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The Hand That Breaks the Fall


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It was warm where she was, warm like a sunny afternoon even though there was no light. She could barely move, surrounded on all sides by the darkness, but it didn't bother her. There was no need to move, not when she could just rest, and drift, and let the hurting fade away. Something bad had happened, she remembered vaguely. Something had hurt so much, something had been so scary. It was all gone now, though, and it didn't seem very important. Time passed, minutes or hours or days. She thought she slept, but it was impossible to tell sleep from awake. She could feel her body knitting back together. Sometimes she thought she talked to people or things she could not see, and they told her important things that she couldn't really remember or understand. Maybe that was sleeping too. It was nice. 

 

Eventually she became aware of a change in her world. Everything was still dark, everything was still close, but the closeness was softer now, more like being wrapped in blankets than tucked into an egg. The sudden deafening noise of her own heartbeat startled her; she hadn't noticed its absence until just then. She sucked in an involuntary breath, something else she hadn't been aware of not doing, her body jerking with the abrupt resumption of essential activities. The movement seemed to trigger something or break something, and suddenly the closeness was gone, replaced by air and cold and LIGHT! She gasped as her eyes opened, memory and energy and sensation all flowing back in one overwhelming rush! 

 

It had taken hours for anything to happen at all after Tarrant had carefully placed the earthen pod containing his friend's body into the newly-tilled soil of one of Mayberry's most distant fields. As dawn crept over the horizon, a tiny sprout had appeared, growing steadily as the hours passed. Over the course of two days it had grown to the side of a cornstalk, then broadened until it was the size of a small tree, for all it was obviously intent on blooming one single, perfect flower. The flower bud started out the size of a basketball and grew to the size of a truck tire before bending towards the ground under its own weight, still growing. 

 

Just before dusk on the second day, the furled bud of the flower finally began to move. It gave a single convulsive jerk and then opened wide, spilling out its occupant. Stesha, totally healed, nude as the day she was born, and tangled in her own green hair, rolled the few inches to the ground with a soft thud and lay there on her back, looking around wildly. 

 

 

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There was a dragon coiled around the inside of the walled garden where Tarrant had 'planted' Stesha's body - Teagan had planted herself there almost as soon as she'd been able to move, and aside from scratching something arcane and draconic into the walls near her torso she'd not moved since. She'd opted, instead, to glare balefully at anyone who tried to enter the place without the absolute utmost respect. That had been a fun diversion while her ribs knitted back together.

 

Dragons valued all treasure, and magic flowers who were also friends were no less treasure than gold - possibly more so, for all that they were ephemeral. So she was there, too, when Stesha's flower spat her out. A great head lifted on a great neck, turning to eye a hero reborn with some amount of warm of humor.

 

"Stesha," she rumbled. "Welcome back. Next time, I will ask the Knight to make you something dignified to fall into."

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Gabriel had been on the outside of the garden for most of the day. Tiamat was clearly the forceful guardian. Gabriel had appointed himself the gentler guardian, there to calmly ask visitors whether they truly needed to be there. Gaian Knight had "spotted" him once or twice, but Gabriel had insisted his duty lay in fulfilling this task. His friends could tell he viewed it as a penance, for allowing his dear friend to die when he was so close. 

 

When the flower opened, Gabriel sat up straighter. Then he stood, and reached down to the bag on the bench next to him. He stood and moved inside, his eyes closed as he did so, a gentle smile on his face.

 

"Tiamat, would you mind making a bit of room? I think Stesha will want these."

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Stesha relaxed a little when she saw Teagan, despite the blurry confusion of waking. If the dragon was resting, if she was comfortable enough for gentle teasing, things could not be too bad. And Carson was there too, she could hear him even before she saw him around Teagan's bulk. She didn't recognize where she was, except that they were  definitely on Sanctuary somewhere. The walled off garden was unfamiliar, like a garden but with only one giant plant... She stiffened as recent memory met current evidence. That strange creature, the moment she thought she'd seen Dark Star, that moment of pain that was all too familiar. "Oh, damn, did that thing kill me?"

 

She pushed herself to sit up. "The kids, are they okay? Did somebody stop that thing?" The realization she was naked hit just as Carson arrived with the bag, and she decided not to stand up after all. That was probably just as well, since sitting up had left her feeling shaky all over. "Please tell me you've got clothes, and maybe a brush," she implored Carson. If she'd been dead, she realized, it would've taken her at least a couple days to wake up. "Where's Ammy?" 

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Teagan took a moment to crane her neck around, peering at Gabriel long enough to be satisfied that he did, in fact, have his eyes closed. Then, and only then, did her tail coil back around her body to let him - anyone - approach unthreatened.

 

"The children are fine," she assured Stesha, settling back against the wall to provide room to everyone. She rather liked the size of this garden; she might have to bother Tarrant for one of her own, later, or hide away here for the sun and quiet. She crossed her forelimbs at the wrist, more at ease than she'd been in a while. "They did well, though it was unpleasant for them. It killed you and managed to knock me out, but I'm not certain the young ones had anything as powerful in their memories for it to draw upon as we did. I understand that it eventually fled, rather than risk capture or defeat."

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Gabriel smiled at Stesha's not-quite-desperate question. 

 

"Clothes, brush, and a few other things in a couple bags someone packed in here. I'm mostly just a courier."

 

He walked over and set the bag down near his friend. Then he turned his back and walked over to the entrance; he stopped just inside the door and spoke over his shoulder as Stesha started to dress.

 

"Melanie and her family have been watching Ammy. We just had them stay at your place the last couple days. Seemed easier for Ammy, all things considered. Velocity and I talked with her the evening that everything happened. The rest of the League is aware of what we do know about this being. I'm less mad now, so I don't plan to run off and get hit with some of the stuff I've already experienced. Still, it's...concerning."

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"Okay good, that's good." With her worries about her daughter and the students assuaged, Stesha was able to take a deep breath. It still felt strange, just a little alien and like she'd almost forgotten how. Her skin was a little bit greener now too. She remembered that from before. It had faded last time, eventually. Pushing herself carefully to her feet, she swayed for a moment on legs unused to her own weight, then began dressing with clumsy care. Nothing hurt, exactly, but everything felt a little strange and only mostly real. That would fade too, she hoped. The clothes were simple, a set of comfy wash-day underclothes, then her favorite pink and green sweatsuit that had been washed often enough to be basically shapeless, then socks and sneakers. It was nice to have the barrier against the chilly spring air. "Okay, you can open your eyes now." 

 

Just getting dressed was enough to nearly exhaust her strength, but she figured she could tough things out a little longer. She remembered that last time Derrick had taken her home and put her to bed, and she'd slept for hours. Apparently rebuilding your own body was pretty tiring. The brush suddenly seemed like too much work, so she twisted her hair into a long rope instead and wrapped it into a sloppy coil behind her head, securing it with a flower crown. Her powers, at least, seemed to be working fine. "There are people outside," she realized, her connection to Sanctuary sharpening with her attention. "I guess it would've been hard to keep all this quiet." Walking over to Teagan, she tried to examine the dragon for signs of lasting damage. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Anything still hurting?" 

 

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"I will mend," insisted Teagan, none-too-subtly drawing her wing forward to cover singed and ragged-looking scales. She'd cleaned the soot off of them, at least. "I'm fortunate that it drew forth one of my brothers and not my sister. She would have made a far more honest attempt to kill me." She seemed to find the thought amusing. "The worst is healed; the rest will correct itself with time. The new scales will itch coming in - perhaps I will trouble you for a dragon-sized aloe plant when the time comes."

 

Several tons of dragon rose to its feet, stretching as much as the walls would allow. "Your people await, if you've the energy for it - we did not tell them much beyond the necessary, but word does get around. We might leave more quietly, otherwise - I believe the Knight was checking on your daughter, who will be pleased to see you again."

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Stesha made a sympathetic little "ohhh" noise at the sight of Teagan's damaged side. "Ow, that looks painful, even if it's superficial. I can't imagine trying to fly on that." Trying to heal without her seeds would've been very difficult, but some bright friend had included her spare work pouch in the bag of supplies. With just a moment of sorting, she had a handful of already-sprouting seedlings growing into medicinal herbs. "You'll still have to take it easy for a little while, but this will help." Crushing the leaves in her hands, she let her power flow into them, then spread the mushy leaf mess very carefully over the dragon's wounds. It was still sort of a toss-up how much the medicinal quality of the plants helped in the healing and how much was just Stesha channeling energy, but it worked, and that was what mattered. 

 

She took a seat on the ground pretty quickly after that, pulling a bottle of water from the bag and cracking it open. "Okay, yes. People outside waiting. We should go see them. But first, what do we know about the guy who did this?" She wasn't quite sure her legs would hold her up at the moment, so it seemed like a good time to get caught up. "Has he gone after anybody else yet? He didn't seem like the quitter type." 

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"I can ask most of them to go home. Just letting them know you're up and about should be sufficient."

 

Gabriel shifted as he spoke, even as he turned to look at Stesha once she'd given the "all clear". Stesha knew Carson found the sheer devotion some of the people on Sanctuary regarded her with...uncomfortable...at times. He and the monks had been extremely gentle in any discussions where it had come up; they'd thoroughly lived up to the bargain of not making their aid conditional. 

 

"No further sightings yet. The eggheads think it's some kind of phobophage-like being. A fear-powered spirit. They said, and I quote: 'We are at least 80% confident it is not Fear Master having taken some kind of mutation cocktail', end-quote. Which...does not necessarily make me feel better, but still."

 

He held out another bag, this one smaller.

 

"Some bread, cheese, and Brother Martin's special brew. To help you wake up. Anyways, the children seemed to do better because of fewer terrible injuries in their past, and dealt it enough of a blow that it retreated. We've been trying to keep our eyes open, but without some kind of sensor reading or whatever, it's hard."

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Teagan made a hissing noise somewhere between pain and satisfaction, but she let Stesha tend to her with only the strictly-necessary protesting. By the time she was done her side looked far better, at least; the dragon swung her head around to inspect it, approvingly, gently scratching old scarred scales away to reveal newer ones - fresh, not fully grown in, but a better sight than the old. "...thank you," she said, with something approaching a dragon's humility, "though I would not have asked it. You seem drained as it is."

 

She shook herself, flexing the now less-injured wing muscles as best she could without bowling anyone over. "Which returns us to the question at hand. Your people would benefit to know you are up and moving. They may not benefit in believing you to be less than full strength, but you've never claimed proper godhood so I'm unsure how much you care." She paused, cocking her head, and added, "....with my wings working properly, now, I could simply fly you out. It may be sufficiently dramatic, if you don't feel up to speaking to crowds, or teleportation. Or you could give your worshipers a rousing speech on your return."

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Stesha wasn't quite sure she was ready for food or strong drink yet, whether the special brew was coffee or alcohol. Knowing Carson and Brother Martin, it could be both. Her brand-new stomach didn't really want anything but water for now, but she accepted the bag with a grateful smile anyway. "Just tired," she assured Teagan. "I'll spend a few hours under my sun lamps tonight and be totally good again." She took another sip from her water bottle. "And they aren't my worshipers," she insisted. "They're neighbors. Constituents, maybe. A lot of them are my friends." As her senses sharpened and her connection to the land firmed back up, she could identify more and more of the people outside, most of them by name and face. "I'll go out and talk to them, just give me a couple minutes to get my legs back under me." 

 

She turned to Carson. "We need to come up with some kind of strategy to deal with that thing. The way it was talking... I don't think it's fear. I wasn't afraid of it when it hit me." Stesha rubbed a hand over her face, trying to think about that brief encounter rationally, remember objectively when her brain was more interested in reliving it in all its vivid details. "I don't... it was just patrol, and the thing was knocking over garbage cans. There's not much that can hurt me anymore, and I wasn't scared. Even when it turned into Derrick, or, or into his double, I guess, I was just mad. But then for a second it was like I was back in the Babies 'R Us with Taylor, and like I could hear the people around us screaming and smell that weird baby-powder smell they pump in there, and it was like I was actually in the past for just long enough for him to kill me again."

 

She dropped her head to her upraised knees for a second, took a few deep breaths. "I think it's some kind of memory power. Like it made a memory so powerful that I literally went through it again." She looked to Teagan to see if that jibed with what she'd experienced. "The kids... if they didn't have any bad enough memories, maybe it couldn't hurt them very much. But how do we fight something like that?" 

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Carson sagged a bit as they continued to talk. It was clearly a sign of further relief.

 

"I realize that was probably a bit harsh toward them. I'm sorry. It's just....I've spent the last few days feeling worried, hearing everyone else being worried, and picking up non-verbal cues because, well, we all know how good I am at that these days. Makes it hard to unclench. Everyone's been a bit on edge."

 

He frowned thoughtfully at Stesha's clarifications on the being.

 

"Hm. Interesting. So definitely telepathic in some manner, and/or some measure of passive temporal ability. If it puts its target through the physically worst injury-memory, that rules out a lot of us. We'd need to talk to the rest of the League, see who we have that hasn't been as strongly injured as some of us-"

Here he scratched his belly, where Stesha remembered horrific wounds nearly killing Gabriel years ago. 

"-or who have the ability to ignore or heal those wounds quickly. We can't assume that raw speed will stop it. Folks with strong resistance to psychics might help, but I don't want to bet the whole game on that. Once we get several folks put together, that's our hunting team."

 

It was clear that sending Claremont students wasn't an option in Carson's mind. 

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"It got into my head, at the start of it," mused Teagan, rubbing a wing against her newly-growing scales. "It tried to show me my fears, or shames. To draw out an emotional response. It worked better than I'd have liked." Scratch scratch scratch went the wing, another pair of dead scales falling to the ground. "It did actually strike me, but it did so in the form of an old memory; I think it drew power from our pasts. It could change quite fast. I would also not recommend speed as a defense, nor assume that it must be in your head to act against you."

 

She'd been looking upward as she scratched, reminiscing, but that thought brought her attention back down to earth. "I say 'it', in my ire and contempt, but while it seemed...undirected, it was not mindless. We made it angry, in the end; I could bait it into attacking me instead of the children. That too is a weakness, and it only struck at me with my own memory, not the children's. We can't be sure that's a hard limit on its power, but it seems possible."

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"Telepaths, maybe," Stesha mused, looking thoughtful. "Some of them have the ability to shield themselves from psychic attacks, so maybe this thing couldn't get to them at all. Maybe heroes who have been invulnerable for their whole careers, or who are just very, very good at dodging." She smiled a little, without much humor. "Maybe if we could find some way to induce temporary amnesia, it would make a person invincible. If you don't have any bad memories at all, maybe the thing's got no ammunition?" 

 

She uncurled her body, ran both hands over her face. "I think before we know how we're going to stop it, we have to figure out what it wants. It was making a big noisy mess in the park because it obviously wanted our attention, but then it ran away when it started to get outnumbered. I'm betting it's going to show up again soon, and I'm betting it's going to try and tag more heroes. If it had wanted to attack civilians, it easily could have, but that doesn't seem to be its game. It wants us. How do we use that to steer it in a way that helps?" 

 

 

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"Stesha, I know you just woke up, but you need to rest. Let's get you home, where you can see your daughter. I'll go talk to the rest of the League. We can keep forming plans. Tomorrow you can write down, or talk about, everything you remember about how that thing fought and acted."

 

Gabriel was giving her an expression that was a mixture of concern and exasperation. 

 

"Or do I need to start quoting what you said to me for weeks after the super-zombie incident?"

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Teagan had been finishing up with her scratching, one might hope, craning her head around to eye the new scales growing in to fill the gaps. She tapped one with a wing-claw, and seemed satisfied. "You would steer it with bait," she answered, bringing her head back to the conversation. "Which is why we may not do so, and why we will definitely not do so while the local flower deity can barely stand unassisted. Do keep trying, though."

 

That was a lot of teeth. It was probably a grin, and definitely a little smug. "I intend to follow you until you give up and rest a bit, and would delight in seeing you get the same speech from every person you meet. Until it got old," she said, "and I got bored, and began to eat people. Best you listen to Gabriel while you can, but don't let me stop you."

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Stesha's smile was a little worn, but game. "Don't bother," she told Carson, "I'll listen every bit as well as you did." She pushed herself very carefully to her feet, not too proud to take an offered hand or claw as she did so. "But I think I will take the day tomorrow, if you insist," she added with a teasing look Teagan's way. "I probably do need the rest. Hopefully that thing isn't in any big hurry."

 

"Thank you both for staying with me," Stesha added, turning to them both. "It... God, it feels weird to wake up like that," she admitted. "I'm not sure people are meant to do it at all, no matter what kind of superpowers. But I'm glad I didn't wake up alone." She took a deep breath and found her balance, then squared her shoulders. Somehow it was enough to turn the woman into the heroine, with all the weakness and the weariness carefully tucked away behind friendly, confident competence. "I'm just going to tell everybody I'm okay, then I'll go home."

 

She went through the door and was immediately greeted by a small crowd of people. It wasn't as bad as she'd feared, only twenty or twenty-five people in sort of a vigil-slash-picnic while they waited for her. Amaryllis, who had undoubtedly felt her wake up, was the first one on her when she walked out. "Mommy!" she shrieked, bulleting forward and slamming into Stesha almost hard enough to knock them both over. For a moment they were both floating as gravity took a sudden dip, and then they were standing again, with Ammy hugging her mom as hard as she could. 

 

"Hey, sweetheart." Stesha hugged back just as hard, kissing her daughter's hair and closing her eyes tight. "Sorry I scared you. Everything's okay now. Did people take good care of you while I was gone?" 

 

Ammy nodded, not releasing her mother for a moment. Even at ten she was already getting more of Derrick's height than Stesha's, and came up nearly to Stesha's nose. Her voice, though, was as little-girly as it ever got. "Uh-huh, lots of people took care of me.  They said it would be okay, but I wasn't sure! I could only even feel you a little tiny bit!" 

 

"I know, baby, I'm so sorry," Stesha repeated. "We'll go home and talk about it, and how about we have some cocoa and watch a movie? Just let me talk to everybody for a minute here." With her daughter's hand safely caught in her own, Fleur de Joie began to circulate through the group of people, thanking everyone who pitched in to cover the unexpected absence, reassuring worried people that things were all okay and nothing was going to change. 

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