104.2 Interlude Rachel - Addendum Joe

Interlude Rachel

Rachel drank in the sensations of the city at night. The world seemed to pulse around her like a heart beating in time with Brutus's footfalls. The rhythm of her mount mixed with the sounds of Judas running beside her, creating a beat that was nearly intoxicating.

Though a lot of that feeling was probably because of the man on Judas's back. Normally when she took her dogs out the rest of the team was basically cargo. Brian tried to direct them, but he didn't really know what he was doing and Rachel couldn't be bothered to explain it to him. It probably wouldn't have been worth the trouble anyway.

This was different. She knew it would be different. She'd known from the moment she saw Fleet back at that bar. Surrounded by the strongest capes in the Empire and completely calm. Unbothered in the face of the threat they represented. That they thought they represented.

They learned better, and learned quickly. Fleet taught them himself. A single movement of his arm and suddenly everyone went from prowling around to the kind of tense cowering she recognized on sight. You saw it in nervous dogs who knew they were outmatched but refused to show any weakness. Dogs ready for a desperate fight they knew they might lose, just for the chance to survive or endure the situation they had found themselves in.

It was a feeling she was more familiar with than she liked admitting. Maybe that was why it was so satisfying seeing the Empire like that. Those monsters who thought they could do whatever they liked to whoever they liked just because no one was ready to challenge them.

It was something she had also seen in a lot of dogs. Big animals who were used to getting their own way. Who didn't know anything else. Who would bite or bully or cause nothing but problems, because that was all they knew. The dogs that took a lot of time to train, just to get to the point where they could interact safely with the rest of her dogs, and often never got over the behaviors they had learned.

There was usually a bad story behind those dogs. A lot of the animals she took in came from bad situations. Situations that no one wanted to deal with. They weren't the sweet friendly animals that got adopted out of shelters into warm homes, homes that half the time didn't know how to look after a dog, even if it was the easiest thing in the world. Most of the dogs she took in were the ones that no one would take. That had bad tempers or medical problems or who would have been an inconvenience. Dogs that had outstayed their welcome and would have been put down if not for the deals she had worked out with various shelter workers.

Some of them she had to pay off. She actually preferred that. She could at least trust their motivation. The ones who did it for free, who marked the animal as destroyed before sneaking the dog out the back and then THANKING her for it? Those she couldn't trust. The people who said they wanted to help, but only in half measures. It was easier when people could be put cleanly into one category or another. The ones who tried to exist in gray areas were frustrating. Unpredictable.

Looking over to Judas, she couldn't really say Fleet had been predictable either, but the parts she couldn't predict didn't bother her as much as with other people. For instance, she thought he had been joking about the idea of a riding lesson. Well, maybe a joke, maybe sarcasm, or maybe some other social thing that she couldn't pick up on, like when people called one thing something else because they didn't want to just say what it was.

But Fleet had said exactly what he meant. The idea that she would need to learn how to ride her own dogs had seemed insulting, or like it should have been insulting, but somehow it didn't come across like that. Fleet knew stuff, but unlike Lisa he didn't need to show off how much he knew or make other people feel stupid for missing something.

He didn't just prattle to show off how smart he was, everything he did had a purpose. Everything he pointed out or explained. None of it was that meaningless fluff that she needed to dig through when dealing with other people. If he didn't have anything to say he didn't say anything. If he did, then there was a reason why he was talking. She never had to wonder if she should be paying attention or how she should be interpreting what he was saying.

She hadn't expected the 'lesson' to be much of a lesson. She knew her dogs and how to ride them. She'd been doing it for years. She could handle herself, but he knew that. He hadn't come in underestimating her or treating her like she was stupid. He'd seen her ride before and knew what she could do, but he explained how people who taught themselves something could overlook things. Sometimes things that weren't important, but sometimes they made a big difference.

Some of it was just knowing what she was doing right. Certain ways she moved her body or leaned to ease landings or help with turns, there were techniques built around all of that. Techniques with names she didn't really care about, but it meant she had figured out most of it for herself. It made her feel better about the stuff he was trying to teach her. Slight changes in form, different ways to adjust her weight, even some complicated stuff that was specific to her dogs and nothing else.

He had broken that down. A full model of how her dogs moved, what they were capable of, their strength and reaction and how far they could jump. He even had floating 3D models for her watch showing the mechanics of it all. She could follow that part. There was math and numbers and all kinds of calculations that might as well have been background static, but seeing the movements play out, it was like her brain just clicked. Things that she already knew on a gut level suddenly came into focus, crystalizing for her through less important words like force balance and response speed.

Even as they ran through the darkened strip of city under the light of the crescent moon, she could hold that image in her mind. With every step Brutus took she could picture the way his clawed foot struck the roof, the way he pushed off, the movement of the rest of his body as he adjusted to the force of the impact, and the precise amount of distance a step like that could cover.

She could look ahead of her and see the structures of the other buildings, the places where Brutus would step, where he would launch himself off the roof and the place he was likely to land after he leaped across the street. She shifted slightly, moving along with the exact steps she had predicted. A tiny change, but one that made the ride more comfortable and less tiring for both her and Brutus.

Clawed feet dug into the side of the roof as Brutus launched himself into the night. Rachel relished the feeling of freedom that came mid jump. Next to her Judas took to the air with Fleet on his back. As they soared over the street Fleet smiled at her from beneath the mirrored visor of his helmet. The night air suddenly felt extra cold against her face as she focused on the next building, moving to guide her landing.

Fleet had a nice smile. She didn't like not being able to see his eyes, but his smile was nice. She'd seen people talk about that online, now that her watch let her 'go' online. Most of the talk was about Survey or maybe Joe, but everyone seemed to agree that Fleet had a very nice smile. And a nice jawline.

It was weird agreeing with strangers. It was weird just having that kind of vague connection that was the internet. Before the watch she'd never had any interest in any of that. It was all pointless and frustrating. Just another way that she could end up embarrassing herself or messing something up in a way to be held against her, and for what? People sharing stupid gossip she couldn't follow or pictures she didn't care about?

Then she got her watch. Joe's watch. The watch that did whatever she told it to do. She could give it commands and it would obey better than any of her dogs. No attitude, no backtalk, no confusing social bullshit. All kinds of complicated stuff that she had trained herself to do without or find workarounds for she could suddenly dump on the watch. The watch that would last longer than she would, at least according to Joe, and she had no reason to doubt that. Not with everything else he had done.

Brutus's feet thundered under her as she thought back to that first meeting. The first hint of what they were dealing with. She thought it was going to be like what the team tried with Spitfire, what they did with Taylor. Another person forcing their way into the group. Another person to split the take. Another person she would need to deal with and adjust to. Another person she wouldn't be able to understand properly.

It hadn't been that. It hadn't been close to that. She should have realized by how he laughed off what happened when she set her dogs on him. Just to scare him, but he hadn't cared. Didn't care.

Dogs fight each other. She'd seen it a thousand times. Sometimes it's good natured, but sometimes it comes from a bad place. Sometimes it's good natured on one dog's part, but coming from a bad place from another. With Joe the 'fight' was like a big dog humoring the attacks of puppies. Not even concerned if there were bad intentions involved, because what could they do? It was more an amusing distraction than a real fight.

She hadn't really understood back then. Nobody else had either, not even Lisa, so she didn't feel bad about missing the signs. Those signs started coming together when he made her that knife, along with the rest of the team.

It sat comfortably sheathed at her waist, a comforting presence as she shifted her weight with each loping step that Brutus took. It was supposed to have been part of the deal, something Lisa set up, but everyone could see how she had messed up. The way they had been specially built for each of them wasn't something you got when you hired someone off the street. Little designs that didn't need to be added, like the carvings on the hilt and sheath of her knife.

A knife that had cut through Gallant's armor like butter. That had felt good. He had hit her with that stupid emotion blast, making her angry. Hoping that she would be angry enough to do something stupid. Couldn't just try to beat her in a fight, he had to embarrass her. Try to make her look like an idiot in front of the heroes, her team, and the entire city.

She had shown him. No stupid anger, just slicing away every part that made the armor move. She could see the way it came together, the shifting of mechanicals bits under the plates. It hadn't even been difficult. Just a few cuts and the entire thing went dead, without even hurting the asshole inside that suit.

She'd only been able to do that because of her knife. Show off like that because of her knife. Just like Taylor had. Her knife didn't come close to Taylor's but that was different. Everyone could see it was different, even if they didn't talk about it. Deliberately avoided talking about it, as if it would make a difference to know the why rather than just the 'what'.

The 'what' was that Taylor could carve through Aegis like he was nothing. Even her dogs hadn't been able to put him down and Taylor dropped him in less than a second. She had frozen up after they got back to the hideout, but not in the moment. Not when it counted.

That should have been another hint. She had picked up on something there. Seen it from how Taylor handled herself on the first day, even if the rest of the team didn't realize it until the storage yard. That fucking storage yard.

She hated that. Hated getting into that situation. Hated having people lord over her. Hurting her, hurting Angelica just because they could. It brought back too many other memories. People who were bigger and stronger, hurting because they could. Because they could get away with it, or because they came up with some reason that made them feel better about it. Hurting her, hurting Angelica, just like that foster home, the slowly closing pool cover, only instead of the whine of a motor it was tiny labored breaths growing fainter and fainter as she sat there, tied to a chair and helpless to do anything.

Until Joe. Until Taylor, Joe, and the rest of her team. The team that wouldn't have been able to do anything without the people who forced themselves into the group. She didn't know how to feel about that. She hadn't at the time and still didn't. All this was new, and not just for her. It was new for everyone.

Lisa had needed to admit she had no idea what was going on. Rachel didn't think she was capable of it, but she had to repeatedly own up to being completely lost. Brian was so shaken by what happened to him that he was like a different person at times. Alec basically was a different person. She was ready to gut him after he screwed up his job and let Bakuda get away. If he had kept acting like he did before, she probably would have. But he hadn't. The jokes and references that she couldn't get and the quiet mocking that frustrated her barely showed up anymore. It was like he was pretending to be who he used to be while being as lost as any of them.

She was used to that. Maybe that was why she had handled it better. She was used to not having a plan or a complete understanding of the situation. Used to dealing with things as they came and fighting her way through. The rest of the team didn't know how to handle that. Without all their structure tying them down they just got swept up in whatever Joe did next.

Like the watches. Like how Brian had tried to make the watches look like a bad thing. A way to keep track of them, like he couldn't do that already. He had shown up after beating Dragon in a computer fight and Brian decided it was time to start arguing over details of the deal, like any of that mattered anymore.

Brian had said the watches were a leash. That was stupid. At worst they were a collar. Sure, they could be used to keep a dog under control, but mostly they meant someone had taken responsibility for the dog. Sometimes that was bad, especially with the dogs she saw, but a lot of times it was about looking after them.

It was hard to see the watches as anything but good. Not when they could do so much. Maybe the rest of the team didn't see it because they didn't use their watch as much. Didn't need to, but for her, it had been huge. Life changing.

Humans were pack animals. She knew that. Just like dogs, they needed each other to be whole. She had fought on her own, survived on her own, but she was always aware that there was something missing. Something that other people had that she didn't. Any conversation, any interaction always had those moments when she was left on the back foot. When she didn't know what to do or say or if she should say anything. Emotions would shift around her in ways she couldn't follow. Jokes made no sense. There were comments that sounded innocent but were somehow insults against her. Ways to tear her down without her even realizing, which just became another joke.

The only way she could avoid that was to always be attacking, always on the offensive. People were honest when they were afraid, or at least honest in being afraid. Those were reactions she could trust. Everything else was too muddled, too inconsistent for her to put any faith in it.

She didn't think things would be any better 'online'. Being able to see the internet had been a novelty, something she could poke at while doing some of the more tedious tasks of looking after her dogs. Her watch did exactly what it was told with no insult or attitude, so there was no harm or risk.

It had been nice, seeing other dogs. Different dogs in different situations, breeds she'd never heard of in places she didn't know existed. And they weren't the awkward dogs she saw in movies and on TV, the ones doing overly practiced tricks hoping for reward while everyone around them acted like it was something normal and natural. She could see dogs just being dogs.

And she could see what people were saying about them, and she could talk back. Her watch would read everything and put whatever she wanted into text. She thought it would be worse, interacting with people through little boxes of writing, but it had been easier. When people couldn't talk forever, when they had to get to the point in a hundred and forty letters, when they didn't have all the bullshit of tone or in-jokes or body language to back them up, suddenly everything was a lot easier to understand.

There could still be misunderstandings, but it wasn't her fault, not anymore. If someone posted something stupid, they got called out on it. Sometimes even when it wasn't that stupid.

She only yelled at people who put up videos of them doing stuff that was bad for their dogs. Idiots who filmed discomfort or distress and thought it was cute. They tried to argue back, but she knew what she was talking about. Other people knew she knew what she was talking about. She had people she had never met backing her up against idiots who thought it would be funny to use hair dye on their dogs or something equally as stupid. There was something deeply satisfying about seeing a pack of strangers tear an idiot apart for the stupidity she pointed out.

Some of the people she argued with backed down. Some kept trying to argue, or blocked her messages. Some even deactivated their accounts, which apparently counted as 'winning' for online stuff.

She had even become popular with some online people. Her account had followers. People were asking her about dogs and showing off their pets to her. Or sending her other videos of dogs they thought might not be in a good situation. Or sometimes other types of pets, but she wasn't as good with them and didn't really care. It was weird, but not really in a bad way.

It was something she never thought would happen. She didn't even know enough about the internet to understand that it could happen, but suddenly if she wanted to know something she could just tell her watch to find it. There were still walls, but they were thinner. She knew more, and knew that she could know more. She had always been good at remembering things, but that was because she had to. Now she could just make her watch look things up for her, the same way anyone else did. She didn't understand everything, but she could follow more than she used to.

And Brian didn't want the watches. He was worried about the cost. About what Joe would do, as if Joe needed to do anything. As if they weren't puppies playing next to a very big dog that had decided to tolerate their games.

That was really the best way to put it. Her watch had shown her the videos from that afternoon. It hadn't been Fleet, just Survey and the cat, but everyone had been able to see that dynamic. To Joe's team, that fight between the Empire and the Teeth was like watching a bunch of puppies play fighting, and about as difficult for them to stop.

It was a dynamic that frightened a lot of people. It probably would have frightened her if she was seeing it from the outside, but she wasn't. Joe had had every opportunity to screw her over, right from the first time she met him out of costume, but he never so much as complained. If he was going to try anything, he already would have, and it would have been worse than any of them could handle.

Part of her was still worried. It wasn't a big enough part for her to actually be scared of what would happen, but it was enough for worry. Once again, it was a weird worry, probably because it felt like she had more to lose.

She didn't want to give up her watch and go back to only being able to interact through awkward conversations that broke down into threats or fights. She didn't want to lose the forcefield that had let her tear apart that dog fight like it was nothing. She didn't want to lose the knife that magically fixed itself despite Lisa saying that was impossible. She didn't want to go back to being a lone wolf, the type of person who would never get the chance to ride through a moonlit city next to a cape like Fleet.

She took a small jump over an alley between buildings and looked back to Fleet following after her. His body had more mass and he could shift it more precisely. Despite carrying a heavier load, Judas was less tired than Brutus. Fleet had proved all of his claims about riding without saying anything, and without rubbing it in. It was like he cared about riding more than making sure people knew he was right.

Once again, the night air felt frigid on her face. She turned back to guide Brutus onto his next jump, letting the air catch her hair as her jacket streamed out behind her. For the entire route they had taken through the abandoned stretch of dark city, they always seemed to find a cool breeze in their face, just enough to refresh and cause her hair and clothes to billow in a way she felt very good about.

She had told her watch to show her what people did to get ready for dates. Most of it was stupid and complicated. It would have made her angry, but the watch had found plenty of other online people who said that stuff was stupid as well. Some of the other ideas didn't seem much better, but that sort of made it okay. If nobody really knew what you were supposed to do, then it wasn't like she could mess it up.

That was probably the biggest thing she had learned from being able to see the internet. She always thought she was the one missing things, that she didn't understand, that people were making fun of her without her realizing it. Now she knew, lots of people felt like that. Maybe not as often as her, but really, nobody knew what they were doing and everyone was frustrated by it. It didn't exactly make things better, but it kind of made them less bad.

In the end, she hadn't done anything. Well, not much of anything. She had showered and worn her costume. The clothes Joe made for the team were better than anything anyone else could find. Plus they would be riding, and they had definitely been built with riding in mind. The fit, the movement, the way it caught the wind, or protected her from it with only the slightest of adjustments, the costume was perfect.

She wasn't used to having clothes she felt good in. Clothing had always just been a necessity she dealt with and got on with her life. If it was sturdy and didn't have any fiddly bits that was always good enough for her. That could describe the costume, but it was a lot more than good enough. Just like the watch, or the knife, or really anything Joe worked on.

Fleet signaled her and pushed Judas forward, taking the lead in their run. It gave her a view of his own costume. Fitted flight suit, as they had been calling it online, with various plates and devices mounted across it. She didn't know what those pieces did, but they looked complicated with glowing lights and really detailed designs.

For any other cape she would assume they were showing off. The kind of useless crap that they stuck onto heroes to sell toys and other plastic junk. Like the watches on Clockblocker's costume or those glowing lines for Battery. Stuff that looked nice, but didn't really do anything.

The parts of Fleet's costume looked nice. Actually, everything looked nice from her current perspective, particularly as he lifted himself slightly from Juda's back, flexing his knees as he made subtle corrections to the dog's movements. Something like that made it easy to get distracted. To forget that he was part of Joe's team and was wearing stuff that Joe had made.

Her watch was tiny. Not the kind of dainty thing that Lisa and Taylor had gotten, but still pretty slim. From the outside there was no hint it was anything but a nice watch, but it had all that insane computer tech inside it while also being able to make calls and give her that forcefield. A forcefield that had let her smash through the wall of that fighting ring on Brutus's back without feeling anything. That had stopped bullets fired at her in the first few desperate seconds before everyone realized what they were up against and decided to run.

The equipment Fleet was wearing wasn't tiny. The suit was accented with heavy pieces of technology. If Joe could fit so much into her watch when he was still starting out, how powerful was the equipment he had made a member of his own team? And Fleet probably didn't even need them, not with how powerful he was on his own.

She watched as Fleet guided Judas, adjusting the dog's path through slight movements. She recognized what he was doing. Once again, he was demonstrating what he was trying to teach. Not just expecting her to take it on faith, but showing her that it worked and how it worked.

When she suggested a ride through the city, Fleet had spent some time talking about architecture. It wasn't the kind of thing she usually cared about, but when he asked, she had to admit that there were times when her dogs had collapsed roofs and gotten tangled in parts of buildings that hadn't taken their weight. The way she and her dogs moved was important, but it was also important to consider where they placed their weight.

Normally she just avoided anything that looked like it might be a problem. Stick to heavy stone buildings and solid roofs and she was usually fine, but Fleet broke down how even those could be difficult. If she knew where structures could take weight she could move more easily. Her dogs could cross less stable buildings, or they could use more force when jumping without losing their footing.

It was complicated, but Fleet was good at breaking it down. And he didn't just expect her to take it on faith. He was guiding Judas over the low flat roofs of a line of abandoned stores with careful placement of each footfall. She had Brutus shadow him and she was shocked at how stable the ride was. Normally buildings like this would be trembling under her dog's weight. The dogs would slow down because of the uncertain footing, but by just focusing on where the supports were she could race across nearly at full speed.

She'd have to have her watch show her those plans Fleet had talked about. He said most buildings followed the same type of design, which would help. As long as she could remember where to guide her dogs she could move faster and more easily across the city.

She was learning a lot. A lot more than she expected, and it didn't even involve the kind of boring classes she had struggled through at that final foster home. Fleet told her stuff because he thought it was interesting and she would like to know it, and then he showed her why it was good to know that kind of stuff.

It wasn't the kind of date she thought it would be, but she didn't really know what she had been expecting. Just that she wasn't really disappointed so far.

Fleet pushed Judas into a final series of leaps. It wasn't the kind of maneuver she would have trusted anyone else to lead, but Fleet didn't have any trouble. With a quick whistle Brutus followed behind them, bouncing from ledge to wall to rooftop, finally finishing on top of an abandoned factory with a towering brick chimney. Both Judas and Brutus were panting as Fleet smoothly dismounted, navigating the plates and bone spikes without any hesitation. Even more easily than she could, though she did her best to dismount gracefully.

Sort of gracefully. She was in boots, and it wasn't like it really mattered. Plus she could feel the burning in her legs as she dismounted onto the room.

It had been a hard ride. The new techniques worked muscles that Rachel didn't normally use. She could feel the burn of exertion that would turn into a sore stiffness in the morning. She had pushed herself harder than she meant to, but hadn't even noticed at the time. It had been too easy to get caught up in the moment.

Fleet wasn't tired, or he wasn't showing any sign of it. She didn't expect him to be, but she also hadn't expected him to be this casual, just leaning against the factory's chimney like he wasn't concerned by anything. Especially not the two dogs fully grown from her power keeping a cautious distance.

She knew that Fleet would be fine with the dogs. Joe hadn't been bothered, and that had been weeks ago. That had to extend to his team, and Fleet had stared down the toughest capes in the Empire like they were nothing. Plenty of people who thought they were tough ended up quaking when she used her powers to their full extent, but she knew Fleet wouldn't be one of them.

She knew that Fleet would be able to handle himself around her dogs, but she hadn't even thought about how her dogs would handle themselves around Fleet. At worst she thought she might need to take a firm hand until they got used to him, but she hadn't needed to do that.

Even now Brutus and Judas were pressed close to each other, keeping a watchful eye on Fleet. They were on alert, but not because of anything Fleet had done. He hadn't been stupid enough to threaten her dogs in front of her, but he hadn't needed to. As soon as he arrived, showing up in a blur, there had been a kind of presence to him. Something she might have barely noticed before, but something her dogs picked up on instantly. They held themselves with the kind of wariness a small dog would show around a larger animal, one that might not be specifically hostile or aggressive to them, but still outmatched them completely.

Big dogs, watching puppies play fight. The comparison seemed even more fitting when she looked at the cautious respect the two giant dogs were extending towards the man as he casually took in the view of the city.

She turned in the same direction and enjoyed the cool night air on her face. Covering up the exertion of the ride must have made her flush, but she didn't want to start panting for breath like Brutus and Judas. Instead she looked out over the city.

A strip of darkness cut through the two fields of light to the north and south. You could still smell the after effects of the fight with Lung, nearly a week later. The hint of smoke mixed with salt from the wave that flooded the richer side of the coast. In the dark strip of city there were glimmers of light in various sickly colors. She remembered them from the night after the attack. The remains of Bakuda's bombs, sometimes trapped in one of the time bubbles, sometimes just persisting on their own.

If you looked deep into the former ABB territory you could see the absolute mess that had been Bakuda's lab. The abandoned factory and most of the surrounding area had been sealed off after the fight between Joe's robots and whatever she had been using to defend that place. Bakuda had apparently been able to escape, but the fight had leveled her lab and left the entire area a mess of frozen or persisting bomb effects.

The robot had been like the one Fleet had to take down Lung, so maybe that had been Fleet rather than Joe. She didn't know, and Fleet wasn't really interested in talking about that kind of thing. Which was fine. She didn't want to get into it either. It was nice not having to focus on what had happened to the city.

Rachel didn't have any special connection to Brockton Bay. She wasn't sure she really had a special connection to any place. When she was on the streets she had gone wherever it was easiest to survive, taking work and opportunities where she could find them. The time before that wasn't worth mentioning. She knew some people acted like their childhood was special and important, but that wasn't her. The foster homes didn't have any pleasant memories, and her time in that apartment was worse. At best she had moments of peace, times when she had food and comfort and didn't have to be afraid.

She had been working towards something like that here, but the city wasn't any more special than any other place. The only thing that mattered was what she had done with it. With everything that had happened, if she was in any other situation she would have left by now, or been looking for ways to move her dogs safely. Cut ties that weren't even really ties for her.

Not for her.

"The city." She said as she turned back to Fleet. "Are you from here? Like, is it home, or just a place where you work?"

He seemed to consider the question seriously. More seriously than she expected. It was supposed to be a yes or no, not something that needed time to figure out.

"My home is with my team." He said. "That's in this city, but not limited to it."

She nodded. She could understand that. He was here for the Celestial Forge, not for Brockton Bay. It made sense.

"But Joe's from the city, right?" She asked.

She thought he was a local. He had the look of it. She wasn't good at reading the way people acted or talked, but there was a thing about people from Brockton Bay that she hadn't seen in the other cities she'd passed through. Not exactly toughness, but kind of an acceptance. A willingness to put up with a lot more than other people had to deal with. She had thought of it as weakness, that they were pushovers who let the gangs roll over them, but after the big fight with Lung she'd seen another side of that. She wasn't sure what to make of it. It might not be strength, but it wasn't the kind of weakness she had thought it was.

Fleet nodded to her. "Local." He said simply.

"That's why you're here, right?" She said, "Why you're caught up in all of this?" Fleet tilted his head slightly. "I mean, if Joe wasn't in charge, no one would be making you stick around."

It was the dynamic. Joe's team might be bigger dogs than everyone else, so big they didn't need to worry about anything anymore, but they still had to deal with each other. She knew about that, from her own dogs, from her team, even from those foster homes she had fought against. The kind of pecking orders that developed when groups came together.

Fleet tilted his head slightly. "You think Apeiron's making us stay?" He asked.

The part of her that was always on edge began hunting though Fleet's words for hidden meaning. Insults, mockery, references she wouldn't get or details hidden in tone or body language that went right past her. She pressed down on those instincts. Everything with Fleet had been what it seemed. He didn't need to play games like that and didn't seem like the kind of person who enjoyed them. She moved to run a hand over the plates on Brutus's back as she replied.

"Joe's in charge." She said. It wasn't a question. She hadn't seen enough of their group to understand the dynamic, but however they ordered things, Joe was obviously at that top. He was in charge, and a lot more in charge than Brian was for the Undersiders. "He's the one who calls the shots." She paused, considering how to explain. "He's the alpha for your group."

Fleet smiled at that and her defensive instincts kicked up again. It was an amused smile and she couldn't understand why he was amused. Normally that meant she had done or said something stupid, or something that people thought was stupid. In any other situation she would go on the offensive, but with the power gulf it wasn't even something she could consider. She had to restrain herself, even if just because there was literally nothing she could do.

Except leave, and she really didn't want to do that. She didn't want a stupid mistake to end the night for her. So she waited and trusted that he would probably explain. He was better at explaining things than most people she had met.

"You could call him the alpha, but probably not in the way you think." He said, still with that amused smile.

She frowned. This was getting more complicated than she liked. "What do you think I mean by alpha?" She asked.

He shrugged. "Probably someone who puts themselves in charge by asserting dominance over the rest of the group, enforcing their will and punishing anyone who defies them, either directly or through the influence and control they have over the situation."

It was a harsh way of describing things, but a lot of Rachel's life had been harsh. Fleet had pretty much described the way she looked after her dogs, but the way he said it made it sound like a bad thing. She didn't like that.

"Isn't that what an alpha is?" She asked. "Someone has to be in charge to make sure things get done. It's how packs work."

"No."

Fleet spoke with such direct and simple confidence that it took Rachel a moment to register what he had said. But there was no challenge in his tone, just absolute certainty. Just like when he had explained things about riding form or navigating buildings. Like he saw it as a chance for her to learn, rather than a way to point out how stupid she was.

"What do you mean?" She asked. "Everyone knows that's how packs work."

"Everyone's wrong. Just because lots of people believe something it doesn't mean it's right." He said.

Rachel could definitely understand that. She didn't see how it applied to this, but she could definitely understand everyone being wrong. She forced herself to nod and Fleet continued.

"Someone studied captive wolves in a zoo and described how they behaved. Rudolf Schenkel, nineteen forty-seven." He added.

Rachel nodded. She could have her watch tell her about it later. It sounded like it was one of those science things, but her watch could put things in plain language when she asked. The explanations got long, but she could understand it. It turned out big words weren't actually smart, they just said a lot more than you could when you talked normally.

"The wolves didn't get along and fought each other. Some came out on top and some had to back down. People took that study and said it's how all wolves acted. It wasn't until they studied wild packs that they realized they were wrong." He explained. "It would be like locking people in a room together, watching them fight, and saying that was how everyone acted."

Rachel's mind jumped back to painful memories. Literally painful in some cases. Trapped together with other people who all fought each other. It wasn't a nice thought, but there was the other side to it. The idea that things like that weren't normal. That it wasn't how people acted.

Except it was. She'd seen it over and over again.

But Fleet was confident. He was always confident. He didn't think that kind of conflict was normal, that it was what always happened. Maybe it wasn't for him, with how strong he and his team were, but outside of that she doubted that kind of ideal would hold.

She took a breath. Even if stuff like that was when people were at their worst, maybe it wasn't always like that. She remembered her internet time. There had been arguments that got vicious, but also people being nice. Supporting her and not asking for anything for it, except maybe to tell them if their dog was comfortable in the sweater that they made him wear.

"Okay." She said stiffly. "So that's what alphas are like in zoos. But wild wolves still have leaders. They have alphas." He nodded even though it hadn't been a question. "But they don't fight like that?" He shook his head. "So what are real alphas like?" She demanded.

"Parents." He said plainly and with that same easy confidence.

Once again, Rachel's mind flashed back to her own experiences. Foggy memories of her mother in that apartment before she had disappeared and left Rachel with empty cupboards. The succession of foster parents who were either useless, monstrous, or pure nightmares.

"Parents?" She said flatly.

"Parents." He said. "The alphas are the parents of the pack. The other wolves are younger."

"And parents are better?" She asked in a harsh voice.

"Parents should be better." He said.

Once again, it was said with a level of confidence that she couldn't really argue with. She chewed down on the various snap responses and insults she would normally have resorted to, knowing they would do no good here. There were plenty of things that should be true, but that didn't mean they were.

"Wolf parents, maybe." Rachel said without much energy.

Fleet shrugged. "In wild packs, that's what alphas are. Parents who protect and look after the rest of the pack to make sure they can grow up safely and be ready to live on their own."

Rachel frowned. "So what, the rest of it was just something people made up?" She asked.

"Confirmation bias." He said. Rachel gave him a confused look. It was something else she'd need to have her watch explain to her, but she couldn't do that now. "People who want to justify having power over other people aren't going to ask questions if they see something that lets them pretend that kind of thing is normal."

She nodded slowly. "Humans wanted wolves to be as bad as they are." She said bitterly.

"Or bad humans wanted there to be bad wolves so they'd look less bad in comparison." Fleet said. She had to nod. That was the kind of thing the worst people would do. The Empire, Lung, Bakuda, and any number of other psychos were proof of that. Anything to convince themselves that they weren't at fault for what they did. If they could convince themselves that dogs were just as violent and petty as they were, it would probably make them feel better about all the shit they did.

She turned back to Fleet. "You said Joe's not like that. So he's the other kind of alpha?" Fleet nodded. "What do you mean? He's supposed to be the dad of your team?"

Fleet smiled at that, an expression so genuine that it was one of the rare occasions where Rachel didn't feel like she was lost when trying to follow someone's reactions.

"Sort of, but again, probably not the way you are thinking of it." He said. "The role isn't important, it's what you do." Again, Rachel could agree. Actions mattered more than what someone called themselves. It's nice dealing with straightforward things. "From his actions, he probably qualifies, even if it's not anything formal."

"But you still do what he says." Rachel said, digging her fingers into the thick flesh of Brutus's armored neck.

"We do what he asks." He said.

"How is that different?" She asked.

"Choice." He replied, as if that was the end of it.

And maybe it was. The response she had ready died in her throat. She had wondered how tied down Fleet was to the team. How connected any of them were. It was hard to gauge what was happening. She'd only been able to see little bits of it, and it always felt like it was so much bigger than anyone realized. She thought Joe was in command of the team. Maybe he still was. Maybe if people got along their way Fleet was implying, like proper wolves rather than hurt dogs who had picked up too many human traits, then maybe it didn't matter if he was telling or asking.

"Joe does other dad stuff? The wolf-alpha thing? Looks after everyone and helps them?" She asked.

That might not seem like Apeiron, but it could seem like Joe. The way he'd acted around her. Still including her with the knives, the watches, and the costumes. Even the stuff with debt. She still didn't like that, but Brian had explained it. They were on the hook for favors and a few jobs. Easy jobs, like babysitting the ABB hostages after that first night or looking for survivors after his fight with Lung. Jobs that didn't pay, but that Joe wasn't making anything from either. Plus, thanks to their last two payouts, she didn't need to worry about keeping her dogs fed for a long time.

"He does. And he's good at it." Fleet said.

"He makes you stuff. Like with the watches, but better." She said.

"He does, but I wasn't talking about that. And he wouldn't think of it like that either." Fleet explained as he leaned his head back against the side of the chimney.

Rachel furrowed her brow. "The stuff like the watches, or whatever you've got, that don't count as helping?" She asked.

"It helps, but it's not about handing things off and leaving it there." Fleet explained.

Rachel nodded. That made sense. Handing things off was what Joe had done for them. Gifts, which weren't called gifts but were worth more than anything they could pay or anything he could explain away. She thought that was what he did for his team. The reason why he had a team. Anyone would join for that kind of power, even if they were as strong as someone like Fleet. But apparently there was more.

"Then what is it about?" She asked.

"Support." He said. "Sometimes that's what he makes, but mostly it's what he does. What he tries to do."

She nodded. "Like the wolves. Looking after the pack until, what, they're ready to leave?" She blinked and looked at Fleet. "Is that it? He wants you to leave?"

Fleet shrugged. "It's complicated."

"Complicated how?" She asked. It didn't sound like he thought she was too stupid to understand, but she had too many people assume that. She didn't like it.

"We aren't normal." He said plainly. "No one in the team is. Things don't work the way they do for other people. It's complicated, and a different complicated for each of us. Even things like staying and leaving don't mean the same for us."

Rachel nodded slowly. Seeing him standing there, leaning casually against the brickwork of the chimney, it was like she could forget everything else. But Joe wasn't normal. He was changing faster than even Lisa could keep track of. She could recognize things about Proto Aima, things she'd been able to pick up from when Joe transformed, but she had never seen them come together like that. Lethe messed with everyone's mind and nobody really knew what the Matrix was. Kataklyzein didn't really have anything that stood out, but Joe had said he was strong enough to handle Lung on his own.

Capes had weird stuff going on. Lisa had to lock herself away with headaches whenever she used her power too much, there was something messed up and then messed up more with Alec, and she'd seen or heard about other stuff. Limits or requirements or just weird stuff that capes did.

Joe's team were big capes, so it made sense that whatever they dealt with would be big as well. Not the kind of complicated she couldn't understand, just the kind of complicated Fleet didn't want to talk about.

"So he doesn't want you to leave? Or you can't leave?" She asked, still pressing the issue.

Fleet considered before responding. "I think he wants us to be able to leave if we want. For it to be a choice, not an obligation."

For some reason, that felt like it was more directed than the rest of what Fleet had said. Was he talking about her? The ties with the Undersiders had helped, but they came with strings. More strings now than earlier, back when she had tried to keep her distance.

It wasn't easy to live on your own as a cape. Even for powerful capes, it was hard. It didn't seem like anyone on Joe's team would need that kind of help, but she knew how complicated things could get. So Joe wasn't just supporting them, he was making sure they could work on their own. Was that actually so they could leave, or did he just want each of them to be as strong as an entire team on their own?

"So what happens then?" She asked, trying to drown out her own concerns. "What happens after you've grown enough to be able to leave? Or whatever the complicated version of leave is?"

"Then he'll help us grow more." Fleet said. "Progress." He added, flashing her a wide smile. "It's important to have something to work towards."

"Doesn't that mean you'll never be good enough?" Rachel asked.

"Good enough for who?" Fleet asked. "Good enough at what? There's always more to work towards." He looked at her, his mirrored visor showing Rachel her own flushed face and windswept hair. Next to her the hulking form of Brutus pressed into her side while Judas circled around behind them. She looked away and brushed some hair back from her face.

"That's not for me." She said, looking down at the roof. She didn't need to be chasing improvement or betterment or whatever he was talking about.

"You were good enough at riding." Fleet said. Rachel turned back to see him push away from the wall he had been leaning against.

"What?" She asked.

"You were good enough. You knew what you were doing and could handle yourself in a dangerous situation, but you still chose to be better." He explained. "You can feel good about what you've accomplished and still want to improve."

She hadn't expected the compliment. And it hadn't been entirely about learning to ride. She wasn't sure if it was anything more than that, but she hadn't hated the ride.

"Thanks." She muttered, not raising her head. Her hand was kneading at the leathery plates on Brutus's back and she was very aware of Fleet's presence. Her dogs were picking up on her tension, but didn't know how to respond to it.

Then there was a roar of sound that might have made her jump and fall off the roof if she hadn't had Brutus to hold onto. She spun towards the north end of the city where it looked like an entire city block was rising into the air.

"What the fuck?" She exclaimed. The huge structure looked ramshackle, at least what she could see though the darkness. She could see exposed and twisted metal spread across the wide platform. Some parts were sending jets of flame towards the ground while others were glowing with neon lights.

There was a lurch and a roar of engines as the entire structure began to drift across the city. A road undercut by the thrumming of a beat that she recognized. She'd been hearing it every night since the Merchants had taken over the north part of the city. The stupid party platform that Squealer drove between Merchant events, only now it was souped up even more, and flying across the city.

From the distance it seemed to be floating, but she knew that it must have been moving incredibly fast. She watched it head south, flying over the darkened sections of the city. The lack of lights made the flames and glow of the massive vehicle stand out even more, only now there were sparks being thrown off from the exposed metal surfaces as well.

"The Merchants are moving out." Fleet said calmly. "The Butcher just led attacks on several of the Empire's reserve locations."

"Why do the Merchants care about that?" She asked as she watched the massive vehicle fly across the city. She knew big platform truck thing that the Merchants had used for their parties, but it hadn't been that big, and it hadn't flown.

She traced the distance from where the Merchants had launched to her base. She didn't like how close they were to her dogs, but with the size of that thing she wouldn't have liked anywhere in the same city as her dogs.

"Skidmark's been building up to a fight for days. The Empire is still spent from their earlier attacks, so they're slow to respond." He looked at the path of the massive flying platform. "A lot slower than the Merchants. Attacking now lets them hit the Teeth when they aren't expecting a serious fight. It also makes sure the fight happens away from their territory." He turned towards her. "And if they get there first, it will be an embarrassment for Kaiser. Really, for the entire Empire, but Skidmark is focused on Kaiser."

"You know a lot about this." Rachel said as she tried to steady herself.

"Survey did an assessment of the situation." He explained. "She was expecting something like this and has been monitoring the situation."

Rachel nodded. "Is one of your team going to do something? Like earlier?"

"Maybe." He said as the platform cruised into Empire territory. Looking now, Rachel could see clouds of dust. Damage from the Teeth's attack? She couldn't tell from the distance and angle they were watching from. "Same policies stand. If they leave the city alone and keep this between the gangs, we'll stay out of it. With the Butcher there, it's unlikely anyone will take that risk."

Right, because they had that choice. They didn't get sucked into fights, they ended them. Once again, the power difference drove itself home.

She watched as Fleet followed the path of Squealer's tinkertech war platform. He seemed focused in a way she had only seen a few times. It came out when he was explaining things, riding instructions or how to find your path through the city. The rest of the time the world seemed to slide past him, but not now. Not with his focus on Squealer's work.

Fleet liked vehicles. It was in his name, and he had at least something to do with Apeiron's robot bikes. That was probably why he liked riding, as a roundabout way to his real interests. And now he was watching the work of a tinker who specialized specifically in vehicles.

"Do you like that kind of thing?" She asked, keeping any emotion out of her voice. "Squealer's work?"

"No." He said.

"No?" She asked.

He nodded. "It's overbuilt and underpowered."

She turned back towards the platform which seemed to be approaching it's destination. Bursts of flame and the roar of what might have been turbines or propellers or something caused the structure to drift to a halt above the dust clouds she had spotted. She could see the color pattern of Skidmark's power painting across the surface of the vehicle and the building display of other cape abilities.

She looked back at Fleet. He wasn't impressed, but he was interested, even if just to see how it was used. "Do you want to get a closer look?" She asked.

It was probably a bad idea. Brian had chewed her out for going after the Empire. Now there was the Empire, Teeth, and Merchants. She wasn't going to try anything, but at the very least Lisa would want her to stay back, or at least ask first.

As Brutus loped over the rooftops, Rachel remembered the way Fleet had smiled when she asked. That was enough. It meant this wasn't just him doing her a favor, teaching her some tricks and tolerating her presence. They were doing something he liked, even if that meant circling around vantage points of a three sided cape fight.

Squealer's platform hung in the air overlooking the battle. The massive square of twisted metal belched flame, wind, or strange glowing energy from at least a dozen different engines that kept it from falling. The actual fight was spread over ruined or worn-down buildings, all marked with the Empire's symbol. Skinheads openly wearing the Empire's colors fought unpowered members of the Teeth who were dressed the same as their capes. There was clear confusion in the ranks from even before the Merchant's arrival. The Teeth's capes were mixed in with their regular forces, while the only Empire cape she could spot was Alabaster. The starkly white cape was taking a near continuous beating, with only his power keeping him in the fight.

Merchants dropped from the platform in the sky. Some descended using ropes or what looked like bungee cords, but others attempted to jump and be caught by the layers of Skidmark's powers that were being extended across the walls of buildings. The force pushed upwards to slow the falling gang members. From what Rachel could see, it wasn't a soft landing, but most of them seemed to be able to walk or limp off well enough.

Skidmark was standing on the front of the platform yelling something that was drowned out by the music blasting behind him. He was making frantic gestures that layered his power across the battlefield. Sometimes he was creating more of those drop zones, sometimes he was putting down fields to separate or hedge in combatants on the ground. A few people took potshots at his exposed position, but they consistently struck the vehicle to the left of him.

"Whirlygig." Fleet explained as they circled around the chaos. He pointed and Rachel could see the woman with long hair standing further back from Skidmark, as well as the debris circling around the flying platform.

"Power is enough to throw off aim, which is why they're taking the platform lower. It covers them from the Teeth's guns, and any stray shots from the Empire." He explained as Rachel watched the scene play out just like he said.

Fleet started to give commentary on the battle, explaining what each side was trying to accomplish and how it was countered by the other. Slush and Skidmark setting up barriers and push zones through the fight, then having to fix them up as one of the Teeth capes turned into a monster close to the size of Brutus that caused the fields around it to vanish. The unpowered members of the Empire pulled out more guns from stashes within the buildings that were what the Teeth had targeted. How Whirlygig covered the Merchants from the Teeth's guns, letting the Merchants drop capes into the middle of the battlefield.

Rather than use any of the complicated fields that Skidmark had been setting up, a blob of wet looking material began to sag from the bottom of the platform. It slowly separated from the flying structure and dropped straight down, landing on one of the more active points between the Empire and the Teeth. Tons of what looked like wet garbage plunged onto the cluster of Teeth forces and swept the fighters away. The mass reformed into a giant shambling mound of trash that parted as Mush released a man in bulky metal armor and a boy with glowing hair and eyes. Trainwreck and Scrub.

The chaos grew as the fight went on. Masses of clones erupted from one of the Teeth, Spree, to flood the field. Bursts of flame marked the places where The Butcher teleported. Her bullets were pulled off course by Whirlygig as she sprayed fire at Squealer's platform. The accuracy power fought the other cape's telekinesis with the bullets constantly redirecting themselves even as they were pulled away from their course. Even so, the shots drove Skidmark under cover while guns mounted on the platform returned fire.

Other capes began approaching, pointed out by Fleet. A bright white light coming from the south, Purity. Two distant figures that towered over the low rows of run down shops as they sprinted towards the battle, Fenja and Menja. Delayed responses from what would be the Protectorate launching a response, but only once they had gathered enough heroes to deal with what was happening.

The response the Protectorate would send. Fleet described it in every detail, just like he had described the rest of the fight. Because Fleet hadn't been commenting on what was happening as the Empire, Teeth, and Merchants fought each other. He was describing what was going to happen, before it happened. Then sitting with a quiet nod as things played out exactly like he said. Or he would direct them to a new location so they could see the next big clash.

"Is it Survey?" She finally asked. "She's the one who knows stuff. Is she telling you what's going to happen?"

"No." He said as they watched another push from the Teeth as the Merchants fell back and the Empire dug in. "She's not good at this kind of thing."

"What, seeing the future?" Rachel asked. She thought she was used to the power difference. She had accepted that Fleet was stronger, faster, and tougher than she could imagine, but she didn't know how to deal with something like this.

"Seeing the present and considering the future." He explained, gesturing to the chaos of the fight. "Or considering a specific future. In any system you have components, responses, and results. Technically there are unlimited results, but only so many paths make sense. The more you know, the better you can understand the landscape and the paths people will take. You have to know what to focus on and what to ignore." He turned back to the fight. "Survey likes to know everything, which is good, but not always helpful."

"But it's the same, right?" She asked. "You can see the future?"

"I can make predictions based on information. More information makes it easier. Longer timeframes make it harder. It's like navigating through fog. More information can make it better, and you can only see so far."

Rachel nodded. He was good at figuring out fights. That was better. It was something she could understand. She didn't need to worry about another Lisa pulling information out of nowhere or showing off how she knew what other people were going to do weeks ahead of time.

"Okay." Rachel said, following his gaze back to the fight. "But how far can you-"

"Scrub is going to kill the Butcher." He said.

"What?" She asked, tightening her grip on Brutus's back. She watched as he jumped off Judas's back and marched to the edge of the roof. He locked on the battle beneath them. Quickly, he began to explain.

"The Teeth know that Empire reinforcements are coming. They're setting up a screening action to cover their escape with the Butcher attacking hardpoints. Spree will swarm the Merchant capes. They will counter with Scrub. The Butcher will use pain induction to disable him while she teleports for a final strike. He is under the influence of a considerable amount of narcotics, which will diminish but not negate the effect of the Butcher's power and result in him deploying his power wildly. The Butcher's danger sense cannot detect non-physical threats, leaving her open to the attack."

Rachel had the sense he wasn't just talking to her. She swallowed as she guided Brutus forward towards the edge of the roof.

"If that happens, he'll become the next Butcher." She said. She didn't need to say more. She'd seen how dangerous the new Merchant cape was. With all the powers the Butcher had on top of that, and the crazy voices in his head she didn't even want to imagine. "What are you going to do?" She asked. He didn't respond, so she turned to look at him. He stood frozen like a statue, not blinking, not even breathing. "You can do something, right?" She asked.

"I can do a lot of things." He said. "All of us can, but anything we do will have serious consequences."

"Could it be worse than a Merchant becoming the Butcher?" She asked.

"Yes." He said.

She swallowed and turned back to the fight. She didn't like this. Didn't like having to deal with things on this kind of level. It was too much power being thrown around. Too many concerns for things she never wanted to care about. She just wanted to ride and look after her dogs and spend time with Fleet. Now she was in the middle of something that could be the fate of the city, a city she didn't even really care about.

Things were playing out exactly as Fleet said. The dot of light that represented Purity was getting brighter fast. The two giant women from the Empire were almost there. Spree was moving up and throwing out more and more clones.

"Is someone else going to do something?" She asked. "Like before?" She remembered what she had seen in that video. Survey appeared in a flash, Kataklyzein in that burst of orange fire. She tried to imagine how that would work here. It was too crowded, too chaotic. Maybe if they dropped in like a bomb, but how do you do something like that and then try to explain what was going to happen.

"Not someone else." Fleet said. She saw him tense as he watched the fight. She knew he could move fast, impossibly fast, he would have to get through towering walls of white slush, fields of Skidmarks's power, the press of gang members from all sides, and the bulk of Mush's trash body. Even if he could fly, the air was full of bullets, flames, and everything that was caught in Whirlygig's power.

"You can't get through." She said, "There's no way."

She watched him grow tense as he focused on the fight. In the dark of the night and the mix of lighting from Squealer's platform and the clash of powers he stood out clearly. It almost looked like there was a blue glow outlining his body.

Explosions echoed up from the fight and Rachel held her breath as the final push was launched. It was exactly like Fleet described. Spree pushed forward with enough clones to briefly push back the Merchant capes, then Scrub fought his way forward, throwing blasts of annihilation into the mass of clones. Bursts of flame marked each time the Butcher teleported, and after a final blast Scrub doubled over.

Another burst of flames, close enough to blacken the wet garbage of Mush's body and leave the Butcher close enough to strike at Trainwreck. She was ignoring Scrub, but he wasn't down. He was flailing in pain and began to move his arm.

And Fleet MOVED. Blue light flared around him and he was gone, but also not gone. The air where he had been standing was bent, like looking through a curved piece of glass. It was warped and skewed and hard to look at, but through the effect she could see Fleet grab Scrub's hand. It shifted things just enough to send the flung sparks of his power off target. They launched up into the air, with one passing close enough to nearly graze the Butcher's mask.

Rachel struggled to see through the effect that apparently put their rooftop right next to the heart of the battle. From one angle it looked big enough to drive a truck through, but from the other it was nothing but a distorted stretch in the air. It was some kind of bent passage that had bypassed all the chaos between them and Scrub, letting Fleet step right next to the Merchant cape despite there not being anywhere close to enough space for his arrival.

There was enough space now. Everyone was staring at Fleet as the gangs fell silent, leaving only the echoes of the final gunshots and the concerned sound of people who didn't know what was going on. The path or road or tunnel Fleet had made was pulled into itself, then vanished, leaving Fleet standing in the middle of the fight that wasn't a fight anymore with the Merchant cape dangling limply from his hand. He looked like he had gone into shock, and Rachel couldn't really blame him.

Anyone wondering why he had shown up was answered as Scrub's redirected shots finished their arc and landed, deleting most of a condemned building in a cluster of blasts. She watched from her vantage point as the Butcher stiffly turned towards Fleet. Rachel couldn't imagine what she was thinking. Scrub was dangling from Fleet's hand looking completely shocked. There was no question about what would have happened to her if he hadn't shown up. And what would have happened to Scrub.

And then the Butcher was gone. A blast of flame appeared in the distance, then another further off. With that, something snapped for the rest of the Teeth. Capes and normal members both started pulling back. It wasn't a mad panic, but it was close. Some of the capes stayed defensive, throwing out screens of bodies, force fields, and other effects even though no one was moving to chase after them.

The gang members from the Empire used the distraction to pull back into the buildings they were trying to defend, or maybe that they couldn't escape from. Alabaster had completely recovered from his last round of injuries and was covering the retreat with a phone to his ear and one eye watching the approach of the other Empire capes.

There was the thrum of engines as the platform began to lower and reposition itself. For something the size of a cargo ship, it could move pretty accurately, though some of the exhaust was scorching the road as it got lower. She could see Skidmark standing on the front of the platform saying something to Fleet, but she was too far away to hear. She ran a hand over Brutus's plates as she wondered if she should bother sticking around. This was way more than she ever wanted to deal with. It made sense she would be cut out of it.

"Watch?" She called. It chirped in response. "Is there anything online about what to do if the guy you're with has to run off to stop a gang war during your date?"

There was a chime as the watch responded. "An assessment of common sites reveals thirteen Tweets, three Reddit posts, and several forum threads relevant to that topic, primarily on PHO."

It was more than she expected, but there was a lot more stuff than she expected online. "Save them for later."

"Acknowledged." The watch said, then it chirped again. "Incoming call from Fleet." It said.

She looked down, then back at the scene below her. "Play it." She ordered her watch. Suddenly she could hear the exchange like she was right next to it.

"…but we had this covered." Skidmark declared, crossing his arms.

"He would have killed the Butcher." Fleet said, dropping Scrub who desperately kicked away from him, scooting across the ground until he was next to Trainwreck.

"Hey, you can't know that-"

"Yes, I can." Fleet said, cutting Skidmark off. The man looked at the rest of the Merchant capes and the assembled gang members before shaking his head.

"Fine, things got bad. Shit happens in a fight." He called down. "Not that we aren't grateful or anything. Our boy Scrub doesn't need a number after his name."

The joke fell completely flat as Fleet just looked up at Skidmark.

"We agreed to stay out of this fight and let other people deal with the Butcher." He said. "That assumed you would deal with her properly."

"And she was almost dealt with." Skidmark said. "I get everyone going to freak, but you think that bitch will take a risk with us again? You can't use kid gloves against someone like that. She thinks she's hot shit because everyone dances around her. Well not us." He said. Rachel was pretty sure he was bullshitting, and pretty sure that everyone knew it.

A blinding mass of white light swooped down onto the battlefield as Purity finally arrived. Behind her, the rapid thundering footsteps of the Empire twins could be heard as they sprinted the final stretch.

"Well, look who's a day late and a dollar short." Skidmark said. Purity pulsed brighter as Fenja and Menja finally arrived to take places in front of where the Empire forces had bunkered down.

"You almost killed the Butcher." She said. Skidmark just laughed in response.

"Alabaster tattle to you about that? Guess that's all his pasty ass is good for." He called down.

"This isn't funny. You almost caused a disaster." She yelled.

"That's a hell of a way to say thank you. We show up to save your asses and this is the gratitude we get?" He asked, pointing at the stash houses that had been attacked. They were nearly falling apart from the damage of the fight and the Empire would be lucky to relocate their men before the heroes arrived. Anything inside was probably a lost cause.

"We didn't ask for or need your help." She shouted back.

"And we don't take orders from you. That was the deal right, everyone plays nice so we can take down the big bad Butcher. Or are you just upset you don't get to goosestep over everyone else?" Skidmark asked.

Suddenly there was a thrumming sound. A massive pulse seemed to burst out from Fleet without him making a single motion. Everyone on both sides of the battle field had to fight to keep from being blown over. Once again, all eyes were focused on Fleet.

Skidmark shifted nervously on his platform "Hey, we've stuck to the deal, right? No violations on our part." He said, looking at the Empire.

Rachel saw Purity pull back slightly as tension spread through the other Empire capes. Skidmark seemed smug about that, but not entirely certain of his position.

"I stepped in to prevent a situation everyone would wish to avoid. It would be better to ensure this does not come up in the future." Fleet looked from Skidmark to Purity. "If it continues to be necessary for us to intervene in every conflict, individual members of the Celestial Forge may amend their approach to the situation."

"That won't be necessary." Purity said sharply.

"Yeah, what the Nazi bitch said." Skidmark called out. "Merchants are good all the way." He gestured and earned a weak cheer from the rest of the gang, though Scrub was still panting and leaning against Trainwreck's armor. "Now if you'll excuse us, we have a victory to celebrate."

"You seriously call this winning?" Purity sounded disgusted.

"It's not losing." Skidmark yelled back.

"It was close." Fleet said. Rachel could see Scrub nodding his head.

"Yeah, yeah. See you later." Skidmark said with a dismissive wave.

"Perhaps, but I believe you would prefer to avoid the need for that." Fleet said. And then he was gone.

And then he was back. Sirens were sounding in the distance and more lights were appearing in the sky. Fleet had told her about those. Dragon launching, Dauntless taking off from the headquarters. They would be sending other heroes along the roads, but that would be slower.

Both the Empire and the Merchants had stopped facing off and were only focused on getting away. Suddenly, showing weakness didn't matter, only making sure they weren't here when the heroes showed up with a proper response.

The monstrous platform thing had lowered itself enough to drop ladders and walkways to the ground. Those were too steep for anyone to climb, but Skidmark applied his power again, letting people slide upwards along the near vertical metal. Trainwreck hauled Scrub into the ship while Mush just shed the entire mass of garbage behind him.

While the Merchants boarded Squealer's vehicle, cars and unmarked vans began to arrive for the Empire capes. Gang members piled out of the buildings, some with what looked like hastily packed duffle bags. There weren't enough cars for everyone, so they loaded in the wounded with other gang members splitting off on foot. As the vehicles scattered smoke began to creep out of the windows of the abandoned stash houses.

"We should probably go." Rachel said as she kneaded Brutus's neck.

Fleet nodded and climbed back on Judas like nothing had happened. He took the lead, guiding Judas with his knees as the dog launched into a full gallop. The site of battle vanished behind them the flashing lights of PRT vehicles began to arrive. Normally she had Grue to cover when she needed to escape, but she trusted Fleet could avoid the heroes.

Assuming they'd try anything against him in the first place.

Once they were far enough into the Dark Zone that she wasn't worried about being followed he slowed Judas to a lighter pace and let her take the lead. She remembered where that platform had launched from, and the direction it was heading. She nudged Brutus on a route towards the north of the city. Back home.

"You let the Butcher go." She said as the dogs loped through the city.

"I did." He replied.

"But you could have stopped her?" She asked.

"Yes." He said.

She turned to look at him. "Then why didn't you? Why let this all drag out?"

There were a few beats of the dogs' footfalls before he responded.

"I know I can stop the Butcher. Anyone on the team can, but nobody else knows that. They're worried that what almost happened to Scrub will happen to one of us." He explained.

"Why does that matter?" She asked.

"Because they're worried enough to do something dangerous." He said.

"You can stop the Butcher. You can stop whatever the people worried about her will try." She said.

"We can." He admitted. "But it will be messy."

Rachel turned away from Fleet. "This wasn't messy?" She muttered.

"No." She looked back at him. "This was minor. This was nothing compared to what panicked people could do. They can do a lot more than this, and we would have to do even more to make sure they couldn't."

Rachel frowned. "It's stupid."

"It is." Fleet agreed. "We still have to deal with it."

She nodded. At least Joe's team were strong enough to deal with all the stupid. Well, maybe not all the stupid, but at least the worst of the dangerous stupid.

But not all the stupid was coming from outside. She knew Lisa was worried. She tried to cover, but she had been freaking out about Joe for a long time and his team had made it worse. She didn't know if Liisa would do something dangerous, but it wasn't good.

She could understand now, at least a little more than she had before. Joe was nice and relaxed, at least with them, but the rest of his team were different. They didn't even pretend they weren't a world away from everyone else. She didn't think there was anything she needed to worry about, but though the night she had kept running into situations she couldn't challenge or fight her way out.

Normally she would have run. Against something that strong she would just get away and find something she could deal with, but she didn't want that. She didn't want to give up everything and start over, even if it meant dealing with things that she couldn't challenge.

She looked up to where Squealer's stupid party war platform had finished crossing the Dark Zone. It was actually harder to see in the light since it wasn't sparking with whatever killed the electricity in that part of the city. Thankfully, it was veering towards the west, further away from her base than where it had launched.

"You're worried about that." Fleet said.

She shrugged. "I don't like the idea of the Merchants having something like that in my part of the city."

Fleet nodded. "It's not much, but it could be annoying. Squealer has been building it up since the start of Bakuda's attacks. It gives them some advantages, but they can't risk losing it." He looked up at the sky at what looked like the lights of a plane, but it was too low and not moving right. "That's why they didn't want to deal with Dragon."

She nodded. The kind of thing Fleet could dismiss was different from what she could dismiss, but it was nice hearing his confidence.

"How come you were the one dealing with that?" She asked. "Dealing with big groups seems like more of a thing for Joe." Or maybe Survey? She wasn't entirely sure.

Fleet nodded. "The later stuff would have been better, but if we didn't time things down to the last split second nobody would have believed our reason for stepping in."

"They would have reacted. Done something stupid." Rachel said. He nodded to her.

"I was closest and had the best model of the fight. Teleporting in could have worked, but it was better for me." He said.

"Because of that space thing? It didn't look like anyone could get in there without something like that." She looked at him. "Is that one of your powers?"

He smiled. "It's a semblance of a power." He said. "But it helped bypass the obstacles."

Rachel nodded. She didn't really get it, but it seemed important to him. The dogs had carried them out of the darkness, but this far north in the city there wasn't that much difference. Street lights were scattered and dim, with most of them burned out. There weren't any other places open with lights on, especially after Lung's attack when most of the people had been moved to shelters in the south of the city. She would have enjoyed the privacy if it hadn't meant the Merchants having free rein.

She felt a wave of relief when she saw the shadow of the abandoned crane rise over the other buildings. She still wasn't sure about bringing Fleet here, but it wasn't like he or Survey wouldn't know already, and she wanted to get home.

Brutus knew the way. The other dogs could hear their approach and started barking, pressing against the fence around the unfinished building she had claimed. Remote enough that no one bothered her, with enough shelter for her dogs and open enough that they had the space they needed. The partially constructed cement shuddered as Brutus landed on the bare foundation, with Judas following close behind.

She climbed off and relaxed her power. It was near the limit of what she could maintain anyway. The muscle and bone would have started sloughing off soon. Fleet easily dismounted Judas just as the growths began to wither and melt. Within seconds the two dogs tore themselves free of the fading mush of what was left after her power.

They barked excitedly as her other dogs surged out. They were happy to have her back, but she recognized the same concern towards Fleet that Judas and Brutus had shown. It wasn't that he was acting threatening or that he smelled wrong or that he acted different. There was just something about his presence that all her dogs could recognize. He picked up on it as well.

"Complicated." He said. "The different-complicated."

She nodded. Joe's team weren't normal. Joe wasn't normal. Her dogs knew that, even if they didn't know why they knew it. They weren't panicking or trying to fight, they were just cautious in a way she hadn't seen before.

"These are all your dogs?" He asked.

"Yes." She said, "I look after them.

"All of them. All by yourself." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah." She said, "I'm not leaving them to die in shelters. They need someone to take care of them. Someone who cares."

He nodded. "What are you working towards?"

She felt her brow furrow. "I'm looking after them. Making sure they're fed, healthy, and trained."

"And then what?" He asked, looking around. She followed his gaze. The supplies and equipment she had brought in. They had food and water and space and other dogs to spend time with, and they were safe.

"What do you mean what?" She asked.

"What will you do next?" He asked.

"What next?" She asked. "I'll save more. Keep them safe from shelters and make sure they're looked after."

"By yourself." He said.

She nodded sharply. "I can't trust anyone else to do it."

"And how many can you look after?" He asked.

"As many as I have to." She said firmly.

"I believe you." He said and she smiled at that. "But what happens when you have to look after more than you can?" He asked.

She blinked. "Then I'll figure out how to look after more." She said, squaring her shoulders.

"I see." He said, looking around. Then he turned back to her. "So, what will you compromise first?"

"What?" She asked.

"When you have to figure out how to look after more dogs than you can." He explained. "Will you cut back on supplies? Give the dogs less care? Or stop looking after yourself?"

"No." She said, "I won't compromise. Not on that."

"Everyone has to compromise." He said. "The perfect path doesn't exist. You just have to pick the best option from the routes open to you."

"That's not something I would do." She said, nearly shouting. This was not how she wanted the night to end.

"You want to look after as many dogs as you can. That's a good thing to try to do, but you have to know how far you can go. How many dogs can you keep in your shelter? How many can you care for? How much food do they need and how do you transport it? How much time do you have to devote to them? How much do they need?" He gestured vaguely with one hand. "Those are the pieces that make up the problem. It's up to you to find a way through. Ignoring parts of the problem isn't going to make them go away."

Rachel gritted her teeth, but in the back of her mind she knew he was right. She hated it, and hated having it pointed out here and now, like it was waiting to ruin the night. A night she had really been enjoying, even with everything.

She didn't know advanced math or anything complicated, but she could keep track of simple concepts. How much money she had, how much dog food and medicine cost, how much she spent each week and how long her funds would last. She knew the buffer she had between jobs and how narrow that could get at the times when the team had to be careful or lie low.

But that kind of counting applied to more than money and food. She knew how much space she had and how much the dogs needed. How long it took new dogs to adjust to their new situation and the problem cases that required more attention. The amount of time she needed to spend each day cleaning, checking, and grooming the dogs. It had been manageable before, but with the rescues from the fighting ring, things had been hectic.

She wanted to look after all the dogs she could, to make sure none of them would be abandoned, abused, or put down, but she couldn't. Not on her own.

"You need help." He said. She looked up at him. "Or you need to change what you're trying to do. Or both."

"What do you mean change?" She asked. "You want me to abandon my dogs?"

"No, the opposite." He said. It took her a minute to figure out what he meant.

"Adoption?" She spat. "Trying to find people to look after them for me? People don't know shit about dogs. I've seen the shelters and the homes they come from. I'm not sending them into anything like that."

Fleet held her gaze for a moment and once again she could see her reflection in his visor. He turned from her and looked at the dogs. The way they were interacting with each other, some more aggressive and some better behaved.

"These dogs didn't come from good places, but some of them are doing better than others. I'm betting those are the ones you've had for longer." He said.

"They are." She said, "I teach them. Help them adjust, and they help each other learn."

"You make sure they can grow up safely. And be ready to live on their own." He said. The words came back to her.

"Wolves again?" She asked.

"Maybe." He said. "What kind of alpha do you want to be?"

The question hit harder than she expected. Whatever the answer was, it wasn't whatever people had made up to excuse their shittyness.

"I don't want to give up any of my dogs." She said. Fleet nodded. "And if I did, I wouldn't put them back in bad places." She spat. "I'm not making dogs better so someone else can hurt them."

"No one would want that, but you can make sure people can look after them." He shrugged. "Or you can keep them until you have so many you can't manage to have enough time for any of them."

She looked at him. "You're not telling me what to do?"

"It's your decision." He looked over the pack where Brutus and Judas were running with the other dogs. "And you'll probably make a good one, however it goes."

She let out a breath. "What if I need help?" She asked. "For any of it?"

He smiled again. "We can talk about it next lesson."

She looked up at him. "We can do this again?" She asked.

"Sure." He said. "Hopefully without any gangs. And maybe with wolves."

She nodded. More wolf talk would be nice. Real wolf talk, and she could have her watch show her that research stuff.

"Thanks, for the lessons and all the other stuff." She said, glancing away.

"You're welcome." He said. "We'll do this again when things calm down."

She'd like that. With another blur Fleet vanished, leaving her dogs cautiously sniffing the space he had left. She let out a long breath and slumped into the building as the dogs circled around her.

"Watch?" She said. The band on her wrist chirped in response. "Show me that wolf stuff Fleet was talking about." She paused. "And those other posts about the gang fight date thing."

She might not know exactly what she was doing, but at least she was online. People there weren't always right, but at least you could be wrong in decent company.

Addendum Joe

Well, that was a shitshow.

That was really the only way to describe the Merchant's first attempt to take on the Teeth. I was sitting in my office, sorting through the city's most recent disaster. Apparently trusting the gang known for drug induced recklessness with the kind of operation that could spectacularly blow up in their faces wasn't the best idea in the world. It was right up there with putting their annihilator on the front lines in a fight with the Butcher.

Of course, it was as much on the Butcher for blindly charging said annihilator, despite the fact that her danger sense was completely bypassed by energy attacks.

Like I said, shitshow. Two times in one day when the Celestial Forge had to step in to prevent a disaster. Very different kinds of disasters in each case, but still, disasters.

And it had interrupted Fleet's not-date, which Garment seemed to be considering the worst crime of all, even if she hadn't been able to design a custom wardrobe for his use. I think she was holding out hope for ongoing interactions that she could work a new fashion line around.

Right now Garment was winding down the after party with the last of the volunteers. There wasn't really a formal end point to the event, and it was clear that everyone involved needed to blow off steam. Garment had elected to stay even after the event had mostly wound down as a chance to spend time one on one with some of the volunteers.

I had made my appearance earlier. It was kind of nice seeing everyone from the gym in a less stressful setting, but I had wrapped things up fairly quickly, compared to Garment who was basically just riding out the night.

It also meant that Fleet was able to pick her up after concluding his 'riding lesson'.

"Are you sure you want to cut things short?" I asked through a comm link as Fleet, back in his chauffeur gear, drove back to the afterparty.

"It was a natural endpoint of a productive night, despite the disruptions." He said.

"Yeah, thanks for taking care of that." I said. "We are going to have to keep a closer eye on things if people are going to take risks like that."

Which would probably require better scrying equipment and more shikigamis to monitor people. Which would require more spiritual energy, beyond what I had already budgeted.

"The risks were effectively moderated, and could have been by any of the team." He said.

I nodded. "Yeah, but different reactions. You handled that well."

"Being able to effectively intervene made it easier." He said.

"Right." I said. "If nothing else, at least you figured out your Semblance."

"That was fortunate." He said with a note of pride in his voice.

Bypass. The ability to create routes free of obstacles. Effectively spatial corridors that 'bypassed' whatever was in the way. I wondered if it had any similarities to my own Avoidance ability, but Fleet's Semblance worked on a more tangible level, meaning he could provide routes for himself and other people.

Frankly, it wasn't anything we couldn't accomplish with other powers or technology, though the effective creation of space where it was needed had helped in this specific situation. Plus, Semblances were personal. Apparently finding the perfect route was something foundational to Fleet's experience. It meant that he could use it more naturally and precisely than other technology based effects, and that wasn't considering what could be done with focuses or enhancement items.

"It's important to find the right route." Fleet continued. "The ideal one doesn't always exist, but you can make the road you need for yourself."

"I'm glad you got that down." I said. "And the scans will also be helpful."

Fleet might have needed to step in to stop Scrub, but in the process, he had gotten excellent scans of his power in action, as well as several of the other Merchants. In short, Scrub was every inch the annihilator my passenger suggested he was. He was less the all-encompassing force that you saw from Flechette or March and more of a cosmic hole punch. It was a power that directly acted on the fabric of the multiverse to the point where forces contained within a single reality were basically meaningless to it.

And it was in the possession of someone who had been on a tremendous amount of drugs. Those scans had included medical information and it was clear Scrub had been on a Merchant fueled bender that seemed to extend all the way back to the Ungodly Hour. No one would be comfortable leaving a power like that in the hands of someone in that state.

So Fleet hadn't. That was something that could have been seen as more questionable, but I was ready to accept Fleet's call on the matter. And the Matrix's.

I didn't expect some of my A.I.s to team up and decide to induce nanite assisted detox without considering informed consent on the part of the patient, but given the circumstances, I couldn't really fault their judgment on the matter.

And I'm sure it was only partially driven by the Matrix wanting a chance to try out Meld technology I had picked up from Peak ADVENT Technology. That had been integrated ages ago, but there hadn't been much call for gene mods or cybernetics, much less the more mundane applications.

Anyway, the Matrix was very proud of their work and was even petitioning to assist with the treatment of the hostages tomorrow. Or later in the day, considering it was technically morning. I wasn't sure, but it would be nice for the Matrix to have a chance to operate outside the Workshop like everyone else.

I let out a breath as I scanned over the reports from Survey on recent developments and reactions. Unquestionably, this was going to be a shitshow, but it wasn't one that was set to get any worse before morning. I already had a full schedule of work and training, all of which would make the ensuing mess easier to manage.

It would be nice if there was some way to act in the outside world without it turning into a major event, but that probably became a lost cause back when we turned Lung into the start of a planetary ring system. In theory I could ask the Undersiders to act on my behalf, but at this point they were only slightly less terror inducing than my own team. Well, in Taylor's case it might be a draw, depending on who you were comparing her to.

I placed another call as I prepared to leave. "Survey, can you keep me updated on this situation? If someone is going to run away with it, I'd rather get ahead of things while they're still manageable." I had learned that lesson the hard way.

"I would be happy to." She replied. "Though I do not believe there will be any immediate developments. The PRT is taking injured members of the Teeth into custody while the Protectorate is officially pursuing the fleeing gang forces."

"Right. And unofficially?" I asked.

"They are patrolling and securing the area with orders to avoid provoking another response." She explained.

Reasonable, if a bit disappointing given the city's history. Holding patterns were what had led to the current situation and it wasn't good to see them used as the default policy.

"Please let me know if that changed." I said.

"Gladly. And I wish you luck with your Attribute development." She said.

"Thanks." I replied. "I'll probably need it."

My attribute was as powerful as ever, but unfortunately still just as difficult to grasp. Given how useful it could be in major projects, work on the nanites was being delayed until the end of the evening to give me as much time as possible to practice.

It was probably a pipe dream to hope that a night's work, even at several thousands times normal speed, would let me master something that took lifetimes to perfect, but any improvement could make a big difference. I stretched, then focused and apparated to the Spiritron Core.

And found Tetra waiting for me. It was more that she had already been with me and was just making that known.

"Hi Tetra. Are you not at the party?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I went home with 'Delphine' about an hour ago." She explained. "It's fun having an identity out there, but there's a lot to keep track of to make sure you're where people think you are supposed to be."

"Yeah." I said. It was a weird common point, but given how I could jump in and out of doors all over the city, it was kind of important to remember to be consistent with my location.

"I was helping Survey with her monitoring and Fleet with finding the Merchant's Passengers, but I wanted to wish you luck with the Aspect training." She explained.

"Thanks." I said. I was looking at about three years of accelerated time, which was both an impossibly long stretch and utterly insignificant in terms of developing divine abilities. "I'll be out to update the duplicates, and to check in on everyone else." Because taking it a year at a time would make things so much better.

"Great! We'll see you when you get out." She said. And with that she was gone, only not gone. The thread would not break and she was still here, even if she wasn't visibly so.

I smiled at that. In terms of compounded divine abilities, they could get insane at times, but seeing something like that, something that had such a positive influence on Tetra's existence, it made me grateful for all the effort I had put in.

And ready for more effort. The Spiritron Core was fully loaded, able to emulate every mundane, magical, and esoteric aspect of reality, including a person's Aspect. Something I didn't even know about when I started building the system could be trained and developed within the virtual space that had become much more than virtual over the past few days.

Now, if my supposed luck powers would cooperate, maybe I would get a bit of peace until morning, when I'd need to deal with all the chaos scheduled for the next day. It was a nice thought, and it might even pan out. You never knew. I tried to stay optimistic as I sank into the interface pod. I had the most competent and powerful team on the planet. I could at least trust them to manage things for a couple of hours at a time.