Breaking – 14.9

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There were no convenient little boxes with red crosses to mark first aid kits or similar signs to show us the way to the medical center, which left us in a weird kind of lurch.  We passed through the showers and into the building proper.  People talked to us in foreign tongue, and for the most part, there was a dissonant lack of concern in our welfare.  They looked at my mangled, partially flayed hand and didn’t show a shred of empathy, faint ‘human’ reaction to gore aside.

We’d collected towels and hand-towels from the shower area, and they hadn’t stopped us.  The towels weren’t so different from what we used on Gimel, but seemed to have divides where one end of the towel was used to effectively get the initial bit of moisture off, and the remainder absorbed or warmed.

Kenzie walked a little too confidently with a streak of blood on her face.  Ashley had her tilt her head back so her nose pointed skyward.

“Don’t,” I said.

“What?” Kenzie asked.

“Was talking to Ashley.  But you too.  Don’t tilt your head back.”

“It’s what they do in the movies.”

“It’s debatable whether it works, but if there is a benefit, it’s not as good as blood draining down the back of her throat is bad.  Too much blood in the stomach makes you puke.”

“Head down,” Kenzie said, holding her nose.  “Thank you.”

They watched us, guards and the staff in the hallways we were in let us enter, but they didn’t guide.  At most, with numbers, they herded and left us to guess. Making life as hard as they could.

I wasn’t going to bleed to death, but in the wrong circumstances, I did have to worry about infection or the long-term damage that happened if I didn’t immediately reattach skin.  If that was possible.

At least our navigation of this labyrinth had its own trail of breadcrumbs, a ball of thread.  It was Amy’s world, reflecting Amy in more ways than one, and so it was entirely natural that the path we walked through the facility was dotted with crimson droplets and dribblings.  Tristan had a clean towel wrapped around one arm, but there was blood leaking out near the elbow.  Rain nudged him to ensure he held it up, and helped secure the towels tightly around the arm, holding the wound closed.

“How are you holding up?” I asked Theo.  The hand-towel he had pressed to his stomach had a crimson-brown stain leeching into it, and more blood leeched into his top, a dark line amid a lighter blotting.  That shirt was going to be hell to pull away from the wound, once the blood clotted and connected skin to material.

The towel around my hand was too, for that matter.

“I should ask you,” he said.

“Tough,” I said.  “I asked first.”

“Surface level, I’m pretty sure.  It’s one more scar added to a hundred.”

“A hundred, huh?” I asked, trying to sound casual, because I felt anything but.  Every corridor was interlocking brick in different arrangements, combined with stone to contrast the brick’s red clay hues with dark gray.  I was starting to think making this place hard to navigate to trip up anyone trying to escape.

“Is there medical?” Sveta asked.  She wasn’t joining the conversation; she was asking a guard.  She got no answer.

“Courtesy of Jack and Hookwolf,” Theo said.  “I got good treatment, but when they asked, I decided I’d rather have something left behind than have brand spanking new skin.  It only really shows when I tan, but if I say it’s only a surface wound and someone asks me if I’m sure, I have plenty of evidence saying I know what it’s like to be cut up.”

“Ah,” I said, words failing me as pain surged, like my brain psychologically heard words like ‘cut up’ and ‘scar’ and fired more neurons and sparked up more nerves to tell me how fucked up my hand was.  “Cricket did something similar, I think.”

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Right.  I actually kind of forgot about that.”

“Nice, Victoria,” Vista said.

Oh.  Right.  He’d probably known Cricket. It might have sounded like I was drawing connections or… didn’t matter.  Touchy ground.

“Sorry,” I told Theo.

“Nah.  You’re not wrong.”

“I don’t think of you as part of that crowd, so it’s hard to connect the thoughts, especially while we’re wandering around and not seeing any frigging medical center.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Hi,” Sveta tried, addressing a guard.  “Medical?”

He pointed.

Okay.

“I did it too,” Vista said.  “Collected my scars.”

“Past tense?” Tristan asked.

“I got a new one from March, but I’m not working so hard to collect them.  If someone could magically erase them I might take them up on the offer, but it’s hard to find someone to trust.”

“Now who’s being rude?” Theo asked.  He elbowed Vista.

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “I meant it to sound more sympathetic.  Sorry.”

“Nah,” I said.  “You’re fine.”

Frick.  Fuck.  Motherfuck.

I worried about Theo.  I worried about Tristan.  Both had been slashed.

“I could make a cast,” Tristan said.  “Draw something out in red-orange dots and lines and encase your hand.  Keep it covered.”

“I’m not sure that’d help,” I said.  My voice was a bit raw from having puked, a bit of a burr, like that minute amount of acid had scarred my throat, when it hadn’t.  Only a bit of irritation.  “I’m more worried about you.”

“I’m a bit worried about me.  But I’m tough.  Let’s just get some medical attention.”

Medical attention made me instinctively think of Amy.

Would we turn a corner, and find ourselves face to face with another gang of hostile prisoners?

Would I turn a corner and find myself face to face with the bullheaded denizen of this labyrinth, that kept turning up?  Kept looming above me?

“Medical center?” Sveta asked some guards in red uniforms, all armed with cloth-wrapped guns.  She twisted around, asking people behind us.  “Medical?  Doctor?  Anything?”

The answer was foreign, cryptic.

The pain was blinding, a haze of red and darkness at the edge of my vision, narrowing my focus.  Even though the temperature was a degree or two below comfortable, I was sweating, which created a clammy layer between clothing and skin.  It made me very conscious of my body, and how uncomfortable skin was to wear.

It was many times more uncomfortable to have the skin missing, to have the back of your hand and most of two fingers ripped off, cleanly sliced off at first, then the last fingernail-studded inch torn.

Thinking about it made me sweat more.  I still had a dirty stretch of skin in my free hand.

“Medical?” Sveta asked.

“Back that way,” a guard said, indicating the way we’d come from.  “Your guest is in this room.  She won’t be allowed to stay for long.”

Fuck.  I’d wanted to talk more, to touch base.  What was this?

Fuck.

My head swam with the pain, memories of Amy with gore up to her elbows, my gore, me, and with implications and ideas.

I turned to go.

“Where are you going?” Sveta asked.  “Victoria.”

“This is probably a faster way,” I said, as I pushed the door open.

The room lacked furniture, though it had pillars in the corner with plants hanging from the tops.  Citrine stood next to her husband.  A burly guard stood in the center.  As we entered, one of the guards in our company slipped through and went to stand by the burly guard.

Blocking our direct view of Citrine.  They stood with their backs to one another.

Positioning mattered, even in a visitors area.

“I’m surprised you came,” Tristan said.  “Considering what happened to the last people who did.”

“We’re fine, but you clearly aren’t.  You were attacked?  Or punished?”

“Attacked,” Tristan said.

“Are they refusing medical care?” Citrine asked.

“No, but they aren’t exactly being clear or open about how to get it.”

Citrine looked at the guard that stood between our groups.  She said something in a foreign language, one word, it didn’t sound quite right based on what I’d already heard, but it wasn’t hesitant or shaky either.

“When they will ever wish,” the guard said.

“I take that to mean you can go get assistance when you wish.  Unless you’re afraid to do so?  We could try to pull you out.  It might be costly.”

“It might be good to get Lookout out of here,” I said.

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Nuh uh.  It would suck more being not here than being here.  Prison riots aside.”

“I’m sure you could debate for some time, but I don’t like that bleeding, so I’ll bring you up to speed,” Citrine said.  “Briefly put, we’re pulling strings.  We expect to have you out soon.”

“I’m covering the financial side,” her husband said.  He looked like an accountant, wearing a peacoat, scarf, a light blue dress shirt, black slacks, and thick-framed glasses, his hair short and pressed down from the hat he’d had on.  “Jeanne is covering everything else.  We do have ways to apply pressure.”

Citrine looked us over, as best as she could with the guards standing in the way.  “It’s good you bled, but you need medical care.”

Weird, to have her so concerned.

“I wondered if the bleeding was in our favor,” I said.  I glanced at Vista.  She’d hurt herself at my recommendation.  Her one hand was pressed down over the back of the other hand that she’d sliced.

“How badly was the opposition hurt?”

“One woman was hurt by her own weapon.  A prisoner hurt a guard by accident in the fracas.”

“Good.  As close to ideal as we could hope for,” Citrine said.

“Us not being attacked would be ideal,” Vista answered.

“True,” Citrine admitted.

“Are you safe to go?  The less injured could stay,” Kurt said.

“Safety in numbers might be best,” I said.  “But we’d have four people in each group, at least.”

Citrine looked at my hand, then looked at Tristan, her eye falling on the bloody towel he’d wrapped around his arm.  She said something in Spanish.

Tristan responded.

“No,” the guard said.  He put his hand out.  “Not that, change to the Goddess tongue.”

“I was asking if his family knew he was here,” Citrine said.  “He said they don’t.  I’ll tell them.”

“Thank you,” Tristan murmured.  The guards were focused on Citrine.  While they told her something, Tristan leaned his head over and murmured to me, “She was asking if it was guards that attacked us.  I said some did.”

I nodded, turned to Sveta, and passed on the message.

“We have to strike a balance,” Citrine said.  “They will keep their deal, but they won’t necessarily be kind in the meantime.  We’ll do what we can to pressure them to leave you alone.  I could elaborate, but I’m worried every second counts with that bleeding.”

“You should go,” Sveta said.  “Take some of us with you if you need.

“I’ll go.  We’ll go,” I said.  “You fill in my teammates, they’ll fill us in.  Golem, Capricorn, me?  Vista?”

“I’m fine.  Shallow.  Bring me a bandage or something after, or I’ll grab something.”

“Sveta?” I asked.

“I’ll come.  More to keep an eye out than because I need it,” she said.  She turned her arm around, and I could see that ‘straps’ of tissue were pressed against the underside of the wound, fluids oozing out and clotting to blur the boundaries.  There was still a ‘zipper’ edge around the boundary of the wound.

“Miss Militia said she wanted you out, she said the Wardens need your help.  It won’t be more than twelve hours.”

Roughly midnight, then.

“Thank you,” Tristan said.

“Guard?  If you’d have someone escort them to medical?  Promptly?” Citrine asked.  She added a two-word statement in their language, stiff.

One of the two guards at the center of the room turned and headed to the door, he motioned for us to follow.

“You trust them?” Ashley asked.

Citrine answered, “I trust them to deal with us, yes.  They are taking the stance that parahumans are something set aside, so as a group of parahuman envoys you…”

The door closed behind Tristan, Sveta, Theo and I as we stepped out into the hall.

Back into the labyrinth, this time with a guide.  My hand gripped the towel that wrapped around my other hand, the loose skin I’d collected pressed between palm and fabric.

They led us down the hall, and there was purpose to where they went.  Whenever we came across guards, those guards stepped off to the side of the hall and stared us down as we passed.

The individual medical rooms were well set up, shelves lined with bottles and with tools that sat in red and pink solutions, possibly to sterilize them.  We passed one room with a child and their mother seated.  The child had the skin that made me think of bleached hair, while the mom had a bit of it.

Unfamiliar medicine, administered by people who hated us.

Get me in one piece and I’ll have doctors I trust handle this after, I thought.

Sveta remained in the hallway as Tristan, Golem and I entered our individual rooms.  There were no doctors within, but there were people in the hallway, and one rang a dull bell three times, apparently to summon three doctors.

Right away, the doctor swabbed my blood, putting it in a dish with some liquid.  My leftover skin went in another dish.  Then it was the process of having the towel peeled away.

There were no words exchanged, no explanations, not that I would have known what he said if he’d addressed me.  Just quiet, clinical practice.

He reached for another tool -a syringe- and I stopped him.

“What is that?” I asked.

He answered in another language.  He motioned to bring it toward my hand.  I stopped him again.

“I need to know what it is.”

Again, he answered in the other language.

“Uh, guard?” I asked, raising my voice.

It was Sveta who brought the guard to the doorway.

“What’s he saying?” I asked.

“Quiets the hand,” the guard explained.  “Quiets you.”

“Quiet as in-” I put my hand at an angle, closed my eyes and moved my head over.

“Yes.”

“No,” I said.  “I’ll stay awake.  I have to stay awake.”

“The patients here do not decide.  Outside?  Yes.  Inside?  No.  You don’t choose.”

“This isn’t my choice.  It’s government.  Gimel, Shin made agreements,” I said.  “You were told to fix me.  You can do it without knocking me out.”

He exchanged words with the doctor.  The doctor looked annoyed.

The exchange continued for what felt like a minute.  Every movement of air on the back of my hand made me want to throw up, not because of pain, but because of how visceral it was, where it took me in a horror sense.

My skin was-

I had a very mixed relationship with my skin.

“Someone who was treating me didn’t listen when I told them to stop, once, and I got-”

The guard motioned for me to stop, or to back down, or shut up.  I wasn’t sure which, but the hand was swiped my way, firm.

“-fucked up.”

The doctor twisted around on his seat, facing me.  He looked pissed.  With an exaggerated show, he set the syringe down.  He picked up a small glass bowl and filled with colored granules that looked like tinted sugar.  He said a single word in his language.

“This,” the guard translated.  “Is this acceptable?”

“I have no idea what it is.”

There was another brief exchange.

“It cleans the hand.  Some quiet.”

“For just the hand?” I asked.

“Yes, the hand,” the guard said.

I didn’t trust it, and I didn’t trust them, but I was already worried, and I had no idea how clean that clean towel had been.

“Yes.”

The guard translated.  He didn’t wait to see or do anything before walking down the hall toward Tristan and Theo.  Sveta remained where she was, her attention divided between me and the guard.

He sprinkled the mixture over my hand.  It felt cold, but that was the anaesthetic element of it.  My hand tingled, cold, the pain stopped, and then the anaesthetic claimed my hand in entirety, followed by a swift loss of my arm, and it reaching my chest to grip my heart in some combination of horror and numbness that I couldn’t tell apart.  From there, it swept over my entire body.  It reached my throat, my head- and it decimated my consciousness.

With what remained of my awareness, I looked at Sveta, and saw her looking down the hall at the guard, rather than looking at me.

Then the next wave came, and I was out and gone, the doctor catching me as I slumped over.

Amy smiled, her arms folded.  She only wore a simple short sleeved top, crimson fabric, and with her arms exposed her fucking tattoos were plainly visible.  She looked as at ease as I’d seen her in recent memory.

A doctor said something in a foreign tongue.  Amy stumbled through her response.  Fucking Citrine had been better at speaking the language, and Citrine hadn’t lived here for any length of time.

Emotion choked me.  Everything I’d felt in the last two years at once.  Every swear word I’d uttered multiplied by every jawbone and sternum, every rib I’d shattered, the lives I’d taken and the damage I’d done.  I trembled with it and I couldn’t find an outlet.  I would have puked again, I would have screamed at her, and I couldn’t.

Only paralysis.

Then fear.  Every flicker in my peripheral vision, every doubt that had crossed my mind, all gathered together.  Except… she was here, a half smile on her face as she said something to the doctor, who looked annoyed.

I felt like there was a deal we made with ourselves growing up.  That we were kids and we were scared of the dark and the unknown, and we braved the world and each fear we faced down was a promise to ourselves.  Fourteen year old Vicky enacting an unspoken agreement with little waist-high Vicky, saying ‘We’re going to approach that boy, and it’s exciting and it’s scary but I’ll handle it if it gets messy’.

That I’d step into that first fight with an adult man almost twice my size, and I’d manage.  A pledge from myself to a more vulnerable myself, that we were strong enough.

A silent promise to myself when I fought a person with powers.  Scared every time, but earning that trust and the ability to make bigger and better promises along the way.

Here, that vulnerable, small, childish part of me that was ready to be scared of everything was in the driver’s seat.

The bigger, adult me was paralyzed, thrust away.  Because in that storm of bound-up feelings that were hitting me full force, there was another kind of non-feeling process.  I’d disconnected, pulled away, detached so many times.  Gone to another place, dove into academic thought, dove into memories, lost myself in violence, even.

As I felt anger like I’d kept all of the anger of the last few years in reserve, and a quiet terror that seemed to encapsulate every fear I’d ever had, I felt the safety of the disconnect, observing everything from arm’s length, even myself.

I tried to speak and only a small sound came out.

Immediately, that ease I saw in her disappeared.  Amy turned my way, then hurried to my bedside.

I reached for powers and found paralysis instead.  They were there, but-

I thought of the Gimel refugees.  Of the need for supplies.

Between paralysis and the stray thought, reaching for my powers and finding them was slower than Amy was in reaching out to touch me.

The touch lasted all of two seconds.  Then, belated, she pulled her hand away, and my consciousness went in the other direction, more of an immediate blackout than any time I’d fallen asleep or been knocked unconscious.

Forced.

I roused, and my body felt leaden.  I used my flight, instinctively, like I was getting out of bed in the morning, and I pushed myself to a sitting-up position.

The feeling of having betrayed myself was the first thing to set in.  I’d betrayed every aspect of myself, from that vulnerable side of myself to the scholar to the warrior monk and the wretch.

I’d let my guard down.

Now…

I dared to look.

A square room with a cot and a closed door.  I lay on the cot.  Amy sat in a chair in the corner opposite where I lay.  A guard stood near her.

I brought my knees to my chest, and I hugged them, as if I could put myself further away from her.  My hand was bandaged.  I felt tightness around the injured parts.  I couldn’t tell through bandage, but it felt like the skin was there and swollen.

I wondered if I’d have to hurt her.  I’d have to be careful of my injured hand.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” she told me.

I didn’t answer.

“Don’t give me the silent treatment.  Please.”

That just made me want to do it more.  Petty.  Refuge in hate, in fighting mindlessly because the alternative was surrender.

I thought of Sveta’s absence.  She’d been watching over things.

“My team.  Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  They’re back in the prison population.”

“Do they know you’re in here?”

“No.”

I squeezed my legs harder.

“They were angry, when you passed out,” she said.  “There was almost an incident.  Marquis- he’s here because I am.  He talked them down.  Your group had a huddle.  They talked about it.  They agreed it made the most sense to let it be, given cost, benefit, and what Citrine said about Shin.”

“Leaving me here,” I said.

“They didn’t like it but given what’s at stake…”

“Supplies for Gimel,” I said, feeling hollow.  The hollowness scared me.

“Materials from Shin have been about thirty percent of what Gimel received to date.  Cheit’s fifty, if I remember right.  Ten percent from Nun and other associated corner worlds.  Something like six percent from Gimel itself, three percent from Bet, reclaim and scavenging.  You guys wanted to put as much as you could into rebuilding.  Shelters and businesses first, Gimel having its own supply and manufacturing chains came second.  The numbers for supplied food versus what Gimel produces on its own are different, but I think last winter they were sort of close to what I just said.”

“It’s ‘you’, huh?” I asked.  Still hollow, harrowed, emotionally wrung out from nothing except being in this room, in this position.  Under her power.  “Gimel is ‘you’ and Shin is ‘us’?”

“You know what I mean.”

I looked down at my cot.  There were a shallow set of railings running along the edges to keep the mattress within bounds.  I wondered if I could grab those, fly, leverage strength, and use the cot as a weapon to kill Amy and the guard in one shot.

If I had to.

That made me feel better.

“Let’s talk,” Amy said.

That made me feel worse.

“Is that an order?” I asked.  “A directive?  Not a request, obviously, not an option?”

“If I say it’s an option you’ll say no,” she said.

“You’ve lost every right to dictate terms, Amelia.”

“Call me Amy.”

“You don’t get to choose what I call you,” I told her, my voice low.  “If that guard wasn’t here and if I wasn’t worried it would cause an incident, I’d have other names for you.”

“I don’t get to choose, I don’t get to dictate,” she said.  “You know… there’s never once been a time in my life where I got a real say in anything?  I was a kid and Marquis decided I’d live with the Dallon family, and then Carol and Mark got to decide when my bedtime was, when and what I ate, and what I did for homework.  When I had friends they were your friends or it was just you and I never really got a vote.”

“That’s being a kid.”

“It happened even later.  I didn’t choose my costume, it was Carol showing me some sketches and saying A, B, or C.”

“Sketches done with your input.”

“And it was other stuff, it was the times I got forced to go out heroing, and it was school and it was career path and-”

“And that justifies it?”

“And I’m not going to dwell on it, but…” she floundered.

“But what?”

“But maybe it would be nice of you to realize I’ve kind of been under someone else’s thumb or in someone else’s shadow or following someone else’s directions every step of the way.  And when I did finally do things out of my own free will I was unpracticed and traumatized and-”

“And that excuses it?”

“No!  Ye- no.  But it would be nice if it could be taken into account,” she said, her voice dropping in volume.  “It would be nice if for this, right here, instead of you getting angry and saying we won’t talk, maybe you meet me halfway.  I don’t want to domineer the conversation, I don’t want to force you to have it, I want you to want to have it.  An actual, even, fair conversation.”

“While a guard who could shoot me stands at your side-”

“He’s not-”

“-and you have me cornered, and you’ve-

I choked on the words I was going to say.

“I don’t have you cornered.”

“You’ve used your power on me, and I have no idea what you did to me while I was defenseless.”

The tear that sprung from one of my eyes caught me off guard.  It seemed to do the same for her.

“Th-”

“Again,” I said, more to myself.

It still shut her up.

She said something in the other language, stiff.  The guard gave me and her a wary look, then hauled the door open.  It slammed on shutting.

“Guard’s gone,” she said.  “He doesn’t speak English, by the way.  That’s why it was him, specifically.”

“Doesn’t make me feel better.”

“I can’t help you feeling cornered-”

“You can leave.  Leave me alone.  That’s all I’ve asked for.”

“About the third thing,” she said, stubbornly plowing ahead.  “What I did.  I can explain.”

“And I’m supposed to trust you?” I asked.  My voice went out on ‘trust’, so I mouthed it more than said it.

“I’m hoping that after we talk you can.  At least a little,” she said.  “I only used my power the once.  They hadn’t warned me you’d be paralyzed, my first thought was that it was a stroke, um-”

“You used your power on me, you cunt.”

The word seemed to catch her off guard, but not as much as I’d hoped.

“I checked you.  I got a read of your system.  Um.  That includes the neural connections-”

I let go of my legs, burying face in my knees, that were pulled up to my chest, and covered my head.

“It includes emotions.  Um.  If it’s any reassurance-”

“Fuck you and your reassurance,” I said.

“I get it now,” she said.  “How you’re disgusted by me, how you feel betrayed, the hate, the pain.  Crystal clear now.  I felt it, realized what it was and that it was all real, and I pulled my hand away like it was a hot stove.  I did use my power, but it was like pulling my hand off a hot stove.  Pushing you away, into unconsciousness, while I pulled back.”

My skin crawled.

She sounded mournful, subdued.  Her hands clutched one another in her lap.  The imp Dot had climbed out of her hair and had a lock of Amy’s hair in her teeth.  Her tail swished as she glared at me.

“Amelia,” I said.  I properly lifted my head.

“I guess you’re going to call me that.  Okay.  What?”

“Those feelings are mine.  You’re not supposed to read me like a fucking book and ‘get it’.  You’re supposed to read my fucking lips and hear the fucking words I’m saying and believe me.”

“Okay.”

“Then fuck off and die somewhere.”

“I do get it,” she said, instead of following the instructions.  “The anger.  I definitely felt that.  The hate.”

“I’ve been working on that,” I said.

She nodded, shoulders relaxing a hair.  “I’m glad.  For your sake I mean.”

“Cultivating it, channeling it.  Stoking that fire a bit whenever there’s a good excuse.”

I saw her face fall, and it hadn’t been ‘up’ in any way.  Just… not guarded.

I went on, “The anger, it hurts others, you know.  It drove me to maim or thrash Nazis and people who’d try to coerce fifteen year olds into prostitution.  Scum of the earth.  But there’s too much risk.  Too much collateral damage.”

“You don’t have me to clean up the mess.”

I shrugged.  “Hurts too many people for me to have anger as an outlet nowadays.  I find myself saving it up and then shattering Valefor’s jaw or something.  Fear, though?  Fear… it just kills me inside.  Sucks up all my energy.  Eats me alive.  And I’ve been scared every day since what you did.  Really fucking scared.”

Emotions were leaking into the words, when I wanted to lay it all out.

She nodded.

“Self loathing, hating my own skin?  Not feeling like I’m me?  It eats at my identity.”

“This is why I want to talk.  So we can address these things, work on fixing them.”

“You can’tYou can’t,” I said.  I put a different emphasis on the second repetition.  “You don’t get to.  This is what I hate about you.  This is- this is the point I was getting to.  Hate.  Anger hurts others, fear eats away at you, self-loathing fucks with your sense of identity.  But hate?  Hate’s focused.  If I have to have shitty feelings in the aftermath of what you did to me, I prefer hate because it has one target, one casualty at most.  You.”

“It bleeds into other things.”

“Maybe.  Cross that bridge when we get to it.  For now?  Hating you keeps me sane.  And I fucking hate that you’re arrogant enough to think you can fix me or fix my feelings, or fix this situation.  Walk away.”

For a second, I thought she might summon the strength to push herself to a standing position and then leave the room.

Muscles that had momentarily tensed in her tattooed arms relaxed.

“I want to talk,” she said.

“I want you to die.  I guess neither of us are getting what we want.”

“I want one hour of your time.  Here.  Talking.  Fair, even conversation.”

“There’s that arrogance of yours,” I told her.  “I can’t believe I thought any of this would be good for you, Red Queen.”

“One hour,” she said, firm.  “You can leave Shin with your team.  If you hear me out and if you’re fair, I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Whatever I want?”

“Anything that helps.”

“What about you going to Gimel, talking to therapists, counselors?  Anyone and anything that helps you get your shit together.  You stay away from mom, you stay away from dad, you stay away from Chris, my team, and me most of all.  If I want to talk to you again, I make the first move.”

“I’d be willing.  I haven’t had much luck with therapists, but I’d try.”

“What about-” I started.

I shouldn’t show my hand.

I couldn’t hold my tongue.

“What if I said you had a few days to try to fix Hunter, while Breakthrough and I handle some other shit, and then I had people take you to the Wardens for them to make a bigger decision?”

“A decision about?”

“About whether they give you some more of that counseling and a few more shots at fixing Hunter, and if you can’t, or maybe even if you could and they decided you were a danger, we’d get rid of you.”

“Get rid.”

“Chuck you into an alternate Earth with no other human beings.  Where you can’t hurt another Hunter.”

“I can help Hunter.”

“You’re positive?”

“I’m- reasonably sure.”

“Then it’s a reasonable chance things are fine and we don’t end up chucking you into an alternate reality where you can’t hurt anyone.  Of course, it’s the Wardens deciding what to do, not me.  You say you read my emotions, so you know how much I hate your guts.  I know how much I hate your guts.  I’d just be telling them what I think and giving them a suggested starting point, but they make the final call.”

“You’d be telling them to exile me?”

“Probably.  If you can’t fix Hunter?  Almost definitely.”

“That’s-”

“What?  What is it, Amy?”

“It feels like the hate and that kind of idea you’re talking about is coming from the side of you that scared me, when we patrolled together.  When you hurt an ABB child abductor so badly you had to call me to fix him.”

“Well…” I started.  I floundered for a response.  “Fucking obviously?”

“What?”

“I mean, it’s obvious that that kind of side of me is going to be bigger and more pronounced in comparison.  You took all the parts of me you liked and mashed it all together into a big pile of lovey-dovey ‘Vicky’ you could cuddle with, kiss, use-”

She shook her head, violent.

“Don’t shake your head at me.  Yes.  You used me to soothe yourself.  You said you loved me but well before you made me into the w- into that mess that had to go to the hospital, you made me into something that wasn’t Victoria, for your own selfish wants.”

“When I read your emotions and tracked them to their roots, I saw that the memory blocks I originally put into place to protect you were down.  Brain routing around.”

“You took all of me that you liked and you multiplied it and you mashed it all together like some kid mixing their paints together into a single blob.  What the fuck do you expect is going to be left intact and strong, except the ugly parts you didn’t want to touch?”

She shook her head.

“I’ve been rebuilding me.  I’ve been trying to find the good and admirable parts of Victoria for a long while now.  But that other side of me is there and I’ve spent a while trying to ignore it.  The barbaric side.”

“I’ve been trying to find myself too.”

“Fuck you.  I don’t care what you’re doing.  You- fuck you for even saying that in the same breath as what I’m talking about.”

“You are a victim, Victoria.  I’m not denying that.  What happened was horrible and unconscionable and it eats me up inside.  But I’m a victim too.  The Slaughterhouse Nine came after me.  I lost my family.  I lost you.  What happened wounded both of us, and impacted the both of us in a massive way.”

Dot had her teeth set on my ex-sister’s ear, while following the conversation.  A small part of me hoped the little creature would sit back at the fucking gall of what Amy had said and then use its box cutter to slit her throat.

Just a ‘fuck this, not hitching a ride with -this-‘ kind of thing.

Dim hopes.  Dot continued to nibble on Amy’s ear until Amy made her move, pulling her down to her lap, where she absently stroked the doll-sized creature.

I had to play along.  I didn’t want to lie, and I wasn’t even sure I could, but… she seemed genuinely shaken by what she’d taken in when she touched me, reading my emotions.  There was a crack.

And it sucked, but a cracked Amy was the only Amy I could hope to budge in the slightest.  Push too hard and she’d fold into herself and go back to being stubborn.

If I didn’t push at all, she’d steamroll over me.

“Sure,” I said.  “You’re a victim too.  Slaughterhouse Nine and shit.  Carol was a shit mom.  You were lonely.  I could have handled things better.”

“You were fine,” she said, eyes on the floor.  “You were the one good thing.”

“I was angry and hurt from losing Dean and Dad being brain damaged, I hated the idea you had secrets from me, as Tattletale said, and I wasn’t there for you.  Maybe if I had been, then Bonesaw wouldn’t have been able to come after you as easily as she did.”

“You’re fine.  You were the one good thing.  Your feelings made sense.”

“Amy.  You’re a victim too.  Fine.  But what you did you did to me.  What happened to you happened to you.  Blame the Slaughterhouse Nine or see them like a natural disaster… there’s no cause.  You don’t have the right or the position to complain about being a victim when you were the one who hurt me.  Who used me.”

“You keep saying I have no right, I can’t, I’m not allowed-”

“Because when you do something criminal you lose rights.  You lose privileges.”

Amy shook her head, like she didn’t realize she was doing it.  The palm of her hand rested on Dot’s front, while fingers absently scritched at Dot’s chin and neck.  Tiny hands and feet gripped the outer edges of Amy’s hand, tail swishing.

“One hour, you can take me to your therapists, put me in front of your tribunal, let the Wardens decide what to do with me.  Okay.  It might even be a relief, to be sent away.”

Probably not.  But I wasn’t going to test her cooperation.

I would test one other aspect.

“Fifteen minutes,” I told her.

“What?”

“Not an hour.  You don’t deserve an hour of my time.”

“Half an hour?”

I had planned to suggest half an hour, as a fair compromise, but that she’d asked left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

“Fifteen minutes.  Say what you’ve got to say.”

“I want there to be back and forth.  I don’t want you to tune out.”

“Okay.  Go.”

She nodded, very exaggerated, too fast.  Her hands were visibly shaking, even as she pet Dot.

“Then,” she told me.  “Then um, I’ll start with something I know will get your attention.  Appeal to the side of you that loves cape stuff.  Or loved.  I don’t know if you’ve changed.”

I remained silent.

She swallowed hard.  “Back at the Birdcage, I came into contact with Glaistig Uaine.  She’s Valkyrie now.  I got a glimpse of how powers are organized.  I figured out Gold Morning before it happened.”

“Okay.  Were you able to get it to anyone?”

“No.  Not really, but I tried.  I did fill them in once I was out.  But that map, that set of connections, it’s still kind of there.  The central hub is dead and all shards are acting like Cauldron shards used to, not developing right, not aggregating data in the same ways, not updating or adapting to their hosts like they should be.  A lot of just outright dumb now.”

“The broken triggers.”

“Yes.  And Dauntless.  The Kronos titan.”

“A broken second trigger multiplied by a portal and time effect, or something.”

“Kind of.  Um.  But when I work on the right people I see the landscape that’s laid out, the old roads where connections used to be.  I think we’re going to see more.”

“More broken triggers?” I asked.

“More Dauntlesses.  A lot more, and soon.  The city’s the worst spot… it’s like all those portals?  Them being there make it easier for the big, messy results to happen.  Like tearing paper with a row of holes in it.  The holes guide the tear.”

“How certain are you?”

“One hundred percent.  Ninety nine percent.  Weird stuff can always happen.”

I nodded to myself.

“Victoria, the city’s like a lake covered in ice, with countless cracks spread across it.  Powerful capes are staying away from it because they make it worse.  They’re too heavy for the ice.”

“They haven’t said anything.”

“If we abandoned the city and set up elsewhere, those cracks would still spread.  The end result is the same, except it’s a bit delayed and a lot of people die because they abandoned the infrastructure, supply chains, resources, and support the city offers.”

“They’re trying to find answers.”

“They’re trying to find answers to the problem, they’re trying to mitigate the damage by spreading out the stress points, manage how much power is in the city at one time, and do productive hero work while they’re maintaining those balances and figuring out those things.  Just… elsewhere.  That’s what the Wardens are really about.  Like park wardens, maintaining a park by managing who can go in, managing resources…”

“Got it,” I said.  I nodded.  “Got it.”

“Part of the reason I wanted to bring Gimel’s prisoners to Shin instead of letting them run around the city was to do the same thing.  Manage the stress.”

“And if you’re to be believed, they didn’t tell us because they didn’t want us to panic.  Because… Dauntless-like events and broken triggers are going to get more common?”

“They are, but that’s not the ‘because’, Vicky,” Amy said, hunching her shoulders together, leaning forward.  Dot clambered up her arm to her shoulder.  “The ‘because’ is that Scion’s species’ life cycle didn’t stop just because he did.  Even if you don’t fertilize an egg, the chicken is still going to lay it.  All of the passengers are going to fumble together for connections, gather and translate power, and they’re going to… try to spread themselves to other places of interest.”

“Just like that.”  My voice was quiet.  I hugged my knees.  “If you’re to be believed.”

“I am.  Teacher believes it too, but he has bigger plans.  He thinks he can control the damage and control what happens when it all comes together.  He actually has something in common with one of your teammates, because when I look at the landscape-”

“Amy,” I cut her off.

She shut up.

“Can we put the fifteen minutes on hold?  Can you give me a second?”

“Yes.  And yes,” she said.  “I could, um, get you some water.”

I thought of all the things she could do to a glass of water.

“Do they have bottled water here?  Any sealed drinks?”

“Not really.  I mean, yes, they have capped drinks elsewhere, but not in the prison.”

“Then no.  No drink.  Just give me a few minutes.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I could use a break too, actually.”

A few seconds later, she was gone, the door shutting.  Me in my cell.

My hands were shaking, and it wasn’t Amy’s hypothesis.

I took a deep breath, trying to center myself.

I figured out a way to undo and then start unwrapping the bandage on my hand.  Loop by loop.  Their method of bandaging wasn’t any different from ours on Gimel and Bet.

The skin had been connected by tight, tiny threading.  It was swollen, but when I touched it I felt sensation, like I might feel when my foot was slightly asleep.

Fingers, much the same, but I couldn’t really bend them to test their mobility, with the swelling being what it was.

Fingernails… five fingernails attached, two tender to the touch, feeling that same kind of wobbly as a child’s tooth might be, when it started to show signs the kid might lose it.

I’d lost two fingernails when attacked in the prison plaza.  When I’d picked up the skin, only one fingernail had still been attached.

The sweet and good hearted people of Shin had found a stray fingernail and brought it in for reattachment?

Not likely.

Had it fallen on me, landing on my clothes without my notice?

No- the wire had raked along my hand and toward the woman, away from me.  The nail would have been flung toward her, not toward me or onto my clothing.

Had I somehow missed that another fingernail had been attached to the loose patch of skin I’d picked up off the ground?  Had they found it and attached it as normal.

I wasn’t sure.  Possible.  Maybe it was the most likely possibility.

Or the final possibility.  That Amy had lied to me, more than once, in the course of our conversation.  It would be cause for simultaneous gut-wrenching horror and relief; it would suggest she’d used her power on me and hadn’t told me the full truth, but it would also gave some reason to doubt her interpretation of what was coming.

In that, at least, I really wanted her to be lying to my face.

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Breaking – 14.8

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“Can anyone do us a big favor?” Kenzie asked, distracted.  “We need someone to walk over to Theo and Rain and tell them that the surveillance state is our friend.”

“Tell me where they are and why I’m telling them that and I will,” Byron said.

It was the small hours of the morning, and for the most part the only light was the ambient glow of city lights finding their way into the prison center through the glass roof.  The building’s heat led to some of the snow and ice on that glass to find its way in through cracks, precipitating a series of steady trickles and drips.  All of us, for the most part, had found places to settle in, but few of us slept.

The place lacked proper rooms, and it had the feeling of a labyrinth.  A central plaza was set in the middle, while showers, bathrooms, and one room with a purpose I hadn’t yet figured out were set around the perimeter.  A lot of the walls were paths for guards and guards only, and a lot of the hallways had thick glass windows with guards on the other side, with gaps and apertures for guards to fire through.  A lot of the hallways, ours included, had a faint four or five degree incline – not so much it was impossible to settle, but enough that it was hard to rest easy without feeling like we’d roll down the hall.

Byron was in prison clothes now.  Tristan hadn’t wanted to keep his brother in reserve as the hours crept forward, and so we’d had to find an excuse to swap them out.  Laundry was handed out on a requirement basis, and after some confusing discussion and pantomime we’d requisitioned an outfit.  The twin that was swapped out wore the armor, which made the swapping something that had to happen in a bathroom stall.

“They’re in the courtyard, southeast corner.  I think they’re trying to follow the rules but they’re not quite in the camera’s range.  I would bet if they stay in a blind spot like that the guards are going to harass them.”

“And we want to stay where the cameras can watch us,” Byron said.  He looked up at the cameras in our hallway.  “Got it.”

He pulled himself to his feet and walked off.

“Agents in hallway to our left and middle,” Kenzie said, sticking an arm out to indicate the hallways.  “I can’t say for sure that they’re going to be problems but-”

“But we take the right hallway to get to the central courtyard and there isn’t going to be a problem for sure.”

“Yep.  Pretty sure.”

Stay in sight, stay clearly under the cameras we were in a position to manipulate, and be model prisoners.  That was the game, the charade.  It was a game we could cheat at in small ways.  Kenzie was a big factor in that, with an eye on the same cameras the guards used.

For all the world, it looked like she was sharing a cot with Ashley, Ashley sitting against the wall, Kenzie lying down with a thin pillow propped up against Ashley’s thigh, which she used as a pillow.  Kenzie’s hands were motionless, folded across her stomach.  But as Byron left on his mission, Kenzie began humming dissonantly.  Tinkering in another way.

“Hmm hm, mm-mm-mm, hmmmm… Mm-wah, hmm…”

There was no musicality, it even bordered on anti-music.

“Kenzie, you’re cute and all,” Vista said, and her voice had a burr of tiredness in it.  She trudged over to the cot Byron had been sitting on and plunked herself down. “But you are going to get shanked if you keep that up.”

Kenzie tittered.  “Don’t make me laugh, you’ll make me mess up the sequence.”

“Does it have to be done tonight?” Vista asked.

“No.  I can finish programming tomorrow,” Kenzie said.  She turned onto her side, eyes pointed the way of Ashley’s knee, then twisted around almost to face the opposite direction to look up at Ashley, “You okay?  Your leg isn’t falling asleep?”

“You’re fine,” Ashley said.

“Darlene’s throwing me off with the sequences anyway.  She’s staying up tonight to keep an eye out in case I need emergency help or hands elsewhere.  She’s giggling because both Candy and Chicken are snoring.  It’s like dueling banjos, but snorty.  She’s trying so hard to not laugh so much she wakes them up.”

“You stay connected while you’re asleep?” I asked.

“Sometimes!  The first time we did it, Darlene fell asleep by accident, so there was nobody to cancel it, unless we wanted to wake her up on purpose.  Then that was the same night someone, I’m not gonna say who, they had a nightmare.  Really spooky when it happened, because you’re paralyzed while you’re asleep, but you’ll jerk and twitch and your heart rate goes up and stuff.  So I thwacked my hand against my bedside table to wake everyone up.  A little too hard.  It still hurts a bit.”

“Might be a little too much, if you’re always connected,” I said.

“Maybe.  But it’s kind of nice having company when falling asleep, you know?  It’s only been good dreams ever since.  I can feel them breathing and it makes it easier for me to breathe when it’s dark and I start thinking about spooky stuff.”

“Do you have trouble breathing?” I asked.  “Panic attacks?”

“Not actual trouble.  But everything feels heavier, you know?”

I digested that.  The pressure of the twilight hours.  “I know.  Is it the cape stuff that’s getting to you?”

“No, nah.  Cape stuff is fun.  Spooky stuff is when I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling, and I start thinking about what if I never figure it out, you know?  What if I’m never better and I spend the rest of my life pushing people away, and every morning and every night I wake up without a family, and every Christmas it’s just me buying myself a present.  Always just me, you know, smiling smiling smiling, trying to keep busy making Christmas treats for the needy for Church events and still doing tinker stuff too because that’s going to be in my life forever…”

Her voice was taking on a wobbly cadence like she was finally drifting off to sleep.

“You’ll have me,” Ashley said.  “It’s hard to get rid of me.”

“Yeah, but…” Kenzie said.  It took her a while to summon up the thoughts.  It seemed like fatigue more than anything.  “…People go away.  They die.  So I think of you and I feel better, but then I think what if something happens, and I feel worse again.  Then I start thinking… better tinker.  If I make better stuff I can protect all of you.”

“I’ve died a bunch of times and I’m still here.”

“Yeah.  But don’t want to stretch that until it snaps,” Kenzie mumbled.  “Mm.  Don’t let me fall asleep.  I need to keep an eye out.”

“You need to sleep.  We’ll manage.”

“It’s unfair, you know.  Because being around you all like this and networking into the others through Darlene, Aiden sleeping in a cot in Darlene’s room and Candy sleeping in a beanbag chair in her room… is when I feel the least like I’m going to end up alone and I feel the most like I can sleep easy… but I should watch for trouble, I shouldn’t sleep.”

“You should.  Shh,” Ashley said.  “Rest.”

Kenzie twisted around, curling up closer and wrapping her arms around Ashley’s thigh, where Ashley sat cross-legged next to her.  She squeezed and smushed her face tight against Ashley’s leg.

“Chicken has a snot bubble in his left nostril.  It’s clicking rapid-fire every time he breathes out,” Kenzie said.  “There needs to be a camera that captures moments like that, and all of the feelings around that moment.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.  “We’ll see if you snore and put a smile on Darlene’s face.”

As I said it, I saw some people walking through the hallway in the dark.  They paused as they saw us.

Six, seven people.  Men and women, all silhouettes in the dark.  People came in wearing whatever clothes they had that were allowed, and those clothes were a kind of status symbol.  People inevitably had to start wearing the shitty prison uniforms after a time, and so that marked a kind of veteran status.  But the people who were veterans and had any kind of clout or standing were those who’d migrated into wearing the prison uniforms but had other clothing worn as part of their outfit, the more tattered the better.

Shirts with patterns had sleeves tied together and were worn around the shoulder or waist.  Dresses torn up and wound around hair or worn as wide hoods that extended from shoulder, over the head, to shoulder.

Beyond that, there were stages of quality.  One man with a frayed basket-weave mesh of two cloth types, worn as a scarf.  A woman with a complex five-part braid to her shawl seemed to be the one in charge.  Colors seemed to signify gangs or group affiliation.

We had settled down in an area of the prison the gangs seemed to stay away from, because the conditions weren’t great-it was cold enough there was a puddle of water in the corner with hints of ice at the edges- and because it was under the cameras.  A couple of older women and two family groups were set up in this spot.

“If you hug my leg that tight, you’re going to cut off the circulation,” Ashley told Kenzie.

But the kid was already asleep.  Ashley seemed to make peace with it.

“The first time I met her, I found her really hard to get used to,” Vista said.

“Kenzie?” I asked.

“Mm.  It took me a while to realize why.  Wasn’t anything to do with her.  It’s that she’s the opposite of me, back when I was a hero her age.”

The gang hadn’t moved.  They stood in the hall, staring us down.

“I look back and I wish I’d tried harder to be a kid.  Have friends my own age, crushes my own age instead of crushing on an older boy.  I wish I’d leaned on people more.”

“To be fair, he was crush-worthy.”

Vista made an amused sound.

Ashley turned her gaze my way.  She hadn’t used her power on herself recently, and with the apparatus out of her eyes and in Rain’s possession, she didn’t have her pupils erased or her smoke effect.  Her eyes looked almost normal.  In the dim, I could see her eyes move between me and the gang.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding slightly.  “Yeah.”

Ashley nodded.  She’d just wanted to make sure I was aware.

Did they want to intimidate us?  Were they keeping track to see if we all fell asleep at the same time?

“This thing about them sharing bodies or whatever?”

“They feel what the others feel.”

“Yeah.  That’s a little weird and creepy.”

“Yeah,” I said, I laughed softly, keeping my voice down to avoid disturbing anyone.  “Absolutely.  But it’s complicated.”

“Keeps her mind off of the idea of a lonely Christmas,” Vista said.

“That too,” I said.  “We’ll talk to her about it.”

“I don’t want to begrudge her anything she needs or wants,” Ashley said.  “Even if it’s ‘bad’.”

She made air-quotes as she said it.  When she lowered her hand, it rested on top of Kenzie’s head.

“Bad is bad,” I said.  “But I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing.”

“If her path to happiness means weirdness, or blackmailing her parents, or staying up late tinkering, then I’ll support that,” Ashley said.  “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it does require those things.  But if it did or if it does in the future, I wouldn’t necessarily stand in her way.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

Byron, Rain, and Theo came back, walking down the hall.  They didn’t slow down as they got closer to the gang.

I thought about my options.  How hard I could hit people, how fast I could move with flying without betraying that I was using powers.  I stood and stretched, so I’d be ready.  Vista pushed herself up from a position where she was sort of lounging to a proper sit.

Looking at all of us, the gang leader with the shawl braid nudged her lieutenant.  Without a word exchanged, the gang broke up, a good portion of them walking off in the direction of the showers.

It wouldn’t stay that easy.

I’d had Kenzie reach out to Citrine, and Citrine would apply a bit of pressure.  The Wardens would surely do the same.  Hopefully.

That gave us a clock, a period of time where we needed to play by their rules and avoid getting caught in their traps.  We could give them no video evidence, nothing that could be cut out of context, and no excuses.  If we did, then they would move for harsh punishment.

Kenzie had confirmed they didn’t have audio.  They did have video.  They kept tabs on us with soldiers, and with her eyes on the camera, she’d confirmed that some prisoners had entered the facility, possibly from another similar building, some of them were like the gang leader with the braided scarf, arriving dressed and acting like veterans with some clout.

And, Kenzie had observed, using the cameras, that these people had gone straight from the entryway, a different one than we’d used, to find us.  Now they remained in our periphery.

They would adapt.  As the clock ran down, they’d be more willing to force an imperfect conclusion over a perfect one.

I sat back down on my cot, being careful not to disturb Sveta, who was sleeping.  Beneath the two blankets she’d draped over herself, her body had partially disassembled, shoulder and ribcage dissolving into straps so she could more easily lie ‘flat’ on the angled hallway.

Byron looked over at Vista, who had stolen his mattress, and then started to look for another.

“A lot of the other mattresses are damp or cold,” Vista told him.

“Then you keep that one.  I can endure the cold and the wet with my power.”

“Don’t be dumb, Byron,” she told him.

I watched him hem and haw for a second.

“Not dumb,” he said.  “Just…”

“Complicated,” Rain volunteered.

Byron nodded.

“Come, sit.  We can talk about it,” Vista said.  “Or say the word and I’ll find another spot.”

He walked over, and he sat.

Rain and Theo found their own cots.  If Rain was bothered by the quality of his mattress, he didn’t comment.  He’d carried his issued blanket with him and draped it over himself without much of a care.

Golem, meanwhile, just sat.

“What are the rules or boundaries?” Vista asked.

“What?” Byron asked.

“Like, just for the sake of argument, if you were to start seeing a girl, what are the rules of engagement?”

I turned to look at Vista, my eyes widening.  She ignored me.

“I’m not sure I would.  I don’t think it’s fair to the girl.  Too many hurdles, too much baggage.”

“We all have baggage.  We could all die at any time, that’s life as a cape.  Put those things together and if we wait to get over our baggage we’re liable to end up dead before we get anywhere.”

Morbid pick up line there, Vista.

“True.  It’s still messy, if you ignore all of that.  If we expect to die sometime soon, we don’t want the meantime to be full of angst and anger, right?”

“Right, so we talk.  Negotiate.  Where are we at, Byron?  If a girl says she likes you, what does it take, what’s off the table?”

“I could make an educated guess, but I dunno.  I thought I had a good idea of it before and then things all went wrong.  Couldn’t go to third base, probably not even second.  I’d hesitate before even kissing, and if the line’s drawn there…”

“Doesn’t feel much like a relationship,” Vista said.

“No.  Which isn’t fair to the girl.”

“Your kid teammate over there was talking a bit about finding her way to a less lonely place.  Protecting those close to her, having people she’s connected to while she sleeps.”

“They’re doing it while they sleep?” Byron asked, alarmed, leaning forward to get a better view of Kenzie.  “Is that just because of this whole thing, or-”

“Focus.  Focus,” Vista said, pushing him back down to a sitting position.  “Can’t do anything about it.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

Vista had pushed him down, and she didn’t move her hand from his chest.

“I think you’re cool.  I like the words that come out of your mouth when you talk.  And I think Tristan’s really neat too, I think he’s fun and he’s good company.  If you want to try to figure out what you and me look like, and if Tristan was cool with it, I’d want to try.  You, me, Tristan, and what I imagine are a lot of rules and boundaries that keep things peaceful.”

“Did you talk to my team to figure out how to approach this?”

“Nope.  I mean, some preliminary fact checking, seeing if there were any things to watch out for.  They gave me the twenty-words-or-less on your ex.”

“They’re pretty restrictive,” Byron said.  “The rules.”

“Sure.  But we’ve talked a bunch of times now and I like you more each time.  I think I’d rather try you and me with all that stuff in the way than hang back and wait for some other sexy black knight type to turn up.  I worry there’s not enough time to wait for perfect.”

“I’m a blue knight more than a black knight.”

“Ehhh.  Broody and introspective with a dark background?”

“Yeah, maybe.  Conceded.  Feels like I’m being called evil though.”

“You can be a dark knight without being evil.  Trust me, if you were evil, it would be a total turn-off.  Speaking of turn-offs, you were supposed to pay more attention to when I called you sexy.”

“That’s… harder to navigate.”

“Yeah.  Just say you feel flattered.”

“I do.  Really.”

“You can add something to the end, Mr. Taciturn.  Like, ‘especially when it comes from a beautiful young lady such as yourself’.”

“You have no idea,” Byron said.

“That’s a good answer,” she said, her voice soft.  “So, uh, that’s me.  Now you do your thing, brood on it for a while-”

“Brood sounds so negative.”

“Introspect on it.  Digest.  See how you feel about it.  Talk to Tristan, see how he feels about it.  Tristan, you can talk to me if you want.  If any of you have any concerns or doubts or if you want to let me down easy, just say it’s too complicated or there’s too much going on.  I’ll understand.”

“Doesn’t feel very organic.”

“Nope,” Vista said.  “But it’s what we get.  Now I’m going to go find another cot, or I’ll be super self conscious.”

“Nah,” Byron said, getting to his feet before she could.  “Easier for me to get comfortable elsewhere than it is for you.  Let me be the gentleman, as a way of thanking you for being cool.  I’m not good at this whole thing, but it kind of made my week.”

Vista hugged her knees.  “It making your week makes my month.  So there, take that.”

Byron, wearing insulated footie costume feet and sandals, padded his way over to other mattresses, to find one that was unoccupied and in decent enough condition.

Vista, for her part, let herself tip over, until she lay on the mattress, and pulled the blanket over herself.  She saw me looking and winked.

She did end up slipping off into dreamland, not too long after that.  Byron wasn’t in a great position to watch both ends of the hallway, and Rain was reclining with intent to sleep, apparently having worked it out with Theo, so it more or less left Theo and I to maintain watch.

Into the small hours of sunrise, and the light of dawn on an alien Earth.

The dawn brought breakfast, and the plaza was loosely organized with people in line, with guards milling through.  The crowd was dense enough that there wasn’t a place to stand where we could extend our arms fully to each side, and that was a problem.

Our ability to eat was on the line.

“Not enough cameras here,” Kenzie observed.  “They use the guards more.”

The press of bodies would have made identifying incidents hard with the cameras.

It was hard to find a way through the crowd that didn’t put us in a position to get shivved, and I wasn’t ruling that possibility out.

It didn’t look like not eating was a possibility either.  Each person who picked up a bowl to get food had a bracelet put on them.

“Rain and I found some English-speaking prisoners last night,” Theo said.  Even without his armor, Golem was a big guy, and big was useful when we wanted people to get out of our way and give us a bit of space.  It wasn’t enough to give us a clear route, though.

“They were nice enough,” Rain said.  “But I think they didn’t realize who or what we are.”

One of the people in line went to get their food, bowl out.  The person checked their bracelet, ready to slip another on, then grabbed hold of their wrist, holding it up as much as they could while leaning over the serving table.

Guards came and seized the prisoner.  There was no struggle, no resistance.

“Want to know something crazy?” Theo asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “Hit me with it.”

“They want it.  This thing with the meal?  They stretch it out, so you’re hungry, you have to wait in line, you have to push, pull, shove, or you get the shitty food that’s left over when everyone else has eaten, all the chunks gone, and only the broth remaining.  So you do what you can to balance not causing trouble with getting your food, and bam, they check your bracelet, you won the lottery.  Guards grab you, drag you off, and take you into the administration building.”

“Punish you,” Rain added.

“And they want it,” Theo said.  “Most people in line here, they’re hoping for it.”

“Explain that one for me,” Vista said.  I didn’t miss the fact that Vista and Tristan were hanging out.  Everyone had gone to the showers on waking up and while inside the stall Byron had changed to Tristan, Tristan had set the armor aside, changed back to Byron, who’d put it on, then they’d changed back to Tristan for good.  There wasn’t any structure here, so they could do the same thing whenever they needed to swap.

He’d gone straight to Vista to talk.  Last night, eavesdropping hadn’t really been a choice, my only other option had been to stop standing guard and keeping an ear out for trouble, and that didn’t make sense.

“Sentences aren’t really sentences in terms of time,” Theo said.  “The Coalition and the other major civilized nations hate the idea of long sentences and stays in prison, they think it’s barbaric, so they make the stays short, unpredictable, and the punishments harsh.  Getting dragged off means you get punished, yeah, but it also kind of acts like a chance to prove yourself and have a kind of parole hearing in front of ten randomly chosen citizens, where a lot of the time if you give the right answers you get released.”

“The part that got me,” Rain said, “Was that once you’re out, your debt to society is paid.”

“There’s a bloodthirst to the punishment,” Theo said.  “I won’t deny that.  It took my breath away, just hearing it from the prisoners.  But here, at least, they want to knock out your defenses and natural resistance.”

“And brainwash you,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Basically.  I would not say I’d rather come here than go to a prison on Earth, if I’d done something wrong, but… wouldn’t say I’d rather go to a prison on Earth either.”

“The ‘rebuilding’ is supposed to be according to strict rules and shit,” Rain said.  “Revise and uncover coping mechanisms, perspectives, toxic relationships… really big focus on the rehabilitation part.  I’m really not sure how I feel about it.  The idea of going and within a year or three being done?  Being allowed to re-enter society?  That sounds good enough that I could see myself looking past the brainwashing.”

“Poor Rain,” Ashley said, putting a hand on Rain’s shoulder.  “The last few brainwashings really did a number on him.”

“Fuck, don’t scare me like that,” Rain said.

The thought of brainwashing led to me thinking about the hospital room.  I tried to divorce my thoughts from it, and found myself looking at Sveta.

More than a few of us had been brainwashed or affected mentally.  Rain, legitimately.  Ashley, through powers and programming.  Sveta, through Cauldron.  Me, through Amy.  Kenzie had maybe perpetrated it, if blackmail and manipulation of her parents counted.

It looked like one in eight or one in nine people were being pulled out of line.  To be punished, reconditioned.  I saw a family two parents with kids leading their kids by the hands.

That wasn’t really my focus though.  Supposedly we were safe.  We weren’t supposed to be punished.

Supposedly.

My focus was in the crowd.

I looked for the telltale pieces of clothing that weren’t light gray or brown.  Different colors of cloth were woven together to create clashing patterns, and those caught the eye.  But there were places where long hair was braided or woven with cloth, and that caught the eye in the same way.  There were pieces of clothing that had multiple patterns and texture that nearly matched, which made them stand out less.

I wanted to fly, to see over this crowd.  But we had been rendered almost powerless, by politics and not by any interference.

“We should eat,” I said.

“We have to.  If we don’t the guards drag us off and give us a hard time,” Rain said.

“Good to know.  Good research.”

“Thank you.”

Into the crowd.  Our formation was a battle formation, two people watching our flanks, two up front, two at the sides.  Our most vulnerable member was in the middle.

Guards moved through the crowd, jostling people, pausing to question or check them.

A whole group of people walked in row and column, the crowd parting, as they carried covered bowls to the large room I’d observed before.  I’d had a glimpse of the space as I walked to the showers earlier – it was now partitioned off into sub-rooms.  Apparently there was a sub-group of people who viewed eating in public or eating communally to be the equivalent of taking a shit in the company of friends.  Curtain partitions and a mutual expectation to eat in total silence allowed them their privacy.

I saw gang members with prison uniforms and accessories fashioned of old clothes in the midst of the crowd.  One guy, huge, with cloth wrapped around his hands like a kickboxer might do.  A woman with a strip of material  with a tight knot at the end had been stopped by guards.  As we passed, she and the guards she was talking to looked at us.

“Group of weirdos just hit the edge of the crowd at our seven,” Kenzie said.

“Weirdos?  Be more specific,” Rain said, turning to look.

“All dressed in black, bright bandannas.  Camera quality isn’t great.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“And guards,” Ashley said.

The heads-up was late, because the guards were moving through some of the densest parts of the crowd.  They passed that part of the crowd and set their sights on us.

Kenzie discreetly passed something up to her neck, before popping something else into her mouth.  She turned to Rain, motioning toward his sleeves.

Only another moment or two before they were here-

Rain pulled it out, fumbled with it for a second, too long-

Kenzie reached out, pushing the pronged apparatus into Rain’s midsection.  It was set to phase through, but Rain winced like it hurt.  Sveta took the other from Kenzie’s hand, and passed it under her top.

Guards forced us apart, proceeding with a pat-down.  They were young, no older than Tristan, and their expressions were hard, their hands rougher.

Checking us over quickly.

It was a mistake to think the guards and security cameras were enough.  The same woman with the braided shawl from last night stepped out of the crowd.

I’d expected a shiv.  Something prison-issue that had been honed to a point.  Failing that, I expected a flail or weighted object.

Not so.  She flung out an arm in our direction, and something lemon-shaped, metal, and the size of a golf ball came our way, a thread or wire attached.

I reached out to swat at the tiny lemon, ready to use my power, timing the Wretch with the swat, and then reconsidered- power use, could I get away with it?

I could.  I would have, but my hesitation threw off my timing, and I was a hair too late.  The projectile whipped around my hand, carrying the wire with it.  She pulled, and almost all of the skin between the middle three knuckles of my left hand and my wrist was pulled away, wrinkling up around the backs of my fingers, bound in wire.

Fuck, did it ever hurt.  I dropped to my knees, looked back at the guards- and saw the one who had been closest to me stepping back.

She flicked out her other hand, an identical projectile, and it was set to fly around my head.  I could bring one arm up, but it would circle around, catch me at one side of the face.

It curved in the air, ready to whip around, and then sailed straight, instead, cutting the guard’s forearm instead.  He barked out words in a language I didn’t understand.

Unfazed, barely seeming to realize that anything fucky was happening, she just hauled back on the wire, dragging the length of it up my hand, past the knuckles at the base of my fingers, and up to the first knuckle of my index and middle fingers, skin coming off like someone had taken a potato peeler to it.

Theo pulled his shirt off and threw it over the wire before trying to grab it.

I saw him run his fingertips along the edge of the wire, fiercely enough to make them bleed.  I saw some slack appear, as the woman who held the wire-

His fingernails, passing through the wire to lacerate the part of her hand it rested against.

Theo’s efforts individually might not have been effective or very visible, but they gave me some slack to work with, and they did get the attention of someone nearby, the guy with the basket-weave scarf around his neck.  Almost Theo’s size, he barreled out of the crowd and kicked Theo hard in the side of the stomach, sending Theo sprawling into the wire, causing me and the woman with the braided shawl to fall in his direction, as he fell on the wire.  The wire came free, mostly because it had finished its journey, starting at the base of my wrist and scraping its way up to fingertip.  The pain was blinding, and I was dimly aware I’d lost two fingernails along with a good bit of skin.

They said swearing had an anaesthetic effect, making pain easier to handle.  I couldn’t bring myself to worm a word, but I managed to make a noise that anyone, in any language, would interpret as something between scream and invective.

Guards barked words in their language, grabbing and pushing to keep my teammates from helping.  More guards came, only adding to the obstruction, but they didn’t step into the midst of this.

The woman started to reel in her weapons, and I stepped forward, planting my foot on the threads and the wad of my skin that had come off, probably with fingernails attached.  She stepped back, dropping threads, and turned her body away, almost a fencer’s pose.  To hide what she was doing with her right hand.

People had backed away enough I had a moment.  I stooped down, using my good hand to scoop up Theo’s shirt.  She threw another of those lemon golf ball yoyos with thread spooling out, and I used the Wretch, defending myself just enough that the thread would be glance off, be pushed away by the Wretch’s expansion.

A second later, I canceled it, throwing the shirt up and letting it catch on the wire.

I grabbed the cloth and the wire, and used the Wretch to ensure my grip was secure and that the wire wouldn’t cut through cloth and into my hand.

I wasn’t sure what happened next, as I tried to throw it down so I could step on it and make reeling it in hard.  It could have been the Wretch, reaching out with another hand and tugging.  It could have been the way she had the wires arranged for easy deployment.  But it cut her.

She didn’t scream, didn’t yelp, just immediately fell to her knees.  Wire had sliced through her hand from between middle and ring finger to the middle of the palm, with a visible gap.

The pain from the back of my hand made it hard to stand up straight, and hard to take a deep breath.  Every breeze across that area where skin had been flensed away made me want to scream again, or to vomit.

Broad fucking daylight, how many witnesses?  And someone in black clothes with a red loop of cloth at the neck made a run past Sveta, cutting her with a blade, and went straight for Tristan.  Tristan leaped back, groped for an empty bowl, and the man who held the bowl handed it over.

The guy with the knife had skin that looked like the equivalent of hair bleached blonde, too white, damaged, and uneven to be entirely normal.  He made two swings and Tristan held the bowl so it surrounded his fist, punching at the knife swings to deflect them with the wood.  He saw an opening and hopped forward, kicking the attacker in the gut.

The guy with the knife came at Tristan again.  Tristan stood ready, bowl in hand, and the guard who had been searching him earlier gave him a kick from behind, putting him off balance.  The knife slash extended from the side of the wrist to elbow.

Someone stepped out of the crowd, toward Tristan.

The guard intoned a single word in another language.

I didn’t need to guess what it was.  It was easy enough to tell, as Tristan took one step away from the conflict and toward the crowd, like he hoped to escape this.

People closed ranks.  Men stepped in front of women.  Rain tried to circle around behind the guy with the knife, only for someone in the crowd to grab him, throw him to one side, and kick him in the hip.  He rolled onto his back as a couple of people stepped closer to him.  A mob.

I saw a glimmer of silver at his fingertips.  He dismissed it before it took any form.  It could have been mistaken for a trick of light through the snowy glass ceiling above the plaza.

Rain’s attempt to stand saw him wince, dropping to one knee.  People looked ready to deliver another kick if he got close enough, but he couldn’t get closer to the knife wielder.  Without his powers available, he remained where he was, one hand at his hip.

Every last one of them against us.

Because we were parahumans.

Fuck.  Goals.  What did they want?

They wanted to frame us.  They wanted an excuse to force the issue with their trade deal.  To get their people into our city, where they’d have their own kind of influence.

Vista backed away as the guard who had been holding her lost his grip on her arm.  Toward Tristan, a little closer to the guy with the knife.

What had I said to Ashley, back on the train?  Every little bit mattered.  Every ally made, every reinforcement of positive expectations.  It counted toward a greater something.

Here, that something wasn’t in play.  Here, a small, powerful group led by a small, powerful person had frittered away any and all currency they had with the public, turning to force instead.

Every time a parahuman pulled out a gun because it was easier, or crossed lines, or went after families, or threw away all pretense of showmanship to go hard at the efficient, rational route, they were edging us collectively toward this.

Could we win, if we went all out?  Probably.  But would that lead us to a world we wanted to live in?

No.

Needed to find a way out, when surrounded by hundreds who hated us on principle.  By authority and institution that had no reason to take it easy or to tell the truth.

“We stopped Goddess, damn it,” I said, through pants for breath.

“We stopped her!” Tristan raised his voice, far louder than I was.  “Any of you speak English?  Tell them!”

Nobody translated for us.

Too angry.  Too riled up.  This wasn’t a prison like I was used to seeing on television or in movies, but it was a prison with its own pressures and influences.  People needed an outlet, after months or years of having their lives on hold.

They needed blood.  Punishment.

“Vista,” I said.

“Mm?” she responded with a sound, not a word.

“They want us to bleed.”

The guy with the knife came after her.

“Fuck it,” Vista said.

The guy tripped, his foot finding no traction, and he sprawled.  Vista walked up to him, stepped on the back of his neck on her way to step onto the wrist of the hand that held the knife.

She drove her heel down, grinding the back of the hand until the knife was released.  A good old prison shiv, instead of some razor wire bola bullshit.

“You want blood?” she asked, turning to face the crowd.

The guards didn’t look impressed, and looked wholly ready to come after her.

She cut the back of her hand, a single slash.

“How’s that?  Satisfied?  Is this what you want?” she asked, raising her voice.  “Blood?  These guys gave you enough blood when they put their lives on the line to stop your tyrant!”

Someone in the crowd translated this time.

Vista grabbed the blade and snapped it off.  I suspected she had used her power to thin it enough it would easily break.  She threw the blade to one side and the handle to the other.

Ashley wasn’t too bloody, but she hadn’t really fought, except to drop to the ground, a guy looming over her, her eyes narrowed at him.  Kenzie had a bloody nose.  Sveta had been cut, and the wound around the cut was zipper-flesh, her new ribbons, no longer meeting around the injury.  But it was a small cut.

Tristan and I had the worst injuries, objectively.

We’d cheated some, using powers, but not in such a way that they could easily point fingers at any of it.  Not in a way that -I glanced around, looking for cameras, and failed to find any- would play badly in video form.

No, they’d wanted us to bleed and we’d bled.

I saw heads turn, I saw expressions change.  People peeled away, moving toward the breakfast serving area, and in their push to get further from us and this scene, they barely left breathing room for one another.  The clearing expanded around us and the perpetrators who hadn’t yet backed off.  Some guards, some prisoners.

The reason the heads had turned, though…

On one of the raised walls overlooking the plaza, my sister looked down at my injured self.

“What do you want?” Sveta asked her, because I didn’t have the breath.  Pain lowered my defenses, this scene kicked what lay behind those defenses in the tits.

“I’m supposed to look after you, keep an eye out for trouble.”

“Fuck you,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” Amy said.  She sounded disappointed.

I tried my best to ignore her, turning my attention to the mess on the floor.  Wire lay limp on the ground, and mixed in with it was some general debris, food slop that had dripped from bowls, dust made moist and collected into tiny amounts of mud with the tromp of feet and more of the food, and the blood spatters from our various injuries.  Globs of blood dripped from the back of my hand.

“I’ll testify I saw this happen, you did nothing but defend yourselves.”

“That would be appreciated,” Theo said.

I found what I was looking for, tangled in wire.  My skin.  Only one fingernail attached at one corner, where the finger skin had folded in and stuck all together.

I did not like my flesh being where it wasn’t supposed to be, especially while hearing that voice.

Amy spoke down to us from her perch on the wall.  “Citrine is here.  She heard about you guys being arrested and she’s working on it.  Wardens obviously know too, but they’re wrapped up in a new crisis or something.  What do you say we get you cleaned up and see you guys to the visitor center?  I’ll crisis manage in the meantime.”

A dozen wretched feelings stirred within me, and combined with the pain and revulsion of the detached bit of flesh, and the stress of all of this, I spat up a mouthful of bile.

“Sure,” she said.  “That-”

I spat off to one side to clear my mouth of the remainder of it.

“Sorry,” I said, not to Amy, but to my team.  “How’s it, Tristan?”

“Definitely need stitches,” he said, keeping a wary eye on the wall.

“Kenz?”

“I walked into a guard’s elbow, that’s all.”

“Sveta?”

Sveta made a face.  Her arm took wounds in a strange way.

Theo had been lacerated when he fell against the wire shirtless.  Almost as bad as Tristan’s cut.  Vista had the cut on her hand.

“Let’s get looked after,” I said.  The ‘uk’ part of ‘looked’ almost saw me vomit from purely reactionary factors again.  “Go see Citrine.”

“Can we get medical attention?” Ashley asked one guard.  She still knelt on the ground, still wore that tense expression.

The guard pointed.  Same direction as the showers.

He had been a participant, but hadn’t been one to actively kick or shove, except whatever he’d done to handle Ashley.

There were worse people to follow.

We headed toward the showers and the medical area that lay beyond.  Some of us supported others.  Sveta held the bridge of Kenzie’s nose.  Theo leaned on me.  Rain leaned on Ashley, limping.  Our priorities were to get help for Tristan and Theo.  Or Theo, at the very least, if we could manufacture a situation to swap Tristan out.

“We do this for Gimel.  If anyone isn’t comfortable pushing forward with this, if you’re scared or if you need out, we could-”

God, I hated to say it.

“-Ask for some strings to be pulled, favors called in,” I finished.

Even with my offer, nobody seemed especially intent on escaping or going.  They knew the importance of getting those supplies for Gimel.  Even if it meant enduring a gauntlet.

We’d have to be more careful.  If the Wardens were busy, most likely with Teacher, we were largely alone in this.  We had us, we had Kenzie’s group, we had Undersiders, maybe, and we had Citrine, who we were about to chat with.

Again, I looked up at the perch, absent my sister.  She’d disappeared around the time I’d puked.  Just… walked away.  The opposite of help.

But there was no reassurance in her being gone, definitely no reassurance in her being here.  I wouldn’t even be reassured, I worried, by escaping this place and leaving Shin well behind me.  She’d proven she could pull me in if the right crisis was manufactured.  This, in so many ways, was her world.

The only peace I could be sure of would be to remove her from it, to remove her from Gimel.  Something permanent.

I hoped with every last iota of my being that the Wardens would be intact enough after the Teacher raid to make a level-headed call on the subject of Amy.  I certainly didn’t trust myself or my team to make that unbiased call, not after this.

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Breaking – 14.7

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Chris’s brash chortle of a laugh formed the backdrop of the tense, otherwise silent few seconds as every cape present tried to figure out what the fuck we were supposed to do.

“This isn’t a joke,” Luis said.  The way he stood, the light didn’t catch his eyes, so the sockets were cast into shadow.

“I know.  I just can’t- your sheer cojones,” Chris said.

Yosef and the woman I was assuming was his wife looked at their translator, then at Luis.  Both clasped hands together, Luis in front of him, Yosef behind him, and shrugged.

Weird, the things that ended up so similar, in societies so distinct.

“Balls,” Chris clarified, with a roll of his eyes.

“You’re not helping,” Amy said.

“You’re implying I should be.”

I looked at Miss Militia, and she raised her eyebrows.  Her scarf was pulled down, as she’d removed it when we’d all removed our masks, and her lips were pressed into a firm line.

She wasn’t speaking up.

I turned to look at my team.  Sveta looked faintly angry, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was Amy, and how much was this being a slap in the face to someone who’d tried to realize their humanity, only to be defined by how human she wasn’t.

Tristan held a pose almost like Ashley’s usual one, a little arrogant, like someone who was standing a little extra taller because they expected to be knocked down a peg at any moment.

Ashley was unmoving, her eyes dark in how white they were.

Kenzie smiled, hands fidgeting.  But for the movement of my head to look over at the others, I was still, only my eyes moving.  Kenzie’s head was constantly turning, looking to her older teammates for reassurance or guidance.  In the midst of her looking at each member of Breakthrough, she looked for and turned her attention to Chris.  I heard a faint sigh from her.

And Rain, as odd as it was, seemed most at peace with this.  Most focused, and most himself in this alien place.

“We’ll cooperate,” I said, while my head was turned to my team, not the others.  Nobody flinched, nobody bucked or rebelled.  They knew.  We had to.

“I assume Natalie isn’t included in this,” I added.

“She isn’t,” Luis said.  He didn’t even have to look at the other groups for input.  Because we were being arrested purely because of who and what we were.  Parahumans.  Ones they couldn’t trust or pretend to control.

The younger Wardens exchanged a couple of words.  Vista, Golem.

“Okay,” Vista told Miss Militia.

“We’ll cooperate,” Miss Militia echoed my phrasing.

Scribe-boys scribbled.  The room seemed to accept the answer with what I might have called a quiet kind of smugness, not smirking, not gloating or lording over us, but… maybe self-satisfied was the word.

And then there was Amy.  Staring at me.  How many times had she been at the periphery when things went to shit?

Fuck it.  I’d made my decisions.  She didn’t warrant more thoughts until it came to figuring out what to do, and when it came to that, it would be the Wardens who had the power to make the decision, and I would make my biased argument, citing my warning to Jessica about Amy.

Past that, I had other things to concern myself with.

The translators finished.  A few words were exchanged in foreign tongue.  Miss Militia seemed to relax slightly, though calling her relaxed would have been a lie.  She’d put the power into our hands because her decreeing it meant something different than us agreeing on our own behalf.

Luis stepped forward, toward the center of the room, and talked in his foreign tongue, addressing the other groups.  One of the men in the conservative muumuu-style outfits stepped forward.

It was our turn to be outsiders, needing the translation.  Miss Militia supplied it, telling us, “They have different types of prison for different types of criminal, they’re deciding where to put us.  Rehabilitative, holding, reconstruction, castigation, devastation.  I’m-”

Devastation?” Rain asked.

“I was about to say I’m butchering the translation.”

“Please tell me there’s a really frontloaded curve that favors rehabilitation,” Sveta said.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Kind of.  They don’t punish for minor crimes the way we do.  They don’t have traffic laws or drug laws in the same way.  But they punish harshly for wrongdoing or even accidents.  Luis is arguing for holding.  Aian is arguing for us to be held in a reconstruction facility.”

Aian was the guy in the muumuu, though the outfit wasn’t bright and hung heavier than a normal muumuu.  His beard was thick and dark, his eyes narrow.  His hair was long but tied back straight against the scalp.  When speaking, he repeatedly held up or held out a hand, bent back so the wrist stuck forward, fingers and thumb curled in to rest against the flat palm.

“Reconstruction sounds scarier than castigation,” Sveta said, “assuming it means what I think it means.”

Rain guessed, “Break someone down, build them up the way you want, instead of just… breaking them?”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “And I agree, Sveta.  But I’m not sure if they plan to actually punish us or take action.  It would be the quality of the facilities given.  Food, the amount of sleep we’re allowed, outside communication.”

“You don’t sound certain they’re not going to punish us or do something more serious.”

“This is symbolic,” Miss Militia said.  “They want to stress they have power.  If they do want to punish us I’ll argue to take on the punishment on behalf of my subordinates.  There’s precedent.”

“Punishment like… lashes?” Rain asked.

“Flogging was mentioned,” Miss Militia said, stoic, doing double duty in explaining and listening.  “They’ve argued down to bloodless lashes.”

Beating?” Rain asked.

“I understand it to be water,” Miss Militia said.  “I won’t say more out of concern for Lookout, here.”

“If you’re afraid of scaring me, don’t worry.  I hang out with Heartbroken.  I don’t scare easy.  I’d rather know.  I like knowing stuff.”

“She would,” Ashley said.

“Water buckets.  They tie you in place and splash you, hot enough to almost burn or ice water, no rhyme, reason, or timing.”

“You’d faint,” Tristan said.  “We’ve looked into stuff relating to cold water because Byron.  With hot water and sudden temperature changes, you’re talking syncope -fainting-, arrythmia, low blood pressure?”

“They may give drugs to keep us from fainting.  I suspect they’d rather we faint, they wake us up or wait until we wake naturally, then resume the process.  There’s a very real motivation here to see us brought low and repeated faintings would qualify, I think.”

“If I could swap out to Byron that’d work,” Tristan said.

“If it comes down to bloodless lashings for Byron, Tristan, then it’ll be your entire team, Vista, Golem, and myself,” Miss Militia said.

“I’m kind of regretting agreeing to cooperate,” Tristan said.

“I’m not,” I said, keeping my voice low.  “No, this is… fuck this, especially if they’re going after a kid like Kenzie-”

“They’d relish the chance,” Miss Militia interrupted.

“Yay,” Kenzie said, her voice small.

“Sorry.  You said you wanted to know.”

“I do.  Thank you, you’re super nice, but I’m a tiny bit scared now.  Plus I think I’d have to disconnect and that’d make me more scared.”

“Disconnect from?” Miss Militia asked.

“My team’s headquarters.”

“Kid Win was similar,” Vista said.  “My old teammate.  Couldn’t take him away from his workshop too long or he’d get antsy.”

“Haha, yeah,” Kenzie said.  Then, as if renewing her efforts, she launched into quiet chatter with a different tone, “At least we’re somewhere pretty.  Every building, all the clothes, the language-”

“Something nice to say about anyone, even the guys who are jailing us?” Tristan asked.

“I’m sure they have good reasons.”

I repeated myself, “I don’t think this is right, I don’t think this is okay, especially if it involves Kenzie or people who are only here for functional purposes, like Vista or Golem.  But I’d rather stay and go through their charade if it means securing supplies for people back on Gimel.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  “I’ve been hurt before.  I just don’t want to be hurt and alone.”

She wasn’t talking about her computers or tech.  She was linked in to Darlene and possibly the others.

“I won’t let it happen,” Ashley said.

Kenzie made a nervous sound, halfway to a laugh.  “I hope so.  Just a bit nervous now.  Not that I don’t believe in you.”

Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s head.  “Be brave, look confident.”

“Their motivation isn’t the pain,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s about posture and position.  They’re playing a game of chicken, knowing we could threaten them, but they hold supplies hostage.  Even if we went to war, which we absolutely won’t and can’t do, we wouldn’t have their cooperation or supplies in the meantime, and that would cost us too much.”

“Please tell me Luis is arguing for something milder and winning that argument,” Sveta said.

“He’s arguing,” Miss Militia said.  Answering only part of the statement.

As if her words had been a mechanism, Luis fell silent, his argument ended.

Aian said something in response.  I could see Miss Militia’s posture change.  I could see Aian in the boxy robes punch a fist out to his left.

With the way the groups were arranged, Luis’s group, the Founders, were to our left.  There was a group that hadn’t spoken yet, then Yosef’s, two more groups that had been mostly silent, then Aian’s.  To Aian’s left was the group with my mother, father, Marquis, Spruce, and Chris.

And my sister.  Aian’s fist extended to her, specifically.

“It’s about making a statement about them too,” I said.  “The parahumans who came to Shin.  Chris, Marquis… telling them their place.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.

“They want them to handle the arrest, put us in our cells.”

“Yes.  And to handle any punishments.  Aian just cut through several of Luis’s arguments by saying that punishments can be more pointed because Amelia Claire Lavere can be ordered to maintain our health,” Miss Militia said, her voice overlapping Luis’s rebuttal, which was quickly followed by a response from Aian.  “If we refuse, if she refuses, we’re clearly lying in reassuring them, either Amy’s too dangerous, we’re too dangerous, or both.”

Okay.  I was on the same page as Tristan now.  Didn’t expect hardball to this degree.

What else could we do though?

“Are they being influenced by Teacher?” Ashley asked.  “This feels pointed.”

“This is how they politic, I’m afraid,” Miss Militia said.   “This seems normal.”

I spoke, “When we investigated Teacher, it all seemed normal or excusable.  Things so close to reality you could believe it happened.  You had to look at the end results and the consequences to find patterns.”

“Luis and his Founders are center, as far as we’re concerned, joined by the group to his right.  Normally the Coalition balances it out, and with my voice or another Gimel voice we can strike a healthy compromise.  The Coalition being absent could be Teacher.”

With them gone, the guys in the ‘center’ were our best advocates.

And our best advocates, Luis’s faction- he was stepping down and back, no longer one of the people speaking.  Ceding the floor to Aian.  Ceding a victory to Aian.

Aian talked, his voice low, and he did all of the talking, with only a periodic one or two word comment or agreement from other groups.  Luis was entirely silent.

Fuck me.  Gary had stirred shit up to score a political victory at home, and caused an inter-earth incident in the process, painting their parahuman saviors and neighbors in the worst light possible.  We went to handle that, just so we could go after Teacher without worrying about what’s happening in the background, and we faced imprisonment, torture, public humiliation…

And worse than imprisonment and torture.  We faced my sister.  My sister who was ‘not well’, according to my mother.  Who was spiraling out, doing her best to mitigate that spiral by moving slowly.  I wasn’t sure her best was very good.

I was even less sure it would be good if she was forced to cooperate in our torture and humiliation.  My torture and humiliation.

The feeling, now, was of something institutional and wholly unfair, something biased against us, that was now dragging us inch by inch toward something ugly.  To my sister being made to lay hands on us, on me, all while being in the worst fucking state possible to handle her shit.  And she hadn’t been handling it.

Aian squared his shoulders, moved his arm, and faced us.  Yosef’s wife approached to stand beside and one step behind him.

When he spoke to address us, his voice was faintly nasal and insistent.  His translator’s voice was normal, but the opening of each statement overlapped with the end of Aian’s.

“All but Militia will stay in a reconstruction facility, where you will join the rounds.  Miss Militia will return to Gimel and explain the situation.”

The ’rounds’ – I  only had to look at Miss Militia’s expression to know how things had gone.    I didn’t miss her glancing at Kenzie.

“If I may-” Miss Militia started.

“You may not.”

“If I may!” Miss Militia raised her voice.

There were murmurs, there was chatter.

Aian ceded, his hand moving to motion her to come closer.

“A general can take the punishment for their men.”

“Are you a general?  You dress as one but you insisted you were something else.”

“I am not someone who leads battles against humankind.  I am someone who leads battle against monsters and fights to make humanity shine brighter.  These people have fought under or alongside me.”

Aian answered.  The translator translated, “Your Wardens, yes.  Breakdown-”

Luis coughed a word.  The translator corrected himself.

“-Breakthrough is not yours.”

“They are my responsibility.  I will stay and I will take any punishment you see fit, as much as I disagree.”

“You will go,” the translator translated for Aian.  “Because we want someone we can trust going between us and Gimel.”

“I will not see people, many of them not quite adults in the eyes of our government, punished for the crimes of adults.”

“Punishments with kind intent and purpose.”

Ashley put her hands on Kenzie’s collarbone, pulling her back into Ashley’s front in a protective hug.

“Unacceptable,” Miss Militia said.  “Our memory is long when it comes to this sort of thing.  You will hurt relations far more than you realize.  I told you from the beginning, they’ve earned goodwill.”

“Then imprisonment until the trade deal is signed and new protections agreed to.  We are insistent on having our presence and security affirmed.  And if these parahumans cause trouble, they will bleed for it.  The so-called Red Queen will ensure they don’t bleed too much.”

“That should be fine,” Miss Militia said.  “It won’t come to that.”

“Do you say that because you know they’ll cause trouble and you’re at peace with the politics of it, or because you’re lying to yourself?”

“Being parahuman doesn’t mean trouble is inevitable.  Have I caused you trouble?”

“You have the gall to ask that after raising your voice in here, threatening us?”

“I made no threat.”

“You are a threat.  You have the power, I’ve been told, to kill all of us here.  Our soldiers might shoot you, but these others you’ve brought with you could kill them, for all we know.”

The ‘walk softly and carry a big stick’ might have been something they prized, but the moment we didn’t speak softly…

Aian spoke, giving the order.  His translator voiced it in English.  “Take them.”

My eye fell on Amy.  The fear that ran through me had a grip to it, paralyzing.  They were putting me in her charge, and I’d just told her off.  I’d just been harsh with her.

Did that impact her willingness to obey?  I had a fundamental understanding of her yet I had zero idea what she might do.  If pushed, did she refuse, try to prove herself to me by refusing to take action against me?  Did she go the other way?

Which was worse?

Did she internalize all of this and slip further?  All it had taken for Hunter might have been a similar hair color and appearance, a bit of exhaustion, and Amy had slipped, had made a critical error.

If we said no, fought, ran, or brought war to their doorstep, then they rescinded aid.  We would take the blame, and they would claim a victory in that, having brought us low and reminded us of our place.

“Us too?” my mother asked.

“You’re the custody of the Red Queen,” the translator said.  “Her responsibility is yours.  Your dereliction is hers.”

This is why they need help escaping.  They were roped in with Amy.  If they left, it was deemed Amy’s failure.  Prisoners in the loosest sense.

We’d had to make our decision.  The Shin parahumans now had to make theirs.  Marquis had no reason to be fond of us but in a weird way I could trust him most.  My dad.  My mom.  Spruce.  Chris.  Amy.  As I got to the last name on that list, the amount of trust I had in the individual dwindled.

Fuck.

I nodded, mostly to myself, and that seemed to be the signal that gave permission to the Shin parahuman group.  Not as organic as Miss Militia leaving Breakthrough to make a call without any input from her, but… whatever.

“What do I do?” Natalie asked.

“Go with them.  You’ll be the back and forth for them and Gimel,” Miss Militia told her.  “Come back here, report to me.  They should treat you well.”

“Damn.  Okay,” Natalie said.

“All of you do your best, avoid responding to any taunts or tricks,” Miss Militia said, her voice quiet enough for just our group.  She turned to Vista.  “And if it comes down to it and it seems they intend to castigate you or anything like that, escape.”

I spoke, “That would mean-”

“Escape,” she interrupted me, turning to me.  “Any of you, if it comes to it, escape.  If it gets that bad, if they’re willing to go that far, trade may not be possible, the situation wouldn’t be salvageable.  At least like this, it was superficially a charade, a heavy-handed moving of segments of the political machine.  We can recover from it.  But we can’t sacrifice people to that machine.”

“Got it,” Vista said.

“For the love of God, be good,” Miss Militia said.  She said it to Vista and Golem, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t intended for them.  It would have been crass to say it to us, and she wasn’t crass.

“What are you guys going to do in the meantime?” I asked.  I shifted my footing, signaling I was asking about Teacher.

“Just focus on yourselves.  We’ll work something out.  This should only be a few days at most before we work it out.  In the meantime, I think they want you to give them an excuse, they can punish you, and use the film of act and punishment for their political enrollments or even televising it for the public.”

“Political enroll- nevermind,” Tristan said, changing his tune as Marquis and the others drew closer.  He looked at Vista, who had her chin set.  She didn’t look anywhere near happy about this.  “This is screwed up.”

“It’s theater.  We’re capes, theater is part of it,” Ashley said.

“Well said,” Miss Militia told her.

Behind Chris, Spruce, and Marquis, I could see my parents and Amy.  Amy hesitated, then approached until she stood beside Marquis.  A diplomat from Aian’s contingent accompanied them.  No doubt to show them where the hell they were going.

“Would it be tactless for us to use weapons?” Marquis asked.

“It might be best,” Miss Militia said.

“Would it, now?”

“You’re effectively their parahumans.  Your weapons and clout are theirs.  Show off a bit if you must.”

Marquis made a hand motion like he was snapping a finger in reverse, and the snap produced a rapier-thin blade from his middle finger.  He waved it in the air before settling on Tristan, Golem, and Rain, bidding them to move.  Spruce joined him.

“Come on,” Chris said.  He pushed Ashley’s shoulderblade hard enough she had to take a step and as part of that, had to manage Kenzie, who was standing just in front of her.  “Let’s go.  I want to get back to my own stuff.”

When she didn’t move fast enough, he gave her another push.  She shot him a look over her shoulder, her neck and jaw tense enough that lines and muscles stood out.

“It’s only going to get worse when you’re in there.  Suck it up.”

“Theatrics,” my mother said, as she walked into the midst of our group.  She smiled at Natalie.  “Earning your pay, hm?”

Natalie’s responding smile was weak.

“I’ll make it up to you,” my mother said.

“I believe you.”

My mother produced a coruscating spike in her hand.  I knew the energy she made could be diffused or left ‘sharp’, and I imagined she’d picked something that would burn at worst, if someone were to walk fast enough into it.

I’d wanted her to guide me.  But she didn’t, instead putting a hand on Sveta’s shoulder.  Because she didn’t think – there was a dwindling number of people to manage us.

“Regretting sending mom here?” I asked, approaching my dad, because the alternative was that he wouldn’t think either, and I’d be left with Amy guiding me.

I didn’t walk a straight line to my dad, either.  I took the path that kept him between Amy and myself.  She had a look in her eyes that was somewhere between wounded and hopeful, constantly changing, and my little maneuver pushed things into the ‘wounded’ for the time being.

Though he held his arm straight out in front of him, the hand he put on my shoulder wasn’t one that gripped me hard.  It was almost reassuring.

“It saved her life,” he said.

Right.  Of course.  “Sorry.”

“I’m sorry this is happening this way.”

I shook my head.

Besides the fact that Amy was behind me and I had no idea what she was doing, besides the fact that she’d tried to grab me from behind once already, and had chased after me more than once in the time since Gold Morning…

No, I’d rather bite the bullet and keep the peace.  How did it go?  Rule of law, then right and wrong, and if neither of those worked, reach out for counsel?  If none of that was possible, do what I could do without regrets?

This was the law here.  It was ridiculous and unjust, pure farce for political points and to apply pressure on another government.

“Fuck me with a salted log, do not fucking touch me,” Vista said.

I turned to look.  Amy, with about a foot of distance between a reaching or motioning hand and Vista.

“I don’t want to fall behind,” Amy said.  “This is hard enough.”

“Give me a second.”

“You’re going to make them suspicious.”

Vista didn’t budge, staring Amy down.  In the meantime, my dad and I were stopped, while the others left the room.  Miss Militia remained where she was, a short distance from Vista and Amy.

“Be good,” Miss Militia told Vista.  This time, the words really did seem meant for Vista.

“I am.  But if it comes down to it, I’m not going to have a squad of soldiers who I don’t know or trust at my back without taking steps.”

Miss Militia looked around.  “You undid it?”

“Just finished,” Vista said.

She walked, Amy following, guards following Amy.  Vista didn’t hurry, and the result was to create a good fifteen or twenty foot gap between myself and Amy.

Natalie hurried to catch up to my dad and I.

“You coping?” I asked.

“I should be asking you that.”

“Life as a cape.  Before I even had powers, I made myself stay up until I heard my parents come back in.  My dad taught me some first aid from pretty early on.”

“I didn’t know you stayed up,” my dad said.

I ignored that, addressing Natalie, “Are you managing though?  You’ll be going home, maybe report to people or tell them what Miss Militia’s more or less going to say so she can focus on other things.  Then, I imagine, a… stiff drink?”

“I can’t drink when anxious,” she said.  “I have a… guy.  Kind of but not really a boyfriend.  Does that sound awful?”

“No,” I said.  “A guy sounds really nice.”

“We’re in a fuzzy territory.  It doesn’t matter, you have bigger things to worry about.  I’ve got someone to give me a hug when I need it, that’s what matters.  I’ll call him once I’m in range for cellular service.”

“Good,” I said.

“I don’t want to sound rude, but… I didn’t expect family to be such a factor.  Carol’s… very different.”

“She’s recovering,” my dad said.

“Yeah.  I get that.”

A glass-covered, glass-walled tunnel with snowbanks on either side separated buildings.

“I’ve talked to Vista a few times,” Natalie said.  Her voice was quieter.  “She sounded really unlike herself just now, talking to Amy.  Scared.”

“Amy’s not that scary.  She’s a good person who’s been through a lot, like most parahumans,” my dad said.

“Vista’s been through a lot.  She’s level-headed, she’s smart, she’s experienced- fuck, she’s more experienced than me, I’m pretty sure.  And she’s scared.  I’m scared.”

“Singular bad experiences, traumas or histories of trauma, and our mental issues can screw up the tools we use to determine if we should fight, fly, or freeze.”

It hurt, hearing that.

“So can love,” I said.  I looked at my mom’s back.  “And guilt, shame.”

It wasn’t a short walk to the prison.  We pulled hoods up and helmets on as we left the warmth of building interiors, the young politician that was showing us the way passing us on to a guy in a guard’s uniform.  We walked past groups of people, all dressed more like Luis than any of the other delegates.

Our destination was a building that looked to be a stout castle, split in two and separated, with an office building growing out of the divide, concrete and tinted windows covered in bars.  Wrought iron fences with whole sections wrought to be bent to right angles, spikes rising up from the face of it in echoes of the multitude of medieval-style towers that leaned out and then up from buildings around us.

Just a few days.  No alternative, we did this, we let the Wardens handle shit and work out an alternative, and we went back.  If we couldn’t, we’d break out.  We had the means.

The cold was biting enough that I was glad to be indoors.  I was less glad that the lobby before the internal prison gates was as small as it was.

I was very aware of Amy entering the space, of her proximity to me, and to everyone else.  Vista avoided being within arm’s reach, and on Amy’s opposite side, guards did the same.  It made everything else more squashed with the sudden influx being what it was.

My dad went to her side, creating a buffer of space where others could move closer without being in immediate proximity.

I’d complained the greenhouse patio was claustrophobic.  This was worse.

From alien political pressure to cold to claustrophobia.  There wasn’t any time or place since I’d entered this damn world that I’d felt capable of breathing.

Vista had talked about how the little things went underappreciated.  That the public would never know about the monsters being slain, the nascent S-class threats that never grew beyond a certain point or figured out how to use their full potential, because the PRT or the Wardens had stepped in.

With orders and directions given in a language we didn’t understand, we were all filed off together into an adjacent area.  The Western of the two half-castles.

Co-ed shower, with only a dividing wall up to my shoulder.

We had to.  As much as I could briefly entertain the notion that we might eventually have to say ‘fuck it’ and stop caring as much about what civilians thought, in practice, if aid for millions was on the line, I’d eat the shit, I’d endure.

I’d fucking endure my sister being here, of all things.

I just had to hope our more temperamental and unreliable allies could keep it toned down.  That we could manage this for the one or two days it was necessary.

We handed over gear, piece by piece, slowly, with multiple guards keeping weapons trained on us.  Because we’d cooperated this far, but when asked to hand over phones, keys, pens, loose change, that was when we’d pull out guns and open fire, right?

Fuck me.  Fuck this.

“Amy doesn’t need to be here,” I said, as I finished removing the stuff in my pockets and started removing ornamentation, like the decoration at my hood and shoulders.

She looked at my mom, as if for confirmation, then said, “I kind of do but-”

Think,” I said.  “Find two rational thoughts, put them together, and think about it, please.”

“I am.  I’m aware this is awkward.  But they want this.  They want us to watch you and I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go.”

I could have choked on the anger I felt.

“Come keep an eye on me,” Tristan said.  “Give Victoria her space.”

Amy was just short enough that only the top of her head, still covered by her hood, was visible over the top of the divider.

I pulled off the outer layers of my costume, my mom and two guards looking, a third guard looking over my red letter – my paperwork from the portal.  They checked me over, one guard examining me, another going over my clothes inch by inch, while I stood on the clammy floor, still with beads of moisture and droplets from when prisoners had used the space.

They let me change back into the tank top and costume leggings I’d been wearing, and they gave me simple shoes and socks to wear.  I kept the socks in my pocket, slipping wet feet into the shoes.  Wet socks would be worse and would get the shoes wet anyway.

I wanted more.  The protection of the heavy coat, a barrier between me and everything else.

After they finished Sveta, I settled into position, still in the stall, my arms resting on the divide between Sveta’s stall and my own, my chin resting on my arms.  My position let me keep an eye on the others while keeping Amy in my peripheral vision.

“You have scars,” Amy cut into my thoughts.

From a vantage point on the boy’s side -she’d moved to higher ground to be able to see faces above the shoulder-high divider- she could see my head and the arm that rested on top.  I dropped my arm and covered the topmost scar with my hand.  Notches where the acid centipedes had raked me.

I pulled the hand away, anger and hate and bitter feelings boiling up.  I could have used my aura or power, if it wouldn’t have been so costly.  Fuck me.

“Don’t follow through with that thought,” Vista said, so I didn’t have to.

I saw Amy look momentarily frustrated and lost.  She looked to my mom, who didn’t respond.  She looked to my dad.

“Hostility doesn’t help any of us,” my dad said.

“Technically speaking,” Chris said.

“Oh my god, please shut up, Chris,” Vista said.

The guard barked a word at her in a foreign tongue.  He was checking her hair.

“I think he said to be quiet,” Marquis said.

“Hostile execution of a certain world-conquering tyrant got me my current position.  A kind of diplomatic immunity,” Chris said.  “Hostility is great, if you have good timing.”

“There are more than a few hostile things I could say to you,” Ashley said.  “The mildest of them is that you’re tiresome.”

The guards moved on from Vista to Ashley, taking the dress from where she’d already hung it over the same divider that made it so I could only see her head, and made it impossible to see Kenzie at the far end of the row.

“Tiresome, says the wannabe villainess who can’t drop the same old act.  Nobody’s impressed, Ash.”

“Hey,” Kenzie said.  “Leave her alone.”

“I almost had a morsel of respect for you, tidbit,” Chris told her, his voice echoing just a bit more in the room with its open area and hard surfaces.  “Leaving this trainwreck was a good idea.”

“I didn’t want to leave.”

“Okay, then I’ve changed my mind about the morsel of respect.  You could be so great, so powerful.  And what are you doing?  You’re obsessing over making friends, the one thing you’re worst at.”

“Like you’re any better?” Tristan asked.

“Don’t say it like that,” Sveta said.  “She does have friends.”

The guards were looking a little anxious about the chatter and debate, all in a language they didn’t understand.

Marquis stepped forward, to put a hand on Chris’s shoulder.  He leaned in close to say something, but Chris didn’t really stop, shrugging it off.

I made a short, small whistle, and when they looked my way, I had my hand at the side of my head, at my left ear, fingers in my hair.  Our signal, meant for me to calm down.

My team, at least, chilled out, with emphasis on the bitterest sense of chill.  Some turned their backs.  Kenzie had hopped up onto the bench in her stall, and peered over the wall at Chris.  She’d removed her headband and pin.

“So you have friends,” Chris said.  “Tell me when you keep them for more than a month without fucking it up.”

Fuck me, I thought for a second Marquis might have said or done something.  He certainly tried to get Chris to quietly leave.  The rest of my team, myself included, held their tongues while simultaneously wanting to backhand Chris.

Kenzie smiled at him, “It’s been a little while, actually.  Um.  I’m sure I’m wearing on them-”

“Imagine that,” Chris said.

I still had to talk to her.  There hadn’t been a great chance.  Too many red flags had popped up.  I wanted to do it while out of Teacher’s sight, and with this circumstance, I couldn’t.

“Um!  Hm.  But I kind of really love them, like, crazy friend-crushing on some of them and crush-crushing on Chicken Little.  My first ever crush-crush.”

“Imagine that,” Chris said.  “You in love.  That’s like saying a trash fire is hot.  That poor Chicken is going to get burned.”

“I don’t know.  I’m not sure.  They get me in ways nobody else has.  I think there’s a way forward, even if I am a trash fire.”

“You aren’t,” Sveta said.

“Okay, thank you.  Anyway, it’s neat.  That’s your catch-me-up on the happenings of Kenzie.”

“The inherent humor in seeing you get thrown in the clink is the only thing holding my interest right now.”

“And Ashley- what?”

The guard was turning Kenzie around.  Her turn.

Out of sight, Kenzie pitched her voice higher to be heard.  “Ashley’s actually really neat to be around in whole new ways nowadays.  She’s grown and she’s warmer sometimes, and she’s still super cool.”

“A compliment from you is like herpes from a hooker, Kenz.  It’s a given.”

“I think you’d be surprised.  She’s changing and she’s trying to change, and even if I only get breakfasts-”

The guard barked at her.

“He’s saying to stop talking,” Marquis supplied.

“How do you say ‘that won’t happen’?” Tristan asked.  “She’s a talker.”

Marquis paused, smiled, and said a single word.

The guard heaved out a sigh.

“I think that was ‘can’t’,” Marquis said.

“Thanks,” Tristan said.

“Anyway!  She’s trying, she’s cool, and even if sometimes all I get to see her is breakfasts and sometimes-hangouts I love being a part of it.”

“I miss you too,” Ashley said.

“Gag me,” Chris said.

“And um, Chris?  Cryptid?  Lab Rat?  Whatever you want to be called?”

His expression changed.

He hadn’t known we knew.

“Um.  I get it.  I know how frustrating it is to be unable to change, no matter how hard you try.  And I know it’s scary too, and lonely.”

“You never got that,” Chris said.  “That I don’t get lonely.”

“You do, though.  Because ever since we showed up all you’ve done is be angry and push and prod, like you’re trying to prove something.  The world’s moved on and you’re stuck being whatever you are and it doesn’t matter how much you change on the outside because on the inside?  You’re still a miserable little fucknugget.”

It was, in any other circumstance, the kind of line that would have seen Chris guffaw, laugh, say something.

Silence followed.

“Um.  Haha, my heart’s beating so fast, because I’m angry, and I’m angry because you missed out, you know.  Because even now?  Even if I might get tortured, I’ll be  happier than you are Chris.  You missed out and you deserve to.  There were glimmers of good in you like when you helped Rain, but you didn’t stick to that and you didn’t try.  You were super cool when you stopped trying to be uncool, and I kind of loved you and now I kind of don’t.  You’re being shitty by pushing us away and making something hard even harder and suckier because you’re scared and resentful and whatever.  I know whatever happens next for you is going to be ten times as hard and sucky as what I have to deal with.  You’re going to be just as alone and even more frustrated because you’re never going to be able to take a drug that changes you deep down inside and makes you any less of a pathetic miserable fucknugget.”

This from the girl who always found something nice to say about anyone.

He didn’t immediately respond.

When he did, it was a simple, “Say what you really think.”

“Okay,” she said.  “There’s nothing sadder than someone who’s unwilling to change for the better.”

I looked across the room at Amy.  I saw her look, saw her expression change, as she looked away.  More different real emotions that weren’t her being wounded or blindly hopeful crossed her face in a few seconds than I’d seen since she arrived in the conference building.

“There’s something sadder,” Amy said.  “When the rest of the world won’t let you change.”

There we go, I thought to myself.  One shot and you missed it.

It was Amy who stormed out, giving Chris the excuse to follow.

They went to the lobby, and the rest of us, once the guards had picked through Ashley and Kenzie’s stuff, with Kenzie’s small pack having a change of clothes they provided, were let through another set of doors and a series of gates.  Each of us had a wristband with a series of symbols.

Natalie saw us off.  When the door shut, it separated us from her.

The prison was a series of hallways, with few rooms beyond an atrium area with a glass ceiling, where it looked like food was provided at other times of the day.  The hallways were lined with thin mattresses, and it seemed to be first come, first serve.

Co-ed, anarchy.  Going by what Miss Militia said, the principle of there being little to no traffic laws and high personal responsibility with severe punishments seemed to hold within the prison grounds themselves.  There were places where guards patrolled on raised platforms or on the other side of windows, guns in plain few.  I could see two cases of them breaking up prisoners – one case where a man and woman were sitting too close together, suggesting that co-ed didn’t mean open season, and another case where things were getting loud- two parents with kids a few years younger than Kenzie were arguing about a game in their natural tongue.

Our priority was to find the quiet, to powwow, figure out where we stood.

We just had to get through a couple of days.

Ashley’s natural intimidation worked in our favor.  When we found a place with only a few people, a little damp where moisture dripped down through a crack in the glass above, they saw Ashley and got out of dodge.

“No cameras?” I asked.

“Guards but no cameras, not here,” Kenzie said.  “I can tell.”

“You’re an asset,” Tristan said.  “And you’re a champ.”

She nodded, no longer smiling, all seriousness.

“How are you for tech, Kenz?” I asked.

She reached up to tap the side of her head.  The sound was artificial, a clink.  “Hairclip.  Projection.  Only a few hours of battery.  I’m gonna turn it off and hide it.”

“Okay.”

“Um.  Oxygen tank and mask.  That’s a good one.”

“They didn’t find it?”

“It was hidden with projection.  I hung it on the shower lever while talking to Chris.  Um.  Oh, I’ve got these…”

She reached up and she scraped a fingernail along the surface of her eye.  Ashley moved closer, to block the guards’ view.

Golem had the biggest body, and he blocked off the view to the side.  He beckoned for Rain to come sit beside him.

“Oh,” Kenzie said, letting go of her eye.  “Vista.”

“What?”

“Can you uh, not do your thing, like, at all?  At least while I’m working on the eyes?  Because your thing borks up my thing and hoo boy.  It would be like pulling a pinecone out of a grape.”

“Not doing my thing,” Vista said.

The action drew a prisoner’s attention.  A woman, broad with bad skin, raised her voice, asking what might have been a question, but which lacked the inflection at the end.

Sveta turned, and with one finger, drew a line from lower eyelid to chin, then pointed to Kenz.

The woman made a face, sympathetic.

Kenzie pulled out the apparatus that had been phased into her eye, six inches long and bristling with antennae and prongs.  She partially removed the one from her other eye, then pushed it back in.

“Not removing it?”

“It lets Darlene, Candy, and Chicken look in,” Kenzie said.  “And I’d feel lonely if they couldn’t.  Besides, it lets me see the cameras, and I want to figure out where they all are before I run out of battery.  If I have time and if I can make tools, maybe a few minor things, I’ll turn this oxygen can into a battery pack.”

The projection setup for the smoking eyelashes was buried in Ashley’s eye as well.  Kenzie removed those, handing them to Rain.

“Can you make something?” I asked.

“What do I need to make?” she asked.

“I’m worried Teacher might try something.  We’re cooped up and we’re easy targets.  Do you think you could give us a way to track what happens?”

“You think they’ll come after us?” Tristan asked.

“I think they might.  Or they’ll try to frame us.  Or stage a breakout attempt.  Our job is to stay in, at least for a little while, keep the peace.”

I shifted my footing.

And if the Wardens need us they can get us.  If not, then the scheduled attack on Teacher happens and we’re stuck on the sidelines because we’re losing this game of political chess.

I saw a few of the others nodding to themselves.

“Should I give Darlene and the others a message?” Kenzie asked.  “Call anyone?  Even for dumb stuff?  I think they’re worried.”

The others named names.  Rain wanted a message given to Erin.  Tristan asked for his parents, and mentioned the subject of Byron, who was still in armor.  A complicated subject to navigate – he hadn’t felt comfortable changing with an anti-parahuman holding him at gunpoint.

Ashley had nobody, and Sveta requested a message to go to Armstrong, just to tell him not to worry.

And me?

Half of the people I knew and cared about were here.

“Citrine,” I decided.  “We’re going to need some help from above.”

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Breaking – 14.6

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Breaking from their ranks to some degree, a handful of the soldiers found positions where they leaned against walls or sat on tables.  The one who had interrupted my mother in the middle of writing her plea for help was the one I was most mindful of, because he was being so very mindful of his gun.

Mindful in the sense that there was a kind of forced casualness that he wasn’t selling.  He put his cloth-wrapped gun down, and when Kenzie moved closer to him to poke at one of Rain’s little arms, his hand was too quick to reach for the weapon again.

Help, I thought.  My mother stared out the window, and if she was tense, it was hard to tell because she had a natural rigidity to her posture.

There was only quiet chatter, careful conversational forays into that dangerous space between Breakthrough and Shin’s parahumans.  So often, there was a measured reaching out, a safe topic broached, and the conversation would continue until Chris said something or someone said something a little too biting.  Marquis wishing he had a cup of tea leading in its way to Ashley rebuking him for not being discerning enough.  Then silence.

A minute where Marquis only talked to Spruce, who was back in the far corner.  Where Golem approached Rain.  Vista had her visor off, and hopped up onto a table to sit on it, close enough to Ashley that when they had a murmured exchange of words, she could reach up and stick her finger into the black smoke eyeliner that was projected around Ashley’s eyes.  Ashley didn’t flinch.

A minute where I had to try to get my shit together.  My mom had written about needing help.  Miss Militia had suggested we might need to use our powers and she was on her own out there.  The guards with guns weren’t staying in their lane, moving themselves and their guns around, necessitating that little bit of extra attention.

And I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t wrap my head around all of it.  Any of it.

I saw movement, saw a face in the corner of my vision that served to backhand the warning bells in my brain before I’d even fully processed seeing it.  Then I did finish processing, pieced together that it was Marquis, and I saw how similar he was to Amy.  In hair type and even the way the hair fell across their shoulders, in face shape, and the cast of eye and nose.

He looked so casually confident, wearing a red velvet jacket and a black silk ascot that ninety nine percent of men would not have been able to pull off.  He had a cane topped with a cat skull that looked like it was mostly bone, with inlay only for decoration.

She- I glanced.  She was wearing a red blouse under a black cardigan, and she wore a brooch that seemed like it was meant to mimic her tattoos in style, like stained glass in gold bands with panes of red.  Worn over the heart, vaguely heart-shaped.  Ankle-length black skirt with red trim.

One thing at a time, then.  For now it was peaceful.  My team had other bases covered.

I’d wanted to face my demons, I’d locked myself in this cage with them.  I studied her clothes and remembered the person I’d grown up with, I looked for the mannerisms-

She isn’t well

-that could give me any clue.

Looking at her was like staring into the sun, but it elicited thoughts of something noxious instead, not something bright.

Ankle-length because she’d never liked short skirts or pants that hugged the leg.  Self conscious about the shape of her legs, despite the fact that they’d been fine.  Even now, past the end of the world, little things held true.

To stare into the sun was to do permanent damage to the retina.  To face her down was something more guttural, a feeling at the hollow of the collarbone, an ugly feeling that made me worry there would be a similar kind of permanent damage.

I wanted to expel it, somehow, exorcise it.  To vomit, to say something foul.

To say the simplest thing ever, from the part of me nearest to the center.  I’d grown up telling my parents I loved them.  I’d said I’d loved Amy and I was more certain I had than I was that I’d loved my parents.  We loved family just because.  I’d once loved Amy as a sister for reasons that went beyond just because.  Because she’d had my back and I’d had hers, and because we’d both been fuller, richer people in each other’s company.

But nothing quite mirrored the feeling I was wrestling with now more than my third time with Dean.  Because I had loved him.  After our first and second times together, nervous and still figuring ourselves and each other out, our third time together had been comfortable, heated, intense, and the love I’d had for him had been something I could experience with every sense, something that could brim the fuck over.

Making love as a word had made sense to me, because we’d done it, in all senses of the word, and then we had that love, we’d cuddled after and basked in each other, we’d been comfortable with each other in a profound way.

And I could remember Amy’s comments back then, when I’d told her about it, when I’d tried to encourage her to date Dean’s friend.  How many high school relationships really lasted?  It was worth trying.  I couldn’t imagine a world where I wasn’t better off having experienced this.  How many times had we broken up and gotten back together, she’d asked.  Three.  Didn’t that make me worry, she’d asked?  No.

His parents didn’t love each other and might not have even loved him, and my parents were Mark and Carol fucking Dallon, we were parahumans, and none of that mess was easy.  When he’d been given the unique ability to resolve conflicts by laser-punching people with emotion and reading their feelings, I’d been handed the conflict resolution ability of breaking people.  Neither of us had been able to use our innate, shockingly powerful capabilities on each other.  Of course we’d bounced off each other.  But love drew us back in.  Each time, a couple of the romantic illusions were shaken off, and romantic realities replaced them.  We’d had to learn to communicate, to figure each other out.

That one night with Dean had redefined things for me.  Something I’d carry with me always when it came to putting ideas to the word ‘love’.

And, because it was the elephant, the abomination in the room, I would think of years spent pining.  A love I knew and had known was fake and manufactured that had stayed with me for two years, threatening to wash away and taint every other kind of love.

Now, the mirror to that.  In an uncomfortable, vaguely alien world, surrounded by coldness and restrained tension, staring across a gap and feeling emotion somewhere between disgust, outrage, and betrayal roiling inside of me, I could genuinely say I hated her.

I looked away, out the window, and there was nothing there.  Only snowdrifts, glass opaque with the snow that rested against it, and vague shapes of buildings.  Maybe there would be more of a view when the wind died down.

I looked at my teammates instead, and they were doing their duty, holding their own, being good, keeping an eye or an ear out.  Vista was helping Tristan keep an eye out, her hands folded over the top of a chair leg that jutted up beside her, chin resting on hands.  She was more worried for Miss Militia than anyone, I suspected.

Tristan, Vista and Kenzie were making sure Miss Militia was safe.  If something happened, we could spring into action.

But looking at my team meant they looked back, and I wasn’t sure I wanted them to see my expression or read something into it.  For this moment I held it together.  If Sveta or Ashley tried to be nice and help me then that’d jeopardize that stability.

And if I wasn’t looking in Amy’s direction, wasn’t looking out the window, wasn’t looking at my team- I looked at the guards.

A few of them looked at me with that same hate I’d so recently found so painfully clarified.  They reminded themselves of their guns.  I was left to wonder if they’d be any more ashamed than Yosef if they ended up gunning us down.

I couldn’t stare them down without worrying about provoking violence, much as I couldn’t look at my team without worrying about provoking kindness.

Nowhere for my eyes to sit.  Across a few fleeting seconds, I was as far from stability as I could hope for, panic setting in because I couldn’t even stare at the floor without looking weak, and there were people here I couldn’t let myself look weak in front of.

I looked back to Amy.  Back where I started.  Back to this girl I hated.

She didn’t even know.  No emotion reading power, no awareness.  In the here and now, she said something joking to Marquis, who was moving his head in funny ways.  The tone of that joking statement was one I recognized from childhood, from adolescence.  I could probably think of a dozen specific statements she’d made in that exact same tone.

I hated her more because she smiled, joked, and maybe forgot I was in the room.

Marquis moved his head, and she moved her head, sitting up to try to see what he was seeing.  It meant she looked in my direction, looked at me, and the partial smile she’d maintained as part of her joke or interaction with Marquis fell away.  Their heads were turned to similar angles, shadows fell across their faces in similar ways.

“Do you need something, Marquis?” my mother asked, in what I processed as her ‘you’re in deep shit’ tone from my childhood.

“A haircut,” Chris said.

“If you’re going to be a pain, Chris, try to be actually funny,” Tristan said.

“Or, you know, consider what’s on the line,” Sveta said.  “You’re not making any friends, you’re not getting any advantages by acting this way.”

Chris snorted.

Marquis ignored it all, tilting his head another way, peering at or past the soldiers.  I didn’t look at Amy beside him, who didn’t match his movements, instead continuing to stare.

Marquis looked at my mother, and my mother looked away.  He got around to answering her statement, “I was wondering how they were doing in there.  I’d come over, but… I won’t intrude.”

Intrude.  This greenhouse patio we were situated on was exactly the wrong shape for discussion, resolution, or for opposed elements to be crammed inside without difficulties.  The hall where the discussion, debate, the whatever had been, it had been open and spacious, allowing five representatives and their retinues, and us, a guest, to all gather with a comfortable amount of space between us, the guards arranged around the perimeter.

This was not that.  My inability to even find a place to rest my gaze was an extension of the way this was laid out.  This was a space that was too long, where tables and chairs against one wall became a barricade that ate into the space that could be occupied, something that demanded effort or maneuvering in order to clear a space to sit on.  Once situated at that edge, it was hard to be next to others, to huddle, to turn to face the person beside you without looking through a nest of chair and table legs.

And it wasn’t our space, so we couldn’t exactly rearrange anything or everything.  It was impossible to create a space for actual discussion in here, where we weren’t talking past people.

It made me think of parties, of people gathered in hallways, so conversations happened in the exact same places where people were needing to walk by, voices raised to be heard, noisy, chaotic-

Except we were quieter than not.  We weren’t moving around.  This space would have been comfortable if everyone present was on good terms, but we weren’t.

“They’re fine,” Tristan was the one to volunteer the answer.  “Miss Militia’s addressing the room.”

“From where?” I asked.  “Center of the room, still?”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“What does it mean, exactly?” I asked.  “Her being in the middle.  I noticed position mattering.”

Distract me.

But not too much.  I had to watch Miss Militia, keep an eye on the kid with the gun.  I was supposed to watch Breakthrough but holy shit was I not up to doing that right now, and when I had, it had barely mattered with the people I’d wanted it to matter with.  I’d cross that bridge later.

It was Marquis who answered, “In the textbooks they hand out for young men and women on academic tracks to become politicians or innovators -scientists-, they say a good discussion starts at the edges, with agreed upon facts, and it migrates toward the center as a dance, often a duet or a solo venture.  Ideally, you want to get there without someone else stepping in and forcing you to step away from center.”

“She went there and she’s staying there,” Tristan said, without turning around.

“I can make educated guesses, but before making one, I should tell you that dance once had firm rules, but as with many things so deeply rooted in a culture, qualifying and quantifying everything is next to impossible.”

“He doesn’t know,” my mother said.  She turned toward Marquis.  “If you don’t know, admit it.  Don’t give us misleading or incomplete information and leave us to struggle with it.  This is precarious enough as it is.”

“I know enough, dear Brandish.  I would say it’s similar to a filibuster, but with an expectation of ask and answer, to suggest you can hold your position with reason despite an onslaught of criticism or condemnation.”

I looked again through the window at Miss Militia.  Natalie stood at the position at the circle’s edge, hands clasped behind her back, eyes visibly wide even from a great distance.

“Whatever it is, we’re in a precarious position,” my dad said.  “A lot of good, innocent lives hang in the balance here.  It’s frustrating.”

“I’d say what she’s doing is closer to defending a PHD,” my mom said.  “Against a biased room.  I suspect Shin has already decided their conclusion.  It’s smart for Miss Militia to take this stance, because it forces them to justify theirs.  She’s been here for a long time, mediating when she wasn’t elsewhere killing monsters or handling crises, she’s figured out how to play this game.”

“Agreed on every count,” Marquis said.

My mom gave him a dark look.

“Mom,” I said, in part to pull her away from any interaction with Marquis that would end in bone spears and laser axes.  I kept my voice casual.  “Should we talk war stories?”

“I’m sure yours are better than mine,” she said.  I saw her eyebrows draw closer together.  “Why?”

“You were drawing on the window.  It got me thinking.”

I saw her nod, not her usual nod, and I saw her smile a bit.  I was pretty sure she got my meaning.

But the smile changed.  She reached up and touched my hair at the back of my head, smoothing it down with her hand.  “Battle stories could be misinterpreted by our hosts.  They’re very fond of metaphors and proverbs, and might draw the wrong conclusions.”

“Of course,” I said.  My attempt to have my mom give me some idea of what they needed help with wouldn’t work.

“I’m sure you’re eager to share some with me,” she said.  “We shouldn’t part ways without catching up.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  I met her serious look with one of my own.  “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“More or less okay,” she said.

I gave her a one-armed hug, and leaned in closer, wanting to exchange a whispered or muttered word, anything to shed more light on what she’d tried to communicate to me.

The guard with the gun was close enough I couldn’t be sure about getting away with it.

At the same time, though, my mom had her arm at my shoulder.  Her finger tapped.

Then again: tap tap tap.

And again: a thump with three fingers striking the ornamentation at the shoulder of my coat at once.  A tap.  Another thump, a tap.

I wasn’t perfect on my Morse code, but I knew common letters in the alphabet.  E was one tap.  S was three.  The last- P?  No.  Didn’t make sense.  Y?  X?  No.  C.

Esc.  Escape.

If they were trapped, we might be too.  It raised questions about who, if it was Amy included, or just my parents.

“You know what’s shitty?” Vista asked, in the background.  Another track of conversation, overlapping our own.

“I could name a thousand things,” Chris said.

“It’s shitty that Miss Militia is doing this, she’s giving her all, and how many people are really going to know about it?  I think it’s the worst move the Wardens have made so far.  We don’t want to scare people, but we don’t tell them about the Endbringer-level badness we’re dealing with.  We don’t tell them enough about how food supplies might get cut off.”

“It would lead to panic,” Flashbang said.

“As is, it leads to resentment,” Vista said.  “We’re helping but they don’t see that.  They just see…”

“People with a whole lot of power and organization camped out in their backyards,” Rain said.

“Yes.  Exactly.  Thank you, Precipice.”

“In our case,” Chris said, “we made the compelling offer of ‘let us live in your backyard or others are going to do the same’.  We got them on a good day.”

Amy looked uncomfortable, one arm rubbing the other.

“We made compelling arguments,” Marquis said.  “A Mrs. Jeanne Wynn helped.  It seems the honeymoon period has worn off.”

“It reminds me of Brockton Bay,” Vista said.  “Trying to keep the peace, putting in all of the effort, and getting all of the flack.  Clockblocker always- he resented it.  I thought I was okay with it, but the more I look back the less it sits easy.”

“We’re putting in effort too,” Amy said.

“Are you saving the world every other week?” Vista asked.

“Easy,” Golem said.

“Yeah, sorry.  Nevermind,” Vista said.

Amy shook her head.”We’ve taken one hundred and fifty dangerous parahumans who, believe me, could have gone to the Birdcage, and we rehabilitated them.  Addictions removed, impulses tweaked, emotional balances adjusted.”

My father nodded.  He didn’t look like he glowed with pride, but he seemed to accept it, agree with it.

“I wouldn’t call that rehabilitation,” Ashley said.

“What else is it?  I saw enough of how Bonesaw adjusted biology to work with powers that I’ve been able to fix things for parahumans where that’s a problem.  How much harm does that stop?”

The feelings I’d found and clarified were a refuge.  I could look at her, hold on to those feelings, and I could kind of deal.

Was it easier, if I thought of the sister I’d grown up with as dead, if I grieved her to some measure while negotiating with myself to decide just when and where she died, replaced by this person?

I knew she was still alive.  I knew she was complicated.  I knew she probably had a hundred excuses or mitigating factors that went into what she’d done to me and the decisions surrounding it.

But it was sure as fuck not my duty to do anything except what was good for everyone, and do what I needed to do to stay sane.

“Do they know what you did, that Gary Nieves mentioned?” I asked.

Sveta drew closer to me.  I kept an eye out for the ear-tug.

My ex-sister opened her mouth, then closed it.

“They?” Marquis asked, in her place.

“Shin.”

“They know as of earlier today,” Marquis said.

“Can- can I hear it from her?” I asked.

“Does it make a difference?” he asked.

Amy reached out, touching his arm, and he moved aside at her bidding.

“Shin knows?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“We need to know, too.  What happened when you repeated old mistakes.”

I saw her shake her head a bit, turn to look away-

“You don’t get the option of not answering,” I said.

She stopped where she was.  She looked at me, wider-eyed.

“We’re technically a sovereign nation,” Chris said.  “We have lots of options.”

“Shut up, Chris,” I said, without looking away from my ex-sister.

“Shut up,” Amy’s voice was faint.  “Not now.”

Chris slouched back in his chair, long arms draped over the arms, long hair in his eyes.

I pressed, “You have to tell us.  If nothing else, you tell me, because you have zero right to keep anything like this from me.”

Again, that look on her face.

Marquis answered, “You wanted us to keep our distance, fine, we went to another world.  I went with her, to keep an eye on things.  Now you want to be informed about every happenstance?”

If I’m asking?  Yes,” I said.  “And you’re not part of this, Marquis.  Please stand down.”

“I’m her father.  I’m the only family member she ever had who has at least consistently tried to support her through the good and the bad.  I’m not about to stop now.”

No ear tug from Sveta.  Should I have picked someone who wasn’t as close to the Amy fiasco to monitor me?

I looked to Vista, and Vista was silent, no signals, ear tug or otherwise.

“By intervening and interjecting you are making things less good, Marquis,” I said.  “I want the facts from her.  That’s our best road to a positive place.”

“Aren’t facts better from a more objective source?” Marquis asked.  “I may be the best you get.”

“I don’t know or trust you,” I said.  I was mindful that guards might be listening.  “You’ve been level and fair in most things to do with Earth N, I don’t have any grudges, but right now you’re not winning points with me, and if I get answers I want to hear them from the mouth of that person.  I grew up with them, and if a lie comes from that mouth, at least, I’ll know it.”

Hate was a harbor, a refuge.  I could take conflicting feelings and bury them in it.  I wasn’t sure I cared if she died.  I might have been relieved, even.  Hate was dangerously close to love in how passionate it was, but never in my love for her or for Dean or for any teammate or other family member had I ever driven forward, gone on the attack, accused.  Not on this level.  Even in my arguments with my mom, it had been debates and arguments from reason prior to Gold Morning and me shutting down after.

New ground was safer.

Amy made Marquis stand down again.

“I do have it handled,” Amy said.  “I want to stress that.”

“I want to judge that for myself,” I said.  “Tell me.”

I saw her do something I’d seen too many times in our childhood, in our early teen years.  I thought of it as clinging.  Finding an argument or idea and constantly going back to it.  She’d convinced herself she had it handled, and she’d go back to that over and over, even after it ceased making sense.

I had zero doubt she’d done it in rationalizing things as she did them to me.  Zero doubt they played into her spiral down.

She would say it again.  That she had it handled.

“You don’t get to keep silent if I ask,” I said, with emphasis on the ‘I’.

“I checked over all of the prisoners from the prison on your Earth and the leftover parahuman warlords from here.  Put things in place, mental checks, emotional controls, whatever they needed.  Chris handled information gathering, interviews, collected a handful he thought would be useful to keep around as…”

“Lieutenants?” I asked.

I saw Chris shrug.

“I don’t know,” Amy said.  “I wanted to focus on good things, peace, giving you the distance you wanted.  So long as he wasn’t hurting innocents and let me keep one eye on what he was doing, I didn’t mind.  Same checks and balances for him.”

“And nobody checking and balancing you?” I asked.

“That’s not fair,” she said.

Isn’t it?  This is important.  This is billions of lives important.  That’s what you took on here.  And if they’re hearing from outside sources that you’re unchecked and imbalanced then that impacts everything.  Like Vista said, we get dragged in to put out your fires.”

“I have it handled.”

There it was.

“What is it?” I asked.  “You don’t get to not tell me.  Out with it.”

She hated hearing that, which was why I kept going back to it, to hammer in at that idea she was clinging to as a safety.  If I didn’t penetrate that safe ground she could go back to it endlessly.

With each repetition, I could see the emotional pain reach her face, her hands.  Tattooed hands, with two fingers left untatooed, replacements for what she’d apparently lost in her fight against the Slaughterhouse Nine.

I wondered if there was a meaning there.  She’d tattooed blood onto her hands, either consciously or not, but that little addition was like a ‘but not here, not with this excuse’.

I looked again to Sveta, to Vista, to Ashley, to Tristan.

Nobody was telling me to back down.

Okay.

She explained, “After I was done with the capes I started on other people.  Victims of capes.  People like, um, like the people at the Parahuman Asylum.  There’s a facility in your Earth’s Europe.  Not really like the Asylum, more like a big farm, where they do their best to get everyone set up to contribute to society and give them therapy, medical care, and anything else they need.  For some it’s just somewhere warm and clean with animals to cuddle.”

“Please tell me that you didn’t do what you did because of me, or for me.”

Amy didn’t answer.  She couldn’t meet my hard stare.

My dad spoke up, “When someone regrets their actions to the extent that I think Amy regrets hers, I think everything they do ends up being affected or colored by it.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I said.

“I helped a lot of people,” Amy said, still not meeting my eyes.

It seemed to take difficulty to get through it and explain it.  Fucking good.

“But you hurt someone.  Who?”  I asked.

“A young teenager with control issues,” Amy said.  “I did too much in one week, I was adapting to new roles and trying to handle interpersonal stuff with people who had been loyal to Bianca, who knew I’d been an… acquaintance of hers.  I didn’t listen to the little voice in the back of my head that said I shouldn’t do delicate work, and I made a mistake.”

“What mistake?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.

Amy.

“I’m fixing it.”

“What mistake?”

It was Chris who spoke up, “You know when you’re drawing, and-”

“I want to hear it from her.”

“-it’s very detailed work, and you sneeze mid-drawing, and draw a big zig-zag across the picture?”

“I want to hear it from her,” I said, again.

“It’s that,” Chris said, “Except it was someone’s mind and power.”

I might never forgive him for denying me the ability to make her admit it.

“What’s the damage?” I asked, my neck stiff from tension.

Amy answered, eyes downcast.  “Altered personality, memories not connecting.  She came over with a friend and he said she was different after.  There was a gap and the passenger wedged itself in there.”

“When the passenger butts in, it saves over your work, and the the undo button on the metaphysical keyboard stops working,” Chris said.

“She,” I said.  “At least tell me it’s not some blonde girl-”

I saw the way both of my parents looked at Amy, how Amy seemed confused for one second, then processed what I’d said.

Holy shit.  I’d guessed right.

I’d have been lying if I said I didn’t feel some justice in seeing the pain in Amy’s face.

“-that you’re not being that redundant while you’re repeating old mistakes.”

Unnecessary.  Maybe the only thing I’d regret saying so far.  Words just to cause her more pain.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with anything,” Amy said it in a hollow way, with no energy or emotion backing the words.

And I really hadn’t wanted to be right, to have any character trait to put on this victim – not yet.

“Suddenly I’m really glad I didn’t ask her to look after my battle scars,” Vista said.

“That’s not-” Amy started.  Her expression changed.  Wounded.  “I thought we got along, Vista.”

“A long time ago,” Vista said.

“You guys are making this out to be like I haven’t changed, like it’s a repeat incident, and it’s not,” Amy said, and her voice was firmer, almost angry.  “I’m handling this, okay?  It was one mistake-”

“That erased a person’s personality?” I asked.

One mistake, and I have a support structure in place.  I’m not spiraling out.  I recognized when it started to affect my work, I stopped, took a break, stepped back, got centered again.  It’s why progress with mom is slow.”

The word ‘mom’ sounded so alien from her mouth.

“It’s affecting your other work?” I asked.

“It was.  So I stopped,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world, like she was explaining things to someone who wasn’t listening.

“Affected it how?”

“Minor slip-ups.”

“Slip-ups like minor personality erasures, or-”

“No.  Things in my subconscious crept in, or I got placements wrong, or I… colored outside the lines a bit.  But I recognized the pattern, I stepped back, recovered, and fixed the superficial errors.”

She’s not well, my mother had said.

Every time Amy elaborated on her supposedly simple ‘it’s handled’, on ‘minor slip ups’, or just about anything about this, she added new details, raised new questions, painted a fuller and scarier picture.  One where I wasn’t sure she was being entirely forthright, especially when I stood in this long greenhouse, staring down its length at my ex-sister, and that image was a picture framed by my mom on my right, my dad sitting at the aisle to the left, Marquis and Chris near Amy.

None of those people looked like they felt it was ‘handled’.

I looked away from that scene.  I didn’t want to get carried away.

No ear-pull from Sveta.  She just looked horrified.

I wasn’t horrified, I decided.  I realized I had a pressure on my chest like someone was sitting on it, but it wasn’t horror.  A person didn’t feel horror if a steamroller was left to inch forward while unwitting people sat in its path, and they later heard those people had died.

Amy was looking at her dad, who’d said something quiet.  She nodded, unsmiling.

I spoke, which cut Marquis off, “When you say it’s handled, tell me, Amy, well first, start by looking me in the eyes.”

She looked up, locking her eyes to my hard stare.

“Tell me, while looking me in the eye, that you can fix her.  No slip-ups, no minor ‘coloring outside the line’ casualties, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”

“I’m pretty sure I can,” she said, her eyes meeting mine, but even from a distance, I could see them moving by fractions, her gaze moving from one of my eyes to the other.

Even now, I could be reasonably certain when she was telling the truth.  I could tell when she was confident and not confident, and I knew the patterns she could fall into, at least when she got into arguments.

“I believe you,” I said.  Amy smiled and I looked away.

“I’m happy we were able to talk,” Amy said, a haunting voice from the far end of the greenhouse patio.  I didn’t look at her, instead staring out at the storm beyond.

“We’re not okay, Amy.  We’ll probably never be okay.”

“I’m still glad we could talk.  Open lines of communication.”

I continued to look away, to ignore her, because the alternative was that I’d open my line of communication, and tell her exactly how I felt, and I was pretty sure the only people who needed that were me and her alone.  For everyone else, it would spell disaster.

“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.

I folded my arms, shifting my footing, as I leaned back against the window.  I exhaled slowly, trying to control my breathing.  “Yeah.”

No.  I knew my ex-sister too well.  I knew how she would want something so badly she would believe it was so, and she would lie to herself.  She’d then tell that lie to others.  Promises to mom and dad about maintaining after school activities in addition to the hero stuff, training, visits to the hospital, and grades.  Three straight semesters across ninth grade and the start of tenth grade, she’d steadily declined, had maintained the illusion, until they’d forced her to cut back.  Pledges about diets, pledges to me about making friends beyond my friend group.  She would believe it.

“That’s a relief,” Sveta said.

“Not really how I’d put it, if I’m honest,” I said.  “What about you guys?  Any objections?  You okay with this?”

“No,” Rain said.  “No objections, I mean.  I’m okay with it.”

“I’m worried about Chris, but I trust you when it comes to your family,” Ashley said.

“I’m good if this is good,” Kenzie said.  We’d told her about the signals.  If anyone on Breakthrough would see the little things we’d told them to pay attention to, it would be Kenzie.  Our Lookout.

So many things worried me about her, but her not picking up on information wasn’t one of them.

“No issue,” Sveta said.  “You’ve been way more fair about this than I expected.”

Most of my attention was on Tristan, though.  I willed him to get what I meant, where I was going with this.

“You really want my opinion on this?” he asked, picking up on my quiet intensity.

“I want your opinion especially.  We’ve talked about sibling stuff.  I want your take on this.”

“Then okay.  Yeah.”

Yeah.

We’d talked about it.  Permanent solutions, if we had to.

He was in agreement.  It was in the cards, at the very least.

“I’d rather the Wardens had more oversight here,” I said.

Chris spoke, “Separate world, separate nation.  The Wardens have no responsibilities here, no role.”

“Then I’ll rephrase.  I want Amy, at the very least, to make trips out to the Wardens, for checkups, talks with a therapist we trust.  Let’s get to where none of us have to worry about mistakes.”

“No,” Chris said.  “That’s probably not going to work out.”

“Why not?” Rain asked.

“They don’t like us doing the back and forth thing.  Makes it too easy to pass on information, makes us harder to keep track of.  If you come here and you go any further than this little city hub here, the checklist of things you have to do gets long.  Not to mention it’s a hell of a trip to even get here.”

My mom’s hand tightened around my shoulder.

Was that it, then?  My mom’s request for help in escaping?  Parahumans that stayed were expected to remain in their island chain area?

“He’s not lying,” Marquis said.  “I think the trip could be managed.  Long but I suspect Amy is willing to endure long trips if it mends bridges.”

“We’re not mending anything,” I said, harsher than I’d meant to sound.

“If-” Amy started.  She flinched when I turned her way, stopped talking.

“If what?”

“If you’d be open to the opportunity, if you’d at least talk to me when I went, I could pull strings, maybe get an escort they trust to come with me and watch what I do, I know they want me to do certain healings of famous people here to prolong their lives and enrich their cultures, and I’ve been refusing on principle.  If I bartered that healing, I could get permission to come.”

“On the condition you see me?” I asked, my voice hollow.

“On- I’m not doing that or asking for that for me, Vicky.  I want you to feel reassured.  I want you to not be afraid anymore.  I want you to be okay.  I will go to whatever lengths it takes to do that.  Really.  Seeing you would just let me know it’s not making things worse.”

I closed my eyes.

Was it okay to say whatever, if it meant we could get her to Wardens Headquarters?  Get her into that building, up to the stairwell, and then have a portal open.  Push her through as we’d done to Tattletale, but without any humor in the action.  Maybe using one of Rain’s mechanical hands, to avoid touching the dangerous striker-class cape.

And after that just… not open the door again.

“We can talk about it,” I said.

“That’s all I wanted,” Amy said, and the hope in her eyes was naked.

We left the conversation at that.  Chris said something to her that she didn’t hear, which prompted her to move closer, and from that point they were huddled.

I fidgeted.

“You did good,” Sveta said.

I nodded, fidgeting more, glancing at the huddle.

“They’re talking about which strings they’re going to pull to get her to listen,” Kenzie said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Keep me informed?”

“Will try.  I can only listen to two things at once.”

I nodded.

In the other room, one of the scribe-boys was standing closer to the center, reading from his little notebook.

My mother put an arm around my shoulders, squeezing.  She leaned in closer.  “I’m proud of you.”

I smiled, and the smile was a lie.

Amy, too, smiled.  I couldn’t reconcile that.  I couldn’t make peace with it.  She’d done it earlier, while chatting with her dad, and it bothered me.  She was in a good mood and it was largely because she’d succeeded in lying to herself and thought she’d succeeded in lying to us.  She’d broken someone and I wasn’t confident she was confident in fixing that someone.

She had her little lie, and so did I.

She entertained a world where what she’d done was fixable, to this blonde girl, to me.  She’d tried to convince us.

I offered a middle ground.  Not forgiveness, but talks, a balance, and acceptance of what she was doing.  That was my lie, because I couldn’t bring myself to.

We’d run it by the Wardens at the next opportunity.  It wouldn’t be my team’s biased take on it.  Other hero teams would hear the situation, listen to Kenzie’s recordings, and then decide if it was appropriate, to dispose of my ex-sister, and cast her into another world alone, with no plans to retrieve her.

Would there be pushback?  Probably.  A lot of this hinged on my knowledge that Amy had been lying about how certain she was.

If there was pushback, maybe a test.  If she couldn’t fix this person she’d altered, she was too dangerous.  If she could, I’d back down.

We’d have to give her a chance first, use every resource to get her to a stable place, for this person’s sake, and for absolute fairness.

After that, if it came down to laying down the ultimatum and what was at stake, then I couldn’t imagine a world where she rallied and performed better, fixed this girl and saved herself.  She didn’t handle pressure well.

There was a knock on the door.  Guards moved to either side of the doorway, parting the way.

“If you’d rejoin us?” Luis asked.  “We have some things we’d like to address.”

Slowly, the room filed out.  I was relatively close to the door, so I followed Tristan.  My mom came with me.  I glanced back, in part to check that Amy wouldn’t try to touch me while my back was turned, like she had at Breakthrough Headquarters.

Again, that fucking smile.

I stopped, pulling to one side and letting my mom walk on.  The rest of the group filed out, with the middle section mingled between Ashley, Marquis, my dad, and Chris.

Amy was at the rear, escorted by Spruce.  She saw me, stepped closer- and I stepped back, maintaining a safe distance.

I knew it looked bad.  That we were trying to massage a peace.  But I wasn’t insane.

“What?” she asked.

“Just- don’t move, or I might kill you,” I said.  “Private question.”

I looked at Spruce as I said it.

He checked with her, then with Marquis, and then he backed off.

Just me and my ex-sister.

“What?” she asked.  No smile on her face now, but that light of hope in her eyes.

“Her name.”

“Her- oh,” she said.  “Hunter.”

A punch in the throat.

“I know Hunter,” I said.  I was pretty sure, anyway.  After the community center attack, before Breakthrough, I’d worked with Ms. Yamada to get Hunter sent to the Asylum-like spot in Europe.

“She knew of you.”

Chilling.

“Did you use my name?  Your relationship with me?”

“Did I-”

“Did you convince her that you were legitimate or that you were safe by using the fact we’re related?”

“No,” Amy said.

Not quite a lie like the other, that was something she desperately wanted to believe.  This… a half truth.

I stared at her, and she broke eye contact.

I drew closer to her, fully ready to hurt her if I had to, if she moved a muscle.  True to her word, she didn’t.

I got so close I could smell her, and the smell stirred up memories that Engel had shaken loose.

I might have lost track of what I’d meant to say, but I saw movement.  Nestled in the mane of brown curls that really needed more conditioner, Amy’s little imp Dot was curled up against the back of her neck, face pressed against the side, peering through the strands.  She bared needle teeth at me.

My voice was barely audible when I spoke to Amy.

“Next time, if you want to insult me to my core, try going straight to spitting in my face, instead,” I told her.  “It’s not quite as bad, and at least there’s only some chance you hurt innocents with the collateral damage.”

She stepped back as if I had hit her.  I saw emotions cross her face.  Then that faint light of shaky hope I’d hoped to extinguish appeared once again.

“I’m handling it,” she said.  “I can do this.  I’ll show you.”

I believed her even less this time.

Maybe it was better I hadn’t extinguished it, if it got her to the Warden’s headquarters.

Could I count this as one demon slain?

No.

But I could handle it.  I could see a possible light at the end of this tunnel.

Back to the arena.  To our group, which stood clustered at one segment of the circle.  Natalie was there, her forehead creased in worry.

“How are we?” I asked her.

“Not great,” Natalie answered.  “You?”

“Some resolution.”

“Great.  I hope you won them over.”

The murmur of conversation in the room sounded different from one end than from the other.  Our group spoke in one tongue, other groups spoke in another.

All went silent as Luis stepped forward.  Sleek figure, black, with a braided tie.  His movements were dramatic and echoed our own Earth’s, but they made me think of a showman, not a statesman.

“We stand at the crux of two solutions,” he stated.  “In one hand, we hold a breaking of ties.  We would send you home, keeping only a select few, and we would end all trade, all promises, and retract all contracts.”

That was still on the table.

Miss Militia was tense.

He held out his right hand.  “On the other hand, Miss Militia offers us assurances, and we are not assured.  We don’t trust you as a whole, and as things rest in this hand, we can’t come to a resolution.”

No contract or no resolution?  What?

“By a showing of hands?”

Some raised extended both hands, as if out for a hug.  Some raised their right hands.  Only one held out left hand only.

“Can I comment?” Miss Militia asked.

“You have,” Luis said.

A woman wrapped in loose cloth stepped out of Yosef’s group.  Her hair was braided at the sides, straight along the top.  “By the deal and compact we formed with you, Red Queen, Marquis, Cryptid, in exchange for your freedom to settle and our cooperation and support, you are to protect us against any and all transgressors.”

I looked at Miss Militia.  Her weapon wasn’t changing. What she’d said about being ready to use our powers, was she signaling we shouldn’t use ours?  That we shouldn’t fight this?

Her back was ramrod straight, and her focus was wholly on the other group of parahumans.

Ah.  There it was.  That annoying sliver of hope in my ex-sister’s eyes wasn’t there anymore.

We outnumbered them.  We could win.  And we probably would.

But at what cost?

“Arrest them,” Luis said, indicating us.

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Breaking – 14.5

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Miss Militia stood straight, one hand behind her back, the other extended forward, like she was going to shake their hands.  They couldn’t though, because we were all arranged in a loose circle that put the nearest members of Shin’s government about four long strides from Miss Militia’s position on the floor.

“Miss Militia.  Warden.  If I may?”

Her words were followed by an echo, the translators speaking in muted tones to respective groups.  Only two groups had translators, it seemed.

“Luis, Founders.  I think you might,” one of the men with braided ties answered, his English without even an accent.  “I’ll wait for my colleagues to reply.”

I recognized Luis.  His skin was black, his clothes fine, and his expression a constant kind of warm that might have been politician fake.

Many sat at chairs with tables built into them made me think of student’s desks in a high school.  Difference was that cloth draped from the arm that held the table up and surrounded the legs like a skirt, and the makeup of chair and desk both were ornate, almost throne-like.  At the foot of maybe four or five of the thrones, and there were maybe fifteen in total, I could see young men, fourteen or fifteen, sitting on cushions or mats, writing constantly.

I hadn’t expected the gap in culture to be something so oppressive.

I was put in mind of attending a mosque service, having little idea of the process, and trying to not embarrass myself or disturb the regular attendees.  The difference was that barely anything was happening, nothing specific was expected of me, and yet we were so much further from the familiar.

Except for Luis, who seemed uncannily ordinary.  I could remember seeing him back when we’d first met Goddess, holding her umbrella.

And underlying it all was Miss Militia’s warning.  That we might need to use our powers.  Guards and soldiers in various colors were arranged around the room, and a pretty good number were arranged right behind us, weapons put away, but still a lot of people with guns and short spears.

The others seemed to come to their consensus.  Luis said something in another language, and then smiled.  “You may.”

Miss Militia moved her hand, holding it so both hands were clasped behind her.  “I come bearing reassurances.  For their role in stopping the Blue Empress, you afforded Amelia Claire Lavere and Chris Elman some privileges and assurances.  Today I’ve brought the other members of that group that played a role in stopping her, they played a lesser role, yes, but they ask for nothing but goodwill.  We have a Natalie Matteson, unpowered, to speak for them.”

“Saying they played a role may be overstating it,” Chris said.  His voice was surprisingly deep.  A man’s voice, and I’d even suspect it was deeper than an average-

“Don’t make this harder,” Amy rebuked him, while interrupting my observation.

How could I have missed the sound of her voice and find it so deeply unsettling at the same time?

The translators repeated even those lines.  A short statement, like a rock thrown into a pond in a cave, and then the resounding, distorted echo.  A response, another series of voices filling the room.  My heart was beating with a speed that surprised me.

Luis conferred with others in the other language before saying, “Would Natalie Matteson be willing to step into another room?  My colleagues feel it would allow her to share her truth, and we could see how the stories line up.”

Natalie, nervous, looked to Miss Militia for input, then said, “If necessary.”

One of the people who had been translating and one of the people from the boxy-robed group stepped away.

I liked Natalie.  In the paranoia of the moment and the tension of this scene, I had to wonder how much I trusted her interpretation of events.

“Not all of my colleagues agree that the Laveres and Elman should have received any favors,” Luis said.

“They don’t ask for much.  Goodwill.”

“Will is easy, good is free, yet goodwill can be the hardest thing to give,” he said.

“Winter climate affords bridges,” Miss Milita said.

“Is it winter?  Ignore the weather.”

“It’s chilly in here,” she told him.

Luis laughed.  After the back and forth, it was the only sound without its ‘echo’ of translation.

Fuck me.  They were speaking English and I wasn’t sure I understood what they were saying.  Others from Shin seemed to.  A few smiles.

“Yosef, Lone Sands.  I like you, Militia,” one of the men in flowing clothes said.  A woman I presumed was his wife was dressed in patching colors, her clothes wrapped around her.  He did have an accent.

“I like you too, Yosef.  I would also like assurances of my own to start,” Miss Militia said.

There was a pause.  A distortion in the echo of translators speaking.

Something wrong?  I tensed.

“You confused the translators,” Luis said.  “I like this, I would like that, but… hard connection to draw while maintaining the small poetry.  Let me-”

He said a single word.

With that, the translation finished uninterrupted.  I didn’t feel more relieved.  It created a sensation like they had more power, because they controlled the language.

Miss Militia  was as unflinching as she ever was.

“What assurances?” Yosef asked.

“I would like to know why governments have changed from this morning.  The Coalition is gone.”

“They were made to abstain.  Just in case,” Luis said.  “We’re deciding what to do about you, about them-”

He indicated us.  Breakthrough.

“And about them.”

My mom, dad, Amy, Chris, Marquis, and Marquis’s underling.

What to do?  My thoughts were caught between wondering what they even could do and what they were capable of.  Did they think they could mass-execute us, or were they coming in from another angle?

“Can we make an appeal?”

“Wouldn’t an appeal eat it’s own tail?”

“What’s the tail?”

“Some would say you’re too dangerous to even talk to.  Some of you can change minds with a word, or kill with a whistle from wet lips.”

“You have teeth, but I would get within arm’s reach of you without worrying about my throat.”

“Don’t be deceptive, it’s not like you,” Luis said, and his tone had cooled.  “Every last one of you have bigger teeth.”

“I know you, Luis.  I know Yosef, and I know the rest of you who haven’t yet joined this conversation.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have threats of your own.”

“Right now we’re supplying enough food to feed two million of your people and we’ll continue doing so through the winter.  Amy Dallon pledged assistance and cooperation to increase that amount to five million, possibly to ten.  That’s food.  Shelter.  Clothing.  Chemicals.  Industry.  All deals end now.  With her, with you.  You get nothing and millions may die.  I’m sorry.”

My own surprise at the statement was redoubled when I saw movement in the periphery of my vision, looked, and saw it was Amy hanging her head.

Chris said something to Amy.  From what I could catch, it was an ‘I told you so’.

Vista might have looked agitated, because Miss Militia put a hand out.

“We negotiate from that point forward,” Miss Militia said.

“Can we?  Do we?” Luis asked.

“No and we don’t,” Yosef said.

“Yes we do,” Miss Militia said.

My breath was hard to regulate as I went from considering the implications of even just Amy’s apparent deal falling through, which I knew people had been planning around, went to considering outright cancellation of any deal whatsoever, and then realized this was just maneuvering.

Well, ‘just’.  It was a lot of weight to be throwing around.  Threatening to scrap the deal as a show of power and an indication of what was at stake.  Attacking us directly wasn’t the only tool in their toolbox.

Miss Militia found her footing.  Her appeal was as emotional as I’d ever heard her be.  “You know me, you like me, you know I’ve never wronged you.  These young people deserve your goodwill.  They did right by you, I believe you were at least partially in their thoughts when they took the actions they did.”

“We were debating about them earlier, among ourselves.  If I may?” Luis asked.  He made a beckoning gesture.  “We’ll talk to them, and we’ll see if a revisit of our deal is a discussion worth having.”

“Antares?”  Miss Militia started reaching back for my shoulder.

“For now, we would rather talk to Swansong.  She made a dramatic gesture and got our attention.”

They planned this.  They knew they’d do this before we stepped into this room.

I met Ashley’s eyes and I tried to read if there was something black still residing there.

Please be goodPlease be your best self.

Miss Militia made a small motion with her hand, for Swansong to approach.  At the same time, she held up her other hand to tell us to stay.

“If you would step back, Militia?” Yosef asked.

“I would like to stay by her side and counsel her and anyone else.  She doesn’t know the small customs.”

“We’ll forgive any small breaches.”

“In your minds maybe, but not in your hearts.  This is best for everyone.”

“I agree,” Luis said.

“Conceded.  Stay,” Yosef added.

What I was getting now was that this was a formalized debate, in a sense.  The ‘floor’ was a subtle thing, with everyone gathered in a circle and then people stepping forward as they had permission to engage.  Luis had had to ask, but Yosef hadn’t.  Because he was powerful, or because he’d stated something everyone could agree with.

Which left me to assume that taking stances everyone could agree with would be important, or… you’d get challenged.  Maybe even ejected.  It also left me to wonder if it was possible to step even closer to the middle.  Was there a progression, a series of levels of authority?  Did other movements matter?

Ashley stepped up, holding her hands much like Miss Milita did, clasped behind her back.  Her chin was more raised.  “Thank you.”

“We start by introducing ourselves, before any statements,” Miss Militia said.  “Name first.”

“Swansong,” Ashley said.  “Ashley Stillons.  Breakthrough.”

“I’m Luis, that’s the name the Blue Empress gave me,” Luis said.  “My true name is Amil.  I was young when I worked for her as a servant, I made it a goal to learn her tongue from her, and when she tired of my presence, from her subordinate powers, who she tried to keep near.  Now I’m someone who speaks for those who were most affected.”

“Custom,” Miss Militia’s voice was quiet, joining the murmur of translators as she advised Ashley, “Is if you overshare, you invite others to do the same.”

“Who overshared?”

“You did.  You gave your full name.  It may be rude not to engage in the back-and-forth, but it also tends to turn debates into something self-aggrandizing or about gathering the information to tear others down.”

Oh great.  It had to be Ashley who was front and center for that particular lesson.

“Perfect,” Ashley said. “That’s fine.”

“Mirror him, match what’s being talked about.  If he shares about his work you talk about yours.  If he talks about war stories, you talk about yours.  Questions are too pointed and rude unless you have a good relationship.  Then you expand and invite them to mirror or compare themselves to you, or you wind down the personal side of the conversation.”

“Wind down how?” I asked, my voice quiet.

“Compliments are a good way of winding down the thread of discussion and getting back on topic,” Miss Militia said, to all of us, then to Ashley, “I suggest complimenting, it’ll help ease tensions.”

Ashley looked a bit annoyed, but she addressed Luis, “I don’t speak for anyone but myself, though I once considered myself one of the leaders for my team.  I still do, in a way, but only for certain things that need my skillset.  I respect the work ethic and the approach you talk about, the planning.”

“It wasn’t easy.  I think if I did not have the scars I have now, the other people in this room wouldn’t trust me,” Luis said.  “My family was… ravaged.  There were people with powers who were free to be their worst selves and one of them chose my siblings as a target.  Now she does not speak.”

“If you saw the video of us talking to Nieves, you know I was ravaged myself,” she said.  “They took my voice, too.”

“My parents grieve constantly.”

“My parents-” Ashley paused.  She’d mirrored and realized the trap late.  “I killed them.  It was an accident.”

“With your power?” Luis asked.

Miss Militia had said a question was supposed to be pointed, incisive.  Was that an end to civility?  The back-and-forth just a way to maneuver the other person into a point where they could be attacked?

“Yes.  With my power.”

“Powers are dangerous.  Unpredictable.”

“They can be,” Ashley said.  She floundered. I could see tension in her neck and shoulders as she stood there, effectively skewered after having been invited to share something personal.  Was that a trap?  If she hadn’t shared enough, would they paint her as deceptive?

I wanted to fault Miss Militia for throwing us in the deep end of this pool, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t expected this to be this, and I got that there wasn’t a great way to fill a bunch of kids in on what looked to be a very subtle and complex form of debate.  There were probably a lot of sub-rules and points of decorum.  She’d committed us to their custom by advising us, at least to a small degree, but she had to think that doing the alternative would hurt more.

“Yosef was a soldier,” Luis said.  “he saw a lot of that ugliness.”

“I earned some prestige,” the other diplomat said.  “We don’t see much war, we’ve seen its price, but when she arrived, some of us fought back.  She beheaded us again and again, until we had no leadership to speak of.  We thought it was a victory if it took thirty of us to kill one of their kind.  I killed one, a girl younger than her-”

He indicated Kenzie.

“-but with the losses we incurred, it was not a victorious day.  It was only a personal victory and a release for me to put my shoe-heel to her head until she died, after all I had lost.”

Sveta put her hands to her mouth.

“The poor child,” Miss Militia said.  “She was enraptured by the Blue Empress.”

“She was what she was,” Yosef said, to Miss Militia.  To Ashley, he said, “That is why I stand here with the station I have, talking to you.  I killed one and I played a part in killing another.”

Ashley answered, “I stand where I do now not because of what I did, but because I put distance between that self of mine.  I tried to gather a small army of thugs beneath me and claim a share of a city for myself.”

“That would be your Slaughterhouse, then,” Yosef said, and I was ninety percent sure he knew it wasn’t as he jumped to his conclusion.

“No,” Ashley said.

“A violent word, Slaughterhouse,” Yosef said.

So this was the rebuke, if someone tried to be slippery or dodge a topic and got called on it.  I wondered about the extent to which it mattered.  Was there a point system?  Were their cultural attitudes the sort to call out this sort of thing?

The statement was an invitation, a question without being a question, demanding elaboration.

“They were a band of killers.  If the Blue Empress’s worst were monsters, then I’m sure they were similar to the Slaughterhouse.”

“A roving band of killers,” Miss Militia said.  “They suffered losses in the city I was protecting and went recruiting to replace their own.  The prospective recruits who didn’t cooperate were made to cooperate.  Swansong included.”

“Thank you for the clarification,” Luis said.

It almost sounded like that was another rebuke, not a pleasantry.

“I was thrown into battle against one of Miss Militia’s colleagues.  He killed me.  I was brought back from death, thrown into more danger.  The hardest head could be softened by that much dying.”

Chris spoke up, “You say that, but there’s another you out there who got harder, not softer.  You reveled in those days you spent with the Slaughterhouse, and she still does.”

“What are you doing?” Ashley asked him.

“Commenting.”

He sounded like some blend of irreverent and resentful as he made his ‘comments’.  It jarred with how everything else seemed to be an ongoing dance. I could see tension and betrayal across my team.  Kenzie smiled.  Even Vista looked bothered.

“You reveled,” Luis said.

“Not quite that.”

“It’s good,” Luis said.  He smiled.  “We’re always hungry to get insights about how your kind think and operate.  We study you voraciously, even now that we aren’t being ordered to, we compile records, we send ambassadors to talk to your experts and we pay them.  But a simple, brief explanation helps.  You reveled.”

“A simple brief explanation from him is going to be misleading.”

“So we can’t trust them.  You’re here to warn us, not to reassure?”

Ashley clenched one of her hands.

This is a charade.  A dangerous charade with the lives of millions who were counting on food and shelter may not get that.

“Why do your kind want things like kingdoms, island chains, or pieces of cities?” Yosef asked.

“Do you know how we get powers?” Ashley asked.

“We know.  As well as you do, I think.”

Right.  Goddess had mentioned they’d studied powers at her behest, with labs that rivaled Bet’s own, just with a hell of a lot more focus and motivation, and possibly a few more eureka moments.

…Possibly a little less massaging of data or focus on what was more palatable.

“We come from places of powerlessness.  Hold someone down at the floor of a lake, and they fight to come up for air, but the fight doesn’t stop there.  We put distance between ourselves and the water.”

Luis smiled.  “She told you we like our proverbs.”

“She didn’t.”

“We do like them.  You were powerless once and now you want power.  You need it, a dare say?”

“I dare say it depends on the person,” Ashley said, defensive.

“Dare say,” Luis said, and he winked at Ashley.  “The little prizes you learn when you pick up a tongue.”

“Will you chatter or will you step back, Luis?” Yosef asked.

“I’ll make an offer, let her answer, then gauge if others are willing to sign the deal,” Luis said.  He was lively, shifting his footing, his eyes bright.  “Swansong, we do not like things being hidden from us and we feel Chris Elman and Amy Dallon Lavere hid things from us.  We would punish them.  Moderate them.  Do you like them?”

“One betrayed me, one betrayed my friend, but a truce could be made.”

Not really helping to smooth things over, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure being dishonest would have been better.  Being diplomatic and choosing words more carefully would help.

“That might be ideal,” Luis said.  “We could give you a share of what we’ve agreed to give them.  Islands, people if those people are willing to live under you, and some people do want that security.  There is a servant class that is cloned, smart enough to obey orders, too stunted to have an identity or personality beyond the surface level.  We don’t know what to do with them.  We would give you some, Chris Elman would feel their absence, and you could barter with him for what else you needed.”

Chris could be heard chuckling.  “Assholes.”

The epithet was translated in a selection of languages from beside or behind every other group, including the guards behind us.  Luis could speak our language, but people in his entourage couldn’t.  The word was spoken, brief, and the tenor of things changed slightly.

Him being here and giving so little of a shit in a formal setting wasn’t making things better.

And because I looked his way, I could see Amy’s face, pale enough the freckles stood out.  I was reminded of Presley on the train, looking at me in my peripheral vision.  Except this time the reason for my skin crawling was real.

“If I could-” Miss Militia started.

“Miss Militia,” Luis interrupted, with unusual gravity.  “This is an offer between me and her.  We don’t need custom.”

“She needs counsel.”

“Your counsel would slap me in the face.  We would thank you for bringing the guests here and we would escort you out so we could talk to our guests.”

“There’s no need,” Miss Militia said.  I saw the weapon at her hip flash green-black, as if it almost changed forms.

Okay.  Shit.

“This feels too generous,” Ashley said, her head turning.

“We believe in making debts right.  As Miss Militia said at the outset.  She asked for goodwill but this would be goodwill and solving a problem in one fell stroke.  It would also itch at my curiosity, would this satisfy the part of you that went to a city and collected thugs to take a part of it?”

Ashley.

“I think so.  But I’d miss my team.”

“It would be yours to share, or for one of you to take with the agreement of the others,” Luis said.

It’s too biased an offer.  There’s a catch or a trap here.

“You saved our world, you get something.  Good acts are rewarded.”

“And we sign deals of cooperation that keep us out of your way?  Thank you, it’s a kind offer, but no.”

“You should take the offer, Ashley,” Chris said.

“No,” Ashley said, more hostile now.

Luis spread his arms.  “That’s fine.  We’ll figure something else out.  Thank you, Ashley Stillons, Swansong.”

Was that an official dismissal?  We announced ourselves with our names and we were asked to leave with the same, like a parent rebuking a child with their full name?

Either way, Ashley backed off.  Kenzie put an arm around Ashley’s waist.

“You’re maneuvering aggressively, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Miss Militia said.

“These are aggressive times,” Yosef said.  “We thought we had an ally we could work with, and now we hear she’s unreliable.  She did something in the past and she’s done it again.”

“If I may-” Amy started.

“You may not,” Luis said.

Again, that light in the eyes, the intensity, like someone riding a high.

Luis was supposedly on our side, but… he’d been close to Goddess, acting as a bodyguard or accompaniment, there’d been a hint that he had powers, by the way he’d held himself, and now he was aggressively maneuvering, as Miss Militia had put it.

“You chose to speak to Swansong,” Miss Militia said.  “I would suggest you speak to the others?”

“No need,” Yosef said.  “Amy Dallon Lavere made her attempt at explaining herself to us before you arrived.  She failed.  We spoke to Swansong because she had the potential to be the worst of you.”

Ashley rankled visibly at that.

“We will speak to you because you’re the best of them,” Luis added.

“Then tell me, we were talking trade, you wanted to ask some questions of Breakthrough and get some perspective before moving forward.”

“We did.  They have our goodwill.”

“Then can we talk about trade?”

“We can.  I’ll start with the term you’ll find most objectionable.  Whatever we agree on, the people we send to you with supplies, materials, or anything else will stay in Gimel.”

“Stay.  As residents?”

“As residents.  It should be only a team of five or ten per shipment.  We only have so many that can comfortably speak your language.  You get far more in the way of housing than you’d see occupied.  More in food than they could ever eat.”

Chris spoke, his voice low.  “They want to send you people who’ll keep an eye on parahumans, keep them in their sights-”

He mimed picking up and holding a gun.

“That’s insane,” Miss Militia said.

“Parahumans unchecked is insane,” Yosef replied.  “We desire a measure of security.  If you’re good and just, you have nothing to fear.”

“This is why the Coalition is gone?”  Miss Militia asked.

Luis answered, “It is.  They felt they had no room to speak here, so they abstained at our request, in exchange for some room on a trade deal we’re working on.  Internal, nothing to do with you.”

“If I may,” Miss Militia said.  “This is more formal and more serious than I expected.  Could I excuse my guests and speak with you in private?  I want to bring up things you have shared with me in private.”

There was some discussion, much of it in a language that wasn’t translated back to us.

Miss Militia turned around, and she smiled.  I hadn’t seen her face in some time, not since my stint in the Wards.  She looked about as stressed now as she had then.  But she looked more tired now.

I didn’t miss her gaze slipping from me to Sveta, and then to the guards behind us.

“They may take a recess and rejoin us if they desire,” Luis said.

“Go,” Miss Militia told us.  “Be careful.”

Again, that flicker of a glance at the guards.

Be careful.

Guards escorted us from the room.  What we’d seen was preliminary, a setting of the stakes, a testing of the guests by challenging a volatile member and making an offer, probably a trap.  And then the real terms.  What they wanted.

I left that scene behind, as Miss Militia stood alone against five nations.  This was where she had been, and what she’d been working on.

The guards that followed us into the adjacent room blocked my view of her.

Be careful, she’d said.

She’d said it in a way that made me think trouble was imminent.

I didn’t want to do this.  To have this conversation.  The room we entered was like a greenhouse patio, with tables and chairs set against the wall.  Snow was piled against the glass.  It was warm.  I could see Miss Militia if I looked past the guard and through the window into the meeting space.  As the guard moved, though, my vision obscured.

Tristan was keeping an eye on the window too.  He looked at me, then back to the window.

Yeah.  We were on the same page.

I so didn’t want to do this.

Amy sat on a table.  My mom sat on a chair beside her, my dad beside her.  Marquis was a distance away, closer to Chris.

A good fifteen feet separated us from them.  A gulf.

“Hi Chris,” Rain said.

“Hi,” was the deep-voiced answer.

“Missed you, believe it or not.”

“I didn’t miss you.  Sorry.”

I couldn’t ignore Amy’s face looking at me from the sidelines.  Silent, staring.  The hands tattooed with my metaphorical blood.

“You put on some weight,” Kenzie said, still smiling.

“Puberty and changer powers, you know.  It’s a thing,” Chris answered.

Changer.  He still pretended.

“Yeah,” I said.  She’d moved when I talked, like she was stirred out of a daze.  I avoided looking.

“Same for Case Fifty-Threes.  The mutations tend to get worse,” Sveta said.

“Yeah, but your new body isn’t from that, is it?  Otherwise Weld would be in big trouble.”

Sveta looked away at the mention of Weld.

“You stepped up your game, huh?” Chris asked.  “Better body.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She smiled.  “I’m pretty happy with it.”

“It’s okay.  You could’ve gone with a supermodel body and you went with that.”

“Fuck you,” Sveta said.  “You’re better than that, Chris.”

“Am I?” he asked.  “Why would you think that?  Name one thing I’ve done that’s ‘better’.”

“You were our friend.”

“Sorry, but that doesn’t count for anything.  I used you, that’s all.  No hard feelings.”

“Some hard feelings,” Tristan said.

Chris snorted.

“We need to instill you with some manners,” Marquis said.

“How long have you tried?” Chris asked.

“If I try for just a short while longer, I may strike on a success.”

“Ever the optimist,” Amy said, her voice pitched funny.  Nervous.

Tristan didn’t take his eyes off the window.  I looked.  Miss Militia was standing in the center of the room now.  I wished I knew the context.  Natalie had rejoined her, but looked so intimidated I wasn’t sure what she could add.  I worried, by the look on her face, that she had detracted more than she added.  This wasn’t her world, it wasn’t her fight, and we’d pulled her into it.

Guards stared me down as I looked past them.  I didn’t flinch, turning back to Breakthrough.  The others.

This warm space was crowded despite the unoccupied swathe of patio between the two factions.  The guards were arranged in two rows of five by the door, hands on their weapons.

Yosef had talked so casually about killing a parahuman child.  Would he do something?  I had my aura.  I could hit the glass above us and bring snow and glass down on their heads.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.

A face loomed in my peripheral vision.  I was worried I was going to lose it if I didn’t distract myself.

“Mom.  Are you okay?”

“Better,” was her response.

“I sent you messages.”

“I got them,” she said.

“I read them to her,” my dad said.  “We couldn’t reply.  Nothing nefarious, just… difficult.”

In looking at him, I glanced at Amy.  It was a punch in the gut.

I hated having feelings that had nowhere to go, and with no air in this hot box of a room, with everything on the line, things were worse.

“Are you going to fully recover?” I asked.

“Yes,” my mom said.  “Mark and Amy are looking after me.  We’re moving slowly, but we will get there.  We’re being treated well.”

“You’re moving slowly because dear daughter fucked up and now you’re both scared.”

“What did you do, Amy?” Sveta asked.

“It’s being handled.”

“What happened?”

“It’s handled.”

“Leave it,” Rain said.  “It’s not worth it.  Even if it’s not handled, there’s nothing we can do.”

“It’s eating me alive to imagine what happened and I can only imagine what it’s like for Victoria.  The unknown is worse.”

“And it’s all we get.  Accept the things we can’t change,” Rain said.

“It’s handled,” Amy said, repeating words that would echo in my head for weeks now.

I couldn’t.  I could have swung a punch if there was someone in range.  I almost punched the glass.  That would have been dramatic.  Instead, I turned, and I saw Sveta.  Ashley stood beside her.

I couldn’t breathe, so I started simpler.  I couldn’t not have a heartbeat, and the heart gave my lungs oxygen.  I couldn’t not be feeling the humid warmth in the air of this room, see the blue hue of snow piled up against the glass, with parts left snow-free for sun to shine through.  I couldn’t not hear the muffled echo of translators speaking in their crisp, foreign tongues.

I wanted to say I couldn’t not stand up straight, stay centered with my own sense of balance, but the reality was that I could see a world where I toppled, bowled over by the sheer unpleasantness of all of this.

Nobody was talking.  There was so much to say, and there was only silence and tension.  Bitterness.

I reached out for the exterior window, touching glass that had snow on the far side.  I traced a finger along and drew in the moisture.  A circle.  I blotted out the interior.  The cold, moisture, and the touch helped ground me.

I’d wanted to come because I had to face my demons, like Sveta had faced hers.  Like Ashley had done when she threw down the gauntlet for Gary Nieves.

In my desire to be anywhere else I looked at the window.  No escalation, no changes.

I wanted to see, to hear, to-

Instinct told me to look at Kenzie.

Her head bobbed slightly like she was listening to music.  But it wasn’t music.  I could time the motions to the cadence and rhythm of speech in the other room.

I put my hand on her head to stop the bobbing.  The motion made my injury twinge.  Her hair pressed close to the scalp by a hairband, left open and hanging free at the back of her head.  She wore a hairpin as part of the hairband, that was a ‘club’ from the deck of cards.  I wanted to ask why.  I didn’t want to try to speak and fail.

Kenzie moved her head, my hand still atop it, and leaned against my side.

With the way the discussion was going in the other room, I wasn’t sure we’d be invited in to talk trade deals or testify on my family’s behalf.  I was worried.

I was avoiding breathing more often than I breathed, holding my breath like I was trying to minimize exposure to poison gas.

Or pathogens.  The thought lurched into my mind and made me ten different kinds of scared, my mouth drying up, my hand moving involuntarily, streaking against the glass, collecting moisture and cold in the webbing between index finger and thumb.  My other hand rested on Kenzie’s head, still, moved suddenly, and made her look up.

“Sorry.”

She shook her head and smiled.

I leaned my head forward to rest forehead against glass.  Sveta moved, putting herself between me and Kenzie and my family, her back to that same glass.

Tristan watched the other room, arms folded, and in doing so he faced down the guards.  Rain was caught between watching them and watching Chris.  Ashley was more focused on Carol, my dad, and Marquis, with Amy a distant fourth.

Amy.

I’d wanted to face my demon and I’d put myself in a glass cell with it.

“You don’t have to move, I’ll go back to where I was standing.”

“I’m stiff, that’s all.”

Marquis’s statement.  My mother’s response.

With some unsure movements, a shuffling footstep or two, she crossed the distance.  Sveta looked back at me to double check, and I pulled my head away from the coolness of the window, wiped the moisture from my forehead, and nodded.

Sveta let my mom past, taking Kenzie with her.

Tristan watched.  Kenzie listened in.

My mom stood beside me.

The guards to my right.

My mom pulled me into a hug.  I let her, answered it.  I squeezed her tight.  I hadn’t hugged her since- had it been the barbecue?

Disturbing, somehow.  All of this was.

We broke the hug.  My mom touched the window for balance.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  “I really am.  It was bad strategy, it was unkind when you were going out of your way to help- my power is-”

“Amy told me.  Her interpretation.”

The words I’d had died.

She turned away, looking out past the glass at the storm-swept landscape of foreign buildings.  Towers extending up from one of a building’s four faces.  Another squat building had no third and fourth floor, a stone figure curled up within, holding the fifth floor up.

My mom drew a circle in the window, then drew her own icon within it, using a long fingernail for the details.

“I’m sorry,” I said, again.

“Me too,” she said.  She drew another symbol.  Fingerprints formed the sizing templates for individual segments of my dad’s grenade shape, and she used her nail to create corners.

She was apologizing for-?

“She’s not well,” my mom said, quiet, wiping away the image, where it wasn’t perfect.  She breathed on it to restore some life to the canvas.

In the background, Rain was talking to Chris again.

The words rocked me, stole away all rational and ordered thought.  My mom ignored the impact of it, continuing to draw on the window.

I looked.  I fixed my gaze on Amy, and I studied, pulling from memories of four years ago.  Memories of two years ago, when she’d come to Victoria the Wretch, stole away all emotions, false and otherwise, and made her offers.  Gave me her warnings.

She looked back, locking eyes with me.

The discomfort of me being present, her own shame, and the awkwardness of being between my dad and Marquis with Chris and Rain’s chatter in the background set aside… I couldn’t see it.

I one hundred percent believed it, but I couldn’t see it.  I looked away.

A part of me desperately wanted to.  That part of me wanted to see the illness, see a sign that would warn me, and in equal measure it would condemn me for not seeing it back then.

A part of me wanted this, wanted to not see, because it absolved past me to some degree.

“What tea?” Ashley asked.  Part of an ongoing conversation I’d tuned out.

“Believe it or not, I’m not much of a snob,” Marquis answered her.  “At this point I’ll drink what I can find.”

“You’ve lost standing in my eyes, Marquis.”

“Deservedly so.  In my defense, the world did end, and I’m a long way from home.”

“Even so.”

“Yes.  Even so.”

Kenzie wasn’t acting alarmed.  Tristan still watched, still kept his back to Chris, his arms folded.

The guards remained hostile.  The people in the other room were still arguing that their anti-parahuman soldiers should get freedom to act, or they’d cut off support we desperately needed.

All of this, the talk with Nieves, a pretext, I was guessing.  An excuse.

I felt like I was dealing with frying pans and fires.  A suffocating room, the fate of millions, tensions between old friends.  My mom and my guilt there.

I turned my eyes back to my mom’s work.  Letters.

‘We need help’, she’d written.  She started on the next word.  A vertical line-

A guard moved from his spot.  Casually, my mom wiped the message away.  She met my eyes for a moment, then focused her gaze intently on the snowstorm outside.

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Breaking – 14.4

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Cue the damage control.  Theirs and ours.

Theirs was the Warden’s.  A series of terse messages telling us to wait at a set location.  I sent them messages and mentioned the texts from Shin, which got us a reply with only a repeated ‘Wait there’.

Ours was an eleven year old girl.

As much as I would have liked to have the backup and convenience of Kenzie arriving first, a part of me was secretly glad that the Wardens’ response time would be better than that of an eleven year old who needed to ask around for a ride.  It took us five minutes to get to the building specified, a storefront that was available for lease, that was more than a little too close to the mess of the portals in the city’s heart to find anyone willing to invest.  The key to get in was inside a mini-safe attached to the door, the Wardens supplied the four digit code.  It got us out of the cold and it gave us some privacy.

Natalie arrived with the Wardens.  A part of me wondered if they’d sent recognizable faces because Breakthrough had achieved the special status of needing specialized, practiced handling.

I felt okay with how that had gone, all considered, but okay was a far cry from perfect and I felt like we needed a lot of perfects to get things back on track.  I was tense, even considering the positive emotions of seeing Vista, Golem, and Miss Militia.

The Wardens settled in a short distance away, while Natalie hustled across the divide to our side.  I put my arm on her shoulder and murmured, “Thanks for coming.”

“They called, said it’d help,” Natalie said.  She was wearing her puffy jacket, and her hair, which was normally cut in a pixie style and kept combed very close to her head, was even more close to her head with the moisture of the wet snow.

“Okay,” I said, my eye turning toward Miss Militia.

Vista had a heavy scarf draped over the parts of her costume which exposed skin, and wore what looked like a very thin jacket for the cold weather.  The visor hid the details of her eyes but showed light and shadow, and the heavy eyeliner was still a thing, apparently.

Miss Militia wore her outfit in her red white and blue, form-fitting and color-swapped version of military fatigues, a flag scarf covering her lower face, and something between a hood and a scarf covering her head.  When she pushed her hood back, snow fell to the plain, unadorned floor of the store.

Golem, I saw, had removed or hidden away the kind of silly looking fans or ‘fins’ that were part of his costume, a series of different common materials.  Nice looking armor that was obsidian black with hands and arms etched in it in a way that only showed in the right light.  Each panel was trimmed in silver.  He wore a serious-looking mask.

Vista and Miss Militia wore armbands.  Golem had the emblem marked out on one bicep.

“It’s good to see you, Victoria,” Miss Militia said.  “Long time.”

“Long time,” I said.  “Wish it was under better circumstances.”

“I’m glad you’re doing as well as you are,” she told me.  She turned her head.  “You too, Tress.”

The comment to Tress sounded like it had come from further away.  Ever since my run-in with Engel had… I wasn’t even sure how to put it.  I hadn’t been at rock bottom, only for something to reach up from below and drag me further down, but I’d been reminded what that something reaching up had felt like, and that had shaken things loose.  I’d remembered small details that had previously been hidden away under the cloak of altered memories, and slivers and fragments of those memories kept coming up to the surface.  Now one loomed, like a threatening person in my peripheral vision.  I ignored it.

“Have you talked to the mayor?” Miss Militia asked.

“No,” I told her.  “Should we?”

“We tried and her phone line is busy.  We sent someone over to have a chat with her.”

She met my eyes.  That vague shadow loomed closer, and I looked away.

“I have no idea if we did the right thing,” I said.  “It didn’t feel right, defending her.”

“In terms of maintaining the peace overall, it may have been best,” Miss Militia said.  “But people like her have a way of making others make those compromises on their behalf.  Be careful.”

I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet her eyes again, which annoyed me.  I wanted to sound confident and I wasn’t confident, but it was for completely different reasons than she was likely to expect.

It wasn’t like Sveta where she got stuff in dreams and then digested it over the course of the day.  It was a more haunting, incoherent edge to thoughts, where I started thinking about negative things and got into vaguer territory where I couldn’t place faces or line up events, but where the negative emotion was ooze-thick.

Miss Militia had been there.

“Miss Militia was kind enough to explain things while we walked over,” Natalie said.  “I’m not sure what my role in this is.  It’s not criminal law, and criminal law has… kind of ceased to apply to supervillains, as far as I can tell.”

“It applies,” Golem said.  “But it applies in a narrow window between the threats and chronic offenders we have to take severe action against, and the moderate to minor offenders who get off with slaps on the wrist because the courts don’t have the resources to process them.”

“But this isn’t that,” Natalie said.  “You want me to be a secretary.”

“No, not a secretary.  An ambassador,” Miss Militia answered.  To the rest of us, she explained, “Earth Shin was mentioned, and if we are dealing with Earth Shin, then we’ve found it helps to have non-parahumans as intermediaries.  This is the world that Goddess ruled for several years.  She divided it into fiefs and gave control of those fiefs to people with powers.  A good number abused the power they had.”

“Abused how?” Sveta asked.

“In just about any way you could imagine.  They accepted the reintroduction of parahumans as a purely passive, hands-off involvement, with stipulations.  The parahumans would keep to themselves, but they’d act to protect Shin in the event of any disasters or invasion.  In exchange, they would be free to settle the Alleghenian Ridge.”

“I have no idea what that is,” Rain said.

“Landmass cutting diagonally through their Atlantic Ocean,” Sveta said.  “It allowed earlier settling of their North America.”

“They’re spooked,” Miss Militia said.  “They saw video of your debate with Mr. Nieves and they’re very agitated by what was mentioned about your sister.”

That horrible feeling pressed in.

“Is there a way you’d prefer me to refer to her?  Her old cape name?  Her old name, her name that she goes by when with her father?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “But thanks for the option.”

“Amelia Claire Lavere negotiated the peace but neglected to mention any problems or issues in controlling her power.  She was presented as a healer in good standing who played a role in averting the end of all worlds.  Now they’ve heard other stories, they’re asking questions.  Your parents got in touch with you?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “My dad did.  He wants me to smooth things over, and he said there’s a good amount of evidence that this could blow up.  Ties back to the job you assigned us, keeping tabs on the anti-parahumans.”

“You mentioned this, but text only conveys so much.  It extends to Shin?”

“To Shin and back.  I only got so much info myself, but it sounds like certain factions in Shin are pretty angry at capes- which is understandable.  You don’t tend to feel warm and fuzzy about people who take over your world.”

“Understandable,” Miss Militia echoed.

“But they’re violent, and my dad thinks they’re getting information and other stuff from us, and our more dangerous anti-parahuman types are getting resources and manpower from them.”

“How bad is this?” Tristan asked.

Miss Militia answered, “With mutual control over the portal and cooperation with three of the five major governments in Shin, we don’t think there’s been too much damage, exchange of weapons, or manpower.  There are strict rules about passage through.  Vaccines, diet prior to passage through, allowed gifts, ID…”

“Diet prior?” Tristan asked.

“They don’t want seeds or other contaminants from foreign worlds getting crapped out, taking root, and becoming invasive,” Sveta said.  “You go to the bathroom in a bag and bring the bag with you until you go home or they can dispose of it in a careful way.”

“Oh no,” Tristan said.  “Please tell me this isn’t a thing.”

“Or you don’t eat for a certain number of hours prior and flush your system,” Miss Militia said.

“Uh,” Tristan said.  He looked at me and I nodded.

“Best option is to keep your visits short,” Vista said.

“Thank you for saying the first sane thing.  Short visits are doable,” Tristan said.

Miss Militia looked us over as she talked, “I talked it over with Warden leadership, and we’re looking to bring Breakthrough over for a short duration stay.  Vista, Golem, and myself would be joining you.  Natalie’s presence will help temper their fears.”

“To make apologies for my sister,” I said.  “Like we were just talking about people forcing us to compromise on their behalf.”

“That’s true,” Miss Militia said.

“Right now, what I want are solutions.  Not mitigating the damage, coping, making do, and just trying to get through today and reach tomorrow.  I want lasting answers.  We’ve got Teacher looking over our shoulders and I’m still holding out hope that we can find a way to deal with him, because the constant meetings that go nowhere are wearing on everyone’s sanity.  But I also want to deal with the criminals, I want to deal with the other worlds.  I want to get out ahead of what happened to Dauntless and to the broken triggers.  Can you tell me that this is that?”

“A permanent or long-term solution?”

“My sister,” I said, “Nieves said she was still unbalanced.  Cryptid kept secrets that have me pretty nervous about what he’s up to now.  They’re surrounded by parahumans that they have some measure of control over.  I want you to tell me that this situation isn’t a fragile one.  That if there’s a fix today it won’t break tomorrow.”

“I can’t tell you that,” Miss Militia said.

She’d always been straight with us.  I’d run into her a lot while patrolling, given our schedules.  I’d run into her more when I was part of the Wards, for that brief span of time.

I could only nod, absorbing that.

“Are you saying it is fragile?” Sveta asked.  “Or-”

“I don’t know,” Miss Militia said.  “I don’t know how fragile or secure she is because I don’t know her.   I don’t have a good read on Amelia Lavere.  I’ve been over there interacting with their leadership for months, but that hasn’t extended to any interactions with Amelia.”

“What about Cryptid?” Rain asked.

“Some.  Very brief.”

“I’m not saying I’ll say no, or that I’ll tell my team to say no,” I said, carefully.  “But if our actions here aren’t going to fix things, is there a possibility we can look into other answers?  Answers that don’t leave this as a fragile mess to handle tomorrow?  More long-term answers to my sister or Cryptid or anything else?”

I shifted my footing.  The signal I was thinking about Teacher.  The operation to infiltrate his base of operations.  I didn’t want Amy and the Shin situation hanging over our heads.

“You’re thinking of the prison.”

“I’m thinking of anything.  If you trust me enough to have me, have us get involved, then I want to know you trust me enough to listen if I say that I know her and she’s too dangerous to be left alone.”

The door of the store opened.  Ashley stepped away from our group to go greet Kenzie, as she pulled her helmet off.  Kenzie hugged her friend as soon as her arms were free.

“The Wardens have been debating the subject ever since Goddess attacked the prison and Amelia Lavere went to Shin.  We’ve been on the fence, and depending on how this goes, we may find ourselves unilaterally on one side or the other.  If you have an opinion on the matter it will be taken under serious consideration.”

I nodded.  “Then I’m fine with this if my team is.”

“I’m a little worried about you talking about permanent solutions for dealing with a sibling,” Tristan spoke up from behind me, prompting me to turn around.

“I’m not thinking of that kind of permanent,” I said.  “And it’d be a group decision.”

“Still sounds uncomfortable.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m always up for new places,” Sveta said.  “And anything that unites the different worlds.  Exploring what was out there was the happiest I’ve ever been and I want that happiness for everyone.  I think this makes a lot of sense to do, especially if we can find out more about what the anti-parahumans as a whole are doing.”

“And Chris.  He feels like he’s our responsibility,” Rain said, bringing up the elephant in the room.

“He’s his own responsibility,” Ashley said.

“But we should check on him, right?” Kenzie asked, gripping Ashley’s sleeve.

“Yeah.”

“I agree we should get what info we can on the anti-parahumans,” Tristan said.  “Deal with Victoria’s family stuff.  Check on Cryptid.  I’m just worried this is going to blow up.”

He blurred.

“Yeah,” was Byron’s contribution to things.

“Do you have other obligations?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m done my obligations for the day,” Kenzie said.  “Found the kidnapped kid, told the authorities, gave them all the info, camera feeds showing where the crooks were, and where the kid was.  They let us in on the raid.  Aiden didn’t get to do much, and Darlene just hung back, but Candy messed one guy up so bad.  I don’t think the cops minded.”

“Concerning,” Byron said.

“It’s fine.”

“No other obligations,” I told Miss Militia.  I shifted my feet again.  I saw her nod to herself.

“Have you all had your shots?” she asked.

“Shots?” Tristan asked.

“For going between worlds,” I said.  “I got some while with the Patrol.”

“I got them when out with Weld, for all it mattered.  I rarely got sick, before.”

“If you don’t have them, we have a single shot we can give you that will boost your immune system for a while,” Miss Militia said.  “The doctors debate its effectiveness but it can’t hurt.”

“Can’t hurt,” Tristan said, chuckling a bit.  “But that’s good to know.  I can deal with one needle.”

I wondered if I should let him entertain his delusion.  Instead, I decided to give him advance warning, just so he wouldn’t be upset or bothered.  I told him, “The kids in the Patrol block would get told to get their shots, get their shots, you’re going to be expected to go to populated worlds with their own diseases.  Gotta do it if you want to do this seriously.  Then some wouldn’t, thinking getting one needle once in a while was better than getting ten over the course of a couple of months.”

“Isn’t it?” Tristan asked.

“It’s a huge needle, and it feels like getting kicked by a horse after.”

He chuckled.  “Great.  That’s hilarious.  Poor kids.  Poor us, not knowing we should prep for this kind of thing.”

I’d figure something out for Tristan.  But that would happen at the portal.

We stepped outside, and Miss Militia locked up the store while Vista did her thing, lowering the roof of a derelict building toward the ground.  I could hear the groan and pop of the construction material, and saw Kenzie and Natalie both looking anxious.

“I should fix my coat so my power doesn’t run into itself,” Vista said.  “Sorry to disturb the illusion.”

Her jacket went from being thin and compact to expanding out, heavy and thick, covering just a bit more of her upper body, as a full-fledged coat.  While small it would have the same effective insulating properties, I was pretty sure.

We stepped up onto the roof.

“What do we need to know about Shin?” I asked.  “Ettiquette, rules, standards?”

Miss Militia explained, “Be nonthreatening.  One hand behind your back while you shake hands, but keep it open, not clenched.  Outside of that, I don’t think it’s too difficult.  They either know our customs and speak our language, due to Goddess’s enforcement of English as a universal language, or they speak their own language and the translators know us and will adapt.”

“Universal language?” Sveta asked.  “Ew.”

“It’s convenient, if nothing else.  Divergence was ages ago but the world progressed along fairly similar tracks.  They had a very war-torn past that leaves them conflict averse.  Wars in their approximation of Europe saw multiple groups fleeing across what our side has termed the Alleghenian Ridge.  To them it’s the Spine or the Bridge, in various dialects.  Many groups fled, then either conflicted with or mingled with previous refugees and settlers at the end of the long journey.  The coalition of nations that resulted is going to be who we’re spending the most time talking to, if we talk to any Shin governments.”

The roof was gradually returning to its normal height.  Vista had trouble manipulating terrain that was occupied, so she was just leaving it to revert.  She pulled out her phone, and punched in some things.  I knew from experience that she was making sure air traffic controllers knew which areas were no-go.  We were covering some ground.

“They like Miss Militia,” Golem said, while Vista fiddled and the building we were on returned to its normal height.

“They appreciate the ‘wields a big stick and walks softly’ approach,” Miss Militia said.  “I wield a very, very big series of sticks and I try to be gentle, and that seems to be something they respond to.”

Vista began to distort space across the rooftops, closing the distance between us and our destination.

“Do we need to worry about Teacher here?” I asked.

“It’s a consideration, but it may always going to be a consideration,” Miss Militia said, and her voice took on a darker tone.

“I want to think we’ll find a way,” Rain said.  “I’ve spent too many years under the thumb of people who wanted control.”

“That may be something to bring up in conversation.  Try not to volunteer or force information.  They’ll have questions about what came up.  They may have questions about the Lady in Blue, too, but don’t bring her up.  Be human.”

“The Wardens that have been dealing with them have been taking off their masks,” Golem said.  “But we’re hearing about this sketchy underbelly of Shin where they have the rabid anti-parahumans and now those people are talking to people in our world.  They might end up getting descriptions or photos there, then using them against us here.”

“It’s up to you,” Miss Militia said.

Vista was working to close the distance for us.  With the way the sky was distorting and pinching together, the station was visible and looming closer.  The world warped in a rough donut shape around the clear picture  of the destination.

Fuck, a part of me had hoped that there’d be a long train ride or car trip, that I could get my head sorted out and come to grips with what we were doing.  That I’d be seeing Cryptid, my mom and dad, my sister.

That I might be seeing Amy sick-

Again, that sliver of a memory.  Not anything coherent, but a vivid and complex tapestry of feelings without anything to map to.

Like how Miss Militia staring into my eyes made me think of a scene where I was still in that abandoned house, partially covered with a sheet, while the Protectorate tried to figure out what to do.  Feeling vulnerable, wounded, scared, and hearing Amy’s voice in the background.

Thinking of seeing Amy sick and lost in her own head felt like its own similar thing, but I didn’t want to dwell in that memory.  At least the memory of Miss Militia could be excused away as her being compassionate in her own stoic way.  Meeting my eyes when my own mother couldn’t.

I wasn’t ready for this and we were being thrust headlong into it.

I turned my thoughts elsewhere: got to deal with the anti-parahumans so we can act against Teacher without things burning down in the meantime.  Or this is their busywork while they procrastinate.  I don’t know.

We’ve got a looming mission and I don’t feel like we’re getting more ready for it.

“I built your thing, Capricorn.”

Some eyes turned to Kenzie.

“The camera that should show the hidden twin in real-time.”

“Just like that,” Byron said.  “I thought it would be weeks or months.”

“It’s kind of been weeks, but I didn’t have the scans and stuff I needed to puzzle it out.”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  He paused, then added, “Thank you.  I don’t really have words.”

“You don’t need words.  I’m happy if you’re happy.  Maybe mess up my hair or punch me in the shoulder or give me a hug, I dunno.  You know, after, if it works.”

“No,” Swansong said.

“No?” Kenzie asked.  “Huh?”

“Only if you can say you didn’t work yourself to the bone and stay up nights.”

“I didn’t.  I really didn’t.”

“Good.”

“I was working on other stuff.”

Ashley grabbed Kenzie’s ear, giving it a mock shake.  Kenzie laughed, her head ducked down where I couldn’t see any smile or lack thereof.  Ashley was smiling a bit, which told me it was probably fine.

“I’m not much of a hugger, or a hair-messer-upper, or an arm puncher,” Byron said.

“It’s okay, that’s-”

Byron reached out with one arm to pull Kenzie against his side, giving her a bit of a squeeze.  Her head bonked against Byron’s armor.

“Thank you.  Whether it works or not, I appreciate it.”

“Yep.”

“Not much of a hugger, huh?” Vista asked.

“Special moments and people, I guess,” he said.

“That’s fair,” Vista said.

Kenzie bounced a bit with her excitement as Byron ended the hug.  “It didn’t really take that much.  It was something I did eighty percent of the work for a while ago, while I was trying to figure out how to do it.  Then I got info when Cahoot’s power worked on the Capricorn brothers in a funny way, and I scanned the data from that.  Not positive on the voice, but we’ll try it out, yeah?”

“Cahoot,” I said.

“Like saying you’re in cahoots with someone!  It’s Darlene.  It was Chicken Little’s idea.”

“You need to stop letting him name things.”

“I thought it was okay.  And Darlene sorta likes it because Chicken Little came up with it.”

“It doesn’t suit her at all.”

“But-”

“It really doesn’t,” Ashley added.

“Don’t do that to that poor girl,” Sveta said.

“But-”

“Cahoot makes me think of a guy,” Golem said.

“That’s sexist,” Kenzie said.

“And someone wearing those masks that were really common in the late nineties, where there were smiley faces, or cyrano masks, or other wacky, leering faces for masks,” Golem said.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“The Crowley Fallen wore those masks even after they fell out of style,” Rain said.

“I could see it working,” Golem said, in a tone like he’d seen how upset Kenzie was and was trying to pacify.  She responded positively to it.

But no.  Not ‘cahoot’.

“You have pictures of her on your phone.  Show him,” I told Kenzie.

“You keep track of what she has on her phone?” Golem asked.

“No.  I’m betting she has pictures of everyone on her phone.”

“Not everyone,” Kenzie said, before pulling off a glove with her teeth so she could manipulate her phone.  Her mouth obstructed, she muttered around the glove, “mof eepl.”

She showed Golem a picture of Darlene.

“Oh.  No.  Absolutely not.”

She turned to Vista, who was already shaking her head.

In vain, she turned to Miss Militia.

“A girl that pays that much attention to costume-”

“Those are everyday clothes.  She likes the kind of fashion that’s expensive and timeless, like pretty dresses you could see a girl wearing today, or twenty, or thirty, or fifty years ago.”

“Don’t call her Cahoot,” Miss Militia said.  “I can’t think of a name less fitting.”

“Other options were like, Hookup, right, that-”

“No,” Vista said.

“We already vetoed that.”

“But Candy liked it and-”

Kenzie saw the heads shaking, the looks of disapproval.

“Intertwine?”

“I’m guessing that’s another Candy nickname,” Tristan said.

“Yeah.  No go?  Um.  Syndicate?  That came up.”

“A little overdone and a lot villain-sounding,” I said.

“I like that one,” Ashley said.

The landscape in front of us continued to pinch together, the ‘donut’ getting bigger, but the picture got bigger too.

Vista lowered us down through the ‘picture’ of the destination to the street level, stretching things out so the ramp-like extension of the rooftop didn’t get in the way of traffic.  Cars still slowed, wary, and we hurried to cross so we wouldn’t be interfering with their routes.

Lookout pulled her helmet back on before we got too close to the people on the ground.

Putting us at the foot of the station.  The station had American and other Gimel flags flying from poles along the left side.  To the right were standards, flags that draped down, each with its own iconography, colors, and shape at the end, whether it was two triangular tails or something rounded off.

I’d actually seen some of the images on clothing, and I hadn’t mentally connected to them being anything like flags.  I’d figured it was from a game.

Vista fixed her coat, compacting it and adjusting the fit while we filed indoors.

The interior was red and black checked floor, and elaborate wooden fixtures that looked much like a bank’s setup, with people behind terminals.  The place was desolate, with ten staff members standing by and waiting for work while there was nobody in the terminal.  They looked at us with interest and wariness.  Everyone had a nametag, and the tags came in yellows and red.

We had paperwork to do, and Sveta and I were processed quickly, because we’d been regular travelers through the portals.  For the others, there were forms to be filled out, white pen on red paper, and then they had to sit and wait for their shots.  Those shots would boost their immune systems and help them endure any disease or communicable illnesses, but they’d also kick any allergies into overdrive.  It was like a horse kicking you in the arm and giving you a light cold, at a minimum.

Still, it was better than dying.

“How do you want to do this?” Sveta asked.  She hung out beside me, with Vista and Golem hanging nearby.  Miss Militia was talking to people who looked like administrators.

“I have no fucking idea.  A lot depends on how she is.”

“What about your parents?”

“My dad messaging me was the most I’ve really heard from them, and it was all business.  I think they’re mad.”

“I have your back.”

“Thank you.  But go easy.  As nice as it would be, we don’t want to scare the locals.  This is about making a positive impression and reassuring.”

“I’m worried about you,” Sveta said.

“I handled things when Nieves brought her up.  I can hold it together while we’re there.  She probably wants to play nice, maintain good relationships with Shin.  If it gets ugly, I walk away.”

“Alright.  Can we have a signal, in case I need to nudge you to walk away?”

“Touch your left ear?”

“My left ear.  That’s the signal that you need to back off or check yourself?”

I nodded.

“Alright.  Thanks.”

Costumes were awkward to put on and take off at the best of times, and getting the necessary shots meant pulling off the upper body of costumes.  Byron had to unstrap his armor around his arm, get the shot, and then switch to Tristan.  Kenzie and Rain had to unzip and pull an arm free of their sleeves.  Ashley had to remove her coat, which wasn’t so bad.

I nudged Vista.  “Do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Shrink those huge needles down for my teammates?”

Vista smiled.  “This is for Tristan, right?”

“I think everyone would appreciate it.”

“He got super talkative and chuckly when the subject of needles came up.”

“Go,” I said.  I was sitting on a railing, and I twisted around, sticking the toe of my boot into her ass cheek to prod her forward.

She went.

“Looks like Precipice and Swansong are getting expedited,” Golem observed.

“I’m betting they got a bunch of booster shots before going to prison.”

“I wanted to ask,” Golem said.  “Precipice was Fallen, before?”

“Yep.  Open secret,” Sveta answered.

“You think he’d mind talking about that kind of stuff?”

I exchanged looks with Sveta.

“Can’t say for sure,” Sveta answered, “But I think he could use a friend who ‘gets it’.”

“That’s it, isn’t it?  Getting it.  Cuff’s the best, but I can talk about stuff and I feel more lonely than before I brought it up.”

“Tell her,” Sveta said.  “Communicate that.  Don’t freeze her out.”

“I’m not.  That’s not it.  She can be understanding if I’m really clear or even if I’m really blunt about, hey, this is a big deal to me, right?  But it takes work and reminders that, y’know, this thing wholly outside of her experience is a thing that’s pretty profound to me.  Sometimes you don’t want to constantly put in that work and you want to get straight to figuring it out.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She sighed heavily.

“They’re bringing out the stethoscope for Kenzie.  Deep breaths,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Golem asked.

“I’m guessing all the Wardens who’ve been through this process were in pretty good shape.”

“Kinda gotta be.”

“They’re worried about allergens, allergic reactions, lung capacity, and other issues.  Which means that if they’re not sure she can handle it, she gets filtered air.”

“Oh,” Golem said.  “Someone did mention that.”

Sure enough, they brought out the little tank, with the plastic tube stretching up to the face.  Kenzie would get the tubes up her nose, and she’d get the schpiel about how to breathe and what to watch out for.

“She’s going to die if she gets talking and can’t breathe through her mouth,” Sveta said.

“Being unkind isn’t like you, Sveta.”

“I’m not trying to be mean or bully her.  It’s a real concern.”

“Hm.”

Everyone wrapped up.  Needles done, Kenzie got her air filter and nose tube, and with Swansong’s help, fixed the filter to her belt.  She then fiddled with her phone, and the nose tubes were filtered away, hidden by the projection.

“Don’t suppose you could hide our identities?” Rain asked.

“I would if I could, but I didn’t bring complicated projection boxes or anything today.  Shuttling things back and forth is such a pain.”

“It’s no big deal,” Rain told Kenzie.

“You know what’s a big deal?  The air that comes through the filter is super cold,” Kenzie said, with a hint of nasality.  “I’m getting brain freeze just by breathing.”

“It’s about to get colder,” Miss Militia said.  “Ready?”

No.

No I wasn’t.

I didn’t want to face anyone on that side of the portal.

Earth Shin.

But we went.  I didn’t voice my protests.

The station was a nice one, with crenellated pillars and every wall having some kind of decoration or mural.  Earth Shin had constructed it, and that should have been a prelude.  We passed through, and we found ourselves in the other side of the station, and from there, walked past desks where we showed our paperwork, permits, and records of our shots.

They also had guards on their side.  Men and women with guns draped in cloth, to the extent the weapons looked more decorative than functional.  Each had what looked like a praying mantis limb folded up over one shoulder, steel and gleaming, and a narrow blade that attached to their right legs, like a rapier without a handle.

When we left, guards followed us- two of them for every one of us.

Into Shin.  Once Goddess’s earth.  Now Amy’s.  The temperature was easily ten or twelve degrees lower than it had been in the Megalopolis, and the sky was filled with snowdrifts.  It didn’t take away from what was a pretty amazing view.

Skyscrapers, but modified, augmented, and decorated.  The Wardens’ old headquarters had included a giant statue as part of it, but it was the norm here.  A skyscraper with a castle built into one face of it.  A tower was crowned with statuary of what might have been a hawk.  Red was a dominant color.

“How advanced are they?” Kenzie asked, her voice still nasal.

“They lunged ahead of our Earth a long time ago, but they also had two near-extinction events that slowed them down.  That’s not counting Gold Morning.  Let’s walk and get out of the cold.  The meeting hall is this way.”

It was only a few minutes of walking to get there.  Vista didn’t use her power.

Five standards hung over the entrance.  When we entered, there were five groups.  I saw the flicker of Miss Militia’s weapon, going from sword to nebulous blur to the sword again.  A signal?

I hadn’t expected warmth.  I didn’t get it, but I didn’t get it to such a surprising degree that it left me a bit off guard.  Yes, these were people who had been conquered by parahumans once.  But they were also people who had invited us.  The atmosphere was cold.

Two of the five groups had styles that resembled our own back in the Megalopolis.  Outfits that resembled suits, with simple braids instead of ties.  Braids for belts, the ends left dangling.  I liked it more than what we had back home.  It was similar enough to home, though, that I had to wonder if Goddess had had any influence, or any culture had leaked through.  This world had been her plaything.

The other three groups favored clothing that flowed more.  I could see where a history rooted in some distant commonalities and practical sense had led to some things occurring over here that coincided with what we had back home.  One of those three groups seemed to like clothes that made them look very boxy, with an almost straight line down from armpit to ankle for tunic and pants.  The other two wore clothes that wrapped around them.

Miss Militia lowered her hood, which was the cue for those of us that had been wearing helmets and hoods in the blistering cold outside to remove our headgear, to expose faces.

I fixed my hood, draping the front portion around my shoulders, and checked over the others, making sure they were okay.

When I looked up, I saw my mother, intact, leaning on my dad.  They were in the company of Marquis and one of Marquis’s underlings.  Spruce, I was pretty sure.

Following behind, my sister was in the company of Chris, who had done his best to grow up early and hadn’t quite hit the mark.  He was distorted, his torso stretched out, his arms stretched down, legs roughly the right proportions, but there was an uncanny issue in there, a rounding error in calculations, or the sum total not adding up to parts.  His hair had grown in rather long considering it hadn’t been that long since he’d left, and he still slouched, despite being tall.

No transformation here.  Just… riding the side effects of past transformations.  He barely reacted as he saw us.

But my sister?  Amy?  Her reaction mirrored mine.  Stopping in her tracks.  Quiet horror or unease.  Then resumed motion.  She looked away before I did, but I did look away too.

The tension was palpable, and I wasn’t sure it had anything to do with us.  If Gary Nieves could see how Chris and Amy were right now, or if he could see how my parents were, he’d be quickly disabused of any notion they were in charge.  To look at them, they looked like they expected the guillotine.  Chris seemed most at ease, but he was still tense, muscles on his lanky limbs taut.

“Something’s up,” Tristan said, quiet.

“Feels way more hostile than the last few times I came,” Vista added.

“They were three-two in favor of working with us and one of the three got replaced,” Miss Militia said.

“Why?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t know,” Miss Militia said, under her breath.  “But be ready to use your powers, and tell the others to be ready for the same.  Nonlethal if you can help it.”

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Breaking – 14.3

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There were no big television cameras to capture us, no news crews with their own setups. Just the people with laptops hooked into masses of wires that seemed to weigh more than the laptops themselves, those wires threading their way beneath seats to the big screens at the back.  But there were people with phones out.

The thought crossed my mind that we could have Kenzie intercept anything too crippling.  It was a fleeting thought, and one that sat uncomfortably in my head after it had fleeted.

“You don’t sound surprised,” Gary Nieves said.  Rain’s statement had thrown us all for a loop, and whatever else he was, slimy fearmonger, a scarier kind of politician than even Citrine, a stubborn asshole, he was used to this battlefield, under the withering stares of uncountable eyes, where every word mattered.

I could see Rain hesitate.

My own thought was on how to handle the link to Citrine.  And it wasn’t an easy route to take, because I wasn’t at peace with the choice to work with her.

“It sucks,” Rain said.  He reached up to touch his hair or his face and he seemed to realize, belatedly, that he still wore his mask.  Rather than stumble, he jumped into his next statement as if invigorated.  “All of this is scary, and what you describe doesn’t sound good, but I’m- we’re living it.  It’s scary to think about capes taking over worlds, but I’ve seen it.  I saw the woman who used to rule Earth Shin take steps to reclaim her throne, and I.”

He stopped there for just a bit longer than a fraction of a second.

“We saw her die,” Tristan filled in.  “She tried to take over, but the Wardens were watching her, her enemies were watching her, and when she made an attempt she was killed.  Imprisonment and trial would have been nice, if I’m being honest, but… no choice.”

She was throwing buildings around.

“And now others step in to fill the void.  Her sister.”

My sister.  Amy.

It was tough to hear, but I had kind of anticipated that line of attack.  I felt irrationally pissed off, which was a lot because I had a right to be pissed that he was picking at my scabs.

“We don’t talk,” I told him.

Shouldn’t you?  Putting aside the fact that you’re family, you grew up together, you seem to be implying you’ve taken on the responsibility of watching and handling the dangerous ones before they get too far.”

“Not my team.  All heroes.  Even some of the villains.”

“How good a job can you do if you live with one for most of your life and you can’t even see that she’s deranged enough to dismantle human beings and put them back together wrong?”

I flinched.

“How good of a job can any of you capes do policing any of the others?  You’ve missed some pretty big stuff.  Even among your families.”

“I can’t speak for my teammates or the other heroes,” Tristan said, “But there are others watching what’s going on in Shin.  The last I heard, they were keeping parahumans contained to one area and letting the rest of that world get back into its own rhythm.”

“That-”

“But what I can say,” Tristan added, with more vigor, bullying his way through, “sorry to interrupt, but I wasn’t done.  What I can say is that people are watching out, and I think we’re doing okay.”

“To go back to the topic of her sister-”

“Why?” Swansong asked.  She was incensed enough to make me worry.  “To poke at old wounds?”

“Easy,” I said.  “It’s my wound and I’m not getting heated here.”

“Your sister, Antares, who is supposedly being watched, apparently just did to someone else what she did to you four years ago, when she put you in the hospital.  She was sick then, she’s sick now, and no, I don’t think anyone’s watching closely enough.”

Ashley took a step forward before I could even process that mental image.  I did a full one-eighty degree turn, my hand going out to almost punch her collarbone more than I put my hand out to stop her.  The heel of my hand rested against bone, while my eyes dropped down, my expression tense.  I was sure I was giving the crowd a good show- I turned away a bit and let my hair fall down into the way to hide my expression.

“Stop,” I said, my voice a whisper.

“I’m sure people are looking after the situation,” Tristan said.  “We might not catch everything, but we don’t want any of the bad stuff any more than you do.  We watch because we have to.   Like Precipice says, this stuff you’re bringing up can be scary, our own lives are on the line when we go out there to stop despots and monsters, and we can’t afford not to keep an eye on the dangerous ones.”

His voice was confident, steady.  I focused on it.

Misinformation, I told myself, and I willed it to be true.  Misinformation that Amy had done something anything like what she’d done to me.  A teacher plot, aimed at making this worse.

I had a feeling in my throat like I wanted to groan or to throw up.  I swallowed it, doing my best to logic it away with the mantra of misinformation.

Gary was saying, “Yet our current mayor, tell me, should I call her Jeanne or Citrine?”

“Call her whatever you want,” Tristan stated.  Which- shit.  Sounded combative.

“Call her Jeanne Wynn, I think,” I told Gary.  I couldn’t afford to let the others stumble through this, with their own worst traits being highlighted.  I couldn’t let myself sink into my own worst mires of thought.  That was what Teacher wanted.  More confident, I turned his way and said, “The amnesty where we said ‘your past crimes don’t matter unless you commit more’ came into effect as a combination of deals we had to make to get people on our side to stop the end of the world-”

“The world ended,” Gary said.

“To stop it from being worse.  So people struck deals, and to some degree, all of this was a wake-up call for an awful lot of… awful people, and there was a lot of room for second chances.”

“We’re still talking about Jeanne Wynn?”

I had more vigor as I talked.  Citrine was a safe subject.  Not an easy one, but a safe one.  “I’m talking about a lot of people.  Mayor Wynn’s power doesn’t change how she leads.  It doesn’t influence her decisions.  Am I happy about it?  No.  She was a member of one of the groups that had a stranglehold over my hometown.  But they kept the peace, and that’s better than some.  If she wants to be a regular mayor, use her experience with capes to make decisions in a city where cape stuff is pretty major?  I think I can make peace with that.”

“If she’s lying about who she really is then can we trust her in anything else?”

“I think to make that decision for yourself, you need to look at how she’s done.  Again, I’m not dancing with joy given past history, but I’m personally giving her her second chance, and objectively speaking, I think she’s doing a good job.”

“It’s the face she shows us.  She was second in command of a crime syndicate, until the leader died, at which point she assumed control.  Protection rackets, pressuring politicians, sheltering and hiding villains on the run from law enforcement, kidnapping, ransom.  She has murdered people.  You’ll jump in here to talk about amnesty, I’m sure-”

He let the statement hang, pausing to give me room to do just that.  I didn’t take the bait.

Be calm.  Process.  Think about the fact that he’s a vehicle for Teacher’s weaponized information and misinformation.

“-But we didn’t get a say in that.  No vote or referendum was held, none of the unpowered were counseled that I’m aware of.  We weren’t asked if we wanted to make this deal-”

“You’d rather Scion have killed every last one of us, unpowered and powered alike?” Ashley asked.  “It took every last bit of strength we had, including the assistance we had to barter for, you insipid dolt.”

“Easy,” I said, even as my heart rate tripled.  Damn it.

“I’ll let your outburst pass without comment,” Gary said.  “Even if we accepted the amnesty, we have to limit it to not punishing people for crimes committed on Earth Bet.  That’s it.  It doesn’t mean we can’t look at what she’s doing as a politician and wonder just what it is she’s doing behind the scenes, knowing how she’s operated in the past.  Is she making threats?  Is she using her power to hold people hostage?  Is she killing people who get in her way?”

“Is she?” Tristan asked.

“It would explain a lot of things,” Gary said.

“Can you clarify what those things are?” Tristan pressed.

“How easy it was for her.  How people never seemed to be in her way for very long.  How she always seemed to have funds.”

I could have imagined a less seasoned politician stumbling when pressed for details.  It was a thing my mom had done when I was a kid that I’d picked up and done myself until friends in early high school told me to quit it.  ‘Name one instance’.  It worked great to shut down arguments until someone answered and you were quibbling over whether the instance counted.  My mom had been surgical with when it was applied, picking instances where she knew it would frustrate any arguments.  Tristan wasn’t surgical.

I jumped in with, “Jeanne Wynn was a candidate because she invested heavily into things on this side of the portal.  She planned, and that’s why she’s so well set up.”

“With illicit money.”

“I don’t like it either, but in retrospect?  A lot of the important buildings and infrastructure we’re using now are because she thought the world might end, and she planned around it, investing.  She was right, and we’re all better off for her planning.  I’d rather she did what she did than us not have the community centers, power, trade deals, concrete, prefab building parts, and food that we have.”

“If she knew about the end of the world then why didn’t she stop it?” Gary asked.

“Do you really think she knew about Scion and didn’t stop it?” Tristan asked.  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “At this point you just sound like a sore loser.  Things were bad with the Endbringers and other incidents.  People everywhere were thinking about their options, prepping for disaster.  She was just smart about it.”

Thank you, Tristan.

I knew what answer I might’ve given if I were Gary.  I would have said yes, yes, she could have known and she could have been calculating enough to hold her tongue.  I knew enough details that I didn’t think it was the truth, but it would have been a decisive attack on her character.  Thing was, Tristan was good at speaking.  He had a forceful and combative approach that didn’t come across in his tone, but made people listen, gave him momentum, and let him drop questions any opponent would be happy to answer, and even drop in casual insults like ‘sore loser’ and then string it all together in a way that made it hard to combat.  Gary couldn’t answer the question with an attack on her character without being the sore loser, couldn’t answer the sore loser comment without sounding like he didn’t have an answer, and the audience came away with what Tristan wanted.

Funny thing was, I was realizing that Gary had all the answers, he was ready, he’d probably gone through a hundred mental recitations of this debate or similar debates since getting the material he’d shown from the slides.  He’d already shown himself to be quick in answering the tough, accurate questions.  But when Tristan came at him with his own unique approach and a less stellar argument, Gary seemed a little flat footed.  Rain had done something similar, but without the raw presentation.

“You’re devoting a lot of effort to defending her,” Gary said.

“Because you’re devoting a lot of effort to attacking her,” Tristan said.

I followed up.  Bring things back to center.  Rain established our thesis, whether I love it or not.   “Precipice said this all sucks.  He’s right.  The world ended, things aren’t great.  This cape stuff?  People taking over worlds?  You’re right to be upset and angry.  He’s right in agreeing to that.  I don’t think you’re right that every world is taken.  Not Shin, probably.  Mayor Wynn has given us no indication she’s using powers to rule us.  She was elected.”

“Somehow.  And she did get there using her advantages.  As you said, money that came from caped villainy.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Probably.  But as much as I don’t like her or her role in what happened to my hometown, I do think she wants the same thing we all want.  She wants us to get through this winter.  She wants us to thrive.  My team?  We want the city to thrive.  The best of us are getting bloody, injured, and traumatized fighting the worst of us.”

“The best of us,” Gary answered, his voice taking on a different tone.  “Do you really think you’re better than us?”

“The best capes, fighting the worst capes,” I told him.  To balance my answer, I added, “I can’t think of any non-capes I really dislike, let alone qualify as the ‘worst’, and I can think of a lot I love.”

“And here I hoped I was getting a refreshing bit of honesty from you all,” Gary said.  “Too bad.  It’s interesting, though.  The ‘best’.”

Fuck me, he was really seizing on that.

“I think the sorts of people who have fought Endbringers a dozen times, dedicating their lives to helping others, they deserve the title of ‘hero’, or of ‘best’, just as much as any soldier who fights for our country, Bet or Gimel,” I told Gary.  I took a page from Tristan’s book.  “The therapists who kept them sane through it, Patrol leaders, lawyers, I know them and I consider them among the ‘best’ too.”

“PRT directors who keep an eye out for those who need help,” Ashley said.

“Friends,” Rain said, barely audible, certainly not audible to Gary.

“The people you’ve listed off are all cape-related,” Gary said.

“It’s the life I’ve lived,” I answered.  “I was a cape from the beginning.”

“And it consumes everything,” Gary said.  He stared at me, his eyes level, not even wavering.  “I’m here because I don’t want it to consume us.”

His arm swept out to incorporate the crowd.

Rain had his thesis.  This was Gary’s.

Rain shifted position, like he was about to speak, and then stopped.  Maybe nervousness.

I tried to fill in for him.  “We don’t want it either, and believe me, we’ve seen and survived some of the worst of what’s out there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gary said.

“I’ve pulled an actual human baby out of my throat after someone tried to implant it in there.  I’ve seen people cut into fist-sized cubes and have to live through it.  Some of my teammates got similar treatment.”

Rain touched my arm, and I thought at first it was support or solidarity.  Then I felt the fingers of the small arm that gripped me down by the elbow tighten.

“I grew up with the bad, all-consuming stuff too,” Rain said.  “The isolated scary stuff is bad, but there’s good stuff too.  Good people.  People who are trying to help and fighting on the exact same side, for the same things you’re fighting for.  I don’t think that’s ridiculous.”

Right, we’re not trying to scare them.  That’s why he stopped me.

“I said you’re being ridiculous because you talk about surviving the worst when you represent it,” Gary said.

What the fuck, Gary?

“I’ve researched the various teams.  I know who you are, though it took some reminding.  You had an attempted murder charge for apparent fratricide while they were trying to figure out how to charge killing someone you share a body with.  You were Fallen and were directly complicit in the mall fire that killed over a dozen people-”

Each statement was punctuated by a shift in the tone of things, reactions from the room.  I could hear his voice echoing, a half-second late, as the speakers outside carried it to the crowd beyond.

“-Your own mother just went to Earth Shin for medical care because you struck her so hard you took part of her head off and damaged her spine.”

I dropped my eyes to the ground.  Gary apparently knew the fucking particulars better than I did.  Fuck.

I wanted to retort but the mental picture took my breath away.  I’d left the hospital wanting to keep anyone from ever having the same kind of fate I had, and then I’d hurt my mom that badly.

And they’d taken her to Amy.  Who had allegedly done something.

I didn’t want to connect those dots.

“And you were Slaughterhouse Nine,” Gary finished.  His capstone.

“So stupid,” Ashley told him.

I reached out, my hand on her shoulder.  She looked at me, and her eyes- white from corner to corner, black wisps of smoke curling out from the edges of the eyelids, exaggerating black eyelashes.  Her eyes were empty, blank.

“We should go,” I said.

She batted my hand away from her shoulder.

“Stupid, small man,” Ashley said.  She took steps forward, and I flew a bit to keep more or less in front of her.  I was ready to tackle her to the ground.  My wariness and tension seemed to be reason enough for Gary to back up.

I spared a glance, and saw Sveta was pushing past the crowd that was standing around the rows and columns of chairs.  Ashley took advantage of that glance to step around me.  I didn’t spare another look for Rain and Tristan.

“You have all of these facts but you.  Know.  So.  Little,” she told him, making each of the last three words its own punctuated statement unto itself, accusatory, hissed, and pejorative, in that order.

People were standing from their seats, backing up.

“Swansong,” I said, my voice stern.  I used my aura, the radius just wide enough to catch her and none of the audience.  She snapped her head around.  “No.”

“Yes.”

“Ashley,” I said, shifting my tone.  I spoke to her more as a friend,  “Please.”

I noticed blue motes.  Not many, but some.  Byron was using his power, keeping it ready.  A blast of water, in case she lunged for Gary?  I hoped it wouldn’t come to that, because it implied I wouldn’t be in a position to tackle her out of the air.

She reached out in my direction, and it wasn’t a warning or a threat of a blast aimed at annihilating me.  Just- a hand extended, relaxed.

I grabbed it, and I felt her shift her grip, her fingers interlacing with mine.  She half-turned, reached for the wrist of the hand I held, and undid something before twisting it, partially using my grip to help the twist.  When she pulled her hand free of mine, the movement was ginger, gentle, and careful to keep everything from elbow to fingertip pointing up.  It required my cooperation, to let go of her fingers, and I gave it.

Her fingers were stiff in their movements and slow as she touched her other wrist.  She didn’t keep her left hand upright, and instead let her arm swing down.  The swinging motion coupled with the hand being unattached saw it sliding out, flying in Gary’s general direction.  Pale and slender, each nail was done up in black and white polish.

It hit the ground like a lead weight, landing halfway between herself and Gary.  Fingers twitched as they curled up like the legs of a dead spider.  Nail polish splintered off.

Her other arm didn’t swing down, but simply lowered.  I saw the hand slide free, striking the ground near her foot.  The pipe that extended out from the bottom end of the wrist stuck up for a moment, before it toppled and hit the ground with a sharper sound.

“They took my hands,” Ashley said, staring at Gary, extending her arms partially up and out.  The stumps were capped with metal discs with circular holes in the center for the hands to slide into, slick with blood and lubricating oil in equal measure.  “They held me at knifepoint when they made me join.  They took my hands, they took my ability to speak, and they made me act like one of them.  I wasn’t an angel before, but the fact they had to make me says I wasn’t really Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I relaxed, dropping the six inches to the ground.  With that, the tension of others in the room began to dwindle.  One or two people sat.  Others remained standing but didn’t look ready to bolt.

“Wherever you’re getting your information, you’re not getting the full picture,” Ashley said.  “You’re attacking us for things that are far more complicated and unpleasant for us than you’re aware.  I hope so, in any event.  Because if you aren’t ignorant, you’re malignant.”

I bent down, picking up he hand by Ashley’s foot.  When I looked up, Gary was bending down to pick up her other hands.

Rain’s voice was low and quiet, “Be gentle with it.  I know she dropped it to make a point or something, but if you actively tamper with it it or touch the sensors near the metal bone, it might muck with the settings.”

“I’m not a brute,” Gary said.  He weighed it in his hand, and he seemed surprised at how heavy it was.  “I’m not the bad guy here.”

I wondered if the implication was ‘but you are’.

“My brother isn’t a villain either,” Byron said.  Right, they’d changed to have water available.  The motes were gone.  “He was a scared teenager and I’ve forgiven him for what he did to me.  I feel like that’s where things should end.”

“From my experience with law, there’s a reason victims can’t rescind charges.  It’s up to the prosecution, because you need that objective observation and involvement.”

“Victims can testify, though,” Byron said.  “If there’s a jury, victims can make their statements.  If he’s on trial, this is my statement.”

“You’re not on trial,” Gary said.

“Aren’t we?” Rain asked.  “Aren’t we always?  We’re being judged and condemned every damn day we’re out there.  I was damned for being powerless before I got my powers and damned for being broken after I got them.  Family judges us, friends judge us, and it’s usually harsh judgments.  You’re being judged and assessed by your audience, Mr. Nieves.  They’re always doing it.  That’s just how people work.”

“I don’t think you capes are on trial nearly enough, considering the damage you can do.”

“I agree,” Rain said.  “It took too long for the Fallen to be stopped.  I saw a lot of people get hurt.  I’d have liked to see more justice, during that period of time.”

The conversation and its tone had shifted.  We’d moved forward, around Ashley, and Gary had stepped forward to pick up the hand.  There was an audience, but our tone and our volume was more conversational now.

I spoke up, matching my tone to the conversation, despite my anger and anxiety.  “I want to get to a place where there is more justice, where the courts are equipped and able to act against parahumans that cross the line.”

“Even if those parahumans smash their own mothers’ heads into a wall?”

“Even,” I said.  I didn’t flinch.  I stared him down instead.  “It was a miscommunication, me not telling her enough about my power, maybe a bit on her, for not letting me be in a position to tell her.  That sounds a lot shittier to say than I think it was.”

“It’s complicated,” Rain said.  His old catchphrase.

Ashley wasn’t asking for her hand back, and she wasn’t lifting her arm up to indicate for Gary to give the hand back.  I felt like it would be forcing the issue to take the hand I held in my own, cold and otherwise human, like the chunks of the Navigators had been, and give it to her.

She wanted him to offer, and he wanted… I wasn’t sure.

“I’ve seen so many people die,” Gary said.  “If we don’t take a harder line now, then I’m going to see more die.”

“A lot of us were there, face to face against Scion,” Byron said.  “We saw deaths firsthand.  We were there for outright warfare against the Fallen.  Dozens died.  I don’t want to one-up you, sir, but I think we’ve seen more die than you have, and it doesn’t hurt any less.”

Byron shifted back to Tristan.  Gary looked wary about the blurs, as every small difference in detail between the two brothers was bridged by a brush-stroke smear of shadow, before consolidating in the new form.

“I think we want everything you want,” Rain said.  “But we can’t be debating you or defending ourselves against allegations while we work toward that end result.”

“Vastly, painfully simplified allegations,” Tristan said.

“Well, if you wanted to derail my speech and the promotion of Mrs. Darleet’s book, I think you succeeded.”

“No,” I said, and my voice was harder.  “Swansong just laid herself bare, showed you her disability.  You’re holding the evidence in your hand as we speak.”

“You used me for ammunition,” Ashley said.  “I get to say something back.  Isn’t that how a trial goes?  If I don’t get to, it’s something else entirely, and you might as well have the common decency and the feeble trace of courage to follow through and either hang me or burn me at the stake.  Let me go out in a dramatic way, but don’t you dare misrepresent me.”

“I’m not going to lynch you.  You’re being ridiculous.  We’re asking questions.”

Ashley answered, “Without us here to answer them.  When we do answer them, we’re accused of derailing.  The difference between us, Gary, is that you have a kind of power here, and you haven’t even tried to be just, kind, or fair.  But in my experience with Breakthrough, I’ve seen that no matter how rocky the road gets, and it’s rocky right now, it feels like we’re losing or we’ve lost… we still try.”

Gary still held Ashley’s hand, and he seemed lost in thought for a minute.  No retort, no response.

Then he looked at the base of the hand, where what Rain had called the ‘pole’ stuck out, to be threaded into the hole in the stump and root in the forearm, he looked at Ashley’s arm, and he seemed to realize how weird it was that he was holding a girl’s dismembered hand.  He extended his hand, holding the hand by the wrist.

Ashley put her arm out, hole pointed at him, and he had to turn the hand ninety degrees to stick the pole out and put it into the hole.  There was a faint sound like something sliding into a sheath, Ashley pushed out to help the final connection pop, then twisted her arm around to rotate the hand before something caught.

“Thank you,” she said.  She flexed her hand, forming a fist, then moving the fingers.  She turned to Rain.  “Feels wrong.”

“You threw your hand down like someone throws down a gauntlet in a duel.  It’s going to screw up the fine tuning.”

“Guys,” Tristan said.

Gary glowered.

“You might have really hurt relations with Shin or Cheit,” I said.  “I don’t know what happens to the mayor, but if this leads to her being ejected or removed, I think it hurts all of us.”

“We can disagree on that.”

“We’ll see how it goes.  In the meantime, if you need help with something else, if you have questions or if you want to meet us halfway?  You can contact us.  I think there are better ways to use the listening ears you have.  If you get tired of tearing things down with no plan to build them back up, I have ideas about how you could educate and inform people, or broaden what we have in the way of the Patrol, that lets people have more involvement.”

“Something else,” he said.  “In other words, you think I need help with what I said about the mayor, Cheit, or Shin, but you won’t give it.”

I thought about it.  That had kind of been my intended implication.  There were so many toes to step on.  Territory I didn’t want to get into.  Like my sister.

“If it does turn out that that’s the case, reach out.  We’ll see what we can do.”

Mr. Nieves didn’t nod or shake his head.  He turned to the table where the two and a half pounds of laptop and twenty pounds of cabling were, motioning for them to wrap things up.  I heard the blip of the speakers being disconnected as wires were undone.

And that somehow felt like the end of the conversation.  I backed away, Ashley turned.  I spotted Sveta in the crowd, looking relieved.

That was it.

“Want a book?” Mrs. Darleet asked, as we went to go.  When everyone had backed up, she’d stepped away from her podium and into the edges of the crowd.  Now she was back at it.

“Read it,” Ashley said.  “I was talking to my team about it earlier.”

“That’s great,” the woman said.

Probably a publicity stunt, or a chance to make us look bad when we refused, or pure irony.  I didn’t have a read on her.  But whatever.  I held out my hand, took the book, thanking her.  People would interpret our taking the book however they wanted.

The crowd got out of our way.

We left it behind, and I hoped that even if we hadn’t defused it all, we’d at least raised questions or broken their stride.  I hoped the video wouldn’t look as bad as I worried it would.

“He played dirty,” Tristan said.  “Bringing up the shit he did.”

“Swansong called him small.  He kind of is.  He’s using the only tools he has to try to effect change.  I remember what it was like, being unpowered in a powered family, how little it felt like anything I did mattered.”

“Pretty generous of you,” Tristan said.

Sveta exited the building, making her way through the crowd and crossing the street.

“I dunno,” I said.

Sveta joined us.

“I think you’re going too easy on him, offering help, bending the knee,” Ashley said.

Rain answered her, “We’re on the same side.  We want the same things.  It’s a… minor difference, I guess, but an important one.”

“A distinction,” I supplied the word.

“That.”

“What distinction?” Ashley asked.

“He’s anti-parahuman, except, my experience says he wouldn’t call himself that.  He’d say something like ‘I’m aware of how dangerous parahumans are’ and he’d have some stats to back it up.  Thing is?  So are we.  We’re very aware of the threat posed.  We’re more aware.  The dif- distinction is that he’s focused on the overall threat.  We’re focused on specific threats, the worst of them.”

Ashley stared int the silvery-white lenses of Rain’s mask.

“It’d be nice to work together or whatever when it comes to dealing with the worst capes.  Focus energies,” I said.

“Exactly,” Rain said.  “There’s overlap, common interest.  We all want certain capes that are abusing their powers, abusing the system, and abusing others gone.  Maybe we can loop Gary into that.  Get him on board.”

“It’s not that easy to change someone’s mind,” Ashley said.

“I know it’s not, believe me.  I’ve dealt with my share of bigots.  But I think there’s a chance,” Rain said.

“It’s not simple,” I agreed.  I still had anxiety and dark thoughts pushing in at the edges from what had been brought up.  I wanted to move, to act, to go punch bad guys, just to keep that stuff at the edges from creeping in enough to matter.  Move fast enough and that kind of thinking would have to cling on for dear life.

“It’s complicated,” Rain said.  “It’s the kind of complicated I’ve been wrestling with from the beginning.”

“Speaking of complicated,” I said.  “Ashley.  You’re…”

“You’re backsliding,” Tristan said.  “That was bad.”

“I thought I made a good point.”

“You’re backsliding.”

“We’re all backsliding, if you haven’t noticed.”

“I know you,” Sveta jumped in, joining the conversation.  “You were on the edge.  You could have blasted him.”

“I could blast anyone.  I could blast you, right here and right now.  But I don’t because I don’t want to.  I didn’t blast him because he’s a goblin of a man without even a single testicular smudge’s worth of manliness, who attacks people behind their backs.  He’s not worth it.  Does he redeem himself somewhat by giving me my hand back and listening to us a little?  A tad.”

“You thought about blasting him and you held back,” Sveta said.

“I held back,” Ashley said.

“We need to discuss this.  This pattern of behavior isn’t good,” I said.

“A pattern where I hold back?”

“A pattern where you need to hold back,” Sveta said.

“This is me.  This is who I am.”

What was?  I felt like I’d gotten to know her, that she’d let her guard down, dropped aspects of the self-imposed image she’d built up around herself, and become more comfortable.  I’d liked the Ashley I’d gotten to know.   Now… I wasn’t even sure about any of it.

People who broke down tended to reveal raw and vulnerable parts of themselves, and I’d thought that in the past events where Ashley’s facade had cracked, I’d seen glimmers of the Ashley who cared deeply about Kenzie and who could care deeply about others.  The Swansong.  Now I felt like the Swansong facade was cracking under the strain of keeping up the act here and it was revealing a Damsel beneath.

White with black beneath the surface or black with white beneath the surface, just endless beneath-the-surfaces.  Always with a few limited constants.

There had been vulnerability here, though.  Showing the missing hands in front of watching eyes.  Declaring she wasn’t Slaughterhouse.  Still, there was something I’d call darkness.

“Do you need to hang back?  Take a break while we look after other stuff?”

“No,” Ashley said, sounding offended.

I was frustrated, and with how Ashley tended to ramp up when she got agitated, and the way my own frustration seemed to mirror that right now, I backed off, letting Sveta take over.

My phone was ringing anyway.  I pulled it out and I checked the screen, and then I went very still.

“What’s wrong?”  It’d been Rain who noticed.  “Teacher attack?”

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

“What, then?”

“Someone caught some of what Gary was saying when he named names.  It got out to Earth Shin.  They want to meet.”

I didn’t want to do this.  I was happier telling myself Gary had been wrong than I was putting myself in a position to know one way or the other.  Knowing that she did what he’d alleged, or that she didn’t and that I had to wrestle with the word ‘innocent’ linked to her name.

“Family they?” Sveta asked.

“Family they.”

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Breaking – 14.2

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What was the saying?  Three could keep a secret, if two of them were dead?

I wanted to have more faith in humanity than that.  Three could keep a secret, if everyone involved had balls or tits in a vise, or if their throats were directly on the line.

Problem was, we weren’t talking about three.  We weren’t even talking about a mere thirty.

Advance Guard had thirteen capes on its roster right now.  Foresight had nine.  The Shepherds, who’d kept to themselves and hadn’t interfered or been involved with Breakthrough or Breakthrough’s business nearly as much as the other two teams, had sixteen.  The Wardens had twenty-five.  Breakthrough had five to seven, depending on how Capricorn was counted and if we included Lookout.

And I wasn’t even counting the likes of Fume Hood, who had been looped in, or the Major Malfunctions, who by their own choice hadn’t.

Not everyone was in the loop.  Team leaders were making tough calls and leveraging their knowledge of the people on their rosters to decide if those people needed to be lied to, left in the dark, or told.

Every decision involved its own kind of stress, and I wasn’t thinking merely of stress of the emotional kind.  I was thinking of stress lines appearing across a metaphorical piece of metal.  Something solid, seemingly unshakable, that was being pushed just enough that the damage was leaking in.  Cracks formed, and those cracks threatened to become breaks.

The Wardens had expanded their headquarters over the last few days, and yet the number of capes that were housed within had increased by several factors.  Each team had made its individual calls on who to inform and who to leave in the dark.

There were capes in attendance who were too short-tempered, unreliable, or otherwise prone to break under stress to have out in the city.  There were capes who could, but who were sitting this one out, because they had other shit going on, or because the stress of it was too much.  Effervescent was one, and she’d been open about the reasons why: she had a substance abuse problem and acting like she’d been pushed to her limit put her at the cusp of a slippery slope.

It showed.  In expressions and in appearance, in how close capes sat to one another and how far they sat with personal space established.  It showed in body language, in arms folded, in tension, and in the tone of the chatter that I could hear but couldn’t decipher, or in their intent silence.

All to keep our ruse going.  We pretended to look more stressed than we were, more desperate.  We pretended we were more ready to pick fights, to turn to our coping mechanisms, or show evidence that our coping mechanisms had failed.

Some capes in attendance were only barely keeping their identities secret.  Two of the Shepherds were wearing clothes I wouldn’t have worn leaving the house: stretch yoga pants with patches where they were worn thin, and plaid sleep pants.  Both wore their masks, but the one with the plaid sleep pants hadn’t even brushed her hair.

I saw Victor- Brockton Bay native, named for his power, not because it was an actual name.  The costume had been changed so it didn’t have that bold red, black, bit-of-white color scheme, but he’d kept the name, I knew.  He was talking with one of Capricorn’s old teammates from Reach, and had his girlfriend with.  She seemed to be Gospel, an ex-member of one of the smaller religious teams.  Rune sat at the opposite corner of that collection of Shepherds.  She’d changed her name to Scribe, updated her costume by adding a brimmed hat and a crook-topped cane that she could use to write her symbols, but it was hard for me to not see her as Rune.

Two days ago, the pair of them had been outed.  Victor hadn’t really been hiding it, but he’d kind of been exposed to the public years ago, and had more or less dropped off the map for two years after that, long enough for most people to forget.  After they’d been revealed as ex-members of the Neo-Nazi gang back in Brockton Bay, Victor had been open about it.  He’d written a letter about his past life, his attempt to use the amnesty to be better, how he had someone close to him that inspired him to be better, he’d found God, he condemned everything about who & what he’d been, blah blah blah.  He’d still been a guy who had a history that was violent and stark enough to have records remaining after the end of the world, who’d done what he’d done when he was a full-fledged adult.  The letter had been an apology letter without an actual apology or trace of contrition.  I was kind of glad in a way that the public hadn’t really bought it, but his team was standing by him.

Rune, by contrast, hadn’t written any letter.  Her silence had been damning, and I suspected that if she hadn’t already been brought here to the Bunker and firmly asked to stay here, they would have enforced it then.  She was benched, and she had no friends for the time being.  Nobody to talk to her.

Cracks.

Our last arrivals were trickling in.  Capricorn sat on a table next to me, strapping on his armor while Sveta provided a hand as needed, to hold things in place or hold straps out ready for Byron to grab them.  Ashley had set aside her coat.  Rain had stepped over to a storage area to switch over to a proper costume.

I remained much as I was.  No secret identity to protect, and I was comfortable as-was.

Gundeck and Solarstare entered, with Rain among the half-dozen people who were right behind them.  Gundeck was a big guy, loaded down with his weapons, but even though his power left him able and ready to carry a whole arsenal with him without buckling, he moved like a burdened man.

He’d apparently promised his family he was out of the game after Gold Morning.  At the same time, he was leading a double life.  They’d found out in the midst of all of… this.  I wasn’t sure how much was Teacher and how much was that he’d shifted his priorities to more… I didn’t want to say important things, but the ramifications of what we were doing were important.

More cracks.  If not an outright break.  He really didn’t look so hot, and I could only see his general body language and the twenty percent of him that his costume didn’t cover up.

Rain was in costume, with a silvery-white hood and upper body to the costume, a glowing crack running through one of the eyes of his gunmetal mask and down to the edge near the cheek.  His mechanical forearms and hands, attached at the elbow, were smaller than his ordinary hands but still five fingered and dextrous, colored the same way as his mask, with finer glowing cracks running along them.  The lower body of the costume didn’t hug him, but it wasn’t quite ‘pants’ either.  Silvery-white panels, some devices and weapons, and decorative tinker attachments contrasted the darker material.  More of the decorative attachments joined the fabric to his metal boots, and bridged the divide between the upper and lower half of the costume.

In my opinion, he’d graduated from a thrown-together costume that didn’t do anything explicitly wrong, but didn’t do anything explicitly right either, to something that looked good.

More came down from upstairs.  The floor above us was still partially under construction, but they’d been hanging out.  Egg, Engel and Scraping were staying here to stay safe from Teacher, and were finding friends, because Engel at the very least was the kind of person that people were drawn to.

Engel and Egg found a place in the crowd near the Shepherds.  They looked our way, and Engel stared at Sveta, hard.

Sveta, for her part, kept her eyes toward the front of the room, avoiding any interaction with the glowing, sense-scrambling Engel.

The influx of people saw the crowd shift.  The way the crowds were organized, each team had sort of gathered with its most familiar allies nearby.  Small teams stuck to the big teams that they tended to work with, which put some of the smaller religious teams I didn’t know in the Shepherd’s orbit, Navigators and Kings of the Hill closer to Advance Guard, and Foresight had… not many.  Auzure was close to them but not close enough for them to talk among themselves.  We were close, and we’d exchanged hellos, so maybe Breakthrough counted.  They were on the best terms with the Wardens, though, which counted for something.

With the people finding their places, Gundeck and Solarstare stepping up to the front of the room, Rain joining Breakthrough, and others finding their respective teams, some were squeezed out.  Vista widened the gap to slip between people, which seemed to take some effort, and then ducked into the space between me, the wall, and a table.

“Thank you for coming in,” Cinereal addressed the room.  “Tensions with one of the border worlds demands the attention of some of the Warden leadership, so I’ll be handling this meeting today.  Those of you that know me know I’m strictly business.  I won’t mince words, I won’t give you context that doesn’t matter, so pay attention.”

For the most part, the way the PRT, Protectorate and Wards programs had been run had been a closed-doors thing.  The public didn’t tend to hear that so-and-so was a good boss or that one PRT director in one city was a stickler for routine.  At best, those without boyfriends in the Wards would know that one newly appointed PRT director had a history of being a politician in a cape-heavy area, or they’d been FBI, or they’d risen up from the ranks of being a PRT squaddie or investigator.  When it came to Protectorate or Wards, similar thing.  Guesswork and whatever they decided to reveal.

But Cinereal stood out.  Atlanta was something like one thousand three hundred miles from Brockton Bay, but we’d heard about what a hardass Cinereal was.

She faced the room without flinching, with several capes, mostly Foresight, arranged in front of her, also facing us.  Crystalclear was among them, as was Effervescent.

Tattletale didn’t form the lineup, but she sat near the back, amid the Wardens, her eyes scanning the room.

“We’re close,” she said.  “We want at least two more entry points, ideally three, and with some help we’re getting there.  One day, maybe two, then we move.  We’re handling that and we’re holding off some of the big dangers, like war and the Machine Army.  Your job, each and every one of you, is to maintain and support the peace.  If the best way you can do that is to stay out of everyone else’s way, then do that.”

Ashley gave me a look over her shoulder, her head tilting with the motion.  It made the projection of smoke spill down from her eyes and bounce off her shoulder.

Sitting on the table, Byron tugged at his straps, fixing on the last pieces of his armor.  He tugged again, then twisted around, trying to see what he was doing.

They weren’t the only signs of restlessness around the room.  I suspected a lot of people here had hoped to hear something closer to a timeline of hours, not days.

“There are two ongoing wars between villain factions in two locations,” Cinereal said.  “The first is between Semiramis, Little Midas, and Bluestocking, Earth N.  The Wardens and Foresight have discussed it and we would like to push for a stable alliance between Bluestocking and Semiramis.  For those of you who don’t know, these are behind-the-scenes operators who are stepping in to fill a void after Marquis has left for Shin and Lord of Loss was arrested.  Auzure, you have a working relationship with Semiramis.”

“We do,” Lark said.

“You’re up to date on who these individual faction leaders are, and what they represent?”

“We are.”

“Talk to Semiramis, then.  See what it would take, and broker a peace with Bluestocking.  Offer assistance in taking down Midas.”

“We can try.”

“We need better than try.  We need success.  All three parties know about Teacher and we need that handled.  We want Midas arrested and at least temporarily shuttled to our prison world, and we want Bluestocking and Semiramis cooperating with each other and with us.”

“We’ll manage it.  Can we bring in others if we need help with the actual handling and takedown?”

“Yes.  Talk to the Wardens if you need help organizing that,” Cinereal said.  She got a nod from Lark and moved on, addressing the rest of us, “The second war is over the portal-wracked areas in the heart of the city.  Those of you who are more used to working over there will recognize the names.  Deader and Goner operate from a corner world much as we’re operating from the Bunker.  Barrow is a corner world, in a manner of speaking.  The Lords of the Pit have the villains of the Pitstop under their thumb.  We think the best use of resources would be to put Advance Guard on this.”

“We’ve already been preparing to handle it,” was Mayday’s response.  “While I have the floor, I also want to say we’re taking the last steps to fold the Kings of the Hill into Advance Guard.  If you’re looking for them, it’s best to go through us.”

The fox and the hound, Foxtrot and Houndstooth, raised their hands.  Dangerous mischievousness and stoic seriousness, respectively.

“Good.  Consolidation helps.  We are very curious and very interested as to whether any of the other corner worlds are shielded from Teacher’s eye.  If possible, we’d like to talk to Barrow and to have Deader and Goner in custody for interviewing.”

“We’ll make it happen.”

“If you can’t, at least distract them.

“Shepherds, we want you at the east end of the city.  Boston, periphery of New Brockton.  You have the numbers and organization to do it.”

Moonsong answered, “We talked informally with Legend about it last night, I told him I had reservations, and he seemed understanding.  Things feel fragile right now and if we split up too much or stop maintaining a lot of face to face contact, that leaves us weak.”

“We need all bases covered for one day.  Perhaps two.  There’s-”

Cinereal, in her ash-gray costume with a bird motif, feathers weaving together and criss-crossing along the length of her robe and at the edges of her mask, turned her head as some members of her frontline of thinkers broke ranks.  Crystalclear had stepped away first, going to talk to Effervescent.  Tattletale hopped down from her perch of a stack of chairs and joined them.  Countenance, Foresight’s team leader, joined them to make it a group of four.

“Is there a problem?” Cinereal asked.

“Nothing confirmed,” Countenance said.  “We’ll take some people upstairs to talk, if that’s okay?”

Cinereal nodded, gesturing for them to go.

The thinkers rounded up a few members of one of Advance Guard’s tertiary groups.  People I didn’t recognize.  After a short pause, they also gathered up two members of one of the Shepherd’s teams.

All were escorted upstairs.

“One or two days, Moonsong.  Knock down the nails that stick up.  Keep any villains from getting cocky, keep any big incidents at bay.”

Moonsong looked surprisingly stressed out by the notion of having to distribute her team across several areas of the city.  I’d have to ask Byron, who was staring at Moonsong, while absently adjusting his armor.

The armor- I turned to look.  The straps that he’d been tightening for the last forever dangled off the side of the table and down to the floor.

I turned to Vista, who was smiling to herself, and I elbowed her, which set her off, in a fit of soundless, supressed laughter.

Byron noticed, and then noticed the straps.  He gave Vista a push on the shoulder.

“Breakthrough,” Cinereal said.

All at once, we were at attention.

“You’re missing a member,” she said.

“Lookout is part of a new team now.  We support her and she acts as an adjunct teammate, but officially she’s part of a new kids-only team.  They’re on a job handling a kidnapping.”

“We hoped to talk to her about security and protocols.”

“We can let her know and send her your way.”

“Good. We would like you to handle some of the rising anti-parahuman sentiment.  It’s been simmering for a while now and we think it’s going to boil over.”

“Assessing our abilities and where we stand in the big picture, I’m worried we’re not the best choice for that task.”

“You may be the best we have.  We would have sent Legend and some other Wardens, but current events have forced us to refocus.”

“Could I suggest that we help out the Shepherds, and the Shepherds send their best front-facing capes to handle this?”

“The Shepherds are mired in scandal that’s about to get worse.  I won’t say more on that subject.  We feel that if they get some concrete victories, this will help.  You, meanwhile, have been involved in this exercise from the start, we want to keep you close to the bunker and available in case we need to act, and like it or not, your appearance on Hard Boil made you visible to the civilian side.  Your voices explained things that they had wanted to know.  You opened a dialogue, now use it.”

Her voice was hard, brooked no nonsense, and struck a tone where I felt like anything I said, one way or another, would make me look and feel like a petulant child.

“Got it,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  She turned her head, then pointed across the room at Tattletale, who had apparently just come down the stairs.

“Three moles,” Tattletale said.  “The others are figuring out when and for how much, but I can tell you right now that they’re new, they weren’t moles before, so they didn’t know much.  He doesn’t know anything about what we’re aiming to pull, yet, or he’d be acting differently.”

“Just the three?”

“So far,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, even though what she’d said was chilling, not funny.  It wasn’t a Kenzie thing either.  She was just way too fond of her own wit sometimes.

“If you try, you will be caught,” Cinereal addressed the assembly.  “It’s not worth it.”

Tattletale went back upstairs.

Cinereal paused, her eyes searching the room, as if she could see the traitors or informants in our ranks, who might tip off Teacher and spoil everything.

We were out of the limelight, in any event.  Byron was trying to fix his straps and looking a little bewildered as he tried to figure out which parts had stretched out.  Vista helped by contracting it back to its normal length, moving her hand to indicate.

I bumped her elbow with mine, moving her hand closer.  Byron noticed the moved hand, looked up, and moved his arm close enough that Vista could touch the straps.

She fiddled for a second, pulled the straps tight, then gave his arm a pat.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

“It was my fault anyhow,” Vista whispered, before turning her full focus to Cinereal.

Not her full focus.  Her hand reached past my coat for my side, thumbnail poking through my shirt to my stomach, fingernails at my back.  A claw of revenge, for forcing her hand.

Entirely undeserved.  If she’d embarrassed herself because I’d pushed her, I’d feel like shit and I’d deserve the revenge claw.  But she hadn’t.  We needed the bright moments, against such a grim backdrop, and we couldn’t take or maintain those moments so long as we had our greater deception.  A secret kept by, if I was counting right, seventy-two people in this building right now.

Cinereal continued, “Clip Kidz, we have a special errand for you, if you’re willing and if your guardians are willing to sign off.  We will pay, but we need you to take on a mission that we know will fail, because it’s important that Teacher thinks we’re putting up some resistance.   If you’ll stay after? Thank you.  For the other smaller teams, you’ll be running errands for us or supporting the larger squads.   One of those squads is us, because we anticipate an attack on the Bunker by Teacher once he realizes what we’re doing…”

She went on.  It hardly mattered.  To one in three of us, it felt like busywork, meant to bide time while the Wardens figured out where they could access or crack open portals to Teacher’s realm.  Those in that group wanted to move now.  Forget the extra portals, just send more people through the four or so that we had.  They were restless.  For many of them, the other shoe hadn’t dropped yet.  Every hour that Teacher was left to his own devices, their secrets and relationships all hung in the balance.

To another one in three of us, I was pretty sure, it felt like a doomed proposition.  That the attack on Teacher’s base would be hard, and resources we were committing or spending now would be resources we didn’t have against Teacher.  Or at least, we wouldn’t have at full readiness and capacity.  It was necessary to keep up the act, but ugh.  That group would be the quiet ones, the ones who were chin up and shoulders square today, but who dreaded tomorrow.  For many of them, secrets had already been spilled.  They’d felt Teacher’s hand and the associated hopelessness.

And to the last group, one I subscribed to, both were true.  It felt like the Wardens knew the attack would be devastating.  It felt like they were being safe, distracting us, preoccupying us.

Not chin-up, not shoulders-square, not restless either.  Just… dealing with a sinking feeling in our guts.  I was certain that nine out of ten of us had come to this meeting hoping to get the order, the news that we’d be attacking in a few hours.  It was too hard to believe that things would be easier or better tomorrow.

But we’d wait, we’d lie, and we’d confront the worst sides of ourselves, while trying to convince ourselves that we weren’t playing into the asshole’s plan by doing so.

The worst of ourselves.  I hadn’t expected a crowd.

“What the hell do we even do about this?” Rain asked.  “Christ.”

The swearing was a nice touch.  In figuring out how to present the best picture for our would-be attackers, we’d started talking to each other about our tendencies and habits when stressed, reminding one another, or pointing out things we did that we weren’t even aware of.  I’d told Rain he amped up the religious swears when the stress was at its highest.

We stood on a rooftop, looking down at the scene.  A single street was littered with people from one intersection to the next.  They weren’t shoulder to shoulder, but they were close enough that people had to weave and made it about ten steps before they had to ‘excuse me’ their way through.  Most of the focus was around a single place, a bookstore, and the building interior was packed, with employees wearing store colors beneath jackets that weren’t store-branded, keeping too many people from making their way inside.

The people who weren’t indoors were watching through the store window.  Though it was cold and the snow came down in thick wet bullets halfway between raindrop and snowflake, the crowd was more interested in watching than in seeking shelter.  Large screens displayed the video feed from the inside.

I’d expected signs and angry cries.  Instead, they were book readers.  They were silent, intently focused on what was going on.

“You and Vista were getting chummy,” Rain said.

At first I thought he meant me.  Then I saw him looking at Byron.

“She pranked me good.  My head wasn’t anywhere near my armor, I was thinking a clasp was broken and it kept loosening.”

“She’s pretty cool,” Rain said.  “Y’know?”

A little blunt there, Rain.

“She is,” Byron said.  He glanced at me.

“No question.  If the world had more Vistas, it’d be a better place.”

“You should talk to her more,” Rain said.  “Ask her out or something.”

So damn blunt.  You’re going to scare him off.

“Nah,” Byron said.  “I shouldn’t.  Wouldn’t be nice.  I think ‘girl I’d want to spend the rest of my life with’ and I think of Moonsong.  I think ‘attractive girl’ and I think of Moonsong.  I think of girls I might take home for the Christmas holiday and I think of Moonsong taking off her coat in the entryway.  It wouldn’t be fair to anyone, if I wasn’t totally over Moon.”

“Oh!” Sveta said.  “This is a good opportunity.”

“What?” Byron asked.  “For what?”

“That device Kenzie made, so whichever one of you two was stowed away could talk.”

“She’s working on the final touches, she said.”

“Nope!”  Sveta said.  She reached into her pocket, withdrawing a supiciously phone-like container.  “Ta-da.”

“That’s your phone,” Ashley said, deadpan.

“It’s built into the phone case, but it’s not a phone.  See?  I turn it on, press it to Byron’s arm…”

Byron stuck his arm out.

Sveta leaned in close to the phone, tilting her head to put her ear near it.  Then she switched to a deep voice, “Beep, boop, boop.  Test, test, I’m Tristan, and after hearing Byron say all that, I might actually manage to throw up in this extradimensional space, it’s going to make such a mess, and I’ll never be able to clean it up.”

Byron dropped his arm, moving it away from the phone.  He blurred, shifting over to Tristan.

“It works,” Tristan said, in the dullest, most unsuprised, unexcited tone he could manage.  “Also, after hearing Byron get mushy over Moonsong, I might throw up.  Good thing I’m not in an extradimensional space as I do it.”

“See?  It’s amazing,” Sveta said.  “Good work, Lookout.”

Her phone illuminated, showing a new text.  A thumbs-up icon.

“In all seriousness, though, the way things are right now, don’t speak for me, don’t put words in my mouth,” Tristan said.  There was a tone to how he said it that made Sveta take a step back.

“Sorry,” she said.  Then, like that wasn’t enough, but she couldn’t think of what else to say, she said, “sorry.”

“Are there any boys you’re ga-ga over?” Ashley asked, sounding very much like the words ga-ga shouldn’t have ever left her lips.  Her expression reflected a similar sentiment.

“What the fuck am I going to do with boys?” Tristan asked.  “I can’t do anything.  We can’t act, we can’t get the Wardens to take us seriously.  They assigned us this garbage watch-the-people-at-a-bookstore job.  Which would be bad enough, but I’ve got Sveta putting words in my mouth-”

“I said sorry.”

“And I swear I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Maybe you should switch out, cool down?” Rain asked.  “It’s Byron’s turn anyway.”

“Fuck him,” Tristan said.  Metal clicked against metal as he settled in, arms crossed, looking down over the roof’s edge.

Tristan was signaling – left foot planted a bit ahead of the right foot.  The signal had been Rain’s idea, with either arms being folded or footing being our cue to one another that we were playing a part.  That we weren’t really upset.

Still, it was spooky to go there, to see backlash and hear friendly voices sound so unfriendly.

My hands in my coat pockets, I looked down from the roof’s edge.

A narrow woman with short black hair shot through with gray was speaking, face displayed on the screens.  I recognized her but couldn’t place the name.  I was so bad with non-parahuman names.

“What’s her name?” I asked, to change the subject.  “Woman in the window.”

“She wrote a book, didn’t she?” Rain asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “I read it, but I forget the name.”

“What’s the book?” I asked.

“Deconstructing power,” Ashley said.  “I like deconstructing things-”

She made an intentional spark with her power, a flicker of shadow twice the size of the flame a lighter might’ve made, and loud enough I worried heads on the ground five floors below us might turn our way.

“-and I like power.  It was fine.  Wasn’t a very good deconstruction or look at power, I think.”

“It’s apparently made the author popular,” Byron observed.

“Other person on the screen,” Rain said.  “Gary Nieves.”

“Ex-candidate for mayor,” I noted.

“He’s been a voice surrounding this general sentiment,” Rain said.

“Paying attention, huh?” I asked.

Rain nodded.  He turned his head slowly, glowing eyes of his mask surveying the crowd.  “I like paying attention to what ideas are taking hold and how.  Makes me feel more secure, like I won’t be blindsided by that stuff again.”

Speakers planted outside the bookstore that was hosting the informal presentation, dialogue, or debate had Gary Nieves’ voice now, distinct from the woman’s.

The crowd was reacting.  Little by little, step by step, they were being hyped.  Finding courage.

“What’s he saying?” Byron asked.

“I don’t know, but I want to know,” I answered.

“Let me,” Sveta said.  “I can go incognito.”

She pulled off her mask, then pressed it to her stomach.  Skin pulled away in strips, and then fat, muscle, and other structures were their own layers.  All the organs were there, but as necessary parts were pulled away, the organs went still, shriveling, moisture sucked into other surrounding spaces.

The mask was wrapped up  by the strips, then drawn into her stomach.  Strips then fell back into their natural order, with one or two misfires before something tidy was managed.  Only a slight bump suggested the mask’s presence.

Then, more dramatically, she did the same with the remainder of her costume.  The costume was salvaged from her damaged prosthetic body, forming armor that she wore with curling, wavy components to it, all painted either in a dramatic fashion with bright reds, yellows, and oranges, or in deep, cold greens and blues.

It took her some doing, to pull in the armor and wrap herself around it.  There were places it protruded through the skin, but it was set deep enough inside her that that when she pulled her coat out of her bag and pulled it on over everything, her silhouette was normal.

“Pretty cool,” Byron said.

“It’s uncomfortable.  I’m going to head down.”

She made her way down the side of the building, strips of her being helping her down, more appearing as she needed them to seize handholds.  The rain had settled in part, but the snow still came down hard.

My phone rang.  I put it on speaker.

“Woman named… Reidleigh Darleet is talking.  She’s the author,” Sveta reported.  “They’re talking about the amnesty.  Violent capes getting a pass.  The Drenched.  Valkyrie.  A… bunch of villain names I’m not sure I heard about.”

“Me,” Swansong said.

“Didn’t come up,” Sveta said.

“I’m offended by that,” Swansong said.  “I’d be offended if I were named, but being ignored is worse.”

“I think I’m okay with you not being named,” I told her.  “Earn your reputation as Swansong, don’t lean on what you did as Damsel.”

“I’m both,” she told me.  “All three.  Who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.”

“I guess don’t let one happen at the cost of the other two.”

“I’ll do that as soon as you take your own advice,” she told me, archly.

“Woah, hold up,” I said, my voice overlapping with Tristan’s, who’d said something similar.  “Dial it down.”

“Hmph.”

Her footing was right, at least.  Fuck me, though, we needed a middle ground that wasn’t her ranting at people on a train and murdering teammates with words.  She was so good at wearing this latent hostility that it spooked me a bit.

“Shitty thing is,” Tristan said.  “I think my parents would attend a group like this.  Powers fucked all our lives up.  They’re not exactly shaking the pom-poms.  Especially not for me.”

“Bitch at us when you don’t have any parents, like Sveta,” Swansong said.  “When you’ve killed them by your own hand, like I did, or when you’ve smeared your mom’s head across concrete, like Victoria did.”

My blood ran cold.

Ashley met my eyes, and there was nothing there.  Cold, emotionless, unflinching.

“Not fair,” I said.

“Cries for fairness are the loser’s prerogative.  Don’t be a loser, Antares.”

Fuck me.  I’d need to have a chat with her, because that hit a little too close to uncomfortable territory, tracing a ways back to a basketball game.

Tristan spoke up, “I’m not trying to one-up anyone, I’m saying it sucks.  It doesn’t have to suck the most to count.”

“If Cryptid were here, he’d have a good immature joke about sucking the most,” Rain observed.  “I miss Cryptid.  How fucked up is it that I miss Cryptid?”

“Very,” I said, at the same time Swansong said, “Exceedingly.”

“Alright,” Rain said, a little defeated.  “He was alright company sometimes.”

“Guys,” Tristan pointed down at the street below.

On the monitor was a grainy gray image, like one from a security camera.  The figure in it was unmistakably Ashley, Hollow Point era.

“Guys,” Sveta said, over the phone.  “I don’t know if you see-”

“We see,” I said.

“But it’s Swansong.  They didn’t mention her earlier because they’re using her as one illustration of their bigger point.  Trying to get people upset.  They’re talking about her place being provided for her, about support, how she abused amnesty when others didn’t get a shot…”

Swansong was shaking her head.

“We can deal with this,” I said.

Swansong’s answer to my statement was to step off the edge of the roof.

Shit.

Shit.

I followed her off the edge.  I flew down to make  up for the second or two I’d taken to process implications, then veered off as I saw her move her hands into position, one a little too close to me for comfort.  I didn’t want to get clipped by a lazy blast.

She blasted once to break the momentum of her fall, twisted in the air, and blasted again to reorient.  Her boot skidded on sidewalk covered in salt and gravel.

“We don’t get anything by doing this,” I said, as I put myself in her way.  I was aware members of the crowd were watching.   Behind me, the crowd parted, getting out of Swansong’s way, even though she’d stopped in her tracks.

Tristan was drawing out orange motes.  They solidified into a pole.  He slid down, controlling his descent with both feet and one hand at the pole, one hand on Rain’s shoulder.  The pole broke, and when it did, Rain stopped in mid-air.  With his grip on Rain’s shoulder, Tristan stopped too.

Together, they stopped once more on the way to the ground, landing heavily.

Sveta hung back, with the crowd.  Probably a good thing, because she wasn’t costumed and she passed for ordinary.  She could do things from that angle that the rest of us couldn’t.

“We don’t get anything by hanging back and watching,” Swansong said.  “Let’s open a dialogue.”

“You need to say that last bit without flexing your hands,” I murmured.  I glanced down at her feet.  She was putting on a show.

I was really, really worried that the show would bleed over into reality.  This really wasn’t the time to play with fire.  It made things more authentic, I was sure, but it was also playing with a really fucking volatile situation.

“Maybe you need to go,” I told her, my voice low.  “Let the rest of us handle it.”

“It’s about me.  It’s relevant to me.  My reputation.  They’re saying I was subservient, lesser, groveling for handouts.  I earned my money.  You don’t know me, you don’t know the answers to the questions.”

“I know you might do something you regret here.”

“I don’t play second fiddle, and I don’t bow down or back down.  At worst, I’m a partner.”

“Be a partner then.  Listen to what your teammate is saying.”

She set her jaw, knuckles cracking as she clenched her fist.

Rain and Capricorn caught up with us.

“I’ll let you take the lead,” Swansong said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“But we have to go,” she said.

The crowd had backed away, and in doing so, they’d opened a more or less clear path to the door.

I looked at Tristan.

“Yeah,” he said.  “We might as well engage them somehow.”

They’d moved on from Swansong, talking about others.  We approached the door, and the voices that came from speakers while we were outside became voices from speakers inside, resonating as they bounced off of bookshelves, walls, and ceiling.

I’d dealt with too many racists back in Brockton Bay to be optimistic about dealing with bigots of another stripe.  I could use the minute we had here, while they finished their segment on a villain from the west end of the city, and I could try to figure out what my arguments were.

I didn’t have any.

“For those of you who don’t have a vantage point to see,” Mrs. Darleet said, her voice smooth, one that made me think she’d practiced it over radio.  “Swansong , who we were just talking about, has graced us with her presence.”

Swansong swished her dress with one hand and swept a hand in front of her as she curtsied.

“Along with three others,” Gary Nieves said.  “All in costume.  Naturally intimidating.”

“Naturally,” Swansong said.

“No,” I said.  “That’s not our intent.”

“It’s the result, isn’t it?” Gary asked.

“It is.  Unfortunately, it is,” I answered.

“If intimidating us into silence isn’t the intent, then what is?” Gary asked.

“Clarifying facts,” I told him.  “Swansong wanted to clear her name, I think.  I and my companions wanted information, though we kind of planned to wait until all was done.”

Although I’m worried you might have started a riot or provoked something if you’d gone on too long.

“Clear your name?  You didn’t benefit from the amnesty, Swansong?”

“I did.  But I was on thin ice.  When I killed a killer that ice broke.  I accepted my punishment.”

“You admitted to the charges and punishment, so I can skip my second question.  Funny, that you admitted to murder, and yet you’re still here.”

“The prison is gone.  I’m doing my part by cooperating and helping to permanently remove villains,” Swansong answered.  “There’s no place to put me and they don’t consider me a priority.”

“An admitted killer isn’t a priority.”

“Seems not,” Swansong said.

“Gary,” I said.  “If you want, we look into giving you an inside look at the process.  Obviously we can’t let you talk about details, because the villains could use that, but you’d be free to agree, say the idea is flawed, say it’s inhumane, even-”

“Can it be inhumane if you aren’t human?” Gary Nieves asked.

“I think it can,” I said.

“I’m noticing you didn’t protest and say you were human,” Gary pointed out.

The reality was that I wasn’t sure if I really could say parahumans were human, exactly.  Too many structures went out the window.  Humans were social animals and parahumans were so often solitary, banding together by necessity and circumstance, but not by gravity and natural bonding, like humans seemed so able to do.

“I think my energy is better spent on other arguments,” I told him.  “Whatever you want to call us, we think, we feel, we have ties to loved ones.  Introduce humanity to an alien race from another planet with all of those qualities and I’d protest any cruelty or injustice turned their way.”

“She would,” Rain said.  “She’s a natural hero.”

Thank you, Rain, but it’s best to stay quiet, I thought, as I met his eyes and shot him a tight smile, I willed him to absorb the intensity of the thought.  If they turn on you or point fingers at you, this all gets messy.

“And I don’t think we’re that alien,” I added.

“Putting questions of cruelty and the inhumane aside, can you really say it’s fair, if Parahumans like Swansong get preferential treatment?  If people are dying out in the cold while a girl who got lucky gets her choice of apartments?”

“It’s-”

“It’s a tired old falsehood,” Swansong said.  “I’m no slave, I’m no servant.  I’m not an animal with my apartment as my pen to keep me contained.  They had questions, I was in a unique place to answer them.  I died, I came back.  I remembered things.  When I dream, I dream of other mes.  The labs were interested.”

“When the world ended, we wanted answers,” Tristan said.  “She was getting paid to help provide them.  Enough to pay for an apartment.  She’s working for the heroes and she’s doing so with the okay of the mayor.”

“The mayor,” Gary Nieves said.

I had a bad feeling.

“Do me a favor, Vince?  Open up my second set of slides.  Then go to slide… sixty-eight, I think it was,” Gary told the guy who was managing the slideshow that went with the talking heads on the screens outside.

Slide sixty-eight wasn’t the mayor.  It was Amy.  It was Cryptid, as some polished, gaunt figure that was so tall that Amy’s head only came to his elbow.  Marquis stood off to the side.  Other parahumans in fine clothing and costumes were arrayed around them.  A photo.

“No, wrong slide, that’s Earth Shin,” Gary said.  “Go forward.”

The next slide was a digital photo of Cheit leadership, in their long suit-jackets and straight-leg slacks, walking with sandals on in weather too wet and chilly for it.  The right half of the image had a zoomed-in version of one of their arms, where skin could be seen through the cuff.  The man had a vein running along the back that glowed like white hot metal.

“No, that’s Earth Cheit,” Gary said.  “Next.”

A candid photo.  Marquis and Lord of Loss on the rooftop of the Lodge.

“That’s Earth Nun,” Gary said.

“We get your point,” Tristan said.  “And that’s outdated.”

Being right doesn’t mean he’s wrong, I thought.

“Outdated?  So humans are in charge now?” Gary asked.

Tristan shook his head.

“Good enough for my point that you say you’ve already grasped,” Gary said.  “Next?”

The mayor, side by side with an image of Citrine from the Brockton Bay era, pre-Gold Morning.

The room filled with murmurs.

“Tell me again how the mayor signing off on your activities is okay.  Tell me how we’re supposed to be okay with secret after secret, lie after lie, coverup after coverup.  With people wearing masks while leading double lives.  Tell me how we’re supposed to be okay with the fact that every single world we’re in regular contact with, our world included, is under the thumb of parahumans, openly, otherwise, or currently undergoing a transfer of leadership between powers.”

Amy.  The thought made my thoughts skip beats, turned mental connections into dead ends.

Yeah.  Fucking thanks, Cinereal.

Gary had been ready, waiting for someone to take a stand or speak up, to drop this.  He’d planned to drop them as attention-grabbers late in this specific event, or he’d been holding them in reserve for when he was challenged, quietly changing minds and turning hearts away from capes in the meantime.

This was more serious than we’d been led to believe.  Gary was armed with all the damning information.

“You’re right,” Rain said.

I turned his way, caught off guard.  I wasn’t the only one.

“It’s not okay.  This whole dynamic is- Jesus, it’s fucked.”

I was betting that ‘Jesus’ wasn’t because of my tip to him.  It came from his stress, speaking in front of so many eyes.

Rain looked to me, to the others for support.

I nodded.  Swansong didn’t move, holding her head high.  Tristan put a hand at Rain’s shoulder.

The crowd was talking among themselves, and Gary seemed to be waiting for them to drop in volume before responding, visibly forming his response.

Rain didn’t wait.  Rain went ahead, and people shut up because they wanted to hear him.

“You’re absolutely, totally right,” Rain said, visibly agitated with the public speaking, being in the limelight.  “And we’re on your side in this.  More of us than you’d think, we agree with what you’re saying.”

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Breaking – 14.1

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I could see Darnall from the far side of the space, past stairs, railings, gym equipment, and benches.  He extended a hand in a wave, and I did the same.

He tended to always have two looks to him, like one minute he was the archetypical ‘movie dad’ in every way my dad hadn’t been, soft around the edges, bit of a belly, awkward, out of shape and with hair that was either short and noticeably imperfect or buzzed short enough that it couldn’t be that imperfect.  The kind of movie dad who wore a fairy costume and who was trying so hard to play magical princess tea party with his daughter that his forehead was marked with lines from the effort and focus, tutu on and tiny teacup in hand.

Then the next minute, generally at the end to a session, at the prelude to a session, or in the complex game of chess surrounding a session, he took on the look of the villain of the B-tier family movie who revealed those perplexing little behaviors we’d seen in evidence throughout the film had a greater meaning, who got a super calculating, penetrating look in their eye, which sufficed to make them seem dangerous despite the otherwise unassuming appearance.

I might have been overthinking it.

“You with me?”

I refocused my efforts on Ethan.  He was leaning forward against a punching bag.  One of his eyes was permanently half-closed, his straight black hair that was normally a mop was damp enough with sweat to be pushed back and stay back.  Athletic tee and loose workout pants were stuck to muscular arms, torso, and legs by the same measure.

Dr. Darnall ambush incoming, I warned myself, before giving Ethan ninety percent of my focus.

“I’m with you, sorry.  Saw a face I recognized.”

“Need a face to refocus?” Anne Lynn asked.  She had her plastic bag of stress helpers.  “I have a kitty, you like cats, right?  You picked a cat, first session.”

“Kitties don’t inspire aggression,” Ethan said.

“You should meet my cats,” Anne Lynn said.  “My neighbors probably think I’m deranged, the way I yell at them.”

She giggled and Ethan smiled.  He still leaned against the punching bag.

“I picked a lion, just so you know.  Then the bird.”

“I give those ones names too.  Stupid motorcycle roaring at six in the morning.  Birds singing at six in the morning.”

“Mouthfuls,” I noted.

“There’s a theme here,” Ethan added.

“I don’t need more,” I told my physiotherapist.  She pouted.  “Thanks though.”

“Give me a broken three into a two-one,” Ethan told me.

I had to shift my footing to be ready, which I reminded myself was a problem.  I should have been faster.

“Don’t think about it, just do it.”

I sprung forward.  Leap, kick aimed at what would be my opponent’s chest.  I stopped, using flight to drop to the ground, then sprung forward, flight-augmented to cover more distance, using the heel of my hand to strike, followed by my elbow.  I could feel the pull at my tricep.

“Woo!” Anne Lynn cheered.  “That’s something you don’t see every day.”

The area with the punching bags and some of the more active exercise equipment was partially segregated from the rest of the space, with windows with warped glass obscuring a lot of what went on, which was one of the factors that framed my distant observation of Darnall as skewed.  The rationale, Anne Lynn had explained to me, was that some of the patients had reasons to be shy of violence.  They were working on ensuring they had two spaces but things were still fucky after the portals had expanded and consumed a chunk of downtown.

Anne Lynn watched from the sidelines, sitting on exercise mats that had been stacked up high enough to act as a counter.  Petite, had as much energy and optimism as an overflowing soda float had bubbles, always smiling, and I somehow couldn’t resent her her optimism.  I couldn’t resent her for enjoying this little diversion.

“Two-three, two-one,” Ethan said, then while I was pulling back to launch into that, said, “Nevermind.”

“Nevermind?”

“Try to cut down on how long it takes you to act.  I’ve seen you fight, I know you can do this instinctively, but I want you to do it instinctively while fighting better.  Give me a two-one, again.”

I started-

“No.  Stop.  Instinct.”

“Instinct sucks.”

“Instinct keeps you alive.”

“Just- let me think on this.  Let me do my thing.”

“Okay.”

I’d been through enough sparring lessons in my life.  With my mom, with my dad, with uncle Neil.  My training sessions with Aunt Sarah had been more about flight and formation, or about problem solving.  I’d run through a set series of movies for a video.  I’d done a series of physical sparring tests when interviewing for the Wards program.

That was without getting into regular gym classes, regular training with the basketball team, track and field, after school activities my mom had had me do, clubs, and summer camps.

I’d been down this road a hundred times with a half-dozen different instructors or sets of expectations.  People with something performance-level they wanted out of me that would try to teach, trick, bludgeon, or otherwise ingrain into me.

Every time I told myself I could be better there were common things I tracked, analyzed, and focused on improving.

Mental state.  Footing.  Breathing.

“Okay,” I said.

“One-”

Flight got me moving without needing to adjust my footing.  Hand-strike, favoring the heel.  I hit the bag.

“-three,” he said, at the same time the impact happened, switching it up.

I pushed away using the heel-strike, used flight to put just a bit more extra distance between myself and the bag, turned my head slightly, then launched forward again.  My footing had been good as I landed, good as I launched forward, and flight just added to the velocity as I planted a heavy kick square in the center of the bag.

“Oof,” Ethan said.  “I thought you’d stopped or backed off and wasn’t quite ready for you.”

“There’s a bit of that, isn’t there?” I asked.  I smiled.

“Decent foundation,” he said  “One-two?”

I hit the bag.  Heel strike into elbow strike.  A kick of flight sped up the rotation and close of distance.  I winced a bit as pain shot through my tricep.

“See that?” Ethan asked Anne Lynn.

“It looks off, like I’m watching an animated fight and they missed something.”

“I meant your patient,” Ethan said, sounding amused.  “She winced.  Something hurt.”

“Tattler,” I mumbled.

“What hurt?” Anne Lynn asked.

I approached her, indicating my tricep, which still had the gouge and sucked-in indent in it.

“That seems to be a recurring thing,” she said.  She had to sort out her own papers, setting them aside so she could get to my notebook, which I had handed her earlier.  “And you’re a fun patient because you take extensive notes.”

Her legs kicked as she paged through.

“On your way to becoming a favorite,” Ethan told me, smiling.

“Long way to go,” Anne Lynn said, in a tone that was a stark contrast to her usual bubbly demeanor.

“Ooh, that’s interesting,” Ethan said.

“Shh,” I told him.

“Want to keep going, or-”

“No,” Anne Lynn said.

“-Or not.”    He hopped up onto the stack of exercise mats, sitting with enough force that Anne Lynn popped up for a second.

He leaned back against the wall, but because the stack of folded exercise mats was so broad, it made for a very slouching backward lean, more like he was on a large couch than anything.  It exposed his abdomen, flat, and no body hair, which was a bit of a mental disconnect for me.  My exposure to boys’ bellies -one boy who had a near-identical body type- had me expecting at least a bit.  It made me look twice to verify.

The disconnect was a bit of a switch-flip, the mental stumble seeing me going up and over mental walls I’d erected, the ‘over’ coinciding with a ‘woo’ thrill in my own belly.

What followed was a series of thoughts as I tried to navigate disorganized thoughts I really hadn’t explored enough in recent months or years.  What about- no, spooky territory.  Half-formed mental image banished.  What if- no, felt like I was wading into ‘crutch’ territory, because it was almost identical to a Dean memory, just with someone else playing the part.  Mentally banish every person in this facility except for him, lean over and lick or kiss every bead of sweat off his abdomen, his chest, reach down to his pants-

No.  Thoughts dogged me from places I really didn’t want to go.  Thoughts that had been bubbling up since Engel had hit me as hard as-

Didn’t want to think about it.  Also sweat was ick and if I knew him better and loved him I’d roll with the more general bodily fluid things, like kissing away tears in a tender moment- which got me right back to thinking about something that I’d done with Dean.  And now I was rationalizing my way out of this precarious state of mind and what if- no, that was bad porno.  Or- no, that was back to dark places.

In the midst of thoughts I found one that stuck- him and I sweaty from individual workouts, taking a shower, made sense.  Shower together, that was easy, safe, clean, sexy without requiring any specific act.   Once that was confirmed, I had the mental picture and it was something that wouldn’t crumble or throw up any flags if my brain twitched the wrong way.  In that scene,  I could reach down, and- there weren’t any ‘no’ flags thrown up in my way.

Satisfying, both to navigate the labyrinth and find my way to safe ground, and satisfying to dwell in that scene where I had reached down and satisfied him, heard his breathing change, felt him move in reaction.  Powerful and nice and…

I shifted my footing.

He lay slumped there, eyes momentarily closed.  He’d pulled down his shirt, not because he’d noticed my glance, and now his hands were folded over his belly button.

Anne Lynn paged through my notebook.

My thoughts had been going a mile a minute.  Not that much time had passed.  My thoughts were still going a mile a minute, painting a slow-moving scene I didn’t want to let go of, because it had been so hard to get to.  Getting here meant getting past walls that were in place for very good reasons, and it then meant navigating the labyrinth of red flags and dark places.

And now I was here and I wanted to keep going, somehow.  I knew Ethan.  I knew he was interested, and he knew me and that I had issues navigating issues.

I knew that if I asked him to his face -ridiculous notion but still-, if I wrote him a note or sent him a text -less ridiculous notion-, saying I wanted to take him to the nearest unoccupied shower, strip his clothes off, that I wanted and needed to take the lead and for him to do what I said, he would say yes.

Nevermind that I had no idea how or where that shower existed, nevermind that I didn’t want to get kicked out.  I could, and that added a deep-inside me jolt of real that brought a whole new life to the imagined scene.

I shifted my footing again.

Woo.

“Ethan!” the voice was loud enough that I jumped.  A woman peered from around the edge of the wall that separated the punching bags  from the rest of the rehab center.

“What?” he asked, in a slow, easygoing way that did not line up with how high strung I felt.  His eyes remained closed.  I felt irrationally annoyed at him.

“Can I borrow you?” the woman asked.

He sat up, hopped down from the stack.  “She works with some older patients, so I’ll probably have my hands full.  See you later, Antares?”

See you, Anelace, I thought.  “Yeah.”

He extended a fist as he walked by.  I tapped it with my fist, then translated to the elbow, using flight and mock-striking him with it, as he’d been drilling me.

He seemed to like it, a smile on his face.

“Perfect,” he said.  “Be nice to her, Anne Lynn.”

“Only if she’s nice to me,” my physiotherapist said.  She’d closed my notebook and was using it as a flat surface to write things down.

“I’m nice to you,” I told her.  “You like my notes.”

“Extensive notes are a long, long way from actually attending.  I just read pages of notes complaining about pain that I would have been helping you with if you, my patient, had been coming in regularly.  But you don’t.  Too busy saving the world and accumulating more injuries.”

I rubbed the notch at the back and side of my arm, my finger finding the groove.

“You’re better than the vast majority of my patients when it comes to doing the homework, but if you keep going down this road, you’re going to put off visits more and more until you’re not coming in at all.  And then a few months after that you’re going to find that an exercise that was benefiting you months ago is hurting you.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve made notes.  I’m going to assume you’re going to keep doing this, so I’ve modified and marked your homework to highlight things that are essential now and harmful later.”

“And after that?”

Come see me,” she said.  “But don’t continue past a certain point for this one, this one, or… hm, just those two.”

“Got it.”

“Thank you for showing me your fighting, and for showing me another side of Ethan.”

I nodded, looking through the window of warped glass for Ethan among the older patients in the expansive rehab area.  I didn’t see him.

“He good?” I asked.

“Good?  What are you asking, Victoria?” Anne Lynn asked me.

“He’s helpful?  No drama?  Friendly?”

“He’s great,” she said.  “One of our best volunteers.  He started out… very similar to you, I think.  But he graduated, and he liked the atmosphere enough to keep attending.”

Teaching some martial arts, and- I could see him now, supporting an old woman who was walking with the assistance of rails.

“Snap him up,” she prodded me.  “I have a boyfriend so I’m not going to, but I know a few others here would.”

“I’m way, way off from snapping,” I told her.

I heard a throat clear behind me.  I saw a glimpse of Anne Lynn’s expression as I turned, then saw Dr. Darnall, occupying the same spot by the wall that the other physiotherapist had when shouting out to Anelace.

“Homework,” Anne Lynn told me.  She handed me the paper with the neat handwriting.  “Your notebook, and…”

She held out the tattered baggie with stress balls inside.

“I have one.  I have two, technically, but-”

“Take one.”

“I’d end up giving it away.”

“Then do that.  I need to get rid of some older ones so I can buy newer ones.”

I conceded, reaching over and into the bag.

“Reach deep.”

I reached deep.  I pulled out two, holding them over the bag – an old woman with horn-rimmed glasses, and a fish with eyes that bulged out when squeezed.

I took the fish, giving it an experimental squeeze.

“I’ll see you in three days,” she told me.

“Got it,” I replied.

Dr. Darnall was giving me his ‘I was a villain all along’ look.  Calculating, focused, confident.

“You’ve been communicating with my physiotherapist,” I noted.  “She recognized you and you knew my appointment end-time.”

“Only about essential details and schedule.  I wanted to check in with you.  I know you canceled for what I’m sure are good reasons, but you’ve been missing appointments with her and you’ve been missing appointments with me.”

“She told you about the missed appointments?”

“No,” Dr. Darnall said.  “But I’d like to think I know you at this point.  I want five, ten minutes of your time at most- no, that would be lying.  I want two hours of your time once a week.  I will settle for five to ten minutes, acknowledging you have a lot on your plate.”

“I’m sweaty.”

“I’ve talked to people who had appointments with me minutes after their shifts ended, who smelled so bad that my office would stink for a day.  I can handle it, Victoria.”

“Who smells that bad?  Are you Barfbat’s therapist?”

“I worked with firefighters.  Certain times of year, full gear, heavy exercise, it was rough.  I can understand if it’s a question of comfort, but don’t worry about my comfort.”

“It is, kind of,” I said.  “My comfort.  Can I rinse off and meet you?”

“Sure.  Should I wait in the hall?”

“Please.”

I jogged over to one of the other physio sessions in progress, avoiding using my flight because I didn’t have the benefit of the separating wall and blurry window to hide what I was doing from the rest of the people in the area.  I set the fish down on top of a folded coat and bag.

“Sveta.”

Sveta was doing crunches, arms out straight and pressed together like she was diving.  Her therapist was a guy who looked a bit like a black Dr. Darnall, slightly pear shaped and short haired, with a perpetually concerned expression.  As she did each crunch, he would move his hand.  She would move her extended arms to touch her fingertips to his.

She’d painted her arms with what looked like markers, bold, straight lines, layered colors that created a blur effect, a bird on one upper arm, a sea serpent winding around one forearm.  Sweat had mottled the images somewhat.

“Time to go?” she gasped out, sounding hopeful.

“I’m going to have a word with Dr. Darnall.  Five minute rinse-off and dress, five to ten minutes with him.  Fifteen minutes?”

She dropped back to lie flat, and stopped, moving the weight to one side.  She huffed for breaths, chest and stomach rising and falling.  I could see spots on her clothes where marker and sweat had bled in at a touch.  Spots where there was paint.

Ten fingers, ten toes.  Two arms, two legs.  She still wore her wig, because she liked having the longer hair, but there was a scalp beneath.  The stomach that heaved was complete now.  Three procedures over four days, after two days of deliberation.

She saw me looking and smiled, teeth white.  Her skin wasn’t so close to the tone of her teeth, but remained pale.  She’d elected to keep the Cauldron mark on her cheek, but she’d covered it up.

“Happy in your suffering?” I asked.

She nodded, still smiling, still struggling to get her breath.

“You’re out of shape.”

“I’ve never been in shape.”

I wanted to talk to her forever, to revel in this moment of happy and enjoy the company of my friend with zero reservations.  Instead, I thought of Dr. Darnall and the unplanned five minute appointment.  “I should go see the good doctor.  You good to wait?”

“We can figure out something to do for another fifteen minutes,” her physio said.

“I’m getting good marks,” Sveta said.  “Is it necessary?”

“It’s necessary,” he told her.

I abandoned Sveta to her happy hell.

I put stuff away, got my towel, got my conditioner, and then made my way to the showers, which were thankfully unoccupied.  I had a coin with a hole in it that I’d run a rubber band through, strapping it to the bottle.  I flipped it around to its other side to help me keep track of which days were shampoo and which were conditioner only.

I took more time than I should have, rinsing off and cooling off.  A part of me had expected to run into Bluestocking, but I was guessing she had her hands full over Earth N and the ever-present faction wars, this time involving Semiramis and Little Midas.

I did my best to fall into thinking about the politics of it all because it was difficult to shake my head of the other thoughts; thoughts that I’d inadvertently groped for and now found hard to let go of.  I was familiar with the pattern, of fighting with my brain to put away a line of thought I didn’t want anymore, but I was used to it being the darkest memories, so vivid they were real.  This was just the fact I really needed some kind of release on other fronts.

Fuck.

Makeup, just enough that people wouldn’t think I was ill because of a sudden shift in my appearance.  Concealer covered a bruise at my neck and a cut near my ear that I’d glued shut.

I put on a striped long sleeved top that was cropped wide at the waist, just where it met the line of the black jeans I hiked up into place, belting in with a pale belt decorated with a thin chain.  The base of the shirt was wide, but the pants hugged me enough that it didn’t have any unfortunate effects.

I pulled on and zipped up my boots, put my clothes and towel away, got my hairbrush out of my bag, and gathered up the black coat that was part of my Antares costume now, doubling as something to wear outside if I needed it.

Coat and bag under one arm, hairbrush in my other hand, I ran it through a few times, then kept it with me as I stepped out of the locker room and up the stairs into the hallway.  The little set of stairs and the fact the hallway was raised did a lot to mitigate the lingering smell of sweat and public showers.  Windows looked down at the physio space, and Darnall was standing a few feet away from a family that were cheering on their person.

A teenager from that family looked at me and did a double take.

I was more recognizable now, apparently.

“This isn’t how I usually am,” Dr. Darnall said, as I settled into place at his side, my head at an angle while I continued to run the brush through my hair.

“Ambush therapy?”

“You’re one of three capes on my caseload now.  It’s a fight every step of the way.  To make time, to get through to the tough stuff… not to generalize.”

“Of course not.”

“I only have three data points, but I’m starting to come around to what you said in one of our first sessions.  It doesn’t get any easier when you sprinkle some alien space dust on it.”

I smiled.

“I’m agreeing with you just a little bit,” he told me.  “You need to attend my sessions with regularity if you’re going to sway me.”

“Uh huh.”

“How are you managing?”

I had to think before I answered.  “Frustrated.”

“Frustrated.”

“Breakthrough was told thank you for the useful information about Teacher and everything that asshole is doing, but they wanted to handle it alone.  So they tried and they failed.  Teacher drops some more data, more reputations get ruined, so far focusing on Warden-peripheral groups.  The anti-parahuman groups are finding a new sort of strength, and we have capes actually hiding in the Bunker because they’re worried Teacher will go after them or track them.  Not that it helps.”

“So I hear.  Dragon is doing what she can to keep people updated, and that sounds more or less like what was passed on to me.”

“Sveta had her procedures, and that was a big distraction, but she’s done for now.  She’s having to work her way back from some coping mechanisms, hesitation in movement, and train her coordination.  That’s it.  I don’t have that as a distraction anymore.”

He nodded.  He’d asked for five minutes of my time, but now that he had it, he was standing there, staring out the window, not responding.

I looked out the window too, still brushing my hair.  Sveta was on a treadmill now.  Three people were, all moving at different speeds, each with their physiotherapists, coaches, or family members.

“Is there an angle here?” I asked, after a few too many seconds had passed.

“A few,” he said.

“I’m open to hearing it.”

“In our first meeting, I laid ground rules, set expectations.  I wanted and want to work with you, to set goals and work toward goals, and to help you make progress.  I asked for your patience.  You missed two sessions in a row, which suggests impatience and doesn’t let me see where you are to make progress.”

I squinted at the window, trying to judge how my damp hair was.  I stopped brushing.  “My physiotherapist said the same thing.”

“That’s an extension of my point.  That you stopped coming in to see me around the time you saw Ms. Yamada.  You’ve been pulling away from physio.  You are engaged in cape activity.  I may not be the most experienced person with capes, but I’ve worked with cops who threw themselves into their work when life got hard.  Into their other life.”

“Yeah.  Probably,” I said.  “It applies.  Not going to argue that comparison.”

“Meet me halfway?” he asked.  “I can’t help if you don’t work with me, or if I can’t see what you’re doing.”

I shuffled my stuff around, putting the brush in my bag and digging out my notebook.  I flipped through.  “Did my homework.”

“Not quite as meaningful with therapy as with physio,” Dr. Darnall told me.  “But that’s good.”

‘Homework’ in this case consisted of his little ‘draw your mood’ exercise, and answering from a selection of questions.  Pick a color to characterize yesterday.  Pick a word to characterize how you feel now.  If the next twenty four hours looked like a person, what would that person look like?

I liked the person one.

And then numbers.  Silly, stupid measures without a yardstick to measure them.

I looked over as Dr. Darnall read.  Each ‘day’ was me getting up, then drawing out a circle using the base of the glass of water I kept by my bed.  Inside and around that circle, I’d draw to characterize my current state.  Below, I’d answer the abstract questions.

In the bottom right, I had my numbers, each with their heading.  Mood.  Health.  Mind.  Friends.  Family.   I hated the 1-10 scale because it was so subjective, and a ten from weeks ago wasn’t a ten today.  Instead, I used a plus and minus system, except when a day called for a very specific number.

After that was my notes for physio, my notes for the day, and commentary.  Then a new page, a new circle and list of questions and answers, and a new set of numbers.

The page he started on, past a few cursory glances at the preceding ones, was the day after we’d found out about Teacher’s plot.  The morning I’d told Sveta to do her thing.

I’d borrowed Sveta’s paint.  I’d filled in the circle black.

To characterize the coming day and days, I’d described the days as a person who was bloody from fingertip to elbow, tattered, and looming over me.

Blood because of the imminent surgeries.  Because Teacher.  And because that had been the day I’d had to pass under the shadow of my sister.  Thanks to those tattoos of hers, thanks to that fucking selfish symbology that was supposed to represent me with suns and my face in silhouette, thanks most of all to the color red that stained her arms from finger to elbow and whoever knew how much else, she was that bloody, looming spectre.

But I’d had to.

He read my explanations, ran a finger across the numbers.  No pluses, obviously, not so much use for minuses.  It had been a day that had caught me off guard enough that there was no saying my mood or my connection to my friends was a minus one or a minus five.  Instead a 1, -2, 4, 3, 2.  Low numbers.

On the next page.  Another circle.  Black, but with lines radiating out, shaky, to represent anxiety.

Another, but I’d left the brush on the page, letting the black soak in, bleeding out over text.  I’d been so anxious I hadn’t had it in me to sit down and write anything meaningful.  I’d gone straight to my physio, then left.

On the third day, a black circle, but with sliver-like gaps.  I’d drawn eyes in the gaps.  I’d elaborated around, in what I’d intended as rays of the sun.

On the fourth, the same idea, but the eyes were larger, and there was less black.  I realized now that I’d invoked the Wretch, with so many eyes, and with the ‘rays’ radiating out having frayed ends, like wavy, reaching arms, fingers extended out.

He paged through the progression, the gradual relaxation.  To today.  A day where there were no more procedures.  Just appointments, plans for lunch, and plans to go catch up with the Wardens.  I’d kept up the use of the black paint, but used it to draw the circle, fat and bold and brutish, crushing brush against paper, tracing it around the base of my water cup.  Then I’d drawn lighter things and feelings within.

“Walls?” Darnall asked, touching the thick border.

“Maybe.”

“This doesn’t make up for you skipping visits, but it’s good to know how you were doing and how you are doing,” he said.  “There was another thing I wanted to say, again, I’m touching back on what I said before.  Goals.  Making goals, meeting goals.”

“Doesn’t feel like I’m meeting goals while being kept out of this Teacher bullcrap while the other teams are struggling to get in.”

“When we had our first session you floundered a bit, or- not floundered.  Flailed.  But you told me a few things that came from the heart and sounded genuine enough that I think they hold true on your best days and your worst days.  You wanted to save them.  People you cared about, that were put into your charge.”

I focused on Sveta, who was walking across the floor.  She looked up, saw me, and squeezed her fish, its eyes bulging out.

Then she disappeared into the locker room to have her shower and get changed.

“I have to admit, I thought it would be a good dramatic moment if she was there when I said this next bit, but… she looks like the weight of a world is off her shoulders, doesn’t she?”

I folded my arms, leaning against the window.  I gave him my best stern look.  “I think if you keep on talking like that, I’m going to get misty-eyed.”

“Is that so bad?  You say you’re frustrated but… let it out?  If you’re at the verge of being well and truly emotional for positive reasons, or with people you care about, then do.”

I thought about my earlier feelings about Anelace.  Ethan.  I didn’t want to date him.  I didn’t even like him as more than an acquaintance, let alone a romance of any kind.  But he hit the right marks for a fling, a test run.  I could imagine him being cool.  Awkwardly up-front and blunt, but cool.

“This might be a cape thing, because I’m worried if I do let it out then I might go overboard and hurt someone.”

“First of all, I have to say, if the emotions are positive, can they really hurt someone?”

I thought about letting four years of pent up needs out on a poor bastard like Anelace.  I thought too about how, about a year ago, I’d tried handling it as a solo venture, and got so caught up in the darkness in my own head that I hadn’t been able to breathe.  I’d thought I could manage just like I almost felt like I could manage now, and I’d ended up in tears instead.

Stupid, and it was the kind of stupid that I really didn’t want a spectator for, even if Anelace was cool.

For now, just… I’d call it a win and a plus in one column or another that I’d been able to privately harbor a nice, healthy fantasy.

And that was without getting into the topic of Sveta.  I thought about breaking down into happy tears now, and maybe being unable to get control, walls, and balances all together before something critical happened, and that leading in an indirect way to me being too violent with a cape who didn’t deserve it.

Just…

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“Well, I’ll just say that I don’t think worrying about opening the floodgates is necessarily a cape thing.  But- but!”

He’d seen me being ready to protest.

“But,” he went on.  “I’ll concede it might make things harder.  Do what you have to do.”

I nodded.

“But, you need to make me a concession in exchange.”

“What?” I asked, guarded.

“Recognizing a win and a major goal being completed is another thing on the list of stuff you gotta do.  You helped her.  This is where it’d be dramatic if she was still down there so I can indicate her and you can look at her and be moved.  Drama and presentation are big cape things, right?  I’ve got that down right?”

“Absolutely,” I said.  I laughed and it came out small and hiccup-ish.  I shook my head.  “Fuck.  No, she’s not there for your fancy dramatic moment that you’re visualizing, but she’s over in the locker room, sore as hell and probably redrawing the shapes and placements for the tattoos she’s already imagining getting for her fancy new body.  I think she’s happy and knowing that’s happening where I can’t see it is better.”

“Count your wins as wins.”

“I’m really fucking worried,” I said, and my voice was a hush.  “That this doesn’t end happy, despite my efforts.”

“So am I,” he said.  “But all you can do is be there.  If tragedy’s in store, being close will let you help more.  If there’s only more joy, then you lose nothing.”

I nodded.

Sveta emerged from the locker room, looked around, and saw us.  She wore a dress that was a riot of color, black leggings, and her patchwork, ankle-length coat.  She was shorter than me, the top of her head coming up to my nose.

And she was smiling.

He handed me back my notebook.  “Appointment in two days.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

He gave me a look.

“Thank you for this,” I told him.  “This talk.”

He left as Sveta approached.  There was a moment where it was just me, leaning against the window that overlooked the physio space.

Sveta hugged me, and I hugged her back.

“I’m discovering new muscles through the pain they’re giving me,” she said.  “Verdict is pretty good.”

“Good,” I said.

“I might be too sore to walk.  Carry me?”

“My arms are too sore.  I think you’re going to have to limp along on your own.  But you can lean on me.”

“I’d do that even if I could walk perfectly,” she said, turning the hug into a half-hug.  Her hand and part of her leg beneath her dress broke apart into a morass of tape-like bands that, after a few false starts, picked up my bag and coat, passing them to my hand.

It was a wet kind of winter day, rain coming down and forming near-immediate ice that broke at the slightest provocation, so many of our hoods were up, our coats fastened up to the highest points.

It was a strange mix, because we were all at different stages in our costume.  I had my coat, which was one costume element, Sveta had nothing.  Ashley had her costume, but it was covered up by a coat that wasn’t part of the design or aesthetic, she carried an umbrella, and beneath the shadow of that umbrella, white eyes rimmed with black smoked with the effect of Kenzie’s projection lenses.

Tristan was wearing his bodysuit beneath clothing and coat, but wasn’t wearing his armor, Rain had his mask on but was otherwise civilian…

Short of a designated safe zone where we could pull stuff on, there really wasn’t a good way to organize, orchestrate, and be costumed at the exact right place and exact right time.

“How was physio?” Tristan asked.

“Wonderful,” Sveta said.

“My therapist and physiotherapist are coordinating to chew me out on skipping appointments,” I said.  “But I talked to Darnall, and it was a good talk.  How are you guys doing?”

The response wasn’t immediate or easy.  A few glances were exchanged.

“Pretty shitty,” Tristan said.  “Sorry to be a downer.”

Sveta nodded.  “I get it.  I get… facing the fact we might not win this.”

“You know me.  I’m the kind of guy who likes to win, so I’m not going to call it quits just yet.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said, giving him an uneasy smile, like she was really trying, but it was hard.

“What about you guys?” I addressed the quieter contingent.

“I miss Kenzie,” Ashley said.  “I woke up late and she was already gone on a job.  You two were gone.  The morning felt empty.  Let’s just have our meetings and hear how much worse it all is.”

“There could be good news,” Sveta said.

Ashley turned Sveta’s way, and reached up to lightly pinch Sveta’s cheeks.

“Ow?”

“You decided not to use Rain’s blood as part of your body.  That’s fine.  Sensible.”

“Hey.”

“I like you, Rain, but we don’t know how inbred your family is.”

Wow, woah,” Tristan cut in.   “Ashley, what the hell?”

“It’s okay,” Rain butted in.  “It’s okay.”

Ashley still had one of Sveta’s cheeks in a light pinch.  “You decided not to use my DNA as part of your new body.  That’s fine, I’m not holding a grudge, but it shows a grave error in judgment and critical thinking, and if you think what the Wardens have to say today is going to be better than yesterday, then that grave lack of critical thinking may be chronic.”

“Ashley, what the hell?” I asked.

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

“It’s really not, kind of?” Sveta piped in.

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

“I’m going inside where it’s dry,” Ashley said, before turning and walking away.

Leaving us standing in the freezing rain.

“Did I actually offend her?” Sveta asked.  “She said it was fine, but now it isn’t.”

“It’s not that,” Rain said.  “She went off on someone on public transportation.”

“Went off,” I said, repeating the words.  “People-had-phones-out went off?”

“No,” Rain said.  He paused.  “Maybe.  Someone mentioned that people might start targeting her because she’s ex-Slaughterhouse.  She’s not dealing with it.”

“I don’t think any of us are,” Tristan said.

“Maybe we go inside and they say, hey, we won,” Sveta suggested.  “Crisis over.”

“Want to bet?” Tristan asked.  “I will bet you any amount of money.”

“I don’t want to bet, Tristan.”

Tristan shook his head, getting visibly angry.  “Byron, you take over.”

Then he blurred.

“Maybe I don’t feel like taking over,” Byron said.  But he didn’t change back.  He turned his face skyward, letting freezing rain patter against his skin.  “Should we go inside?”

We did.  Into the Warden’s headquarters.  We said our hellos to the receptionist, and joined Ashley where she was pacing by the stairs.

Up the stairs to the password hallway.  Rain handled it.

And into the Bunker.  The weather wasn’t as bad, though the snowfall was heavier.  Sheet metal formed a peaked cover over the path to the Warden’s headquarters.

I exhaled.  “How are you guys really?

“Not so bad,” Byron said, smiling.  “But play-acting that we’re down and defeated is kind of bleeding into reality.”

“And you scared the shit out of that guy on the train,” Rain told Ashley.

“He deserved it.”

Maybe, but we don’t want to make enemies.”

Ashley smiled, “I can deal.”

I made a face, but I didn’t say anything.

Ashley added, “I’m sorry for the comments.  There really are no hard feelings, Sveta.  My brain comes with zig-zagging chemicals and I would understand if you didn’t want to risk that.”

“That wasn’t why.”

“It’s fine.  I’m not bothered-”

She’s bothered.

“-and I’m sorry for the inbred comment, Rain.”

“It’s all right.  I don’t love my family enough to care if it’s insulted, and I don’t think it’s likely.  It was funny.”

“You were sounding like you enjoyed yourself,” I commented.

“I was.  But I felt bad.  Both of those can be true.”

“Tristan and I play-acted a fight this morning,” Byron said.  “Started out, uh, getting good things off our chest.  Might’ve cut a little too close to the bone a few times by the end.  We’ll have to negotiate rules before we do it again.”

“It’s good though,” I said  “Frustrations are mounting, we’re at our limit, and Teacher’s won.  Our worst traits rise to the surface.  We play that up, create a narrative.  Do what we can to look like we’re broken so they don’t have a reason to break us.”

“It’s easy for the act to become reality,” Rain said.  “Especially when we’re playing the role at any time we’re not here.”

I nodded.  He wasn’t wrong.

“Just gotta keep the peace and keep up the act until we’re sure we have enough points of access.  Then-”

“A heist,” Sveta said.

“Not really a heist,” Byron said.

“I know.  But heists are cool.”

Ashley put an arm around Sveta’s shoulders.  “They are.  But I would characterize this as a raid.”

“I was thinking surgical strike,” I said.

“Is it really a surgical strike if it’s large numbers, large scale and high on the collateral damage?” Byron asked.  “It’s a raid.  We’re raiding Teacher.”

The Bunker was now in view.  People were gathered around outside, letting snow fall on them while they talked, and others were inside.  Construction was ongoing, and would be up until the meeting started, at which point they’d all be told to quit it.

I watched the faces within, tracked the people, and I couldn’t help but imagine that much like my group had tested boundaries and found the willful backslide into bad behavior to be an easy and comfortable slide, there was more chaos and more energy in the mix.  All from a little bit of acting, a few pre-plotted incidents.

“Whatever it is, I hope we do it soon.”

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Black – 13.z

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The room was an unoccupied, unfurnished office, plaster and brick, hardwood floor, and a flickering light at the ceiling.  The light was too bright when on, and the room was too dark with the light off, and the room was just a little bit too warm for her liking.  Sleep escaped her.

It was, in every given moment, a feeling like being on a ledge, the natural and instinctive adjustments to fix her balance pushing her forward, and her stomach lurching, alarm surging through her mind.  She couldn’t remember having a stomach that would react like that, or being afraid of falling, but she’d dreamed of it, and so it was intimately familiar without truly existing.

A few hundred times over, she felt it.  Reflexive, natural movements, each one prompting that surge of alarm, of tension, the desire to overcorrect and overreact.  The feelings washed over her like a wave, overlapping, combining, contradicting.  Dealing with it in every minute of the last nine years.

The faces of the dead had never quite left her.  They drove that alarm home and made the analogy of the ledge a lie.  There was no dream of holding a baby, but she’d heard it before and she liked babies, so it made a kind of sense.  The feeling, a dozen times in a second, that she’d been holding a child and she’d let it slip and fall.  That a whole, entire, precious life would be lost.

That lurching, lost, horrible feeling came with every thread of herself that reached out.  Extended to hooks and pulls, moved along the kinetic pad, rods and framing that connected the mechanical arm Rain had made her to one of her primary organs.  He’d given her a gift by giving her these arms, because their movement felt like arms she’d dreamed of.  She could feel fingertips drag along plastic laminate, as she turned a page.

She had brought her portfolio with her.  Each picture was a story in a long and hard journey.  The earliest ones had no sanity, no order, no choice of color, only long and narrow slashes of paint.  When she hadn’t even had the control to pick what paint to use, only the paint, the canvas, and enough emotion boiling inside her to drive her to attack the canvas with that paint, to tear at the canvas.

Then, here, one picture.  Vertical slashes on glass, photographed, because the glass wasn’t canvas but someone had wanted to preserve the image for her.  Vertical because she’d struggled and fought so hard and so long on that day that her inhumanly strong limbs had lost their last iota of strength.  She had collapsed against the glass, tendrils slick from tearing open paint tubes, and she had slowly slumped down, dragging the paint down with her.

Then paintings with more form.  Experiments with control, to attack the canvas, then to move more gently, moving near it and directing focus elsewhere, so it was gentle movements only.  There were experiments where she had everything covered with paint and then used her tendrils to whip it away, uncovering the pale canvas beneath.  Negative images.

And then the practice with pens and paintbrushes.  The focus on manual control.  Crude, scribbled images, where pen was so often dragged wildly across the page mid-stroke.  Slow, gradual improvement.  A rough outline of her old room.  A staff member, viewed from the back through the glass wall of her room, as he cleaned up blood from the floor.  That had been after Ernesto had hurt himself.  Ernesto hadn’t had powers, just the bad luck to have a kid who developed them and accidentally used them on his dad before he learned control.  Or her dad, Sveta didn’t remember.  Ernesto had always sung to her from across the hall.

On the next page, one of her first attempts at a portrait, to try and draw Ernesto as she’d remembered him.

On the page after, emboldened by her efforts with Ernesto, she’d drawn Weld, even attempting to paint within the inked out lines.

She stared down at it for a long time.

A soft knock at the door disturbed her thoughts.

“Come in.”

The door opened, and it was Ms. Yamada who came in.  Sveta felt her heart leap and already jilted emotions whirl around inside her organs and head.

“I saw the light on under the door.  I was going to go upstairs and work on things until you woke up, if you were asleep.  But this doesn’t look like a very comfortable room.”

“It’s what I wanted,” Sveta answered, raising herself up.  Threads of herself worked with the prosthetic arms to hug the open portfolio against her chest.  She had the portfolio with her, some grooming things like a brush for her hair and a scrubber to get the waxy shedding off her tendrils, and a bunch of clothes she’d removed from her bag and piled around it to try to make a pillow.

Jessica had a pillow, she noticed.

“Sorry, to make you worry.  I’m alright.  I’ve dealt with worse.”

“I’d like to see you moving toward better.  Steadily, carefully.”

Oh.

“Sorry,” Sveta said, instinctively.  She hated when she did that.  “I didn’t think you were checking in on us anymore.  Weren’t you delegating?  We were going to see someone else.”

“Victoria contacted me,” Jessica said.  “It seemed important for me to come.  She was going to bring you things, but she gave them to me instead.”

“A pillow.”

“Yours, apparently.”

From Weld’s.  How many times had Sveta brought up the subject of pillows, in her nattering to Victoria?  How she was always worried she’d destroy someone’s pillow or make it lumpy, how it was all she really needed?

Victoria had been thinking about her.

She reached out with tendrils, and she saw the alarm cross Jessica’s face.

“Sorry!  Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  I’m impressed you’ve come so far,” Jessica said.  She relinquished the pillow.

Sveta took it, then hugged it to her upper body, lower face buried in it, eyes peering over.  She inhaled, and she could smell the familiar scents of Weld’s apartment.

“You’re not staying with your friends?” Jessica asked.

“No,” Sveta said.  “I’m anxious, and I keep playing out nightmare scenarios in my head.  The room they’re lending me is so nice, I’m worried if I slip up, I’ll break or tear something.  And the door doesn’t… secure.”

“It doesn’t lock?”

“It locks, but not in a way that stops me, or stops either of them.  I could tear off the doorknob and hurt the person standing on the other side, or take the door off the hinges.  I stayed there the last two nights and tonight I was here and I decided… maybe I’d stay in an office like this one.”

“Are you more comfortable?”

“This door doesn’t secure either.  But it’s better.”

“Let me know if I can help.”

“Okay.”

Again, she breathed in deep.  It comforted her and hurt at the same time.

“Victoria’s going to come in shortly.  She wanted me to hear you out or talk to you.  The way she puts it, she’s worried she bullied or pressured you into this, she wanted me as the contradicting opinion.  Someone who knows you well enough to be gentle.”

“You’re here to tell me it’s a bad idea?”

“I’m here to ask you why you think it’s a good idea.  Then we can talk about that.  Do you want to get comfortable?  I have more things Victoria gave me.”

“Oh, sorry, I’ll take it off your hands.”

Jessica didn’t flinch from the reaching tendrils this time.  Sveta took the bag, setting the portfolio down.

“I remember this,” Jessica said.  “Ernesto Ochoa?”

The portfolio hadn’t closed in the time since Sveta had been staring down at the page.  Now it lay on the floor, open to Ernesto’s sketch.

Sveta nodded, solemn.  She was glad the page had turned and that it wasn’t still open to the image of Weld she’d been looking at.

“You don’t still blame yourself for him, do you?  I remember, after he was transferred to another wing for care, you kept apologizing, over and over, even though you’d only ever offered him comforting words and kindness.”

“Isn’t it okay, if I did blame myself?” Sveta asked.

The bag had other pieces of clothing, new articles that Victoria had apparently picked out on her own, probably earlier tonight.  When Vic had offered to take Sveta shopping, Sveta had said she’d rather hang back here and rest.  Vicky had apparently gone shopping with her in mind regardless.

“I think blame isn’t healthy, as a rule.”

There was a stretchy, silky shirt that made Sveta think of Semiramis, with its color scheme.  Jade, gray, and cherry blossom pink.  It was pretty cool.  Not the kind of thing Sveta would have picked out on her own, but now it was apparently hers.  Its addition in her tiny wardrobe begged her to find things that matched it.

Sveta pulled a music player out of the bag that Victoria had sent.  She pressed the button to turn it on and clicked through the songs.  By the look of it, Victoria had asked Weld about what music she liked, then put it into the player.

And art supplies.  She had her own buried in among her stuff, but Victoria hadn’t known that.  It was a nice touch, and a clean, untainted notebook and paint set was inviting.

“Blame keeps you going, doesn’t it?  Ernesto needed to blame his wife for what happened to his child.  Indignation and quiet fury got him through days he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to manage.”

“It doesn’t make those days better.  It’s my feeling that every day he focused on being angry and hurt, he got further from being okay.”

“Should-” Sveta started.  She stopped as it hit her that she’d walked into a verbal trap, or that she was setting one up.  Neither was okay.  “Should I be okay?  So many people died.”

“You were just a child, and you weren’t given a choice.”

“But Rain was just a child too, not that much older, and he was threatened with horrible, horrible things, he was brainwashed from a young age, and he had Mama Mathers looking over his shoulder, ready to make him insane and then to make him a breeder for her cult.  He had a gun to his head and people act like-”

Jessica didn’t cut in, didn’t interrupt while Sveta thought aloud.

“-Like if Rain finds a ceiling to his self-blame or a point where he stops blaming himself, then he’s not repentant.”

“I have my own feelings about that, I’ve talked with him about them.  I would reiterate, you were just a child.”

“So I should be okay?  It’s okay for me to be… okay?”

She’d aimed to put an inflection on that last word, and then her voice had cracked as she’d uttered it, which doubled on the effect.  The effect was to make it sound far closer to how profound and impactful the notion was to her.  How scary and fragile.

She was playing dirty, she knew.  This was the verbal trap that would either get turned on her, or that she would turn on Jessica.  The idea of her being okay was too layered, too heavy, for it not to be used by one of them.

“There are no guarantees, and there’s no guarantee of justice in this.  There were cultures where they would put hot coals on your tongue if you were on trial, and if you were burned, you were guilty.  There’s no more rhyme or reason to how this ends up than there was in that.  If you try to imagine there is, then you could end up still holding incredible guilt, with a body that miraculously was fine, or you could end up with a body that was worse than what you have now and losing years of progress in every respect because you attached your expectations to the idea that you end up with what you deserve and then ended up with a tragic result.”

“Or I could get the worst of both worlds, which I feel like I’m doing now.  With a body that wants to kill people and all of the self-blame.  When I wanted to leave with Weld, I remember you saying I shouldn’t, you didn’t recommend it.  You said I had a choice.  I made a choice, and people died after that.  A lot of people.”

“I think you’re assigning yourself more blame than is right, for those deaths.  You played your part, you tried to help, and things were going poorly.”

Sveta shook her head.  Emotions surged and seethed through her organs and toward her face, not flushing it or leaving her teary-eyed or leaking bile through her tear ducts only because she controlled herself.

She wanted to say a hundred things, but she couldn’t bring herself to.

“May I?” Jessica asked.  She indicated the portfolio.

Sveta nodded.

“Can I sit?”

“I don’t have chairs in here.  You can sit on my bag.  Here.”

Sveta dragged the bag over by the wall.

“Sit with me?”  Jessica asked, as she sat against the wall, sitting on the bag, the portfolio in her lap.

Sveta nodded.  She was glad for the company, even though it was hard.  Jessica sat so their arms and shoulders touched.  Something that hadn’t been possible before.

The portfolio and her development from the oldest images to the newer ones was a depiction of her progress.  Things took on more details.  More mental resources were freed up as she learned coping skills.  Bricks laid atop one another, building something.  Progress, step by glacial step.

Jessica started to turn the page, when Sveta stopped her.

Children on the rocks, the paint used with an impasto technique to give rocks dimension and give equal dimension to the waves.  That didn’t quite translate to the digital printing of the image, but still…

The images of the children were cruder, not quite matched to the three-dimensional image of the rocks and water, which annoyed Sveta.

“Which one is you?” Jessica asked.

“I don’t know.  I was thinking about it last night.  Trying to remember who I was.  That’s when I dug my portfolio out of my things.  Bough says that my mental image of who I’m supposed to be is going to be really important to how this ends up.”

“Is that why you’re dwelling on the notion of blame and self-blame?”

“A bit.”

“My concern, Sveta, is so much more general than what you’re talking about here.  You’re making sure and steady progress toward a healthier, happier, more controlled state, and you’re risking throwing all of that away.”

“Where do you think I end up, Jessica?  If I take this road where I say no to Mr. Bough and I tell Victoria to stop looking for answers like that one… where do I end up?”

“I think… I can envision you with a man that loves you entirely as much as you deserve, who sees your heart and talent and who trusts, respects, and pays close attention to you-”

Sveta shook her head.

“-I can see it, and I think that’s something you’ve expressed is important to you.  I see you with a house of your own with a sunny art studio filled with plants and aquariums.  I see you adopting.  I see you taking your newfound love of cooking and sharing it with this family of yours.  With friends.  And you working with others who have their own struggles with power and control.”

Sveta touched the page with the children on the rocks.  “What if I want more?”

“What if you can’t?  Can you make peace with that?  There are many people with disabilities or syndromes who have to learn to live with their own struggles.  Chronic pain, a body that fights them, a lack of mobility…”

“There are people with disabilities who can fix those disabilities.  People who can’t see who can get a surgery.  People who can’t walk who can fix it.”

“There are.  But that doesn’t necessarily require working with someone like Mr. Bough.  There’s a vast, vast difference between a medical professional who has dedicated their lives to healing, and a man like that, who has spent much of his life taking people apart and turning them into a product he can sell.”

Sveta shook her head.  “I’ve already come to terms with that, I think.  It doesn’t take away or add to what he did, if I say yes or no.  I still blame him and hate him for what he is.  I just… I’m impatient.”

She touched the shadowy silhouette of the child on the page.

“I want to be her again.”

“Ahasa!  Ieuem!”

“Oyet!”

The black rocks by the shore were precarious.  Where the waves crashed against stone, specks of water beaded the black stone, making it slick.  Plant life drank the water and spread on the stone, camouflaged black on black, but slicker still.

They clambered over rock, careful with how they moved.  A cousin was arranging stones to weigh down a bowl, igniting the contents of that bowl.  A beacon on the rocks.  They were the oldest, and so they got that duty.

Which was fine, good, because everyone else got to draw.  Orange clay mixed with crushed seashell as a binding agent, with oil and fat from the forever drowning, those sea creatures with sharp teeth that had the same general shape as people, except with legs bound together into tails.

The mixture made for sticks that could be dragged across rock, leaving behind bright orange markings on black that would resist being washed off.  The boats that came in would find it necessary, with clouds rolling in and the sky getting so dark so early.  The craft out on the water were having to fight to get to shore, as the waves rose and fell.

It didn’t matter what they drew, only that they defined the rocks clearly, and that they move carefully on the stone that was slick with salt water, seaweed, and slime.  Some of the rock was as sharp as any glass the blower in the village made, and in the dim light, they were hard to see.

Nayet watched as her brother worked with handsome Micha to climb down to one of the bigger rock faces.  Micha hunted the forever drowning with his father, and was strong and always happy.  Dimi hadn’t yet grown out of the stage where he wore simple children’s tunics with orange clay bead collars, his hair a mop that hadn’t been cut like someone who’d come of age.  It was a year overdue and made him look that much more immature next to tall, strong Micha, who was roughly the same age.

“Ahasa, Micha i Dimi!” Nayet shouted at the two boys who were joking together.  Hurry.  “Hasa ayae a ihe punus yahey ehasa!”

Micha laughed, boisterous, while other kids either laughed with him or jeered.  Dimi blushed a red that she could see even in the gloom, ducking his head down.  Embarassed.

“No en, Nayet!” Micha said.  “Sen, senet, senehasa.  Yen senet babat ehasa, huh?”

Now the jeering was directed at her and at Dimi.

“Huh!” she answered, a smile on her face.

She drew, broad side of her biggest chalk-stick against a wall of black rock.  She made her drawing a ‘punu’- a large, dramatic and exaggerated image of a boy’s thing, that took up the entire length of rock, ten paces long.  She put symbols for good fortune at the root of it and symbols for safety coming out of the tip.

She wasn’t sure what it meant, but she hoped it would give the struggling fishermen a laugh and renew their strength as they made their way to shore.

They were allowed to write whatever so long as they wrote a lot, so they did more rude things.  Aspersions about Micha’s ‘babat’- his male caregiver, and what he did with the forever drowning.  He might get angry at that one.  More ‘punu’, crossed like the fighting sticks the boys and healthier girls used for play-fighting.

Thunder rumbled in the distance.  As one, the gathered youth answered with roars and shouts of their own, as if they could beat back the thunder with a cry of their own.

More seriously, they set to work, outlining rocks and adding more symbols and words.

The sky was filled with energy, and energy filled most of the children.  Dimi wasn’t one of them.  Nayet’s jab from earlier had him sour, and even Micha’s good temper wasn’t enough to rouse him from it.  Sulking, Dimi drew on his own.  More creative swirls, fish.  Birds.  Ones associated with good fortune.  That was probably why the older people in the village liked Dimi so much.

“Nayet, net abram milana,” Micha teased.

Nayet wiggled, plucking at her top.  “Mmah aah, Micha, eyehn den sealman.”

Micha only laughed at the aspersion.

Worried about her big brother, Nayet glanced down at the rocks.

He wasn’t any angrier or more upset, even though he’d clearly heard.  Not jealousy, not defensiveness over Micha.

She used up the last of her chalk-sticks and took more from the smaller children.  They’d done enough now, but when the storm came they would be cooped up, listening to the drum of the water on the clay tile roofs.  This would be their last chance, potentially for days, to stretch their arms and legs.

The sky rumbled, and the children, joined by one adult who had reached the shore, shouted back.

They weren’t even done their responses when the sky rumbled again.  The answering cries were strained, higher-pitched, more forced, because of course they had to be louder each time.

When the third rumble came, Nayet and Micha simultaneously noticed something was wrong.  Neither of them joined the others.

Another cry, a wail, was undercutting the raucous noise elsewhere.

Dimi had fallen, sliding on the rocks.  Now he wasn’t getting up.  Micha, big and boisterous and brave, wasn’t willing to climb down.

“Iyet!” Micha warned.

But Nayet wasn’t willing to leave her brother for the water to take.  Rocks painted orange were easier to grip, resisting the rain, and so she focused on those.  With the sky growing darker by the second, it was impossible to avoid the hidden blades, where black glass stuck out of rock and sliced into finger, hand, leg.  Nicks, skin-deep cuts.  Dimi had no doubt cut himself once, then reacted in pain.

And when he’d fallen, she saw, he’d slid against that surface with a dozen hidden blades.  He’d been raked, cut deep enough times that skin hung loose in places.  Perhaps the only thing that had saved him was that he wore the child’s tunic, a straight drop from clay collar to mid-thigh.  Had he been dressed like Micha, his upper body would have been exposed and cut to shreds.  Had he been dressed like her, it would have been back and midriff.  As it was, only three or four long cuts marked his body.

He was conscious, wide-eyed, lying in water that took on the color of his blood.  When she grabbed him, he grabbed her back.  That strength wouldn’t last long, and when it went, her grip alone wouldn’t be enough to get him from the water’s edge to higher ground.

The two of them fought, with Dimi using ruined arms and legs to help when he could, every motion trembling.  Her own limbs screamed at her with the countless cuts.

Why had he come down this side?  It faced a part of the shore few boats were likely to use.  Was it her fault, because she’d talked about how he and Micha would have time to play with each other later?

Already, Dimi was delirious, more focused on the broken bead at one corner of his tunic’s collar than he was on anything else.

Micha waited, belly down on painted rocks, reaching down to grab Dimi.

Dimi grabbed onto her, gripping her with a startling strength.

“Ya sazha,” Dimi whispered.

“Iyet,” Micha said, face pale.

“Ahasa,” she answered, ignoring Dimi, focusing on Micha.  “Aha!”

It was Micha who carried Dimi, who took Nayet’s urging and left her behind so he could get Dimi help sooner.  Exhaustion overtook her, as she’d strained every muscle in her body from toe to tongue to get Dimi to safer ground, and now that the battle-shock she’d leaned on to save Dimi was leaking away, her countless wounds were making themselves felt.  Bruises and cuts.  Younger children supported her as she trudged up the hill to her home, dreading what she would find.

Their parents were ready to take care of Dimi and to bring Nayet indoors.  Despite the storm that was surrounding their home, families banded together to give what they had to bandage and treat the wounds.  Cuts on the rocks were bad but they were something that could be managed.

Normally managed.

The storm was as bad as any they’d faced in Dimi’s lifetime.  The temperature dropped until the healthiest of them was chattering at the tooth.  And Nayet was drained, Dimi drained further still.

When bandages were peeled away, the skin around them was red, inflamed.  Strength and vitality continued to bleed out of the wounds.

Exhaustion claimed everyone, as water rose high enough to take the boats and the houses closest to the water.  The clay-worker’s lodge was taken, and because so many had already moved in with neighbors, Dimi’s family was the one to take the clay maker’s family in, crowding in shoulder to shoulder to wait out the storm.

In the midst of it, in the middle of the night, three kinds of Death came for them.  One lurched, a giant with crude features, no doubt a bludgeoning death.  Another prowled, six-limbed, each limb narrower than Dimi’s arm, and Dimi had shed weight seemingly by the second since his injuries.

The last was the scariest of them.  A woman with features like nothing any of them had seen before, gleaming and clicking in time like a music stripped of joy.  Interlocking pieces wove in and out of each other like fibers for a tunic, toothed like a saw with teeth meshing.

Ever-changing, parts shuffling and turning in time with the ticks of the joyless music, an endless, inevitable kind of rapping, like a man striking the same part of a drum every beat for all eternity.  Where a bludgeoning Death was something the children could understand, and a prowling Death made all the sense in the world, this woman promised a different kind of death.  A transformative death.

The same marking adorned all three of them.  A tilted cup, etched in black.

“Sou,” the woman with gleaming parts addressed them from the clay tile walkway between huts.  “Asher chie senet, atol, pava.  Iyet a ayon, ie eh zoya.”

A proclamation, a promise.

Give us your young with no future, the doomed, the sick, the lost.  You won’t see them again, but they may live.

She said other things, but neither Dimi nor Nayet heard.  They resisted faintly as their parents wrapped them in blankets, then took them out into the pouring rain.

The shock of cold water and the colder touch of the ever-transforming Death was enough to rob the sick children of their hearing, as their parents said last words.

Three Deaths carried them past the thresholds.

Jessica picked up her phone.  It had vibrated.

“Problem?” Sveta asked.

“No.  Victoria was wondering if I was still here.  She’s avoiding me, I think.  Keeping her distance.”

Sveta wasn’t sure what to say about that.

“I’m going to go.  It’s late enough I should sleep, and it seems you’ve come to a decision.  Please do call if you need anything, I’m not practicing-”

“You could have fooled me,” Sveta answered.  Then she caught herself.  “Sorry.  It’s late.”

“It’s okay.  I… yes.  I’m making a special exception here.  While I’m not practicing, I can pull strings and ask for favors.  I also do want to hear from you, however this goes.  If you need me I will come.”

Oh, those were horrible words to hear.  Ominous ones.  The only way Sveta would need Jessica was if things went terribly wrong.

Or even a little wrong.

Jessica stood, getting her things.

“Jessica?” Sveta asked.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Bough was telling me that, um, for what he does, how I end up is going to be a combination of his skill, my old self, and, uh, it helps to have things to splice in.  He’s asking for tissue or blood samples from people I would like to model my eventual self after.  We were thinking, um, we would collect a series of samples from people very close to me, people important to me.  And that would be a little bit of who I eventually became.  If everything went right.  It would only be, like, two percent of my eventual body, and it wouldn’t affect my face or my brain or, um, anything.”

Jessica didn’t look surprised at the request.

“Victoria mentioned that.”

Sveta spoke up, rushed, hurried, “I’m sorry, but would you- could you be one of those people, for me?”

She hated herself for asking, for forcing Jessica to give a harder answer.

“I don’t think I could or should, I’m sorry.  I feel like if I did, I wouldn’t be able to help you after.”

“It’s okay.  I understand,” Sveta said, even though she did feel hurt and she didn’t wholly understand.

“I’m leaving behind my caseload, but I’ll make a special exception for you, going forward.  If you need me, I will be here for you.”

“Thank you,” Sveta said, quiet.  “I appreciate that.”

“Good luck,” Ms. Yamada told her.

She heard a distant noise, a crash, and she screamed, top of her lungs, as if to drive that noise away.

It ignored her, pressing on.  She turned away, her focus limping like a person with a crushed leg might hobble forward in an ungainly way.  Where she focused, she lashed out, she grabbed, and she tended to move in that direction.  She couldn’t ignore the sounds of tramping boots.  She couldn’t ignore the lessons imparted in her so many times before.  This was a pattern, a nightmare set to endlessly repeat, front to back, forever.  Dread, anxiety, death.  Sometimes that death was animal.  Sometimes it was insect.  Those were- they were bad, for reasons different than the other deaths.  Her body wanted to eat and that meant making her eat.  If she didn’t eat of her own accord, chewing and swallowing, then this writhing body of hers would pull food against her face until it was crushed against lip and tooth, feeding her by forced morsels and fighting every step of the way.

If she didn’t eat the rodents, the dogs, and the centipedes, then it would try to feed her the people, and she couldn’t bear that.  If she ate then she had more control, and if she had control then she could avoid the worst cases.  If she could maintain a kind of stability and train her focus, keep the deaths to cats and rodents, then it was a nightmare, but it was a looping nightmare that stayed stable.  By night, she would dream, of a village by the water, of peers and friends, family.

She’d been imprisoned alongside- had it been her brother?  And then she had become this and they had become dead, crushed to death by the movements of a body of black stone, ground into wall and floor until there was only pulp, and black gobbets that creaked like rock and twitched like meat.

That was stability.  To dream of things lost and live to avoid more loss.

This, the sound of boots, was the loss of that stability.  The descent into a whirlpool of worse and worse, darker and darker, less and less control.  If she killed a person, and she’d killed so many now, tearing into a crowd, then being hunted after, they came for her.

With limping, struggling movements, she fought to get away, focusing attention on anything that could be a handhold, willing her body to cooperate.  Her movement was slowed because her body insisted on carrying its next potential meal with her, dragging an arm, neck, shoulder, and the crushed lower part of a head behind.

“Upstairs!” was the shout, in English.  “I hear it!”

She screamed, long and loud, raw, to answer that coming fury with something that might drive it away.

“I’ll go.  Back me up,” was a woman’s voice.

Again, she screamed, her voice higher-pitched, more frantic.

The person came into view, a woman in a skintight outfit, wearing pieces of armor, broader across the shoulders than anyone she’d seen, man or woman, muscular, and wearing a helmet with red hair flowing behind.

She attacked by instinct, gripping, roping, choking.

“C’mere,” the woman said, gripping tendrils and hauling her in closer.  “Finally got you.”

She screamed, snarled, her body fighting to get away, to crush.  Nothing worked.

The woman pulled her in closer and closer, until gauntleted hands gripped her by the face.

They were eye to eye.  The woman’s eyes searched her expression.  In answer, she only trembled, tendrils continuing to lash out.

“Oh, you poor thing.  You’re not doing this on purpose.”

“No,” she said, in a voice she’d barely used except to scream.  She knew English even though she didn’t know why, like she knew Russian.  This was her first time using it.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

“I’m a heroine, okay?  They called us in to help and now we’re going to get you that help, alright?”

“I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry.”

The heroine hugged her, bringing face to chest, clumsy in how forceful she was, but unbearably kind.

Victoria hugged her almost immediately after coming in the door.

“You got everything I sent?”

Sveta nodded.  “Pillow.  The shirt.”

“I gave you several shirts, and now I’m really curious which one you like enough to call ‘the’ shirt.”

Sveta allowed herself a chuckle.  She broke the hug and turned, reaching for and picking up the shirt with jade and gray and light pink as boldly outlined cloud and animal shapes.

“Aha,” Victoria said.  She smiled.

It was good to see her smile.  She looked tired.

“How are things?  I’m a little out of the loop.”

“Things are manageable.  There was a triple-hit of releases, copies of messages from an online, inter-team message service, like the chatroom you guys used to talk outside of therapy.  They weren’t flattering, but Dragon pulled a retroactive overhaul of the look and style for the message system and we were able to respond by saying ‘no, this is what our messages look like.  Someone made that up’.  It happened in like, fifteen seconds, with five or six of us responding, so it’s… really positive.  It means people are second guessing things, being critical of what they read.”

“That’s really good.”

“The downside is we’re expecting them to drop something a lot heavier.  It’s been a few days of quiet since we uncovered it all, then this, and we don’t think they’re going to leave it at this.”

Sveta nodded.  “Scary.”

“It is.  But how are you?  Are you managing?  Are you comfortable?”

“I can’t completely relax,” Sveta admitted.  “I worry an employee is going to come through the door and it’ll take too long for me to pull myself together.”

“Let’s do something about that, then.  I can think of a few options.”

“Like?”

“What if we used our tech to drop you into another world?  Somewhere sunny where you can swim.  Forget everything.”

“Seems lonely,” Sveta said.

“Might be,” Victoria said.  “We could also, if you’re willing, use one of the empty cells.”

Sveta’s immediate reaction was an instinctive jerk back.  Then, as she thought on it, she relaxed some.  She’d had bad dreams about being imprisoned, surrounded by nightmares.  She’d found some catharsis and fresh horror in revisiting that field of nightmares organized into small boxes.  Cauldron’s cells.  Where she had once been kept.

It was the very first time and only time she’d really validated that her dreams had any foundation in reality.

“That might be better.”

“Are you feeling out of control?”

“I feel like if I don’t make sure absolutely nothing can go wrong, it will go wrong.  And it might go wrong no matter what.  Ms. Yamada thinks it will go wrong.”

Victoria made a face.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “She wishes me luck.  But she won’t say I should and she was very careful to say if I need her, or when I need her, I can ask for her.”

“Was I wrong to send her?”

Sveta shook her head.

“I wanted… maybe it’s selfish, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t steamrolling you, that I picked the best person I could think of who could argue against my idea.”

“It was good.  It was fine.  I was glad to see her and to talk for-” Sveta said, pausing, “-what time is it?”

“Five in the morning, about.”

“For hours,” Sveta said.  “It’s really five?”

“Yep.”

“What the hell are you doing up at five, you moron?”

“Keeping you company.  Expecting you wouldn’t be sleeping, and figuring I could go over notes and work on stuff in a safer place if you were asleep.  But mostly figuring you wouldn’t be getting much sleep.”

Sveta shook her head.

“Do you want food?  I can get food.  Or anything you want.”

“I want, um, it might sound weird, but that idea about going into a cell.  Where I can let my hair down.  Before people wake up and employees come in?”

“Okay,” Victoria said.  “Get your stuff, and let’s go.”

Victoria helped grab things, carrying the pillow and the portfolio, while Sveta brought the bag with clothes and other hygiene things.

They passed through the hallway, and Victoria was fatigued enough she got one of the passwords slightly wrong.  Into the bunker.  Down the side path to the prison.

“Who do you want for company?” Victoria asked.

“Put me close to Bough?”

It took a minute to negotiate with the guards, ensure everything was okay.  Then she locked herself in, ensuring she had her phone secured where she couldn’t damage it.  She shed her prosthetic arms, jumping as the shock marked the detachment of the kinetic pads, and placed them away with care, surrounded by clothes.  She shed her clothes for the most part as well.

She let herself unfurl and reach out, finding things to anchor onto, and she had to take steps to relax, to undo the steps and the measures to keep things focused.  A headache she didn’t know she’d had eased.

In this cell, which had its reinforced glass and chickenwire on four sides, opaque panels providing some privacy, she could see the landscape beyond, and the night sky.  She could track the time of day.

Her portfolio she opened, pulling apart the rings that bound the pages together, and she let the pages scatter, decorating her cell with art and memories, personality and meaning.

Only then did she look past the glass at Mr. Bough, who was her neighbor.  She willed him to see her and her art, to know she was a person and not a patient or a subject.  She hoped that small measure would make a difference, if a difference was needed.

But her art was her own measure for sanity.  Her music, she put on at a low enough volume it shouldn’t bother the others.

This would do.  It would allow her to manage, for as long as this ended up needing.  For as long as she had her art, her music, and the ability to create, she could stay sane.  She was locked up and locked up was safe, whether it was in a hospital room, in a cage of Weld’s own body, her prosthetic body, or a cell.  Nothing could spiral down and out, getting worse and darker.

Something clinked at the door.  Sveta turned to look.

A vial with a plastic stopper.  Then another.  Then another.  All dropped into the slot in the door where file folders normally rested flush against the glass.  All crimson.

She drew close enough to look.

Antares.  Swansong.  Precipice.  K. Armstrong.

“Swansong and Precipice said you hadn’t asked, but they thought they’d offer.  We didn’t ask Lookout, but you know she’d say yes.  Tristan said he really doesn’t like getting his blood drawn so he won’t go out to do it until he’s asked.”

“It’s really kind,” Sveta said, blinking hard.  “Armstrong did?”

“He did.”

“And the others.  I- I don’t even know.  People are so kind, but-”

“You’re allowed to say no, if you have reasons, aesthetic or because of power interactions, cluster-”

“I thought of you and Ms. Yamada because I thought you were the people who I’d like to make a kind of official, unofficial family.  I wouldn’t have dared to ask Mr. Armstrong but I’m really glad and really touched.”

Victoria nodded.

Sveta was misty eyed, and remained where she was, looking at the vials, as Victoria found a position sitting down, leaning against the door.

Sveta found her own position there, a foot or so from her friend, meeting her eyes.  She hadn’t expected or counted on the company, but it meant a lot.  The blood for the procedure with Bough, too.

She got her fresh new art supplies, held it where Victoria could sit and watch with her head leaning against the glass, and she started drawing.

“Coming in,” the nurse said.

She wore the bodysuit, with its overlarge head and reinforced neck, a spacesuit in a normal atmosphere, reinforced three times over.

Sveta concentrated, focusing on the steps.  Visual images of bricks, every second as something that mattered, another brick on a wall, that wall as part of a larger construction, that large construction being art, something she crystallized in her own mind’s eye, elaborated on, refined to the precise detail.

Another trick was word games, switching from Russian to English.  One she played, she had a board in her head, like the game with letter tiles on a grid.  She alternated from English to Russian, matching by sounds rather than by letter, and tried to build it into something elaborate that she held in her head.

When she felt like she was in a good place, level and calm, she opened her eyes, looked at the nurse.

“Ready?”

“Yes ma’am,” Sveta answered.

If she snapped, let her control slip, if she sent one tendril the wrong way, then that might be the end of this experiment.

“Not too tight,” the nurse told her, while extending an arm.

Tendrils reached for and found the arm, and with care, she brought herself closer.  The nurse carried her out into the hallway.  The space had been evacuated, except for another employee who was in the spacesuit.

The freedom was exhilarating and the exhilaration was enough to make her anxious.  A tendril batted against the nurse’s helmet, which made her stop in her tracks.

“I’m okay,” Sveta said.  “Sorry.”

This was a judgment call.  The nurse could easily decide to turn back and carry her to her room.

Instead, the woman carried her forward.  Into a rec room, with television and computers.

Sveta thought what she was looking at was ten or fifteen people sprawled across the couch, an arm thrown over here, a leg thrown over there, head resting against backrest, another dangling near the floor.  All in the same dull gray sweatclothes, all with the same blonde hair, cropped short except in one case, where it grew long.

Except they were one person.

A computer was positioned next to the couch, and hands worked, struggled to coordinate to operate the keys.  Each key had a hole in it where joysticks could be screwed in.  Pull to push down.  They typed with effort.

“That’s my computer,” Sveta said.

The typing stopped.

“I mean, it’s the one I use, but I guess you’re one of the other two people I share it with,” Sveta said.  She pulled herself to the computer stand, and wrapped herself around the stand, resting her chin on the top of the monitor.  “I’m sorry if I hog it.”

Typing resumed.

“Its o.k.,” was the mechanical text-to-voice response.  After a short delay.  “Do you want to use it?”

Beneath the girl’s clothes, a tube shuddered, audibly slurping.  Multiple sets of eyes closed, as if in pain, or bothered.

“No.  You need it to talk, right?”

“I do not have much to say.”

“I can’t believe that,” Sveta said.  “I’m Sveta.  I’m a case fifty-three, which is what they officially call people like me.”

“I know.  I studied capes once.”

“Awesome,” Sveta said.  “So you do have something you’re into.  My thing is art, and a bit of video games, which is where I hog the computer.  I only follow some capes-”

“-What kind of art?”

“Painting, and drawing, and anything I can manage.  It’s therapy for me.  Sorry if I’m talking too much.”

“No.”

“Okay.  Just let me know,” Sveta said.  “What-”

“What capes?”

“What capes?  What capes do I follow?”

“Yes.”

“Um, sorry, before I answer, communicating like this is tricky.  Is it okay if I talk over, and then you interrupt, or do you want me to wait, or, um, sorry, just thinking-”

“Watch, question mark.”

“Watch the screen.  I’m dumb.  Okay, but um- if you grab me I might hurt you.  I’m not one hundred percent.”

“Do you need to go back to your room, Garotte?” the nurse at the door asked.

“No!  No.  I’m okay.  I’m just being careful.”

“Okay.”

A finger pointed from couch to the screen.  Sveta maneuvered to look.

It’s okay if you hurt me.  My psych and the nurse explained the risk.  If you hurt my hand or one of my heads, I have more.

Sveta settled down, much of her body finding some purchase across and along the floor, at the couch legs, and at the base of the computer stand.  She watched as words appeared.

I could use some company.

“Me too,” Sveta said.

You were talking about capes you like.

“Oh, yeah, I-” Sveta started, stopping as more words started to appear.

Warning: get me going on this topic and I may not stop.

“Warning acknowledged,” Sveta said.  She twisted around to shoot her new companion a smile.  “I have one favorite, and he’s Weld.”

I know Weld.

“You know who he is?  That’s great.  The more popular he gets, the better it is for all of us.  Erm, us being case fifty-threes like me.”

I know him know him.

“You know him?  Is he half as cool as he seems from- from media and videos and stuff?”

Yes.

Sveta was twisting around, to look between her companion and the screen with responses.

“If you get me started on that subject, I might never stop.  That’s my warning to you,” Sveta said.

Great.

“But- oh, man, this has been bugging me, and I’ve been searching, but I wanted to look up the heroine who found me, back when I was in Russia.  I’ve been looking but I can’t find her.  Do you think-”

YesTell me about her.

Then they were at it, not stopping in their exchange or chatter for more than a second at a time, until their turn in the rec room was done.

“This is going to be a multi-step procedure.  My planned approach will be to knit together your tendrils, three at a time.  Once that’s done, I want to fray the edges, make them serrated.  Then we knit them together.”

Sveta nodded.

Mr. Bough drew on the wall of his cell in erasable marker.  “It’s like a zipper.  With this, we can create a general framework, outline proportions, and from there we add mass, fill it in.  Inside-out, bone, organ, muscle, nervous tissue, skin.  It’s possible this will require multiple procedures over weeks.”

“Misleading,” Effervescent murmured.

“What?” Mr. Bough asked.  “You were there when they attacked us.”

“Arrested you.  For very good reason,” Effervescent said.  “You’re fibbing about the weeks.”

“It may require multiple procedures.”

“That’s true,” Effervescent said.

“Spanning days or weeks.”

“Less true.”

“Don’t jerk us around, Mr. Bough,” Victoria said.

The man drew in breath through his teeth.

“A couple of days or sessions?” Victoria asked.

“More likely.”

“There we go,” Effervescent said.

Mr. Bough frowned.  “I don’t know how your power will interact with this.  It’s my experience that powers tend to find a way.  When I was in Boston, there was a group that mutilated themselves to try to force their powers to travel in these alternate paths.  It worked.  They were strong.”

Sveta looked at Victoria.  Victoria’s power had found a way, wrapping its forcefield around the new body, then holding that shape after.

“How do we work with that?” Victoria asked.

“I think the best way is to give the power a way.  It might mean you’re not perfectly, one hundred percent an ordinary girl, but it might also mean that when your power does try to find a way, it doesn’t find that way by tearing your new body apart.”

Mr. Bough drew on the cell wall.  A hand with a hole in it, a line snaking out like a tongue from a mouth.

“I don’t want to be hollow,” Sveta said.

“There are other options.”

“Okay,” Sveta said.

“I feel like we glossed over the surgery and timetable,” Victoria said.  “Can we walk it back a bit?  Was that glossing intentional?”

“No,” Mr. Bough said.

“I don’t get the weird manipulation feeling from that response,” Effervescent said.

“Thank you,” Victoria said.  “Timetable, surgery.  How?”

“I make needles,” Mr. Bough said.  He ran his finger along his arm, and a needle slid out of it, a foot long and, as it disconnected from the flesh, bulbous at the tip.  “I can place what I need at the head, and it will disseminate into the patient.  That way, I can splice in traits I want-”

“What the patient wants,” Victoria said, stern.

“He wasn’t being duplicitous,” Effervescent said.

“Just sketchy,” Victoria muttered.  “Go on.”

“Some of this, if I use the right pins, and I do plan to, is going to tap into the patient’s self image.  Some of this is necessary to make the connections feel natural, making the body feel intuitive, instead of like a fit of shoes that’re the right size but worn and stretched out to fit someone else’s subtly different foot.”

“I’ve been using tech that uses the same principle,” Sveta said, moving her arm.

“Good.  That’s interesting, and promising.”

“If you were willing to let my companion do his thing-”

“No,” Victoria said.

“-he could unlock your missing memories and make that connection much stronger, bring your body closer to your actual self, that’s buried deep in your memories.”

“No,” Victoria said.  “Effervescent can’t get a good read on Mr. Drowsing and it feels more like a bad idea.”

Sveta nodded.  “Agreed.  At least for now.”

“Okay.  Just saying.  I can also make edits.  They’ll propagate through, depending on where the needle rests.  Rewrite DNA, alter the design, encourage adding mass… this won’t be easy.  I’m going to add mass and it’s going to look very wrong, even frightening, because of how far it deviates from who you are and what you want.  Tearing down or replacing is a lot easier than building.”

“Okay,” Sveta answered.

“This will be ugly.”

“This whole thing is going to be ugly,” Weld said.

Sveta wanted to reply, but she couldn’t bring herself to.  Not the way she should.

“Yeah,” was all she managed.

His bed was a collection of ripped up old tires that he’d set up in the back of the truck.  He’d thrown around some pillows so that others could lie down if they wanted to, and as he undid the loops and bindings that held her close to him, she reached for the pillow.  Being by his side and at his back was reassuring, and it was often distant, because even though she was touching him, reaching through him in places where her tendrils threaded into one part of his body and out of another, she didn’t face him.  Now she hid, pulling the biggest, toughest pillow around, hugging it.

In the background, the chatter of the other Irregulars could be heard.  Outside the truck, they talked and made late meals.

“Do you want the ball?” he asked, picking up the reinforced hamster ball.

“Not just yet?  Is that okay?”

“Perfectly okay,” he said, easing down and lying across the bedding.  His fingertips hit the side of the truck as he dropped his arm, producing a percussive bang.

“Do you want me to get lost?” she asked.  “I’d understand if you wanted your room to yourself.  We’ve got… thirty-seven Irregulars now.  It’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t raise his head, instead staring up at the ceiling.  “Talking to some of the other groups about allying.  It could bring us up to forty-five, forty eight.  We’re estimating about ninety, ninety-five in total, that are still alive right now.  We could double that number if we included people like the ones you talked about from the asylum.”

“Maybe,” she said.  He was referring to the victims of powers.  People like Victoria, or Ernesto, or Colony, or Mick the Tick.  “I don’t think the others would go for it.”

“So many different factions.  So many politics.  You are maybe one of four people who get it, who I can talk to without stressing out.”

“I’m glad,” she said, her voice small.

“Thank you for having my back, in more ways than the one.”

“Ha,” she said, dropping her eyes.  She hated it and loved it at the same time.

“Hey,” Weld said.  “Hand.  High five or fist bump, but don’t leave me hanging.”

He was lying on the bed, arm extended above him, hand out and distorted, so the upper half resembled a fist, and the lower half had the palm.

Three tendrils slapped across his palm.  A bunch hit the fist a second later.  Two remained attached, as he kept his hand up there, holding on.

“I’m not good at this leadership thing,” he said.

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“I screwed up in about fifteen seconds when talking to my first team, back in Brockton Bay.  I’m not sure I’m doing better here.”

“You inspire,” she told him.  “You inspire me, you inspire all of them.”

“Inspiring isn’t the same as leading.”

“You lead just fine.  People love and respect you.  We trust you.  You just… you don’t love and trust and respect yourself enough.”

“Do any of us truly love ourselves?  Our ‘tooth and nail’ faction aside?”

The group had banded together in the eastern United States and celebrated their case fifty-three nature.  To an extent, they celebrated it at the expense of non case fifty-threes.  Their recruitment had come with stern rules.

“I like us,” she said, and it was so close to saying what she wanted to say that she felt a little dizzy.  Small vital organs pumped and beat behind and beneath her like a trail of thudding hearts.

“I like us too,” he said.  His voice dropped, “But I don’t like me.”

Those thudding hearts shriveled, bile churned inside her, and despair threatened to consume her brain, insofar as she had an actual thinking-organ.  To see this wonderful, amazing boy so lost and struggling, even knowing it was because the week had been long and fruitless, it almost physically hurt.

“If you could only see yourself how I see you,” she said.  She tugged on the arm he still held out at an angle, that she still held, like she’d slapped him a high-five and then kept her hand there, holding his.

He dropped the arm, draping his arm over his face, eyes hidden in the crook of the elbow.  “Likewise.”

An automatic response.

“No, I don’t think it’s likewise,” she said.  “You’re smart, you’re good at so many things, you’re one of the nicest people I know, and one of the people who’s done the most to make the world a better place.  You are so beautiful, you have so many people who would give their right arm to be with you-”

“No,” he said.  “Listen, I know there’s a standard pep talk that comes with talking to other case fifty-threes.  I get it.  We tell each other we’re beautiful in our own way, we lie and we say anything’s possible.  And I- if I’m honest, I don’t really like it or buy into it, so I don’t say it, but I won’t say anything if someone else says it.  But you don’t need to give me the patter.”

“It’s not patter.  Weld-”

He pulled his hand away from where she held it, letting it fall alongside his body and leg.

Weld,” she said, raising herself up and over him.  Again, that trail of almost-hearts pumped within the curtain of tendrils.  “Speaking as the girl who is sort of in your bed-”

She was going to regret saying that for the next fifty years.

He moved his arm away from his eyes.  She almost lost the nerve to speak.

Almost, but somewhere inside her, some bizarre firework of images went off.  All of Weld’s star power, the folder of images and promotional material she’d saved of him that she would never ever show him, and the very normal, very silly things like how he talked among friends, among old teammates, and how he talked to leaders and capes or community people he respected, how he talked to her, how he laughed at some shows and how he looked when he listened to the exact right piece of music and let the tension melt away…

How he looked right now, just a guy that was eighteen or nineteen with a whole community leaning on him, weary and lonely…

Letting that summation of a person hurt was far scarier than even losing this friendship.

“A-as the girl who is kind of in your bed right now, if I could kiss you I don’t think I would ever stop.  You are beautiful and handsome and sexy and I would stake my life on the fact that there are thousands, tens of thousands of girls out there who would die happy if you would love them and let them love you.  If you let them see the you that is kind to children and who stands up to bullies.  If you let them see the you that listens to anti-music and laughs so hard, or the you that looks so happy when another case fifty-three has an achievement or hits a personal milestone.”

“You’re not so bad yourself, you know,” he told her.  “Not many people could say all that, so well or so convincingly.”

“I can say it because I mean it, and if there’s anything I want to come from our friendship or my embarrassing myself like this, I want you to believe it too, okay?  I want you to get to where you find a girl and you believe everything I just said.”

He reached out, and her tendrils snapped to his arm.  Impulsively, she brought her face close to his, and she kissed him.

Then she pulled away.  She reached for music she knew he liked and put it on.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m running away,” she said.  “Because I’m so embarrassed I can’t think straight.  Hamster ball for me, I’m going to roll out into the nearest ditch and bury myself.”

“Don’t.  Stay.”

“I can’t, I shouldn’t, I don’t know, I’m sorry,” she said.  Her feelings and thoughts were all fireworks, still, but now they were explosions of doubt, and a chasing shadow of blood, past and future.

“If I want anything from this, I want you to get to where you don’t feel you have to run, and where you don’t feel like you have to apologize.”

The music swelled.

“Good choice,” he said.  “Don’t be gone too long or I’ll worry.”

Hamster ball.  Lid on but ajar, door opened, lid screwed in.  This one had pegs she could use to propel herself.  She went out the open door.

The other trucks and vehicles were crowded around.  One of the case fifty-threes was acting as a television, projecting signals onto the side of a truck.

She fled from all of them, the surge of positive emotion giving way to doubts and anxieties.  She wouldn’t have been able to forgive herself if she hadn’t said anything and she couldn’t forgive herself now that she had.

There wasn’t any good ditch nearby, so she propelled herself in the direction of the woods, stopping at the treeline.  She stopped to ponder the mechanics of trying to bury herself alive inside her hamster ball, dismissed it as a silly idea, and spent long minutes stewing inside her own mire of thoughts, instead.

Footsteps trudged through grass, prompting her to turn around.

“Hi.”

She injected false positivity into her voice, “Hey Egg!”

“Can I pick you up?”

“Yep.  Come on, cheek, cheek.”

He made a face, but he politely obeyed, holding the ball to one of his cheeks so she could faux-kiss it through the hard plastic, then turned his other cheek.  It had started with one of the others doing it, one of the case fifty-threes from Europe, a boy, had kissed Egg.  To get Egg to relax about it more of the Irregulars had started doing it.  That it included some girls seemed to motivate Egg.

“How’s our seniorest junior member doing?” she asked.

“I’m happy.  I never thought life could be this good.”

“I’m so glad,” she said, her spirits lifting some from where they’d been.

“It’s a temporary kind of good, but it’s good.  Are you okay?  Are you good?”

“I’m… feeling very full of complicated.”

“Sitting in a ball in the woods-”

“Edge of the woods.”

“Doing nothing but getting ticks and mites and fleas all over you, crawling in through the air holes.”

“Ew, no, ick.”

“No,” he said.  He held her up, moved his flashlight against the orb, illuminating everything and creating stars behind her eyes, and searched the interior.  “One ant.”

“Great.  Company.”

There was laughter from one of the groups by the trucks.  Weld had left the truck and was probably looking for her or something.  She felt five different kinds of humiliated and awful.

“Sitting in the woods in the dark with an ant to keep you company.”

“And you.”

“And me,” Egg said.  He smiled.

“Just thinking,” she said.

She watched as the smile fell from Egg’s face.

“What?”

“I was talking with some of the guys, I think it was yesterday.  You know, I’m the oldest of the under-sixteens.  The older Irregulars found the one we’re calling The Cloak two days ago-”

“Mantellum.”

“Yeah.  And it sounds like as soon as we have a good window or opportunity to go after Cauldron, we can.”

She nodded.

“We were talking about who’s going and it sounds like I am.  The other junior Irregulars aren’t.  Whippersnap and those guys.”

“Yes,” she said.  She’d talked about it with Weld.

“They wanted answers, and they were asking questions, making sure we were all on the same page.  We have thirty-ish people-”

“Thirty-seven.”

“And six or seven groups or cliques inside this.  We might have more depending on who we recruit.”

She nodded.

“About the only thing most of us can agree on is we want justice.  I know you’ve talked about how bloody and horrible it was when you were dropped off near Karelia Lake.”

Before Wieldmaiden from the Guild had rescued her and taken her to the Asylum.

“Yeah,” she said, feeling diminished, aware of the darkness, the cold, and how close those mangled bodies were to her, as if Egg could take two steps forward, taking her those two steps back, and place her right in the midst of that bloody scene where she carried around part of a mangled body for hours before convincing her body to let her go.

That carnage and death followed her always.

“I know how angry you really are,” Egg said.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I was.  But I’ve calmed down.  I’ve realized that I don’t like the blood or violence.  It gets to me.”

Thanks to Weld, in part, for helping me get my head around it all.

“Not everyone has calmed down.  Some are angrier now than they used to be.  Some of those people are wondering… did you end up talking to Weld?  You were with us and you were saying we should back down, not bother him while he was stressed, and you’d find a time to bring it up.”

The idea of talking to him about that and breaking his heart shook her.  She wasn’t even sure how she would.  She wasn’t sure how she wouldn’t, or how things would go if she didn’t.

“I had… a conversation with him.”

“Do we need to worry?”

“I-I’m not the person to do this, I think.  I paint, I- draw.  I try to be moral support, and an extra set of eyes to watch over him if we’re in a situation he needs it.”

“Do we need to worry?” Egg asked, and his tone was fiercer, more dangerous.

What did that even mean?  Would he hurt Weld?

What happened if she said yes?  They’d hurt Weld?   Pressure him?  Depose him as leader?

What happened if she said no?  They would go on doing what they were doing, and maybe there was a chance she and Weld would convince them there was a better way, like Weld had convinced her?

“No,” she said.  “But don’t pressure him.  And if he says anything on the subject, try to hear him out?  Be fair to him?  You outnumber him-”

“We outnumber him.”

You do.  So be fair to him.”

“I’ll tell the others to play nice,” Egg said.  “Do you want me to put you down?”

“Please,” she said, not one hundred percent sure what Egg meant with the first part.  She didn’t want division among the only family she knew, and she definitely didn’t want to be the cause of it.

Egg laid her ball down in the grass, and she turned her focus to ushering the ant out through the airhole.

It was fifteen minutes before Weld was pointed her way.  Fifteen minutes of sitting in the dark, thinking.

“Keep me company?” he asked, and his question cut through all plans and fortitude she’d erected in her head.

“Gladly,” she said.  “Sorry I’m such a dork.”

“No.  Don’t apologize,” he said.

With one short exchange of words, and the distraction of talk, she let herself forget what she’d intended to say about Egg and the more bloodthirsty members of the Irregulars, and wholly convince herself that this wasn’t that big a thing.  There were too many nice people and too many people who she couldn’t picture being that angry or upset- after all, a fair few belonged to the tooth and nail contingent, and they were pro-irregular, how could they want revenge or violence?

Weld was enough of a personality and had a good enough heart to sway the handful of real malcontents.  Right?  He had to be.  She was bloodier than all of them put together and he’d changed her.

Her mind was cleared by the end of an exceedingly awkward night of hanging out with Weld and Gentle Giant, pretending nothing had happened, her heart cleared by seeing Weld happier and more lively, in a way she hadn’t seen in weeks.  If nothing else, he’d been flattered, and she’d made a change for the good.

The only trace of the conversation with Egg was a lingering feeling of something left unresolved, a deadline missed.

Sveta’s body arched as a blister appeared, filled with liquid meat, swelling until it was larger than the rest of her.  Skin tore and flesh within ripped apart under its own weight.  Her arm tensed, gripping the edge of the table.

“One more time.”

“It’s been six times already,” Victoria said, voice tense.  “Six times and you’re doing the exact same thing.  You’re torturing her.”

“It doesn’t- exactly hurt,” Sveta said, through grit teeth.

She felt the needle slide into place.  No sooner was it in place than some pins were pulled from a jar where they sat in some fluid.  She was poked, needles penetrating where tendril met the back of her face.  One after another, at least ten.  Her tendrils strained and flexed where they were clamped down against the table, stretched out.

Again, she felt the flesh appear, grow, and swirl with random, vague nerve connections.  It built up into a massive, fluid-filled hunchback.  Again, she felt tendrils stretch, strain, and splinter.  That splintering feeling, she knew, was the zipper edge forming, that would interlock tendrils.

The blister-hunchback popped.  Fluid flooded out, onto the metal table, and because that table had a lip, some sloshed back into her face.  She sputtered, coughing.

“One more time.”  He stabbed her with another needle.

“You keep saying that,” Victoria said.  “Say it again and we’re going to have problems.”

“Each time we do it we get better results.  How well does she hold together?  What are the stress limits?  What can this ‘skin’ take?”

“Building her up over and over again, only to repeatedly destroy her isn’t getting her anywhere.  Get to the damn finish line, then refine from there.”

“Can you trust what I’m doing?  I-”

The blister expanded, then unfurled, unzipped.  A hundred pounds of flesh became a hundred pounds of pencil-thin tendril.  Tendrils reached out and seized Mr. Bough.

“He’s panicking,” Effervescent reported, an almost ludicrous comment, given the scene.  Already, Sveta was screaming, in warning and alarm, her every instinct failing her.  Victoria kicked in the glass door to the lab, her backup following her in.

Sveta hung back, staring at the sea of reaching hands and arms, of faces.

She thought of Victoria.  There were too many similarities, as if she could take Victoria’s silhouette, hold it up against this scene, and find a perfect match somewhere.  It helped that this was so vast.

Weld had been torn apart, as far as she could tell.  Her fucked up body had been burned.  Now it glistened with the blood of the woman who had been responsible for…

For all of this.

The man with golden hair, beard, and skin was here, the end of the world.

Egg had painted a picture where the Irregulars were ready for revenge.  He’d led her to believe it wasn’t as bloodthirsty a desire as it had been.  Or she’d wanted to believe that.

She, in turn, had heard what Egg said and convinced herself it wasn’t that bad.  That it would hurt more than it helped.  That, with a looming deadline, at the very least, Weld would question Doctor Mother, and there would be a thousand answers to get.  By the end of that, when it was time for the revenge, for blood, she and Weld could temper it.  Ensure it was humane.  She had been genuinely shocked to find out that it was as bad as it was.

Now Weld might be dead or dying, most of the others were dead, and all was lost.  They didn’t have names or know where they came from, so they might visit home.

She saw a garden of flesh that seemed to reach as far in either direction as she could see, in the largest part of a large complex.  She saw reaching hands, legs, overlapping parts, heads, and hair both short and long, and she kind of understood what they were up against, how rooted it was in what they were and what they’d been dealing with.

A part of her fleetingly wondered if answers like she and Weld had sought and needed were even possible.  If it would have been better to be on the other side.

Too late now.  Too painful to even consider.

If there was one last thing to do, she would do what her hero would do, and she would help, however she could.

The last pin was removed, dropped into a metal pan.  Mr. Bough backed away, his arms and hands bandaged from when things had gone wrong in the last session.

Sveta drew in a deep breath, no longer concerned that it would make the pins dig in or poke the wrong thing.  Her partially-intact stomach pressed against the cold table, as did her thighs, her toes.  She twisted around, turning over, and winced as parts and flesh she’d never been old enough to have got in the way.

Victoria jumped forward to rearrange and reposition the towel that had been draped over Sveta’s back and buttocks.

There was still flesh missing, mostly in the area in front of and around missing, nonessential organs.  A kidney, part of the liver.  A bit of a Sidepiece aesthetic, but it crept up higher, framed by stiff ribbons of skin.

Her hair- she touched the back of her head, and she felt the short hair there.

And her power- she reached out, willed it, and her arm unzipped two dozen times between fingertip and elbow, unfurling and extending.  Tendrils reached out, far thicker but flatter, with saw teeth at the edges.  It zipped back up to normal a second later, with only a sharp smack at the back of her hand as one flat tendril was pulled in too fast.

Then, tears welling in her eyes, she allowed herself to relax, to let down her guard and be vulnerable in a way she hadn’t done for Weld, around anyone, in all the years she could remember existing, and all the vague years of her childhood she’d dreamed of.

Nobody died as a consequence.

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