Rock and a Hard Place: Collapse

    I didn’t sleep much, that night.  Between dramatic reveals from Murphy and Alexis, I felt more overwhelmed with them than the fight with Beleth.  At least with him I knew what I was in for.  With them, I was worried about one having a panic attack and the other running away.  

    I hadn’t texted Xana last night, unsure what to say.  Did I tell her that Alexis harbored an immense crush on me? Hell, did she already know?  Ordinarily I would have said ‘no way she knows that’ but then again my friend had concealed affection for nearly five years.  

    My judgment and intuition seemed rather miserable all things considered.  

    I’m guessing I finally got some sleep around four in the morning, well after everyone else had managed to sleep with the exception of Bargain.  He’s granted himself some extra alertness for a while, likely in exchange for a whole day of fatigue and malaise.

    As amazing and versatile as his power seemed to be, it didn’t sound like fun to have.  

    I woke up to my phone buzzing, another message from Xana which felt like a slap of guilt first thing.  A great way to start my day.

    Xana: Hey, you alive?

    Me: Still kicking.  Stuff got complicated last night.  Extra players, new plots, the works.  I’ll tell you about it later.  

    Xana: You gonna be okay?

    Me: I’ll be fine.  

    Xana: Okay, be safe.  Love you.

    Me: Love you too

    Rolling over, I got off the floor and gave Bargain a wave as I trekked into the kitchen for some toast.  Admittedly, being up at six after a night of heavy drinking felt odd especially since walking around was like traversing a minefield of bodies.

    “Morning,” I said to Bargain who gave me a nod.  

    “You do realize you only get another hour or two before Psycho shows up and bosses you around, right?  I’d suggest getting sleep while you can.”

    I frowned, “Unfortunately, I’m up so might as well just get up.  Why did he come here to keep an eye on us anyways?”

    “ASPD wouldn’t keep him safe overnight, especially if he was around people who he was threatening.  Plus, knowing him, he went to scope out wherever Rig and Reflection were seen.  Regardless of which illness he takes, Psycho is always meticulous and thorough.  He’ll want to be sure he isn’t wasting time sending you out on a wild goose chase.”  

    “Comforting,” I said as I opened the fridge.  “You know, you seem far too decent to be working for an abject sociopath, you realize this, right?”

    He smiled, “Nick, I’ve killed eighteen people,” he said bluntly.  “Eleven of them were in employment of the Snatchers, but the other seven were not.  Maybe you shouldn’t assume the best or the worst of people so quickly.”

    I glanced over my shoulder cautiously as I grabbed a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, now nervous to be making toast nearby.  

    “Truth be told, you’re halfway to the body count I have,” he informed me.  “Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re working with someone as decent as Dragoon.”

    “What are you talking about?” I snapped, appalled.  I hadn’t killed anyone, I had only fought other Adapted…then it dawned on me.  “Suppression,” I finally realized aloud.

    “Yeah, you killed a handful of them,” Bargain said.  “You realize that when you hit people, even before you consider how strong the Neklim muscle is, you are simply hitting someone with an arm that weighs over ten times as much as a normal arm?  You’re basically inflicting a car accident on people when you hit them while super bulked up.”

    “How did you know about Suppression coming after us?”

    “Psycho has had an interest in you guys for a while; we watched you fight Goliath and Pyre, and watched your run in with Suppression afterward.  He wanted to get a gauge of your aptitude and whether or not you’d be decent candidates to fight against Beleth and help create his window of opportunity. You passed with flying colors.”

    He wasn’t exactly cavalier about this, but he wasn’t morose either.  For Bargain, this was simply normal. He had no problem embracing the fact he’d watched me kill people.  

My brain however felt like it was being lit on fire as internal arguments warred: they had been working for a heinous organization but did that make me killing them any better?  Sure, they had pulled the trigger and shot me, but I had super powers where they didn’t. Bargain was right about the absurd amount of force I accidentally exerted; was I being a monster  or were my actions justified?

    “Don’t overthink it,” Bargain insisted.  “You were in a life or death situation, you fought.  They used lethal force, you did too.”

    I took a gulp of air, realizing I had forgotten to breathe for the last few moments.  “How…how are you so calm about this?”

    He shrugged, “I’m sure some psychologist would tell me that I have lost a lot of empathy, but I don’t know that’s right.  I don’t see people in Suppression and Snatchers as people anymore. Big institutions like that, sources of controversy and conspiracy, they don’t deserve my sympathy.  People knew how hated they when they joined up; I feel no pity killing them.”

    “And the other seven?” I asked, nervous as Bargain stared out, clearly looking well beyond the confines of the room.  

    “I remember them vividly.  I don’t feel guilt, but I refuse to forget either; I killed them, I should own it and accept it.  But, they fought, they lost. Simple as that.”

    Taking a bite of my toast, I nodded.  “Are you planning to kill us when we’re done helping get rid of Beleth?”

    He shook his head, “Me personally, no.  I have no grudge with you guys; I’m honestly pretty fond of your rag-tag group.  But, I don’t know what Psycho has planned. It wouldn’t surprise me if he sent me after a few of you.  Knowing him, he’d have me execute Dragoon first if it really came down it.”

    “I’d really rather you didn’t do that,” a groggy voice muttered as Alexis came shambling in, pointing at the cup of coffee in his hand, “Did you make more?”

    She gave me a glance and blushed, looking down, embarrassed.  

    Bargain raised an eyebrow suspiciously, “Rest of the pot is by the stove.  Am I missing something?”

    “Definitely not,” she insisted, tight lipped.  

    The Lunatic chuckled, “You’re an awful liar.”

    “Fine.  It’s none of your business,” she snapped.  “Am I still lying?”

    Bargain raised his hands defensively, “No, that one’s honest.  Though it is always interesting to hear some juicy drama.”

    “My friend being ousted as gay wasn’t enough for you?” I asked.

    “It’s been a long and lonely night.  Forgive me for wanting some kind of distraction besides the never ending cycle of negative thoughts in my head.”

    Without a good reply, I opted to take another bite of toast while Alexis poured her coffee.  He eventually stood up and bowed as he exited, clearly not eager to be lingering in horribly awkward silence between Alexis and I. “Perhaps, I should go stretch my legs for a little while.  I have been sitting a long time.”

    Part of me was happy he was gone, part was very upset that I was now sitting alone with Alexis.  

    Eventually I couldn’t tolerate the silence.  “So, um, what now?”

    She put her head against the table and groaned, “Nick, I don’t know.  I wasn’t supposed to come apart like that last night…but between the fight, coping witrh Psycho, and Murphy’s ordeal, I just couldn’t take it.  I was so overwhelmed and needed to get it off my chest. I’m…sorry.” She looked up, clearly hungover and sleep deprived, “I really don’t wanna fuck up what you have with Xana, I mean that.”

    “So what do I tell her?”

    “Honestly, I’d rather you said nothing,” she admitted, “Hearing I kissed you would probably kill our friendship and give her some serious issues with you being part of Rogue Sentries.  Nick, it was a one-time thing. I’ll…I’ll figure my shit out. It isn’t your problem, okay?”

    I didn’t want to disagree, but I couldn’t help but feel it was partially my problem.  

    There was an awkward silence as we sat there, neither of us sure what to say.  It would have been nice if I could just let it go, forget it happened…but that sure as hell wasn’t happening.  

    Instead I chose to change the subject.  “So, what are we doing about our Lunatic issue?”

    With a problem to ponder, the scarlet color from her cheeks faded, and he eyes narrowed as she took another sip of coffee, deep in thought.  “Psycho has done his homework on us, and he really does have excellent tools to beat us. We are better in a prolonged fight: you can regrow, Parasite mends, Menagerie gets to make new creatures, and my armor repairs.  They have the exact opposite strengths with Bargain and Psycho himself… and we are seriously vulnerable to Dysfunction.  Hell, given what we’ve seen him do and what I know about who Wager used to be, there is a decent chance Bargain could simply kill four of us before dismissing himself.”

    “That isn’t a solution.”

    “We don’t have a good one,” she admitted, taking another drink, “Psycho’s right about us being unable to win a proper fight.  If we want to do anything, we have to split them apart. Divide and conquer.  But, he won’t hesitate to kill our families if we try to challenge him.”

    “And if we run into Beleth again, that’s just as deadly.”   

    “Yep,” she said, “Yes it is.  And soon, he’ll topple one of the last threats to him in the city.  Once Rat’s main sources of chaos are disposed of, Vermin will have to recruit someone new and that will mean they are off the table while they find talent out of town.”

    “But what does Psycho even want with the city?” I questioned, “He doesn’t seem like he’s driven by money.”

    “We don’t know that.  He could just be keeping that on the sly so we can’t sabotage him.  You have to remember that he regularly becomes a Cognate, and a devious one at that.”  She put her head in her hands, “But he’s right. I’m thinking so short term and narrow minded; for all I know, he’s playing an angle to involve himself with another city in the cluster, or maybe he’s working in tandem with some other organization elsewhere.  God, I suck at trying to do this mastermind and planning shit!”

    “It’s also 6:40 in the morning,” I pointed out, “Maybe give yourself a little bit of leniency?”

    She frowned, “I’m not exactly in a good place to be slacking off, am I?  If we don’t do something about this, I don’t think Psycho will leave us around to challenge him after his hostile takeover.  I’d rather have some idea of what to be doing now rather than later.”

    Her face went pale as Bargain walked back into the room.  He put up his hands, “Relax. I’m not here to hurt you or tell you what you can or can’t do.  I’m just here to make sure that you don’t bolt; I’m not here to make sure you don’t plot.  Dysfunction might be opposed to such conversation, but I don’t give a damn.”

    “You don’t…care that we may try to fight you?” I asked, confused.  “Shouldn’t you be worried about that?”

    Bargain shrugged, “If you’re going to fight me, it would have had to happen yesterday.  Pscyho didn’t have a combat illness but today he will. And Psycho isn’t as nuts as you two think; he likely isn’t seeking to dispose of you the second he can.  My guess is he actually tries to keep you around as extra enforcement.”

    “By blackmailing us?” Alexis growled.  

    “I didn’t say he was perfect, but consider what happened to us.  Psycho was remade just like I was in a literal hell of an environment that only he was strong enough to break free from.  Being nice, loving, trusting, it meant nothing in Asylum. Power, fear, strength, those could get you what you needed.”

    “How…how did he get out?” Alexis finally asked.  

“Schizophrenia,” Bargain replied.  “The most powerful, and least controlled of his disorders.  Like the rest of us, Psycho’s power was different before hand.  He told me once that the powers didn’t change, but they weren’t based on mental illness, he simply woke up and chose one.  But now, they have stronger applications, but he loses control of ordering, and often control of his mind when he takes them on.”  Bragain sighed, “As monstrous as he is, you have to remember that he wasn’t a mentally ill individual before Asylum.”

It was a sobering thought that he might have some kind of twisted morality that drove him, not just reckless ambition and a cruel streak.  

    “Do you know why he wants the city?” Alexis finally asked.

    “No idea,” Bargain said with a shrug.  “I’m his enforcement and main guy for hunting people down.  I’m not an ideas man. I’m far too blue collar,” he said with an honest smile.  “Pacifist and Spectre help with planning.”

    I paused a moment, “You said Spectre can copy powers, right?”

    “She can.”

    “Why isn’t she running the show?  Someone who can be intangible on top of having another power set to use seems unbeatable.”

    Bargain shook his head, “Think of it like this: how good are you at gymnastics?”

    “Um, probably terrible I guess.”

    “Okay, what about creative writing?”

    “Better but not amazing,” I confessed.

    “And how about classical dancing, are you well versed in that as well?”

    “Well, no, but what does this have to do with her?”

    “Powers are skill sets,” Alexis said for him, “And even though she gets to take a power, she isn’t necessarily familiar with it.”  

    “Her inherent knowledge gives her some insight, but proper application is a different thing entirely.  If she took Parasite’s passenger, she wouldn’t necessarily gain his balance or inherent knowledge of how much strength was enough or too much.  And then there is the issue of cost: she could take your power but couldn’t do anything with it since there is consumption required and she would have no existing storage.”

    I frowned, annoyed at my lack of forethought.  

    “Spectre is very powerful, no question.  But skill and training often is a better match against raw power.”  

    “Does she ever borrow your power?”

    “Only under duress,” he replied to Alexis, “No one really wants to use my power, but it gets results in a pinch.”  He frowned and looked out into the living room before having a start. “What the hell is that?”

    A grey amorphous blob the size of a large dog rested in the corner, content to exist and do little else.  “That,” Alexis said, “Would be Mutant. He’s mending the damage from yesterday. He had selected five forms before our fight was done with Beleth.”

    “It’s… certainly weird looking,” Bargain said with a laugh.  “Does it have a function other than regenerating?”

    “Nope,” I replied.  “But, if he stays in it for an hour, he can regrow a limb or two and several units of blood if necessary.”  Apparently the worst injury he’d undergone involved getting a leg ripped clean off; two hours of slug form and he didn’t even have scars.    

    “But he’s basically a sitting duck while recovering,” Bargain said to himself, “Interesting.”  With a yawn, he got up and stepped away from the table, “Oh, well, times up. It seems I’m needing to enter a couple hour coma.  Spectre,” he grumbled, kicking a figure sleeping on the floor, “Wake up and take over. There’s coffee by the stove,” he said mid-yawn, quickly losing coherence and  balance.  

    She got up with, all her grace from the other day absent as she trudged across the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to myself or Alexis.  Her hair was a mess of white going everywhere, the same clothes she had been wearing now stained with sweat and ruffled around the edges.  

    Taking a seat, she seemed to finally realize there were other people nearby her.  “Oh, hi. Good morning,” she whispered, meekly.

    “Hi,” Alexis said with a weak smile.  

    There was an awkward silence and Alexis finally got up and walked out back while I continued slowly eating my toast and Spectre drank her coffee.  

    “Did I do something?” she asked, clearly feeling guilty.

    “No,” I replied, “It’s…never mind.”

    People started slowly coming to, and by about 7:30 everyone was up…everyone except for Yuki.  Her color looked normal, her breathing was easy and peaceful. For all intents and purposes, she was just sleeping it off.  While she was recovering, she wasn’t recovering fast enough for Roger who hated the idea of leaving her alone.

    By eight, most people were at least somewhat fed and people started showering to wash off the grime and filth of yesterday.  Dysfunction and Spectre were watching us as we milled about, the morning routine the only thing to occupy our time.

    Once that was done, there was unrest due to apathy.  We were painfully aware again that we were being restrained and contained by a hostile force and wanted anything else to focus on.  

    I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sad to see the door open and Pacifist come through.  Another figure came in behind her, but I didn’t recognize him at first: absurdly tall, almost comically broad shouldered, with perfect blond hair, and a physique men would kill for.

    The only familiar feature was the cloth across his mouth with the neon red teeth.  

    “Psycho,” Alexis greeted, “Narcissism today?”

    He nodded, “Correct.  Now, you folks have plenty of work to do.”

    Even without any kind of foreknowledge, it was easy to tell that this form was dedicated to physical strength.  

Yesterday had been brains, today was brawn.

    “Maybe you can tell us where we’re going?”

    He turned, curling his lip in disgust at Roger, “I’m speaking to your captain, not you.”

    “Psycho,” Alexis said, loud, “He has a valid question.  Where are we going?”

    “South side of the city,” he explained, “Two of them are holed up in an old apartment building.  Not many tenants, but enough to give them hostages should Suppression or someone like you show up.”

    Alexis nodded, “Can you tell us more than that?”

    He narrowed his glare, “Are you so incapable you require more information?”

    “We can’t all be as perfect as you are,” she replied, placating his superiority complex with a straight face.  As much as she harped on herself, Alexis was getting damn good at this.

    It was hard to tell if Psycho knew she was playing his disorder for the day,  but in the end, he smiled.  “I suppose not. Pacifist has the address and will get you there.”

    “What are you planning to do?”

    “Well, I’m going to watch my investment work!  I want to see how you do against Rig and Reflection in their trapland.”  

    “Great,” Murphy muttered, “Just what I wanted first thing in the morning.”

    “People don’t expect someone to kick the door in at nine; it’s a perfect plan really,” Alexis said, still shamelessly buttering up Psycho.  While I didn’t care for her indulging his self-importance, I didn’t like the idea of him being upset either.

    I raised a hand politely and waited for him to nod to me.  “I am out of mass for my power. I need some kind of meat or animal protein to be useful.”  

    “And you think I wouldn’t plan ahead?  While you were being lazy in this house, I caught you a meal.  It’s in the back of Pacifist’s car. You’ll eat it on the way over.”

    I nodded in thank and remained silent, not wanting him to look over at me any more than was necessary; I could probably fight Psycho if I was grown, but definitely not before.  

    Apparently Pacifist’s car referred to a massive passenger van with enough room to hold probably fifteen people.  It had been retrofitted to be more comfortable with leather seating and a more aesthetically pleasing crimson interior.  However, the tarp and dead Liq in the back detracted from some of the elegance of the van-limo mashup.

Psycho nodded to it, “Eat up.”  

Placing a hand to the dead animal, it dissolved into non-existence.  

Eighty-five kilograms available for consumption.

Dragoon got suited up, the metal plates bolting together, binding the armor around her appendages and torso, the rest of the Sentries already back in costume and ready to fight…but we didn’t have the advantage of Dragoon’s drones scouting ahead of us.  

My phone buzzed.

Xana: You guys still at Murphy’s?

Me: No.  Had to go.  I’ll let you know when it’s safe.

Xana: Be careful babe.

I let out a sigh as Pacifist drove us through the slog of unfortunate souls who had to be working on a Sunday.  My eyes flitted off the road as my phone buzzed again.

Dad: Where are you?

Me: With Murphy and Alexis.  Sorry I didn’t call last night.  

Dad: Don’t do it again.  Be home today.

Me: Okay.

Beside me, Ted frowned, “Everything okay?”

    I nodded, “Just family wondering where the fuck I was last night.  It’ll probably blow up in my face, but not until later.”  

    “Your head on straight?”

    “Don’t you start worrying about me too,” I harped.  “It isn’t anything new, it’ll wait until later.”  I knew my mom would be worried sick about me, but there was nothing I could do about that right now.  She’d simply have to trust me.

The car ride was uncomfortably silent.  While I wasn’t unaccustomed to quiet car rides, there was generally music or something to distract you; with the Lunatics mixed in with us, we dared not speak.  It was a mercy when we finally split off from the main drag and wove down some side streets.

    “They are in the building across the street,” Psycho snapped, calling us to attention as Pacifist pulled over quietly.  “There are about a dozen other people living in that place, so try not to cause too much damage.”

        Our destination was an older apartment building consisting of a mostly cement exterior.  While it would probably survive any storm that could hit, the place looked frighteningly similar to a prison.  The windows were narrow and the whole exterior was a drab grey color. Completely lifeless.  Around it were a few similar buildings and a myriad of parked cars, some of which looked like they had been abandoned or simply neglected by some poorer tenants. Like most places in Ciel, the buildings were snug together, but there were alleyways that ran around the sides of the building that seemed to connect to a side street behind the complex.     

        Dragoon put a projection over us and I stripped down, growing a layer of material over my body, slowly building up mass as we crossed the street.  About the time we got to the building, I weighed about a tonne and had about half my storage left at my disposal.  Not an ideal growth rate, but hopefully this wasn’t too long lived a fight.

        The building was divided into four little inlets with two upstairs and two downstairs apartments, and none of them really seemed lived in.  If Psycho was right, there wasn’t even a person in every apartment, if all were living alone.

        “We start knocking on doors, we are going to attract attention,” Geyser muttered, cautious.  “We really don’t want to give Rig or Reflection any kind of leverage over people. I get that we have Psycho watching us, but these people are innocent.”  

“Mutant, find them,” Dragoon insisted.

    Mutant nodded, shapeshifting into a reptilian form, a thin form with blue scales covering his whole body.  His face pointed to a snout and a long, forked tongue slipped out, tasting the air. Around the sides of his head, a hood fanned out and enhanced his hearing with a pair of massive holes in the side of his head.  As all of his forms had one primary function, his reptilian one was a form dedicated to sensory enhancement. “I think I smell Reflection, or at least one of his clones on the left side of the apartment building. The other smells are muddling together, hard to track them all,” he said as he slipped back to human.

    “Who takes point?”

    Dragoon put on her helmet, “Parasite, you are most human looking, and arguably most dangerous in tight quarters.  Mutant, you still have three forms to pick, so make them combat forms and go with him. Geyser, you and I will hold the front in case they run.  Lightshow, Eldritch, you two wait around the backside of the apartment in case Rig tries to blow them an exit.”

    “And if they take a hostage?” I asked.

    “We try to have Geyser smoke them.  It’ll suck for whoever has to live through a dose of his fumes, but it beats dying.  You two take the hologram,” she said to me and Lightshow, “No offense, you’re the one who will raise the most alarm if you show up like that.”  

    Lightshow took it and nodded to me as we stalked around the side of the building, both of us quiet.  

    The little drone followed us, relaying the team’s communications.

    “Do it,” Dragoon commanded.

    I could hear Parasite kick in the door from behind the building, and then heard and explosion immediately afterward.  

    “He’s running back inside!  Eldritch, Lightshow, coming your way!” Dragoon shouted before another series of detonations sounded.  

    Right on cue, the back wall of the building erupted and debris went flying everywhere; I shielded my teammate and let the rubble smack against my massive wall of flesh.  From the hole made, two figures dropped down, immediately perturbed to be seen by another pair of Reckoners.

    Seeing Reflection in a non-mutated body was bizarre…especially since he was a surprisingly good looking individual.  My appreciation for his appearance vanished as a black vapor collected around him, and half a dozen twisted images manifested.  

    Mutant said he could store copies for an emergency, I only wish I knew how many I was going to have to deal with.

    Lightshow flooded our opponents in dazzling light, disorienting them as I thundered forward, getting to grab the first copy and break its neck in a swift motion.  She bent the beam of brilliance around me as I grabbed another twisted image and broke its arm; it still turned and raked along the surface of my suit with sharpened fingernails.  

    I forgot these things didn’t feel any pain.  

    Behind me, Lightshow let out a cry of alarm as a car door erupted sending a directed blast at her: Rig had made sure to set up traps beforehand.  Some of the rundown cars were undoubtedly just bombs waiting to be triggered.

    Lightshow wasn’t too hurt, but her break in focus bought a moment for Reflection and Rig to see.  

    From the hole in the apartment, Mutant bounded out, dropping down and ripping apart a Reflection clone in the wolf form.  Rig grimaced and scooped up a chunk of rubble, tossing it at Mutant and quickly doing his countdown.

    Even though he’d been quick on the charge time, it was still like a damned grenade going off.  

    The Enhancer staggered, disoriented from the concussion.  A pair of tortured clones pounced and began beating on my teammate as Reflection discharged another cloud, conjuring another five copies to get in my way.  Three more turned and piled onto me, biting, clawing, scratching, hitting, all attacking with reckless abandon as I tore another apart.

    Even though my tentacles would bite into their skin, the copies didn’t care about losing patches of flesh.  Since it wasn’t life threatening it didn’t even slow them down.

    Rig grabbed another chunk of rubble and tossed it at Lightshow as she blanketed him in darkness; his blast was close but she narrowly dodged to the side, beset by an aberration that had ran past me.  It swung with an oversized hand, and Lightshow nimbly dashed to the side, yanking a knife from her belt, stabbing into the creature’s armpit and ducking away before it could grab hold. Another copy rushed for her, but she was quick about blinding him and stepping forward, penetrating his guard and sticking the blade into his exposed throat.  

    A trash can lid slid across the ground towards her, Rig already doing his countdown.

    I threw the two clones off me and slammed my hand over the lid, right before it detonated.  

    My arm was blown apart, the blast even singing my real arm beneath.

    Burning some of my residual mass, tentacles erupted from the exposed skin and reformed the arm at my maximum growth rate, opting for immediacy rather than permanence since the copies were still adamant on swarming me.  

    Rig continued to backpedal, lobing charged rocks that exploded mid air, hoping to catch Lightshow off guard.

    Dancing with Dragonfly had given our Projector the necessary practice to bounce around and keep herself out of harm’s way.  With Mutant having joined the fray, the reflections were less intent on her since she posed the least physical threat, leaving her not a whole lot else to worry about besides dodging rocks.

    The fact that it was just the three of us made me worried: what the hell happened to everyone else?

    Another two clones were slow getting away from me, giving me a chance to ensnare them; one turned to goo after I crushed it against the cement, the other shriveled and curled up after I struck it square in the chest and flattened its ribcage.

    Scooping up a chunk of wall, I whipped it at Rig; even without any inhuman speed, he was quick on his feet and ducked out of the way.  Raising his hand, he did another countdown, but he wasn’t throwing anything.

    We’d followed into another trap.     

    Throwing myself at her, I covered Lightshow as one of the nearby cars erupted and riddled me with shrapnel, the heat killing a whole layer of tissue.  I had trouble getting back up, my body in conflict as a piece of jagged car body had pierced through and found my leg beneath.

    Get up, let her go.  Rip the metal out.

    I was hoping simple commands, clear directives to the suit, could be followed even when I was threatened underneath.

    To my surprise, it actually obeyed.  I rose and unfolded my arms to release Lightshow; the growths around my leg gripped the metal and tugged it free so they could immediately begin repairing their host.  

    More battery from the reflections, but I was hard pressed to do much more than endure while my body mended.  Being able to multi-task was something I would need to improve on in the future, but now at least there was a start.

    Behind the throng besetting myself and Mutant, Reflection emitted another small cloud of gas and spawned several more twisted copies.

    How many did he have stored?  

    As soon as the damage was dealt with, I roared and helped add to the sensory overload that Lightshow was inflicting as she blinded a handful of the copies.  As they were vulnerable, I smacked aside a few, maiming them and hopefully slowing them down enough to be a non-factor. Behind me, Lightshow wasn’t about to give them an option to rejoin the fight as she slit their throats, turning them to a set of twisted carcasses.  

    “Stop running,” Lightshow shouted, “Reflection, you’ve gotta be running out.  Just give up already.”  

    He laughed, “You think we’re the ones who should be afraid?”   

    We were the ones ambushing him and his friend.  Why wasn’t he more intimidated?  Unless…

    “Drag, they baited us!  They expected us!” I shouted.

    Rig started another countdown, and again I shielded Lightshow as the wall of a nearby building erupted and barraged me with shard of burning brick, ripping away a hundred kilograms.  

    Dragoon’s voice came over the little drone that had picked itself back up off the ground, “Eldritch, the other members of Vermin are here!  Rat is coming for you guys!”

    Rig’s traps were meant to do more than keep us at bay, they were made to scare the shit out of anyone nearby and incite an emotional reaction for anyone within the block.  

    All Rat had to do was wait for panic to spread and charge up his Adaptation.  

Of course he would be close by.  As powerful as he was, he needed these two to help him reach his potential.  Leaving them without appropriate protection would have been irresponsible.

Dropping off a nearby rooftop, Vermin’s lynchpin landed between me and Mutant who was ripping the head off another Reflection copy.

    “RAT!” Mutant screamed, shifting to wolf and barreling forward.  Before Mutant could close the gap, Rat changed into one of his nightmarish forms.  

    He was blue skinned with red eyes circling around his entire head.  An extra pair of arms sprouted from where his ribs should have been, all four appendages equipped with dangerous looking talons.  A duo of tails sprouted from the base of his spine and his whole body spawned jagged growths of bone, protruding at seemingly random spots.  

    Mutant charged, leaping and shifting into his beetle midair; Rat bent his knees and absorbed the blow, blocking with his upper pair of arms.  His bottom set struck, striking and pushing the opposing Enhancer back several paces. Undeterred, Mutant shifted back to wolf and charged again, rage driving him with the head of Vermin in his sights.  

    For now he was on his own: Rig and Reflection needed to be dealt with.  

    Burning more mass at a quick pace, I restored my size and thundered forward, getting enough speed going that I simply knocked the last few reflections aside as they tried to impede my charge.  Rig grabbed the side of a dumpster and charged it, doing a quick countdown as I continued my chase, not caring.

    Metal and heat bathed my left side, but I kept moving forward, momentum carrying me.  Reflection dove haphazardly out of the way and evaded my grasp, but Rig was ready.

    In a fluid motion, he discarded his shirt and tossed it to me.  

    It blasted my leg and sent me toppling to one side, my head of steam unable to be completely stopped.  I dragged and skidded along the pavement, sanding away layers of growth under my bulk as Rig took off a shoe and smiled nefariously.  

    Then, a little jet of glitter poofed around him.  

    The shoe exploded in his hand, blowing off his fingers and frying his face in a flash of heat.  He let out a blood-curdling scream, but was shut up soon enough by Psycho charging up the alley.  The Peculiar grabbed Rig and slammed his head against the wall, reducing it to red pulp. Almost disgusted, Psycho discarded the corpse, turning to grin at me before setting his sights on his real target:

    Rat.  

    He’d known that Rat would show if we threatened his tools for spreading chaos and creating disruption; Psycho had been waiting to lure him out before showing himself.

    While I wasn’t thrilled to see Psycho, I welcome him because Mutant…was not cutting it.

    Even with his beetle form to help mitigate the damage from his claws, Rat was obscenely fast, and each arm seemed to operate independently.  While the armor from his exo-skeleton was keeping the claws from cutting into him, the impact was taking a toll. More concerning, Mutant couldn’t make enough distance to dance between forms which left him very limited.  A few more hits from Rat and my teammate stumbled backwards; Rat turned and lashed him with the pair of long scaled tails which sent him skidding up the alley in a heap.

“Rat!” Psycho shouted as he leapt forward, bounding easily four meters and seizing Reflection as he tried to spawn more copies. “I’ve been looking all over for this cities pest.”

Psycho didn’t even blink as he snapped Reflection’s neck so it made a 90 degree angle.

“Who the fuck are you?” The leader of Vermin demanded as he sneered, showing off two rows of filed canines. “Who the fuck do you think you are coming here?”

“Eldritch, Lightshow, help me mop up this stain,” the Lunatic said to me as he stalked forward.  Even though I knew what to expect, seeing his Narcissism form in action was scary. He carried himself like he was indestructible, and something made him heavy.  Every step he took made the ground tremble a little, though it might have just been my perception.

Still, his opponent was Rat, and he was clearly set and ready to go.  His nightmare forms stood up to Beleth and Shockwave; he was the genuine article.

I burned all but five kilograms of what I had left and grew to  two tonnes, drastically larger than either of the major players present; even with all the added mass, I still felt small.  Rat stalked forward, eyeing both of us cautiously, eventually opting to lunge for Psycho in a blur of blue.

Even though I swung to intercept, he avoided easily, one of his arms striking my limb and shearing fifteen kilograms away. Those talons were sharper than Dragoon’s sword which she had taken hours honing the edge on.

Psycho didn’t bother dodging or moving away from the charge, but instead counterattacked. He willingly exchange a gash across the gut to hit Rat and launch him across the alley. The Enhancer slammed the wall and stopped abruptly, completely unphased.

“Shock absorption,” Psycho commented as he glanced down at the gashes torn in his shirt. “A neat trick.”

Rat regarded him cautiously, “Rig and Reflection were useful to me.  I don’t know you, but you’ve made my life much more difficult.”

“Which is why they needed to die. Ideally I was never going to fight you when you were glutted with emotional power; even so, you are only a mere inconvenience.”

Another lunge and this exchange went longer. Rat evaded a quick jab, rending gashes along Psycho’s legs and arms before leaping back to avoid a massive kick. As soon as he landed, Vermin’s leader shot back in and left another trio of slashes across his torso.

Just as it seemed Rat had the upper hand, Psycho seemed to speed up his movements. A big hook connected and Rat went flying back towards me.

“Seize him!” Psycho commanded.

I tried to do as asked, but Rat spun and was a ball of razors, ripping fistfuls of growth away, tearing entirely through my ‘hand’ before Psycho caught up. Rat turned for him, and howled with pain as a brilliant bubble surrounded his head, overloading each of his dozen eyes.

“You bitch!”

Enraged by his slander of my teammate, I took advantage of his confusion and wrapped my arms around his torso.

Given how slight of build he was, I half expected it to be easy to crush him; Rat felt about as dense as cement. While my attempt to squeeze the life from him wasn’t successful, it was clearly painful. However, it didn’t stop him from using his upper set of arms to begin ripping through my limbs to free himself.

Until Psycho smashed his face.

Even though Rat was able to absorb kinetic energy, I still felt the strength Psycho was wielding through him. As he swung again, Rat stopped demolishing my growths to counter the attack and parry, but grunted as I squeezed his lower set of arms with all the strength I could muster.  He tried to turn his attention back to me and endured another massive blow from Psycho.

Getting desperate, Rat changed his plan of attack and turned to my core.

Clawed hands dug into my midsection at breakneck pace as Rat weathered a third, fourth, and fifth hit from the Narcissism dosed Lunatic, all of them seeming to daze Rat for a longer and longer duration.

His ability to absorb kinetic energy seemed to have a cap, but  the wall of flesh between his claws any my chest cavity was quickly thinning.

As a sixth hit struck home, I had to let go.

    Rat spun and ripped chunks of skin free from Psycho, dashing around the Peculiar and evading another jab.  For a moment, he was a blur of movement, dipping in and out, making gash upon gash into Psycho; no matter how many hits landed, Psycho stood resolute, waiting for his chance to strike back.  

    It finally came when another flash of light bathed the alley.  

    For a split second, Rat hesitated as his eyes tried to adjust, but that was all the time Psycho needed to grab hold of an arm.  While the head of Vermin had speed on his side, brute force was hands down in favor of his opponent. The other three limbs clawed wildly, but a sickening crunch and a rending tear made the fourth arm come entirely free.  Rat pulled away, stumbling as he was plunged into darkness.

    Another two hits found their mark, throwing Rat back against the wall as a determined Psycho pressed onward like a shark who smelled blood in the water.

Three arms raised, Rat shot himself off the wall, slamming into Psycho and driving his hands into his midsection; I was expecting his clawed hands to sink into my warden, but they didn’t even go to the second knuckle.

“You think you’re the only one with tricks?” Psycho asked as he grabbed his opponent by the throat.  A deft throw sent Rat against the opposing wall, and the Lunatic was right behind: an uppercut, a heavy hit into the liver, a straight punch into the sternum, and finally a heavy cross to his cheek.  While Rat tried to block and retaliate against the onslaught, it was clear who was taking the brunt of the exchange.

Whatever little quirk of his Adaptation had given him the ability to absorb kinetic force was running dry way faster than Psycho was bleeding out.

An abrupt burst of speed saw Rat duck another blow and spring up, sinking his teeth around Psycho’s neck like some kind of wild animal.  A hunk of flesh came free and Psycho actually stumbled, sinking to a knee for a moment, giving Rat a moment to jam his lower set of talons into Psycho’s armpit, targeting a weaker part of the anatomy to exploit.   

Rat went to swipe for his eyes, but Lightshow surrounded him in brilliance before extinguishing all light around him.  Psycho was just able to move head head enough to endure a gash across the forehead instead of the pupil.

Enraged, Rat turned his aggression to her and sprung forward; his progress was halted as Psycho caught his ankle mid jump.

With a warcry, the Peculiar whipped him over and slammed him against the ground hard enough to shatter the concrete.  Unsatisfied, the Lunatic quickly dropped onto his chest; with someone so strong holding him, Rat had nowhere to go, and with his lower arms trapped by Psycho’s knees, one intact arm wasn’t nearly enough to stop the battery.  

For a while, Rat fought back.  He bucked and snarled, twisting to try and unseat his opponent but nothing worked.  Psycho was unshakable, and the head of Vermin wasn’t going to live much longer.

I contemplated stopping him, but Rat had removed almost a quarter of my mass in a matter of seconds; if I stopped Psycho from executing Rat and the bastard wriggled free, what would stop him from shredding the rest of me into ribbons?  Besides, he was the man responsible for killing dozens of innocents and good Reckoners all over the cluster… if anyone deserved to die, he did.

Right?  

The rest of Rogue Sentries approached in the alley, along with Dysfunction and Pacifism as Psycho slowed his assault.  There was little left of Rat’s face, and the fight had completely gone from the rest of his body. Even if he lived through this, it was likely there wouldn’t be any brain function.  

It was almost a mercy when Psycho snapped his neck.  

Coated in blood, he showed some fatigue and weakness as he wavered getting up.  Even though some kind of subdermal armor had kept Rat from cutting too deep, there were enough cuts adding up to serious trauma for the lead Lunatic.  

“Thank you, Sentries,” Psycho said with a menacing smile, “You made this easier than I thought it would be.”

It dawned on me now; Psycho had mentioned a second person who could threaten Beleth.  He’d also been thinking about who could threaten him as well. Eliminating Rat meant there were only two real A-listers present, and Psycho now had way more helping hands in the coming conflict.  

“Now we can talk about what is next on the docket!”

“No,” Dragoon snapped.  

Psycho rounded on Dragoon, looming over her with a menacing expression.  “What did you say to me?”

“I said no,” she replied, standing her ground.  “You want our help? You’re going to compromise with me.  Nick needs to go home. He has people who will call for him if he stays gone too long.  The last thing you want to do is get authorities involved, right?”

He raised a hand as if he was going to slap my captain and paused, “I escaped an Asylum once, I can do it again.  I’m not afraid of Snatchers or Suppression.”

“And will you be able to fight Beleth after fighting them?”

He lowered his hand and laughed, “You realize I could rip your armor apart and crush you?”

“I’m sure you could, but what would that do for you?  If you want us to be valuable, you’re going to give us a few things.  We go home, and we don’t go with a chaperone.  We’re Adapted, we don’t call the cops.”

He folded his arms, “What else?”

“Give us a day to heal.  Parasite and Geyser were rattled by Rig, let them recover before we put  them in another super stressful situation.  Plus, you look like you could use a day to mend anyways.”

“Superficial damage.  Rat couldn’t have killed me if he wanted,” Psycho said, obscenely confident.

“Sure, fine.”

Psycho slapped her and dented her face plate.  “Don’t speak to me like that,” he commanded, ignoring the five people around him who tensed up.  

Dragoon stood back up straight as the helmet began to undo the damage, waiting until it was fixed before responding.  I admired her in that moment, staring down Psycho even though she knew full well she couldn’t shine a candle to him. “Very well.  Don’t track us is my other demand. Let us go home, be unfettered for a day to truly rest and heal. If you want us to fight Beleth, fine.  We agreed to do it; I ask you be  willing to let us feel normal until then.”

He pondered her words, giving a cursory glance to Pacifist who was nodding.  “Fine. If you don’t answer when I call…”

Our captain nodded, “We know.”  

“Good.  Mend up.  We’ll deal with the preparation.”

“Preparation, for what?” Mutant dared to ask.

He glared, but finally shrugged.  “I was going to have you lot help in dealing with a few of the bit players around Ciel who are sticking around, but you’re better saved for the main event.”

“Main event?” I asked.

“Tomorrow night, I know where Beleth is going to be.  And he won’t have his cronies; it’ll just be him.”

None of us were sure how to react to that; Beleth alone was still a terrifying thought, but it would be a closer fight than when he had additional help.  More than likely, Psycho would send us in because it would be close.  It meant both parties would limp away bleeding and vulnerable.  

Content with the knowledge he shared, Psycho turned to leave and no one bothered stopping him; none of us wanted to give him an excuse to revoke the freedom we’d been given for the time being.  As the Lunatics departed, all eyes turned back to Dragoon and the battered corpse of Rat.

After his expiration, the shapeshifting had faded, leaving a demolished body of a man with olive skin.  Without him being adjusted into some horrific monster, Rat hardly seemed like the heinous villain who had assaulted and killed dozens for sport.  Instead, he was just the most recent casualty in the wake of the Lunatic’s arrival to Ciel.

“Five people dead,” Geyser muttered, holding his head, “Psycho and his cronies killed all of  Vermin with our help. I guess you got your wish, huh Mutant?”

He had shifted back to human, shaking his head, “Now that I have it…I don’t think I really wanted this,” he said softly, “It feels wrong.”  

“How are we going to stop him?” Parasite asked, speaking over them.  “I mean, truth be told the world is better off without Vermin around, but Psycho is unhinged.  He’s gonna be a way bigger monster than Beleth if he takes over.”

People looked to Dragoon for answers.  “I…I don’t know,” she confessed. “You saw him get shredded by Rat, he barely seemed to care he was bleeding everywhere.  There was a little weakness showing, but I wouldn’t want to test it. If he has Cotard’s he becomes functionally immortal, if he is Schizophrenic, he becomes a deranged and unfettered version of Menagerie.  Our best chance to fight him is when he is in his ASPD state, but then he’s too smart to let himself be vulnerable.”

“We should have fought him now,” Geyser muttered, “He didn’t have Bargain, he didn’t have Spectre.”

“But he had Dysfunction,” Mutant said, “That makes me pretty useless, and until a minute ago, Parasite and Geyser were still dealing with the concussion from a  bomb blast. Rig had set his door to blow, as well as half of the objects in the apartment. We weren’t ready for this, but Psycho isn’t giving us a chance to make things normal.”

“Rat ripped through me like butter, but Psycho was willing to let him just wail away.  I don’t think we could have done well against him, even before you considered Dysfunction and Pacifist tripping us up.”

“Enough,” Dragoon said, “We can postulate, but the moment is gone.  For now, we move forward and work with him. The fact he is giving us wiggle room means he isn’t worried about us, but it also means he isn’t viewing us like too big a threat.  Nick, you need to go home and check in, make sure your parents don’t get too worried about you being gone.”

I hated being the only person who really had to be accountable to someone else.  “Fine.”

“I hate to be the serious one,” Lightshow commented, regarding the corpses on the ground with an uncharacteristic sorrowful expression, “But we should get out of here.  Suppression is going to show up at any moment, and I’d rather not have another run-in with them so soon.”

“Wait, how are we getting home?” Parasite asked aloud, “Fucking Psycho took the van.”

Dragoon had us cloak and hide in an office building that was closed for the day, hoping that no janitors were unlucky enough to walk into us while we arranged transportation.  A number of awkward phone calls later, Xana had helped out and ferried people around town and back home. She was kind enough to bring us all a change of clothes so we didn’t have to hide in an office and look like displace Reckoners.  

I was especially grateful to her for bringing me a change of clothes so I could discard my growths and not get picked up for public indecency.   

As I climbed into the passenger seat with Xana, the last person she was shipping around, she immediately shot over and wrapped her arms around me.

“Alexis told me what happened!  Are you okay?”

I gave a weak smile, “Rattled, but alive.  I’m just glad we’re finally out from under his thumb.”

She let out a sigh and looked me up and down, “Listen, I know that we Zari are supposed to be heartless bitches, but I can’t stand the thought of losing you, okay?”

That look in her eyes, the sincerity of her voice, it felt like a needle being jammed into my brain.  I had kissed Alexis like 12 hours ago, and she had no clue I had committed such a betrayal. Part of me wanted to confess to her…but the other part won out.  “I’m doing my best,” I replied, “But we’re caught deep on this one. Alexis is trying to figure out a way to get us out of this, maybe she’ll call someone for help to get rid of the Lunatics and buy our freedom back,” I guessed, optimistically.  I knew she kept up with another group in Manda, whatever group Armorsmith worked with.

Xana shifted uncomfortably, “Alexis told me about your fight with Beleth and how massive you made yourself.  Are you…still you?”

I rolled my eyes, “Alexis is being melodramatic.  I lost control once because of emotional compromise, not because of size.  I maybe got a bit hyper-violent, but the situation was appropriate. I’m still me, okay?”

My response was enough confirmation for her to relax. “Good.  I like my alien boyfriend just the way he is.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I assured, “Your alien boyfriend is the same oddball he always has been.”  

She let out a sigh, “How are you going to explain to your parents about where you’ve been?”

I frowned, “I’m going to likely just take the slap on the wrist and admit to them we got drunk and Murphy’s, give them a half truth.”

“You look tired enough to pass as hungover,” she replied, “Might just puff that up and roll with it.”

“Not a half bad idea.”  

“If you were smart enough to listen, you’d learn I have good ideas all the time,” she insisted proudly.  

I gave her a smile; after the shit of the last few days, being able to simply sit in a car with my girlfriend and bullshit together was a fantastic blessing.  Even though I had been right about my life not being normal since Adapting, I was glad at least one fixture of my life before becoming a Reckoner hadn’t changed.  

Still, I had to man up and face the music as we pulled up outside my home.  “You’ll be okay?” she asked, “You’ve had a rocky few days and I’d rather not just send you to the wolves.”  

“I’ll be fine,” I assured her, “For once I’m not being faced with some dastardly overpowered Adapted.”

Xana let out a little laugh as I clambered out and gave her a wave before heading up the small walk to our house.  About the time she drove away, I touched the handle and realized something was wrong immediately.

There was blood on the door.  

Throwing open the door, I tore into the house.  “Mom! Dad! You guys okay?”

My parents were sitting on the couch, my mom looking like she was doing her level best not to hyperventilate.  Beside her, my dad was trying to coach her through breathing and calm her down…until he looked up at me.

I’d seen him angry, but this was different.  

“What have you done?” he growled.

“What…what happened?” I asked, swallowing a lump in my throat.  “I saw blood on the door.”

“We had a visitor,” he said, getting up, seeming to be much larger than normal.  “Some guy came in here talking about you, telling us to remind you to stay in line.  He wanted to let you know that seeing us was a luxury you were lucky he extended.”

My face paled.  Psycho. He’d come to threaten my parents and make sure I stayed in line.  Even though we were being true to our word, he wanted to let us know how much power he held.  It was his blood on the door since he hadn’t bothered to clean himself off, probably feeling presentable enough as is.  

“Nick,” my father said, slowly, trying to control himself, “Why was he here?  Why would someone like that freak be talking about you?”

“I-I-I’m not su-”

“DON’T FUCKING LIE TO ME!” My dad roared, his face contorted with rage.  “Now, try again, Nick,” he said softly, “Why was that man here?”

“Dad, you have to listen to me,” I started.

“No I do not,” he said firmly, “I listened to your mother though.  Now, think carefully about how you answer me, boy.”

From behind him, my mother took a deep breath, “I had to tell him, Nicholas.”

“Dad, don’t do this,” I begged, “That guy who came here, we’re gonna get rid of him.”

“We?” he demanded, “You are your friends?  You’re gonna get rid of him? Just like you assholes got rid of Beleth?  Just like you got rid of Imperium and got people killed downtown a couple months ago?  Yeah,” he said to answer my bewildered expression, “Your mother told me what you are and who you run with.  It’s why my son is gone so frequently, why he never bothers to check in or tell us much, he’s one of those freaks.”  

There it was, that word again.  This time though, he wasn’t referring to me in the abstract.  

This time it was me  directly. I was the freak.  My father had just called me a freak without batting an eye.  

“Someone has to fight back,” I said meekly, “And you can’t.”

“And the people who die because of it, huh?  Do you ever give a fucking passing thought to the chaos you assholes bring?  Did you think about your mom and I getting swept up into this fucking mess before you went out last night?  Did you think some gigantic bloody fucker was gonna throw open our door and tell us exactly how fast he could break every bone in her body?”

I couldn’t do more than shake my head.

“Congratulations boy, you’re a bigger idiot than I thought!  You are responsible for this. You are the boy responsible for someone threatening to kill his mother.  You are responsible for the deaths of dozens around Ciel because YOU needed to play superhero like some kind of ignorant fucking idealist child!”  He reached out and pushed me, “Do you know what we sacrificed to get here? Do you know what we endure so you don’t have to?”

Another push, and I took another step back.  “Dad, listen, I’m sorry.”

“You lie to me constantly,” he shouted, “For all I know you don’t even care about us anymore!  We aren’t your fucking superfriends, we’re just expendable like everyone else!”

He pushed again and I hit the wall.

“It didn’t fucking occur to me that you advocated so hard for them because you were one!  Congratulation, Nicholas, you kept your old man in the dark for so goddamn long about this. You finally pulled one over on me!”  

I felt my power bubbling beneath the surface, trying to respond to the threat, trying to fight back and preserve the host.  “Dad, please, I’m begging you, stop.”

“Or what?” My heart hammered in my chest as he raised his hands, mocking me, “Or you’re going to use your power to beat up a regular guy?  That sound very Reckoner-like to you?”

I looked past him to my mom, but she was staring at the floor.  “Mom-”

He slapped me.  

My face lit up with pain as my attention snapped back to my father. “Don’t you dare ignore me.  Don’t you dare try and get to her to pretend everything is okay!”

“You don’t want this,” I said, dangerous.  

For a split second my dad regarded me cautiously, and then full on hit me.  I lurched to the side as blood filled my mouth; the guy was strong and knew how to throw a punch, that was for sure.  He reached down and grabbed my collar, hauling me up before hitting me in the nose this time. “You’re going to threaten me, boy, in my own fucking house?”  He shoved me hard enough I fell over and he stepped forward, “You’re a big enough man to put us in danger, you’re a big enough man to fight for your place.”

“Mike!  Enough!”

I looked over to my mom and took a hit to the ear, throwing me back to the ground.  “Irene, if he’s willing to stand up to Beleth, he can fucking fight his own battles.  My old man would have given me all this and worse.” He stepped forward and drove his foot into my ribs, “Come on, get up!  You can’t protect yourself, let alone your mother! Why the hell do you think you could fight people like Beleth, huh? What kind of dumb shit is that?”

He reached down to grab my collar, and tendrils erupted from my skin, covering my arms and making a base layer on my torso and face.  A moment of shock and horror made him pause, enough time for me to throw myself at him, slapping him across the room into the stand our television was resting on.  

Tentacles grew and stretched my shirt and poked a few holes in my pants as I stalked forward, focused on him.  My blood was on fire, and I felt a grim satisfaction at seeing his horror struck face. “You want to know why I can fight?  Take a good fucking look!” I reached down and forced my arm to grow around him, encasing his torso as I lifted him up easily, “You don’t seem so tough now, do you?”  Pulling him close to my face, I moved the growths to expose my lips so my speech wasn’t distorted, “Can you protect her, dad?”

“NICK!”

My mom’s panicked voice was like having a bucket of ice water thrown on me, giving me a much needed moment of clarity to break my power’s hold.  The tentacles turned to dust and I stumbled back, distancing myself from everyone. “I’m, I’m sorry. I didn’t, I wasn’t-” I stammered, hyperventilating.  “I didn’t want to do that, I swear.”

“Just, go,” he finally responded, deflated, pointing to the door.  “Just get out.”

Those words hit me harder than Beleth or Psycho could have.  

“No.  No, no, no, no, no, please, dad, no,” I pleaded, tears welling up in my eyes, “This is my home.  Don’t, don’t send me away.”

“Not anymore,” he replied, sorrowful.  The anger was gone, the rage diffused. For once, I saw the truly broken person my dad had become, and how horribly hurt he was.  Once again, his home had been violated, but this time I was the problem that brought about the strange weirdness that threatened to take everything.  

I looked to my mom, but she had nothing to offer me but silence.  

“Please,” I begged, “Please don’t do this to me.”

“Goodbye, Nicholas,” my dad said softly as he walked to the door and opened it for me.  

No words were said as I walked out the door and heard it close behind me, the deadbolt sliding into place with a loud click.  That was it; I was ostracized from my family and homeless before it was even noon.

I only made it a few steps before I fell down, unable to breathe.  

For the first time in six months, I wished I that I never Adapted, that I had never been made one of those elite few who were ‘blessed’ with superpowers.

I would have given it all back just to be able to go home.     

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