Daylight streamed in at a low angle as I stepped back into my office. The light was blurred as it came through the condensation on the window, spotted with dots of darkness due to the melted frost that still clung to the window’s surface in lines and constellations of droplets. Ninety percent of my books were packed up, the boxes that were still here were stacked near the door and the bookshelf, labeled in thick marker, with shorthand notes on the most interesting and essential files within written on the boxes in pen. I’d left a few of the more interesting files available. I’d put them in a box on their own, in case I needed something to read.
My phone was plugged into the computer. I checked it, and made a small and sleepy pump of my fist as it lit up. Then I saw the red number on the digital-display dial, and let my hand drop. Missed messages: too many.
It wasn’t that I cared that much about the phone. It was that the phone being on meant there was power again. That the power was on again meant I could turn the space heater on. I flicked the switch, turned on my computer, then lit the candles for what little good heat they offered and wrapped a blanket around me before settling in my computer chair.
I was freshly showered, towel around my hair, and I’d gotten dressed in a slightly musty spare change of clothes. I had a blanket, candles, and a computer booting up. I watched as it started the struggle of fighting every other computer out there that was wanting a piece of the web.
There were worse ways to take things easy on myself.
I slid my to-do list across the desk until it was beside my keyboard. I’d need a car. Plenty of people were willing to offer the use of theirs in order to pay for fuel. Food, a place to stay.
Living accommodations might be tricky. Demand was high, and it was a pretty steep drop in quality from the central areas and the fringes. Many companies were putting up five or more houses a day or an apartment complex over the course of a week, slapping them together like there was a gun to their heads. When it came time to find renters, they were more interested in filling the spaces fast. They had no reason to answer questions or have a potential buyer investigating the nooks and crannies or checking the plumbing if they could turn that person away and have someone else on their doorstep within minutes.
It was a minefield. Word of mouth, cash, contacts, or luck were required to get a proper house that wouldn’t start falling apart after the fact. Fume Hood was one of the ones who’d been unlucky.
In more than one way.
My homepage was parahumans online, though. On top of the missed calls and messages on my phone, I had a slew on the site.
♦ Unread Private Messages from NW_Brandish (2)
♦ Unread Private Messages from Glitzglam (8)
I deleted the messages from my mother.
I opened the second link.
♦ Private Messages from Glitzglam:
[email protected]_The_Sky: Staying the night at work. Don’t fuss about me. Tell the Dallon parental units if you think it’s necessary to keep them from going on warpath. I want to be left alone for now
Glitzglam *New Message*: i can field them
Glitzglam *New Message*: I’m *so* sorry that happened i want to explain
Glitzglam *New Message*: I arrived and then Amy did and my eyes must have bugged out of my skull but your mom said it was okay we were trying this and you knew it was a reunion and I was wtf
Glitzglam *New Message*: It didn’t sound like you but I thought ok if you thought you were down I could roll with and back you up
Glitzglam *New Message*: Then Uncle M came and oh man if a man could shit crocodiles and piss bears Uncle M would have been doing that he was so fucking pissed b/c HE wasn’t told and he knew the story from the funerals right?
Glitzglam *New Message*: and he brought his wife/kids there
Glitzglam *New Message*: I knew something was up and tried to call but no answer? & then you didn’t show so I let my guard down. I thought u knew and had cold feet and was relieved
Glitzglam *New Message*: I am so sorry. I had no part in this. I should have been smarter. I did not know really truly
I marked it as unread and minimized it. I didn’t want to think about it for the moment.
News. Inquiry into the circumstances of Lachlan Hund. Not a trial, but an inquiry, some questions by people with more official standing. He’d fallen in with some sketchy people, and there were thoughts about there being powers involved.
The inquiry was the story of the hour, it seemed. Heroes stood by to step in and take him away to get help if officials were suspicious he’d been manipulated, but it was sounding like he would go home with his new family. That sucked.
Other articles, further down the pages. Fume Hood was alive, and she was a contentious topic. The actions on the part of the shooter seemed to have split people into two factions, with the ones supporting Fume Hood slightly edging out the ones who condemned her. Strange to see.
I wanted more info on her situation, and unfortunately, that was all I got.
I added another note to my to-do list. I’d reach out to Fume Hood, check in. I’d satisfy my curiosity and nag her about the name choice, which I’d been meaning to do but hadn’t had the chance to.
My eye traveled up to the unread messages. Crystal’s responses.
It all felt like I was taking a massive backward step. Like I was back in the immediate aftermath of Gold Morning. Two legs, two arms, bewildered, emotional. I was bothered, upset. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I’d been angry at my parents then too. For various reasons. Angry at a lot of people and things.
I hadn’t and didn’t want that to define me.
I clicked on Crystal’s account name again.
Glitzglam *New Message*: I am so sorry. I had no part in this. I should have been smarter. I did not know really truly
[email protected]_The_Sky: S’okay.
[email protected]_The_Sky: I know how these things go.
[email protected]_The_Sky: I saw this sort of thing play out when it wasn’t aimed at me. I can read between the lines and speak Carol-ese and I picked up on what she was saying about you being skeptical about the situation
[email protected]_The_Sky: I absolve you on the condition of one get together where we have some good eating, your treat, and you need to let me know if you hear of any good apartments or things because I am not good going back to my dads
I drummed my fingers on my desk, mused that my motivations might have to do with my being hungry.
More news articles. Some capes were taking on roles as icons and iconoclasts for the various movements in the civilian sectors. Four hero teams led the ‘icon’ groups. Advance Guard, Foresight, the Shepherds and the Attendant.
The first two were aimed at pushing forward. New approaches, doing things right this time. The opinions on what that way forward looked like it differed, feeding into the division between the two groups.
Things were changing. The Shepherds and Attendant had been groups divided along similar lines, but the Shepherds were self-combusting, and the remaining members were folding into the Attendant. There was some debate over what the name of the resulting team would be.
And then there were three, I thought.
I idly browsed, caught between liking the Shepherd’s aesthetic and icons better while liking the Attendant’s mindset of moving slowly, with caution. I was suspicious it might end up being the opposite. As it was, the Attendant’s approach tacked on a bit too much ‘remember what we lost’ for my liking, clinging to the past, being defined by it, but-
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” I said.
Gil opened the door. He had two coffees in a tray in one hand and a bag in the other, and he had to juggle them both as he opened the door.
I rose to my feet.
“Sit,” he said. He nearly dropped his drink as he saw the boxes. “Shit on me, you’re packed.”
“I’ll be done in time to be gone before the students turn up,” I said, sitting.
“I’m not so concerned about that right now,” he said. He put the bag and coffees on the desk. “How are you?”
“You look better.”
I had a headache from not sleeping and not eating, and from the post-stress hangover, but I also felt lighter than air in a euphoric, fragile way. It was as if I’d just gotten over a bad round of the flu, and I was at the point where I was getting over the worst of it, but if I did the wrong thing or tested my body in the wrong way I’d be sick and hurting again.
I shrugged again. “Yeah. That word could apply.”
“Did you sleep at all?”
I snorted air out of my nose. “I’ll sleep when I’m so tired I have no other choice.”
“But you’re feeling better than you were?”
“Yeah. Better than I was. Thanks for letting me stay over,” I said.
He pulled a breakfast burger out of the paper bag, and my eyes must have lit up, because he smiled, passing it to me.
A double-decker English muffin, with bacon, two eggs, lettuce, tomato and very sharp mustard.
I wasn’t normally one to eat egg, but I didn’t let that stop me.
I’d taken too big of a bite. I swallowed hard.
It was good. Visceral. Like Snag’s power, the hit of emotion as I enjoyed it was like a bit of metal, closing an electrical connection. Rounding off a thought I hadn’t wanted to make.
Feeding tubes. The insertions, the removals. The tube being there, one eye watching the beige fluid moving through steadily. Really wanting something good. Going almost four months without, because they weren’t sure I could. Then having it be a chore. It had been better than the alternative, but a chore, to force myself to eat it right, to chew it thoroughly enough.
I swallowed hard again, not because I had another bite to swallow.
Gilpatrick was looking at my files and notes, his back to me, my English muffin sandwich in my hands.
He glanced at me, saw the blinking, and looked away. “If you want to talk, I’m all ears.”
“I don’t, thank you,” I said. “I had a bad day, the part you knew about, then it got worse. Now I’m trying to get centered.”
“This is really good,” I said.
“They are, I took a bite of mine in the car and then ate it before I got here,” he said. He bent over a box, looking at the notes. “Man, I wish I still had access to these files and books. I’d try bribing you if I could do it in good conscience.”
I swallowed again. “They’re mine and I’m too straightlaced to be bribed. You can call me if you want to ask about any of it.”
“Then I owe you more favors, am I right?”
“I thought we weren’t counting anymore,” I said.
He didn’t respond to that. He picked up a file, paging through it.
“Which one is that?”
“Ossuary. Why leave it out?”
“They’re back, or they will be soon,” I said. “Activist villains with a heavy focus on environment. They wouldn’t call themselves villains, I don’t think. Long list of really messy executions, longer list of leaders with very short tenures, who try to pull a very disparate group together, fail, and abdicate.”
“Were they the ones who used to call themselves Elephant Graveyard?”
“That’s the one. One of the early leaders pushed the name change along with a shift away from focusing on animals and animal welfare,” I said. “I liked Elephant Graveyard more, I think. Clunky, but clunky in a way that stands out, and it made for really good imagery, when they left a spray painted calling card.”
“I don’t want to pry,” Gilpatrick said.
“About you. I spent a while thinking about what to do. I’ve had some good bosses and bad bosses over the years. When you throw yourself into the fray like you do when you’re a PRT squaddie, you really need to know that the people above you are looking out for you. That your back is covered.”
“Yeah,” I said. Same applied to family, to parents.
“I don’t want to push boundaries or cross any lines, and I don’t want to ask the wrong thing. When you say you don’t want to talk, can I ask why? Any answer you gave could help me make sure I’m covering your back as you move on to better things.”
“Because I’d have to fill you in on years of background and that’s not stuff I want to relive,” I said.
“Because it’s confidential, because it’s messy, because… as cool as a guy as you can be, you can’t make it better. You can’t give me the answers or guidance I need because there’s a whole ream of things that’s separate and aside from the years of my background that you’d need to get into or know and… I’m going overboard with this.”
“I do want to hear,” he said. “Anything else?”
“That’s mostly it,” I said.
He nodded. He rubbed his head for a second, thinking. “You want company?”
“Nah,” I said. “I’d just be packing the last few boxes. I wouldn’t mind a hand getting them out to the car, just to speed things up when the time comes.”
“You have a car?”
“I’ll get someone off of a listing or something. I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing, so there’s that too. I wouldn’t be good company, while I’m working through all of that.”
“You don’t have to be packed up and gone today,” he said.
“I kind of need to,” I said.
He nodded, rubbing his head again. “I’ll cover the car. I’ll pay the driver.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You know where to find me. Place is empty, so you can shout from the stairs and I’ll hear you.”
“Right,” I said.
“I’m going to head to my office. I’ve got something to do.”
I gave him a little salute.
Energized by food and coffee, still feeling lightweight, I worked on getting my boxes packed up. Along the way, I slotted my files and folders into the box I’d reserved for the most pertinent factors. The villains of the area, the heroes, and the villains turned hero. The hoods.
The day was warming up. The light from the sun was warm enough to counteract the lower temperature. By midday, if yesterday was any indication, it would be short-sleeves and shorts weather again.
A message popped up on my screen.
♦ Private Messages from Glitzglam:
Glitzglam: game plan. u situate yourself at my place until you have apartment ur happy with. u & I raid ur dads place while he at work, get ur stuff. standard attack formation, I play defense, make sure coast is clear, I support you, u take point and do what u need
I fired off my response. That worked. I had a couch to sleep on.
One thing off of my to-do list. I liked the progress. Progress was good. So long as I moved forward, I could stay aloft.
I cleared off the remainder of the bookshelves, stacking the boxes. I scribbled out my notes on the lid, checking the contents.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I said.
“Time for me to go?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said. “There’s a bit. I don’t want to force you out the door like that.”
“Okay,” I said. I raised an eyebrow.
“I was thinking, over the past twelve hours, if you were my student, I wouldn’t want to let you go with things like this. Normally I’d contact a guardian.”
My heart skipped a beat at that. No.
“But you said last night you had a family thing to do. I can connect dots.”
“I made some phone calls,” he said.
He stepped out of the doorway.
Mrs. Yamada. Shorter than me, hair tied back in a simple ponytail, wearing a skirt, white top, and jacket, with a simple, short string of pearls at her collarbone.
“Oh wow,” she said. “Look at you.”
I didn’t have words, so I just lifted my arms to either side and let them fall.
“Is this okay?” Gilpatrick asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I swallowed. “Yeah. Just about perfect.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.
Jessica blinked a few times, before fanning herself. “I’m a little misty eyed. Sorry.”
I was a little misty eyed myself.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked. When I nodded, she did so. I hugged her back.
“You put me down as your emergency contact?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “I- I honestly forgot I did that. It was more than a year ago.”
I’d had to name someone, and I hadn’t named my parents because-
“It’s more than alright,” she said. “Your boss said he was worried about you.”
I opened my mouth to reply, and then the waterworks started instead.
Jessica slammed the back hatch of her car, most of the boxes settled inside.
“Do you want to walk?” she asked. “Around the block, maybe? Or we could step back inside.”
If I was going to start crying again.
Students were just now starting to appear, and I didn’t want to sit still.
“We can walk,” I said.
“It’s been amazing to hear your voice,” she said. “I know you were often frustrated, trying to communicate with the means you had available. I was frustrated too, but I wasn’t allowed to say that.”
“I could tell,” I said.
“You were a challenging patient, those first few months-”
“-but much like many teachers say they grow to care most about the class clowns and problem students, I came to hold you close to my heart. I wanted so badly to give you answers and to hear you out without having to rely on text to speech and letters you wrote between appointments. I wanted to dialogue, and it was so very hard to do that.”
“It was,” I said.
Why was it so much easier to talk about the things that I couldn’t normally even think about, like this?
“How did you find your way back from that?”
How did I become Victoria again, instead of the wretched thing in the hospital room, or in the home for invalids?
“My sister,” I said, my voice soft.
“Oh. That’s not an easy thing,” she said.
“No,” I said, my voice even softer.
I’d already filled her in on the details of yesterday and the past few months. She’d offered a listening ear. I’d spent all night working out my next few steps, I knew what the situation was, I didn’t really need more angles to view it from.
This, though… if I was going to make the most of the time I had with her here, then I wanted to at least get a handle on this.
“We were all brought to the battlefield during Gold Morning. There’s… that’s a hard topic to field.”
“There’s an unspoken agreement that the civilians don’t get to know,” she said.
“But you’re not really a civilian,” I said.
“No,” she said. “I’ve heard reports. Some from very close to the center of the action. I know what happened.”
“Body, mind, and heart, you know how that’s a thing?” I asked.
“I lost my body, two years before Gold Morning. My heart was… twisted into something unrecognizable.”
“And… Gold Morning hit. And the-” I paused. There were people on the street, walking toward the school gate and the various block buildings as we walked away from it all. A tide we walked against. I had to shut up until people were mostly out of earshot. “And I was controlled in mind. I didn’t have much, but I could make my decisions. I could decide to use my power or not. She took that away from me, for a brief time.”
“I’ve talked to a number of people who had a very hard time with that.”
“You know who she was?”
I nodded to myself.
“Yeah,” I said. “My sister told me.”
Even if I was free to talk, the words still carried their ugly weight. The words and associated mental pictures still dragged my mood down.
“She knew me or knew of me, or she knew my sister. She decided in the end that she’d put my sister right next to me. She didn’t do that for many people at all, as far as I can tell.”
“And your sister healed you?”
“Gave me a body again. Um. She made me seventeen again. Walked back the clock, as if it… I don’t know. So she didn’t take two years of my life from me in body, like she did in everything else. I’m physically nineteen now, apparently.”
“You said body, mind and spirit. She fixed one of the three. Did she undo the effect on your emotions?”
I drew in a breath, sighed heavily. I nodded. “She actually- she turned off my emotions. Suppressed them. Then she asked me what I wanted.”
“What did you want?”
“I remember thinking, you know, it was really possible she wanted me to say that I wanted to go back to liking her. And if she did think that, then it was unconscionable. Divorced from all emotion, I thought it was unconscionable.”
“And divorced from all emotion, I thought I’d be fair. That I’d give her the benefit of a doubt. That I’d assume that wasn’t what she meant or wanted. I told her I wanted to remember.”
“Those two years,” I said, my voice hollow. I drew in another deep breath.
Further down the street, a nine or ten year old boy with straight black hair and brown skin looked at Jessica, his eyes widening, then he looked at me. He raised his hand, extending it toward Jessica as they passed one another.
She gave him a high five, then pushed his head, sending him on his way, toward the school.
“They weren’t good years.”
“Rationally? Divorced from emotion? I knew. I can’t forgive her. Ever. I can’t forget what she did, or she might do it again. To someone else. To me. I told her to fix my feelings and leave my brain alone otherwise.”
“It’s a heavy weight to carry,” she said.
“Those two years are really damn heavy,” I said. “Everything else is. But I’ve been holding on to that moment. I hate that I hold onto it, because she did it, but everything is tainted by her, so what can I do?”
“You hold onto it? How?”
“Being emotionless, putting those feelings away. My feelings and impulses got me into that whole mess in the first place. I hurt an awful lot of awful people, you know.”
“We’ve talked about that. You wrote letters outlining your thoughts and how you wanted to apologize to some of those affected.”
“My entire life leading up to that basketball game, I wanted so horribly badly to be a hero, you know? It felt like I thought about it every ten minutes. My parents were heroes, my cousin was, my aunt and uncle were, and everything revolved around it. I wanted it all so badly it hurt, and I didn’t have it for years. Then that basketball game, and I wanted to have something where I was the hero, where I got to stand out. Because sometimes it felt like my parents didn’t see me.”
“That’s been a recurring idea. You talked about their missed visits.”
“They came a lot,” I said. “I know that. My dad more than my mom. But every missed visit was a horrible thing, and the little things mattered so much when I had nothing else. Um. And this basketball game, I know I’ve talked about this before. But this one girl kicked my freaking ass. In my face, knocking me over, intercepting every pass, blocking every shot. She didn’t have any powers or anything, she was just… good. Better.”
“A lot of things came into focus in that moment.”
“Every time she or one of her teammates beat me, I could see the look of disappointment on my parent’s faces. In the other moments, they looked so bored. And it was boring, you know. No parent wants to go sit through amateurs doing badly at a high school sport.”
“Anyway, she hit me hard, she said something about me being overrated, and it was the last straw. Realizing I stood so far from family, that I didn’t want to be there, but I had no other choice, my sternum was hurting where she’d driven her elbow into me. I got my powers.”
“Years of wanting, leading up to that.”
She’d caught the thread I’d wanted to lay out. It helped. “And then just under three years as Victoria-slash-Glory-Girl. And then… hospital.”
“Which was undeniably horrible.”
“It felt like my life had ended. No hope or help. All I had to cling to were those memories of the three years I was Glory Girl. I could look back, think about every fight, every encounter. The ones I was proud of. The ones I wasn’t. I had so much regret, replaying events out in my head. It started with me thinking about- that moment when it all went so wrong. When she messed with my emotions, then going backward.”
Emotions caught me. I made my expression a scowl, because I was worried what my face might do otherwise.
“I was such a stupid fucking kid,” I said.
“That’s allowed,” she said.
I shook my head. “Not when you’re as strong as I am.”
“And you want to be emotionless? I don’t know if that’s healthy.”
“Not emotionless. But… smarter about it. The idea I keep coming back to is I want to be a warrior monk.”
“A warrior monk?”
“Just- centered when it counts, I guess?”
“Why the warrior part? Do you envision yourself fighting?”
“I don’t honestly know. It never occurred to me.”
“What’s next for Victoria Dallon?” she asked.
“You need to mock me, say Victoria Dallon, warrior monk,” I said. “I deserve it.”
“I wouldn’t,” she said. “If everyone in costume could remain centered while doing what they do, it would make a world of difference. I think it’s good. I’d think about that more as you take your next steps.”
“I know I want to move forward, because… I dunno. I feel like I’m a shark that drowns if it stops moving, or a bird that drops out of the air like a stone if I’m not flying forward. I know I need to get some of the basics of life squared away. I’m okay for money for a couple of months, but I can’t stay on Crystal’s couch.”
“In my brief interactions with Crystal, I did like her,” Jessica said.
“She’s great. But not great to live with long-term, I don’t think. You’d never know it to look at her, she’s beautiful, she’s fashionable, and very well put together, but if you looked at her apartment…”
I trailed off, using my expression to convey a bit of the horror to Jessica.
“Ah,” Jessica said. She smiled again.
“I don’t know what to do next.”
“Well, I’d think about how to apply the warrior monk role to your day to day life,” she said. She pulled off her jacket. The weather had warmed up enough. “What it means to you, why it’s the first thing or the recurring thing in your thought processes.”
“I just want to… do.”
“You said you regretted yesterday, but Jasper thanked you. Would you rather have not done it? Is it the ‘want’ in wanting to do things that’s problematic, or is it the ‘do’?”
I drew in a deep breath. “That’s… a very complicated question, I think.”
“You don’t have to answer it right now,” she said.
“I think I can, though. I think… I had to. And as much as it was hard and cost me my job, I preferred it to the alternative. I can’t not do things that help out. I just want to do it in a good, centered way.”
“Could it be a mundane job? Construction? Desk work? Would you want to do something like you were doing with the patrol?”
I thought about it.
I couldn’t see it. Not long-term.
“What’s the first thing that comes to mind?” she asked.
“I think… fuck me, I think even now, I can’t quite see myself being anything but a hero. There are good people I’ve gotten to know. People I want to protect and help. Like Gilpatrick, like Weld and Vista and my cousin and a couple of the teenagers I was working with in patrol block. You. I want good things for them.”
“Thank you,” she said. “That means a lot to me.”
“I’ve been trying to convince myself there’s some other way, but… I can’t not do anything.”
“There’s worse things. Especially if you can do it smart and centered.”
“I don’t want to be Glory Girl,” I said. “Someone remarked yesterday that they’d thought she died and… good. She can stay dead.”
“Sounds like you have an idea of what you’re doing next.”
“It’s the wrong climate for it,” I said. “I just watched a team of heroes get eaten alive by the public. One took a bullet.”
“Figure it out,” she said.
“Again, there’s no rush,” she said.
“I can’t sit still,” I said. “There’s a bit of a rush.”
“Touch base with me,” she said. “We’ll go out for coffee, catch up. I can offer unofficial, more-friend-than-therapist advice. I think you’ll figure it out, and I can give you a few nudges here and there.”
That gave me pause.
“You’re not a therapist anymore?” I asked.
“Just the opposite,” she said. “I’m very much a therapist. Ten hour days, six or seven days a week, and other peripheral obligations. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to take you on as a patient again, Victoria, as much as I would dearly like to.”
That hurt. I didn’t want to say it, but it did hurt.
“I just joined the Wardens as a staff psychologist for their junior members and some special cases, and I’m just not equipped, unfortunately. If you want it, I could try finding a colleague who you could talk to. Most are as busy as I am, so it might take a bit of time.”
I want you.
“Sorry to take up your time today, when you’re as busy as you are.”
“It’s more than alright, Victoria,” she said. She was looking straight ahead as she talked, one hand on her jacket as she walked. “With the hours I work, I lose objectivity. It becomes the work, and I lose sight of the patients. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wins. Like I said, you were a patient close to my own heart, and I thought you were one of the ones we lost. Seeing you, hearing you? It means the world to me. It gives me a measure of hope.”
She looked over at me. “I’ll reach out to a colleague. I’ll see what I can do, if that’s okay. Give you some reassurance there.”
“I-” I started.
“It’s okay, but… if you wanted to reassure me-” I said.
It felt a little less like I could talk about certain topics with her, now.
“If it’s within my power, I’ll try anything,” she said.
“My sister,” I said, my voice soft. “Send someone her way.”
Mrs. Yamada raised one eyebrow.
I knew what she was thinking. She wondered if it was selflessness, or if I was a surprisingly good person. I wasn’t.
“She’s the scariest damn person in the world, Jessica,” I said. “And I don’t think that’s bias. There’s a chance she’s going to do something bad, and she’s so damn powerful, that when and if it happens, it’s going to be so much worse than what happened to me, and it’s going to affect an awful lot more people.”