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