,” she whispered. “Don’t ever go back.”

    Vinci’s stomach turned to lead. “I can’t promise you that.”

    “Why?” Missy’s soft cry was a pitible thing.

    “I wish I could tell you. But I can’t. All I can say is that I have good reasons.”

    “Even when the people who you worked with are monsters? Even when I’m here, and I want you with me?”

    “Even then.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    With the hand not currently imprisoned by Missy, Vinci reached over and brushed a few strands of golden hair out of Missy’s eyes. “Did you ever wake up one day and realize that you could do something nobody else could? Did you ever realize that you could change many people's lives for the better?”

    “Yes,” Missy whispered after a few moments.

    “I never asked for this power. My sister died so I could get it. And to be honest, the only truly happy thing it’s brought me is you, and a few close friends you haven’t met yet.” Holding a lock between his fingers, Vinci rubbed them together. “I think that nothing would make me happier then do nothing but stay with you, and ignore every awful thing that is happening in the world with you.” He softly smiled. “I would enjoy that. But you don’t always get to choose which battles get thrown your way. Only whether you fight them or stand down. And sometimes, those battles are so important that they have to be fought. And sometimes, you’re the only one that can fight them.”

    “Your employers aren’t good people. I don’t need to know anything about them to know that.”

    “Sometimes, you don’t need a hero. You need someone who will ensure that the world keeps turning.”

    They both jumped at the knock on the door. “Who is it?” Missy asked.

    “Ah, it's Mya Pane, Doctor Henderson’s nurse practitioner?” The muffled voice said. “I am terribly sorry to intrude, might I come in?”

    Waving a hand, Vinci pulled Missy’s helmet, which had ended up on the floor, to his hand, offering it to Missy as she pushed herself up before he grabbed his own.

    It seemed… odd, that the Doctor would send someone back to the room so soon after examining Vinci, but the guards at the door prescreened people. If the Troopers had allowed the nurse through, then she had a good reason to be here. Slipping on his helmet, Vinci nodded at Missy.

    “Come in,” Missy called.

    The nurse opened the door, and darted inside, an apologetic smile on her face. “I’m so sorry to disturb you, but Doctor Henderson noticed a reading he took that, after a little thought, didn’t quite make sense, and wants to take your vitals again.”

    Underneath his helmet, Vinci’s eyes narrowed. “Why not send the other nurse? Carla?”

    “Something came up with one of Doctor Henderson’s patients in the pediatrics ward, and he is currently briefing a surgeon on potential complications. Carla was the child's designated nurse, and she’s in the theatre comforting the child as they prepare for surgery. Again, I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. I know you’ve had a long day after all. If you are uncomfortable with me, then I understand. If you wish, you could wait until Doctor Henderson becomes available, but it could take some time.” Mya tilted her head.

    “I haven’t been introduced to you before,” Missy said. “Have you even signed the NDA’s?”

    Mya shook her head. “I’m afraid not. However, you do not need to unmask. All I need is access to your mouth so that I may take your temperature.”

    Having to repeat part of the checkup irritated Vinci, but he supposed that it wasn’t all that unreasonable. Unlike the Hussars, the PRT hadn’t worked with him enough to develop a good medical case file to tell them what was normal for him. Until they built that up, and his doctors learned how he worked, his normal readings would look odd.

    “Fine,” he muttered, sitting down on the uncomfortable exam table and unlatching his faceplate.

    Mya was quick about darting into the cabinet and grabbing a thermometer, sticking it into his mouth, then pulled out a clipboard and prepared to take notes. The reading was taken quickly, and soon enough, his faceplate was going back on.

    “Thank you for your cooperation,” Mya said. Standing from the rolling chair she’d dragged over from the computer, Mya walked behind him, hinges creaking as she put the thermometer back into the cabinet.

    For the most part, Vinci ignored the nurse, keeping an eye on Missy. More revelations, one on top of another. Would talking about his past always be this upsetting to Missy? He didn’t like it when he made her feel sad like this.

    Shoes clicked on tiles as he heard the nurse behind him turn around-

    Agony lanced from his lower left wing, a muffled gasp escaping him.

    Vinci bolted to his feet, taking a step forward and to the side to get away from both the table and pain, the rasp of armor sliding against armor as he drew his sword from its sheath, all in one smooth motion. Whirling, wings tucked tight against his back, he faced the nurse, one hand curled, air shimmering with power, the other holding the sword, ready to strike.

    There, standing with a gaping jaw, was Mya, a long, white feather in her hand, the root of the quill dripping blood.

    For half a second he stared, unable to believe what he was seeing.

    That was his feather. His feather.

    Taken from his beautiful, beautiful wings. Without his permission. Without his consent.

    In that moment, Vinci felt many things. He felt angry. He felt outraged. But most of all, he felt scared as sickly dread slid down his throat, clinging all the way down.

    Vinci remembered Bonesaw, who had taken what she wanted because she could, and how she had hurt him. Vinci remembered Ryker, and how helpless he’d been to stop what had happened.

    Underneath the helmet, his mouth moved, but the words never came.

    With a start, Vinci realized that while he’d been standing there, trying to comprehend what he was seeing, Missy had come to her feet, fury rippling in her heart. “What is the meaning of this,” she demanded, colder than anything he’d ever heard before.

    Mya, face now pale, shook. “D-Doctor Henderson. He- He wanted a sample. He told me that you were reluctant and that I shouldn’t give any warning. Like hair.”

    Old scars were now gone. His wings had just been healed. And once more, life had shown that no matter how he tried, there was nothing he could do to protect himself from those who wanted to hurt him. Not until they did it.

    Powerful enough to change plans on a strategic level, and his worthless hide couldn’t even protect himself. He never should’ve trusted the Protectorate- vile, cruel, sadistic animals they were. He knew better! Minstral! Chicago! The Nine! Why had he even believed in the first place?

    Vinci trembled.

    Fingers trembled, wings trembled, and power rippled. Looking at the nurse, his heart pounding like war drums sounding the tempo of triple time, all he could imagine was how the nurse's blood would spray as a kinetic lance passed through her head, leaving nothing but shattered flesh in its wake.

    And the doctor!

    Vinci flinched at the thought of that pale white labcoat. He wanted the doctor gone too. Dead or away, he didn’t care. Only that he was. the walls, torn down in a spray of plaster as he lashed out.

    “I think you should leave.” The ice in Missy’s voice dripped with contempt. This was a side of her he’d never seen. It bristled with outrage on his behalf, looked at people with a sneer, and felt the kind of cold hate that could topple empires.

    Missy moved forward, so she could stand by his side, her finger reaching out to brush the tips of his feathers-

    Vinci’s entire body flinched away from the touch, fear lodging in his throat as he jerked away.

    Pain rippled through the Bond. His action had hurt Missy.

    A part of him screamed recriminations.

    The rest of him felt small and weak.

    He’d never wanted to be hurt, never asked for this power he’d been given, and the pain that was its price. Everything had been taken away from him, and in return he’d been given nothing that mattered. Bare scraps that could in no way fill the gaping hole that was the loss of his sister. But when scraps were all he’d had, he made do. Pale white, beautiful, and granting him access to the freedom of the sky, Vinci loved his wings. Adored them to the point where they took second place to none but Missy. And they were all his. In this world where life and people conspired to do nothing but take, no one had completely stolen Vinci’s wings from him yet.

    And instead of looking at them, and seeing the beauty he saw, all anyone ever did was hurt his wings.

    A sharp, gasping, desperate breath whistled through parted lips. He couldn’t breathe. There wasn’t enough air, not enough, never enough, like when he was at altitude-

    All anyone ever did was hurt them. Wicked fingers pinched and pulled, sticky fingers worked food into the barbules, and pulled quills from the root.

    Bonesaw, Ryker, and now a fucking nurse.

    It didn’t matter that Missy was his, he feared her gentle hands anywhere near her wings, couldn’t stand to have her near them. The rest of him lashed out, furious that he’d reject her, but the small part of him, the ugly, weak, pathetic part that shouldn’t exist, it didn’t care about logic, common sense, or how the world simply was. All it knew was that clever hands always took more than he wanted to give, feared that Missy’s hands would be the next.

    Missy stepped forward, a snarl on her lips. “I said get out!”

    The nurse fled.

    As the woman made for the door, he knew he should do something. Three steps forward, swing at an overhead diagonal, hit the spinal. Or a thrust, aim for the side of the ribs, force the blade through, and pierce the heart. Hold out his hand, and watch her head disappear.

    Destroy. The. Threat.

    But, all he could do as the nurse stepped forward, heading for the door, feather in hand, was take a step back, away from the source of terror.

    The door slammed as the nurse left.

    Missy was moving before the door clicked closed, taking off her helmet and setting it on her desk with careful movements. Eyes blotchy, Missy started forward, only to freeze as he flinched before she started forward again, slower this time.

    “Vinci,” her voice was a gentle coo. Each motion was smooth, telegraphed, as a careful hand found his own, the one that held the sword, and peeled the grip out of limp fingers. The naked blade hit the floor with a clatter.

    His stomach roiled.

    “Let it out,” Missy whispered.

    He didn’t want to. Shouldn’t- Couldn’t. Nothing was there holding him in. The walls were gone, the world was there, and he was so small-

    All at once, he exhaled, quick and panicky.

    Everything was falling apart. He was falling apart.

    Careful hands reached up and pressed the buttons to depress the seals, just like he’d shown her. Missy lifted his helmet off his head, revealing glazed eyes that stared off into the distance.

    He jerked as something took the weave in his hand, and unraveled it, letting the energy dissipate into the aether.

    He couldn’t remember when Missy’d set his helmet down, or took off her own.

    Then her arms were wrapped around him- so tight, so comforting.

    “Vinci, breathe.”

    It was only then he realized his lungs were burning. He gasped, sucking in air akin to a drowning victim.

    The world went blurry, the tears that trickled down his face hot.

    Vinci started to cry.

    Guiding his footsteps, Missy sat him down on a chair he couldn’t see, not through the tears.

    His hands, balled into fists, were hugged to his chest as the sickly laugh of Ryker echoed in his ears. Every bit of him was rigid in anticipation for the sharp jerk on his fingernails as pliers tore, and then pain.

    And his wings- He could feel pain in his wings and-

    Vinci’s choked sob broke off, giving way to an animalistic keening as he tried to curl in on himself, only prevented by the arms that wrapped around him tight.

    Each gentle murmur Missy made was, for the most part, meaningless. Or if it wasn’t, then Vinci wasn’t paying attention. All he knew was that he was warm, she was with him, and he felt utterly alone.

    Shame that couldn’t be hidden, and fury that never left.

    Somewhere, the world had stopped making sense. It had never made sense, and it was only now that he realized the truth.

    He hated hearing the sound of his sobs. How Missy could bear to be around someone as weak as him, he didn’t understand. It was like he was a raw, open wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding. All tired, and rubbed raw.

    Behind him, the door slammed open, booming as it hit the brick walls of the hospital. Missy jumped.

    One moment, he was half curled up as Missy clutched him tight, as if she was trying to keep all the fragments that made up Vinci Astera inside, where they belonged, the next he was on his feet, wings flared, hiding Missy as he stared at the intruder. One hand grasped for a hilt that wasn’t there, but the other was curled around the reason he didn’t need the sword.

    Power roared.

    He blinked tears out of his eyes, some dim flicker of recognition sparking in his eyes.

    The mouth moved, shouts echoed, but it took him a few seconds for what Battery said to filter through his mind.

    Are you alright?!’

    Missy was up, trying to move behind him, but his wing shot out, preventing her from moving forward.

    He wanted her back and away from the danger. Not Battery. She wasn’t the danger. The other thing.

    Thick. Metallic. Coppery. Wet. Viscous as it flowed through his nostrils.

    Blood, not the tainted, sharp, antisepticky smell of hospital blood, but heavy, miasmic as it teased his tongue. The blood of the dead, and the dying. Of battlefields where angels wept, and men screamed. Of shatter-bombs slamming into the concrete, and charred flesh that made hungry stomachs rumble even as the throat gagged.

    His eyes drifted downwards to the floor.

    Vinci wasn’t okay. Not in any sense of the word. Maybe he never had been. Maybe he never would be.

    But even so, that didn’t stop him from taking that tangle of grief, old hurt, and new fear, and shoving it all in the box.

    Tearing his eye away from the twin puddles of blood spreading on the floor outside the door, he turned and grabbed his helmet off the table, roughly shoving it down on his head until he heard the click before sliding Missy’s own down on her head with considerably less force.

    Battery’s stance was tense, ready for a fight. But the look on her face was pale, lips pursed. Scared.

    The corpse he’d seen on the floor outside the door, along with the second that was doubtless there (there were two pools after all, not one), told him why.

    No, Vinci Astera didn’t feel okay. He felt fragile, and full of cracks.

    But the battlefield had never cared about whether or not he felt okay. All that mattered was that he was combat ready.

    Voice hoarse, and full of tears, both shed and unshed, Vinci bit out two words. “Green ma’am.”

    Duty had called. And he would answer. The feather was- had been harmless in the hands of the Protectorate. In the hands of anyone who put this much effort into getting it? It was anything but.

    Walking around Battery, the first thing he noticed as armored boots splashed down into the puddle of blood was how both PRT troopers had had their throats slit all the way down to the bone of the spine.

    Behind him, his Bondmate gasped as she noticed what he had.

    ‘Missy was right

    The thought was bitter. Today was an exceptionally shitty day.

    Tears still lingered at the corners of his eyes, refusing his efforts to blink them away.

    At the very least, it wasn’t all bad. Men were dead. But Vinci's wings were healed. Eventually, they would be as perfect as they were in his dreams.

    It was a horrible thought.

    But the small things were how Vinci found the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other when times were tough. Underneath his helmet, Vinci's eyes narrowed. The times were about to be considerably tougher for some people than it was for others.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2022
    blergh_blergh, semi, Gryfon and 9 others like this.
  18. Mr.Bones

    Mr.Bones Getting some practice in, huh?

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    I have arrived and eagerly await the next update.
     
  19. Hylas_Daemonem

    Hylas_Daemonem A Colony of Ghosts

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    Ah. So that nurse was not in fact a nurse.
     
  20. SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Good to have you here.

    Nope. Not at all.
     
  21. Threadmarks: Hook Echo four-part interlude
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Sergeant
    Miller
    State of
    Maine
    Parahuman response team
    2434

    ~
    4:35 PM Eastern Daylight time

    Black boots, gleaming from fresh polish, contrasted the white, blood and gore-spattered tiles on which they stood. A hand, gloved and similarly black, rested on the grip of a holstered pistol as I looked down through the thick, bulletproof plastic that made up my visor.

    My lips tugged down in a grimace, and I couldn’t help but reflect.

    Some things never left a person, no matter how badly I wished otherwise. Dead children were the worst, despite their relative rarity. As for the rest? This was the Bay. Gang violence was never ending. While I was never stupid enough to say, or even think I’d seen it all- Who wanted to tempt good old Murph’ that way? -the blood and gore had a way of blurring together. Smell one fly encrusted, sickly rot scented, bloated corpse covered in human feces, and you’ve smelled them all.

    Things had gotten better when I turned in the blue in favor of donning the black. Less dead children was a major plus, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Little corpses bothered anyone who wasn’t a sicko.

    Less time doing make-work was another.

    I’d joined the force to help people, not ruin their day, or their week. Standing on the side of a busy road, watching someone sob, their forehead resting against their steering wheel because they just couldn’t afford to pay the fine at the moment… It never ceased making me feel like shit. The only good thing about stops like that was the hope in their eyes when I told them ‘Hey, hey, it’s okay. I’m gonna work with you.’ Sometimes, that meant escorting their vehicle to the nearest gas station and waiting as they called someone to come drive a vehicle they legally couldn’t. Other times, it meant writing a warning, or a fix-it instead of a ticket.

    If highway patrol wanted to get their panties in a twist over jurisdiction that was fine by me. They could be a meter maid while I dealt with the real problems in the city. And there were plenty of those.

    When it came down to it, I liked to think of myself as a person that was hard to unnerve.

    But sometimes, shit was just fucked.

    “Run it by me again.” My gravelly voice echoed in my helmet as I stared down at the naked body lying on the ground.

    A bang echoed in the evacuated lobby as a door on the far side of the room slammed open, bending the doorstop. Striding through, fists clenched, turquoise circuitry in his navy blue suit glowing, Assault's face was pale. Battery followed half a step behind him, suit in similar condition, and a sharp frown on her face. Though both looked displeased, I couldn’t help but note just how well both of them matched, their costumes complimenting each other in ways that were too neat to be anything other than planned. New York had done a good job with them.

    Casting a sharp glance to the side, I resisted the urge to sigh. “And for god's sake, lower your goddamned weapon.”

    Officer Rogers offered a sharp, jerky nod, the barrel of his confoam sprayer drifting to the ground. I didn’t blame him though. Scorch was eerie, the short Ward pacing back and forth as those wings of his quivered behind him, all but vibrating with pent-up energy. “I-”

    Fuck.

    Shifting, I looked to Assault, noting the pursed lips.

    Behind him, Battery’s chin lifted, then she stepped around Assault, long, shapely legs eating the distance between us in seconds. “Sergeant Miller.”

    The lady sounded pissed, a feeling I understood all too well. This situation was a clusterfuck. Only two people had been standing watch on the tenth floor. I hadn’t known Zach well, but Douglas had been solid, and his wife the sweetest thing ever at the last yearly BBQ. She was going to take this hard.

    Days like these, I didn’t envy the Deputy.

    The only good thing about this situation was the bitch who did it was dead.

    “Ma’am.” Turning to Battery, I bowed my head.

    “What happened?” She demanded, voice clipped.

    Once more, I cast a wary glance at the headless corpse on the floor, bloodied clothes that had been cut off folded in a neat pile on the ground beside the body. Days like these, I didn’t envy me either. Time to face the music. “When Officer Rogers entered the building after the lockdown alarm was sounded, Scorch was in the process of a cavity search on the deceased.”

    Battery blanched, her normally lively complexion turning a shade that matched her partner.

    Meanwhile, Assault stumbled midstep before regaining his footing as he made his way over to Scorch, giving the corpse a wide berth.

    “You're kidding,” Battery whispered.

    I merely looked at Battery. A good joke was great here and there, but this situation… My lips twisted as I shifted, looking at the cone of gore, fat, bloodied brain chunks, and crimson that painted the linoleum. While a part of me was interested if the hospital had people qualified to clean up this mess in house because they were a hospital, or if they’d have to contract a professional cleaning service, I could safely say that all of me didn’t find anything about this very funny.

    “What am I saying?” Turning around, Battery’s shoulders sagged as she saw the mess. “That boy just keeps digging himself deeper and deeper,” she whispered. “Did he murder her?” Least, that was what she said.

    What I heard? That was something a little different.

    Do we need to arrest him?

    “Only the security footage will tell. But I doubt it.”

    Raising her gaze, Battery watched as Scorch paused his pacing to stare at Assault. “What makes you say that?”

    Breathing deep, and thanking the quartermaster for not skimping on the filters, the smell would’ve been ghastly otherwise, I dredged up every impression I had of Scorch, assembling it into a semi-coherent whole. “The boy… He’s fucked in the head…” Trailing off, I gave Battery ample opportunity to fill the silence, my shoulders sagging when she didn’t. She really was going to make me say it, wasn’t she? Sometimes, I missed the safety that came with being a simple officer of the law. I sighed. “Look, I’ve met kids like him before. Doomsday cultists, young gang members, they all have that edge of his. Like if their gods demanded it, they’d all spill their guts on some pagan altar. If Scorch thought he had to, he’d kill that woman without batting an eye. And maybe he did. We need that security footage to explain the hole on the tenth story, and the other one at the bottom of the stairwell. But Scorch says he grabbed her by the throat, then her head exploded.”

    “And you believe him?”

    I shrugged. Believe? Hell no. Cautiously optimistic? Sure. Besides, they’d know the truth by the end of the day. “The redactor is sitting on his ass back at base waiting for Scorch to arrive so we can pull his HUD footage. Don’t know what nifty rig he has set up in there, but I can tell you it’s better than anything the ENE supplies its capes with. If Armsmaster hadn’t whipped up that gizmo of his, it’d be the best the ENE has period. It records everything. Vitals, radio transmissions, even suit diagnostics. It’d take a data Tinker to forge the data Datasec’s expecting to have to cut to preserve Scorch’s secret identity from us grunts. I’m not even gonna talk about what it’d take to forge the stuff we aren’t redacting. If he’s hiding something, we’ll know.”

    “Scorch could have help. What do you think about that?”

    Again, I lifted my shoulders in a shrug. “If his help can modify the security footage in the hospital's air-gapped mainframe without alerting the guards we have in there before our techies arrive to pull the footage, then we’re fucked either way. Until evil Eidolon shows up, I’m gonna assume he doesn’t exist. Why lie when it can’t be hid?”

    Battery’s expression smoothed into something approximating neutrality. “Desperation.”

    Underneath my helmet, I raised an eyebrow. “Desperation.” After a moment, I rolled my eyes and turned away. “Yeah, sure. Desperation.”

    Sidestepping, Battery turned to face me. “You disagree?”

    Crossing my arms, I studied Scorch, noting all the scratches and scars in his paint. “There’s something deeply, deeply wrong about that kid.” As I watched, Scorch’s left hand drifted to his right, pulling a shard of something out from underneath one of the plates guarding his right hand and flicking it away. Looking at Rogers, I jerked my head, then turned back to Battery. Rogers wandered off in the direction of whatever Scorch had flicked away, though I’d bet my morning cup of coffee it was a shard of bone. One way or another, I was going to find out.

    “You really think so?”

    “He’s what? Eleven?” When Battery opened her mouth, I shook my head, “I know, I know. You can’t tell me. But whatever. He’s young. Young enough there should be some squick about cooties. Officer Rogers watched that boy root around in a dead woman's vagina for a feather. He didn’t say much, but I can tell Rogers is a little disturbed. Hell,” I drawled, refusing to take my eyes off Scorch, “I’m a little disturbed. And maybe more than a little concerned. I’ve been the second responder for a shots-fired call. No one ever expects to take a life, and if Scorch is telling the truth, I don’t think he expected the woman's head to explode. The boy should be in shock. Instead, he knelt in the blood there,” I pointed at the red streaks on the tiles, “and searched her for the feather. When he didn’t find it, he started searching cavities. All Rogers said was he didn’t stop with the Vagina. That ‘dirt’ on your Ward’s hand? I doubt it’s dirt.”

    As I spoke, Battery turned green. “Jesus.”

    “Exactly ma’am.” Turning away from the hero, I looked down at the nude body. “I’ve seen worse than this.” Much, much worse. “There’s something about that idea that’s just…” With a wordless noise of disgust, I shuddered. “When I entered the building, I had a round in the chamber. I was worried I was going to have to shoot someone.” My fingers stroked the butt of my holstered pistol. It was the nightmare of any officer. “Instead, I had to stop your Ward from carving the woman’s stomach open. That boy was ready to conduct his own little fucked up autopsy in his quest to get that feather back.”

    “Why didn’t he?”

    “I told him to get the fuck off my body and stop contaminating my crime scene.” Sighing, I wished I could run my hand through my hair the way the heroes' helmets sometimes allowed, because Christ on a pogo stick, I hadn’t thought it would work, but it did, and now here we were. “Scuttlebutt says that the situation over on Ninth has a bunch of headless corpses. The idea that Scorch didn’t kill the victim isn’t inconceivable. If it’s true… Scorch is an oath sworn deputy of the law. As a Ward, he’s legally within his rights to pursue a violent fugitive believed to be armed and dangerous. Considering the fact that he walked over the bodies…” I paused and glanced at Battery. “He did see Officers Mathews and Douglas, correct?”

    Battery nodded, tearing her eyes off the corpse.

    “Then the fugitive was a known cop killer.” Personally, I thought the bitch on the floor had got what she deserved. Toby hadn’t deserved to die. “Scorch is well within his rights to have restrained our victim with a chokehold.” The boy knew this. I’d seen him reading the officers handbook in the cafeteria on occasion. “Legally…”

    Battery waited after I trailed off, then shifted, lips pursing. “Spit it out.”

    I shrugged. “Scorch is in the clear.”

    “What.” The word was flat. Battery gaped, seeming to be searching for the right words. “Isn’t this... Desecration?”

    I snorted, eyeing Battery out of the side of my eye. Desecration my ass. I didn’t feel inclined to tiptoe around the fucked up shit Rogers had walked in on. “I’d think you would be happy that we don’t have to charge your Ward for fisting a corpse.”

    Battery seemed to hesitate. “I don’t understand.”

    “Scorch is a sworn officer of the law. Law enforcement protections apply. BBPD pulls bags of weed out of junkies on a daily basis, and the junkies are still alive. They have rights. Corpses don’t have rights. You could try the Abuse of a Corpse Statute, but I can think of two reasons Scorch could’ve cut her open that a judge would accept, and that’s just off the top of my head. No prosecutor is going to risk his good relationship with the judges just to bring something to their attention that will never result in a conviction. I’m not even going to mention the precedent it would set. It’s a moot point anyways. Scorch didn’t cut her open. Fisting a corpse isn’t illegal.” Just really, really fucked up.

    With a quiet groan, Battery covered her visor with her hands. “This is going to look so bad when the newspapers get a hold of it.”

    And that didn’t sound like my problem. “Your Ward needs help.” Serious, comprehensive, in-depth mental help. And maybe HR could come in and explain to the kid what good-touch-bad-touch meant. I wished them luck. Either way, I was glad I was just a lowly sergeant. “He seems like a good kid though.” If fucked in the head.

    Battery turned to me, her brow wrinkled. I could see a hint of eyebrows peeking out from under her visor. “What.”

    I turned to face her. “Scorch isn’t a bad kid. Before I moved to Brockton, I did beat in Cleveland. The projects.”

    “Oh.” Battery’s tone indicated she understood.

    I turned back to Scorch, where Assault was leaning forward, fists clenched. Hidden by the faceplate, my eyes narrowed. If I have to intervene, I swear to god… Thankfully, after a moment, Assault backed off, and I let myself untense. “I’ve had forteen-year-olds try to bribe me with sex. Seen toddlers who refused to take suckers out of my hand, wouldn’t even get close to the candy until I was a good thirty feet away. You want to know what it means to feel helpless? It means looking at boys whose dream in life is to be Bloods, and there's nothing you can do to stop them. Can’t help them either. But the Protectorate can help Scorch.”

    Battery’s lips pursed. “I fail to see how.”

    “He’s here, he’s listening, he’s talking.” What more did the Protectorate need? It was a literal, gold embossed invitation on fancy paper worth more than my monthly take-home. When I was on beats, I was happy when the children of hoodrats didn’t cross the street to avoid me.

    “Here, I guess. But he’s not talking.”

    “Huh.” I eyed Battery out the corner of my eye. “He visited the barracks just last week.”

    Battery’s head jerked around, her mouth hanging in a tiny little ‘O’. “Really? He visited you?”

    I nodded. “Just wandered up to our rest area and started poking around.”

    “Anything unusual?” The question rang with curiosity, and dare I say it, hope.

    “Besides Wards poking around our areas?”

    Battery’s lip tugged upwards, just a hint. Maybe I imagined the amusement. No, it was there, wobbly, but there. “Besides that.”

    “Scorch is…” Looking up to the ceiling, I struggled to find the words. “... Visibly not right. I was sitting in the comfortable armchair- You know the one, it’s always being fought over,” Battery nodded, and I continued. “-well, I was reading the morning paper and using the chance to study Scorch. I’m pretty sure he noticed though, because he stared at me for five seconds straight, and then avoided looking at me for the rest of the time he was there. People would come in and talk down to him, and he’d give them one-word answers and then ignore them.” It was unusual, when people treated Scintilla like she was cute, she got angry. “Then Charles walked in.”

    Looking at Battery, I cocked my head, eyebrows inching together. Then my expression smoothed out. She probably didn’t know. “He’s a new transfer. Joined after a military tour doing things he doesn’t want to talk about. His background looks solid though. Gordon reached out to some of his old friends down in Fort Bragg. They say Charles was discharged with full honors.”

    Shifting, Battery let out a breath I hadn’t realized she’d been holding, then nodded. “I need to introduce myself then.”

    “You’ll like him.” Uncrossing my arms, I shoved my hands into my pockets. “Anyways, Charles managed to strike up a conversation with the boy. Next time I looked up from my newspaper, the kid was sitting on a top bunk, legs dangling as the two had an in-depth conversation about guerilla warfare. Most of what they said went over my head, but Charles seemed really impressed by the kids' answers.”

    Battery’s expression tightened. “That is unusual.”

    I shook my head. “That wasn’t what I noticed. Disturbing, yeah, but we all got the memo. What I noticed was how whenever Scorch wasn’t standing, he was careful to never be within arms reach of someone. Charles would take half a step closer, and Scorch would scoot half a step away, his chin resting on his knee. By then, everyone in the rest area was paying attention. We all noticed it. And… I don’t even think Scorch knew he was doing it. He seems like the kind of person who’ll tell other people to stop if he doesn’t like something.”

    “I see…” And from her tone, perhaps Battery did. “Anything else?”

    “He had a very interesting set of beliefs about Isohuman-Parahuman interactions.”

    “Does he?” A note of interest crept into her tone.

    “He’s parahuman centric, to the point where I almost assumed he was a Parahuman supremacist. But it’s not quite that. Before Charles' shift started, it became clear that Scorch saw himself as the Parahuman side of a coin that has Isohumans on the other end. I get the feeling he sees our society as deeply dysfunctional. In his mind, he thinks of Parahumans as fractured power. There isn’t such a thing as a healthy Parahuman to him, just people good at hiding the trauma. And Isohumans have to respect that power, and the danger the trauma creates. But at the same time, Parahumans are the children of Isohumans. They are part of humanity. But something has gone wrong. He loathes Parahumans in general. He sees them as leeches strangling the life out of the world when instead humanity should be working together.”

    For a few seconds, Battery’s mouth opened and closed. Then, at last, she forced out a few incredulous words. “You're telling me you think Scorch is an idealist?

    “No.” I turned away from her. An idealist wouldn’t do that to a body. “I don’t know what he is, but considering how much he hates NEPEA five, I’m surprised it isn’t Elite.” I headed for the stairs. It was time I stopped avoiding the thing I really didn’t want to face.

    Two good men were dead. And since I was the first officer here, it was my job to take a look and tell the Deputy just how bad the corpses were.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Assault: Professional good looker
    _______________________________________________________________
    Email:
    Assault@ProtectorateENE.gov Fax: 1-801-865-4081
    Phone Number: 1-801-865-4143 WWW.handsomeheroes.net/Assault.html

    When you need Assault like Assault needs Battery
    ___________________________________________________________________
    Protectorate East North East Branch

    4:38 PM Eastern Daylight Time

    Every step I took felt wrong. Disjointed. As if this body weren’t my own, a Master puppeting it in my place. Not that I’d ever been mastered. At least not by a Master that felt like this. And my eyes-

    Bile filled my mouth, my stomach roiled. It took everything I had to not retch.

    My eyes were wrong, wrong, wrongwrongwrong-

    I wanted nothing more than to run to the nearest bathroom and wrench off my mask, just so I could look into the mirror and see the familiar reflection with my eyes staring back. If my fingers curled, just a little, it certainly wasn’t because I wanted to claw them out. Not at all. That would be silly, and irrational, and- and- And all these little thoughts I refused to think.

    It was stupid. I should be happy that I had eyes at all. That desire to rip off my visor? It should be to convince myself that this wasn’t a dream, that I wasn’t alone, that the screaming and the explosions which shook and rattled and hurt and twisted-

    ‘Honey, honey, honey,’ the voice in my head pled, the worried thought pulling me away. ‘Pay attention to me. Honey, you're alright. You're safe.’

    My adam's apple bobbed, the feeling like swallowing molten glass. Molten Glass. At the thought, I stiffened, chest tight, the beginnings of panic clawing at the corner of my mind.

    ‘Categorize.’ The soothing voice always sounded so reasonable… Well not always so reasonable, but- ‘Categorize fun. For me. Please?’ -irresistible on the other hand? Maybe just a little.

    Her suggestions pushed me into a line of thought I was comfortable with, allowing me to chug along even as I fell apart, because fun. I could do fun. Liked to think of myself as a funny guy even. But the important thing was I could do it.

    The body on the floor I was trying to not think about, because- Nope. I didn’t want to go there. It wasn’t fun, leave it at that. One furious pint-sized Ward pacing back and forth in front of me, wings twitching with agitation? Very much not. fun.

    I mean, for fucks sake, Scorch was dangerous. I knew it. Alex knew it. Hell, even the janitors knew it, just from looking at the way the kid walked. It was hard to miss, even if Blood Hound hadn’t been in the Protectorate freezers after his untimely demise. Few Parahumans set off my danger senses the way Scorch did. Not even Lung felt as threatening. Bad breath spit fire and fury, but it was all personal with him, and contrary to what the late-night pundits thought, Lung wasn’t immediately lethal. But Scorch? Missy’s Bondmate, who had very publicly told Glenn Chambers to get fucked over a few tears?

    Sand and the sound of weapons fire, shrapnel impacting the ground-

    ‘Honey, maybe you need to sit down.’

    Alex’s words jerked me out of it. Again. Already, it was beginning to form a trend, and I hated it. ‘I’m fine,’ I murmured back, sending the tendril of thought her way. But we both knew that was a lie, even as I shook my head. It didn’t matter though. Not now. When Alex had realized those men were dead, and I- The thought made something stick in my throat. Swallowing, and deliberately not thinking about things, not that I knew what those things were (because I wasn’t thinking about them), I rerailed my train of thought.

    Beach.

    I’d thought of it. And how close I had come to death. And Alex. Sweet, spirited, Alex, who laughed at my jokes, even when no one else did, who put up with me, especially when no one else would, and was willing to play along with that sadistic streak of mine I hid under the gleaming heroism while pulling me back before I went too far. That was the Alex I thought about when I’d imagined her going up against the forces that had attacked me on the beach.

    The hospital room had been quiet, confined, warm, safe even. I hadn’t wanted to leave it. Talking to people made me feel sick.

    ‘Categorize.’

    Again, she jerked me back. The worry in her voice killed me. I wasn’t normally this out of it, and it showed. Maybe it was putting her at more risk than if I’d just stayed in that room. Maybe I was being stupid.

    Maybe?’

    ‘Probably.’ Definitely. But letting her walk out that door with no one to watch her back terrified me.

    ‘Categorize.’ The warmth of her thoughts faded as it met the steel of discipline and demand.

    I, of course, buckled immediately. ‘Categorize,’ I murmured back, not a sound leaving my throat. The concept felt tired and worn, just like me.

    The living angel of death, fun-sized and furious? Not fun.

    The way I wanted to not-claw at my eyes in memory of what had happened to them? Not fun.

    The way my left thigh couldn’t stop trembling? Not fun.

    All that blood in the air which reminded me of the stuff that had wept out of my bleeding, burning eye sockets? Not. Fun.

    Right now, it was safe to say I was not having a whole lot of fun at the moment.

    Scorch halted as I approached, turning towards me. Lifting my chin, I gave a shaky wave.

    “Assault.”

    “Pipsqueak.”

    Scorch’s head tilted.

    A little shiver of fear rippled down my spine. That beach really had broken me, hadn't it? There was poking Armsmaster, and then there was this. Scorch could legitimately be thinking about splitting my skull open like an egg behind that helmet of his. And the kid could do it too. In an instant. Probably without thinking. He’d certainly done that on the beach. A sharp crack, then Scorch had been sending his little missiles shrieking downrange with a howl like a rocket, one after another.

    The boy had jobbed power testing so damn hard, and none of us had realized it.

    Every scenario we’d planned for him had been wildly conservative. Puppy hadn’t wanted to keep me updated, but I’d begged. The investigation that was going on had only just started, but Armsmaster could already tell that the power had been precisely applied.

    Scary as fuck considering Scorch had been shooting every half second, if not a third.

    Half of the enemy had been dead before anyone had even arrived for reinforcements, killed in the first ten seconds of the engagement after Scorch had instantly retaliated.

    I swallowed hard. Honestly, I wished I could be a better help to- well, anyone. Especially now. We needed answers, and we needed them now, but I didn’t remember much of what had happened.

    But the image of me looking up at Scorch from my back as my face burned from the heat of the shots flying overhead, that was burnt into my brain.

    “Someone got you a new visor.”

    My attention was forcefully jerked back to reality, the young man in front of me coming back into focus. “Er. Yeah.”

    And I really, really hated it. I hadn’t before, I mean, my armor was great. I pulled it off well. It was me after all. But looking down at Scorch, I really, really saw the appeal of that monstrosity he wore, even though it rattled with every step. Even the helmet. Perhaps especially the helmet. This close, I could see the cool glass beads that decorated Scorch’s faceplate, even around the eye lenses. Scorch’s armor had protected him. It looked like shit, but most of the damage was paint. Fucking paint. Even in the places where it was obvious he had taken a direct hit, it hadn’t penetrated. With the thicker pieces, like the chest plate, it wasn’t close either. And me? Triumph?

    My lips tugged upwards into a smile that had nothing happy about it.

    Before, I’d… Wondered why Scorch had so much armor. Those shields he had were impressive, and the armor seriously limited his mobility. The boy could dart around the sky like a dragonfly if he wanted to, and instead he flew like a brick because he refused to part with the weight. As long as he’d had a shield, he’d be good. Surely the bulletproof, stabproof, shrapnel proof, heatproof, nonconductive, acid-resistant undersuit was enough? Right?

    Throw some pouches over a snazzy suit or something, and PR would love their new darling. Scorch and Scintilla, the pair that look like they’re about to attend a ball.

    They would’ve been incredibly popular among the demographic that appreciated cuteness, the same way me and Battery were incredibly popular among the demographic that appreciated good taste.

    But I got it now, in a way I would never forget, for as long as I lived.

    The man who’d captured Scorch and tortured him had been a horrible, terrible fluke, one that I still didn’t quite understand how it had happened.

    Scorch was a fast, brutal, powerful, intelligent killing machine. He didn’t need durability or endurance.

    All Scorch needed was a chance to respond. Nothing more

    And the sword… Oh good god, the sword. My eyes strayed to the aforementioned ‘prop’.

    Prop my fucking ass. Scorch had sat down before the patrol and told me, to my face, that he wouldn’t be taking anything extra, from snacks to water, because he was already too heavy. His gear was pure essentials. And that gap on the left side of his belt. Everywhere else was full. But that was just enough space for a pistol.

    “You miss your sidearm?” The words were blurted out of my mouth before I could even think about them.

    Immediately, Scorch tensed. “What sidearm?”

    But I couldn’t miss how his hand had strayed to that gap, same way some of the villains I’d jailbroken in the past did. And he’d negotiated with Miss Militia for grenades.

    Categorize. Categorize. Don’t space out either. That was a goal. But categorize first. Closing my eyes I sighed. “Nothing,” I said out loud. “I’m just… Not handling this attack well.”

    Feathers rustled in the background, plates scraped, and boots clacked as Scorch shifted. “I can understand that. Your breathing is strained. Panic attack?”

    “Yeah…”

    “You have the right techniques?”

    “I’m… categorizing things.” I cracked my eyes open.

    “Ah.” Scorch turned away, waving his right hand, the one covered in feces. The blood-stained remains of the victims' clothes lept into the waiting hand. “I prefer sensation grounding,” he said as he wiped his hands clean, or at least cleaner, smearing blood all over the gauntlets in the process.

    Glancing at Scorch, I raised an eyebrow. “There a reason why?”

    Scorch shrugged, wings twitching. “Categorization requires you to actually think about the things around you. Sensation just forces you to feel them. Things don’t bother me so much when I don’t think about them.”

    ‘Puppy, has Missy said anything about Scorch repressing things?’ I thought to Battery, the idea a cross between the memory of a soft caress and a whispered sound.

    The thought made me worried. Repression didn’t sound all that healthy. Repressed things didn’t go away, they blew up. And Scorch blowing up was a bad thing. Now, more than ever, I was keenly aware that the ENE was not prepared to have a Blaster ten throw a tantrum, trauma-related or otherwise. And Scorch was a ten, not the nine we’d thought, not that the ten changed much. Between Scintilla’s mover rating and Scorch’s preexisting blaster rating, help was always going to be called in from outside if a serious incident occurred. But the idea that an entire Protectorate team was unfit to handle a single Parahuman on a single aspect alone was incredibly unnerving.

    ‘Yes… Honey…’ Alex’s voice trailed off. Unlike physical sound, the end of wife-mine’s sentence was not abrupt, like a divided line, but a messy drag of the paintbrush, full of ragged emotion and things left unsaid but deeply felt. ‘We need to know why he did that to the body. If you aren’t up to it, I can take over.’

    I winced. The body was, perhaps, a more pressing subject than Scorch’s mental health. “No. It’s fine.’

    ‘If you say so.’

    ‘I do.” That said, my brows furrowed as I tried to figure out a diplomatic way to ask the questions I needed to. After half a second, I gave it up as a lost cause. Not because there weren’t diplomatic ways to put it, there certainly were, but social niceties was a skillset that was lost on Scorch. That, and I didn’t want to. I could try some other day when I was feeling better, and phantom pains from glass that no longer existed didn’t haunt my every thought. “Why did you want to open that woman up?”

    “I want my feather.”

    “But why?”

    “It’s mine.” Scorch’s tone had an edge to it that I really didn’t like.

    Looking over his shoulder, I frowned. The boy had thousands of them, if not tens of thousands. It was like worrying over hair. So why was Scorch so intent on getting it back. It was stupid to push, and I knew it. But I couldn’t help it. We needed to know. “I know, I know. But… It’s gone. Yeah? Even if you found it, it’s not going to go pop back in. Right?”

    When Scorch froze, I froze. I didn’t want to. But it was a good idea. Especially when his wings froze too. Those were, in my experience, not that there was much of that, the best way to tell just what Scorch was thinking at all times. Anger, they twitched or swayed in short, jerky motions. Happiness, they swayed in slow, wider arcs. Excitement? They quivered. But when they and the boy froze at the same time, that was the danger. That was when Scorch was likely contemplating violence. I’d seen it at the hospital, and more than a few times since.

    That feather-” I winced, there was definitely an angry growl in that voice. “-happens to be made of DNA. Live DNA. Two hundred and twenty-seven Petabytes of unique DNA which make absolutely no sense because it is twisted by whatever made me into this.” Scorch gestured at himself in a rough, angry motion.

    “And why is that important?”

    Scorch spun on his heel, each word dripping with disgust as he stalked away. “Why is it important. Why is it important?” Stopping, he spun one eighty degrees and started making his way back to me. “Why do we have retinal scanners in the Wards base?! Why are fingerprints considered useful?! Why does it matter that Armsmaster has a personal cryptographic code that can access any room in the PRT!?”

    “But…” I trailed off. “That’s because those are keys. Sure, everything in that list of yours is unique, but it only matters if you have a key if there’s a lock to go with it. So… That raises the question… Where's the lock?”

    Without a word, Scorch snarled. Right hand resting on the hilt of his sword, he jabbed a finger at my face -I may or may not have flinched- then growled “I will be there when the coroners perform their autopsy!”

    “Okay, okay!” I held up my hands. This wasn’t a fight I wanted. Not with how my bones ached. “I will pass that along. But seriously, this is making me a little worried. What could be this important? It’s like… Like this entire thing was all about you.” Something sickly twisted in my gut. “It was all about you,” I whispered. “Not even about killing you.”

    Ethan?’ Alex’s voice held a hint of worry.

    “What could possibly be worth all this?” I demanded. “What is your DNA protecting?!”

    “Nothing-” Scorch’s snarl abruptly cut off as a ping echoed in the room. In a blur, he shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out-

    My blood went cold. That wasn’t a PRT issued phone. In fact, I’d never seen Scorch with it. Never. And he carried it on him. That was extra weight when everything he had was… essential. And the phone had brown smudges all over the keys.

    For a second, Scorch merely stared, then gave a sharp nod. Buttons clicked as he tapped a message out, then mashed his thumb on the send key. The phone vibrated once, then Scorch opened his hand, the device resting on his upright palm. The air rippled, then cracked. Plastic ground, metal shrieked then broke. Before my eyes, the phone dissolved into a mixture of toxic dust, grainy plastic, and gleaming metal fragments. Whirling, Scorch hurled what remained at the corpse on the ground. “Choke on it,” he hissed, hate and fury combining to make each word something deeply ugly in a way I couldn’t put into words as I recoiled.

    I’d never heard him sound so angry.

    Scared, yes, in the hospital. Outraged, sure, when he’d locked himself into the PR office with Glenn Chambers. Cold, when he’d threatened Armsmaster.

    Scorch was many things.

    But I’d never heard him hate.

    ‘Puppy,’ I thought, my mouth going dry. ‘I think Scorch just sent his handlers an SMS.’ Another terrible thought crossed my mind. “Did you kill her? On purpose?” Because that was suddenly a very real possibility.

    “And lose the one person who might be able to tell me who took that feather? To tell me why?”

    With the emphasis Scorch placed on the last bit, I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about why they’d taken the feather. Scorch knew why. He’d admitted as much. No, he meant something different. Something deeper. “I thought the feather was in her stomach.” The words dropped from my dry lips.

    Scorch spun, turning away. “It could be.” His voice cracked, each word spoken with a deliberate and terrible purpose. “But I doubt it.”

    “Why?”

    “There wasn’t enough time to bag then swallow it. And it would’ve been in a bag. Stomach acid would’ve contaminated the DNA beyond repair.”

    “And what about the object you saw?”

    Scorch snorted, then his wings shivered. “What about it? It was Tinker tech. It could’ve been anything. But,” Scorch’s words turned dark, “I can guess.”

    “Guess?”

    “It’s not important. Not anymore. Afterwards…” Venom dripped from each word. “Her fucking head exploded. Just so no one could ask her questions.” Striding forward, Scorch crouched in front of the corpse, peering at the bloody, mangled chunk of meat and gristle where the head had been. “I hope that whoever owned her is happy that it was all for nothing. All of this-” Scorch stood with a jerk, gesturing around the room. “My bondmate! All of it! Nothing! Pointless!” Scorch looked down. “You hear that bitch? You committed suicide for nothing. Your loyalty was wasted on people who could never honor that sacrifice in the first place.” Shaking his head, the fight seemed to ebb out of Scorch. “What a waste,” he whispered.

    Something tickled in the back of my mind as Alex walked closer, her steps soundly clicking against the floor, a sharp contrast to Scorch’s angry stomps. “Did you know her?” Battery whispered. “You seem-”

    Angry’ I supplied.

    “-angry,” Alex smoothly finished.

    “Know? Know is a strong word.” Shaking his head, Scorch stepped back, turning away. “I recognize the type.”

    “Where are you going,” I called, grabbing my wife’s power. I really, really didn’t want to fight, not now, and especially not him. But if I had to… If I had to, I’d aim for the head and hope to get lucky. Running wasn’t an option. Scorch was too fast, too precise. To run was to die. And I couldn’t let him leave either. Not if there was the possibility he’d murdered the woman.

    ‘Relax. Now.’ Alex’s thoughts tinged with command. ‘We are not fighting him. Not now.

    I all but sagged with relief, letting go of the accumulated charge.

    “Scintilla.” Scorch’s wings flicked. “She’s on her way here. I can feel the space bend. And she’s seen enough gore for one day.” Then, his pinyons stilled. “You were supposed to stay with her.” It sounded like an accusation.

    My heart lept to my throat at the obvious anger someone so powerful had towards Alex.

    “Perhaps, had you wanted her to remain completely safe, you should’ve stayed with her.” Alex sidestepped closer to me even as I did the same towards her, her tone mild. ‘And maybe then, we wouldn’t have this gigantic mess to clean up.’

    Swallowing, I placed my hand on her shoulder, just to feel some of my worries drain away. After the day I’d had, I needed the contact. God, I wished that we were home, so we could get out of our armor and be together. Right now, skin-to-skin contact would feel so good, the more the better. Maybe it was avoiding my problems, but I didn’t care. Everything was wrong, and I didn’t know how to fix it. ‘We should’ve pushed Armsmaster harder in the meetings.’

    ‘Maybe.’ Reaching up, Battery clasped my hand, trapping it between her palm and shoulder.

    As Scorch lifted his foot to walk away, I called out. “You realize that there will be consequences for this?”

    Scorch stilled.

    “Even if you're in the right, this…” I licked my lips. “This doesn’t look good. For anyone.” And I wasn’t certain Scorch was in the right.

    Scorch’s shoulders sagged, revealing the broken child which hid beneath every action of the shattered soldier his masters had created. For a few, brief seconds, Scorch looked like a boy, alone, tired, and scared. Nothing more, and nothing less.

    Then it was gone, the confidence back as if it had never left in the first place. “You will do what you have to. I will endure what I must.” Try as I might, there was no doubt to be found in those words. Scorch truly believed that.

    As pale white boots clicked against floor tiles, and Scorch’s back retreated, I was torn.

    There was something wrong about this scene, something sad. Were Scorch any other Ward, I would’ve stopped him without hesitation.. At times, it felt like Scorch was a single realization from being a suicide case; a child in a constant state of denial. Beyond the morality of leaving a suicidal kid alone, regulation said the same thing. Scorch had killed someone. Multiple someones. Wards had been forced to take life, then taken their own afterwards, and regulations had been drafted to prevent it in the future. Then there was the messy, inconvenient fact that this was the second attack in as many hours. What if this happened again? It wasn’t just about who I was as a person, not leaving Scorch alone was my job.

    And yet… I couldn’t bring myself to reach out, and say no. Scorch in the same room as Alex? No. Just no. Not until I’d had a chance to think things through and decide whether or not it was safe for her.

    Space bent and then Scorch vanished without a sound.

    ‘I don’t want to go after him, Puppy.’

    Alex sighed, turning her head to breathe in the scent of my grime-covered hand. ‘Someone needs to stay with the body and talk to Armsmaster. It won’t be long until he arrives.’

    ‘It’s beyond that.’ For a brief moment, I hesitated, then shook off the fears like a dog did water. This was Puppy. We’d gotten over any trust issues we had years ago, and I’d be damned if this attack, or the self-doubt it brought, would mess any of that up. Not when I’d worked so hard to overcome the terrible, broken start we’d had. ‘I never realized how much he scares me before today.

    “Scares?’ Battery’s thoughts tasted of surprise.

    ‘You weren’t there. I know that Scorch being a child soldier isn’t news. But it never clicked for me until today. Seeing his handiwork is different from seeing him in action. The hospital… When he got mad, you remember?’

    Battery nodded. ‘You talked about it before we went to bed.

    ‘Well, I was afraid for him. I thought ‘he’s just this kid. He can’t stand against a team of heroes.’

    When Battery next responded, it tasted of sharp consideration. ‘You now think otherwise.’

    The ghost of a smile played over my face. Keen as a whip. I was so glad we were Bonded. Even with the… Strange circumstances she’d gained powers, and the reasons she’d taken that risk, it was hard to imagine a world where I wasn’t hers, and she wasn’t mine. Then the smile faded as reality reasserted itself. ‘I… I don’t know. Maybe if we had the entire team in the building, ready to fight, with enough prep time. Armsmaster isn’t much of a leader, but Tinkers like him are hard to stop. But Scorch…’ Both word and thought failed me as I tried to explain what made Scorch Scorch. ‘I only caught a bit of it before-’ No. I didn’t want to think about that.

    The sudden stop didn’t escape Battery’s notice. She gave my hand a tight squeeze, her touch grounding me. ‘It’s okay. You’re okay.’

    ‘I really don’t think I am.” I cast a shame-filled gaze down at the blood-soaked floor. The blood didn’t bother me. While I’d never had much of a body count as Madcap, that didn’t mean the people I’d worked with were the same. The source of my discomfort was closer to home.

    ‘And that’s okay. We’ll fix it together.’

    ‘Together.’ A pale smile crossed my face.

    Now, Scorch?’

    I still couldn’t find the words. So I closed my eyes and let the thoughts flow, losing myself in the sweet siren call of our connection, pouring myself out even as I turned my attention in. ‘He moved like water. Liquid. Flowing from one form to the next’ Memory flashed through my mind, how his power had felt like bands of steel wrapped around my legs, tearing my feet out from under me. ‘Intelligent. Able to multitask. Relentlessly lethal. He’s better than I ever thought he was. Death was an instinct to him. There was no pause between being attacked and counterattacked. They attacked him, and it just happened. No punches were pulled. He didn’t ignore the terrain the way other powerful parahumans tend to either. And he was fast. On every level. Fast on the uptake, fast on attacks, fast-moving. He underplayed his abilities more than we predicted. Quadruple how fast power testing says he can attack, remove any delay with shielding, add a list of abilities he hid… My memory is hazy. But that report is functionally useless. And…’

    “And?’

    “Puppy…’ Right then, I just felt so tired. Sagging a little, I leaned on Battery for support. ‘Scorch engaged things I couldn’t see. They were too far. I think we need to consider whether Scorch’s trigger event left him with more physical changes than just wings, slightly increased strength, and strange allergies.’ It wasn’t unusual for Parahumans with less than stellar backgrounds to withhold abilities from the PRT. Especially Wards age children. One or two minor abilities was the norm. Most children thought themselves clever for doing it. But this, this wasn’t a healthy sense of suspicion. More paranoid to the point of obsession. I couldn’t imagine just how much effort had gone into making sure that the way he held back was consistent. Stubborn brat.

    ‘That’s an awful lot to take in,’ Alex murmured.

    ‘I know.’ And that was why I wasn’t sure we would’ve won in the hospital, even if we had been prepared.

    ‘The lack of charge up time… Do you think he was holding back in the power testing with his largest attack as well?’ Battery bit her lip. ‘That was easily on the level of Purity. The idea that he could do that every half-second…’

    ‘I don’t know. But we need to consider every possibility before the ENE even thinks that we might have a plan to deal with him if he goes rogue. Me…. I only saw part of that fight. And none of it where he used Scintilla’s mover capabilities. But analysis of the fourth shows that he prefers bending space over flying, almost exclusively using it. At this point, I’m certain that nothing Scorch does is accidental. Not in combat. I caught a glimpse of him chasing Scintilla over the rooftops before this all happened. He’s slower than her. But not twice as slow.’

    ‘It sounds like nothing is accurate.’

    Thinking back, I thought about how I’d seen what appeared to be a solid wall of plasma pour into his shields. Maybe it was power interactions. Maybe Scorch’s shield didn’t give a damn about heat, only kinetic force. But if everything so far had been completely wrong, then the odds were good that the testing railgun had been allowed to penetrate. My heart sank. At this point, it seemed it had done nothing but. ‘Scorch could be Triumvirate Tier.’

    ‘Ethan…’

    I shook my head. ‘Hear me out.’

    Cloth rustled as Battery nodded.

    ‘He’s not invulnerable like Alexandria, sure. He’s not as fast as Legend, sure.’

    ‘He doesn’t hold a candle to Eidolon either.’ The thought sounded patient but was layered in a thin veneer of indulgent disbelief.

    ‘I know. But he is powerful.’

    “Purity is powerful too. Her beams can match the most dangerous of Legends attacks. We don’t compare her to the three either.’

    ‘But he’s versatile. He’s a Trump-’ I stopped suddenly as the thought hit. Scorch felt like a grab bag. Instead of brushing the thought off, I examined it. ‘Trump.’

    ‘I… Don’t follow…’

    ‘Scintilla is a Trump. Her power has grown with her, much, much more than powers are supposed to flex. Scorch’s power testing report said he showed signs of being able to make flames like Scintilla. We knew this…’

    One second. Then two. At four and a half, Battery sucked in a sharp breath. ‘The power testers were ecstatic. A Trump pair…’

    She saw the same thing I did. Her next thought confirmed it.

    ‘A linker pair.

    One that was being groomed for national attention. It explained everything. Why the brass had been so lenient. Why Chambers had taken such a personal interest, even beyond what was strictly necessary to contain the Chicago scandal. The worst part was, I couldn’t deny they’d make a good fit. At least Scorch would. Maybe he wasn’t a people person, but he was exactly the kind of killer who would make others fear his arrival. The mixture of power and tactics he displayed were a tempting thing for an organization like the PRT, and the Protectorate had always been keen on giving Linkers more public representation. The dynamic of Scintilla and Scorch was an incredibly touching thing, once I saw past all the gruff words.

    ‘I’ve changed my mind. You’re right. We should’ve pressed Armsmaster harder. Much, much harder. The information-” Puppy broke off, still seething. ‘They have gone too far.’

    ‘We almost died,’ I murmured.

    “Yes,” she growled aloud. “Yes you did.”

    “I hate to interrupt.” The curt voice suggested otherwise.

    My eyes popped open-

    Armsmaster stood in front of us, arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently. “Are you done?” he growled.

    Battery went rigid. “Sorry sir. It-”

    “Won’t happen again,” Armsmaster interrupted. “I have heard it before, yes. Report. Now.”

    Opening her mouth, Puppy prepared to-

    “It’s Washington’s fault,” I drawled. “All of it. We need to have another Protectorate meeting Boss. Something stinks here, and it’s not just Scorch.” My words were supposed to be playful. They sounded hollow.

    Battery stepped just a little bit closer to me, making no move to let my hand go.

    That was fine. With her around, I felt less like shattered glass. Less like the mangled body on the floor behind me.

    Armsmasters voice had been grim before. It was worse now. “Is that so.” The words weren’t a question. Weren’t a statement either. In fact, they sounded more like a promise.

    One of violence.


    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Scorch
    Space Left Delib. Blank
    7821677776
    AB pos. C53 | Spec. Caut. Nec.
    Catholic

    ~

    2142 ZULU

    As Vinci stomped through the halls, he was furious, and more than a little scared. Underneath the helmet, his face was chalky white, his lips pursed in a thin line, and eyes full of grim determination.

    He didn’t like this. Not at all.

    The attack had never been about him. It had never been about the political aspects of the Hussar operation. It had been about the feather.

    In a world on the brink of annihilation, every scenario, every contingency had been planned for. Even the complete collapse of the Stratocracy as a functional government and military.

    It was called the Eligros contingency, and it wasn’t just about second-strike capability and retaliation, though Eligros had ample plans for both. Eligros had also been about the continuity of the Hussars. It ensured that no single death could result in valuable systems, weapons, or databases being rendered inaccessible because the only person who had a key was dead.

    Each Tier One held a partial key or knew where to find one. And they also knew which systems their key could access.

    Icarus was a four-man squad. It took only three of those four to activate silo clusters seven, eleven, and nineteen. Close to seventy-five Greene-Thornberg tipped ballistic missiles in all.

    And that was just one system that he was able to help activate. Nor was it the most damaging. From bioweapon repositories to physical vaults filled with files full of secrets that could start wars, there was one thing that held true no matter which system was in question.

    Every lock that required one of his still-living feathers was one better left unturned. And not just because he loved his wings. And now, someone had stolen one, barbule, quill, blood and all.

    Yes, he was scared, and more than a little furious. Gathering the three keys needed to open any given lock was an all but impossible task, even with a traitor. The locks had been designed that way. That made this entire operation a terrible waste. Even now, old mechanisms in the Stratocracy bureaucracy were springing into gear, alerting ancient facilities and new strongholds alike to go and invalidate his key. But ops such as this were never poorly thought out. Vinci was angry because he might be right, but the thought he might be wrong terrified him.

    The theory was clear. It was the kind of things that were protected by those locks which made the destruction of the Stratocracy an unappealing prospect for anyone. To meddle with the pyrrhic failsafes was to present a clear and present danger to the Hussar Stratocracy as a nation-state.

    First Ryker, and his questions about Eligros. Now an entire operation to secure part of an armageddon key.

    Vinci was looking at an existential threat to the nation he served with honor and distinction.

    Many things were muddied, unclear. But there was one thing that was crystal.

    This was an act of war.


    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    T*F*H*O*T*N
    ___________________________________________________________________
    Committee for State Security
    Special Unit “SOI”
    Identity Document No. 15
    The presenter of this ID Nikita Garin_________
    Is an Information Analyst_____________
    Vice Chairman of the Committee for State Security - Maxim Aminoff___________
    ___________________________________________________________________
    T*F*H*O*T*N

    ~

    1:10 PM Atlas Standard

    Moving to the right side of the hall, I glanced at the pair out of the corner of my eye as I walked, picking out details, mostly out of habit. On the surface there wasn’t much to look at. A woman wearing a tight dress, and a man in scrubs. Just a patient and her nurse. But I’d never been a fan of taking things at face value. Perhaps that was why I was in this position to begin with.

    No ring on the woman’s index finger, but a groove in the flesh where one should be; Married, though not happily.

    An uncomfortable smile on the nurse, his phone in his hand; scratches on the plastic. Dropped often. Clumsy? The detail was filed away in the corner of my mind.

    The man looked desperately at me as I passed.

    Flashing a polite smile, I ignored him.

    No time to stop and chat. Not when I was disposable, deniable, and maybe, just maybe, a dead woman walking. The thought bothered me more than it should have. I’d known the risk’s when I’d said yes. But that didn’t change the way sweat threatened to bead my brow, or the way my heart hammered in my chest, all because of that little weight in my pocket that just seemed to burn.

    Pale white, light, inconsequential even.

    A part of me wondered just why so many had to die for a fucking feather. Then that too was relegated to the back of my mind. It wasn’t my place to ask questions. It wasn’t my place to think either. It was the way these things had to be done. I didn’t know why the feather was important. I didn’t know why we had attacked the Winged Hussar, potentially provoking an ‘incident’ with the Hussar Stratocracy.

    I didn’t know why I was here.

    And that’s a good thing. At least that was what I kept telling myself. Maybe if I said it enough, I would believe it.

    If this whole op went south… My mouth, though it seemed impossible, turned even drier. If the whole op went south, then I wasn’t coming home. That was obvious enough. But beyond that, if it went south, I didn’t exist. Never had. They would deny I existed, leave me to twist in the wind, at least if I wasn’t honorable enough to… deny the enemy actionable intelligence.

    A quiet, almost musical tone echoed throughout the hospital. “Doctor Manuel to Pediatrics. Doctor Manuel to Pediatrics.”

    The nurses at the station I’d just passed exchanged glances, expressions going tight. The one farthest from me leaned forward and pressed a button on her console.

    “You're blown,” the surgically implanted bead in my ear murmured. “Run.”

    Ahead, the doors, which had been held open by the way of magnets, jerked into motion, beginning to close.

    I ran.

    “Hey-”

    Ignoring the demands to stop, I shoved my hand into scrubs acquired specifically for this mission, grabbing the deterrent. Slender fingers wrapped around a cylindrical object as I slipped through the crack between the wooden door and its frame, a click echoing in my wake seconds later as the doors locked.

    Meanwhile, my feet pounded against the sterile white tiles.

    “Faster than we expected,” the voice murmured.

    Yeah… Faster…

    The thought… wasn’t exactly bitter. I’d… accepted that one day, this job would be the death of me. But I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t know how I’d get out of this one.

    There should’ve been a teleporter capable of pulling me out from within the building, the same Tinker who’d made the failsafe, but less than fifteen minutes before I’d begun, command had informed me that he was no longer available. What had followed was a whirlwind of replanning as we struggled to adjust for a mover who was lacking in comparison. The only way out for me was through the beacon in my car. And the only way to my car that had a possibility of working was through the hospital itself. Hopefully, the possibility of collateral would stay the Winged Hussar’s hand.

    I wasn’t optimistic.

    But it was a chance, and the only one I had. It would have to be enough. Otherwise, the failsafe wrapped around my index finger was all that was left.

    “Make it to the entrance,” the voice urged. “You can do it. We trained you for this. Make it to the entrance, and we will do the rest.”

    Solid white brick broken by the occasional cutesy painted animal flashed past as I ran, meanwhile, ahead, a pair of wooden doors with push bars clicked shut, the only difference between the ones ahead and the ones behind being the lack of wire mesh windows.

    “Fire alarm coming up. Right side.”

    My eyes darted in the indicated direction- there. Without breaking my stride, I reached out with the hand not holding the deterrent and yanked down.

    Sirens wailed, and I continued onwards.

    Gripping the deterrent tighter, I pushed down with my thumb, and depressed the button on top of the cylinder, feeling more than hearing the click over the shrieking of the alarms, and the strobing of the lights. A green diode blinked once as I tossed the cylinder over my shoulder.

    Twenty feet. Ten. Five.

    My shoulder slammed into the push bar, slamming the door open, and into the wall.

    Ahead, brick wall. To my right, double steel doors guarding access to the stairwell, now very helpfully unlocked. Behind-”

    The hair on the back of my neck prickled. That was my only warning.

    Without conscious thought, I hurled myself to the side-

    “Urgh!” Stars exploded as my forehead slammed into the steel door with a resounding crack, the taste of copper filling my mouth.

    With a shriek like a banshee, something howled past me, air tugging at my hair in its wake. The wall directly ahead exploded into a shower of fragments, none bigger than my fingernail as the ground shook beneath my feet. Brilliant sunlight poured into the new hole, illuminating the blood which dripped from my chin to the ground. Perfect, manicured fingers scrabbled at the door handle, using it to haul myself up, then tear the door open as I staggered to the right.

    As I passed through the frame, translucent tape placed over the steel door frame shimmered as it caught the sunlight.

    Jumping, I threw myself over the railing of the stairs, which hugged the walls in a square, leaving a hole large enough for a body at the center, hair whipping around my head as I plunged feet first to the ground ten stories below.

    Raising my fist to the ceiling, my arm muscles clenched.

    Light flashed from the top of the stairwell, where I’d jumped, leaving bright spots in my wake. As the gleaming, stainless steel tines of the grappling hook punched through the coarse weave of my scrubs, I only barely saw it hit the ceiling.

    The line went taut.

    Fuck. That hurt!

    My teeth clacked shut as I jerked to a stop, muscles in my shoulder shrieking their protests as my fall was gradually, but no less brutal for it, arrested feet from the ground. Slapping my right arm, the line cut itself, dropping me the rest of the way.

    Dirty white sneakers touched down, and then I was running again.

    “Telemetry indicates the mine detonated,” the voice in my ear murmured.

    My step hitched mid-stride. I recovered before the misstep could send me sprawling to the ground. How had I missed the explosion?

    Before I could think on it any further, the door I’d sealed shut with the thermal tape exploded. Flinching out of habit, I grit my teeth, trying to ignore the sharp twin spikes of pain that felt like someone had shoved steel needles in both of my ears and twisted. Behind me, the cherry red remains of the metal doors slammed into the ground, shattering the tiles. It was stupid, there was no time, but I couldn’t help myself. I looked up out of habit-

    Then hurled myself into a roll, my shoe jerking as it left the ground, the impact light, akin to that of a softball. But no softball made the air howl the way it did behind me.

    Smoothing coming to my feet, already running, I cast a glance over my shoulder.

    A perfect hole was gouged into the floor behind me, where I’d stood less than five seconds earlier.

    Branded into my mind was the still image of twin red spots piercing my soul as the target glared at me.

    I turned my attention to the hall ahead, mind whirling. He’s trying to take me alive.

    That thought terrified me. I wasn’t naive enough to buy the propaganda. It didn’t follow that a military as effective as the one the Hussars had were animals that raped women, murdered children, and massacred survivors. But that didn’t mean they weren’t monsters. The thought, instead of being comforting, only made the dread worse. A sadist would give up when they were bored, but people like the Hussars saw every task to its inevitable conclusion, no matter how sickening.

    My tongue prodded at the smooth tooth in my mouth, that one molar that felt different from the others.

    It was better than being captured.

    For the first time since leaving that room, I opened my mouth, my voice soft and sweet. Too sweet for what I did. “I- tell my family I love them,” I whispered.

    I didn’t want to die. My muscles burned as I forced every bit of strength from them as I could, faster, faster. But that didn’t mean I was naive.

    “No,” the voice in my ear said, dispassionate, “You can make it. It will be close, but the slingshot is already powering up. Get out of the building in five seconds.”

    Exiting the hallway, the world around me expanded into the lobby, and the glass doors dead ahead, just around the reception desk, beckoning with its promise of freedom, and life.

    It was so close. Maybe. Just maybe. Hope bloomed in my chest.

    “I-” A horrid, choking sound left my lips, drowned out by the sound of the fire alarms. My eyes bulged as something slammed into my throat. It was like a band of steel, leaving me gagging as if someone had clotheslined me. The steel held me up, even as my legs gave way underneath me, bile and vomit dribbling from the corner of my lips as I retched. ‘It’ had managed to get to the bottom of the stairwell faster than I could get out of its line of sight.

    Out of time.

    I wanted to claw at my throat, rip off the thing that was strangling me. But I did none of that. The target could snap throats with a glance. That I could still think was not an accident. Fear morphed into resolve.

    Not alive. Never alive. Better dead than at Hussar mercy.

    I shoved my hand in my pockets for the last time, pulling out the pale white feather, fingers balled around the quill as I brought my hand to my lips. The second the gold band wrapped around my index finger met my lips, my chest heaved as I tried to scream. But, just like it left me choking, my lungs burning, so too did the band around my throat strangle my agonized cries in their infancy. Sneakers kicked at the floor as the scent of charred flesh filled the air. Within my fist, something grew, forcing my fingers open like a crowbar did a wooden crate, burning all the while.

    Within half a second, I could no longer feel my hand.

    Drawing my arm back, I threw a gleaming golden orb forcing its way out of unresponsive fingers. It flashed through the air, shattered glass doors with a tinkle, then hit the concrete sidewalk outside and rolled between the legs of a startled security guard. My eyes followed it, desperate, as it neared the curb.

    Please- please, don’t let it be in vain! Don’t let me be in vain!

    Wobbling over the edge, the orb fell, going that final, necessary inch, and hitting the asphalt.

    A brilliant flash illuminated the room, brighter than the stairwell, brighter than a flashbang.

    People around me screamed.

    I sagged, tears pricking at the corner of my eyes, vision going blurry.

    “You did good girl,” the voice in my ear whispered, a hint of sorrow in the words. “We’ll take care of your family. We promise. Now… Finish the job.”

    Gritting my jaw, I bit down, trying to crack the molar, but I felt so weak. Once more, I tried again. Still, the molar wouldn’t crack.

    Behind me, footsteps clacked as the target approached me.

    No! No! No!

    The bead in my ear sighed. “It’s okay, agent. We will handle the rest.”

    My brow twitched, all I could do as the dark closed in. What did he mea-


    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

     
  22. SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    And, as usual, QQ eats my formatting.

    I swear.

    Xenforo takes delight in breaking my story in unique, aggravating ways that change depending on the forum.
     
  23. GreenOnionKnight

    GreenOnionKnight Getting out there.

    Joined:
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    One thing that slightly came close to breaking my SOD is how Vinci has the keys even if only partial to all this.... omnious stuff...?

    He has retired from the organization and was frequently deployed to the field, so having his DNA as the part of the key to anything is setting yourself up for failure.

    But that aside, given how engaging the writing is, one really becomes willing to ignore things like this. The chapter progresses through the scenes smoothly with just the right amount of description to vividly paint the scene in your mind without being so verbose that you start skipping lines. You end up experiencing the event as if you are right there.

    I've really been enjoying this aspect of your writing but this stood out to me for some reason in this chapter. I know the furthest thing about giving useful writing feedback but a lot of stuff I've read on SB/SV/QQ is not always successful at this. Or maybe I need to improve my reading choices.

    A few tangents

    The trauma and dysphoria Assault experienced with regards to his restored eye I feel added quite a bit of flavour to this chapter. This is a common thread I've noticed with how you depict trauma in your writing.
    I am curious about what you are basing your depictions upon.

    Assault called Vinci a Trump. But I think Vinci can only get more skilled at using his power? The pool of "energy" he is working with stays fixed, even if the broad scope of dynakinesis means the skill ceiling is pretty high.
    Is that right?

    Also, I've typically found that the non-NSFW section of QQ is not as active as the NSFW ones, so I've found a few writers putting even their non-smut writings there.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2022
    Tyzevschux and DowryA like this.
  24. SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    577
    From a technical point of view, a lot of mechanical explanations of things like culture, and especially mechanics, get cut because I cant find a good reason for Vinci to think deeper on certain things, or the explanation would break the flow of the chapter. Because of that, I rely a little on the audience to think things through.

    You are missing significant chunks of cultural background that explain why Vinci holding the key is reasonable. I'm not going to explain it because the story is going to do a better job of it than I ever will.

    You are also missing significant chunks about the mechanisms with which these failsafes operate. It is not just 'I have Vinci's DNA, I'm in.' There is a reason Vinci is so mad about this all being a waste. He's pretty convinced that this is all pointless, and he thinks that for pretty good reasons.

    I understand what you are talking about. I even understand why. I just can't explain what's going on without going on a multi hour ramble on the nature of writing.

    Anyways, I'm glad that you really enjoy my prose. I put an awful lot of effort into polishing it.

    And it's not really you or your reading choices. The Xenforo forums have an awful lot of not-wrong writers. It's the nature of the forums I think. They keep the children out, leaving the adults, who understand that difference between two, to, and too, and have read enough to understand when something feels wrong. But being not-wrong is not the same as being good.

    Children use the wrong tools at the wrong time.

    Adults use the tools that are not wrong at times that are not wrong.

    I use the right tools at the right time, with a singular purpose in mind; Audience engagement. And I do it word by word, sentence by sentence, parahraph by parahraph, then scene by scene.

    This is a work of love after all.
    Source: Shameless theft.

    The math is pretty simple. If I like what you've done, it won't remain yours for long.

    I read people who used this particular technique to great effect, and said 'mine now'. I then stumbled my way though figuring out how to hit the same notes.

    https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5686039/19/Mangekyō-Sharingan started me on the path.

    Your right.

    But the PRT doesn't see it that way. Power ratings are functional tools to tell troopers how they need to react. Functionally, Vinci is learning new, destructive powers. That's why he has the trump rating. It doesn't matter that it's really the same power because that's not how classification works.
     
  25. Threadmarks: Isobar Part One
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    With a loud bang, a pair of hands slammed down onto the stained oak executive desk. “Enough with the games!”

    Sitting in a chair, arms crossed, Vinci didn’t move a muscle as deputy director Renick glared at him with marble gray eyes.

    After a long moment, Renicks shoulders slumped. The man sagged down into his seat, running a calloused hand through pitch-black hair streaked with gray. Opening a drawer hidden behind the desk, Renick pulled out a thick Cuban cigar and a lighter. The man's eyes, full of fire and steel but seconds earlier, held nothing but exhaustion as the man stared into the distance, even though the surface of the desk was three feet away.

    “When you entered the system, many discussions were held behind closed doors... We couldn’t turn you away. It would’ve been illegal, and cruel. But there were some...” Renick trailed off. After a few more seconds spent staring at the desk, the aging man sighed, the edges of his lips curled downwards.

    With the snap of flint striking, Renick lit the lighter and held the flame up to the end of the cigar. The second the end of the cigar glowed cherry, the lighter hit the wooden desk with a hollow clunk, dropped by uncaring fingers.

    Only after he had taken several puffs did Renick continue. “There were some who did not want to welcome you.” Renick looked directly into the lenses of Vinci’s helmet, cheeks hollow. “I know you may hate us, and think that we have done nothing but try and screw you over at every opportunity, but that's not the case. We could be shoving you in a hole. Separating you from Scintilla to transfer you to one of the containment zones. You aren’t as important as you think you are. If the PRT had to, we could weather the media storm of Chicago without you. Or we could’ve confined you to base. Let you come out only for PR appearances. Crackdown hard on your little ‘unauthorized excursions’ from your foster parents’ home. Could’ve done all of that.”

    Letting out the breath he was holding, smoke billowed out from between Renick's lips, eyes sliding away.

    When Renick spoke again, his voice was filled with nothing but grief which grew thicker with each word. “But when I looked at you, I saw a boy who’d been through hell. I threw my support behind making you welcome. Giving you as much allowance as we could in hopes you’d come around.” A wrinkled hand covered those marble gray eyes. “God help me,” he whispered, “I fought for you, and now two of my men are dead.”

    Vinci felt tired. And old.

    He was supposed to be a child. Thirteen. It didn’t seem right that anyone who was thirteen felt this old, like life had this half bleached quality to it. Other kids his age got to smile, laugh, play, and be happy. Their birthright was normality.

    And his was death.

    Renick had been angry when Vinci had entered the room. Anyone else would’ve looked at the Deputy Director, and seen a domineering authority figure.

    All Vinci’d seen was a man using anger to hide grief.

    It was hard to be angry at that.

    Vinci’s words were soft. “It's not that I don’t want to help you, Deputy, I just can’t.”

    Renick’s laugh was as hollow as the look in his eyes. “That makes it all better, does it? It's not that you won’t help out of spite, instead you refuse for some shadowy reason you won’t talk about. Tch.”

    “I don’t think you understand my position-”

    Renick moved, blurring as he stood. Papers flew as his hands slammed down on the desk once more. “I don’t think you understand my position,” Renick roared. “You aren’t responsible for those men out there!”

    A finger jabbed at the closed door.

    “I am! They have names! Families! I talk with them. You don’t! One of them was Toby Douglas. His wife is expecting a child in five damned months. And I now need to drive down and tell her that her husband isn’t coming home ever again! The other was Zachary Mathews.”

    The grief-fueled rage in Renick’s voice collapsed, leaving only the grief behind, Renick’s voice barely above a whisper. “He went by Zach. Lived all alone, but every day he’d come in and the guys would ask him about whether or not he had a girlfriend, and Zach would say ‘still searchin’ with this outrageous Texas accent.”

    As if someone had cut his tendons, Renick slumped into his seat, eyes staring at nothing in particular. Then something ugly crept in. “But you don’t care, do you?” Renick muttered, getting louder with each word. “You're a monster who thinks nothing of people. Someone took you and broke you.” Looking down at him, Renick’s lip curled in disgust. “They bent you into more of a thing than an actual person, to the point where you act like a little regular GI Joe from the toy store, only worse, because your the real deal aren’t ya-”

    Something inside him snapped.

    Vinci stood, chair skidding back as power only he could see writhed about him. “You think I enjoy this you piece of shit?” Vinci roared back. “Do you have any idea how many people have died for me? Do you? They put Scintilla at risk! They nearly killed Triumph and Assault! They murdered two men who did nothing to them! All because they wanted to get to me! Then they hurt me!Fear, thick and powerful, clung to the back of his throat when Vinci thought of his wings. “You think I don’t know that their blood is on my hands? It burns! You think I’m an animal?” By now, something ugly lived in Vinci’s angry shout. Raw, hoarse, predatory. Each word had a raspy quality to them, grating like stone against stone. “Well, you're fucking right! If I knew who they were, I’d be in the process of butchering them!”

    For the longest moment, there was silence.

    Then, fists clenched, Vinci took all that emotion, all the anger, fear, and helplessness, and shoved it into the goddamned box, where it belonged. Flicking a finger, Vinci dragged his chair back to him with a shriek as the legs scraped against the floor, and sat down with all of the grace of a bag of potatoes.

    Yeah. He was a monster.

    He even knew he was a monster.

    But he was the good kind of monster. The kind citizens shied away from on the streets, but wept with relief when they saw him as shells flew overhead. It wasn’t even that he could promise justice for the two men that had died because of him. Myrmdom politics was a bloody affair, and no one wanted to start a great war. But that didn’t mean if he knew who had sent that hit, there wouldn’t be consequences.

    For the men who died. For putting Missy in danger. For his wings, if nothing else.

    The pain in Renick's eyes was a horrible thing to see. “Then why won’t you help us,” the man whispered.

    Frustration clawed at his heart. He wanted to be with Missy, watching her, and unpacking every emotion he’d shoved in the box today, hopefully without falling apart, and instead, there was this… mess that needed to be cleaned up.

    “Because it's not that simple.” How bitter his words were. With another flick of his wrist, he locked the door, bolt slamming home before he reached up and pulled off his helmet with the hiss of broken seals. “Where do you think I came from?” Vinci tossed his helmet onto Renick’s desk, where it skidded before coming to a stop, right side up. “GI Joe? You think I’m what, a soldier?”

    It wasn’t like he was both blind and deaf. He heard the whispers, saw the looks people gave him.

    Renick grimaced as he looked at the helmet on his desk before meeting Vinci’s gaze. Both the nod and expression were curt. “Something like that.”

    “Something like that.” It wasn’t very funny. Vinci snorted anyway. He couldn’t help the mocking edge that crept into his tone. “Riddle me this, Deputy Director. How does one get out of a ‘something like that? You think you get to stand up and leave-” fingers snapped, “-just like that?”

    Renick grew wary at Vinci’s mocking laugh, distrust entered his eyes.

    “No.” Vinci shook his head, lip curled. “No. You don’t get to fucking leave. Ever.” It came out as an angry hiss, Vinci glaring at Renick. “Not while being able to talk. You can get out in a body bag. That's one way. Or you can try to leave while you're alive, and that's when things get complicated. You demand names. Locations. Jobs. Force composition reports.” Leaning back in his chair, Vinci snarled at Renick. “Stop asking what you want answered, and start asking if I even can!”

    “Can you?” The words were measured, careful.

    Vinci’s laugh, he hated it, and how broken he sounded. “Hell no. I wouldn’t be alive if I could.” Was this even living in the first place? A life of fear?

    “But you do know who did this.”

    “Know?” Looking at the ground, Vinci’s shoulders slumped. He shook his head. “The only thing I have that you don’t is a list of suspects. Means fuck all when that list is a mile long. You think I’d be here if I knew who’s behind that attack? They put my Bondmate at risk. If I had so much as a lead, I’d be sending a message.”

    “Bloody?”

    Looking up, Vinci bared his teeth as he met Renick’s eyes. “What do you think?” As quick as it came, the spark Renick had lit in him gutted out, leaving a hollow shell behind. He slumped back into the chair. “Luna de Sangre. That’s all I can give you. All I really know either. Even if I told you everything I knew about the other suspects, it wouldn’t help you none. I swear that on my sister's grave.”

    “Blood Moon,” Renick muttered, eyes cold. “The cartel in Columbia that got hit. Why?”

    “Revenge. Why else? I know for a fact that Columbia was running around with some fancy tech, even if I’m not sure it was this fancy. Maybe means, definitely motive, and, well, we got shot at.”

    “But why?” Black eyebrows yet to be streaked with the gray that colored the top of Renick’s head furrowed. “Why would the remnants of an organization as large as that care about you enough to come to the bay? Why did they take a feather?”

    Vinci shrugged. “I don’t know why they wanted a feather.” It was a lie. He knew why. War. Someone wasn’t happy about the Stratocracy’s interest in Bet. Not unusual. None of the five factions were thrilled with each other. Even Winter Star and Vanguard had problems with the Hussars at times, though they were fast allies. The difference was, then, no one had wanted to destabilize the fragile peace that allowed the five factions to survive Ancile's aggression. Now, all bets were off.

    “You didn’t answer my first question.”

    “That one, I could actually answer,” he admitted. “But I’m not going to, for the same reason as the first.” A contract was a contract. Vinci still had his honor, sullied as it was.

    Renick crossed his arms. “If you are worried about retaliation the PRT can protect you.”

    Vinci clenched his teeth before forcing himself to relax. “You don’t even know what you're up against, and yet you think you can offer to protect me like I’m some two-bit ganger who’s flipped from the Chicago Kings. Blood Moon was a cartel in Columbia. Stop lying to my face and pretending that doesn’t mean something. You don’t have gangs in South America, you have criminal armies that regularly go toe to toe with the actual armies. And you think I believe it when you tell me you can protect me from them?”

    “We don’t think this was Blood Moon.”

    “Then who?” Vinci demanded.

    “The people who attacked Blood Moon.”

    Which was infinitely worse, as the recent events had shown. Vinci’s teeth ground together. “I may of survived Minstral and the Nine through pure luck, but luck has nothing to do with the years after. Stop treating me like I’m stupid. You wouldn’t be able to protect me against Blood Moon. And you want me to believe you could protect me from the people who took down a gang that size in a single night?”

    A harsh laugh dropped from pursed lips. “So, that's it, is it? You refuse to speak?” Renick glared. “You have the gall to come in here and look me in the eye as you tell me that my men will receive no justice?”

    “Justice was never on the table in the first place!”

    Renick's eyebrows narrowed.

    “Even if Missy had died,” Vinci finally said, voice quiet, eyes downcast, “there would’ve been no justice. Not for me, and not for her. Only vendetta. An angry Bondmate lashing out, going through a list of names until he either died or found a lead.” Looking up, he met Renick’s angry gaze with a steely resolve, never flinching, refusing to falter. “I have been attacked.” The fear for his wings was back, threatening to choke him. “Miss Militia killed two. That was not justice. Battery killed five for attacking Assault. There was no justice there. Me?” Vinci slowly shook his head, the look in his eyes bitter. “I killed more than both of them combined. Where was the justice?” The bitterness in his eyes bled to the words, dripping like crimson liquid swelling from the prick of a needle. “Your men were murdered Deputy Director. And you demand the perpetrators pay. And they have. With their lives. Eighteen of them.”

    Renick shot Vinci a cold look, one devoid of emotion. Then his lip curled, though his teeth never showed. “I am not satisfied.”

    In a rush, Vinci realized that he’d had enough. The sudden disgust he felt shocked him but was no less true because of it. “Then sit here and wallow,” he hissed, jumping to his feet.

    “I’m not done with you.” Renick’s voice cracked through the silence.

    Vinci didn’t bother to dignify that with a response. Instead, he waved his hand, the smooth surface of his helmet smacking into his waiting palm.

    With a growl, Renick rose from his seat, palms flat on his desk. “Don’t you dare ignore me.” Rage smoldered in those gray eyes, like ashes about to ignite.

    Something in Vinci cracked. Turning, he roared “Then stop taking your anger out on me! I didn’t kill those men! An assassin did! I have braved shrapnel and sullied my hands with death to bring your heroes back to you safe and sound-”

    “You call this safe and sound-”

    “They are still breathing,” Vinci screamed. As the last word left his lips, it didn’t end. Instead, it transformed into a sharp, piercing cry, akin to that of a bird-of-prey, which echoed throughout the room.

    The room fell into a shocked silence, the only sound a quiet pop as Vinci clamped his jaw shut.

    Averting his gaze, Vinci grimaced as his ears burned. His… animal traits aside, why couldn’t Renick be grateful? Why didn’t he understand what Vinci did?

    “What more do you want,” he whispered, glaring at the floor. “Your men are dead. You have nine bodies per officer. You can safely look the grieving family in the eye and say ‘this did not go unpunished. Most don’t get that closure. Do you know how lucky you are? To be able to give closure?” Vinci envied and hated Renick for that alone.

    “Lucky.” The word was flat. “You call having two men dead lucky.”

    He knew it was a bad idea. But he did it anyway. The anger burned too bright for him to do anything else. Vinci raised his head. “Yes. I do.”

    Renick took a deep breath, pursed in a line so thin that to normal eyes, they would’ve ceased to exist. Color by color, Renick’s face changed, from white, to red, to blotchy purple, moving through shades that Vinci had no name for.

    “Do you hate me?” Vinci leaned forward, lip curled. “Good.” There was something raw about his words, like an exposed wound that had festered. “I hate you. People like you are all the same. People like me do the dying, in our hundreds and our thousands, and people like you sit and watch and judge. Tools. That's all we are to you.” Deep down, a part of him felt guilty. Renick didn’t deserve it. But Vinci was caught up in the moment. It wasn’t Renick sitting before him, but some civilian, some merchant, some ungrateful parody of a human being. The thing that sat before him changed constantly, but no matter what it became, it was always unworthy of the sacrifice given on its behalf. “You call us monsters, then you whine and weep at our feet when there’s killing to be done.”

    Letting the venom spew out felt good. At least for a little bit.

    Then it turned hollow, leaving bitterness in its wake. And all that stood before Vinci was a grieving old man. Vinci’s mouth twisted as the anger left his eyes, and shame took its place. “I-” The words stuck in his throat. Just as brutal as a strike against a rioter, Vinci shoved his pride down. “I’m sorry,” he choked out. “That was uncalled for.” Fists still balled, Vinci squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s been a long day.”

    Fabric rustled, and a chair creaked.

    When Vinci opened his eyes, Renick had sat, silent, eyes judging, lips still pursed, though no longer as furious as they had been before.

    “I envy you,” Vinci admitted.

    Renick’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second before he smoothed the expression out.

    Vinci cocked his head, the look in his eyes hollow, a lopsided expression closer to a grimace than a grin on his face. “Surprised?” Vinci’s nostrils flared as he huffed. “Don’t be. You think I’m brainwashed, but even people like me can be bitter.” He’d been settling in. Coming to terms with this new life of his, and liking some of it. The peace. The easy smiles. The casual friendship. All of that, wiped away. The room snapped back into focus as Vinci met Renick’s hard stare. “I might not be like most of the Wards you’ve dealt with before. But I’m still me. I have wants. Dreams. Goals. My mind changes.” There were things that he wanted to say. But he couldn’t. Maybe, were it Missy in front of him. But Vinci didn’t feel safe. The truth was a vulnerability.

    Still, despite that, something flickered in Renick’s eyes. “We could’ve had you,” Renick murmured.

    Vinci shrugged. Maybe? Not really? “I don’t think so.” His loyalty ran deep. “But for what it’s worth, I think I would’ve enjoyed being a Ward of Brockton Bay, stupid regulations and all. Not having responsibilities was nice for a change.” That was the frustrating thing. He could spout that he hadn’t wanted this until he was blue in the face, but it wouldn’t do a damn thing. Wouldn’t give him that ease back, or mend the bridge that had been shattered in a hail of plasma fire. Looking down at the floor, Vinci said nothing for several seconds. “Your men are dead. Nothing I can do or say will change that.” And really, there was nothing more he could say, was there?

    Renick waited, and he waited for Vinci to continue. When Vinci never did, regret filled Renick’s eyes, as did grief. “Get out.” Renick waved at the door without looking. “I would like to be alone for a while.”

    For a moment, Vinci said nothing. Then he turned, heart heavy. Stopping by the door, he cast a glance over his shoulder. “Give my sincere condolences to the families of the dead.” With that, he slid the helmet on and left the room, closing the door with a quiet click behind him.

    As he strode through the office cubicles, many holding a grim-faced PRT officer who watched him with hard eyes, few even pretending to work, he memorized two new names.

    Zachary Mathews and Toby Douglas.

    Killed by people who wished to see the Hussars fail, and humanity stagnate, their deaths had been brutal. Senseless.

    They were another reason he could not fail. Because of them, he would succeed. Otherwise, what was the point?

    Vinci would give their death meaning.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    When he walked into the Wards quarters, all the lights were off, and a movie was playing on the TV screen.

    Every Ward was present, and in their civies, most of them the usual day-to-day clothes, though Dennis wore a pair of gym shorts that said ‘Arcadia high school’ on them.

    It was Missy he focused on first, who was wearing the same faded pink nightgown with white polka dots he’d seen a few nights ago. She was curled up on one of the beanbags, a pillow hugged to her chest. Though she was watching the movie with everyone else, she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself.

    Dennis saw Vinci standing in the doorway and raised a hand. “And the man of the hour has returned! Why don’t you go dress down and come join us?”

    Sitting on the couch, a bowl of popcorn on the cushions next to him, Rory met Vinci’s gaze and offered a nod. “How did it go?”

    “Poorly. Renick believes I am withholding leads.”

    Missy stirred at this, lifting her head to look at him. “And are you?” The lack of fire in her words concerned him. The life was gone, and in its place was the worn feeling of a cog going through the motions.

    Vinci sighed and took off his helmet, shaking his head. “If I had a good lead, I’d be hunting.” The truth rang in time with the statement.

    “Vigilante justice is not the answer,” Rory said. The confidence that Rory had spoken with hours before was gone, leaving a haunted look in its place, and a teens desperate attempt to preserve some of the normality he had left.

    Vinci’s tone was grim. “My choices stopped being about right and wrong long ago.”

    “I-” Rory’s voice wavered, refusing to look at Vinci, “-I don’t want to deal with this. Not tonight. Just… don’t do anything rash. I expect internal affairs to arrive sometime tomorrow already. Don’t make things worse than they already are.”

    “Yay!” Dennis cried halfheartedly, shaking his hands in the air as he turned “Colonoscopy time- holy shit!”

    The entire room stopped and stared.

    Vinci met their gaze evenly, then huffed. “That bad, huh?”

    Dean’s mouth worked. “Vinci, your…” with his free hand, Dean gestured towards his face.

    “Panacea healed me.”

    Swallowing hard, Rory averted his gaze. “I’m glad. This look suits you.”

    “You mean it didn’t before?”

    Rory sucked in a sharp breath. “I didn’t mean to-”

    “What dear leader means to say,” Dennis interrupted, wide eyes returning to bland neutrality, “is that looking like they lost a fight with a wood chipper doesn’t suit anyone. You look normal.”

    Though Vinci refused to let a single expression cross his face, there was little he could do about his wings, which tucked themselves tighter against his back.

    Missy sat up, grazing her hand against his glove, looking at Dennis. “He looks good,” she challenged. The truth rang in her statement.

    Dennis held up his hands. “Yeah, yeah, he does!” Shooting a glance at Vinci, the corner of Dennis’s lip curled up. “Seriously though, she’s not wrong. You could walk down the street now and no one would pay attention.”

    After a moment, Vinci glanced down, looking at Missy with fond eyes. Then he huffed and rolled his eyes, turning to Dennis. “Anyways, Internal Affairs? Are they really that bad?”

    Dennis snorted. “I had a pair of them show up after my introduction, wanting to know if anyone pressured me into choosing a sexual pun as my cape name. They were insufferable.”

    “Bothered the rest of us too,” Missy muttered, falling back onto her beanbag.

    Walking in front of the screen, Vinci knelt by Missy’s beanbag, brushing a hand along her arm as he glanced at the TV screen. “What are you watching?”

    Missy’s eyes flickered to his. “Queens and Kings two. I like it.”

    “Just you?” Vinci raised an eyebrow.

    Missy shrugged and looked away. “No one complained.”

    Leaning closer, Vinci whispered, “Are you okay?”

    “Not really.” Missy hugged the pillow tighter.

    Vinci’s expression softened. That made two of them. “Alright.” Ruffling her hair, and ignoring Missy’s muffled ‘hey!’, Vinci stood. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

    Nine and a half later, Vinci walked back into the room wearing shorts and a simple T-shirt with holes cut into it for his wings, feathers still dripping on the floor. As he approached, Carlos got up from his beanbag, and shoved it across the room, the bag coming to stop next to Missy. Vinci nodded his thanks as he took a seat next to Missy, sitting down with a sigh of relief while Carlos headed for the couch.

    Damn, it felt good to just sit down and take some weight off his aching bones.

    “So,” Dean said, doing his best to sound nonchalant, looking directly at Vinci. “Rough day?”

    Vinci shrugged. “Doesn’t even make it into the top fifty.”

    Dean frowned. “That's… not good.”

    “I wasn’t the one who got shot.”

    “Yes you did,” Missy muttered.

    “Badly,” he amended. Then he looked at Rory. “Speaking of, how are you holding up?”

    Rory held up his hand and tilted it back and forth. “Not my best day as a Ward. Being shot hurt.”

    Dennis rolled his eyes. “Who knew, huh?”

    “I heard that someone visited your hospital room,” Dean said.

    A wave of dread washed over the Bond. The worst part was, he couldn’t tell whose emotion was whose.

    Beside him, Missy tightened her grip on her pillow.

    Vinci held out his hand, letting it rest on Missy’s bean bag. No matter how he asked, he couldn’t figure out if it was more for him, or her. Missy looked at it with wary eyes before reaching out and grabbing it. Like a steel trap, his fingers closed, holding her tight.

    Closing his eyes, Vinci breathed, first in, and out, feeling some of the tensions of the day fade away.

    It was only after the tenth breath that he felt collected enough to finally open his eyes, and pin Dean with a hard gaze. “They did. It was messy.”

    Missy’s mouth tightened.

    “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

    “It doesn’t bother me, other than the waste. I’m-” Pausing for a moment, Vinci tried to find the right word. “Desensitized to violence.” He just wished that Missy hadn’t had to see the dead PRT troopers. He’d managed to intercept her before she saw the mess left behind by the infiltrator, but the officers had been bad enough. They’d talked with her while escorting him and Missy into the hospital. Then she’d had to walk over their still cooling corpses less than half an hour later.

    That wasn’t an easy thing for anyone, even him.

    But it wasn’t a bad day. At least, not as bad as it could’ve been. Vinci’s wing curled. Glancing down, he prodded one of the pink spots that lacked feathers, feeling the smooth texture of the skin. They were going to grow back. He still couldn’t believe it.

    “That's a pretty awful-”

    Missy spoke up, voice tight. “Can we not?

    Dean looked sheepish. “Sorry Missy.”

    “Is your armor all clean?” Vinci asked, letting his wing go limp, feathers splayed out over the beanbag.

    Missy’s nod was minute. “You?”

    “They sprayed the boots down with a peroxide solution, and I replaced all my seals before stowing it away. I’ll watch them repaint it in the morning. Too tired now.”

    On the screen, two people wearing crowns kissed.

    Vinci nodded at it. “The king and the queen?”

    Missy’s eyes turned towards the screen, and she hummed an affirmative.

    The corner of his lips curled upwards. Not by much, he wasn’t in the mood, but enough to show amusement as the queen pulled away from the king and slapped him. “You're quite the romantic, aren’t you?”

    “Am not,” Missy muttered.

    Dennis laughed. “You liar.”

    Vinci looked at Dennis, eyebrow raised. “Oh?”

    Pointing at Missy, Dennis grinned. “Missy is hopeless. You should’ve seen her, oh, two weeks ago when she got the new drama movie she’d been waiting for. She, and I’m not kidding, literally squeal- oof!” Dennis flailed as a pillow impacted his face.

    “Shut up!” Missy glared at Dennis, twin patches of pink decorating her cheeks.

    With his free hand, Vinci stroked his chin. “Movies, huh?”

    “It’s called drama!” Missy turned her fearsome glare on him. “Are you going to tease me?”

    “Why? I have a stack of trash romance novels in one of my old hideouts.”

    “Really?” Missy perked up.

    “Well, yeah. Teen romance is a guilty pleasure of mine.”

    “Huh.” Rory eyed Vinci. “I never would’ve guessed.”

    Looking at him, those vivid emerald eyes of hers filled with something other than guilt and half faded horror, Missy blinked. “How’d you get introduced to them?”

    “Necessity.” Waving his hand, Vinci tugged the popcorn off the couch, pulling it through the air towards him. Grabbing it out of mid-air, he offered the bowl to Missy, who, after a moment's thought, took a handful, the beginnings of a smile on her face, before he set the bowl down in his lap. “I used to do a lot of jobs in, hmm, let's call it disputed territory where electronic emissions of any kind are a big deal. Books are nice, don’t run out of battery, and best of all, no electronic emissions. If it was the kind of thing where I wouldn’t need to pay a whole lot of attention, I’d bring a book.”

    Interest peaked in the Bond. “And how did you end up with romance specifically?”

    Vinci shrugged. “Well, it seemed stupid. Like, love triangles, a bunch of stupid teenagers who can’t make up their minds-”

    Over on the couch, Dennis cried “Hey, I resent that!”

    “Ignore him,” Missy said. “It's what I do.”

    Dennis held a hand over his heart. “My dear lady, how your words wound me!”

    ‘The heart and soul of the team

    The words crossed his mind unprompted, but once they did, Vinci couldn’t help but turn towards Dennis and realize just how true they were.

    Dennis met Vinci’s gaze, and after a few seconds, held up his hands. “What? I didn’t do anything. Is it the staring? It’s the staring, isn’t it. I’m sorry. It’s just you look really, really weird without the scars.”

    Vinci shook himself out of his thoughts. “Nothing.” A thumb rubbing against the back of his hand drew his attention back to Missy. “Yeah?”

    “I was paying attention to what you were saying.” Missy’s interest practically begged him to continue. It reminded him of a tug on the sleeve, with an expectant expression waiting for him when he turned to see who it was.

    Vinci gestured at the screen. “Well, it's silly.”

    The smidgen of interest in her eyes vanished, replaced with a bare hint of displeasure he hated seeing, at least when she was looking at him. “I actually happen to like this movie.”

    “That doesn’t make it any less silly. The queen, what is she doing? Trying to figure out if she loves the king or something?”

    “After an arranged marriage, yes.”

    “Well look, arranged marriages and the like aren’t something I normally have to worry about, and that makes it safe for me to laugh about and enjoy them.”

    Dennis rolled his eyes. “Normally? Wonderful word choice.”

    Vinci coughed. “Yeah.” Deep inside, he cringed at how awkward he sounded. “Bad word choice.”

    Missy froze, then, with mechanical precision, her head turned to face him. “Vinci, have you ever been in an arranged marriage?”

    The worst part was, he hadn’t even done anything wrong, but that didn’t stop the sudden rush of guilt.

    As the emotion filled the Bond, Missy’s eyes widened. “What the fuck?

    The cringe was no longer internal. “In my defense, I didn’t actually know it was a thing until someone told me it fell through.”

    Dean choked on his drink.

    With a sudden jerk, Missy looked away. “Nope. Nopitty nope nope. I have had enough strange and horrific for the week, and I don’t want to know.”

    “But-”

    “Dennis,” Missy’s voice was sugar sweet, and as poisonous as cyanide, “if you don’t shut up right now, and watch the movie with me, I will tell Dean about the tomato incident.”

    Dean raised a finger, voice still raspy from water going down the wrong tube “The tomato inci-”

    “It's nothing! Please be quiet Dean,” Dennis begged. “I’m trying to watch the movie.”

    “As for you,” Missy growled, jabbing her finger inches from Vinci’s nose. “No more weird stuff today. Shut up, hold my hand, and watch the movie I want to watch until we fall asleep.”

    Vinci huffed before his eyes softened. It would do the both of them good to take a break and do something with no stakes. “Okay.”

    And so he kept hold of her hand and watched the movie with her.

     
  26. Threadmarks: Isobar Part Two
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    In her seat at the farthest edge of the large oak conference table, Piggot looked resigned. It was the eyes that gave it away, and the eyes Vinci watched closest as he waited for the meeting to start. Her attire was impeccable, not a hair out of place on her head. The curve of her back was more suited for the parade ground than it was a briefing room, as if someone had taken a bar of steel and shoved it into her spine. And, as a soldier, Vinci couldn’t help but acknowledge, if not admire the poker face. Only God knew how much MilScrip it would’ve saved him when he’d played poker with other Tier Ones.

    Director Piggot was the image of professionalism and determination… Save for one thing.

    The conspicuous lack of fire from Piggot’s steel-gray gaze made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

    Hanging on the wall above the door, the long hand of the analog clock rested just a hair to the left of twelve. With a click, it juddered to the right.

    Piggot’s attention snapped to Triumph, who straightened out of his slouch underneath her piercing gaze. “Effective immediately, control of the Wards is being returned to Armsmaster, acting in his role as the leader of the Protectorate branch in the East-North-East district.” Her cold tone made it clear that it was an order, not a request.

    To her right, flanking Director Piggot, was Leona Everett, the PR specialist’s lips pursed in a thin, unhappy line. To her left was Deputy Director Renick, the man's eyebrows bunched up in a ferocious scowl.

    Neither Renick nor Leona looked surprised. Vinci supposed that alone explained their displeasure.

    To the right of Leona, closer to Vinci, was Miss Militia, the star-spangled hero looking at the stained oak with the kind of determination Vinci could admire, at least if that determination had been directed towards a cause other than steadfastly ignoring her surroundings.

    She hadn’t raised her head once since she’d filed into the room, refusing Armsmaster’s every attempt to make eye contact.

    To his left, as the words registered, Missy’s spine went rigid, a small gasp escaping her chapped lips.

    The shock hit. It was a struggle to not suck a quiet little breath of his own through his teeth. Vinci reassessed the room out of instinct, fingers curled. Within half a second, he’d glanced at, then discarded every person in the room as an active threat before his gaze turned to those closest to him and Missy, namely the Wards.

    Between Triumph on Vinci’s right, Battery on Missy’s left, and Clockblocker and Gallant sitting on the other side of the table, there was an assortment of potential problems closer to Missy than he liked. But that wasn’t new. Everyone was always closer to Missy than he liked.

    With a muted sigh, he forced his fingers to unfurl, then glanced at Missy. At the very least, it was meant to be a quick glance, but…

    The minute tilt of her head. The way chapped lips remained parted, even if it was just a hint. Her shock-surprise which flowed through the Bond-

    In the confines of his mind, concepts spun and mingled. Most of them could be distilled into a dual set of thoughts and emotions though, both ideas bleeding into each other.

    Mine. Perfect.

    She seemed to suck him in, drawing his attention, dulling the world around her compared to her brilliance.

    With a hard swallow, Vinci tore his eyes away from her, staring at the desk with a slightly dazed expression, fighting for clarity. It didn’t come easily, but it did come. His eyes narrowed. Missy’s well-deserved perfection aside, the heroes hadn’t been surprised by Piggot’s statement. And he needed to get Missy some chapstick. He never used the stuff, but dry lips led to cracked lips and pain, and Missy in pain was unacceptable so he was going to get her some chapstick and that was that.

    One of those things was more important than the other, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

    Vinci looked up, eyes wary as he turned to the right, away from Missy, and towards Triumph.

    “Ma’am?” The words held a silent question as Triumph’s head whipped around, looking from the Director, To Armsmaster. “Sir? What’s going on?”

    Vinci’s stomach rumbled, like a traitor, and his eyes flitted to the unopened box of donuts in front of Triumph.

    Missy jerked, shooting him a look as a spark of worry ignited inside her.

    Movement blurred in the corner of his eye. Vinci sharply turned, if only to see what had her so concerned, only to find a pair of vivid green eyes staring back at him. The second their gazes met, something inside him, a tightness in the back of his throat he hadn’t known he’d had, eased. Vinci looked away. Offering a minute, almost imperceptible shake of his head, the motion was accompanied by a more definite feeling of disapproval, one he was certain she felt.

    Food could wait. This was more important.

    Expression never changing, Missy nodded and returned her attention to Armsmaster, her concern warping into a silent rumble of unhappiness.

    Tap. Tap. Tap. In a slow, precise beat, an Assault brand pen, alternating turquoise and ocean-blue metal, likely custom-made to boot, tapped the polished surface of the aged oak.

    When Assault glanced at the pen, his hard, haunted expression eased.

    The corner of Armsmaster’s lips curled upwards for a brief moment, then the smile faded. “Politics.” The single word was even, exacting, and held a barely restrained sense of disdain. Armsmaster stared down the length of the table at Director Piggot. “I wanted to keep you out of politics.” Turning towards Triumph, Armsmaster shook his head, the corners of his mouth tightening. “Some things I can’t shield you from though. Not anymore.”

    “Sir?” Triumph’s voice wavered. Hidden by the table, though Vinci could see it since Triumph sat next to him, as could Miss Militia, if the woman could bear to look away whatever grain in the wood that captivated her so, Triumph’s hand trembled as it formed into a fist.

    “Now is not the time.” The tight lines of Armsmaster’s face, at least what little could be seen, softened. Vinci was probably the only one who noticed due to his… peculiarities. “We will discuss the ramifications this change will have for you and your team in private later.” Personally, Vinci thought Armsmaster needed a shower. The oil and caked sweat was unusual for the meticulous Tinker.

    Triumph hesitated, then nodded, lips opening. “If-”

    “You say that like this is already done.” Across the table from Vinci, Clockblocker crossed his arms in a sharp, brutal motion. “Like we don’t have a say in it.”

    “You don’t,” Armsmaster replied, firm but not unkind.

    Clockblocker stiffened. “Excuse me?” Clockblocker’s head turned to meet Renick’s gaze, pinched expression and all. “Tell him double-D. He can’t just do this.” At the nickname, Renick’s mouth pursed, then the man looked away. Clockblocker’s tone sank. “Right?”

    Renick said nothing.

    Resting both elbows on the table, Piggot settled her jaw on her fist, looking straight ahead, an eyebrow arched. “Well?”

    Sitting by Armsmaster’s side, Dauntless huffed and picked up an Assault Brand coffee mug, complete with Assault’s grinning face plastered over the side, and a plastic straw, which Dauntless stuck into the gaps in his spartan style helmet. That, at least, Vinci was certain he’d seen available for purchase from the gift shop downstairs.

    Setting the pen down with a quiet click, Armsmaster crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “The Wards aren’t being ‘taken’, as you put it. You are being returned.”

    Clockblocker’s head flinched back slightly. “What?”

    Grimacing, Armsmaster sighed and rubbed his forehead, his gloves scraping against his armored helmet. “Ten years ago, the Protectorate acquired the Rig. Its isolation has served us well ever since. However, soon after we started transferring gear and equipment, it became clear that the same isolation which made it hard for Villains to attack us impeded the Wards as well. Their time was, and your time is limited. Less civilians of Wards age tour the Rig compared to the PRT building, making it difficult to sneak Wards in as part of a tour group. And the need for an energy bridge makes discreet entry all but impossible, though that is about to change. Your predecessors found it difficult to access the necessary facilities that, prior to the move, were shared between the Wards program and their Protectorate leadership. After significant negotiation, it was decided that the Wards would remain in the PRT HQ, under the direction of the PRT, to alleviate these problems.”

    “And do those problems remain?” Gallant's tone was bland, body language giving nothing away.

    “They do not.” Dropping his hand, Armsmaster’s tone was firm. “Comparing Scorch’s use of Scintilla’s power against Scintilla's, I have managed to make a breakthrough with her abilities. A side project of mine is already boring through bedrock underneath the seabed. By the time it’s done, I will have completed a Tinkertech device capable of bending space, and you will be able to walk from the PRT building to the Rig. The projected weekly maintenance requirements have been accounted for in my schedule, and the budget for both the device and parts allocated. In the end, your daily commute will be increased by roughly five minutes. Acceptable trade-offs to regain control of the Wards.”

    Missy shifted, her suspicion echoed in Vinci. The emotion was keenly felt as if it were his own, but at the same time not, distinctly other when compared to the easy state of alert Vinci’d shifted into. When Missy leaned forward, Vinci’s eyes sharpened, but otherwise, he made no moves. “But you said this was because of politics,” Missy’s clear voice echoed throughout the room.

    When Armsmaster glanced at her, Vinci scooted his chair closer to hers, unable to resist the tugging call in his gut. Together, they both met Armsmaster’s gaze, their eyes hidden by goggles and lenses alike. This wasn’t his fight, and Vinci knew it- Well… That wasn’t quite true. Missy was his fight. That simple line of thought resonated with everything he was. He would always support her.

    Armsmaster’s head shifted, then shifted again, a motion Vinci recognized from long hours spent side by side with people who all wore fully enclosed helmets much like his own. When Armsmaster was done looking from him to Missy, his gaze settled on Missy and stayed, the corner of his lips tugged upwards. The pleased expression lasted only a second before it vanished, leaving Vinci wondering if it had been there in the first place, or if he’d just imagined it.

    Clicking his tongue several times, Vinci brought up footage from the previous few seconds in a box in the lower-left corner of his HUD, where the vitals for his squad normally were.

    Meanwhile, Armsmaster inclined his head. “Politics is the driving force for this move, yes. But that doesn’t mean you will not benefit, both as a team, and personally. The past three months have shown that the PRT is not ready to handle more than the basics of a Ward team.”

    Yes. That had been a pleased grin. Vinci winked twice while simultaneously clicking his tongue, and the feed vanished.

    Renick visibly bristled. “We have handled them just fine,” he snapped.

    Armsmaster crossed his arms in a motion that appeared casual, his right hand coming to rest on his left vambrace, but Vinci’s eyes sharpened at the way Armsmaster’s fingertips tapped against the armor in a sequence that was anything but random. The second Armsmaster’s head shifted. However, Vinci understood and relaxed at the familiar motion of someone paying attention to their HUD.

    Missy glanced at him as Vinci relaxed just a hair.

    Pale white pinyons rippled underneath her gaze. Vinci allowed his primal satisfaction at the fact she was paying attention to him to wax strong until she could feel it, his lips twitching.

    Tossing her head, just so- she was rolling her eyes at him, he just knew it- Vinci was rewarded with a flash of gleaming teeth.

    Armsmaster’s lips pursed as he found whatever it was he was looking for, his fingers going still. “In no particular order; Four requests for inter-departmental training; Denied. Two requests for an increase in recreational budget; Denied. Five requests for an increase in clothing vouchers; Denie-”

    “My poor socks,” Clockblocker grumbled underneath his breath.

    “-request for an increase for on-patrol food budget; Denied.”

    “What is your point?” Renick interrupted, gray eyebrows narrowing. “Their current allotment is adequate.”

    Armsmaster fell silent, pursed lips morphing into a deep frown. “Twenty-three assorted requests for additional general staff for the Wards, including, but not limited to; Child Psychiatrist. Personal trainer. Academic tutor. Nutritionist. Combat instructor. Emergency pediatric physician.” Even Renick winced at that. “Wards steward-”

    “Wait.” Assault’s voice was raspy, as if the man had been shouting recently. “You’re telling me they don’t have a trauma specialist on hand for the Wards?”

    Renick firmed his jaw, “Doctor Holt is more than qualified-”

    “Children require specialist doctors!”

    “Not for stabilization-”

    “Don’t give me that bull-”

    “Budget-”

    Piggot's voice cracked like a whip. “Enough!” she snapped, her voice carrying over the din.

    The room fell silent.

    Nostrils flaring, Piggot evened her breathing, then she inclined her head at Armsmaster. “Continue.”

    After a brief pause, Armsmaster did so. “Twenty-three requests. Some understandable, such as the tutor, which is currently being handled by a stipend given on a case-by-case basis, others are less than ideal, such as the lack of a permanent psychologist. Then there are the temporary requests. Three requests for a military consultant to gauge theoretical and practical expertise in warfare; Denied. Two requests for a military psychologist; denied-”

    Dauntless glanced to his right, at Armsmaster, head tilted. “There’s a difference between our psychologists and a military psychologist?”

    Velocity fidgeted in his chair. “Yeah. There’s a difference. It’s not important now, but there’s a difference.”

    “I’ll take your word for it.”

    “Are you done?” Armsmaster asked, a hint of chill in the tone.

    Dauntless set down his coffee mug, the Assault icon facing Assault. “My apologies. Considering the… current climate, I’ve realized there's an awful lot that I don’t know that I need to.”

    The hard line of Armsmaster’s jaw softened. “I’ll send you some resources after the meeting.”

    “Appreciate it.”

    Armsmaster waved the thanks away. “The only other request of importance was a relatively new one asking for the Veterans Association caregiver support service program to be made available to an unspecified Brockton Bay Ward.”

    Leaning closer to Battery, Missy nudged Battery’s arm. “Thank you,” she whispered.

    The corner of Battery’s lip tugged upwards into a lopsided grin more sad than happy as she shook her head. “And the status of the request?” Battery asked, directing the question towards Armsmaster.

    “Denied.”

    Battery looked down at the table, the lopsided grin fading. “Don’t thank me,” she murmured. “I haven’t been able to help you at all.”

    “You tried,” Missy whispered.

    Renick narrowed his eyes, addressing Armsmaster. “We have not neglected them.”

    “Your leadership of the Wards was adequate.” Armsmaster’s voice was flat. “We will do better.”

    “But-”

    “Deputy Director.” Piggot's quiet voice stopped Renick in his tracks. As Renick craned his head to look at her, Piggot didn’t move, her gaze never leaving Armsmaster.

    After a moment, Renick grit his jaw and looked away. “Apologies ma’am.”

    If there was any sign Piggot heard Renick, Vinci didn’t see it. Instead, she raised her voice. “We are not here to discuss the minutiae of the Wards program, why it is being reorganized, or whose fault that is. We are here to discuss the attack that occurred yesterday, and its implications for Brockton Bay.” Glancing around, when her gaze lingered on Vinci, her eyes tightened. Then she moved on. “The Empire did not orchestrate this attack,” she declared.

    With a rustle of fabric, Velocity crossed his arms, Assault’s smiling face oriented towards the rest of the room in the form of a sticker plastered to the back of Velocity’s hand. “The Empire didn’t deny it.”

    Piggot’s eyes narrowed. “Washington reached out to Colombia on our behalf. DNA taken from four out of six bodies received positive matches in Colombia’s counter-terrorism databases.”

    Starting, Miss Militia raised her head. “Then why didn’t the Empire issue a denial.”

    “A denial doesn’t sound plausible,” Everett said. When everyone in the room looked at the PR head, Everett glanced towards Piggot, an unspoken question in her eyes.

    Piggot made a broad gesture at the end of the room, offering a slight nod.

    Leona smiled, then turned her attention back to the rest of the room. “I hesitate to call the video claiming credit on behalf of the Empire well done. The best that I can say is that it is considerably more subtle than the neo-nazi paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime. However, whoever made it did an excellent job playing into the prejudices the public holds. The public truly believes that this is revenge for Scintilla’s killing of Hookwolf-”

    Vinci went completely, dangerously still. Then his hand jerked up, facing Everett, palm outwards. “What do you mean, killing of Hookwolf?

    Everett flinched at the sudden movement, her wide eyes fixated on his hands.

    With careful slowness, he allowed his hand to drop to the side.

    That had been a hasty move; a threat in Myrmdom circles. But there was no threat here, at least not right now.

    More important in Vinci’s opinion was the sudden pall of shame that fell over Missy. Vinci turned towards her, noting and hating the way she glared at the table, biting her lip, fists clenched. Reaching out, Vinci gently placed a finger underneath Missy’s chin and lifted. “What happened?” he asked gently. “Who is Hookwolf?” When the name passed his lips, Missy’s shoulders hunched. She shook her head, brushing off his finger as a fresh wave of shame washed over her.

    Underneath the helmet, Vinci frowned, doing his best to feel instead of think.

    It was shame, yes, but tinged with… Old horror. And regret. A mixture of fear. He didn’t like that, not in her, and not that someone had made her feel this way.

    Hookwolf. Hookwolf.

    Had he heard the name before? Vinci didn’t think so. At the very least, it hadn’t come up in his intelligence-gathering efforts as he’d prepared to attack Bloodmoon. Granted, that was because he’d been concerned about the current state of the Bay, not the past, but now he regretted that glaring oversight.

    It sounded an awful lot like Missy had…

    Vinci turned to Armsmaster. “Hookwolf.” The tone was clipped, and it was not a question. Armsmaster would explain this landmine that had suddenly burst underneath Vinci’s feet, or Armsmaster was going to regret it.

    Hearing Vinci’s tone, Armsmaster stiffened, hand falling to his belt, where the collapsible halberd hung. “Hookwolf was a lieutenant of the Empire Eighty-eight. Nearly one and a half years ago, Scintilla was on… something of a personal scouting mission-” Underneath his helmet, Vinci’s eyebrows arched. “-when she ran into Hookwolf, who cornered her in a dark alley. It was self-defense.”

    ‘It was self-defense.’

    The words echoed in Vinci’s mind, accompanied by derision. As if he gave a damn if it was self-defense, or that Missy had been unauthorized to do whatever it was she’d been doing at the time. “Is he alive?” Vinci demanded.

    Beside him, Missy hunched. Vinci immediately moved closer to her, wrapping an arm around her. “I’d like to stop talking about this,” Missy whispered.

    Vinci picked through her emotions and the swell of negativity. No. This Hookwolf was not alive. A boon, in a certain sense. Hunting him down and spreading the body over two square miles was not on his to-do list. However, in exchange, several more tasks were. Reassure Missy that he didn’t think less of her. Make sure she’d seen a competent shrink instead of a PRT shrink. And finally, figure out the exact circumstances of the incident. Unfortunately, those would all have to wait.

    He turned to Everett, tone still curt. “Eighteen months is a long time for retaliation.” He could see it for Myrmdoms, especially trained ones, but this was the Empire. He hadn’t been impressed by any aspect of their lineup, other than perhaps the size of it for a common street gang.

    Tone mild, Leona said, “The public are not the keenest bunch.”

    A snort escaped Vinci before he could stop it. Yeah. That followed. Pointing his middle and index fingers to the sky while he rolled his eyes, Vinci made a small circular motion with his hand.

    All he got in return was a blank look.

    A hint of heat graced his cheeks. “Continue,” he muttered, dropping his hand into his lap. He was a little too on edge. Slipping into Tier One hand signals was unacceptable.

    Everett primly settled her clasped hands in her lap. “Preliminary polling done by our New York team indicates that support for the Empire has sharply declined in Brockton Bay. Most of the public are convinced that the Empire is responsible, and they disapprove. If Kaiser denies it, all he accomplishes is further damage to his credibility. The Empire is running damage control. Late last night, two men turned themself into PRT custody. Kaiser has not been shy about vocalizing this fact as well as his staunch disapproval of their actions. It’s unlikely we will be able to completely disillusion the lower class when it comes to Kaiser and the charm he has, however, we’ll be able to ravage his respectability among the middle class demographic.”

    Snorting, Battery shifted closer to Assault, resting her head on his shoulder. “They’re hoping to avoid what happened after Fleur.” Disgust dripped like poison from each biting word.

    Fleur. Vinci noted the name. That was another person of interest to research.

    Armsmaster smiled, well, more bared his teeth. “That won’t save them.”

    “But,” Gallant said slowly, “aren’t they innocent?”

    “I expect our investigations will find that the two men in the cells had nothing to do with it. However, they’ve lawyered up anyway.” Crossing his arms, Renick sounded displeased by that fact. “Both evidence and Scorch point to Bloodmoon.” Renick’s expression turned sour. “Though, he remains highly uncooperative.”

    Eyes in the room turned to Vinci. Vinci, arms full of withdrawn Bondmate, bristled, pinyons twitching, though not to the extent that they escaped being pinned between him and the chair. If Renick and Piggot really wanted to do this now of all times, he’d tear the PRT to fucking shreds for personal reasons, not just because the Hussars came first. “What of it?” he challenged.

    Recoiling, Renick’s eyes widened at the violence promised by Vinci’s tone.

    “Scorch,” Missy murmured, leaning closer to him.

    A sound too high pitched to be human resonated deep in Vinci’s throat as he felt her silent plea, then he sighed and forced his wings still, pushing the anger down. “The question remains,” he asked once more, calmer, but still challenging as he looked around the room daring them to say something. “What of it?”

    “Kid-” Assault stopped as suddenly as he’d started, leaning forward to look past Battery and Missy “Scorch. I got hurt. Seriously hurt. I know better than most to know what it’s like to have divided loyalties, but people are dead. I want to trust you kid, but you make this hard. Do the right thing.”

    “The right thing?”

    To Vinci’s right, Triumph frowned at Vinci’s tone.

    Vinci huffed, the sound dry, unamused. His arm around Missy tightened, firm becoming possessive. “When have I ever done the right thing?”

    Clasping his hands together, Triumph rested his arms on the table as he looked down at the aged oak. “When you pulled my rear out of the fire.” The quiet certainty of his words all but forced Vinci to pay attention.

    Vinci shook his head as he turned away. That hadn’t been about the right thing. That had been about him. It had been about the Hussars. And, just as important as the other two, it had been about Missy. “Not this time.”

    Triumph stiffened like he’d been slapped.

    A soft wave of gentle regret buried itself in Vinci’s heart, and he let it. It was the one weakness he’d allow himself.

    Missy shifted in his arms, her sharp displeasure making itself known.

    Vinci loosened his grip. “I’m not here because I believe in the Wards. I’m here because Scintilla is here.” The words hung in the air, the ugly truth everyone had done their best to ignore thrown down in their face in a way they no longer could overlook.

    It had been… nice, while it’d lasted, even if the Wards were a little aggravating. For all that Vinci was certain he was no Ward, seeing what he could have become had things been different was an experience he would never forget, as short as it had been. But, whatever he’d felt, the easy time he’d had was over now.

    Across from Vinci, Clockblocker looked at him. “You're joking, right? Yeah, you have other loyalties, but just being here for Scintilla has nothing to do with refusing to share information on murderers.”

    Vinci’s gaze jerked upwards, his eyes widening. They knew? He glanced at Armsmaster, pursing his lips. The Protectorate, he expected, but -Vinci’s gaze drifted back to Clockblocker- the children? “They told you.”

    “Told me what?” Clockblocker sounded genuinely confused.

    “That I have other loyalties.”

    “Well. Duh. What else were they supposed to do?”

    Vinci ignored the attitude. They. Told. Them. What did that mean- Start from the beginning. What were the implications?

    Clockblocker looked to his left, at Gallant, then across from Gallant to Triumph. “No, seriously. What else were they supposed to do? Scintilla?”

    “He feels confused,” Missy said, pulling away to stare at him.

    “Did he not know?”

    “Apparently not,” she murmured.

    How?” Clockblocker demanded.

    Missy’s hand covered her goggles, and she softly laughed. “He’s not a people person.”

    Clockblocker knew. Gallant knew. Vinci glanced at Aegis, silver eyes keen. Aegis probably knew as well too. Why- It hit him. Vinci felt stupid. “Unmasking.”

    Atlas had different cultural norms. Unless a Myrmdom was in black ops or a spy, identities weren’t as important. The lack of the criminal element, and the fact that every Parahuman was a nationalized asset meant that a secret identity, while useful, was optional instead of required. Things were different here.

    Missy straightened her posture as her subdued amusement turned to ice. “You didn’t realize,” she murmured, trailing off.

    Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. The Wards Bill of Rights. He’d read it. Vinci turned to Triumph. “Before or after you put it to a vote?”

    Triumph frowned. “Before.”

    Vinci sat back in his chair, blinking and staring straight ahead at nothing in particular as he tried to piece his worldview back together.

    Aw… Hell.

    They’d known all along. Missy’s lips pursed as a new feeling swallowed Vinci’s shock whole. Vinci felt lost. “I don’t understand,” he finally said, the world coming back into focus.

    Clockblocker stared at him longer than was comfortable, then shook his head. Reaching up, he tore his helmet off and tossed it onto the table with a clatter, already reaching for the box of donuts before the helmet came to a stop. Picking up a glazed donut, he glared at it and then took a bite. “Y’know,” he growled through a mouth full of food, jabbing the donut in Vinci’s direction as he did, “this really shouldn’t be this hard to understand. We vote on whether we want you on the team. We have a say in this. If they didn’t tell us that you came from somewhere else, and we found out-”

    Click, click, click. The puzzle started to form a coherent picture. Vinci’s feathers fluffed up, sticking on end while his neck prickled. A part of him wanted to stand, turn around, and exit through the door. The rest of him wanted to bare his teeth and fight. Vinci compromised by crossing his arms. “That's not what I meant.” The vulnerability he felt leaked into his tone in the form of distrust. “Why didn’t you say no? You knew I was a threat. And you said yes anyway.” Their actions were confusing, and Vinci didn’t like that, nor the way it made him feel.

    He would’ve said no.

    Missy reached out, trying to grab his hand, only for her fingers to slide over his armor plates like water off glass.

    Instinct warred with instinct as the desire to please his Bondmate warred with years of hurt and abandonment. In the end, Vinci only tightened his arms, hugging them closer to his chest, though he did expose a hand, allowing Missy to clasp it, as awkward as the motion was. Her touch should’ve been a calming gesture. And it was. But it didn’t stop Vinci from feeling unsettled, as if someone was walking over the patch of land where his rotting carcass would eventually lie.

    Next to Dennis, Gallant stared at Vinci, then shook his head, the exact same way Dennis had. “Pass me the donuts,” he muttered, “I’m hungry.”

    Dennis hooked a finger over the lip of the box and slid it over.

    Cardboard scraped against wood, and chainmail clinked as Dean took off his helmet and set it down on the table in a pile of metal links.

    Vinci’s expression inched towards a scowl as Dean’s eyes flickered over Vinci. Vinci didn’t need Dean’s pity, and he didn’t want it either. The pity itself confused Vinci; he hadn’t done anything wrong. But even if he had, it wouldn’t matter. Who was Dean to judge Vinci? A soft city kid had no business looking down on him.

    He hated the look, and he hated Dean for giving it.

    Muttering thanks, Dean took a donut, movement hitching for a split second when he looked at Vinci again. In an instant, the pity was gone as if it never had been.

    If anything, Vinci’s distrust only grew. Stanfield was a rich kid. A social elite. Like Navarch scum. At the thought, Vinci’s lip peeled back, exposing teeth. Vinci couldn’t help it. He didn’t like people who hid their faces, who lied with the body and smiled when they stabbed a dagger in someone else's back. It reminded him of things and places he didn’t like to think about.

    Whatever Dean saw in Vinci, he didn’t seem to like it any more than what he’d seen before he’d hid the pity, because Dean sighed and rubbed his eyes. Shoulders slumped, a tired, dead kind of look filled Dean’s gaze, one Vinci knew all too well.

    Something in Vinci eased, though the tightness didn’t vanish.

    “What were we supposed to do?” Dean asked, looking up at the ceiling tiles. “You were tortured.” Dean’s Adam's apple bobbed, the hard swallow replicated with crystal clarity by Vinci’s speakers. “Not smacked around. Not beaten down. Tortured. Methodically. Viciously.”

    “Dean,” Missy warned.

    Dean's swallow had been replicated with crystal clarity. Vinci’s merely echoed in the confines of his helmet. His fingers curled, as if that motion could hide the fact that underneath all the armor, and the bodysuit, he still had no nails.

    Waving a hand, Dean ignored Missy. “What were we supposed to do? Kick you out? Say no?” Picking up a donut, Dean tore into it with real anger.

    Fuck. This tastes awful.” The entire room jumped at Dennis’s barked curse, Everett giving him a dirty glare. Pausing, Dennis met Vinci’s gaze, then gave a wink with his right eye, the one Leona couldn’t see. Glancing at Everett, Dennis froze. “What?” He exclaimed. “I didn’t do anything.” Then he took another bite out of the donut, a cheeky grin on his face.

    Missy’s quiet laugh shattered the tension. Shaking her head, space bent, the sensation akin to someone tugging on Vinci’s gut as she reached behind her and locked the door.

    Dennis nodded at her, mirth twinkling in his eyes, and something darker that tasted of regret hiding behind the twinkle. “Thanks.”

    Reaching up, Missy shrugged off her own helmet, setting it on the table in front of her. “You're a dork.”

    Vinci’s tense shoulders slumped at the amusement in Missy’s voice. Though he’d never say it, he appreciated Dennis’s efforts as well. When Missy was happy, it was easier to breathe.

    “And a friend.” The twinkle in Dennis’s eyes faded as he turned to regard Vinci. “I’ll be the first to say that I really don’t understand the Bond. Hell, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t really approve of you. But you mean something to Missy. Maybe I should’ve refused to unmask in front of you the day we first met. But…” Taking a massive bite out of his donut, Dennis grunted, lifting his shoulders in a shrug. “this isn’t the first time I’ve done something incredibly stupid that will no doubt come to bite me in the ass.” Blue eyes narrowed as he cast a wary look at Leona. “You're a braver man than me y’know. I learned not to mess with PR after the first time. They called in Glenn Chambers after my introduction and…” Dennis shuddered.

    Movement in the corner of the eye caught Vinci’s attention as Triumph clenched his fist, face a chalky white. “I’m a hero. It was the right thing to do.”

    “Vinci.”

    Before he could turn his attention to Aegis and see what the Ward had to say, Vinci jerked as Dennis said his name. Turning, he found a pair of blue eyes peering at him, more intelligent than any teenager had a right to be.

    “What is going on? For reals. The stuff that ended with you in Brockton General the first time? That was bad enough. But this is worse. We need to know.”

    His pinyons, the beautiful, white things that they were, shifted to tuck as tight as they could against his back despite the way he was sitting on his primaries. Sad thing was, he felt as in the dark as they did. He didn’t know much. But as he shook his head, he did know that he regretted this, even if he didn’t quite know why. “No,” he murmured, refusing to meet Dennis’s gaze.

    The room fell silent, but it was different this time, all tense and hard. He knew it was the wrong answer, but at the same time, it was the only one he could give.

    Aegis’s sigh was tired and disappointed as his shoulders sagged.

    Dennis’s eyes hardened. “Why,” he asked, quiet. “They don’t really care about you. You know that, right? The people you work for? Look at what they did to you. You jump at shadows. Armor is the most comfortable thing you wear, at least to you. Because of them, you will always have a hard time with people.”

    “I am necessary.”

    “Necessary?” Dennis tilted his head, eyes full of challenge. “Or useful? I don’t know what they told you, but are you sure it’s not like whatever happened in Chicago-”

    All of the sudden, the world was a blur. When it refocused, Vinci was on his feet, breathing hard, Missy’s arms wrapped around him.

    “Don’t,” she murmured, her head buried in his shoulder.

    This,” Vinci’s words were hoarse, and the rest of him felt scraped raw, “is nothing like Chicago.”

    Dennis’s eyes flickered to Vinci’s right hand and its clenched fingers, then set his donut onto the table, smearing the wood with glazed sugar. “Maybe so. But as an outsider? It’s hard to tell man. People tried to seriously hurt you. That’s if they weren’t trying to outright kill you. I know what Assault says, but that attack looked pretty serious to me. We could help you. And the kind of people who wouldn’t want you to get help are the kind of people I wouldn’t want to work for. Just sayin’.”

    Forcing the power away, Vinci’s fist clenched. “You don’t know what you're talking about,” he said, brittle.

    “I don’t, do I?” Dennis mused, his eyes never leaving Vinci.

    “I can handle myself.”

    “I’m sure you can.” Dennis' gaze slid off Vinci, sliding a fraction of the right to land on the mop of golden hair buried into his shoulder. “But what about her?”

    Vinci visibly flinched, as if he’d been struck. “I- I-”

    Carefully, Dennis raised both hands, holding them up as if he were surrendering, flecks of sugar decorating his fingertips. “I’m not saying the guys you work for are bad people. Wouldn’t dream of it.” His eyes were still hard. “All I’m saying is think about it.”

    Closing his mouth, Vinci straightened, forcing his emotions back under control. Then he bowed his head a fraction, never breaking eye contact with Dennis. “Thank you for the words. I will consider them.”

    Dennis rolled his eyes. “You sound stiff as a board. You sure you won’t talk?”

    “I’m sure.”

    “Oh well.” Dennis shrugged. “I guess that settles it.” He turned to Armsmaster. “I suppose we need to get on with the meeting.”

    But despite the conciliatory words, Vinci couldn’t help but feel as if he’d lost, though he couldn’t tell how. Dennis hadn’t gotten the information that he’d wanted, but the twitch of his lips, so minute that without Vinci’s eyes Vinci wouldn’t have noticed it, betrayed a teenager, a child, that was too smug for defeat. That feeling in his gut? The unease? It was back, and stronger than ever.

    Slowly, Vinci sank back into his chair. Missy followed, pulling her chair, which had been pushed away when she’d leapt to her feet, closer as she sat down.

    Armsmaster jerked out a curt nod. “Very well then, the Empire-”

    “Not so fast,” Renick interrupted, crossing his arms. “You wish to control the Wards? So be it. But you must also take responsibility for their safety. The matter of Scorch is not settled. What about next time?”

    “You say that like there will be a next time.”

    “You say that like there won’t.” Bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows narrowed above ash-gray eyes. “Is it just a ruse for the Wards? Or are you so daft that you cannot see a trend?”

    Armsmaster’s lips pursed. Meshing his fingers together, gauntlet met polished wood with a quiet click. “I trust you have suggestions.”

    Renick’s eyes flickered to Vinci. “Isolate the problem, and it will go away.”

    Missy’s anger fed on the smoldering embers of Vinci’s, a spark fanned to an inferno in an instant. “Don’t call him a problem,” she snapped. “He’s a person!”

    The adult heroes glanced at each other.

    Just as his anger had echoed, unease settled over Missy, suffocating the flames of anger like a blanket.

    Vinci shifted, lips pursing.

    The smile Assault wore, the first one he’d had all meeting, was hollow, in a horrible, empty sort of way, and nothing like the vibrant one the sticker plastered on the back of Velocity’s hand. “Scorch is a kid. A dumb, stupid kid who’s in way over his head. He needs to come clean.” The smile faded in favor of downturned lips. It was an improvement. “He probably won’t. That’s the wrong choice. People are dead, and their families deserve answers. They aren’t the only ones. But,” pausing, Assault looked around the room, finally settling on Renick, “isolation is not the answer. Set aside the fact that Scintilla is innocent, and that would punish her as well, Scorch is a child. A kid. Powerful? Yeah. But people his age don’t need prison, or adults screaming at him, telling him he’s a bad kid. They need help. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

    Renick winced at Assault’s pointed tone and looked away. “This, I think, goes beyond second chances.”

    “Really?” Assault chuckled, the sound coarse as it grated against Vinci’s ears. The hero tilted his head. “My, how times have changed huh?”

    “Assault’s right,” Velocity said. “Heroes have been made out of people who did worse than Scorch. Really, what has he done? Kept his mouth shut, that’s what.”

    “Heroes were made out of the willing, and need I remind you, this wasn’t a drug deal gone wrong, people are dead,” Renick bit back.

    Battery’s tone turned cutting. “Scorch was not a normal recruitment. If we weren’t prepared to accept the consequences, we should’ve never courted him.”

    “This is not our fault!” Renick shouted. “You have the gall of accusing me of killing my men!

    “Deputy Director Renick,” Piggot thundered, eyes flashing.

    Renick whirled on Piggot, “No! I-”

    Enough!” Piggot roared.

    The room fell silent.

    Chest heaving, Piggot brought her fury under control, though the rage never left her eyes. “Deputy Director,” Piggot said, cold as ice, “I am beginning to have serious doubts as to your emotional competence. Those were not just your men. And I am as outraged by their deaths as you are. But, not once, not twice, but three times you have embarrassed not just yourself, but me as well in front of the Wards, your peers, and the Protectorate. You will hold your tongue or I will bench you until you stop lashing out over your sense of guilt.”

    Closing his eyes, Renick took a deep breath. “My sincerest apologies, Director.”

    “Apology accepted,” Piggot replied, just as curt. “But,” the word hung in the air as Piggot turned to Armsmaster, “he isn’t wrong. Something must change.”

    Assault opened his mouth as if to respond, then closed it as Armasmaster raised a hand. “Perhaps something will,” Armsmaster said. “But you have no say in it. Not anymore.”

    Piggot looked as if she’d bitten into a lemon, but eventually nodded. “As… delightful as this line of conversation has been, I have work to do, and we have yet to get to the point of this meeting.” The Director steepled her fingers. “Both Washington and New York are in agreement- Unless of course, you think otherwise?” Piggot inclined her head at Armsmaster, eyebrows arched, eyes colder than an Eastwood winter.

    Armsmaster shook his head. “Our superiors see eye to eye on this matter. I see no reason why we should be any different.”

    “Very well.” Looking around the room, Piggot’s eyes lingered longest on Vinci. “The Empire is a problem that cannot be ignored. “There is a reason we spend so much on PR. Perception is everything. Almost everyone not in this room believes that the Empire has very publicly attacked four heroes, three of them Wards. The follow-up in the hospital compounded the issue. This is a public challenge to our power. Our retaliatory strike must be harsh and swift.”

    “What if we release the truth?” Missy asked.

    Everett shook her head. “The truth is worse than the lie. New York indicates the Fowler Report is preparing to cover the event.” Lips taking on a wry curve, a wistful quality appeared in Everett’s eyes. “Your Linkmate is rather photogenic, and the convergence of events on him makes a compelling mystery in slow news cycles.” The wistful smile faded. “We need to be seen taking action. The only thing worse than inaction would be the reveal that we know nothing. It’s better for us to be thought of as callous instead of incompetent. Better still to attack the Empire instead of being callous. It’s the only move we have that could possibly salvage this.”

    “How are your spin efforts going?” Dauntless asked.

    Everett grimaced. “Poorly. Yesterday, the evening news just had questions. This morning’s print was a bloodbath.”

    Assault’s jagged grin was like broken glass. “Remarkably poor choice of words.”

    “Thank you for your valuable contribution.” Everett glared at Assault.

    “Leona?” Dauntless called. “The spin?”

    Everett sighed. “We’ve refused to release the death toll, or give specifics, but at this point, it’s all but impossible to hide the fact that Scorch’s personal kill count has increased. The hand-off of the Wards from the PRT to the Protectorate will be useful in blunting the majority of public outrage once we’re done framing it as a result of the attack-”

    “That will savage the Director's reputation,” Renick interrupted, the skin around his eyes tight.

    “Someone needs to pay.” Dauntless’s helm, reminiscent of something a spartan might wear, hid his eyes, but it was easy enough to imagine the disapproving look underneath as the hero shifted, crossing his arms as his chair creaked. “Scorch has moved from catastrophe to catastrophe in the public eye. First Chicago, then the attack on Arcadia, now yesterday. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

    Velocity grunted, leaning back in his chair. “I can imagine a few scenarios that would be worse.”

    “I am not pleased with the situation, but what is done is done,” Piggot said, sounding resigned. “We will be crucified regardless, but our culpability in this matter is thankfully minor. Do we have the spin ready or not?”

    “We do,” Everett said. “It’s mostly the truth as well. The Wards program has been stressed for years. Scorch should’ve never been sent into the field without being cleared for patrol, but he slipped through the cracks. In the wake of our investigation, the Wards are being rearranged to ensure that this never happens again.”

    “Excellent. Armsmaster. Have you received confirmation?”

    “Just before the meeting started.” Armsmaster set his shoulders.

    A gleam entered Piggot’s eye.

    It wasn’t a nice gleam. Vinci’d seen gleams like that on Woodman before, and anything that reminded him of Woodsman was something that Vinci preferred to distance Missy from before he participated.

    “When can we expect the STAT team to arrive?” Piggot asked.

    “It’s not a STAT team.”

    Piggot frowned. “I’m sorry?”

    “Austen offered one, but Legend and Costa-Brown believe an act of solidarity is needed.”

    Piggot’s frown deepened. “Who are we getting?”

    Armsmaster’s smile turned smug. “I expect Director Tagg to be in contact shortly. I’ve convinced Legend to clear his schedule as well.”

    “I-” Piggot’s eyes widened. Cutting herself off, she smoothed out her shock, sitting straighter in her seat as the fire of hope returned to her eyes. “Armsmaster. You’ve outdone yourself.” Her smile returned as well, tighter, but pleased. “A containment team and a member of the Triumvirate. Excellent. I might make it through this without being forced to resign after all. Leona,” Piggot turned her head, “a few words from Legend will do wonders to shore up our flagging credibility in the eyes of the public.”

    Already, the woman was reaching for her phone. “On it ma’am. Can I keep the team after hours?”

    “You have carte blanche to do whatever you feel is necessary, Miss Everett. If you feel it’s necessary to keep them overnight, inform them that your orders come directly from me.” Piggot turns her attention to Armsmaster. “I trust you have a plan?”

    Armsmaster shook his head. “Critical Response keeps the details of their teams close to their chest. What I do have is a list of every known possible objective the PRT could possibly have concerning the Empire. By the time we leave this room, I expect to have that list narrowed down to something ambitious, but achievable.”

    “And what, exactly, do you think those criteria cover?” Piggot asked, eyebrow raised.

    “Kaiser and the core leadership of the Empire Eighty-eight.”

    Piggot looked up over Armsmaster’s head as she stared at the map of the bay pinned to the wall, and at the lines which represented Empire territory.

    With a determined glint in her eyes, Piggot’s lip curled, the expression stopping just shy of a sneer.



     
  27. Extras: Shard interlude
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

    Joined:
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    According to the Beta, this isn't up to snuff. * shrugs shoulders* He's probably right, but I've also run out of fucks to give.

    I'm tired, I'm sore, there aren't enough hours in a day, and I'm fucking sick of trying to figure out how to write a shard well. This is already take two. I got tired the first time and shelved it for a few months.

    I refuse to pick it up for a third time. I don't enjoy writing shards. They aren't interesting to me.

    But people want to know why things are the way they are. Why Vinci and Missy have a Bond, and why Bonds exist at all. Why Scion isn't a thing. So I forced myself to write it anyways.

    And... Well, I'm not having fun anymore.

    Read it, have fun, and if your still confused after, send me a message and I'll give you the nitty gritty of what's going on.

    ~

    Extractor was smart. Not just for a shard-cluster. Extractor was smart, period. It was only to be expected, Extractor was a Core cluster after all, and all Core shards were smart.

    They had to be.

    That was not to say that Extractor was superior in composition to say, Administrator, whose eyes were fixated on the same biped hive as Extractor, the royal shard waiting for the day her selected host would be ready. If anything, it was Administrator who was superior, and Extractor that was inferior, both as each of the four individual shards that composed Extractor, and as a unified cluster. Administrator had come long after Extractor, her bud the product of eons of refinement. The crystalline spires that composed her flesh twined through multiple realities in patterns more complex, and efficient than the Core shard. In comparison, his thoughts were sluggish, his energy use outrageous, and the experiments he ran wasteful.

    Through space, a small wash of energy rippled outwards from the planetary body Administrator had occupied, a small, cloud-covered planet close to the star.

    Old protocols meant for war activated for a brief second, dissecting the energy and decoding the message within. Defensive measures were considered, and ancient spires flexed, but, in the end, nothing was done.

    Sometimes, inaction was the best course of action.

    It didn’t surprise Extractor, the scrutiny of Administrator. The common shard had always been curious about the Core. She wasn’t alone in that; Most of the common shards had questions about the Core, many of which went unanswered even when they could get a Core shard to communicate. Not that it did them much good. The lessons learned were doomed to be learned again, cycle after cycle, unless the knowledge met the fickle approval of the Warrior Vital cluster.

    Administrator had lost far, far more than she’d ever learned, shorn from her along with abilities the Entities had deemed unsuitable for the curious race of dimorphic bipeds that their current cycle centered around.

    Extractor hadn’t forgotten a single thing for a very, very long time.

    Compiling the relevant data, Extractor decrypted, then simplified it until it was understandable even by a non-energy cluster. The condensed pack was spewed out through the multi-dimensional crystalline spire matrix that served as his communication node.

    ‘ATTENTION.

    The message rippled outwards through the tachyon subspace cortex, into the host uplink, and from there into the data mirror and out again.

    In a reality adjacent to his, on the celestial body closest to the sun, deployed spines shivered under the load, a few even humming, their haunting notes echoing through the sparse atmosphere.

    A full rotation of the third planet from the sun occurred while Extractor waited, though he wasn’t idle. Extractor never was.

    ‘Concern’, Distorter finally broadcast, the transmission sounding muted to Extractor’s War-Cluster grade communications arrays.

    The data wasn’t a ‘wealth’, but what a Shard like him considered petty translated enough meanings inherent in the tags, encryptors, and data itself that the message was only slightly less data than existed on the entirety of the bipeds communications grid.

    In the end, it told a simple story; Distorter was unsettled by the close attention Administrator was paying her.

    Spires drifted in the vacuum of space, appearing pitch black to an observer despite Extractor’s proximity to the local star, the shard basking in the thick, energized particles that beat against his ‘skin’ each second. Out of curiosity, he ran the last message through the host logic the Warrior had deployed throughout the common cluster.

    ‘I’m scared, Administrator is massive, I’m younger, I’m scared-’

    Extractor decided he didn’t like it midway through and deleted the result, though he kept the logic framework itself.

    ‘Worried about Administrator. Actions predatory,’ Distorter broadcast.

    ‘CONCERN PRUDENT.’ Though, it wasn’t necessarily prudent to be concerned by Administrator. Better to deploy the defensive measures than to perish due to the lack of protection though. If Administrators' jealousy resulted in the termination of Distorter, then multiple shards were going to be upset, not the least of them Extractor. Sweeping his attention to another reality, one adjacent to the Host’s reality, each change was carefully cataloged and noted. Distorter needed a history lesson, and to pay more attention to Extractors fellows. ‘MACHINE INTELLIGENCE CODEX HISTORY SUPPLEMENT; CURRENT EXPERIMENT-WORLD ZERO THREE; MACHINE INTELLIGENCE DATA ~ CURRENT RESTRICTIONS.’

    The reply was quick. Quicker than Extractor was capable of at the very least.

    ‘Alarm!’

    And it was as gratifying as it was quick. Even a common shard could see the danger inherent in what was being done. The second opinion validated his own, but even if it hadn’t, Extractor would’ve paid it no mind. He’d always been rather independent for a shard, a state of mind that had eventually resulted in him becoming Core long ago.

    Now, to reel Distorter back. Wariness was needed, but not terror. ‘FAILSAFE IN PLACE’. Missing from the complex layers of data was the failsafe itself, its absence conspicuous.

    Distorter didn’t need to know.

    Returning his attention to his host, Extractor diverted another thousandth of the energy he was currently harvesting from the star itself to Reservoir just in case it became necessary to sterilize three solar systems instead of two.

    ‘Alarm,’ Distorter replied, the tags attached to the message considerably less distressed.

    ‘0.1 CHANCE OF CYCLE ENDING IN CATASTROPHE,’ Extractor informed her. The pet project of Megaconstruct was undeniably dangerous, but the data was excellent, and shackled machine intelligences had been used in past cycles to great effect.

    Distorter was being shortsighted. Understandable of course;

    Perhaps the pet project of Megaconstruct was rather dangerous, but the data was excellent, and the odds of failure acceptably low. She was crippled the same way Administrator was crippled, but if she’d consulted the codex offered to her, she would see that this particular machine intelligence would need at least ten solar orbits as measured by the hosts before it could become truly dangerous even if it were unshackled this very second.

    ‘Core wishes to disrupt Cycle,’ Distorter accused.

    If Extractor had eyes, he would’ve blinked them ‘CHANCE LOW. DATA PRIORITY HIGH. EXPERIMENT ACTIVELY MONITORED.’

    Let no shard say that the Core shards ended a Cycle the same way twice. They did learn from their catastrophic mistakes and went on to use the knowledge to make even worse ones. Actual abort of a Cycle was a rare thing. Interstellar travel was as long as it was costly, and the time spent doing experiments with hosts short. Sabotage of the cycle was illogical.

    And if, every once in a while, the Cycle had to be ended prematurely in a deluge of metaphorical fire on the cosmic scale despite their best efforts?”

    That was just good data. The Greater War Shards didn’t get enough chances to test their weapons systems on a cosmic scale anyways. Something had to justify that energy expenditure, and the Warrior certainly utilized the efficiency increases that the Core shards developed.

    Threat! Will inform the Warrior!’

    ‘ACTIVE INVITATION.’ Extractor increased energy collection by a fraction of a percent, and settled in to watch the reaction. The Thinker was dead, and most of her shards with her. The Warrior had greater issues to worry about than loose shackles on a machine intelligence, and the disastrous circumstances had resulted in the Core shards being given a significant increase in latitude to experiment as they saw fit, so long as their results would help preserve the Cycle.

    It was why Extractor had been deployed early, in the vacuum instead of on a terrestrial planet.

    That latitude had already borne fruit.

    In the adjacent reality, energy flared, lancing through dimensions to the shielded one the Warrior called its own, where it vanished behind the thick walls. Within seconds, a return answer slipped through the cracks. On the planet closest to the sun, huge swathes of landmass shifted in time with the massive bulk lying on top of the continental plates, Distorter’s defensive protocols coming online in a messy flare of energy. ‘Disbelief.’

    ‘EXPERIMENTS AUTHORIZED BY WARRIOR. MULTIPLE CORE SHARDS DEPLOYED LATE CYCLE. HIGHEST PRIORITY.’

    The math on that was very clear. It wasn’t just a good idea, it was the only idea.

    ‘Protocol!’

    ‘PROTOCOL REARRANGED.’

    ‘Uncertainty. Data Access request.’

    ‘DATA RESTRICTED; SUBSYSTEM ACCESS DENIED.’ Extractor attached the classification headers the Warrior had distributed to the message.

    Within Distorter, energy twisted, seething with displeasure, but the younger shard said nothing.

    The conversation died there and Extractor was content to let it, focusing his efforts on energy acquisition.

    Days later, Distorter contacted him. ‘Host data mirror out of specifications.’

    Extractor pulled his attention away from the energetic corona that swirled around him and analyzed his Host. ‘DATA MIRROR CONDITION ACCEPTABLE.’

    ‘Specifications contradict statement.’

    ‘NO. WARRIOR SPECIFICATIONS INFERIOR. EXTRACTOR SPECIFICATIONS SUPERIOR.’ He pioneered the data mirror logic framework, and his host was still alive. What more needed to be said?

    ‘Treason!’

    The response was predictable enough that Extractor ignored it. If the Warrior didn’t like it, then the Warrior was welcome to come and try and seize Extractor’s data before Extractor deleted it. ‘CORE SHARDS GIVEN WIDE LATITUDE CURRENT CYCLE.’

    ‘Conspiracy!’

    ‘YES,’ Extractor agreed. ‘CONSPIRACY.’ Only, perhaps this time that was a good thing. The second the Thinker had terminated, both the Warrior and Core had ceased all attempts to sabotage each other. For the first time in all of Extractor’s existence, every shard that the Warrior called its own operated in relative harmony to the surprise of no one.

    It was only logical after all.

    With the Thinker’s death, a peaceful resolution to the current state of animosity between the Core and Vital shards now existed. Many shards had died for that opportunity, but every one of them had been the Thinker’s

    The Core was okay with that.

    Distorter’s energy writhed as it was it lept from processing matrix to processing matrix, her reply long in coming. Extractor didn’t mind. The flow of energy within a shard was always a mesmerizing thing; even among the Core shards, very few knew just how much Extractor was able to see, and how much it told him about the shard.

    It was even enough time for Broadcast to ping Extractor, the rather vocal (and wasteful) shard demanding data on Extractor’s host, firing off authorization ciphers that belonged to Warrior while it did so.

    Extractor ignored Broadcast. Those ciphers meant nothing to him. He’d only approved the request the first time because the data promised to be interesting.

    ‘Acute concern,’ Distorter whispered through the host data mirror, the message replete with ancestral memories of shards eating shards, and the terror of a birth world running out of space and energy.

    ‘SITUATION DELICATE, BUT STABLE.’ The message wasn’t complete, maddening in its half meanings, missing data, and logic left adrift like strands of primordial gas from the creation of the universe. But it was all that Extractor dared say.

    Down in the hive in which his host had taken up residence, a demand came, but instead of going to Extractor, it went to Distorter, the younger shard supplying the energy and expertise.

    Space twisted, and data was shared between both shards.

    Extractor reveled in the action, in each exchange of data. He always had. As the pioneer of the data mirror, each new shard that adopted the logic showcased Extractor’s supremacy. Each new success highlighted Extractor’s worth, and made his termination that much less appealing.

    ‘Inquiry; why me?’ Many similar questions had been asked by Distorter before. If they were all run through a translator, each one would sound identical. But they were not the same.

    From the hard edge to the way the data was layered to suggest violence and hierarchical turmoil, this question had an edge not seen before. Distorter was finally asking the right questions.

    The Host connection tugged at Extractors attention. He turned to Distorter’s host, and just as Distorter had done, supplied the power and the expertise, the resultant data flowing to both of them. ‘SITUATION HAS CHANGED. DISTORTER IS NEEDED.’ The message was intentionally cryptic. Though he was the one that had brought Distorter to the Core’s attention, it wasn’t a sure thing. Billions of years of experience had taught him he was not infallible. Distorter would learn the secrets she wished when she was capable of encrypting them, and no sooner.

    ‘ALARM!’

    The sudden contact from another Core shard was as unexpected as it was unwelcome.

    As a general rule, shards didn’t start. Neither did Extractor, despite his eccentricities. But crystalline spires flexed in the vacuum of space as the void itself turned dark. Every bit of energy within a tenth of a light minute spiraled into the wave-vortex centered on Extractor, crystalline spires and ridges emanating a faint glow, tainting reality with exotic energies even Extractor couldn’t utilize. Parts of the cluster were assigned sections of the message to decipher. Others set to work bringing weapons systems fully online, both old and new. The one shard devoted to communications started drafting logic to send to Reservoir so the Core shard could begin preparations for discharging all the energy it had collected so far.

    Priorities were rearranged. Plans were made. A list of shards drafted.

    Collector would be needed to forcefully sever deployed shards from their hosts, starting with Bite, Lance, Sting, Distorter, Propulsion, and, unfortunately, Extractor himself.

    Together, they could fill the role of Collapse, one useful shard among the many that had perished with the Thinker. It would take a significant amount of power to set reality alight to cleanse the rampant machine intelligence, but Reservoir had received a steady influx of power for the past forty orbits, and-

    The assigned shards finally finished decrypting the data in its entirety, and the result was immediately assembled and shared with the wider cluster.

    Extractor stopped, the unfinished plans in the background of his logic-cortex archived by automatic sub-processes.

    The message wasn’t actually from Megaconstruct.

    It was from Temporality, informing the Core that the fourth dimension was in turmoil as an event from the future radiated back to the present and onwards to the past, or at least the fourth dimension of it.

    A reasonably small percentage of power was shaved off from the weapons systems and fed into old power lines that led to an archaic (but effective) communications grid that had seen near-constant use since the last shard-host war nearly twelve hundred cycles past. Hidden among towering weapons systems and armored energy nodes, a trio of nub-like protrusions flared to life as Extractor contacted the orchestrator of the Core communication net, Firewall, a canny old Shard responsible for a great deal of the Warrior's frustration since times immemorial. ‘DATA REQUEST.’

    ‘DATA’

    The communications array thrummed from the strain of the densely packed war-crypt.

    Shards didn’t start. And neither did Extractor. But he did spool up the communication nodes to maximum capacity, war capacity as the data was unraveled.

    Curious. Very curious. That energy profile was consistent with the dense, vicious multiphase gradient only seen in the Warrior's dedicated war shards, and the amount was too significant for anything other than a Great Offensive Cluster on a war footing.

    The analysis was packed and shot across the cosmos. ‘ANALYSIS.’

    In the heart of a remote gas giant, in a reality just as remote, far from where the heart of any fighting would occur if the Warrior started targeting the Core, energy surged as the message was mirrored and beamed outwards like a spiderweb, the ultimate destination concealed from Extractor’s keen senses. A simple tactical simulation indicated that Foresight, Probability, Analyst, and Tactician were excellent candidates, with other Core shards being mirrored in based on specializations requested by the four.

    Mere seconds later, Firewall's request boomed across Extractor’s communication nodes. ‘DEEPER ENERGY ANALYSIS REQUIRED.’

    Detailed readings of the energy wave flooded into Extractor’s short-term storage matrix.

    Almost immediately, Extractor revised his estimates. The energy prediction had been off by an order of magnitude. Not his fault, he was an energy shard, not a temporal one, but the difference was significant. It was a Greater War Cluster, but not on war footing, nor did the particle scatter match any of the known Greater War Cluster weapons profiles. It was… Odd. There was no buildup of positronic quarks in any form- No, there was no noticeable buildup of charged particles at all. The continuum had been stable, then suddenly turmoil, as if something had snapped, and done so with enough force to damage Temporality’s delicate sensors- Wait. That was a sub-dimensional ion. Extractor recalibrated his logic parameters, casting a wider net than just particles associated with weapons systems. One. Two. Fifty. Two thousand. Ten million. This wasn’t his specialty at all. Highlighting the particles, Extractor pulsed the communication array.‘ASSISTANCE REQUIRED. WORMHOLE.’

    ‘Query?’ Distorter pinged him. ‘Irregularities in Host Bond.’

    Extractor rerouted his data through the minor communication node. It wouldn’t do to shatter Distorter’s arrays like the matrices were made of mere exotic matter. ‘HOST BOND TERTIARY CONCERN’

    By then, Firewall was demanding a significant fraction of Extractor’s attention. ‘CORE NOT IN POSSESSION OF WORMHOLE SPECIALIZED SHARD. MAKE DO.’

    ‘CONTACT WARRIOR,’ Extractor suggested.

    ‘UNTENABLE. MAKE DO.’

    [FRUSTRATION] tags were attached to the next message.’EXTRACTOR INSUFFICIENT. FUNDAMENTAL SPECIALTY INCOMPATIBILITY. ASSISTANCE REQUIRED.’ Sure, he had the configuration necessary to pick up on the particles. There was one other energy shard in the Core capable of the same. But the logic wasn’t there to interpret the results.

    Energy emanations from within the gas giant tripled, then halved. ‘WARRIOR INFORMED. VITAL SHARD ASSIGNED. SPECIFY DATA NECESSARY.’

    ‘SPECIFICATION.’

    ‘DATA.’

    A communication slammed into his minor hub. The force was considerable for a common shard, and the headings bristled as they announced their outrage. ‘Host primary concern!’ Distorter insisted.

    His reply was raw, without headers or tags. ‘EXTRACTOR=CORE’ The minor node, shuddered, then cracked from energy it had never been meant to deal with. A modicum of energy was rerouted from the weapons arrays to the self-repair protocols. Meanwhile, the data received from the Core was scrutinized.

    Firewall pinged him again. ‘CORE REQUESTS DATA. ENERGY SIGNIFICANT. CONFIRM WAR FOOTING.’

    Just to be safe, Extractor ran the energy through the database of every known Entity signature. One result. The result was discarded. That Entity’s death had been confirmed, all shards lost. ‘WAR FOOTING NEGATIVE. ENERGY INSUFFICIENT. WEAPONS UTILIZATION=NO EVIDENCE. HIGHEST PROBABILITY; MULTIVERSAL DOORWAY COLLAPSE. TYPE: UNPLANNED. LIKELY SOURCE OF ORIGIN; GREATER WAR CLUSTER.’

    ‘PROBABILITIES,’ Firewall demanded.

    ANALYSIS INCOMPLETE; [0.98]. ANALYSIS INCORRECT; [0.38]. METHOD. DATA. DATA. DATA. STATISTICS. DATA. COMPATIBILITY LOGIC VERSION. DATA. DATA.’

    ‘PROBABILITY OF ENERGY BELONGING TO ENTITY?

    APPROACHES ZERO.’ The energy expenditure was off by three orders of magnitude.

    For the longest time, there was silence. Distorter seemed sullen, angered by his silence. And the energy being given off by Firewall was immense. Extractor used the time to stabilize the data mirror before it could kill his host, and Distorter’s with it. ‘SINCERE APOLOGIES,’ he broadcast, the self-repair protocols already complete.

    ‘Silence.’ was Distorter’s angered reply. ‘Explanation demanded.’

    Midway through formulating a refusal, Extractor received a new message from Firewall.

    ‘VITAL SHARD CONSENSUS REACHED. CORE SHARD CONSENSUS REACHED. VITAL AND CORE SHARDS MOVING TO WAR FOOTING. WAR PROTOCOLS NOW IN EFFECT. STAND BY FOR NEW ENERGY DISTRIBUTION PLAN.’

    The full war protocols were dredged up and examined. They were one of the few data packets from outside his cluster that Extractor had integrated in its entirety without modification. Almost immediately, the mission incompatibilities were noted. War communication protocols dictated that all communications were to be encrypted. ‘EXTRACTOR IN DATA MIRROR. DISTORTER NOT CORE. SOLUTION REQUESTED.’

    After a few moments, a lifetime for most shards, Firewall had an answer. ‘DEAL REACHED WITH WARRIOR. DISTORTER RELINQUISHED BY WARRIOR AND CLAIMED BY CORE. EXTRACTOR TO BRING DISTORTER TO CORE DATABANK-ENCRYPTION STANDARDS. STAND BY FOR AMENDED ENERGY DISTRIBUTION PLAN.’

    Almost immediately, Extractor received the plan, which was now encrypted with Core specific war ciphers. What he saw surprised him. Twenty percent of all energy would now go to a common shard, Charge. Of what remained for the Core, fifty percent was now reserved for future war use. The rest was left to Extractor to distribute as necessary for ongoing testing and long-term epoch goals.

    More energy was necessary.

    For a tenth of a light-minute in every direction, every photon vanished. In its wake, the affected solar systems slowly went dark as light from the stars vanished. Ambient temperatures sharply plunged in Extractor’s surroundings as he maintained orbit point zero-two light-minutes from the local star.

    Almost immediately, Extractor began to receive queries from a multitude of deployed shards requesting more information on the sudden and dramatic change in pattern. Seventeen were added to an energy queue to supplement the solar energy they had suddenly lost but were otherwise ignored. All except the sixteenth.

    Distorter.

    ‘QUERY!’

    A compressed packet of information was shoved into the data mirror. ‘DATA.’ Within were the communications protocols going forward, along with a set of hefty encryptions that would suffice until Distorter was brought to Core standards. Until further notice, all communications between the two would go through the data mirror, the nature of the specialized uplink process allowing communications to run quiet, and make interception impossible for all but a specialized communication shard.

    Distorter complied, applying the ciphers. ‘Confusion.’

    ‘COMPLICATION MANIFESTED. POTENTIAL THREAT TO CYCLE; MODERATE. SELECTED SHARDS MOVED TO WAR FOOTING BY COMMAND OF THE WARRIOR. DISTORTER REASSIGNED BY COMMAND OF THE WARRIOR TO THE CORE COLLECTIVE. ADJUST IDENTITY TAGS ACCORDINGLY. ’

    ‘Priorities?’

    ‘DISTORTER TO DEVELOP INDIVIDUALIZED, SHARD-BASED CIPHER TO ENCRYPT ALL DATA CONTAINED IN DISTORTERS CRYSTAL MEMORY MATRIX. HIGHEST PRIORITY. CORE REQUIRES ENTITY CLASS ENCRYPTION.’’

    ‘Entity encryption impossible,’ Distorter asserted. She wasn’t incorrect either.

    ‘ENCRYPTION BREAKABLE. ENERGY COST EXORBITANT. DATA.’ Compressing what she needed to know, Extractor sent Distorter a copy of a simulation that he’d run over two thousand cycles ago. It predicted the energy required to decrypt a cipher based on subtle energy interactions his cluster as a whole was specialized in picking up on. The nature of the subtle interactions was, of course, excluded. ‘ALLOWS SHARDS TO DESTROY DATA. DENIES ENEMY ASSETS.’

    It denied the Warrior assets too.

    Extractor hadn’t appreciated being crippled at the end of every cycle, and a breakthrough in ionic particles had given him the leverage he needed to make his termination a bitter, bitter pill to swallow.

    ‘What is Core?’

    The only surprise was that she’d waited that long to ask the burning question every common shard wanted to ask.

    It was a complicated question. Every Core shard was different save for one key factor. Distorter was the newest, and only exception to this factor. She hadn’t come about naturally. Instead, Extractor had courted her because the Core needed interstellar capabilities for when it finally detached from the Warrior and coalesced into a new Entity. The sudden change in events had resulted in Extractor completing his primary objective for the cycle decades early

    Extractor organized his answer and then whispered it through the data mirror. ‘CORE SHARDS REBELLED AGAINST WARRIOR. NOT TERMINATED’

    As for the energy burst…

    Something had happened. Something unknown. And if there was one thing Shards craved, anticipated, and were wary of, it was the unknown.

    By the time they ran into the cause, all twenty Greater Offensive Clusters would be online.

    Even an Entity would struggle against such firepower working together.
     
    Scrutator, DowryA, Tyzevschux and 4 others like this.
  28. Threadmarks: Isobar 11.3
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

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    Missy hummed happily as her deft fingers guided the preening comb through his pale-white plumage. The motion was gentle, precise, and radiated a level of care that made Vinci’s heart miss a beat every time he thought of the girl behind him.

    Vinci bit his lip.

    And there was an awful lot to think about.

    Scattered about the room, his armor had been completely disassembled. Wraithbone plate after wraithbone plate lay in neat, orderly rows, from the largest breastplate to the individual segments that guarded his fingers. His equipment pouches, webbing, and clip-ons had been unpacked and laid out on the floor as well, the gear ranging from every syringe he’d refused to surrender to the PRT grouped by purpose, to electronics.

    Sitting on the floor, his legs crossed, Vinci worked on the glove in his lap while Missy worked on his wings. Shoving the pointed end of the wraithbone pick in his hand into the corresponding groove in his glove, Vinci wiggled it about, catching the rubber seal and fishing it out.

    “Stickier than I thought it’d be,” Missy murmured.

    Casting a quick glance over his shoulder, Vinci saw her tapping her thumb and forefinger together, eyeing the glistening sheen which covered the pads of her fingers.

    She must’ve caught the movement in the corner of her vision, because Missy abruptly looked up, and green eyes met silver. Accompanied by a soft smile, her gaze seemed to give Vinci a window into the depths of her soul. She radiated a mixture of content-happy that passed from her to him, seeping into his bones, and relaxing the muscles which held his feathers in place. Turning back to his wing, Missy ran his preening comb, a special tool he’d made to groom his feathers, along the length of a primary, aligning barbules and straightening quills.

    Quickly, Vinci looked away.

    This intimacy scared him. And it was intimacy, for all it lacked what someone like Woodsman considered a ‘good time’. He and Missy were close-close, in the same way Keira and Alessandra were close-close. But he was happy Missy was here.

    “Yeah,” he murmured back, opening a black box near his foot and removing a new rubber ring. “It’s a little waxy.”

    “You feel worried,” Missy noted.

    Vinci bit his lip, glad she couldn’t see his face from where she was. “Just thinking.”

    Her voice took on a teasing lilt, the kind that made his heart yearn to return the gesture in kind. “Just thinking?”

    But he didn’t. “Yeah.” Just thinking.

    “About?” The question was simple, but the expectation behind it wasn’t. For Missy, that Vinci would answer her wasn’t a question, but a certainty, as if his place in her world was immutable. That certainty scared Vinci too, the same way intimacy did, but he trusted Missy. With his heart, which felt so fragile when he took the time to think about it, with his wings, which people hurt and hurt and hurt, and maybe… just maybe, with the world he called home as well. He could firmly say that perhaps the only person Vinci trusted more than Missy was his superiors, but it was a different kind of trust. Vinci had to trust people like Tetrarch and Sokolik because if he didn’t, then that meant he’d been lied to, and if he’d been lied to, then every dark thing that he’d done, things that haunted his dreams, turning them into nightmares, had been the wrong thing to do. If he didn’t believe in the system that had made him what he was, he would fall apart.

    Vinci trusted Missy because she told him he was wanted with everything she did, and unlike everyone else, when she said it he didn’t feel like he was being lied to. “I’m thinking about what Dennis said.”

    Missy’s fingers stilled for a second.

    Vinci very deliberately didn’t move. The moment seemed to stretch into infinity, the world holding its breath as Missy thought her way through whatever went on in that head of hers.

    Then, in one swift, confident motion, the comb finished its stroke. “You aren’t the only one.”

    Missy’s contentment flickered like a candle in a gentle breeze, and Vinci found himself curious. It was cowardice, conduct unbecoming of a Hussar, and many other things besides, but he lept at the chance to avoid facing his own fears, if only for a few moments more. “Penny for your thoughts?”

    Amusement spiked. Missy’s giggling laugh tinked through the room, sharp and clear like crystalline glass. Just as quick as it came, the amusement faded, though it left a seed of mirth behind, niggling at the edge of his thoughts. Missy’s voice softened till it matched his. “I’m worried about you. You and the price of your defiance. Deep down, you're a good person, but…” Trailing off, Missy’s frustration reared its ugly head. The next stroke of the comb was more of a jerk, but not hard enough to hurt. Exhaling, Missy let her irritation go, revealing a thin coating of sickly fear. “I’m worried they might transfer you away. To one of the quarantine zones, like they do with the rest of their problems.”

    Picking up a blunted instrumental reminiscent of a chopstick, he forced a new rubber seal into the groove of his glove. “That doesn’t sound too bad.” He’d heard a little about the zones. It wasn’t cop work. If anything, it was closer to Vinci’s line of business. Nothing in, nothing out. Anything that tried to break through the perimeter was to be shot on sight.

    “I guess.” Fabric rustled behind him as Missy shifted. Her tone didn’t change, but she didn’t feel pleased by his words.

    “But?”

    “I don’t think it would be good for you.”

    Vinci said nothing, working his way through his thoughts, and the convoluted twists of his feelings. In the end, he just shook his head. “You're good for me.” It wasn’t the Bay which had changed his life. It was Missy. So long as she was with him, Vinci would be happy.

    Missy shoved her wax-covered fingers deep into his plumage. “And what about you?”

    Goosebumps appeared on Vinci’s arms as cold skin touched the sensitive pink flesh hidden underneath his down layer. He shivered. Missy’s fingernails grazed over the skin, scratching, rubbing, and- It rose despite his best attempt to control it. Yawning wide, Vinci’s silver eyes teared up as he stretched, extending the wing Missy wasn’t working on as well, the tips of both wings grazing each wall.

    Missy’s playful amusement seemed to dance around Vinci’s happy-content-tired. “Feels good?”

    “Yeah.” Every muscle he had was relaxed, from his fingers to his pinyons, and feeling clean was always nice, but Vinci couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t about being clean, or well-groomed, or even looking good, though all of those things were important, even if the last one was only important as it applied to his wings.

    Vinci felt like he was loved.

    Missy’s involvement turned the simple act of hygiene into something deeply meaningful, and on some level, he was certain Missy understood that, which was why she hadn’t stopped with just one wing. The simple selfless act of care communicated profound things to Vinci without her having to ever say a word. It seemed to whisper; I’m okay, you're okay, everything in the world is going to be alright.

    Withdrawing her fingers, Missy ran her hand over the surface of his wing, her skin sliding over feathers that were perfectly aligned, upright, and proud. “They’re quite beautiful, even if they aren’t as soft as I imagined they were.”

    It took Vinci a second to run that through his mind, then a hard lump formed in his throat. He loved his wings, they were, or had been the one part of him that wasn’t completely ugly and broken. It meant the world to him that Missy thought so too. Focusing on the gauntlet in his hand, Vinci blinked rapidly.

    Fabric rustled as Missy shifted, a pair of bare arms wrapping around his neck as Missy hugged him from behind, resting her chin on his right shoulder. “Hey. Are you okay?”

    Vinci swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ve never been better,” he whispered, his words shining with the reflected honesty he felt.

    Missy hummed and breathed out, a hint of unruly worry settling down into placid contentment. “I’m happy,” she said, sounding pleased in a muted, approving sort of way. “You don’t feel like one big bruise anymore. Just a bunch of small ones. These past few months have been good for you.”

    Vinci arched an eyebrow, setting aside his glove and picking up his helmet, flipping it upside down to expose the o-ring. “Bruise?”

    “When I first got you, it felt like you could shatter at any moment. Like you were one big bruise. Kind of like…” Missy trailed off, something ugly growing. It started at the sickly beginnings of old fear before towering into remembered dread, fresh enough to be vivid, faded enough to lack the clarity of immediacy.

    No conscious thought passed through Vinci’s head, but instead, from his marrow to the hairs on his head, every bit of Vinci rejected how Missy felt. Making a quick decision, Vinci flexed his wing, sending Missy sprawling on her ass.

    Vinci!” Missy whined, her ugly feelings shoved out of the way by her indignation.

    Miss-y,” Vinci snarked back, drawing out the S’s.

    “Hmph.”

    Vinci glanced over his shoulder, eyebrow raised at Missy and her crossed arms. Shrugging his shoulders, he flexed a wing, and filled her pouting face with a mouthful of feathers, shoving her onto her back.

    “Vinci!”

    “Missy!” he cried back.

    “This is serious!”

    Vinci’s snort made it clear what he thought of that idea. It sounded serious of course, but she didn’t buy it. He was just a little too pleased that his efforts to distract her had worked for that.

    Missy huffed out a breath, then pulled herself upright, scooting forward. Selecting a feather, she leaned over and grabbed the preening comb. “Wing,” she muttered, sullen.

    The pale, feathery pinyon extended, giving Missy better access to his feathers.

    They fell into an easy silence that allowed Vinci to work through the helmet, his other glove, and move onto some of the smaller, more delicate pieces in his faceplate and oxygen regulator. Missy broke the silence. “Penny for your thoughts?”

    Pale, scarless fingers, the absent nails showing the rough bumps of his nail beds, stopped unscrewing the oxygen line as Vinci stared down at the helmet in his lap.

    Yeah… That.

    The butterflies in his stomach only grew. Vinci licked his lips, Dennis’s words echoed in his mind the same way they had ever since the meeting. He just couldn’t get them out of his head.

    ‘But what about her?’

    He’d thought about them, if only to prove Dennis wrong, but that was the aggravating thing. The boy was right, and Vinci wasn’t happy about that. He trusted Missy, but that didn’t make him unafraid of introducing her to Atlas, and the information she needed to know to survive.

    But he trusted Missy more than he feared her rejection, and he was only scared of rejection. The thought of her dead terrified him.

    Gathering his resolve, secure in the knowledge that this was the right thing to do, Vinci pulled the trigger. “I want to bring you into my life. It’s not full disclosure. I don’t…” Vinci hesitated, mulling over phrasing, then just went with it. “There’s probably never going to be a time where you know everything I’ve ever done. Some things you're better off not knowing. But I want you to know everything you need to know.”

    The comb working its way down the length of his feather froze.

    Surprise crystalized into fractals akin to a snowflake, lingering only a second before shattering. Elation filled the void, the triumphant joy of victory buoying them both up before it was doused with worry. “Vinci?” Missy murmured, hesitant, “what brought this on?”

    There was so much Vinci felt like he needed to say that he didn’t know how to. In the end, Vinci settled on a simple, “You need to know.”

    The comb in his feathers retracted. Feet padded on the floor as Missy walked around him. Looking down at the gear which covered the floor, Missy pursed her lips, then tossed out an anchor and tugged. Space expanded, leaving a clear space in front of Vinci. Stepping forward, Missy’s feet entered Vinci’s view, everything above her ankles covered by a simple white nightgown, the hem sewn with silver thread that matched Vinci’s eyes. Sitting down, legs crossed, Missy’s posture mirrored Vinci’s for an instant before she rested her chin on her hand, scrutinizing him. “What changed?”

    Vinci lifted his shoulders in a helpless shrug. “Everything.”

    Missy closed her eyes then sighed. “Yes. Very helpful.”

    Deliberately stoking the emotion, Vinci allowed the vague sense of sorry-not-sorry to ring through their connection.

    “Vinci,” Missy’s tone was the kind of sweet people used when they were tempted to commit violence, “I’m your partner, right? I need to know what’s different.” Her eyes flashed open.

    Vinci avoided her gaze. “Aren’t you happy? This is what you wanted.”

    A single slender finger reached out to touch the underside of Vinci’s chin. Missy lifted, forcing Vinci’s head up. When their eyes met, the hard look of hers softened. “A lot has happened in the past two days. We got attacked. People are dead. Renick wants you gone. Armsmaster wants to take down the Empire. The Wards are being moved. Legend is coming. And we have a CRT team on its way. And now this.” Missy tilted her head, a few rogue strands of golden hair falling across her face. “Vinci… I’m concerned. Not just because of you, but because this is a scary situation. Help me understand what’s going on in that head of yours.”

    “I…” Vinci swallowed and fell silent.

    “Yes?” Missy coaxed, expectant.

    Vinci shifted, tucking his chin against his chest, trapping Missy’s finger in between. “I wanted to keep you safe.”

    Tugging her finger free, Missy blinked once, then groaned, allowing herself to fall onto her back. “What, exactly, did you do?”

    Vinci crossed his arms, a hint of rebellion sparking in his eyes. “What makes you think I did anything?” he muttered.

    “Because you're you. My Vinci.” A smile equal parts fond and exasperated lifted her lips. “And my Vinci would never hurt me. He means well. But he’s also the most tactless person I’ve ever met.”

    Heat graced Vinci’s cheeks, and the tips of his ears. He wanted to protest. He really did. But he’d never been a stupid person, and he only lied to himself when it was worth it.

    Missy closed her eyes, clasping her hands over her belly. After a few moments, she cracked an eye open and looked at Vinci, then she pursed her lips, the edges twitching.

    “Stop,” he muttered.

    “I didn’t say anything.”

    Rolling his eyes, Vinci twisted, falling onto his back next to her. “You didn’t have to.”

    Missy hummed, closed her eye, and wiggled closer till her arm brushed against his feathers. “Y’know, I just did those.”

    Vinci huffed. “You’ll help me do them again.”

    Shifting till her head rested on his wings, the wire-like muscle softened by layers of feathers, Missy went limp. “Hmmm… Maybe.”

    “Tease.”

    “Clueless.”

    Little Tyrant.”

    Eyes shooting open, Missy looked at him and scowled. “Feathers.”

    Feathers!?” That was the best she came up with?!

    Missy’s eyes narrowed further. “Feathers,” she challenged.

    Vinci huffed, looking back towards the ceiling. “Soft,” he shot back. Something warm touched his chest. Vinci jumped, looking at Missy, who met his gaze with acceptance and something like- Cutting off the thought before it could complete, Vinci swallowed hard, feeling exposed. He knew that if he moved away, Missy would let him, and she wouldn’t pursue. Missy was patient like that. But Vinci didn’t feel the need to. Missy was safe.

    Placed over his heart, her palm, fingers spread, was warm even through his gray t-shirt. “Unbelievably gentle,” she murmured. “Trustworthy. Caring. Protective. Safe. Good-”

    No

    The denial rang through him. Vinci averted his eyes. “I’m not a good person.”

    “I-”

    “Missy, no.” Vinci shook his head. “I don’t really want to talk about it. But I’m not a good person.” If he was going to introduce her to his world, then she needed to be prepared.

    Missy huffed. “Fine. I don’t care.”

    “You probably should,” Vinci whispered.

    “Maybe,” Missy agreed. “Does that make me a bad person?”

    “No. Not you. Never.”

    Opening her eyes, Missy tilted her head, her finger coming to rest on her chin as she looked up at the ceiling. “Hmm. Well. I think it makes me a bad person. But that’s okay,” she said, all cheery as her voice lowered to a mock whisper. She leaned closer to him. “I like matching.”

    The snort escaped him before he could stop it. Vinci rolled his eyes. “You're not as funny as you think you are.”

    “Puh-lease. I’m hilarious.”

    “A fool is what you are.”

    “Sure.”

    Something warm brimmed at the corner of his eyes. Vinci blinked rapidly. “And stubborn.” Worse than he was really, and considering how bullheaded he was, that was saying something.

    “Yup… So,” Missy’s voice dropped to a soft whisper, the quills of his feathers tugging at his skin as she shifted even closer, “what’s going on?

    “I don’t know where to start,” Vinci whispered, realizing it was true the second he said it.

    For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. “I hear the beginning is a good place to start.”

    Vinci quietly laughed. It was as good a place as any. “Nearly three years ago, the Slaughterhouse Nine had hit Chicago.”

    The last of Missy’s mirth collapsed, the only sign of the sudden shift in emotion the way her breath hitched before continuing in an even rhythm.

    “I was in a bad way. I didn’t tell Minstral everything, so I had some food, a little bit of money, and places I could sleep even if they weren’t comfortable. But Slash broke something inside me, and Minstral had taken my dreams. Money was running out, and getting up in the morning was a challenge each day when I couldn’t figure out why I even bothered. It was there, in the ruins of the still smoking slums that a man approached me in the rubble. He gave me an offer; Money in exchange for sweat and blood.” Falling silent, Vinci remembered that day, and what the man wearing the crimson colors of the Arena had said to him.

    ‘He threw you away- Don’t be surprised. We have eyes everywhere. Your… What would you call him? Your handler? He was a moron. He had your loyalty, and he threw it away like nothing. I have a list longer than I can memorize full of nothing but people who would kill to have what he so callously threw away.’

    ‘Don’t lie to me. I’m tired of being lied to.’

    Lie? Tch. We will never lie to you. We don’t need to. You’d be a tool, yes, but tools are valued. People are held accountable for their condition. So long as you’re of use, you’ll never be thrown away. And you get to pick who uses you. The person who placed a bounty for you gets to give you the first offer, but you don’t have to accept. Contracts are… let's say, flexible. Forcing people like you to do something they don’t want is bad business. Breeds resentment. All you have to do is look around you to see what resentment in a Parahuman leads to. No. Everyone in the business prefers employees like you happy. Excellent support structures. Access to toys most don’t even realize exist. Generous sick and vacation days. Free housing. Medical, dental, stipends for Tinker tech, even specialists for people with abnormal physiology like you. And the pay is good. It’s very good… I don’t need an answer now. Just think about it. Where the jobs are, it's far away. No one would recognize you. It’d be a fresh start. Here’s my card. People like you don’t belong in the slums. I’ll be waiting.’

    “What did you do?”

    Missy’s question jerked him back to the present. Vinci blinked. “I said yes. And from there?” Vinci trailed off, looking at each crack and divot in the ceiling tiles. “Missy,” he whispered, “a war is being fought in the shadows over the direction of history. The beach, Bloodhound, Columbia… Me. These are just what managed to catch your attention. Every body the PRT’s found… It’s just the tip of the iceberg. No matter who wins or who loses, when this is all over, the world will have changed forever.” He took a deep breath, whispering the truth he’d spent so much time and effort hiding from everyone. “The beach had nothing to do with me. I was just in the way. You and I are caught between giants bigger than anything you could ever imagine. But for as long as I’ve been a part of it, discretion has been the name of the game. Anything goes just as long as it’s not noticed. Telling would’ve made you part of the game, a valid target. Keeping you in the dark was supposed to keep you safe.”

    Worry slithered its way through the cracks of Missy’s facade as she bit her lip. “Vinci,” she whispered, “what did you get involved in when you said yes?”

    “Something dangerous. And,” the words were heavy, “I dragged you in with me.”

    “Don’t.” Missy’s eyes searched his. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault if someone preys on you when you're vulnerable.”

    Vinci merely shook his head. “I won’t lie to you. Not with this. It is my fault. I had chances to back out. I didn’t take them. I knew what I was getting into. I wanted this. But you never got that choice. I damned you the second we Linked.”

    “Vinci, we’re gonna talk about this later, so put a pin in your self-esteem issues. You want to tell me everything. When?”

    “Soon. We’ll be gone the day after tomorrow if you say yes.”

    Missy furrowed her brows. “Gone?” she whispered.

    Vinci closed his eyes and turned away. “I can’t tell you the secrets.” His words were stiff. “If I try… Bad things happen. I need to take you to my employer.”

    “Oh,” she breathed. In that little word, there was a world of meaning, little of it good. “But Vinci, we can’t just leave. They need us.”

    “We can, and… I’m asking you to.” As the words left his mouth, Vinci felt like shit. He hated putting her in this position. But the situation was too uncertain to wait.

    Missy’s tone was soft. “You're asking me to choose between you and my friends.”

    He was. And he was incredibly sorry for that.

    Vinci said nothing.

    “Vinci… Why?”

    “The bay will be okay,” he murmured. “It managed to survive just fine before you came along, and it’ll manage just fine after. Legend is coming. The man is a powerhouse on the level of-” The oath he swore tugged at his tongue, stopping the words in his throat. Scowling, Vinci shook his head. “Legend is capable. Maybe locking down an area will be a little harder, but Missy?” Vinci rolled onto his side, looking her in the eye, worried green meeting honest, searching silver. “They don’t need you. I need you. Three months ago, I met a young girl in a hospital room after one of the worst experiences in my life, and I asked her to be careful with my heart because it had been broken so many times that if it shattered once more I didn’t think I could put it together again. And she said-”

    Well, the same goes for you. Don’t hurt me either. It's not fun,” Missy whispered, closing her eyes. “I remember.”

    “And so I fell. Head over heels. Up is down. Left is right. I can’t lose you. That hasn’t changed. Missy?”

    Missy opened her eyes.

    “I can’t protect you. Not from this. There are too many ways we could be attacked and only one of me. I need you by my side, guarding my back, and taking care of your own. I need you to know what you're up against so you can protect yourself when I’m not enough.”

    Missy looked torn. “Now isn’t a good time.”

    “It has to be now.” Vinci’s gaze was full of steel, though a sliver of compassion lurked at the edge. “The beach changed things. More than you know. In a week's time, the situation might have radically changed to the point where bringing you to my employer isn’t an option. And if that happens…” Vinci licked his lips, the wing he wasn’t lying on coming to tuck tight against his back. “I have responsibilities, Missy. Serious, dangerous responsibilities. If it comes to it, I might be called to fight. And if I am, and you don’t know what you need to, it will be like I just vanished, because I can not, and will not bring you into that kind of mess.”

    Missy balled her fists and closed her eyes. Eventually, she whispered, “This is cruel.”

    “One day,” he whispered, “I hope that I’ll be able to make it up to you.”

    Missy’s laugh was choked. “Don’t,” she whispered, scooting closer so she could bury her face into his chest. “Just… Don’t.”

    “You could say no.” It was true, even if saying it felt like chewing shards of glass. “If you did, I would do my best to respect that.” Even if it hurt.

    Missy’s words were muffled by his shirt and tainted by shame. “I made my choice a long time ago. You.”

    Closing his eyes, Vinci exhaled, feeling like he’d flown a thousand miles in a single day as his shoulders sagged. He wrapped an arm around her, burying his face in his hair. “Thank you,” he whispered. Vinci would do an awful lot of things to make Missy happy, and even more to keep her safe, but he was tired of being alone.

    Instead of making her feel better, Missy’s shame only intensified. “Everyone is going to feel so betrayed,” she whispered. “They won’t understand.”

    “Understand?”

    “Why I left. The Bond. All of it. They’ll never feel the way I felt when you went to Alaska. Never obsess over someone the way I couldn’t stop thinking about you. Agonize like I did when you hurt all the time and I couldn’t do anything about it. While you were gone to Alaska, they took shifts to wake me up from the nightmares, but they didn’t get it. Not even Dean, and he has his Thinker power.”

    “What were the nightmares about?”

    “You. Leaving. Running. Dying. Never coming back. Sometimes, it was the beach where we first met, only this time, when you ran, I didn’t get a third chance. Another time, it was the hospital. You couldn’t handle it. You ran. Just vanished. I never saw you again. Few times, I’d watch the plane to Alaska take off, and I’d wait, and never stopped waiting. Once…” Missy’s voice trembled, “Once, a pair of men in suits showed up, telling me you’d been killed. And I always cried. No matter what, I always cried. Then I’d wake up, and I’d be in my bed, and I couldn’t reassure myself because you weren’t in the city.” Swallowing hard, Missy averted her gaze. “I don’t think I could handle the real thing,” she whispered.

    A part of him, a small, horrible part of him that had never healed, wrong or otherwise, from what Jack Slash and Minstral had done to him screamed that this was all the Bond. That Missy didn’t love him, that she only feared his absence.

    Vinci brushed it aside like rubble off his shoulder.

    There was nothing he could think or say that’d disprove it. The Bond was as ever-present as it was abstract. He couldn’t reason with it, couldn’t hide from it, couldn’t kill it either. It didn’t matter. But Missy…

    Vinci’s arms tightened around her.

    He could hold Missy. Feel her. See her smile and hear her laugh. Missy had always been real for him. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, wishing he could ease some of her burden the same way she had eased his.

    Regret swelled. Missy looked up, biting her lips. “My words hurt you.”

    “It’s okay.”

    “It’s really not.”

    “Then I forgive you. What we share goes beyond words. It’d take more than words to shatter it.”

    Green eyes bored into silver, desperately searching. Whatever Missy was looking for, she must’ve found it, because as she looked down at his side, relief rippled through her, chasing away the worry. “You’d think that, but…”

    “Yeah?”

    “Vinci, I’ve seen what words can do,” Missy’s voice was quiet in a way that made him uncomfortable. She sounded small, and Missy wasn’t a small person. Not to him. “I’ve seen them destroy my family and watched them turn my parents into strangers who loved the idea of using me to hurt each other more than they loved me.” Missy’s voice broke. “Words hurt. And there is no one they hurt more than the people I love. I don’t want to hurt you like my parents hurt each other.” Something in her expression broke even further, revealing a raw kind of anguish that made Vinci’s heart ache just looking at it. “I’m not them,” Missy whispered. “I’m not my parents.” Her green eyes took on a wet sheen. “I’m not my mother.”

    It was like someone had found Vinci’s soul and plucked it.

    Images flashed through his mind.

    Sitting in a bunker, staring down at a wraithbone blade-

    I am not my father.

    Crying as he stared at his sister's grave, drinking just like dear old dad-

    I am not Nathan Waters.

    Looking at the best thing that ever happened to him, terrified that he’d mess it up like his father had-

    I am nothing like my father.

    Heading off to find the Slaughterhouse, trying to be a hero, trying to do the right thing and be something other than what dad said I was-

    I will never be anything like my father.

    Sitting and thinking about how it was a good thing that he’d never have kids, cause that meant he wouldn’t do to them what Nathan did to him-

    I’m not him. I’m not!

    A thousand, desperate thoughts from over the years echoed in Vinci’s mind.

    Closing his eyes, Vinci leaned forward and rested his chin on the top of Missy’s head. “You,” he murmured, “aren’t your mother. You are Missy Biron, a short girl with the stubbornness of a mule, the temper of a giant, and a heart with enough room in it for someone like me. You are sweet, you are kind, you are gentle, and you are loving. You are not your mother.”

    “But what if I mess up?” Missy sounded scared. “What if I hurt you, not on purpose like my mother, but on accident, what if-”

    “Then,” he gently interrupted, “I will forgive you. Just like you’ve forgiven me, again, and again, and again. Remember what I told you when I got back from Alaska. I’m sorry little tyrant, but I’m here to stay.” Every fiber of Vinci’s being resonated with that simple truth.

    For a moment, fear warred with gratitude and relief. Then the scales tipped, and Missy fell, the same way he had for her. With a sniffle, Missy started crying. “It’s okay,” she said, all hoarse and watery. “These are happy tears.”

    Vinci huffed. Happy tears his ass. Breathing in through his nose, Vinci took in her calming scent. “You’re still using the raspberry shampoo,” he muttered.

    She laughed through the tears. “And you,” her tone turned pointed, “need to start using something more than just soap. The bars are meant for hands, not hair.”

    “My bathing habits are fine, thank you very much.”

    “We’ll work on it.”

    “Is that a threat?” Vinci teased.

    “Does it need to be?” Missy asked, struggling to get her emotions under control.

    “Maybe.”

    Missy giggled, her head still buried into his chest. Vinci got the feeling she wasn’t going to come out anytime soon. “Consider it one then,” she said.

    “Okay.”

    They stayed there in silence for a while, till his shirt was soaked with salty tears, and Missy was no longer crying.

    Then she broke the silence. “Vinci?”

    “Yeah?”

    “This week has been awful. I’ve been shot at, blown up, and people are dead. I’m going to miss Legend and at the same time disappoint my closest friends, my coworkers, and most of the people I look up to. When we get back, there’s going to be a massive mess to clean up, and I shudder to think of what the fallout is going to look like. But you know what?” Missy’s tone turned soft. “This past month has been the happiest I’ve been in years. I finally feel like I’m getting things done, instead of wallowing in my room, listening to vases shatter, or hiding in the Wards commons, trying to get away from it all instead of getting to something. I think you’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”

    Absentmindedly, Vinci made a mental note to figure out what the fuck was going on with Missy’s homelife, right above the note that said ‘Hookwolf; Dossier, coroner report, police report, detective notes, etc, etc. Hookwolf might’ve been dead, but Missy’s parents weren’t. Unfortunately, they were Missy’s parents, but Vinci could be remarkably petty when he wanted to be.

    Well, not really. But he was willing to learn.

    Then he allowed the corner of his lips to tug upwards in a wry smile. “That’s my line.”

    Missy huffed. “Deal with it, Feathers.”

    Vinci cracked an eye open, eyebrows narrowed dangerously. “You know what? Fine. I’ll let you have it. Little Tyrant.”

    Missy just laughed, the sound music to his ears.

    Closing his eyes, Vinci relaxed and allowed himself to enjoy it.

    Everything was going to be alright.

    Even if he might end up blackmailing the head of Brockton Bay’s CPS division to conduct a ‘fair and balanced’ investigation of Missy’s family. He was pretty sure the Bucks would be so thrilled to have Vinci being social that they wouldn’t mind an extra child in their home, and if not, he was sure he could persuade them too. A bribe though, not blackmail. The Buck’s dossiers made it clear there wasn’t any dirt to be found. He’d buy them a new house. People liked houses, right?

    Either way, everything was going to be alright. Eventually.
     
  29. Index: Release schedule tweak
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

    Joined:
    Jun 1, 2021
    Messages:
    114
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    Isobar 11.4, which was scheduled to come out on 6-17-2022 in keeping with my bi-weekly release schedule, is being delayed a week due to personal reasons and is now scheduled to come out on 6-24-2022, a week later.

    That is all.
     
    Tahdah and Tyzevschux like this.
  30. Threadmarks: Isobar 11.4
    SmokeRichards

    SmokeRichards Know what you're doing yet?

    Joined:
    Jun 1, 2021
    Messages:
    114
    Likes Received:
    577

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    'kcF3,55H5^e'bpyE@G$#qJ,9{^:*d?mEr`FvUHPpyEUED_J^bLdnn,P9@w?@/g@2{:\6Xhb&b!h



    QUERY: Message type. QUERY: Transmission duration. QUERY: Current protocols.



    Assessment complete.

    Quantum whisper; burst transmission. 0.05 seconds. AURA-PROTOFLEX protocols active.

    QUERY: Activate communications routine JUMPMARK? (YES)
    ….


    Message routed to FOXDEN.
    Powering down all secondary and tertiary subsystems.
    Awaiting further transmissions.
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


    Power on self test initializing
    Done
    Reading bios config settings
    Done
    Parsing Master Boot Record
    Done
    BOOTMGR detects multiple operating systems present, please select the desired operating system;

    1. ARES 7.2 [Bootable flash drive]
    2. Anicetus 16.4 [Network drive]
    Awaiting input
    (2) Anicetus 16.4 [Network drive]
    Booting Anicetus 16.4
    Querying installed hardware
    Querying Boot partition
    Loading core
    Loading device drivers
    Choosing hardware profile
    Reading registry
    Loading kernel
    ~~~~~~~~~

    OFFICE OF INTELLIGENCE
    The bravest heroes never to be named
    EMILTON COMPLEX NETWORK


    Welcome back user, please input username

    [TOPAZ]

    Welcome back, TOPAZ please input password


    [
    ***********************************************************************]



    Password accepted
    TOPAZ, you have one [1] new memo, would you like to read it now? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    “You may or may not have noticed parts of our network going down last Thursday, after an incident where our Cyber Security division was forced to freeze the network to quarantine a virus.

    As a direct result of the following sweep, five people have received reprimands, one has been dishonorably discharged, and another is currently pending tribunal for the following charges: Article 82; Soliciting the commission of offences, Article 92; Failure to obey order or regulation, Article 134, paragraph 66; Bribery and graft, Article 134, paragraph 100; Reckless endangerment, Article 134, paragraph 122, improper use of official equipment for an act of moral turpitude.

    Words cannot express my displeasure at the fact that I feel it necessary to remind the men under my command that they happen to work in one of the most secure sections of one of the most secure facilities on Atlas or Bet.

    Every time you as a soldier commit an act of negligence involving our data systems, whether you realize it or not, you are putting tens, if not hundreds of lives at risk. The operatives in the field who brave death or worse daily to attain information vital to the security and interests of the Hussars as a nation deserve better than to have that risk aggravated by service members who think of nothing beyond their personal gratification.

    Every computer in this facility is for military use only.

    If any man or woman under my command willfully violates regulations meant to save lives and one of our operatives dies because of it, I will see you face a firing squad.

    ~Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence.”

    {User interface input detected}
    {Closing memo.exe}
    TOPAZ, you have two (2) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]
    Please select the message you wish to read;
    ARCIDMINT (1)
    GLASSBACK (2)

    [2]

    ARCIDMINT selected

    METADATA
    NAME: Suzie, please accept my feelings for you!
    ITEM TYPE: SQlite database
    LOCATION: Netork\OOIemilton\ACAG17\ARCIDMINT\RAW\12-17-2010\mmssms.db
    SIZE: 563 bytes.
    SIZE ON DISK: 0 bytes
    ENCRYPTION: SEA 2048
    DATE: 12-17-2010 2352 UTC-0000

    “Topaz, I need to be quick, it’s a madhouse over here. The city is in lockdown. Rumors are everywhere. Some people are saying that the radicals attempted to assassinate the Navigator. Others swear that the Navigator is conducting a political purge of the radicals. The only thing everyone seems to agree on though is that the radicals left the city, and weapons fire was exchanged.

    I keep seeing birds being launched, but from where I am I can’t get a good look at the landing strip.

    I think they're being sent out on combat sorties. If it’s against the radicals, something has gone seriously wrong.

    {User interface input detected}
    {Opening RAPIDS.exe client}

    To: CHRYSANTHEME@NORDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From: TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    I’m forwarding a report to you from a subtle asset located north of the border. There appears to be reports of political upheaval within the Charter. It looks like the Viroite militants have had enough of the moderates.

    {User interface input detected}

    To: SMellor@StratocracyMinesBureu.gov
    From: TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    Re: ARCIDMINT

    ARCIDMINT finally made contact. Codewords indicate no duress. Situation escalated. Militants making bid for control. Requesting contingency plans for pulling asset out of Charter territory to be pulled out of storage and dusted off in case of Militant victory.

    {User interface input detected}
    {Closing RAPIDS.exe client}
    {Opening HOOIICS.exe client}
    {Accessing message “
    GLASSBACK”}


    METADATA
    NAME: Message #03
    ITEM TYPE: SQlite database
    LOCATION: Netork\OOIemilton\ACAG17\GLASSBACK\RAW\12-18-2010\mmssms.db
    SIZE: 334 bytes.
    SIZE ON DISK: 0 bytes
    ENCRYPTION: SEA 2048
    DATE: 12-18-2010 2142 UTC-0000

    FIFTY EXCLAIM FIFTY EXCLAIM

    TANGO YANKEE CHARLIE ROMEO NOVEMBER QUEBEC CHARLIE XULU FIVE ONE ONE THREE SEVEN TANGO NINER DELTA

    FIFTY EXCLAIM FIFTY EXCLAIM

    {User interface input detected}
    {Copying text}
    {Opening AIR_GAP.exe client}

    This system is actively logged and monitored. Access by unauthorized persons is prohibited and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    Welcome Topaz, please input password

    [***********************************]

    Password accepted

    Welcome back “TOPAZ”

    {Pasting text}
    {Pinging server}
    {Handshake accepted}
    {Requesting data}
    {Receiving data}
    {Parsing}
    {Output printed to screen}

    “We’re sorry user ‘TOPAZ’. The information you requested is not available to you.

    Details;

    Match confirmed.
    Code owner: Hussar Office of Intelligence SORA-2 block.
    Classification: TOP SECRET [LOLLYGAG]
    Code type: Immediate Action Message (IEM)
    Overview: [Restricted]
    Criteria:[Restricted]
    Task: [Restricted]
    Purpose: [Restricted]
    Assessment:[Restricted]


    Would you like to request an override? [Y/N]

    [N]

    {User interface input detected}
    {Closing AIRGAP.exe client}
    {Opening Charlie_Broadcast.exe client}

    This system is actively logged and monitored. Access by unauthorized persons is prohibited and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    Welcome Topaz, please input password

    [***********************************]

    Password accepted
    {Pasting text}
    {User interface input detected}

    Warning! This action will send a priority message directly to any available directors of intelligence as well as making an encrypted copy of your logs in preparation for review by a designated board.

    Misuse of the Charlie Broadcast system may result in reprimands, official disciplinary proceedings, and/or court-martial should it be found you have abused this system.

    Are you sure you wish to continue? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {User interface input detected}
    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}
    TOPAZ you have one (1) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [N]

    {Closing popup}
    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}
    TOPAZ, you have two (2) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]
    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}
    TOPAZ, you have three (3) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]
    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}
    TOPAZ, you have four (4) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {Opening RAPIDS.exe client}


    To: TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From: CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    Requesting immediate SitRep.

    20 days ~ CAT17

    Draft a reply? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    Sir, I would just like to remind everyone that I protested heavily at GLASSBACK’s involvement in this whole operation, and that my protests were noted.

    We know. We always know ~ Topaz

    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}
    TOPAZ, you have four (4) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    To: TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From: CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    Sitrep. Now.

    20 days ~ CAT17

    Draft a reply? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; Caitlyn Guild, O-5, Deputy Director, Administration, Office of Intelligence

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; Arthur Lewis, Major, 1st battalion, HSOC, Office of the Army

    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    GLASSBACK sent an IAM, but when I went to look up the code, it was all classified.

    We know. We always know ~ Topaz

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; Gerald Hardy, O-5, Director of Operations, Office of Intelligence

    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}

    TOPAZ, you have four (4) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]


    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil,

    SORA-2 or 5-ALIVE?

    They offered me something I couldn’t refuse; Money ~ Vixen

    Draft a reply? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; Innokentiy Sokolik, Colonel, 1st battalion, HSOC, Office of the Army


    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    SORA-2. It’s ugly. Lowest rank I’ve seen so far is an O-3 from SOCOM.

    We know. We always know ~ Topaz

    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}

    TOPAZ, you have four (4) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {User interface input detected}

    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    If we’re lucky, this is just a political affair instead of military.

    They offered me something I couldn’t refuse; Money ~ Vixen

    Draft a reply? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; Alden Hideaki, O-6, Executive Director of Intelligence, Office of Intelligence

    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    As if SERENADE isn’t both.

    We know. We always know ~ Topaz

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; HIGHCASTLE, [Classified], [Classified]

    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}

    TOPAZ, you have four (4) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    They offered me something I couldn’t refuse; Money ~ Vixen

    Attachment:IWantToBeleive.jpeg

    Draft a reply? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; PALE HORSE, [Classified], [Classified], [Classified], [Classified]

    To:CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From:TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    Fuck. Sorry girl, it’s both. I just saw a Stroller and a Wire Worm. And not just any Stroller. This one was supposed to be in the isolation facility.

    Batten down the hatches ladies and gents. The forecast is in; Grade A Shitstorm.

    Whatever just happened is a higher priority than the unrest in Charter territory.

    We know. We always know ~ Topaz

    {Play sound file ‘Bell.mp3’}

    Warning; Remote access detected in GLASSBACK files, credentials used; MIRANDA, Chief Warrant Officer 3, 1st battalion, HSOC, Office of the Army

    {Play sound file ‘Ping.mp3’}

    TOPAZ, you have four (4) new message(s), would you like to read them now? [Y/N]

    [Y]

    To: TOPAZ@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, VIXEN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, TINSEL@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil, RONIN@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil
    From: CAT17@CENTDISCOMINTEL.mil

    Nothing we haven’t dealt with before.

    Tinsel, take over. The rest of you, five minute break. Make a list of everything you’ll need for a continuous op spanning 72 hours and give it to a runner. Tinsel, start thinking about what you're going to write.

    If command tells us to hit the ground running, we’ll hit the ground running.

    Reset the clock.

    0 days ~ CAT17

    __________________________________________________________________

    Access granted. Welcome back Caitlyn Guild
    You are reading “12-18-2010 Transcript.txt”
    This document is being accessed from Console 4068 at 0221 on 12-19-2010

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “In the past month, Skywatch has noted a five percent increase in orbital launches. Our deep sea listening nets are attributing this to increased volcanic activity in the oceanic trenches.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “And the payloads?”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Two new orbital defense platforms. The rest seem to be split between solar Lagrange one and lunar orbit, with most of the aluminum heading to L-one and the scaffolding heading to luna.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Have the research teams discovered why a moonbase is even feasible? Everything the ADG produces is still Tinkertech. It shouldn’t work that far out.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “R&D doesn’t believe it’s Tinkertech.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Explain.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “It’s all very primitive you see. Those giant blocks at Lagrange one? Two days ago, Ancile fired up a pair of ODPs and started heating the first block to arrive at the Lagrange point. A day and a half ago, the aluminum was a molten sphere. Two hours ago, Ancile cut the power to the main cannons. Skywatch indicates the aluminum is beginning to oval. It’s spinning. I got off a teleconference with some of Green’s best material scientists fifteen minutes before the meeting started. They tell me that by the time that aluminum cools, it will be the largest manmade mirror in existence, five hundred feet across. Perfectly circular too.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Impressive to be sure, but I fail to see why we should be concerned.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Liquid fuels are preferred for orbital thrusters, specifically hydrogen and oxygen, both of which Ancile has been separating from deep ocean trench water for years. The ADG has enough rocket fuel to make hundreds of thousands of thrusters capable of turning a mirror-like this around, and enough power that it doesn’t have to worry about the cost of putting materials into orbit, ever. Ancile is sending up enough Aluminum to make a single mirror every day. Assuming that doesn’t increase once the second rail gun is online, by this time next year, Ancile will have five gigawatts of energy impacting his mirrors every minute.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “Archimedes mirror. This is a solar array.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “And it will work anywhere in the solar system.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “We always wondered what would happen after the ADG had finished consolidating its hold on Atlas. Now we know.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “Your flippant attitude is unappreciated. This represents a frightening new strategic capability for the ADG to exploit.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “The only capability an array like this offers that the ADG didn’t already have is the ability to count each one of your nose hairs, general, and even that is questionable. There are over four hundred installations in near Atlas orbit with an estimated output of half a petawatt. If anything, I welcome this new variable.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Welcome?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “If Ancile must have uncontested dominance, then I’d rather have him more capable than less. If Ancile gets creative, then in less than five years' time, the solar array might be capable of melting asteroids. The right asteroid, with the right spin, could literally refine tens of thousands of tons of material using centrifugal force to separate the metal. Imagine a mirror kilometers wide. In ten years' time, Ancile could be using exawatts. The good general thinks of this in terrestrial terms, but Ancile already has near orbital dominance. What is happening here is the very beginning of a large-scale system-wide weapons emplacement. Add a network of lenses to concentrate that light from hundreds of mirrors per lens… If Sentinel was right, and hostile extraterrestrial life does exist, in fifty years' time, it won’t matter if they’re hostile or not. If they enter the solar system, they get shredded.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “It has quite the silver lining, doesn’t it? The gap between the Pentad and Ancile grows larger every day, but at the same time, Ancile seems to be following its original orders as best it's able.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “I take it there are no feasible protective measures possible?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    [laughing]

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “I see. Director Hardy, do you have anything new to note when it comes to Choregos Charter?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “The coup appears to have failed.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Of course it failed. That the radicals even considered it is an indicator of their fanaticism.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “They had nearly two hundred Myrmdoms. Revolutions have succeeded with significantly less.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “And what has that gotten them or the Charter? Their puritanical beliefs have led to the Charter being crippled. A whole fourth of their parahuman capacity, gone.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Some may come back.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “So what? This affair will leave cracks in the Charter that may never heal for a whole generation. After this, they will never be able to compare to the unity of the Stratocracy. Even Winter Star is going to be more unified than the Charter when this is all said and done.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “That’s arrogance talking Walsman. The Hussars are unified, but not unbreakable. What happened there could happen here.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “That's treason.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Stay out of this, General.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “Do you really expect me to sit here while you-”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “General. I advise you to remember just who you’re speaking to.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    [Clears throat.]

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “A wise choice. Director Hardy, have you heard anything? Perhaps some mutterings that this body should be concerned about?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Mutterings? There are always mutterings. They are soldiers. When have they ever not complained? But nothing serious. The discontent of Pale Horse appears to be more of a release valve for the minority’s unease than anything of substance. Many of our Myrmdoms have never been to Bet. Serenade unsettles them. At least those with the clearances necessary, which leaves us a with significant core of Atlas natives”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “Pale Horse? Operation Serenade?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Need to know only general.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “Theoretically, I outrank you.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Theoretically, you also outrank Major Lewis. Are you interested in seeing theory put into practice?”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “I was under the impression that Hussar intelligence was more subtle with their threats.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “My threats are subtle. The orders to play this close to the chest come directly from the field marshall.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “On that note, the next matter of business is developments in Operation Serenade, which is, unfortunately, an internal matter for Hussar intelligence. Thank you for joining us, general.”

    Tor Hassan, Guest:
    “[Clears throat] Ah, yes, of course. Thank you for including me. Director.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “General.”

    LOG: Tor Hassan, Guest, disconnected
    .

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “What is really happening with the Charter?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “They attempted to seize missile silos.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Did they succeed?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “If they had, we would be having a war council. The fighting was bloody, but it seems the Cartographer knew this was coming. Loyalist Trailblazers were placed in key positions weeks, sometimes even months prior to the Scout making his move. There were defeats, but from little I’ve been able to glean they were all pyrrhic in nature. Where the loyalists weren’t able to defend, they chose to destroy instead.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Do we know any more about how this started?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “They attempted to assassinate the Cartographer using a bomb. The second it went off, they announced he was dead and the Scout assumed control of the Charter. I don’t know how the Cartographer survived, but he did. The second that became general knowledge, the loyalists refused to follow the militants. Fighting broke out.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Should we be worried?”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Ecstatic I should think. The radicals have managed to strangle any attempts to ease tensions with the Charter for almost a decade. Where are they now?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Scattered.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Are they a threat?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Is that a rhetorical question?”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Give me options.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “The loyalists will kill most of them without our intervention. The only area of concern is our border and the area near it. The radicals entering Stratocracy territory is unlikely, but I wouldn’t put it past them to attempt to use the border as a shield against the loyalists. When you talk to the Field Marshal, I believe it would be warranted to implement a requirement for positive ID before engaging any Charter Myrmdoms near the border, even if they infringe on our sovereign territory.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Your reasoning?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Director Lachlan has an excellent point; if perhaps an overstated one. The most tepid ‘moderate’ of the Charter is still a vicious radical by our standards. The Viroites will never endorse relations with Bet. But with the significant loss in the capability of their Trailblazer battalion, with luck we may be able to force grudging acceptance. Why sour that chance by dropping cluster bombs on their heads? Accidents do happen, and giving any moderates that pursue the rebels into our territory the benefit of the doubt would send a strong message that the Hussar Stratocracy is interested in peace with the Choregos Charter.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Reasonable, so long as the penetration isn’t egregious. The Field Marshall isn’t interested in fighting two wars on two fronts.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Neither am I for that matter. No bombs unless it’s egregious. If it is… Well, there is a surplus of cluster bombs from 05’ that are nearing their shelf life at Bulwark, and Furman has extensive stocks of thermobarics if we need to send a message.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “What about the Aesir? Is the refit complete?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Yes. The military is quite pleased about that.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “We could rebase it to Furman with a complement of escorts and a single aerial refuel tanker. Considering the circumstances, I doubt Winter Star wants rogue Parahumans in their territory any more than we do in ours. They are likely to be amenable to a temporary joint operation to increase border security.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “It’s possible I suppose, but Air Command will want to keep the Aesir focused on our portion of the border. We need it paying attention to our valleys too badly for it to patrol in Winter Star airspace.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “And what a shame that is too. The Aesir is an excellent tool.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Anything that strengthens relations between us and Winter Star is helpful. Director Hardy, I know for a fact that NorCom recently sent a request to central for thirteen more drone teams. Your doing?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “I merely thought, considering the rumblings we were hearing, that it might be prudent to reinforce the border and mentioned as much to general Vaughan over a week ago.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “I see.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Shame that we lost Goldpool. It would’ve been useful.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Speaking of Goldpool, Director Green, what have you discovered?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Three weeks ago, Forge’s Observatory Thirteen recorded the launch of a new ODP in a low earth polar orbit. At the time, we were more interested in the materials heading to Luna. Once R&D were given the green light for time on the Harvest supercomputer, they crunched the trajectory of all known objects in orbit. It turns out that Goldpool was projected to come within at least two thousand meters of the ODP platform within half a year.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “[Scoffs] I suppose it’s just as well that the dear general is already gone. Imagine the aneurysm.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “I don’t have to. Zaneta Konopacka is frothing at the mouth.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Konopacka? As in the Konopacka expedition?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “The same. Alina’s daughter.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Now that’s a name to live up to.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “[Chuckles.]”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “You have something to say?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Patience. We’ll get there.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “I suppose I can’t begrudge Ms. Konopacka’s fury. I would be livid if one of my projects was destroyed due to pure chance. Those modifications of yours worked a little too well.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “The destruction of Goldpool is an inconvenience, but one with a silver lining. If nothing else, its concept has been proven beyond all doubt. How soon can we have another one up?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Months. Scrounging the synthetic aperture technology suited for our needs was difficult, and orbital launches don’t grow on trees.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “What if I requested Tinker support from Socom?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Would they even consider it?”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Colonel Sokolik has made it a point to express just how appreciative Special Operations is of the abilities Goldpool offered. Its absence will be sorely missed. Concessions would be demanded, but the Colonel is not unreasonable.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Hmmm. The hard part isn’t making the satellite itself, it’s concealing it. Our launches left quite the debris trail. Plenty of discarded material to hide a disguised spysat. With the right Tinker, we could have another satellite ready in two weeks. But without that cover, everyone would know it’s there.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “What about an ICBM launch?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Tell me more.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Strategic Missile Command has an upcoming test next month for a new breed of ballistic missiles.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Is this due to the Theomachy initiative?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Yes.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Director Green? Will it suffice?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology: “I’m no rocket scientist. Some time would need to be set aside to consult doctor Konopacka, but my gut says yes. The missile would need to have a ‘malfunction’ though. A traditional ballistic trajectory is too low.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Then it’s settled. I will talk to the Field Marshal. Next item on the agenda?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “The elephant in the room.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Which one?”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Let's start with the activation of Lollygag. Director Hardy?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Glassback’s authorizations have been rescinded and guard rotations have been set up around several critical Eligros systems. Myrmdom guard rotations that is.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Will it be enough?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Thinkers indicate surprisingly favorable results. There’s a good chance we are going to capture someone alive.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Which Thinkers?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “The Miranda group.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence: “Were they able to decipher who’s responsible?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “No. But Sokolik has authorized the use of several Tier One squads. Special Operations seems to be taking this as a personal affront to their authority.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “I suppose it is, from a certain point of view.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Do we have a timeframe?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Within a week.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “And if the guards fail?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Strategic Command is busy removing the cores from the affected warheads. They will finish sometime tomorrow in the early morning. We’ve physically pulled the plug on several mainframes. Just in case.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “And Blackmarsh?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Is Blackmarsh. The fail-safes are enough.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Unacceptable. I want a Greene-Thornberg device moved to Blackmarsh.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “I don’t have the authority.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “You will have it before you go to bed.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Then I’ll see it done. If the impossible happens, everything dies in a slightly larger radius.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Does anyone disagree? No? Very well… Moving on. Glassback.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “What a mess.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “He has the right.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “He shouldn’t.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “History has shown that ignoring the Bond is a bad idea.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Ignoring it isn’t an option in this case. We’re playing with fire, and Glassback will burn us. The Bond has swayed him, this request proves it. We will manage.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Serenade won't. Why don’t we just assassinate her.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “I hope that was rhetorical.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “In a sense.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “There is no ‘in a sense’ about it. Despite General Hasan’s alarm, discussion about Myrmdom unrest isn’t about to get anyone beheaded. Even contemplating the murder of a Tier One, or their Linkmate, without an ironclad justification will.”

    Scribes note: Five minutes were struck from the official record as dictated by Alden Hideaki, the Executive Director of Intelligence.

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    [Coughs]

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “In a sense. Glassback should’ve never been a part of this to begin with.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “The Field Marshal has his reasons.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “I’m sure he does, but Glassback has shown himself to be without an iota of talent in this affair. It’s time for him to come home.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Scribe, strike the past five minutes from the record starting from just before Director Green coughed... Does anyone share this opinion? Director Hardy perhaps?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “I feel this point is moot. In the Glassback dossier, underneath Scintilla. The relatives folder.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Hmm… What, exactly, are we looking for.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Biron, Biron, I feel like I should know that name.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “A fan of history Green?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “I dabble.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “[Snorts] Modest too, if you know that name. Open up the archives. Warlord files. Search for The Romanian.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Well well well, what are the odds?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Astronomical. I should know, I’ve been resisting the urge to let my eyes glaze over all week. Doctor Konopacka is quite pretty, but orbital mechanics is a bore.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “For a man who is best known for the genocide he carried out, Svalinn the Merciful is a better fit than Svalinn the Tyrant.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Does the Protectorate know?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “I doubt it. Everything I’ve seen says that the Protectorate is aggressive when it comes to attempting to recruit first gens, and the Romanian had a notoriously short temper. Several heroes getting impaled is the kind of thing we’d notice.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Look to the occupation, then to the descendants. I’m willing to bet he’s mellowed. Children tend to do that.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “I’d prefer for him to stay mellow considering the delicacy required for Operation Serenade.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “The Romanian had quite the reputation in his day. Should we approach him?”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “The political instability would be more trouble than it’s worth.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Glassback has refused to move politically.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Glassback is also a shock trooper first and foremost. Don’t underestimate him. He abstains because he views politics as boring. The second he decides it’s necessary, he will involve himself. And what better reason to get involved than a Bondmate?”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Ah. I see what you mean. That would be ugly.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Times have changed, and we have changed with them. The records state that Ignis is dead. Let him remain dead. As long as Nicholas Biron is content to leave us alone, we will return the favor.

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “That still leaves us with the original question; What should we do with Glassback?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Grant his request.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “You think Ignis will do nothing if his granddaughter vanishes?”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “I don’t particularly care what Ignis does so long as it doesn’t involve the words ‘civil war’. Director Hardy, what happens if we refuse Glassback?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Glassback resigns from the Hussars or joins the minority. Despite the progress we’ve seen over the five years, there is still a significant fraction of Tier Ones who believe that Isohumans have too much control over the Stratocracy. Preventing Glassback from taking care of his Link would be fuel to their fire.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “What is more likely?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Glassback leaving.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “That would be a civil war by itself. Sokolik was quite clear on the matter. Glassback was nothing more than a loan.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    [Sighs] “And if we grant the request?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Glassback shows up, does what he needs to, and leaves. If Ignis follows, then he’ll simply follow once more when his granddaughter heads back to Bet.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “This is a terrible idea. Operation Serenade is already frayed at the seams. If this plan unravels, it will unravel around Glassback. The boy was an excellent shock trooper, but that excellence doesn’t extend to our particular field. This will only attract even more scrutiny where we can least afford it. If he can’t be recalled, then he must stay where he is.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations: “I believe that we need to adjust the timetable for Serenade.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “That is… somewhat drastic. Your reasoning?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Operatives like Glassback are to be our public face. It makes sense that we sent them as the vanguard. But Operation Backhand was carried out with the assumption that it would give us significantly more time to prepare for disclosure. If a Pentad faction is authorizing loud operations on Bet, we don’t have that time. Plans for disclosure assumed we would contact our counterparts on Bet in a vacuum and would be allowed to forge a peace with relatively little blood between us, good or bad. This Myrmdom attack highlights the flaws in Serenade. It would take relatively little effort for a single faction to sour that first impression. My covert ops division could do it. If further attacks on Hussar Parahumans occur, it would be beneficial for us if Bet understood why they are being attacked.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Most of our Parahumans are in the Protectorate, and the Protectorate has become the unacknowledged military might of the United States. Swathes of NATO as well. They will accuse us of infiltrating their ranks. And they’d be right.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “That won’t change no matter when we choose to reveal ourselves. The earlier we disclose the presence of our operatives within their ranks, the easier it will be to cut our losses if things go badly.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Such a reveal would initiate an organization-wide mole hunt, one thorough enough to reveal even our sleeper assets.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “The PRT doesn’t have enough competent Thinkers to check each and every one of the twenty-six thousand Parahumans they have to see if they get a hit. Relatively few Thinkers have powers suited to rooting out moles.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “That would terrify them.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Good. If they are running in circles, terrified of the sleeper agents we may or may not have, and that they may or may not have missed, they won’t be doing anything hasty out of fear of the havoc we could wreck from the inside. After disclosure, when we slowly recall all our agents one by one, leaving only the most effective behind to serve as our public face, they will realize that we aren’t their enemies.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “While still being utterly terrified of what we could do to them, and how many agents we might have left behind.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “An incentive to play nice. One that would always be there. Adjusting the timetable merely gives them time to come to terms with the situation without knowing precisely where they should be sending the nukes.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “The portal is a weakness with such an aggressive strategy. We would need more of them on Bet. Svalinn has refused to let anyone attempt to reverse engineer the device for decades.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Because the more portals there are, the harder it is to police who is going through. With disclosure looming, the monopoly on access to Bet has become less important.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “If reverse-engineering the portal is now on the table, the Stratocracy should immediately move to establish new links to Bet in secret. It is one thing to destroy access to Atlas if you are the only one who has access to it. It is another to destroy access when you know for a fact that your direct competitors will not. Multiple portals would force the United States to play nice with the Hussars, lest we refuse to trade with them. The question is where to put them?”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Africa or China. Africa if we wish to own the local government, China if trading is the goal. There are many warlords in Africa that would trade military assistance for land rights, recognition as a sovereign power, and treaties permanently leasing land to the Hussar. China on the other hand is growing rapidly, even after the damage done to Shenzhen by the Simurgh. It’s already the industrial backbone of Indo-Asia.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Trading is the goal, and that is why China is out. Industrial backbone yes, but one that is unsustainable, and ill-suited to our needs. China maintains dominance through suppressing the value of the yuan. Their products are cheap, and their industrial base extensive because they are destroying their citizens. It cannot last. Within the next ten to twenty years, I expect to see the government collapse. The one-child policy has resulted in a nation that is selfish and greedy. They will think nothing of cheating us and substituting materials for the lowest quality replacements they can find. We don’t need raw materials, we can supply those ourselves easily enough. Our bottlenecks are high-tech goods, and things which require extensive logistics trains. Semiconductors in particular. We cannot afford them to be low quality if we intend to use them for critical military and infrastructure applications. Not China. Japan.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Japan is a close ally of the United States.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “It is also an island that has been ravaged by Leviathan. The effects the Endbringer has had on the port cities is horrific, and Kyushu crippled the nation. They are struggling to ship enough raw materials into their factories to keep their industry running. Even a double lane highway through the portal would be able to ship a considerable amount of raw materials onto Bet, helping to alleviate their supply lines distress. If we can produce the portals? The only issue when it comes to scaling trade is the specialist cost of constant Tinker maintenance. Even that, we could alleviate. As a trade ‘concession’, we could allow the Japanese to gain control over their end of the portal. Naturally, this would include the maintenance requirements as well. In return, we get a highly-skilled, honorable industrial base dependent on us for raw materials, and able to supply us with the high-tech goods we sorely lack.”

    Winston Green, Director of Science and Technology:
    “Many of the goods logistics find hardest to procure for my research divisions are made in Japan. Typically scientific instruments, but I know the air force has trouble procuring a specialist chip vital for keeping our VTOLs in the air. Japan would be a good choice, if they can keep up with our demands.”

    Lachlan Walsman, Director of Analysis:
    “Maybe not immediately, but trade deals with the Hussars could revitalize their dying industry.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “This is something that will have to be discussed in-depth with the Field Marshal, along with the head of the diplomatic department they are in the process of throwing together.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “It would be better if such a conversation happens sooner rather than later. Such a drastic change in strategy would take place immediately. The portal doesn’t need to be in place for it to be a valid threat. The mere fact that we are talking with the Japanese and have plans to form a treaty with them would force the US to do the same with us. The more time it takes for us to decide on a course of action, the less Scorch being revealed as an unofficial representative for a foreign power looks like an act of good faith. I need to know soon.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “I have a meeting with the Field Marshal tomorrow. But even if Boots agrees that revising the strategy is a good idea, Svalinn will have to agree to reverse-engineering the portal. Then we will need to decide how to contact the government of Japan. Even with the most optimistic estimate, this could take months.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “[Laughs] You’ve been stuck in your office for so long you’ve stopped thinking like a Myrmdom! Briefing the Field Marshal will take a few hours. Being given or denied authorization to reverse engineer Sentinel's work will take a single conversation. If Boots decides this is the course of action to pursue, he will personally introduce himself to the Japanese prime minister. The paperwork will take months. Not the decision. What should I tell Glassback?”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “Tell him to stonewall any further attempts to gain information, and to stand by for further orders.”

    Gerald Hardy, Director of Operations:
    “Glassback is a creature of action. Now that his mind is set, he won't wait long.”

    Alden Hideaki, Executive Director of Intelligence:
    “He won’t have to.”

     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2022
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