14.a.4 Out of Time

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Not so long before the Crocell Fight

Jared stood in the elevator, holding Kizzy’s hand. He was wearing his costume, without the helmet and gloves, while she was wearing one of her favorite outfits, a red and white sweater dress with a built-in hood, white pantyhose and equally red-and-white sneakers that were so clean, they looked to be brand new. Her blonde hair was done up in a complex arrangement of loops and braids that their step mother had had way too much fun working on, framing her freshly scrubbed face, with just a little lip gloss to add an accent.

He’d just slicked his hair back with some gel, as he usually did. The style carefully chosen and maintained, but only requiring minuscule effort to do so, unlike Kizzy’s ever-changing, ever-evolving looks.

Her grip on his hand tightened as the elevator approached the Junior’s common level, though even if she’d put her all into it, she could never have achieved anything remotely sufficient to even discomfort him.

„Are you nervous?“ he asked, doing his best to sound casual, rather than concerned.

She looked up at him like he’d just grown a second head. „Of course I’m nervous, Jar Jar! How can you not be? We’re going to meet the princess of pop! THE Polymnia! The one who made ‚Armaterrium‘ and ‚Cascade of Moonglow‘ and, and, and are you laughing at me?“ She pouted, glaring upwards at him.

It was freaking adorable. Moreover, it was… it was heartwarming in a way he’d have trouble putting into words, if he’d even ever tried.

After a whole year of not talking, barely making a sound except to scream, she’d finally, finally started to recover. Now she mostly behaved like a normal girl again. More restrained and quiet than she’d used to be, but still, worlds ahead of where she’d been for the first year after their parents‘ death.

The team had helped, a great deal. Particularly Bismuth, who’d taken a particular interest in the situation and had made a point of building a relationship with her. She’d involved her in stuff Jared could not for the life of him figure out how to do right, like taking her on one of those overly elaborate and stupidly over-plotted shopping sprees she tended to organize once a month, and other stupidly girly stuff that Kizzy seemed to just adore.

Whatever makes her happy again. Even if it drives me insane.

The elevator stopped and let them out into the antechamber, of sorts, to the Junior’s lounge. Just a small, oval room leading to a sliding double door, for visitors to wait in case the Juniors had to put masks on (or do some last-minute cleanup, a task which usually fell on Jared, for obvious reasons, or lately also the Princess, for equally obvious ones).

Not that it was an issue here. Kizzy already knew nearly everyone on the team by name, excluding Kitty (whom rarely wore her own face anyway),  Osore (who didn’t care), the Princess (she didn’t have a secret identity anyway) and Jugs, whom had agreed to unmask to her.

“You ready, Kizzy?” he asked, barely able to keep acting cool now that they were so close to springing the surprise.

“Yesssss!” she replied, nodding her head like only younger kids could, like there was less bone and more rubber in their necks. “Best Birthday Present!” she added, looking up at him with shining eyes.

Agh, so adorable! he thought, but just grinned. “Well, let’s not keep her waiting, she is kind of a busy person.”

Which was an understatement. Sometimes he wondered whether that girl would get out of her lab at all, outside of going out in costume, if it wasn’t for the Princess or the Buttboy dragging her out for this or that.

And he’d thought a Contriver like the Buttboy was obsessive about his work…

“Yes, let’s!” She gave that boneless nod again, eyes fastened on the door.

Time to shine.

He kicked his power into effect, adding the whole nine seconds he’d trained his power up to be capable of onto each second that passed.

The world beyond his immediate surroundings blurred, as if his eyes were bad again, and he wasn’t wearing his helmet to have the visor counteract the effect, but it didn’t matter.

He’d made sure that Kizzy wasn’t gripping tightly onto his fingers, as otherwise, he’d have been stuck – each second he added cut down the effect he could have on the world outside his power, and the effect the world had on him. Add one second, cut it down to half. Two seconds, and it’s cut down to a third.

Nine seconds, and he only had one tenth of the effect he ought to have on the world – and was protected from nine tenths himself.

Sliding his hand out of Kizzy’s, he sauntered forward and touched the doors, pushing more seconds from his store into them, to bring them up to his time and be able to affect them normally.

He opened them, one after the other, immediately releasing them from his power, so as not to waste precious seconds on them. The room beyond was decorated all over with streamers, balloons and a huge banner saying ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KIZZY!’ in rainbow-colored, glitter-covered letters.

The others were all lined up, in costume but with their masks off (save for the princess, whom didn’t wear one anyway), already poised to cheer; Melody stood in the center, arms spread wide, an infectuous smile on her face, in just those skintight pink pieces she wore under her power armor, basically an athletic crop top and biker shorts, as well as a pair thigh-high pink socks and blue shoes.

Damn, she looks good.

He often wished his power would let him stop time for real, so he could just walk over and take a closer look, freely, but unfortunately, they’d still see him move as a blur, and…

Well, he had to stick to subtler ways of using his power to oogle the ladies, when he bothered to hide it behind his power at all.

Anyway, today’s not the day for that, dear hormones.

He sighed, jogging over to his team and taking up the empty spot to the left and slightly in front of the songstress, dropping down on one knee, gesturing at her with both hands in a theatric fashion, finally taking a deep breath before he allowed time to resume.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KIZZY!” everyone shouted, except for Osore, whom just said it in his usual deadpan tone.

Still, it all but bowled Kizzy over.

***

Half an hour later, Jared was leaning against the wall, a chilled bottle of root beer in hand, watching and listening as Melody played a song she hadn’t yet released for the wide-eyed, slack-jawed Kizzy perched atop Bakeneko, whom looked like an over-sized, rainbow-furred unicorn-cat.

The song was pretty nice, even if he preferred music with lyrics and a beat.

He was so absorbed in watching and listening, he didn’t immediately notice it when the princess slid, literally slid over to lean against the wall next to him, nursing a glass of fizzy cherry juice.

Like always, he felt both excited and nervous at her proximity. On one hand, she really, truly, was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, and that skintight bodysuit she always wore, though thicker than was usual, did little to hide and a lot to emphasize it. She’d told them about her power, how it worked, how it had aged her up and matured her, in body and mind, then frozen her for years, then given her another growth spurt, then kept her prepubescent for years again… and so on, point being that her power had literally reshaped and refined her appearance from day one.

Jared hadn’t said so out loud, but he quietly disagreed. He wasn’t anywhere near as smart as the princess, or jugs, or even buttboy and boss man (Jury was still out on Osore, but he was at least sure he was smarter than the kitty), but God damn it, he was a dedicated student of the female form, and he’d always paid particular attention to female Adonises (and wasn’t he glad that they now had a new term for that, calling females Adonises was weird), so he knew all the signs of an Adonis power’s effect. There were always tells, that let him pick out whom was beautiful due to their power and whom was merely naturally gorgeous with near-perfect accuracy – he’d even caught a supervillainess once, that way, when he’d realized the hottie whose butt and legs he’d been oogling also had a too-perfect face, and…

Well, it was mostly in the face. And he could tell, looking at the princess’ face, that she was most likely just plain that pretty. For one, she looked almost exactly like her mother, to the point where the two of them could probably pass for twins, with some hair dye, or at least as siblings rather than mother and daughter and oh god the images that conjoured in his head quick think of baseball, think of baseball.

He blinked, averting his eyes from her, almost missing the knowing smile on her lips.

Point being, there was precedent for beauty in her family (even if no one knew what the Dark looked like, there were pictures of his mother, and his sisters, and of Lady Light’s mother, and of course of Lady Light herself, so…

That was strike one against that theory.

Strike two was that her face was interesting. The faces of Adonises, particularly female ones, could get kind of… repetitive, even with racial differences in the mix. The same ideals were applied to them all. It wasn’t like they were always perfect, but… close enough.

The princess’s face was not quite so ideal. Her lower lip was a little too thick, her mouth just a touch too wide, her eyes just a hair too big, her cheeks not quite full enough. Tiny imperfections which actually made her look even better than most Adonises, because one’s eyes would get hung up on them, instead of just passing over her face. Drawing attention and interest.

Especially those lips. God damn do I wish I could kiss them…

He realized that his eyes had drifted over to her again, to her lips in particular. Which turned up at the corners in a smirk.

“Having naughty thoughts again, Beach Boy?” she asked with more amusement in her voice than on her face, which was blushing lightly.

“Can you blame me? I never said I had an issue with your appearance,” he replied, a little more caustically than he’d intended to in is effort to cover up his own embarrassment.

“Nah,” she said with a shrug, which of course drew his eyes downwards for a few precious moments. “I’m used to it. There’s like, four boys in our age range that I’ve met who’ve never oogled me, and two of them are gay.” She nodded towards said couple, whom were cuddled up on a couch and enjoying

Four?” His eyes felt like they were going to pop out of his skull. He looked her up and down, from head to toe, with as meaningful a look as he could muster. “And only two of them are gay? Who’re the other two, Eunuchs?”

She blushed, rather adorably he had to say, looking away. “B-brennus and Os- Goudo.”

His eyes snapped over to the tall Japanese boy – almost a guy, really, he was going to be eighteen soon – standing behind the festivities, watching without watching, completely expressionless while he wore a red, white and blue party hat not unlike Jared’s own (even the princess wore one, though he’d missed it at first as his eyes had been focused… lower) and just… stood there, with about as much motion about him as a stone statue, holding a tray with drinks and snacks up within easy reach of his girlfriend and Kizzy.

Jared could totally buy that he wouldn’t show any reaction to the princess, even if she were to walk around stark naked.

The princess… stark naked…

Naked…

A sharp snap of black-clad fingers in front of his eyes pulled him out of Heaven and back onto the cold, dreary Earth.

“Earth to Beach Boy! You’ve literally started to drool,” she admonished him, sounding half annoyed and half amused.

“Uh, uhm… sorry. Uh. You didn’t…” He looked at her, worriedly. They’d already established that she could simply follow along into his time dillation, so if she got pissed, there’d be nothing at all he could do to get away.

“No, I didn’t look. I don’t want to know, though I can imagine what kind of thought got you distracted,” she explained, while he wiped the drool off of his chin.

“W-well… anyway, uh… I guess I  can totally buy Goudo acting like that… but Brennus, too? Are the hotties he hangs out with enough for him, or what?”

She giggled, at that, hiding it behind taking a sip of cherry juice from her glass. “Actually, according to Tyche, he won’t even look at her, even when she’s trying to get his attention by prancing around their base in the nude. He just tells her to put some clothes on.”

The sight of the red juice on her lips, and then her tongue licking it off, distracted him thoroughly enough that it took a few seconds for those words to register to him.

“Wait, what!? Is he a robot, or what?” he asked, incredulous, as he imagined that red-headed hottie Tyche trying to get his attention by going around in the nude…

She wouldn’t really have to try.

“No, he’s flesh and blood,” she replied, flatly. “Maybe some guys can control themselves, eh, eh?” She poked his side with her elbow, playfully.

He could only snort in response. “Yeah, no. Maybe there’s one guy out there whom can do it, but two, and in the same city? There ain’t no odds steep enough to describe how unlikely that is.”

She leaned away from him again, raising her glass. “How do you explain that we have two of them around, then?”

“Osore’s clearly secretly a robot built by Brennus to infiltrate the UH,” he stated, just as she was taking a sip of juice.

Irene sputtered something between a laugh and a groan, as cherry-red juice shot out of her lips and nose, and onto her costume’s top.

“Oh God that hurrrrrrrtssss!” she complained, raising a hand to her nose, as the fizzy liquid dripped out of it.

Jared couldn’t hold it in, he started to laugh at the sight as she shook her head like a wet dog, silky black hair whipping this way and that.

Then her power kicked in, and an odd distortion started at her head and travelled downward, distorting any parts it travelled over slightly, as if one was looking at them as a magnifying glass went over, drawing the juice away from her lower face and out of her nose.

The effect travelled downwards, distorting and unraveling the part of her cloak that was clasped around her throat, pulling the juice right out, drop by drop, from among the threads, then it travelled downward (along with Jared’s eyes), unravelling the portion above her chest, giving him the briefest glimpse of her… assets… as well as something glimmering between.

Before the effect could travel further downward and reveal them in full, though, it finished its work and dissipated, taking the juice along to nowhere.

This time, the princess blushed properly, wrapping her arms around her ample charms.

“You know, you could at least pretend not to stare, sometimes,” she complained with the cutest pout and glower this side of Kizzy.

“Naaah,” he replied with his best shit-eating grin. He was going to enjoy this memory for a long time.

She grumbled in response, pulling out her small canister of pills, popping one of them, then a second one right after, and washing them down with a more careful sip of juice. “You have no shame at all, do you?”

“Oh, I have plenty of shame all around, just not when it comes to appreciating the fair sex,” was his answer to that question.

This time, she could only roll her eyes. She didn’t leave, though, and it wasn’t like she had to hang out around him, so he figured she either wanted something, or else he wasn’t being too much of a jerk.

“So, speaking of stuff I just saw…”

“If you make a crack about my breasts, I will turn you into a guinea pig, wrap you up and give you to your sister as her new pet,” she threatend him with a glare.

He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Never. Your boobs are perfect, what is there to joke about?” That got him another blush.

“So are Melody’s, and you constantly tease her.

“She’s a fourteen-year-old with size G’s bordering on H, there is a LOT to make fun of,” he defended his humor. “You’re a B+ to C-, there’s really nothing to say there other than that they look just perfect.”

Her blush was getting positively fluorescent now. “How the fudge do you know our sizes? Have you been going through our underwear drawyers or what?!”

“You don’t have an underwear drawyer I could go through, on account of the fact that you don’t wear underwear, which, by the way, I completely approve of.” He gave her a double thumbs-up. “I wouldn’t need to anyway, though; I’m a devoted student of the female form and my uncle taught me long since how to tell any woman’s sizes at a glance.”

“Your uncle sounds like a perv.”

“That’s because he was a super-perv, by his own admission,” he shot back with a wistful smile.

She deflated again, probably putting together why he was speaking of him in the past tense.

So he pressed on in order to distract her, before things could get uncomfortable. “Aaaa-ny-way, what I meant to say is, I saw the one thing you do wear under that costume. Is that just for show, or are you actually a believer?” he asked her, in a much softer tone of voice.

“Oh. Um… yeah. I mean… it’s complicated, but… I do believe in something. Just not entirely sure what, exactly,” she explained. “Not sure how much I believe, either. But I like the teachings – care for others, don’t get hung up on the short term – and I like the music.”

“Can I see it?” he asked curiously.

She nodded, pulling on the collar of her costume to reach within. This time, he did avert his eyes, not that he could’ve seen much.

Taking the thin, golden chain off her neck, she held it out to him, and he picked up the small cross, looking at it on the palm of his hand.

It was only about as long as half his middle finger, and apparently wrought out of pure gold, three strands of the metal wound around each other in an elaborate pattern, tightly, forming the cross like a living tree that’d been shaped as it grew; it held a single jewel at its center, a tiny sapphire of the exact same shade as her eyes. The chain was much simpler in design, yet no less delicately worked.

“This is gorgeous,” he spoke, in awe at the artistry. “Where’d you get it?” He handed the precious jewelry back to her, and she put it on again.

“Dad made it for me,” she explained softly. “It’s a family tradition – every male Goldschmidt is supposed to know how to work gold, so when he was young, he spent a week learning it from his father and mastering it.”

“That’s… an interesting tradition. Though I guess it is in the name, and all,” he observed, quietly, as always feeling rather weird to talk about the freaking King of Supervillains like he was just another dad, or hearing her talk about him that way.

She nodded. “I’m not really a Goldschmidt, nor a boy, but I’ll learn it, too, once I can figure out how to practice it without my power just giving me the skill.”

“Cool,” he replied simply, handing it back to her.

“What about you?”

He drank from his cup, looking away to focus on the festivities. Kizzy was still listening to the music, looking just ecstatic.

“My parents used to send me to Sunday school every week, after making me sit through the service. I hated it. So many of my friends didn’t have religious families and got to hang out and play, and I had to study the bible and listen to that boring old priest talk about God and Jesus and stuff.”

The words summoned memories, of the room sunday school had taken place in, a room in the old community center that’d been built right next to the church. Red brick walls, red tile floor, wooden chairs with aged cushions that were sat through so thoroughly, they may as well have sat directly on the wood, and Father Maximillian, one of the most boring people he’d ever known, with those horrible horn-rimmed glasses, droning on and on about stuff.

“Then came… well, you know. Your sister,” he continued, trying not to be biting about it for once. She still flinched at the mention. “And I guess if I wanted to fulfill every stereotype, I could take that either as confirmation that God didn’t exist after all because why would he allow it, or it was God’s will, or… whatever… I still prayed, for Kizzy’s sake, even though I didn’t and don’t believe. She’s better now, though, so…”

He shook his head, interrupting his rambling. The princess’s eyes were focused quite intently on him, for a change, rather than the other way around, and he just knew she was taking it in in detail, rather than just acting like she was listening.

“Anyway… dunno,” he summed up his feelings on the matter. “How do you do it? Believe? Why do you think it makes sense?”

She shrugged, and then smiled at him, and it was the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen, short of Kizzy’s every one, of course.

“I don’t know. But if I ever do figure out God and Faith and all those things, I’ll be sure to tell you.”

He snorted. “Well, you’re way brainier than me – maybe you will figure it out.”

“That’s so nice of you to say.” She actually batted her eyelashes at him.

They fell quiet again, both of them focusing on and enjoying the performance.

Well, she might have been. Jared himself felt… contemplative. There was a question at the tip of his tongue, and he kind of didn’t want to ask it. Didn’t want to spoil the mood, because damn it, she could be such good company and this wasn’t supposed to be a heavy kind of day.

“Hey, Jared.”

He turned, a little surprised she’d actually use his name.

She smiled, wrily, at him. “I don’t need superpowers to tell you’re bothered by something, so out with it,” she told him.

Well… might as well…

“So,” he temporized, taking a deep breath. “You’re… kind of Christian. You believe in the lessons it teaches and all.” She nodded. “And you’re, quite obviously, a superhero,” he continued, turning his head away to seemingly watch the show, though he wasn’t really paying attention to it. She nodded again. “So, um… and I guess, feel free to tell me to fuck off, but… how does that work… with your Dad?” He looked at her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Ah…” Her shoulders slumped, her usually flawless posture gone. With her head lowered, her fine black hair hid her facial expression from him, like a black curtain, though he was pretty sure it wasn’t a happy one. “It’s… complicated. I mean… he’s still my dad, you know? I know he’s done horrible things… and he still does pretty bad things… though everyone always tells me he’s been much nicer and way less villainish since I was born… but I don’t want to use that as an excuse, like I’m being nice to him just to keep him on the straight and narrow-ish… but… you know…”

It was kind of cute how she flailed to find the right words, even if the subject matter was heavy.

“I think, what it comes down to, is two things. One is, and it’s not a good thing, but it’s a true thing, he’s never been evil to me or in front of me, not really. Not beyond being a really annoying jerk prone to pranks and poking people until they snap. Everyone always tells me what a horrible monster he’s been, and still can be, but it doesn’t feel real, you know? It doesn’t match my lived experience, and while he and mom are probably the only people whom can interact with me on a regular basis and still keep secrets from me, I’m not blind, and I’m not stupid, so… yeah. Doesn’t feel real.”

She stopped, after that torrent of words, her breathing a little sped up, while he digested her words.

“Also, um, as a side note, quite a few of the people who’ve warned me against him have done it right to his face – but if he really was so bad, would they actually dare? Even if he wouldn’t lash out at them while I was around, if he really was so petty and monstrous, wouldn’t he track them down after? It’s not like I’m, surveilling him all the time, or even some of the time, really. But they’re still around.”

“That… hm. Dunno. But I gotta say, it takes cojones of solid uranium or something, to say such things in front of the Dark,” he said with a slightly exaggerated shudder.

“He really isn’t so bad… when you get down to it, past all the masks and names and stuff, he’s just big, goofy nerd,” she replied, with an annoyed pout, arms crossed again.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure no one else’s lived experience matches yours, in regards to him, he thought, but didn’t say, and he kept it off his face as well as he could.

“What’s the second reason?” he asked, instead.

“Whether or not my presence in his life makes him a nicer person, the simple truth is that if I removed him from my life, opposed him, I’d relinquish any influence upon him I do or might yet have,” she said, in a much more collected manner, only to flounder again on the next part. “I don’t… I mean, it might be arrogant of me to say so, but… I’m kind of hoping… I wish… it could  be possible to…”

“Redeem him?” he finished the sentence for her, causing her to blush and nod. “Redeem the Dark?”

“It’s arrogant, I know, maybe even hubris… there’s no one he cares about, or for, nearly as much as mom, not even me, even if they both try to claim otherwise, and even she hasn’t been able to, but,” she gulped, swallowed, “maybe, if I add my own efforts to it… even if neither of them will tell me what drove him to be a villain in the first place… maybe it’ll finally be enough? Isn’t that… a good reason?” Her voice was barely a whisper by the final bit.

Fuck, she  sounds so young. Easy to forget she’s only Kizzy’s age, no matter the power shenanigans involved.

“Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but all things considered, I think your dad’s a pretty bad person, even if he’s a good dad to you,” he answered, after a minute of thinking it over. Also, fuck, this is ending up heavy anyway. “Even if he’s not the worst villain out there… I know there’s even worse… he’s still pretty bad. Anyone else who’d done half as much as he has, they’d be executed for it, anywhere on the planet… and man, I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be a jerk to you today,” he finished, as he saw her shrink into herself (figuratively, not literally… this time). “Sorry. Shutting up now.”

“If that is the right thing to do… then I can’t do it. Ever,” she said, softly, her eyes seemingly aimed at the others having fun together, though he was pretty sure she was gazing far further away.

“I, um, I never meant to say… no. No, you shouldn’t. Others sh- no, enough. I’m sorry I even brought it up,” he said, awkwardly. Mouth, insert foot here.

There was (relative) quiet for half a minute, or so, before she finally spoke again, with some mirth in her voice, even. “You know, I used to think you were just a jerk, at first. Now, I’m not sure whether you are, or whether you’re just horribly apt at repeatedly inserting your foot into your mouth.” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, looking at him.

He crossed his arms, acting offended. “I’ll have you know, I am perfectly capable of being both, at the same time even!”

She chuckled, fortunately, and he felt the tension ease. “You’re such a dork. And an ass.” Her fist lashed out, punching his shoulder.

It didn’t really hurt, and he more than deserved it.

“So, in the interest of you not being the only one that’s insensitive and asking stupid questions, may I ask you one?” she asked, raising her head up and looking at him out of the corner of her eye in a curiously bird-like motion.

He looked back, and shrugged. “It’s only fair, isn’t it?”

“One might say so. Still, feel free not to answer, if it cuts too close.”

Jared couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “C’mon, princess, out with it already. Can’t be as bad as half the stuff I’ve said just in this conversation.”

She seemed to think it over, and nodded.

“Why don’t you ever talk about your parents?” she finally voiced her question.

Alright, that actually is pretty uncomfortable.

Still, as much as it hurt to think about, and as much as he instinctively wanted to lash out over it, he owed it to her to give her a proper answer.

It would be no less than she had done, after all.

“Well… there’s a lot of reasons… it still hurts to think about them… I miss them… but, I think… the biggest reason is…” He took a deep breath, as he realized he’d never said it out loud before. Not even to his handler, nor to his psych guy. “Because I’m still so damn angry at them.”

“Angry that they died?” she asked, her voice so soft again, he barely heard it over the music.

“Yes. No.” He crossed his arms, looking up at the ceiling. “Actually, yes, but not mainly.” He held it in for a moment… then it all poured out of him in one big go. “I’m angry because they fucking knew their powers wouldn’t be able to help! They knew they’d be little better than cannon fodder!”

He puts his hands up on his head, all but pulling on his hair as his vision went blurry. “They had Kizzy! And me! They were supposed to be there for us, but instead they fought and died! When they could’ve run! When, when-“

Suddenly, he found himself enveloped in a tight hug, his face pressed against her chest, her arms holding him tightly, close to her heart. So close, he could hear, feel, her heartbeat.

His arms went around her midsection – she had to be floating to pull this off – and he clung tightly, grateful that no one had to see his tears, or hear his sobs.

An indeterminate amount of time passed, before he calmed down again, and they loosened their grip on each other.

She floated back a step, while he looked away, rubbing his face to get rid of the tears.

It seemed that no one else had noticed the whole scene, or else they were pretending marvelously not to have.

Neither Jugs, Kitty, nor the boss were that good at pretending.

He looked at the princess again, as she smiled at him in an almost motherly fashion.

“I won’t do that,” he said, still choked up. “I’ve got Kizzy to think about. When the time comes, I’ll fucking run.”

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14.a.3 Out of Time

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6 minutes ago

He ran over a cracked road and jumped over the rubble of a collapsed building, straight at a pair of figures he’d seen while running away from the Dark.

It didn’t surprise him much, that these two had survived, even though one of them was pathologically self-sacrificial and the other was insane.

”Yo, boss. Boss’s wife,” he greeted them as he came to a halt, arm up.

Tartsche raised an arm and high-fived him, though Spellgun didn’t follow up on it.

It was then that he noticed the blood.

“The fuck? Did you fall asleep on the job, boss?” Jared asked, before he could rein his own mouth in, squatting down next to them.

Spellgun’s – Thomas’s – left leg was a mess and the only reason he was upright at all was because he was leaning heavily on Harry’s shoulder, and also using that wicked rifle of his like a crutch.

It looked like something had taken a huge chunk out of him – nearly the entire upper half of the back of his calf, the meatiest part of the lower leg, was just plain gone. Torn away so thoroughly, bone showed, where it wasn’t just frayed flesh and fat.

Jared’s stomach threatened to empty itself as he looked at the damage, pulling his first-aid kit off the back of his belt.

Strangely enough, while it was bloody, there wasn’t much, if any, blood flow, even though they hadn’t tied the leg off.

“One of DiL’s beams,” Harry explained, as he gently lowered the wounded boy onto the ground, using one hand to hold his leg up so the wound didn’t touch the dirty rocks and concrete. “Got him before I managed to reach him and put my power up. He shot himself with some kind of experimental bullet he of course hadn’t gotten approved beforehand, to prevent himself from bleeding out.”

Jared looked at Thomas sweaty, pale face with an incredulous stare. “You shot yourself?”

“Medical… bullet,” Thomas explained, grinning through the pain, only to arch his back and bite down on a scream when Jared sprayed some disinfectant on the huge wound. “Didn’t… oh God that burns… didn’t work… quite one-hundred percent yet… but it stopped the blood flow… and ah think… ooooowwwww… it should disinfect the wound, too.”

Jared worked quickly, having gotten a lot of practice recently, packing as much sterile cotton pieces into the wound, followed by wrapping it up in this new kind of bandage they’d started using a while ago, that supposedly both disinfected and allowed for proper airflow and stuff. Or something, he’d been sleeping through the advertisement, but the higher-ups had clearly thought it worthwhile, because all the United Heroes’ issued kits now used them.

“Well, let’s not take any chances here. Dunno when we’ll be able to get you some healer to look at it,” Jared said.

“Think Ah can get Gloomy to fix it, even after how Ah p-pissed her oooaaaaaaah! Monkeyballs! Fuck!

He bucked, nearly kicking Jared as he affixed the bandage properly. The only reason he failed to was that his lower leg physically couldn’t kick him anymore. Major muscles and other bits were just gone.

“Maybe you could make yourself a peg leg that’s also a gun?” Jared asked, trying to inject some levity into things. “You know, as a holdout of sorts.”

“Maybe re-brand with a pirate theme in mind. I could be the honorable knight, and you the knavish pirate I’m trying to bring down and-or reform,” Harry suggested – and managed to keep a straight face.

Thomas batted his eyelashes at his boyfriend, sprinkling drops of sweat around. “You know, y’can bring me down any time you like, whether or not it’s, ah, thematic. Though I admit a little rolep-“

“Dudes! No homo, please!” Jared interrupted them. “If you gay it up any more, I will barf all over your wound!”

Thomas, sweaty, pale and barely conscious, winked at him with one hell of a shit-eating grin. Harry at least had the grace to blush.

“Also, ‘knavish’? Really? Did someone buy you a thesaurus? Who the hell uses ‘knavish’?” he asked his blushing boss.

Harry mumbled something unintelligible, rubbing the back of his head with the hand he wasn’t using to hold Thomas’ leg up.

Whatever he said sounded suspiciously like ‘calendar’, but Jared decided to take the high road and not press it.

“Alright, I think this’ll hold. Let’s get you to the princess, see whether she can fix you up for good, butt boy,” he said instead, once he was sure the bandage would hold.

“Much appreciated, beach boy,” Thomas replied, then groaned as they lifted him up again, one of them under each arm of his.

They got on their way, following the signal of the Princess’s tracker via Jared’s HUD.

“How’d you of all people piss her off so much?” Jared asked, recalling how she’d gone off on him, just recently, when they’d laughed about the idiot who’d died proposing to the freaking bitch.

The residual grin dropped off of Thomas’ face.

“Ah… yeeeeaaaahhh, that one’s not mah proudest achievement,” he spoke with a note of guilt in his voice. “We’d, ah, gotten to talk about… identity, and some other things. Not gonna betray the details. But she wanted mah opinion on some stuff, ’cause of… well, mah little manifestation-related hickup. The subject of her sis and stuff came up. Ah should’ve known what our behavior would mean to her, and ah messed it up.” He lowered his head, sighing.

Jared didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t say anything. Neither did Harry, though he did put an arm around Thomas’ midsection, squeezing him in a one-armed hug, before transitioning to holding him up that way.

They walked in silence after that, navigating the rubble, cracked streets and occasional residual power effects – one in particular drew Jared’s attention, a spot where a store front and the sidewalk in front of it had crinkled out into razor-sharp petals.

Just like in Miami – I never knew she re-used powers.

He shook his head, unsure of what to feel at the sight, and the reminder. Thomas’ words were sitting heavily with him, too.

Hell, it’s not like there’s anything about today that hasn’t been a huge kick upside the head in one way or another, he thought, his exhausted mind wandering as they drudged on.

***

Not so long ago

“You’ll freaking pay for this, beach boy!”

“Dream on, butt boy!”

Jared and Thomas snarled at each other, their chosen combatants locked in deadly combat upon the screen in front of them.

They each had a flat box on their respective lap, with a control stick and six buttons arranged the same way as on an arcade machine, and were furiously working their sticks and pounding their buttons, while Ma’al Gahurak, Supreme War Champion of Mars fought in a deadly battle against the original Doc Feral, Gentleman Adventurer.

Not a fight that’d ever happened in real life, the Doc had been long dead by the time the Martians invaded, but it sure looked real on the screen.

“God damn it this fucking Martian is so broken!” Thomas complained, as he tried and failed to break through Ma’al’s defenses – a bevy of counter moves which, with the right timing, allowed Jared to reflect almost any attack in the game back at the attacker.

And timing was something he knew very well, even when he wasn’t using his power. Much.

“You just say that ’cause you suck!” he shot back with a grin.

“Oh, I do suck, but not at this!” came the response in a lewd tone, and it came at just the right moment to make Jared sputter as the mental image asserted itself.

Which of course meant that he flubbed the all too vital timing on his next full counter.

“Oh fuck no, you asshole!” he shouted, but it was too late.

Doc Feral’s attack connected, and Thomas was quick to exploit the increased stun damage Ma’al took when he flubbed a full counter.

The old-school hero struck a pose and downed a glowing red concoction – the Nature Red formula – which caused him to tear out of his clothes, turning into a giant, red-clawed, red-toothed lion-ape-human, and lay into the stunned Martian.

A ‘K.O.’ followed quickly, on the screen, colored green instead of the usual red.

“Oh, come on! One combo? One? Ma’al wasn’t such a glass cannon in real life!”

“Game balance, beach boy. It’s fine to have people who’re just plain better than others in real life, but you gotta balance them to have a healthy meta in these games,” Thomas pontificated with a smirk, while they went back to the character selection screen.

“Like I don’t fucking know,” Jared groused, looking over the character options. The new CvC 6 had a huge roster, seventy-nine characters if you included all the expansion packs (and they had them all, on account of it being a UH license and them getting free copies), but with a field that large, game balance was a big issue, and the game devs didn’t always nail it, especially when they overcompensated. Case in point, Lady Light had been so overpowered in the fifth game that they’d overcompensated in nerfing her for this one, putting her in the bottom tier of characters, so he skipped right over her and went for one of the top tier characters.

“You’re taking fuckin’ Weisswald now? C’mon dude, that’s just petty!” Thomas complained, while he made his own selection.

“Says the guy picking the Fungal Eve,” Jared shot back.

“What can I say, I’m a romantic – they just belong together,” Thomas replied with a smile, hugging himself and swaying left and right.

“Dude! That’s just, one hell of a sickening mental image!”

“Pipe it down you two, will ya? We’re trying to focus here!” Rosalie shouted in annoyance, turning away from the electronic whiteboard showing a map of New Lennston’s shopping district.

Scribbles, circles, crosses, lines and arrows showed how far she, Harry, Jessica and Rachel had already plotted out their latest shopping trip.

“You know, normal people just go shopping now and then, and all is fine! They don’t have to plot out a precise campaign for the sake of clothes shopping!” Jared shot back.

“Normal people are idiots! Now pipe it down or I’ll tell your sister you’ve been trying to keep us from taking her shopping!” Rosalie of course had to skip straight to the lethal weaponry.

The others offered no help either, showing just varying degrees of annoyance, amusement and contriteness.

Jared rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. Freaking blackmailers…” He turned down the game’s volume, for good measure; best not to risk provoking Rosalie when she was in that kind of mood.

She’d probably visited her own little sister, earlier. That always left her in an… irritable mood, afterwards, which was why she was still being kept as a Junior when she had the age and the skill and power to advance into the big ranks already.

Not that Jared could ever blame her for that.

Not that he’d ever say so out loud.

Instead, he turned to Thomas, distracting himself by focusing on another matter.

“So how come you’re not over there, planning the thirty-fourth great New Lennston Shopping Trip?” he asked. He didn’t have to come up with the number – they’d written the title up over the map. “You’re girlier than most girls I know.”

Thomas shrugged. “Harry’s already planning for me, Ah’m sure. And I was never the kind of girl who was into going shopping a lot, it never really appealed to me.”

“Huh. Guess you’re not quite trying to fit into every gay stereoty- hey, what you mean with you were never the kind of girl?”

The young contriver looked at him in surprise. “What, you didn’t know? I thought everyone around here knew – Ah used to be a girl, before Ah manifested.”

Jared’s eyes nearly bugged out, getting so distracted from the game, he barely managed to pull up Weisswald’s White Fortress and block the Fungal Eve’s Mycoloid rush.

“You don’t have to stare so hard, beach boy,” Thomas complained, blushing a bit. “Surely you’ve heard about metahumans switchin’ sex when they get powers.”

“Well, duh. And that’s not… I mean, I guess it’s no weirder than turning into a pink furry or a living statue or something, but… just trying to wrap my head around you having been a girl once.” Jared replied with a bit of a blush.

There was another thing he wanted to ask, but that would jut have been bad form, even by his standards.

“You’re wonderin’ now how I manifested, eh?” Thomas pressed the point, grinning, though his eyes remained fixated on the game screen.

“Yeah. Wasn’t gonna ask, though.”

“Ah don’t mind. Even if you hadn’t told me yours before.”

“Only reason I’m so open about it is because everyone knows these days,” he replied, gnashing his teeth. “Fucking Miami Wire.” That stupid rag had fucking outed his identity, in the course of a ‘memorial edition’ about the Miami heroes whom died fighting the glowy bitch. Then someone had somehow gotten a copy of an UH internal report in which he’d described his Origin, and… national news.

“Still. Ah guess it’s only fair. Tit for tat, and all that.” He paused, for a moment, taking a deep breath. “So, yeah, Ah was born a girl. Real sweet Southern tomboy, if Ah may say so. Ah wasn’t a girly girl by any measure, but Ah didn’t mind being a girl and Ah never wanted to be a boy, Ah just wanted to be with boys.”

“Mhmm,” Jared temporized, trying to picture Thomas as a girl.

It wasn’t very hard to do, really.

“So, what happened? How’d you go from… uh, whatever your name was then-“

“Denise.”

“Denise. How’d you go from Denise to, well, Thomas?” Jared asked, his voice softer than it tended to be, even while they fought each other in-game at their best.

“Mmm. Gotta give you a bit of background to explain. You know about the Smith-Jackson Range?”

“Nope.”

“It’s a theory, or Ah guess a kind of rule, set by these two really famous metahuman researchers, Smith and Jackson. People usually manifest in between eight to thirty years of age. Like, ninety-nine percent of metahumans do. All the common rules and stuff we have, for how people manifest, how they get powers and stuff? They apply to that range.”

Jared frowned. “I can think of a few cases of people manifesting way younger than that.” One in particular, he thought, but didn’t say.

Thomas nodded. “There’s exceptions of course. And here’s the interesting thing: If you manifest earlier, your powers tend to come out… bigger. Broader. Less restrictions, but also more chances for things to go wrong. Mutations, physical and mental, weird powers, you name it. Also, the younger you are, the more likely it is for your power to have a Meta-aspect, even if it’s otherwise not a Meta-power, if it ain’t a pure Meta power to begin with.”

Huh. That… fits really well. Fuck, does that mean she’s not unique? There could be more like her?!

Scary thoughts.

Thomas went on, unperturbed, lost in telling his tale (if not lost enough to give Jared an edge in the game).

“Things are flipped if you manifest after you’re thirty. Not only is it spectacularly unlikely, but like, almost all the post-thirty origins we know of lead to really wimpy and strangely direct powers. Like a guy who fell off a cliff, and he gets the power to slow his own falls. Or a woman who ended up outside naked, after getting drunk, and just when she’s about to be discovered, she gets the power to camouflage herself, so long as she doesn’t move at all, even to breathe or look around. Though on the upside, it also seems that post-thirty manifestations are pretty much safe from getting any bad stuff along with their power, either. So Ah guess it kinda balances out. Theres exceptions, of course, but in general, that’s how it works.”

“That’s really interesting to know, but what’s that got to do with you? From what I got, you manifested just a few years ago.”

“Ah’m getting to that, beach boy. Patience. Ah know it’s hard for you. So, to get to the other part of my depressing little tale, what do you know about the Trans community and powers?”

“Uhhhh…”

“Yeah, well, thought so. To be brief, they loooooove powers. Getting superpowers is like, the Holy Grail every Transsexual person seeks. And the reason is simple – in like, nine out of ten cases of a Transsexual getting powers, they also get the Adonis trait, and they pretty much always switch to their preferred sex when they do. So, ever since the Trans community went public around the seventies, getting powers has been the thing for them.”

“Guess I can see why…” He was getting pretty damn curious about how all that related to him switching sex.

“Makes them really desperate, a lot. There’s tons of stories of Trans people giving all their money to con-men or shady ‘researchers’ promising powers, or going Origin-chasing and dying. Anyway, so, that’s the background you need, to get my story.”

“I dunno why I’d need it. From what you said, I got that you weren’t Trans, then or now. Though I’m no longer sure about the now.”

“Welll… Ah wasn’t… but my pops was.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah, ‘oh’. So Daddy dearest, in spite of boning me mom and marrying her, felt like he should be the lady in the family. But no matter what he did or in what way he blew our money or how hard he beat me mom when she complained, he never got powers. And he continued not to get powers until he turned thirty-one. And that’s when shit got really bad. Cause you see, even when you do get superpowers at over thirty, Ah don’t think there’s a single case of someone manifesting at that age and getting the Adonis package to go along with it.”

Jared hit the pause button on the game, and half-turned on the couch, pulling one leg up on it to look straight at Thomas.

The young blonde had his head lowered, looking down at the arcade stick resting on his jeans-covered lap.

His eyes were a hundred miles away, even when Harry sat down next to him, his Samaritan-radar having pinged as soon as his boyfriend started feeling distressed.

Harry put an arm around his slender shoulders, and then Thomas continued to talk, more quietly. “So, my pops had a problem. He’d moved out of the Smith-Jackson Range. Surgery and hormones weren’t a solution, he was too proud to do that. It’s seen as an admission of defeat and surrender, in the Trans community. Plus, he wanted to be a woman for real, so he could have kids of his own and all. Kids who’d really be his, he said. The arsehole.”

“Worse than an arsehole,” Harry said, softly, and Jared couldn’t help but nod.

Every time he heard about someone else’s Origin, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d gotten off lightly somehow.

“So, what’s pops dearest do, the genius? He goes and joins Pinhead’s group.”

Jared’s eyes went wide. “Wait, Pinhead as in, the supervillain!? Guy’s a major menace!”

“Aye. He could transfer… attributes, between people, with those pins of his. Drain the strength from one, give it to another. Same for intelligence, or charisma, and other traits. Like… masculinity and femininity. Sex.”

“Oh no.”

***

Three minutes ago

“Oh no.”

Harry’s words drew him right back to reality, as they crossed over a portion of the street that’d bulged up without cracking, the concrete remaining solid in spite of the deformation.

Gloom Glimmer knelt on the ground, in front of a collapsed building’s front, where it looked like a balcony had come down. She was on her knees, her head lowered, face hidden by gossamer-fine, straight black hair.

Polymnia knelt by her right side, one hand on her friend and teammate’s shoulder. Her face was visible, and twisted up in grief, the expression made all the more pronounced by her color-shifting hair, which had come out of one of its pigtails, but not the other.

Her other hand rested on the back of the third girl present.

Hecate was on her knees, bent over to the point of being folded in half, her lowered head very close to her knees, as it seemed to actually touch the ground. Her cowl was pulled back, revealing well-cared for black hair with natural curls, her hands buried in it its thick mass as she wailed like a wounded animal, no poise, no control, emotions bared totally.

The reason for it all was readily apparent: lying on the ground, its head cradled on Gloom Glimmer’s lap, was Brennus’s corpse, three arm-thick holes going through his armored chest and another, finger-thick one through the left side of his forehead, the wounds neatly cauterized and quite obviously fatal.

There was blood on his lips, which Gloom Glimmer wiped off with a thumb as the three of them approached.

Jared looked closely at the strange boy they’d all wondered about, getting his first good look at his exposed face.

He wasn’t pretty, exactly, though he may have ended up on the attractive side of the spectrum, had he been allowed to live through his puberty; for now, he was merely… striking, in an oddly put together way. Even though he was clearly younger than Jared – fifteen, maybe sixteen, at most, there wasn’t an ounce of baby fat on him to soften his features. Cheekbones one could use to slice steel with and a sharp, slightly pronounced nose gave him something of a hawkish look that actually fit his chosen animal theme well, broken up only by surprisingly full lips. Though death had relaxed it, he looked like someone with a naturally serious, even severe expression. His hair was as black as Irene’s, though not as fine, nor as glossy. Naturally messy, it fell down to his shoulders, but there was no style to it, like he’d just let it grow long, then taken a knife or sheers to it to hack off the bits that fell into his face, once they got to be annoying.

Based on his limited interactions with the vigilante, Jared could totally see him do it exactly like that.

They reached the small group, moving towards Gloom Glimmer’s left side.

Hecate didn’t seem to notice their arrival, nor did the princess, but Polymnia raised her head, eyes widening in simultaneous relief at the sight of the three of them, and horror at the misshapen, bloody bandage around Thomas’s calf.

Before anyone could ask, Gloom Glimmer reached out with her left hand and touched Thomas’s knee. Red, blood-like liquid emerged from where her fingertips touched his bared skin, spreading onto and under his bandage.

Thomas made a guttural sound of discomfort and relief in one, while Jared and Harry watched, seeing the bandage fall apart as the glowing, bloody liquid filled out the space where his calf ought to be, only to recede back into Gloom Glimmer’s fingertips, leaving unblemished skin behind. A crippling-for-life injury, restored in seconds.

“I can only heal living organisms,” Gloom Glimmer said in the soft, broken voice of a lost little girl, pre-empting the question Jared was about to ask. “His body doesn’t register as alive anymore.”

Hecate’s wails intensified for a moment, before lessening in volume, if not in intensity.

Jared and Harry let go of Thomas, who tested his freshly restored leg, briefly, even as they lowered their heads.

There wasn’t really anything they could say. None of them had known Brennus, beyond a few brief interactions, and neither did they really know Hecate. Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had connected far more closely with that group, the former due to being a gadgeteer, mostly, Jared suspected, the latter because…

He didn’t know why, really. Maybe she’d just gone along because Polymnia had liked Brennus. Maybe her power had told her something she hadn’t shared with the rest of them.

Harry moved over to kneel down between Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, putting an arm around each of their shoulders. He didn’t say anything, he just knelt there, like that.

They seemed to take comfort from that, a little bit.

Jared looked down at the shaking, wailing Hecate, raising his hand, thinking about maybe giving her a hug, would that even be welcome or helpful, but…

Before he could choose to do it or not, Thomas knelt down next to her and hugged her.

Not that she seemed to notice.

Fuck, what am I supposed to do here?, he asked himself.

He was so fucking tired. Tired, and worn out. Hours and days, spent fighting Crocell, then DiL. Living hours in minutes. He was too worn out to even put the numbers together and figure out how much time he’d spent being awake and active, in the last two days.

Had it been just two days? He wasn’t even sure. He’d laid down to sleep after helping with the clean-up and evacuation in Esperanza, post-Crocell, only to be awoken by the sirens announcing his recurring nightmare come to life.

It was fine while he was moving, but whenever he stopped, whenever he didn’t have anything more to do, he felt it catch up to him, his senses starting to grow fuzzy around the edges, his mind starting to drift.

What the hell am I supposed to do? I feel so fucking useless…

***

Shortly after the Miami Attack

He felt so fucking useless, looking at his sister.

They’d been moved to New Lennston, after he’d revealed his power to Bandersnatch. A foster family had been found, to take care for them, and he was to be placed with the local junior team of the United Heroes. A dream come true, for many a teenager, to serve as a hero in New Lennston of all places.

If only it hadn’t been soured to begin with. His identity revealed before he could even get a secret identity, leaked papers revealing even the nature, if not the details, of his power, as he’d described it to Bandersnatch, as she’d put it into her report.

None of that helped with his biggest problem, though, in all fairness, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference even if none of that were an issue.

He was leaning on the side of the doorframe, looking into the living room of the Woads family, now technically also his family and his living room, though he was pretty sure that was never going to feel natural.

Kizzy sat on the floor in front of the television, knees drawn up against her chest, her arms around them, as still as a statue as her eyes seemed to look straight through the television in front of her, through the wall behind it and then even further.

He’d never really imagined what a thousand-yard stare would look like, but now he didn’t need to. He saw it every day in his sister’s eyes.

Worse than the gaze, though, was the silence and the stillness. She just… sat there. Never talked, never made a sound, at all, except when she woke up screaming in the night.

Post-traumatic stress, the therapist called it. They both had one, though not the same.

Jared spent most of his sessions talking about Kizzy.

There’d been a scary four days, early on where, she’d acted… normal. Too normal. Pretending none of it had happened. That mom and dad were just away because of the job, and they’d be back soon.

For three creepy, heart-rending days she’d smiled and laughed and been her usual bubbly self.

Then she’d collapsed, without warning or apparent cause.

It was afterwards that the screaming at night and the silence by day started.

Needless to say, she hadn’t sung a single line, ever since that day.

Why? Why the fuck did you have to go and fight? he thought angrily, once again. Couldn’t at least one of you have decided that we were more important than the fight? Just one of you.

He felt his hand clench into a tight fist, without his conscious direction. Clenching so hard, his entire arm trembled, and his nails, as short as they were, still dug painfully into the palm of his hand.

Closing his eyes, he sought to center himself by focusing inward, at his power.

He’d always read a lot about powers, and listened to his parents sharing their experiences, so he knew that, in many ways, he’d lucked out. He didn’t have any physical mutations, no derangements, no real issues with his power. There was even a matter of sheer convenience – others might have gotten an abstract feeling for the ‘gauge’ of their power, when it dealt with some kind of limited resource, or might have been among those unlucky enough to be blind or only get the most general feeling for it.

He could just focus and see a digital display in his field of view, red numbers on a black background, counting the seconds he’d saved up.

60:00

One hour. Sixty minutes. Three-thousand and six-hundred seconds.

That was his cap. Every second that he did not use his power was a second added to the pool, another second he could then squeeze into a normal second, to stretch it out. He could add up to four seconds to each one, so he lived five seconds when others only lived one.

Some mad science types had even done some tests and determined that his power shifted his body into a state of ‘quasi-reality’ so he didn’t age faster than a normal person, no matter how much he used his power. It also boosted his endurance, so he didn’t tire himself out nearly as quickly as he should have.

All in all, a pretty good power.

Tapping into his reserve, he slowed down time. One second beccame five, as he stepped forward into the living room; he’d be just a blur to anyone watching, too fast to even be heard unless he was spectacularly clumsy.

He strolled over to Kizzy, her blurry form growing sharp as his little bubble of sharpness came over her.

Irony of ironies, becoming an Adonis had fixed his eyesight, obviating the need for glasses or contact lenses – but as soon as his power kicked in, everything beyond his immediate surroundings came out of focus again.

At least the eggheads of the UH thought they could do something to help with that, with the right equipment.

Taking soft steps, he looked at his sister. There was no reason to do this while using his power, she’d have barely, if at all, reacted to his presence anyway, but…

Well, he liked using his power.

Kizzy just sat there, seemingly watching a bunch of cartoon space animals fight a planet-eating robot or something. There were a lot of primary colors on the screen.

Except she probably knew less about what was going on in that show than he did, and he knew next to nothing.

Time slowed down again, the world coming into focus.

He reached out to hug his sister, but hesitated. What good did it even do, to-

***

Two minutes ago

“-good it did.”

Jared blinked, refocusing on the present. The others seemed to have talked about something, but he’d completely missed out on it.

A brief look at his timer showed him that he’d missed forty-two seconds, as his thoughts drifted.

Fuck, I need to do something, or I’ll drift off entirely.

“I’m going,” he announced, interrupting whatever the ongoing discussion was, causing everyone but Hecate to look up at him in surprise.

Thomas had moved while he’d been distracted, sitting down between Harry and Polymnia, to give the latter a one-armed hug. He’d taken his brassy helmet with those freaky scopes and visors off, wearing only the simple domino mask he had underneath, his hair shiny and slick with sweat.

“There might still be people in need of help. Hell, there almost certainly are. And I still have a few minutes saved up, so I’m going to use them and see what I can do,” he explained, though his voice came out much weaker and scratchier than he would have liked.

“Y-yeah, you’re right,” the princess answered, her voice still having that lost hollowness to it that tugged on his supposedly non-existent heartstrings. “There’s people in need, and I can help. B-besides, I need… need to see wha-“

“No,” he cut her off, as soon as he realized what she was getting at, his voice much sharper than before. “No, you don’t need to. You shouldn’t.”

She glared at him, a hint of black veins creeping into her eyes from the corners, opening her mouth to respond. He didn’t let her.

“No. Irene, trust me,” he said, rocking her back. He’d never actually addressed her with her first name before. “You don’t want to see this.”

He could remember asking, all but begging Kizzy to keep her eyes closed. Later he’d found out that she hadn’t, and the things she’d seen… they’d nearly broken him. They’d certainly contributed to breaking her.

If there was one thing about the Dark he could get, it was why he didn’t want the princess to see that. He could completely, wholeheartedly, agree with it, even.

“Go to the field hospital, while you still have that healing power. You can do the most good there,” he continued, tiredly keeping up the eye contact.

It took a few moments for her to process his words and see the logic in them. A few moments before her eyes returned to normal, the black veins retreating back to where they’d come from.

Finally, she nodded, lowering her head as if in admission of defeat, though it may have just been to take one last look at Brennus, as she puts his head down on the ground, slipping her legs out from under him.

He thought he heard her mumble something, but the only word he caught was ‘monster’.

“He’s right. I’ll go to the field hospital. What about you all?” she asked, with a little more strength in her voice. “Need a lift somewhere?”

Though she was addressing everyone, she seemed to focus her gaze on Hecate in particular.

Maybe the grieving witch knew, somehow, because she was the first to respond, finally making a sound other than a wail.

“G-go. Go help. I’ll be fine,” she choked the words out in between more sobs. “I… I would like, some time… time alone, anyway. With him.” Her hands clenched into fists where they lay on Brennus’ chest, green-gloved fingertips sliding across dull black armor.

Jared didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded and turned around, kicking into his power.

4:23

He drew on his reserve, adding a single second to each real one. Twice the amount of time to move, when his power had developed enough that it could add up to nine seconds to each real one, these days.

This wasn’t about being faster, though, so much as it was for the sake of exploiting his weird, quasi-real state to stay awake and active. And so he jogged off, after saluting the others, intending to circle around the area where that monster had fallen and look for anyone still in need of rescue.

Two fucking S-Class events in the same week. God, I hope this will be it for a while now, he thought, as he jogged and occasionally leaped onto and over particularly nasty section of rubble and left-over power effects. God damn it, NL’s been hit by three in about as many months! What the hell, that’s insane even by local standards! Karma’s gotta be done by now…

***

He was busy pulling a bruised cowl out from under some rubble – not one he knew, she was definitely from out of town – when karma decided that New Lennston hadn’t yet, in fact, suffered enough.

Lightning flashed, almost immediately followed by a weirdly warbling sound of thunder, and the sensation of something being torn open washing over him.

Even though he was still holding the woman’s hand, and trying not to stare at her too much because her flowing robes were in tatters and, damn, she didn’t seem to be an Adonis – someone with a Physique power, as was now the nomenclature – but she sure was fit and he wasn’t picky about which beauty to appreciate, well, even in spite of that, he kicked in his power.

Nine seconds added to every one, the woman came to a near stand-still, and his grip on her hand slipped; the downside of his power, when it was up his effect on the real world (and the real world’s effect on him, in turn) was reduced by a factor equivalent to how much his own time was sped up. With him now living ten seconds for every one of the outside world, he only had one tenth of the effect on anyone not on the same time as he. He’d have to touch her and give her seconds from his store to bring her up to his speed, for them to fully interact, and his stores were low enough as they were, already.

He turned around, and saw that the bolt of lightning was still there, stationary, flickering without disappearing, like a lasting connection between the cloudless sky and the shattered ground. He could see it as clear as day, even before his helmet’s visor shifted polarity and the world beyond the bubble of his power became sharp and visible again, like he was seeing the light with something other than his eyes.

Just then, something more happened, and he wouldn’t have seen it if he wasn’t in his fastest mode – even at ten times the speed, he almost missed it as a crack ran up from the ground, where the first bolt had origininated and was still connected to, like reality itself cracking, from the ground up to the sky, only for lightning to then run down that same crack and connected heaven and earth in the same flickering, warbling, dancing manner.

The place those cracks are coming from, that’s…, he thought with a sensation of rising dread inside of him, even as he refused to finish the thought.

The cowl he’d just been helping forgotten, he ran straight towards the origin of the cracks, watching as yet another formed, this one going up only to arc back towards the ground making a bow of sorts that was then filled out with dancing lightning so bright and white it hurt to look at.

He knew that shade of painfully pure white all too well, and his stomach plunged down into his feet, making them feel leaden and clumsy.

Finally, after what felt like ten minutes to him, but was likely more akin to a little over half of one to the real world, he reached the crater.

Another crack had spread up into the sky, calling down stationary lightning.

He came to a halt, halfway around the crater from where the Dark still stood, his form mostly frozen place, save for some slow-motion oozing up, his eyes seemingly focused, still, on the purple eye laying amidst the gore.

Mindstar, his new personal hero (which he was never going to tell Amazon about), was also still down there, frozen mid-wobble, a force-field so dense it was visible to the naked eye as a purple-tinged half-ovoid behind her back, which was pointed towards the… the…

Jared’s eyes widened as he realised what he was looking at.

It looked like nothing so much as a twist in reality, a see-through snarl that twisted up the view of everything beyond it, kind of like jabbing a fork into your noodles and twisting them up, only without the fork and without the noodles. The cracks he’d seen, they’d spread from it, and even now he could see yet another crack form.

Sped up like he was, he could see that it didn’t actually shoot up from the snarl – no, the entire crack, snarl to heaven, simply faded in all at once, followed by something like semi-liquid lightning filling out the crack. It travelling down from above must have been a trick of the eye, something his brain had added in to make sense of it.

The lightning seemed to run through parts of the snarl, like an elaborate, twisty pipe-system, only to arc out again below, thousands and thousands of tiny, hair-thin arcs reaching out like fingers, touching seemingly every piece of flesh and bone, every drop of blood, every… everything.

Worse than all of that, though, was that he recognized the feeling that washed over him, a wave like a distortion of reality, rippling through everything it passed without seemingly causing any effect.

He felt the snarl even more vividly than he saw it.

Time.

Someone, or something, was twisting time. And judging by what those lightning arcs seemed to point at, Di-fucking-L was the focus of it.

His eyes flickered over to the Dark, panicked thoughts telling him that it would be preferably to see some obvious signs of power usage from him, some sign that he be the one responsible.

Because, for all that he’d mocked her for it, repeatedly, he really hoped the princess’ assurances that her ‘papa’ was a good person, deep down, were not just the naive delusions of a daddy’s girl.

Because then it might just be a case of him cleaning up, removing the traces. Getting rid of whatever may be left, rather than…

He didn’t even want to think the alternative.

Unfortunately, for all he could tell, the Dark seemed to just be staring at it, for all that it fucking said about the animated mass of living, soundlessly screaming shadows that was him.

Another ripple washed over reality, a distortion in time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to feel, if his power wasn’t what it was, yet another branch of frozen lightning joining the others.

That seemed to push things over a threshold, a tipping point, as the entire mess of lightning collapsed in on itself with such speed, it looked fast even from his point of view.
The arcs were sucked into the swirling distortion they had originated from, both the ones above and below, and everything they’d touched was… not drawn in, really.

It was odd to see, like seeing ghost images, overlapping everything, shifting; like someone was holding a prism in front of a flashlight, breaking the beam up into a kaleidoscope of colors, and then turned and twisted the prism in their fingers, shifting the patterns being projected, except instead of light, it was time and the effect only touched what had been connected to the distortion via lightning.

Jared’s brain tied itself up in knots and twists, trying to parse the non-motion he saw, ghostly images overlapping themselves, shifting through, through various states, the kaleidoscope being turned and twisted.

With each shift, a different configuration was seen, the individual plateaus coming and going so quickly, his power was the only reason he had a chance to see even glimpses of them.

DiL’s body, torn to pieces on the ground.

DiL’s body, in pieces, frozen mid-air on the way to where the pieces had ended up.

DiL’s body, lying on the ground, the face already bashed in by Mindstar’s fists, the eyes still glowing even as one of them hung out of its socket by nothing but the nerve and blood vessels.

DiL, whole, kind of. Floating in the air, hair and eyes and nails glowing, but dismembered, arms and legs and head not connecting to the trunk of the body, floating in different places, yet clearly aligned with each other, the stumps glowing bright.
DiL, but younger, a prepubescent girl rather than the young woman she usually appeared as.

DiL, prepubescent, torn to pieces that were spread around the floor.

And now he wasn’t sure whether it was just time that was being twisted here.

DiL, teenaged, but with chunks missing, as if someone had scooped out a part of her head, her chest, her buttocks, one thigh, that same unearthly glow that was her trademark blazing forth. Even mutilated and with half of her glowing, she looked disconcertingly like the princess. More like a twin than a normal sister.

DiL, prepubescent and teenaged at the same time, forms overlapping, unevenly, looking even more like a freak than usual.

DiL, but inverted, her eyes, hair and nails the only parts of her that weren’t made of blazing white light.

DiL, whole and healthy, but the pure white glow replaced for an even more sinister blackness, like some sort of anti-light.

DiL, whole and healthy, a woman in her early to mid-twenties with white-glowing hair, eyes and nails, looking no worse for wear for all that had happened today.

Just as Jared’s heart started to plunge down to join his stomach by his feet, the distortion disappeared with a snap, the frozen lightning and the distorted reality disappearing into a single point right in front of DiL’s chest with a sensation that felt like how a snap sounded.

And with the Snap came an explosion of distorted time and space, as if reality itself could no longer bear the abuse.

Jared had already turned around and was running, running away.

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