Elizabeth had been through a lot. Her and everyone else in the world as well, apparently. She’d learned a long time ago that every single person she walked past on the street had been through trials and tribulations that one would never know about normally. For many, the struggles of their lives occupied the back of the mind at all times, like a ball and chain around the ankles of the brain. Practice and persistence had taught her how to shut things out, and to keep from looking at people’s chains and balls without wanting to.

Of course, she hadn’t always been able to. Memories were dredged up, memories of a younger Elizabeth that could barely sleep because everyone else’s dreams kept screaming in her mind. A tiny blonde girl in ill-fitting glasses who had found herself with a ‘gift’ that felt like a curse.

Elizabeth was eight, and held her head between her hands as barely-held-back tears threatened to stain her pillow.  Long blonde hair pooled around her head like a halo, and the lack of her too-big glasses left her face feeling uncomfortably exposed.  Too many other children sleeping nearby, and too many thoughts in her head for her to drift into sleep.  Other people’s thoughts, not her own.  The foreign thoughts weren’t limited to the Foster Home either.  Words and pictures from outside flickered along the synapses of Elizabeth’s brain, almost in a taunting manner. 

She steeled herself as much as possible until the pink tint left her vision, and began her walk of shame to the bathroom.  She managed to leave the room without waking any of the other girls.  They had all managed to sleep or at least fake sleeping, unlike the boy’s room just across the hall.  That one had been a loud invasion of Elizabeth’s mind, as the hyperactive boys that could never stay still or shut up kept chattering on and on until they passed out, and then their minds kept chattering on and on.  Such was the white noise in her head as she tried locking the bathroom door behind herself, as if that would block it out.  

Elizabeth sat herself on the closed seat of the toilet and stared at her feet, counting the seconds and then the minutes each time she reached sixty.  She only got to sixty one time, and was on her second thirty by the time Ms. Brooks’ door opened.  Quiet footsteps and thoughts of concern headed toward Elizabeth, and had a story prepared that would alleviate those concerns.  

“Who’s in there?” Ms. Brooks’ hushed, accented voice asked.  Elizabeth hadn’t been able to meet too many foreigners, but Ms. Brooks’ accent sounded like British people on TV.  

“…Just me…” Elizabeth answered, keeping her voice down and praying that she sounded as tired as she felt.  There was silence on the other side of the door, and then a reply. 

“Have you not slept yet tonight? It’s almost three o’clock.”

“I’ve been asleep.” Elizabeth lied.  Apparently she’d been convincing enough, because Ms. Brooks’ footsteps and concerned thoughts went back down to the adults’ room.  Elizabeth slumped against the counter, and tried to pretend that the closed door would make things quieter.

Elizabeth was fourteen, and held her head between her hands as shower water ran down her body.  The thoughts of others- of what was now her family- crept up on her.  Foster Mother and Foster Father, downstairs.  Whatever game show they were watching was on the forefront of their minds, and the long shifts at work tomorrow were at the back.  And… Lena.  Sister, even though she didn’t act like it.  Lena was two years older, and Elizabeth didn’t like the thoughts at the front of her sister’s mind. 

Elizabeth tried to speed up her shower, as if finishing quicker would make everything silent for a change.  She dried herself quickly, dresses, and twists up her towel.  She opened the door to Lena’s room, where the sixteen year old was laying across her bed, laptop in front of her.  The two of them wouldn’t look like sisters if you put them side-by-side.  Elizabeth was a scrawny thing, still developing, with wide blue eyes and long blonde hair that mom had called beautiful.  Lena was different, more fairy-like with amber eyes and brown hair cut short.  The better one in looks, at least.

Elizabeth whipped out her twisted-up towel, aiming to get the wet tip to smack Lena’s face.  The sound and the sudden surprise in her sister’s mind is worth it.  Lena laughed shortly afterward, as if they were just being siblings- Elizabeth went along with it, letting herself giggle in amusement before leaning in.  “You’re fucking gross, you know that?” Elizabeth said, with more venom in her voice than a 14 year old should be capable of. 

Lena’s face fell.  Like a cat caught with its paw in the canary’s cage. Elizabeth drank in the realization and the guilt evident on Lena’s face, and the rapidly racing thoughts in her mind.  Maybe it was a bad thing to hurt her sister.  Maybe it was bad to leave her statement ambiguous.  But whatever.  She left Lena alone, left her words to sink in and simmer.  Her new home wasn’t a home that she could be comfortable in.

Elizabeth was still fourteen when she took a pair of scissors to her own hair, to try and forcibly alter the perfect image of the beautiful blonde daughter that she’d been placed under.  It didn’t work.  She was applauded, congratulated for wanting to be like her sister.  Her sister that she couldn’t stand being around, for reasons she couldn’t say to her parents because she could already see that they’d never believe her.

Elizabeth was fifteen when she tried leaving on her own.  She kept herself awake late into the night, until the thoughts of her foster parents and whatever third they’d brought home tonight are within her range.  She slips out the door, runs down the sidewalk until she can’t run anymore, and walks further- until she stops.  Worry, genuine worry on the edge of her consciousness from her parents and from Lena.  Something in her heart pulls her back to the house.  Her foster parents are almost crying when she gets back.  They’d made their Third go home, and something close to irritation was in their minds when they asked her why she ran. Elizabeth can’t come up with any convincing lie to explain why she left, so she cries herself and lets all three of them- Mother, Father, Lena- hug her, because it would make the worry die down.

Elizabeth was still fifteen when she realized that her words apparently hadn’t sunk in for Lena, because foster sister was still thinking weird gross stuff and acting like nothing had happened whenever Elizabeth caught her staring.  Seventeen year old Lena liked going out with friends and liked staying out with friends for too long, and Elizabeth hated her for how she could get away with it so easily just because she was different.

She couldn’t remember what she’d started arguing with Lena about, but it kept building and building until she called her sister something that she shouldn’t have.  Something targeted, evil, and she felt like she meant it.  Lena stayed silent for a while, and told Elizabeth that she’d make her pay.  Elizabeth apologized later, and half-meant it.  Lena hugged her too tight and said that they’d never hate each other.

On her sixteenth birthday, Elizabeth lied to foster mother and foster father about like-liking girls, because Lena would tell them about what Elizabeth said if she didn’t.  Elizabeth hated how fucking happy they were about it.  Congratulating themselves for raising her right, undoing the damage that had been done by her upbringing or whatever.  Patting themselves on the back for having not one, but two gay daughters and how happy all their friends would be about it.  Elizabeth felt a sinking feeling, and wanted to say ‘no, it was a joke, I like boys’.  But Lena smiled at her.  Slurs were taboo in the house, and Lena could tell both parents about Elizabeth’s slur and she’d be sent somewhere worse, somewhere that wasn’t like Ms. Brooks’ Foster Home.  After a hollow celebration, Lena found Elizabeth upstairs and kissed her on the lips for too long and said they’d never hate each other.  

Elizabeth was seventeen, still scrawny, and still short-haired when she finally got taken away from her foster parents.  She’d started by letting herself be a target for things like she’d called Lena at school, then getting herself into fights over it.  She read through minds like a photo album, finding the most prejudiced, most bigoted sorts to use as her opponents.  She fought dirty, biting and clawing and kicking out at any vulnerable area that fell into her reach.  Her parents were annoyingly sympathetic about it, fawning over her and telling her that she was brave for standing up to prejudice.  The other kids’ parents were less so.  It took four meetings with school staff and angry, red-faced other-kids-parents plus strategic neglect of schoolwork for her to finally get herself expelled.

With the image of the perfect second daughter cracking, the Foster Parents started to like her less.  Elizabeth kept pushing at them, first shedding the girly, feminine style she’d been comfortable in for all of her life.  She cut her hair shorter, and when she saw thoughts of disapproval, she used her spare time to visit a stylist and fix it up.  Short hair was good in their eyes until it got too short, at which point it made their prized adoptive fake-gay daughter look like a boy.  Elizabeth kept pressing, using what money she had left over to buy boy’s clothes and wearing them in lieu of anything else she’d received.

She started changing her name in their eyes as well- shortening it to Eli and constantly correcting until it started sticking.  Eli was teenage rebellion, far from soft and far from perfect.  The next time she went to school, she followed the thoughts of one of the boys she’d fought with, and traced through the threads of his group of friends.  She followed it through friends of friends and acquaintances until she found someone her parents wouldn’t approve of.  A boy with tousled hair dyed white and a pretty face, living the kind of straight and narrow life that her swinging parents and lesbian sister would disapprove of just enough to tip their opinion of Eli.

Eli’s scheme was a long game to play, but she held to it.  She worked at her white-haired boy, figuring out exactly what she could do to make herself seem appealing and reading his preferences.  Not stalking- stalking was motivated by lust and obsession.  She was using the subject of her studies as a means to an end, which made it completely fine.  Eli found an easy icebreaker in the blue LED wristband the boy’s been saddled with.

“I thought I was the only one here.” She finally said one day, after determining that talking wouldn’t freak him out.  The white-haired kid- whose name was Fionn, according to what Eli had pulled from his mind- gave a small startled reaction.  Understandable.  It was the end of the school day, and he’d been alone every day since Eli had started studying him.

“…Don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Fionn replied after a moment of hesitation.  Shy, unused to attention.  Has had the dampener most of his life, unfamiliar with own powers.  Eli was having too easy a time with this.  Her power dove into Fionn’s mind the moment she needed information about him, to plan out her responses.

“Metahuman, dummy.  My family’s skirted around getting a dampener, some kinda ‘live free’ bullshit, but I’m registered.  What about you?  You a secret supervillain outside of school?” Friendly, but ribbing.  Emphasis on joking, rarely serious.  Traits he finds appealing in people.

“Yeah, I’m actually part of the Pantheon.  They call me Huh.” Fionn answers.  Eli giggles, and it’s not insincere.

“Your big bad supervillain alias is Huh?  Fucking Huh?”

“Uh, yeah.  Egyptian god of infinity, duh.  It’s because I have infinite power.” Definitely new to powers.  Rarely used, never committed crimes.  Dampener bought by parents for his own safety.  Slightly coddled.  I’m almost jealous.

“Ooh, I’m scared.  Got a minute to talk boring shit?  We’re in the same science class, and this stuff’s gone way over my head.  Not just because I’m short.”  

Eli felt Fionn’s excitement at getting to help her out.  A twinge of happiness welled up inside her.  Plan is a-go.

Eli was barely eighteen when she finally went over to Fionn’s home instead of her own after school.  Before today, the adoptive parents and Lena were too curious about her habits for her to get away with something like this.  They still would be- but Eli had been waiting, biding her time through her slow fall from perfect daughter to rebellious teenager.  Her family’s thoughts were open books for her.  She knew when the right time to break their rules would be.

Fionn was a means to an end, but at the same time, more.  Eli didn’t think any high schooler would know what actual love felt like, and she wasn’t going to call it that.  But she did know that she liked him.  Liked talking to him, liked being around him- maybe she wouldn’t if it weren’t for her shitty home life.  But that wasn’t a possibility that was relevant, and she’d never get to know.  She preferred enjoying what she had now, what served as her form of escape.

There was one day when her temporary freedom felt more real and fulfilling than it ever had.  Apparently, growing up in foster homes and plotting escape like she had meant that Eli had missed out on a lot of movies that Fionn considered essential.  It was… cute, in a way, seeing him so adamant about something she’d never thought about.  She called her parents after school, lied about going to a friend’s house for a project.  She felt her parent’s reactions to every word, and played them like a musician.  Was there guilt? No, not for this.

It was her first time over at his house, her and her barely-eighteen self who’d suffered through a birthday party with her foster family.  Eli didn’t want to think about what Lena would do, if she’d been at home instead of off at college.  Fionn’s parents were like a breath of air after being swept underwater by a wave.  Alan, the father, dirty blonde with glasses and a messy-ish beard looking like a hipster who’d gotten old without outgrowing the whole aesthetic.  Eli approved of it, and imagined patting herself on the back for being drawn toward the same kind of look.  Luna, the mother, somehow managed to pull off the short-haired ‘let me talk to your manager’ look and made it classy at the same time.  Brown-haired and always clean-cut, Eli took it as evidence that opposites did indeed attract.  Just like with her and Fionn, really.

Mr. and Mrs. Fionn’s parents were both metas like their son, and apparently had jobs in that world.  Eli didn’t make any attempt to hint at being like them, and so far neither seemed to suspect.  If details of her power started slipping, she’d be shackled with one of the blue bracelets, like Fionn’s.  People were even more wary of telepaths than they were of normal humans, and for good reason- invading the minds of others was a breach of privacy so ridiculous that laws were constantly being rewritten to accommodate it.  The one good thing about her foster parents was that they didn’t make her get a dampener, even after being told that she was an unclassified meta.  

She pushed those thoughts out of her mind as she was introduced to the parents before they left.  Fionn started a film up- Jurassic Park, which was one that he apparently thought of as a must-see for anyone.  Eli was reasonably entranced- the film was nice enough, but getting to lay beside what was basically her boyfriend and be away from her foster home was better.

Things got better than better at about the point when the T. Rex brutally murdered three scientifically inaccurate Velociraptors (originally intended to be Deinonychus, according to Fionn’s movie trivia).  Still barely eighteen, still craving escape, Eli read her sort-of boyfriend’s mind and found a way to do just that- one which would just so happen to make the both of them very happy.  

Fionn was adorably clueless until she started to pull his zipper down.  He was kind enough to return the favor, and Eli relished the feeling of being alive and free from her foster parents weighing down on her, if only for a moment.

One mega-villain attack, two dead foster parents, and one dead real parent later, Eli and Fionn were alone in a ruined city.  Yaldabaoth, a titanic amorphous cloud of a monster, flowed down the streets far, far away with a mind too twisted and alien for Eli to get a read on.  The minds of the heroes watching him, however, were ripe with information that she figured she’d be better off not seeing.  Many dead, gruesomely so, and it disgusted her.

Fionn was like a different person, being liberated from his dampener and such.  An attack from a potential Class I meant dampeners off for all metas that were legally adults, so they could participate in the fighting.  White hair tousling in the breeze, glowing power tracing the veins under his skin- his power had more of an effect on his appearance than hers.  Only the two pink dots in the center of her pupils and the tint in her vision betrayed the usage of her ability.

She was in a daze, a classic case of a Telepath’s Trance- an incident where the influx of information became too burdensome, and the telepath’s body went still as their mind was forced to process it.  Both foster parents, dead.  Lena, dead.  Fionn’s mother, dead.  Countless heroes and villains, dead.  Last thoughts flooded into her, and she found tears on her face.  

Eli forced herself to find a focus point, naturally drifting towards something familiar- Fionn, leaping down into a collapsed building.  He sought out those who had been trapped under rubble, where his gift would be most effective.  He struck multi-ton masses of concrete, and they broke at his touch.  Not instantaneously- tiny fractures in the material grew and expanded, filled with crystals that expanded and cut into concrete, until the whole thing was destroyed.  

A hand fell on Eli’s shoulder, and she jumped, shocked out of her trance.  “You’re one of the mind-readers on search duty, right?”  The owner of the hand asked in a deep voice with some kind of accent- French, maybe.  Probably-French guy was a tall meta, well over six feet, with what looked like a deer skull for a head.  Closer inspection saw that it wasn’t a real skull, in fact being an intricate growth of something that looked an awful lot like antlers or horns.  Aside from that, he dressed pretty normally- a long coat with fur at the collar, something a normal person would wear which nonetheless contributed to the wild look he had going.  Broken off stubs of more antlers and horns were visible on the back of his hand.

Pretty lame power, in Eli’s mind, but there could be worst ones.

“Yeah.  I go by Synchro, but I’m gonna come up with something better later on.”  She replied, wiping tears from her face and putting on an air of confidence.  Supervillains always respected that, and deer-face didn’t exactly seem like he’d be one of the good guys.

“It’s a good enough name.” Antler Man answered, his tone not changing once.  “Me and my team are handling the search for survivors.  A telepath would be helpful for coordinating, if you’re not doing anything else.”  

Eli was quiet.  The deer’s mind was as easy to read as anyone’s, and he was speaking the truth.  Thing was, he and his team were international supervillains.  Thieves.  The Gold Diggers.  The same team that dear old Ms. Brooks from the orphanage had somehow gotten involved with after her latent meta powers awakened.  What a fucking twist of fate it was to bring them around to Eli.

She shrugged.  “I’m not doing anything super important.  But I’ve got a plus-one that comes with me.  Shatter, crystal-breaking guy?  I search and he rescues.  We got a whole thing going.”  She ran her mouth, letting words spill out so that nothing would spill into her mind.

“My name is Cerf Tueur.  You and Shatter report to Hellequin.  He will direct you.”  The deer spoke, ever unpretrubed.  Eli decided to file him under ‘weird guy’ and leave it at that.  Without any further discussion, she turned to go and grab Fionn to bring him survivor-hunting.  It’d be good for him, to keep working.  Take his mind off the sadness broiling at the back of his mind, the same sort that Eli was avoiding.

Hellequin, it turned out, really made it his mission to earn the ‘hell’ in his name.  Clad in golden armor and red cloth, wearing a full-face mask with demonic horns rising from the forehead, he definitely looked like a villain.  The demon rattled off commands in french to Ms. Brooks, who still dressed in fancy leather jackets even as she was pushing 50.  An eyepatch covered her left eye, dimly emitting a blue light.  Eli figured it was probably some sort of scanning device.

She almost approached him, but someone else caught her eye more.  Fionn’s too, judging by the mental reaction she felt from him.  A guy whose age was difficult to tell.  European, but again, difficult to tell the region.  He wore robes in varying shades of blue, layers of fabric draped over what was likely a skinny frame.  His eyes were a weird hazel shade, as close to golden as natural human colors would allow.  His mind, when Eli felt it, was utterly fractured.  Not in the insanity way, but in the ‘controlling tons of other things at once’ way.  A power thing, definitely.

“22nd street.  The highest concentration of survivors, and the one Hellequin is most interested in finding.”  The robed man spoke.  If these were the Gold Diggers, that would have to be Saint.  Saint was supposed to be a weirdo, and this guy was fitting that to a T.  “If you go there, follow the circling vultures.  They will be above every notable survivor, until the survivor perishes.  Your guides.”  

Eli and Fionn exchanged a look, then simultaneously glanced towards Hellequin.  The masked demon was busy, and intimidating.  It would be cowardice to avoid him, but Saint’s words offered a way to do just that.  An escape.  

“Find the Anarchist.”  Saint spoke up again.  “But don’t be concerned about bringing him back.  Finding him will be enough.”

Cracked asphalt filled with puddles from broken storm drains, turning 22nd street from a road into something more like a swamp.  Dirt, blood, and all kinds of other gunk filled a river that was mostly ankle-high, deeper in some hidden spots where it took a dip.  The circling vultures added an ominous touch to the whole picture.

Eli and Fionn followed the massive black birds, checking each body- some were still alive, and Fionn shattered the rubble that imprisoned them.  Some were dead, and they could only move on to the next gathering of vultures.  

The Anarchist was easy to pick out, once he was located.  A tattered looking man, no older than 30, in a hooded costume with a capital letter A inside a circle emblazoned over where his heart would be.  The costume was black, but the symbol and the broken mask over The Anarchist’s face were white.  The mask was featureless aside from eyeholes, and the eyes behind them were brown and very dark.  

As Eli knelt in the ankle-deep water, The Anarchist’s masked face weakly turned towards her.  His thoughts were those of a dying man, desperate and unfocused.  She felt Fionn’s presence behind her, slightly confused and out of his depth, but mostly watchful.  Concerned.  

The Anarchist focused on her, and briefly seemed to find some lucidity.  “Fuck…” A surprisingly deep voice came from behind the mask.  “You… you, girl.  God, this hurts… you’re the next one.  Join… join the Gold Diggers.  It’s where The Anarchist is headed next.”

Eli wasn’t confused.  A dull sensation throbbed at the top of her head.  She remembered that she’d wanted to join the Gold Diggers.  She remembered who she was.  The Anarchist looked down at the masked man laying in the water below her.  As he breathed his last, she only watched silently.

“Hey, Fionn.”  The Anarchist said, not quite feeling herself yet.  “Let’s go shack up with the Gold Diggers, yeah?”  Pink tinted her vision, focusing on Fionn.  The color amplified around him, a power she didn’t quite know flowing through her throat and out towards him as she spoke.  Fionn turned to her with a confused stare, before settling into a happy complacence that was somewhat unbecoming of him.

“Yeah, that makes sense.  It’s where the Anarchist is headed next, right?”

The Anarchist was 20, and had come well to terms with the new thoughts and goals in her head.  Eli was still herself, but it was as though new pieces of a personality had been added alongside what she already had.  Chaos and rebellion filled her thoughts whenever she put herself out to do something.  Tear down the whole damnable system, and watch it burn with a smile.  She really lived in a society.

It was rather stupid sometimes, the way the Anarchist thought.  But it was hard to argue with a number of his points.  The new powers were a pretty big perk as well.  Before, she could read people like books.  Now, she could rewrite the books.  Mind control, but with an option of subtlety that would have disturbed Elizabeth back before she’d become someone new.  

“That’s the one we’re hitting, really?” The Anarchist asked incredulously.  Her response was pretty well justified, considering that Cerf Tueur had brought her and Fionn- or Shatter, as he went by- to the Banque de France.  Which only happened to be one of the most famous in Paris, as well as one of the most famous in the world.  She’d already let her power out, sifting through the information locked away in people’s heads about the security of the bank.  And like clockwork, her mind connected to guards, passers-by with less-than-lawful thoughts who would never act on them, and possibly a few designers on the fringes of her range as she reaches further and further.  

“You’re lucky that people’s thoughts are a universal language.”  Shatter speaks up.  “Can you imagine how hard telepaths would have it if people’s thoughts were in all different languages?” One would never have suspected that the nerdy son of two registered heroes would fit so well in a gang of villains, but he was getting on with them disturbingly well.  Eli had her own theories about what she’d done to him when the Anarchist’s powers had become hers, but she quelled those thoughts every time they emerged to just focus on the now, on having him here with her and seeming as happy as he could be. 

Her only hopeful, positive thought was that having the Gold Diggers around was helping Fionn cope with the loss of his parents.  She was terrible at sympathizing with that no matter how hard she tried, seeing as she mostly hated her parent’s guts.  But the Gold Diggers, they’d had people who helped.  Queen had been a shoulder to cry on, Cerf Tueur had been a silent, unjudging presence that always listened.  Even Hellequin had found some way to speak to Fionn and make him feel welcome.  The Gold Diggers looked out for each other. 

“Eli, tell me about the security.”  Cerf spoke to her.  The three of them were all in their civvies, chilling outside the bank, but a tall, dark, handsome gent like Cerf Tueur stood out more than most, even when he wasn’t making deer skulls to wear as helmets.  Say what you will about the weirdness of his power, the man was committed to the whole deer thing.

The Anarchist grinned, and the pink dots in her pupil faded out.  “You’ll get a kick out of this, boss.  They switched off of computer controlled safe doors after technopaths started getting more common, and the locks they have now must have cost a fortune.  It’s high-quality stuff, and there’s only one key that was ever made for it, which is currently in the hands of the bank’s owner.  The key has genetic recognition built into it too, so they can program it so that if someone unauthorized touches it, the authorities get immediately notified.  But here’s the real kicker- the vault has a power dampener on the inside, so metas can’t use their powers to bust it open.  Not that a regular person could do it either- place is locked up tighter than a nun’s chastity belt.” Fionn made a weird face, and Eli continued.  “A real nun, not the porn kind.  We’re talking guards, cameras, the works.”

“You’ll have the passcodes to disable them all.” Cerf stated.  He was expressionless, stone-faced, but Eli could tell he was already thinking of how to break the puzzle open.  

“Yeah, of course I got ’em.”  She answered.  “What I don’t get is why our employer wants us to break in here just for cash.  Isn’t he already like, rich as balls?”

“He is.”  Cerf Tueur replied.  “But he doesn’t want to hire just anyone- he wants the best pieces to place on his chessboard, and this is to be our proving ground.”

“Ugh, now you sound like him, making board game metaphors.  So this is just a test, then?”

Cerf Tueur merely nodded.  It was Fionn who spoke next.  “I was always good at tests back in school.  Let’s get the gang together and crack this thing open.”

“They have all taken their places.  The power dampener will no longer hinder us.”  Saint spoke up from his position with his back to the wall opposite the vault door.  The power jammer had been a mighty deterrent, but it hadn’t been designed to account for simple insects with their bodies altered to allow for swift consumption of technology, pre-programmed with orders in their tiny insect brains.  They’d chewed through the thing until it stopped working.

And now, Shatter was free to work his magic.  Extending his hand outward and pressing a finger against the keyhole, a thin film of crystal sprouted on the lock, slipping inside and filling every nook and cranny, until-


Success.  The vault door swung open away from the wall.  Saint smirked as the insects swarmed back towards him to receive further doses of power.  Hellequin’s face wasn’t visible behind his mask, but Eli could imagine the look of relief on his face as he stepped into the vault- a simple small room with boxes of Francs being the only thing inside.  He didn’t hesitate for a moment before shoving all of the boxes off the shelves, where they disappeared into thin air as if by magic.

The inside team followed Hellequin’s lead back through the front, where the people in the bank where down on their knees, forced down by Eli’s mental command and left too frightened to resist by Queen and the Butcher’s intimidation.  Queen- or Ms. Brooks, as she’d once been known by- was easy to pick out.  A woman with long, graying black hair, bright green eyes, and the kind of beauty that only got better with age, holding a monstrous contraption that may have once been a rifle, though now it looked to have been combined with a subwoofer.

“Bloody brilliant, boys.  I’d say we’ve broken a world record with this one.”  She commented far too easily for someone holding a large group of people hostage with a sonic weapon.  “The Anarchist’s retrieved the password to delete the security footage, and the earpieces are working like a charm.  No signals except ours, in or out.”

The combination radio communicators and signal jammers had been one of Queen’s finest works.  The Anarchist stepped out into the front as well, hands clasped behind her back with a smug look of satisfaction on her face.  Her ‘costume’ was one of simplicity.  Civilian clothes with a pink and yellow scarf around her neck, and glasses on her face.  Her vision was actually perfect, but it was amazing how different someone could look just by taking their glasses off.   The black-haired woman, Queen, is much the same.  She looks more like she’d be heading to an evening business party in her fur-collared jacket (lined with kevlar), high heels (concealed blades, capable of collapsing into normal shoes if needed), and pearl necklace (each pearl being a micro-grenade).  

“Police on their way.”  The Butcher informed the team, after spending a moment holding still with her head tilted like a dog.  Having altered her own hearing, she was the only one that could make out distant sirens.  “Probably Argus as well.  Hero teams are busy dealing with the Pantheon in Africa.” 

The Gold Diggers strode outside, with no signs of opposition yet- but, it likely wouldn’t remain that way for long.  Their timing had been selected just perfectly to coincide with a shared blind spot in the patrol routes of civilian police and metahuman heroes, as predicted by their benefactor.  Their getaway ride awaited them- Levy, a nickname for the monster known properly as Leviathan.  

Levy had been a crocodile once, ’til the Gold Diggers had broken him out of a zoo at Saint’s request.  Now, the damn thing was as long as a bus, with six limbs growing from his body.  The legs were long enough and strong enough to lift his thick body off the ground, but currently he was laying on his belly while the Gold Diggers all climbed atop him.  Levy’s scales were more like rock than anything that should be part of an animal, and each breath sent a small cloud of icy mist from his mouth.  

As the Gold Diggers clung to Levy’s back, the colossal creature began lumbering down the street, shoving cars aside and building up more speed than would be expected of something his size, Saint closed his eyes and sent a mental signal to his other pet.  Zizzy, or Ziz, had once been a Luna Moth.  She’d been with Saint since the beginning, and it showed in the sheer degree of mutation.  Her body structure was disturbingly close to human, with four legs dangling below her in flight, and two held up as manipulators.  Her face as well- round, with a patch of fur between her antennae like a white mohawk.  Zizzy’s eyes were smaller, moved to the center of her face to give her binocular vision, and her mandibles had shrunk down to ornamenting the sides of a toothy mouth.

Ziz churred, like how an insectoid cat would sound, and gave her colossal wings a flap as she clung to the side of a building.  Her body was only seven feet from the end of her legs to the top of her antennae, but her wings were nearly sixty feet across.  They shimmered in the light as she took off, and her power came into effect.  With each beat of Ziz’s wings, thick fog poured off of her, filling the streets and making it impossible to see even Levy’s giant form.  With the fog blocking any far-off vision, Eli could only cling to Levy’s back and listen to the now-audible approaching sirens.

Eli found herself stuck in a strange balance between a racing heart and a rush of lethargy.  A silence hung over the Gold Diggers, and the empty spot where Shatter had been sitting was an elephant in the room that none of them wanted to address.  The large trees of Haute Vallee de Chevrause, the natural region park they’d fled to, left them in shade, made more ominous by Ziz’s fog.  Cerf Tueur’s back was in front of Eli, and she found herself leaning heavily against what she often called her ‘deer dad’.  

“Are we going to lose any of our profit from this job?” Cerf’s deep voice broke the silence, pulling the group’s attention back to business.  Returning to routine was supposed to be good for dealing with loss and stuff.  Queen made a quiet, ‘I don’t know’ sound as she started typing something on her phone- which currently had a data capacity rivaling most supercomputers.  A black and white chessboard pattern filled the phone’s screen, just barely visible to Eli before Queen held it up to her ear, quietly repeating the question to whoever was on the other end.

“He’s not asking for any cuts of it.”  Queen answered, covering the mouthpiece for just a moment.  “He says this job wasn’t about material gains.”  Cerf Tueur made an indignant huff, but Eli’s face lit up with what excitement she could muster.

“For real? And no catch?” She spoke, in the cheery tone of The Anarchist.  “Man, we lucked out, getting a deal like this.”  

“And we’ll continue our lucky streak if we can do what he wants next.”  Queen replied, handing her phone up to Eli.  “Pass it to Hellequin.  Benefactor wants to speak to him directly.”

Eli passed the phone up to Cerf Tueur, who passed it to Saint, who passed it to the Butcher, who finally put it in the hands of their gold-masked leader.  Hellequin placed the phone against the side of his helmet for a moment before lowering it- transferring the call directly into his headgear.

“Indeed, we do have all of it.  No, we made our escape with only one loss.  Thank you for your consideration.  Yes, we’re quite grateful.  We’ll take a week to recuperate before heading to United States.  Going against the Regents will be taxing, regardless of what we’re meant to accomplish.  Thank you, sir.  Goodbye.”  With his one-sided conversation complete, Hellequin turned back towards his team.  “We have new work.  Saint, take us home.”

“Take us home, Leviathan.”  Saint said to their mount in a soft voice, patting the reptilian creature’s scaly hide.  Levy lurched beneath them, and the Gold Diggers rode further away from Paris.  They drop Levy and Ziz in the wilderness to follow them from a distance before switching to one of Queen’s vehicles, a utilitarian truck with enough room for all of their junk.  Hellequin told Cerf Tueur and the Anarchist about the new hideout they got from their contract with mysterious chessboard man, but Eli was too busy staring outside to pay attention.

Their new place is practically a mansion, and the bed Eli gets in her room is big enough for three people.  She gives it a test run, passing out and sleeping until the next morning.

Eli’s head rang after the stunt Cypher had pulled.  It was like taking a railroad spike straight through the brain.  Luckily for her, Saint was being the MVP and gave Hellequin a secret stash of taser ants to drop on the helmeted hero, which is basically the greatest thing ever.  Especially since Cypher in all his intelligence had been completely unable to plan for it.

Still, not exactly a safe place to be.  She booked it as soon as the ants had spread.  Eli just managed to make her way into one of the abandoned houses, clutching her self-defense gun tightly.  The neon blue glow at the edges of her vision indicated that good ol’ Nate was on her tail.  

She slammed the door behind her and locked it, more to calm her racing heart than to try and keep a meta like Nate out.  The kid didn’t seem to have a full connection between his emotions and everything else, and it made him dangerous.  Her point was proven when glowstick muscled his way through the door, launching it off its hinges like it was nothing.

“Nate, stop!” Eli ordered in the strongest voice she could, pointing her weapon at the glowing boy.  “Stay back!”

“That won’t hurt me.”  Nate said in a disturbingly flat voice.  So different from… from Fionn.  Eli wasn’t sure why she’d felt the need to compare the two.  

“Really? You don’t sound so sure of yourself.”  The Anarchist said, lying and praying that it sounded convincing.  Her shaking hands betrayed her even as she tightened her grip on the gun to try and hide it.

“What were you doing in the warehouse?  Why won’t you leave me alone?” Fuck him for thinking that he was special just because he got so much attention from her.  It wasn’t her fault that Nate’s mind was wrapped in so many juicy layers of intrigue and secrecy.

“I was trying to warn you, idiot.” Eli forced out, drawing on the Anarchist persona to bring some sass back in to overpower her fright.

“Warn me?” Nate replied, his glowing head tilting just ever so slightly to the side.  He stepped closer to her and Eli’s breath stopped for a moment.  The blue aura was an uncomfortably blue color, like the saturation of the sky turned up too high so it hurt to look at.

“Stop!” She threatened again, pointing her gun back at him as if to remind Nate that she had it, ineffectual as it may be.  She’d watched his memories of getting shot at, and her weapon was nowhere near enough firepower to hurt him.

“What the hell were you warning me about? That you and your fucking murder buddies were going to kill my parents?”  Dead-voiced Nate was scary, but angry shouting Nate was worse.  

“No, no, we-” Eli struggled for the words.  Nate’s glow seemed to flare, and she felt herself trying to scramble back as he took another step towards her.

“I’m tired of you fucking lying to me-” Nate snarled, and Eli pulled the trigger.  The gun was loud, the recoil hard on her arms.  The energy around Nate’s shoulder rippled, and she knew she’d hit.  Unfortunately, it did jack-diddly-squat.

“-manipulating me-” Nate continued, and Eli tried to fire again.  The bullet flew wide and missed completely.  She kept stumbling back, until she felt a wall at her back.  “-making me betray my friends and family-” Nate was still saying, a cold kind of fury sharpening his voice.

“Nate, please…” Eli tried to make her desperation known.  Her reward was getting her gun knocked out of her hands.  It left a burning, tingling sensation that coaxed a hiss of pain from her throat.  Eli gauged her options, and took the coward’s way of ducking and trying to bolt.

It wasn’t enough.  A glowing fist slammed into the wall to impede her progress, the glow reflecting in the lenses of her glasses and the paler blue shade of her eyes.  

“They’re all I have left.”  Nate finally finished his tirade, ending on the same deadened tone he’d started with.  There was the old familiar Soot, finally back in what was normal for him.  Eli found her lips parting, but it took a second for anything more than noiseless air to come out. 

“…I know.”  She finally said, her voice coming out quieter than she’d thought it would.  The wall at her back stopped her from backing away further, otherwise she could imagine herself shrinking further.

“Don’t pretend like you’ve been the good guy all along.”  Nate accused her.  Eli took issue with that, honestly.  She was definitely a bad guy, but not necessarily a bad guy.  Nate just kept on talking.  “Or don’t you remember breaking into my house and fucking torturing me?” He growled, bringing up stuff that really should’ve been left in the past.  Nonetheless, it struck some kind of chord with her.

“I’m sorry, we-” She started to give the first sincere apology she’d given in years.  Nate cut her off to continue his rambling.

“You’re sorry? I was fucking stabbed, and had my fingers ripped off!” Okay, he had a point there.

“Come on, Nate-” Eli tried to pick up where she left off.  “We… we both know you aren’t a bad person.” So maybe don’t kill me here, Soot?  Not this time?

“Really?” Nate snapped back.  “Why don’t you read my mind and see what I’m feeling right now?”  Oh wow, fuck him.

“I can’t!  Whatever Cypher did, I keep getting… feedback, static whenever I try.”  She drew on her own memories.  Of Cerf Tueur being there for her after Fionn’s loss, of Queen looking after her even back in the adoption center before either of them had been supervillains.  “Look, we didn’t want to hurt you.  He forced us to.  We aren’t-“

“Aren’t what? Bad guys?”  For someone with such a shady past, Nate had a black and white view of morality sometimes.

“Okay, maybe we’re bad people.” Eli admitted, even though it was the world’s fault for making them bad people in the first place.  “But we don’t want to kill you, or your parents.  He-“

“Right, he forced you to.  Who’s he?” Glowstick asked.

“We don’t know his name, alright?  But he’s crazy smart, and rich, and… and he managed to scare Hellequin.”  Which was an achievement.  Hellequin was someone who built his whole persona on reputation and intimidation, so scaring him was an achievement.

“Why me?” Nate asked.  “Of all people, why me?”

“He said it was because Cypher likes you, like a son or a protege or something.”

“So all of this was… just to get to Cypher?”  Bingo, flashlight.  You’re just a pawn in this game.

“Yeah.”  Eli answered, and her voice once again refused to go any louder than a whisper. “Look, if you let me go, we won’t ever fuck with you again, I swear.  I know we threatened your family, but it was all fake.  We have our own family too.  The Gold Diggers?” She thought of Fionn, of Cerf Tueur, Queen, Saint, even Hellequin.  So much better than any foster home could’ve been for her.  “They’re my family, as dysfunctional as they may be.  We did what we had to so we could stay safe.  Your life may have been shit, but it is so much worse, for a lot of people.”  Don’t I fucking know it.  Another explosion shook the ground- right, a fight was going on outside.  Eli had almost forgotten it amidst all this heart-to-heart personal intimacy shit.  “We’ll leave, I promise.”  She added on for good measure, even if it ended up being a lie down the road.

Nate went quiet for a while, and then rather suddenly turned and punched another wall, yelling out an angered ‘fuck!’.

“Look, Nate.”  She kept going, not giving him a chance to retaliate- she had him now, she just needed to keep talking.  “They’re coming.  We were meant to soften you up.”

“Go.” Nate said, flat-voiced once more.  Eli exhaled a sigh of relief that would’ve been audible.

“Thanks, Soot-” A flare of the blue energy interrupted her.

“Don’t call me that!” Nate snapped.  “You don’t get to call me that!”

“Sorry.”  This time, the apology was complete and truthful.  “Look, maybe in another life, we could’ve been friends.  You’re a nice guy, Nate, and we did some fucked up things to you-“

“Go.”  Nate said more forcefully, this time punctuated with a rippling of his energy shell.  Eli let herself be satisfied with a brief nod, and hauled ass away from him.  She could hear Nate’s kid teammates calling to him- and as a pink tint fell over her vision, their thoughts finally became open books to her once more.

Shard’ll be of interest to you with what he’s planning.  Focus on him, would you? She dropped the thought into Nate’s head- subtle enough that he’d think it was his own, just a nudge towards the right direction.  Shard was a royal prick, he was going after Nate’s family in the legit way, not the fake way the Gold Diggers had, and Eli wouldn’t miss him in the slightest if he died.

And he will die.  After all, Burning House Boy- you’ve killed before.