The dust settles as the rain picks up, turning into a full drizzle. Thunder grumbles just seconds after a flash of lightning. The storm will let its full strength out soon.
I stumble back into the alley, toward the fallen heroes. There are dozens of minor scratches all over me, but the worst cuts are the one along my back, the one in my left side, and the one that ripped my mask up. I press my fingers against the left eye.
Intact. I blink and open it. Stiff, painful, and I can’t actually see thanks to the blood and the goggles being ruined. Being nearsighted sucks sometimes. Still, I sigh in relief. Being nearsighted sucks, but being nearsighted with only one eye would be even worse.
The rain sizzles as it hits my skin. I check my thermometer. I’m only holding a couple thousand degrees, which I can usually restrain inside my body without bringing it to the skin, but now it sits right on top. My power’s fizzled, I gassed myself for that fight. I release the heat into the air and ground so I don’t have to concentrate around other people.
Empyreal’s struggling still, but Lily’s managed to staunch the wound. Snow Owl’s gotten to her knees. Gyrfalcon is still unconscious.
The four of us look at each other, unable to say anything.
“Well,” I manage after a second of awkward silence. “I forgot to feed my girl’s dog, so I better…” I click my tongue, and point my thumb behind my back.
“Wait!” Snow Owl climbs to her feet using the chain link fence. “Where are you going?”
“Tim still has a girl, a kid I rescued,” I say. “He kidnapped her. I’ve got to rescue her.”
Lily stands up. “Not like that you aren’t.”
I look down. My new jacket is torn to shreds, I’m a bloody mess, and my body aches. Can barely put one foot in front of the other, plus if I don’t get my eye looked at soon with some disinfectant, there’s a chance I might still lose it. “I have to try.”
“I thought you were a villain,” Empyreal says weakly.
I don’t really know what to say to that. I turn to walk off, to find someway to meet back up with the others. I check my watch, but it’s been destroyed yet again. Drone is gonna be pissed at me for breaking her tech again. To be fair, it was probably Sledge’s doing.
“You need help,” Lily says, coming to my side.
“I’ve got friends.” I gesture to Empyreal. “Your boss needs you more than I do right now.”
“Hold it!” a new voice shouts at the end of the alley. Jettison floats in over the crater I buried Sledge in, and takes in the brick wall bearing claw marks and black spots from our battle. He lands against the wall, supporting himself with his arm. His left leg he lifts up to avoid putting weight on.
I sigh. Of course. “I’m only here to rescue a child. Please, let me go.”
“I can’t do that.” Jettison raises his other hand and points it at me.
Snow Owl alights in between us, stumbling as she does so. She rights herself, and says, “Jettison, stand down.”
Jettison falters, looking at me incredulously. “But, Snow-”
“I wouldn’t be alive right now if it weren’t for him.” Snow Owl stands tall. “He saved all of our lives. He killed Sledge.”
“He-” Jettison blinks and stammers, and looks at me with wide eyes. “No, no, Snow, we have orders to bring him in. All of this is his fault.”
Snow Owl looks down. Her helmet is still crumpled at the top and the visor cracked into pieces. “No, it’s my brother’s fault.”
Lily joins the conversation, saying, “You can’t. He saved our lives. He’s trying to save more.”
I still don’t know what to say. I can’t find any words for my defense.
Empyreal joins us, clinging to the wall for support as he presses the bandage Lily put on him to his chest. “He’s a hero.” He looks behind his shoulder and shakes his head at someone, but Gyrfalcon isn’t conscious.
“Heroes don’t-” He points at my mask. “Heroes don’t hide who they are.”
“This one does,” Snow Owl. “Stand down.”
Jettison looks at me, at Snow Owl, then Empyreal and Lily. He scowls and drops his hand.
I squeak out a “Thank you,” and stumble to the end of the alley. No one stops me.
I take another look at my handiwork, glancing at the blood puddle in the crater to make sure Sledge isn’t secretly regenerating. There’s nothing. Guess Sledge needs something I destroyed to regenerate. Probably a nerve ending or brain matter.
A small piece of metal in the stain catches my eye. I step into the crater and, gagging, grab at the little doohickey with my fingers.
An ear comm. How the hell did this survive? Lucky placement, I guess. I put it to my ear. “Hello?”
Hmm, better hold on to it, just in case.
I climb out of the crater. I’m getting weaker by the second. I have to go on. I have to link back up with the Underground, I have to find Maisa. No falling here.
I limp down the street, and despite my resolution to go on, I fall to my hands and knees. Fine, I’ll crawl. I’ll crawl as far as I have to.
Invisible tendrils wrap around my chest.
“Gabe!” Bedevil says, righting me with her telekinesis. She sets me against a wall, tucking us into another alley. “What happened? You’re bleeding!”
“You should see the other guy,” I manage with a chuckle. “They’re just blood.”
Honestly, I’m not happy about that fight. In a very weird way, I understand Sledge. They were like me, wanting to make the world better, even if the way they wanted to do that was fucked up.
Bedevil blinks. “Who?”
“Sledge,” I say. “They’re gone. For good.”
Bedevil’s eyes widen, her face twists into an ugly cry. She starts to tremble worse than a chihuahua. “Oh my God.” She hugs me. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” She falls into weepy mumbling.
“Did you run into them?” I ask.
Bedevil lets go of me. She nods, wipes her eyes. “I was with Jettison. Carapace, too.” She pauses and swallows. In a shaking voice, she says, “Lugs and Asperity.”
A chill runs down my spine. “Are they…” I can’t voice that.
“Lugs is alive, but Sledge took his arm.” Bedevil stops between each sentence as they get shorter and shorter, choked by tears. “Asperity. I tried. To save. Couldn’t. Gabe.” She starts to cry again. “I’m so sorry.”
I stand up, using the wall as a brace. Now, I’m no longer conflicted about that fight. I’m glad I killed the bastard. “Can you help me walk?”
Bedevil clears her throat. “Yes.” She presses tendrils against my back to support me, and wraps my arm around her shoulder.
“Do you know what’s going on at the warehouse?”
“Tim used his power,” Bedevil says.
“You were there?”
I nod. “For a little.” I just missed her. Can’t think about it now. Maybe Remise and Epione got her. I have to hope. “Here, if we go south to the railroad and Harrisburg, we can meet back up with the Underground. Then you can get back to OPI.”
“Gabe…” she says, softly, but trails off. She turns us south. “Your eye looks really bad.”
“It might scar.”
The rain starts to pelt down a little harder, so Bedevil weaves an invisible umbrella above us. I can see the droplets hit the surface and roll off, falling to the ground a couple feet from me. “I think a scar would be kind of cool. Girls dig scars, right?”
Bedevil’s frown eases up, and the faintest smile graces her lips. “Yeah, they do.” Her hair is matted with rain, she has a black eye, blood all over her arms that I’m sure isn’t hers. Her costume is torn, and she’s a mess.
“I told you not to call me that,” she says.
“I don’t smell alcohol.”
Bedevil stammers. She looks away. “I cleaned up a little before the mission, I try not to smell like alcohol when I’m on the job.”
“No. I’ve smelled you like that before.” The night we screwed and a few other times she came in after the job. Is that creepy? Whatever. “This is different.”
Bedevil is quiet as we limp a little further down the road. Finally, she says, “I haven’t had a drink since last night.”
“What what? What else is there? I haven’t had a drink since last night, doofus,” she says.
“Because I don’t need their rehab, I’m strong enough to do it on my own,” Bedevil says.
I know that quitting on your own is a stupid idea. I try to be gentle as I can, and say, “Bedevs, that’s not…”
Bedevil stops walking and glares at me. “What, do you want me to go? After rehab, I won’t come back, they’ll shuffle me somewhere else, and you and I won’t…” She stops herself, shakes her head, and continues, “And I can’t help you if that happens.”
“It sounded like you didn’t have a choice,” I say.
“No, I have a three day grace period. If I stay sober that whole time, I can get the rehab waived.” A trickle of blood runs down her nose.
“Uh, Ruby, you’re bleeding,” I say.
Bedevil hisses and wipes her nose.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s nothing,” she says, staring at her fingers.
Behind us, to my horror, Krater shouts, “Hey!”
Bedevil turns around, I don’t. “Krater! What’s going on?”
“What’s going on? What’s going on? We got our asses stomped on! Who is that?” His voice is getting closer. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.
Okay, advantages, it’s very rainy, there’s two of us to one of him, I’m more mobile, disadvantages, I’m pretty injured, possibly burnt out on my power right now, and Bedevil’s nose bleed leads me to believe she’s not doing so hot either.
“He’s a civie, he got injured by that Sledge guy,” Bedevil says. “I’m helping him get back to his home.”
“Turn him around,” Krater says. “Let me see him.”
“What, why?” Bedevil sounds as indignant as she can.
“’Cause I see the mask, Bedevil, I know that ain’t just a civie! Show me who he is!” Krater shouts.
I turn around. No point hiding.
Krater stands alone in the road a hundred feet from us. Rain patters patches of stone across his skin. He stares at me, his eyes wide. “Home Run.” He takes a step forward.
Bedevil holds her hand out. “Don’t!”
“Fuck off,” Krater says, coming closer. “When I tell May about this, it’ll be better for you to choke in your sleep tonight.”
“Fuck you, asshole!” I shout, stepping forward. “What the fuck is wrong with you? She’s your teammate!”
“Seems to me like she’s yours,” Krater says, glaring at us both. He rolls his shoulder and starts a jog toward us.
“I said don’t!” Bedevil shouts.
Krater roars and drops to all fours, crushing the street under his bear crawl toward us. I can’t summon more than a drop of energy, Sledge wore me out. We’re gonna get ransacked.
He’s a second from mangling me alive when Bedevil holds both of her hands out. The umbrella protecting me from the rain disappears, and Krater lifts off the ground, splayed out crucifix style. Krater flails his massive limbs, trying to wrench free of her telekinetic grip. He screams, “Bedev-” before tendrils gag his mouth.
Bedevil’s nose erupts with blood, her body shakes, her fingers lock in and claw into her palm while her arm trembles under the strain.
Bedevil screams and hurls Krater into the sidewalk, shoving him through the pavement and into the sewers. She reaches a hand toward the warehouse next to us. The wall shakes and trembles, and pulls free of the building in huge chunks. Bedevil, with one last harrowing shriek, slams all that brick and metal into Krater and the sewer, crushing him there.
“Serves you right,” Bedevil says. She turns back to me, her mouth and cheeks drenched in her own blood. Her gaze seems to fall behind me, and she stands straight up as her jaw goes slack. She stumbles.
“Ruby!” I grab her shoulders and try to support her, but her entire body stiffens up, and she falls into me, rigid as a board. I don’t know what’s happening, but blood is pouring out of her nose. “Ruby! Talk to me!”
Bedevil convulses as I lay her on to the ground. Her body spasms, her eyes widen and dilate, blood pours out of her nose while her mouth foams from spittle. Her expressions contorts and her mouth opens in agony but she makes no sound beyond raspy breathing.
Fuck, I’ve got no clue what to do. Rain starts to pour on us. I put my body over her. Bedevil looks through me, pale as a sheet.
Wait, Flashfire had us take first aid lessons. You’re supposed to keep their head supported, so I put my hands behind her head. Keep the area around her clear. I’m doing the best I can by covering her from the rain and staying clear of her. Whisper comforting words.
“Ruby, it’s gonna be okay, I’m here. I’m here. I’m not leaving. I’ll be right by your side, the whole way. I promise. You’re gonna make it, and after this we’ll get you somewhere to sleep, and somewhere to eat.” I stroke her hair, I don’t know what else to do.
Bedevil stares up through me. Telekinetic tendrils lash against me with no warning, buckling my elbows. I turn on my power, but it’s weak protection at best. A nearby fire hydrant explodes upward. Windows shatter next to us. I cover her as best I can.
“There’s this place called the Rise n’ Shine,” I whisper to her. “The waitresses call you Puddin’ and skate around, and they have delicious pancakes, I’ll take you there, it’ll be great.”
A wave of invisible tendrils shove me from her, squirming all around me with no aim. She’s not in control of this. I push through her telekinesis. Another tendril smacks me in the face. One smashes into my shin. I fight back to covering her from the rain, and get my hands under her again.
More tendrils surround me, squeeze me. Too much. She’ll pulp me if this doesn’t subside, my power is gassed.
“Please, come back,” I whisper, not very comforting but sincere. “Please, don’t die.”
Bedevil’s body relaxes, her tendrils relent.
She gags, so I turn her to the side, and cover her from the rain while she vomits onto the sidewalk. Last part, after it subsides you’re supposed to stay still. Even with the rain pelting my back, I caress her shoulder, and whisper, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“Gabe,” Bedevil whines through her puke.
“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to carry you.”
We’re only a block from the railroad, so I carry her there as quick as I can, and jump down from the bridge. I can hear distant gunfire still, so the police must be busy with the Sanctified Remnant.
I carry Bedevil down into the railroad. “Looks like you’re in this for the long haul.”
“Mhm,” Bedevil murmurs, though she sounds sleepy and far off. The first aid course said that seizures made people confused for a while. I wonder if she’s even aware that she had one.
Ahead of me, I see the other Underground members waiting near where we split off originally. Drone, Iso, and Remise confer quietly, but fall silent as they see me approaching with Bedevil in my arms. Behind them, Carapace holds the headless body of Asperity while Dustdevil weeps into her shoulder. Epione sits cross-legged by herself, staring at the ground.
Maisa is nowhere to be seen.