Flare – 2.5

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“A mistake?”

“I worry it’s the case.  Time will tell, but I can make educated guesses and I have concerns.”

“I have to admit, I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.  “I’d say you’re only human or you’re only mortal, but doesn’t that sound condescending, coming from a parahuman?”

“We’re all mortal, Victoria.  Even Scion was.”

I nodded.

It was strange to hear that name spoken out loud.  Nine out of ten times, people would avoid saying it out loud.  As if they couldn’t reconcile the first hero with the thing that had ended the world.

“I’d like to help,” I said.  “A couple of things are off the table, obviously, but you know what they are, I think.  I wouldn’t be okay if you wanted me to reach out to my sister, or that kind of thing.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do that, no.  This isn’t anything of that scale, but…” she frowned.  “Given our relationship, with you having been my patient, there’s a power imbalance.  I want to do what I can to ensure I don’t abuse it.  I want to be fair to you.”

“Okay,” I said.  After a pause, I added, “I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Even if this turns out to be minor, it is hard to do without risking a breach of trust and damage to our friendship.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I want to ensure we’re on the same page, when it comes to expectations.  I definitely don’t want you to feel obligated, whether it’s because you feel you owe me something, or because you feel you should.  I know there’s a tendency among heroes to want to step forward and help.  I’ve counseled many a junior hero that they needed to learn to pick their battles.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.  “I pick my battles.  Except for the broken trigger last week, the community center, and, oh, everything else.”

“It is a concern,” she said.  She matched my smile with a small one of her own, but it was fleeting, more an acknowledgement of the joke than anything.  “You’re quick to say you want to help, before you even know what I’m going to ask.”

I nodded.  “I don’t think you’d ask if you hadn’t thought over it.  I trust you.”

“I’d still be concerned, grateful as I am for your trust in me.”

I swished the ice in my iced tea.

“I am sorry,” she said.

“Sorry?”

“If I’ve upset you, approaching this like I have.”

“Did I give you that impression?  That I was upset?”  I was pretty sure my face hadn’t betrayed anything.  I was reasonably sure my power wasn’t leaking, either.

“You did.  And if I’m right about that, please don’t misunderstand me, I am sorry, and I wouldn’t fault you for being upset.  I would like to have meetings like the one I think you were anticipating today.  You and me, staying in touch to a degree, talking over iced tea and ice coffee.  I’d hoped to have one of those meetings before getting around to this topic.”

So it wasn’t too urgent, then.

“Okay,” I said.  I took another careful sip of my iced tea.

She drew in a deep breath, reached back to where the damp, folded paper towel was laying against her neck, and set it within the lid of her iced coffee, which she’d put to one side.  She stared down at it for a moment.

I waited.  I had some ideas about what she was getting around to.  I also had things I might have said, but I was worried that, depending on what she was going to say next, they could be things I’d regret.  If her reasons were good, if they were personal…

I was so fucking done with regrets.  I didn’t want to add more, especially any tied to Jessica.

“I don’t want to compound my mistakes elsewhere with one here.  With that in mind, I want to make it absolutely clear that this isn’t an obligation.  I’d like a bit of help, if you heard me out and were comfortable giving it.  I’d explain the situation as best as I could, but the confidentiality of other patients makes things difficult.”

“What do you need?”

“Before we get into that, touching back on what I said before about wanting to be fair to you, I’ve contacted a colleague.  He’ll be your therapist if you still want one.  He’s waiting for your call and he’ll make an appointment with you.”

“You didn’t have to do that.  I wouldn’t want to burden you guys more.  What’s going on, that you’re going to all this?”

“Maybe it’s necessary, maybe not, but it’s my apology and my thanks to you for having this conversation with me, and for any compromise of the relationship.  It doesn’t mean you have to hear me out, and it absolutely doesn’t mean you have to say yes.  Alright?”

“Alright, but it doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“It matters to me,” she said, firm.

“Okay,” I said, a little exasperated.  It was clear Jessica was stubborn when she was bothered by something.  “Fine.  You made a mistake, you want my help.  I’ll phone your colleague and possibly go see him.  I’ll weigh what you’re asking and I’ll try to make an objective decision.  Which may be no.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you need?” I asked, again, holding my iced tea in both hands.

Mrs. Yamada wasn’t ‘Jessica’ anymore, not any more than capes went by their civilian names in costume.  She was in her professional attire, a suit jacket over a blouse, a business skirt, minimal jewelry, minimal and tasteful makeup.  Papers rustled as she paged through files and as the wind blew into the room.

She had told me to dress in a way that was comfortable for me.  It was still hot out and I’d had to travel forty miles to get to a place where Mrs. Yamada could pick me up to drive me the rest of the way.  Even though the heat persisted, the weather had broken, the humidity giving way to a light thunderstorm.  I wore a white dress with a black hood built into it, the Brockton Bay skyline printed in what looked like black and grey watercolors across the breast, the city’s name below and to the side.  There was a scribbling of more watercolor and lettering at the hem.  The white fabric was a thin sweatshirt-like material, so the hood hadn’t been much use against the rain.

The windows were open and the blinds closed, periodically clacking against the windowsills.  The wind wasn’t blowing in a direction that sent the rain into the room, but droplets still beaded the blinds closer to the bottom.  The lights felt artificially bright, in contrast to how dark the clouds and sky were outside.  The room was set up like a high school classroom, minus the ‘class’, no students, no mess, no bulletin board with scraps on it or whiteboard with weeks-old marks that hadn’t been wiped away.  Eight chairs were arranged in a ring at the center, instead of five columns of six desks.

There was a teacher’s desk at the front, and Mrs. Yamada was there, looking over some files.  I’d caught some glimpses of the pictures on the fronts, purely by accident.  I could have pried more, maybe caught a name or a heading by reading upside-down, and I’d decided not to.  She wouldn’t have wanted me to.

“Do I have a file?” I asked.  She startled a little, as if she’d forgotten I was there.

She’d been in the zone, I realized.  She might have needed to be.  She didn’t wear it on her face or in her body language, but there was a reason she was so immersed in what she was reading.

I could relate to that, in a way.  During my hospital stay, I’d delved deep into my studies, struggled with the keyboard as I read everything I could find, while furthering my studies with long-distance education.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said.

“It’s fine.  You did have a file.  You don’t now, I’m afraid.  Unless it’s somewhere in the rubble.”

I nodded.

She glanced at the clock.  “One of the group’s members tends to arrive early.  She should be here momentarily.”

I looked up at the clock.  One fifty in the afternoon.  From how dark it was outside, I might have thought it was five hours later in the day.  “Good to know.”

“It will be interesting to see how you two get on.”

“Huh.”

I heard the footsteps and glanced at the clock again.  Not even a minute had elapsed.  Was this person that punctual?

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected.  She wasn’t yet a teenager,  or if she was then she was a late bloomer, but she wasn’t wholly a ‘child’ either.  ‘Tween’.  My first thought was that she was as cute as a button, and not in the pink princess way.

She was black, her arms and legs long and skinny, her eyes large in proportion to her face.  She was studying me with just as much or more intensity than I studied her, as we sized each other up.

She was dressed or had been dressed with an eye for modern fashion, fitting to her age.  She wore a blue corduroy pinafore dress with metal studs forming a star shape at the leg.  Her top was a t-shirt, with an image on it in sequins, the kind that had two different images, depending on the direction the sequins were swept.  The image depicted a blue heart if brushed one way, a yellow star if swept the other; I knew because it was a jumbled mix of both.

The reason I thought that she might have been dressed by someone else was that she was so very precise about how she’d put her outfit together.  It was freshly ironed or fresh off the rack, and it was color matched from her shoes to the pins and ties in her hair.  The star theme too.  Kinky black hair had been fixed into place at the side of her head with a star pin, and carefully arranged into two small, tight buns at the back.  Glossy and taken care of, not a strand out of place.  It would have taken me twenty or thirty minutes to do the same, and my straight hair would have been easier to manage, even being as long as it was.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I responded.

“Gosh, you’re pretty,” she said.

I was momentarily lost for words.  Very direct.

“Thank you,” I said, glancing back at Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a cue.  She was focusing on her notes.  She briefly met my eye, but communicated nothing.

“I can tell you were a hero.  You have that air about you,” the girl said.

“Thank you,” I said, a little caught off guard.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

She smiled, her enthusiasm renewed, “It’s amazing to meet you.  I’m really interested to hear what you have to say.  I really want to be a hero, so I’m trying to learn all I can.”

“That could be good.  It’s better than the alternative, at least.”

“Isn’t it?  You were probably a good one, weren’t you?  You give me that impression.  You’re stylish, I really like your dress, and you have that posture, back straight, unyielding.  Only the best and the true up-and-comers have that.”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Yes?”

“There’s no pressure.”

Kenzie only smiled in response.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I was glad to have a window to speak.  “I like your outfit too, Kenzie.  Good clothes are so hard to get these days, aren’t they?”

“This outfit was part of a birthday present, but I think it was expensive, yeah.  I wanted to look nicer since we had someone new today.”

“There’s no need to go to extra trouble.  Not for me.”

“No trouble, no trouble,” she said, very cavalier.  She looked at Mrs. Yamada, “How are you today, Mrs. Yamada?”

“I’m doing very well today, Kenzie.  How are you this morning?”

“Can’t complain,” Kenzie said.  “Does it matter where I sit?”

“Nothing’s changed from the prior sessions.  Sit wherever you’re comfortable, it doesn’t matter.”

Kenzie smiled.  “I think it matters.  It means something.  Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” I said.

She seated herself in the chair next to the one I was standing beside.

I snuck a glance at Mrs. Yamada, and I saw concern.  Because of the others who were due to arrive?

“You probably caught my name, I’m Kenzie.”

She was extending a hand for me to shake.  I shook it, then turned the chair a bit as I sat down.  “Victoria.  Some call me Vicky, but I’m using that less these days.  You can use it if it’s easier.”

“And you’re a heroine?”

“I used to be.  I’m on hiatus.”

“That’s the coolest thing,” Kenzie said.  “Costumes, fighting bad guys.”

“It had its ups and downs,” I said.  I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  Her focus was on her notes.

She noticed me looking and asked, “You used to be her patient?”

“I did.”

“She’s the best,” Kenzie said, leaning over and speaking with a voice quiet enough that Mrs. Yamada wouldn’t necessarily hear.

“Yeah,” I said.  Except for her apparent mistake here, which I wasn’t equipped to make a judgment call on.  Not quite yet.

“It’s good here; I always look forward to coming.  Everyone’s pretty neat.  That might not mean a lot coming from me, though.”

“How come?”

“I think everyone’s pretty neat,” she said.

“I see.  That’s admirable.”

The papers rustled.  Mrs. Yamada put the files in a filing cabinet beside the desk at the end of the room, locking them away.  She spoke aloud, “Can I get you two anything?  Water?”

“I’m fine, but thank you,” Kenzie said.

“No thank you,” I said.

“The others may be a bit late, with the weather being what it is.”

“I think we’ll survive the wait,” Kenzie said.  “Right, Victoria?”

“We’ll survive.  Past years have taught me patience, if nothing else,” I said.

“From being a Ward?  Were you a Ward?” Kenzie asked.

That wasn’t where or why, I thought, but I said, “Very briefly.  My family had a team.  Still does, kind of.”

Very kind of.

“Oh, wow, neat.”

I tried to find a diplomatic way to respond to that.

“Or not so neat?” Kenzie said.

“Ups and downs,” I said.

“I was with the PRT, but I wasn’t a Ward exactly,” she said.  “They had trouble sticking me anywhere, and then I went into training, and got to do a lot of really neat camps and exercises and travel, because they had to wait until I was old enough before they could put me where they really wanted to put me.”

“Which was?”

“Watchdog, grrr,” she said.  She’d made a pretty sad attempt at a growl, mischief in her eyes.  “That other branch that worked under the PRT that you almost never hear about.  Oversight and investigation, powers, money, and politics.”

“I know of Watchdog.”

“Cubicle superheroes.”

“They’re actually pretty badass from what I heard, and they do- did a lot of fieldwork and investigations, raiding offices, interrogations, talking to politicians, uncovering conspiracies.”

“That’s true.”

“There’s something about getting organized and going after that thinker or that tinker who’s been working behind the scenes, the guy that’s been subverting society for their own gain, when they’ve probably spent months or years making contingency plans and anticipating the day their world and their plans come crashing down around them.  I think that dynamic is pretty damn cool, the approach and the complexity of it.”

“Hmm, that is cool,” she said.  “Except there aren’t any awesome costumes or monster fighting.”

“Less monster fighting, I’m sure.  I’m not sure about the costumes.  There are probably masks, I guess?”

“And there’s some cublical- bleh.  Cubicle jockeying.”

She spoke so fast she had tripped over the word.

I replied, “Probably a lot, yeah.  But from my short stint in the Wards, there was a lot of paperwork there too.”

“That’s so true.  I was kind of a Ward, so I had to do some.  I think I was good at the paperwork.”

I was starting to feel like she’d been the one who had fussed with her appearance, rather than any parental figure.  Someone so fussy would’ve somehow been mentioned in the life story to this point.  It was very believable, too, to draw a connection between the fastidious appearance and her pride in the paperwork.

“I think I was too.”

She nodded, the conversation momentarily, almost mercifully pausing, then she found her place, enthusiasm returning.  “So yeah.  I was bouncing all over the place.  The Youth Guard stepped in, I’m not sure if you’ve had to deal with them.”

The Youth Guard or the Y.G. were the group that acted like the union that protected minors in Hollywood.  That had protected minors in Hollywood.  They were the group that made sure that Wards’ education and options didn’t suffer as a consequence for them being superheroes, that they didn’t dress provocatively, that they were safe and sane, that nobody took advantage, and other stuff.  They’d reached out to my parents at one point, because they weren’t limited to the PRT.  They were a guillotine that had hung over the heads of any team with under-eighteen heroes or heroines.

“I’ve heard the horror stories,” I said.

“They weren’t a horror story for me.  They said I was being moved around too much and I needed to go somewhere to stay.  Not going to the fun camps and training sucked, but I went back to Baltimore, and I got to set up my workshop, fi-nuh-ly.”

“Workshop, huh?”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada spoke up.  She still sat at the desk.  “You might want to be mindful of what you reveal.  I’ll get into that more when things get started, but take a moment and think before revealing things that might tie into your cape identity, or identifying parts of your background.”

“Yes, Mrs. Yamada,” Kenzie said.  Then she leaned close to me, whispering, “I took a moment to think and I think I’m safe telling you I’m a tinker.”

“Gotcha,” I said, mimicking her volume and whisper.

“Yep,” she said.  She pitched her voice lower, “The Youth Guard was good to me.  I liked the people who I worked with there, even if the people in charge of me didn’t.  Some of my favorite people next to Mrs. Yamada worked for them.  Not that that lasted for long.  That was only the spring of twenty-thirteen-”

As she talked, I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  It was clear she heard.

“-and then, well…”

“Yeah,” I said.

Gold Morning.

I was a little caught off guard by Kenzie, on a few fronts.  This wasn’t what I’d expected.  I glanced at the other chairs.

I got into a more comfortable position in the little booth, leaning against the window and taking a moment to digest what Mrs. Yamada had shared.  Someone else walked into the dark little shop, going straight to the counter, their eyes on the desserts behind the display.

“Group therapy?” I asked.

“With the full-time position I’m taking with the Wardens, I have the chance to help a lot of critical individuals.  The people I’ll be helping will be people who can help a lot of people in turn.  An incredible number, in some cases.  As attached as I am to my current patient caseload, and as much as I would like to take you on as a patient, it made the most sense to go this route.”

“Okay,” I said.

She frowned a little.

“But?” I asked.

“The role I held between Gold Morning and now was always going to be a transient one.  My patients and everyone else involved knew I was only seeing the patients I’m seeing now in a temporary way.  I’m one of several therapists who are rotating through a patient caseload, and only half were my patients and mine alone.  In making a transition, it is and was still my responsibility to look after those exclusive patients.”

“Okay.”  I connected that thought to how she’d found a therapist for me.  When it was a chore to get therapists to take new patients, it amounted to a pretty meaningful gesture.

“I’m referring the ones I can to other therapists.  I’m in touch with twelve people who work with parahumans and a few who are breaking into that field.  Not a single one of us is working less than seventy hours a week.  Some of my patients didn’t need counseling anymore, and I was only helping them to find their equilibrium after Gold Morning.  Others are on their way to a new facility in this world’s Europe, which they’ve been anticipating for over a year now.  If you were still in the same condition as you were when I first met you, I would be recommending you go there.”

I nodded.  I didn’t like thinking about it.

“I couldn’t find places for everyone, and I’d turn down the job before I abandoned patients in need.  With the remainder, I saw common ground among them.  Not all of them, but enough of them that it seemed like things could be workable.  Some supplied, needed, or were looking into the same kinds of assistance, which is what prompted the line of thinking.  I was going to introduce them regardless, I could see them talking, and I thought it would be best to have the initial and deeper talks in a supervised setting.”

“And from there, it was a short jump to thinking about group therapy.”

“Yes.  Group therapy, interpersonal group therapy, seemed appropriate for what I wanted them to address with each of them.  It meant that in the time before I took on my full-time role with the Wardens, I could devote more time to more of them.  In an ideal world, if there were some who still needed attention by the time I was done, I could call in favors or find places for them.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Was it group therapy like I was a part of?”

“The therapy you were a part of was encounter-driven.  Different.  More involved, more simulations, acting and role-playing, confrontation, learning assertiveness as opposed to, say, aggressive behavior, or overly passive behavior.  Engaging with peers.”

“I didn’t really do anything except sit there.”

“But you wrote the scripts.  You listened to the others, and you visualized ways you wanted the conversations to go.  I got the impression it was pretty intense, even when you were a step removed in your participation.”

“Sure,” I said.  A large part of what I’d contributed to those sessions had played into my last interaction with my mom.

Not that that interaction had gone well, but I could imagine that if I’d found myself in that same situation without the grounding of knowledge from those sessions, I might not have had the words to articulate as much of what I’d wanted to.  It was even possible that, without the conflict resolution skills, I might have hurt someone.

The recollections of the therapy and of my mom were heavy, pressing down on me and my chest.  I took a long sip of my iced tea.  It was cold and sensory, pulling me away from that rabbit hole of dark thoughts.

“This group was intended to be slower-paced, less intense,” she said.

“Even with the time constraint?”

“Yes, even with.  Part of it is that, as I said, it was the most appropriate for what I wanted to address.”

“Part?”

“The other part ties back to what I said about introductions, how the first meetings are the trickiest.  It was a delicate balancing act to begin with, compared to your group, where we added someone new once every few weeks or months, while the rest of the group remained fairly stable.  With this group, having them all meet at once, I thought it would be best to keep things calmer.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“My colleagues like to say there is a truism with groups of parahumans.  That the larger the group in question, the greater the chance of a schism or disaster.  I’m not sure I like exactly how the idea is presented a lot of the time it comes up, but…”

I thought of my sister.

“Groups of capes get pretty volatile,” I finished the sentence for her.  “Each person you add is another chance for things to go wrong.”

Three more members joined the group.  An unknown boy and two people I knew, male and female.

When I realized who I was looking at, though, my jaw dropped.  I stood from my chair.

She, for her part, was on a similar page.  She stared at me, confused at first.  Then reality dawned for her as well.

She was pale in a way that skin didn’t tend to be, and she had a mane of black hair.  A small black tattoo marked her cheekbone, partially obscured by skin-tone makeup that had streaked in the rain.  For all that she was almost monochrome from the neck up, she was a riot of color from the neck down.  Sveta.

Her hands went to her mouth.

She closed the distance between us with a half-stagger, half-run kind of movement.  I caught a glimpse of her tearing up before she threw her arms around me, colliding with me.  I caught my bearings and hugged her back.

“You’re okay,” she mumbled into my shoulder.

“I’m-” I started, lost for words.  I looked at Weld, who stood in the doorway, smiling as wide as I’d ever seen him smile.

My arms still around her, I reached out with one hand, groping in Weld’s general direction, as if I could get the words that way.

“Fantastic,” Weld said.  “This is perfect.”

He looked a little less neat than he’d been when I’d known him in Brockton Bay, but not as wild or ‘monstrous’ as I’d seen in the pictures online, back when he’d been a member of the Irregulars.  His skin was dark iron, his eyes silver, veins of more silver tracing from the corners of the eyes.  His hair was wire, made to look more free and unruly.  He was wearing a henley shirt, khaki shorts and sandals that looked like they were made of metal and what might’ve been tire rubber.  I couldn’t imagine any other material that would hold up when bearing the weight of someone that was heavy metal from head to toe.

Beside him was a guy, brown-skinned, with the sides and back of his hair cut short.  The hair on top had to have been painted rather than dyed, because it was magenta, and I couldn’t imagine getting black hair dyed magenta without bleaching it to the point of destroying it, and the rolling curls retained their shape despite the droplets of rain that clung to it.  He was smiling, but more because he looked like the type that very much enjoyed others being happy.  The magenta-haired guy’s shirt was form-fitting to his upper body, showing off lean muscle, and looked like a surfer’s rash guard.  He wore black shorts and sandals.

I turned my attention to the girl of the trio.  I couldn’t believe it was Sveta.

Who was practically sobbing now, apparently.

Emotion was welling in my own chest.  I put my hand on the back of her head, and I felt the hair stir, the tissues beneath the wig moving.

“Well, I think this has made my everything,” Weld said.

“Your everything?” the magenta-haired guy asked.

“Saying it made my day, my week, or even my month wouldn’t be enough,” Weld said, still smiling.  “You’re okay, Victoria?”

“Two arms, two legs,” I said.

“That’s great,” he said.  “Sveta was so attached to you, she hated leaving you behind.”

Sveta nodded, head rubbing against my shoulder.

“And we’d thought you’d died,” Weld said.  “When G.M. happened.  Hearing you were alive was amazing on its own, but you’re… you’re back.  Fantastic.

Sveta made a sound, emotions pouring over, before hiccuping with a sob.

I stroked the back of her head, trusting that someone would tell me not to if it was dangerous.

Then again, I didn’t have my forcefield up.

I could have mentioned it.  I didn’t.

“You have a body,” I whispered.  I could feel it.  It was hard, unyielding.  She creaked in places, and the way she’d moved- the colors and textures I’d seen-

None of that mattered.  She had a body.

“It took some doing,” Weld said.  “It took a lot of doing.  It’s been a whole adventure to get even this far.  It’s not even tinkertech.  Regular prosthetics and some inventiveness from some really stellar people.  Arms, legs, body, some stuff to keep it upright, some machine learning systems that adapt to meet her partway, and a lot of practice on her part, to operate everything internal.”

Sveta pulled away.  She looked me in the eye, reaching up to wipe at her tears.  The hands didn’t seem cooperative enough, almost like someone holding a baseball bat by one end was trying to wipe away tears with the other.

I hesitated, before indicating her face.  “Do you want a hand?”

She nodded, and I wiped the tears away with my fingers.  She smiled, even as more welled up.

“You’re such a sneak, Jessica,” Weld said.  “Not telling us?”

“I did tell you Victoria was recovered.”

“I thought you meant she was mobile enough to get to the meeting place on her own.  I didn’t think you meant a complete and total recovery,” Weld said.

I wanted to turn to see Mrs. Yamada’s expression, but it was hard to move with Sveta hugging me.  She was silent, though.

Behind Weld, someone else was ducking into the room.  He looked like he was of a height with Kenzie, but given how boys developed slower, he might’ve been a touch older.  He had a mess of tousled brown hair that would have been over his eyes if he wasn’t wearing large headphones as a kind of hairband.  He had a very flat expression as he walked around the perimeter of the room.  His t-shirt was black with a logo I didn’t recognize, his cargo shorts had stuff packed into the pockets, but he mostly looked like a very average kid.  Only his old fashioned braces really stood out to me- the kind that made it hard for him to put his lips together.

Sveta twisted around, one hand reaching out to me to steady herself.  She looked over at Kenzie, then at the magenta-haired fellow, and then at the new kid.  She failed on her first attempt at speaking, then managed.  “She was my first friend ever, that I can remember.”

“I didn’t know that,” I murmured.

“I didn’t have anyone, and- there was a time where I was cooped up in a sealed room in the hospital and stuff was going on outside, with the PRT and the other case fifty-threes.  They introduced me to people who were harder for me to hurt.  Victoria was one of them.  I liked her, and she knew Weld, and she put up with me for some reason, so we kept talking and meeting.”

I leaned closer, whispering in her ear.  “For some reason?  You helped keep me sane.  You were my friend.

Stop it, dummy.  You’re going to make me cry more,” she whispered back.  “And I can’t believe I’m finally hearing your voice for real.

And with that last statement she was tearing up more.

Since when are you this much of a crier?” I asked.

I’m all emotionally open and shit now,” she whispered.  “Blame Weld.  And blame yourself, being all normal and stuff.

“I’m pretty sure I just caught you saying my name just now,” Weld said.  “Maybe that’s my cue to duck out before you start badmouthing me.”

“I’d never ever badmouth you,” Sveta said, at normal volume.  She’d turned to face him, and I held her arm to steady her as she swayed a bit.  “What would I even say?”

“I hear people coming anyway,” Weld said.  He stopped, looking at Sveta and me, then smiled wide.  “This is fantastic.”

Sveta hugged my arm.

“You’ve said that a lot,” the Magenta-haired boy said.

“I can’t even begin to tell you,” Weld said.  “In more than one way.  I’ll leave it for Victoria to share.”

“Maybe we can chat another time,” the boy said.  “We could hang out.”

“If Sveta, Victoria, and Jessica okay it,” Weld said, clapping a hand on the guy’s shoulder.  “I don’t want to throw any wrenches into the therapy or make anything awkward by blurring lines.”

“Send me an email if you want to discuss it.  It’s always good to see you, Weld,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I’ll do that, and it’s good to see you too, Jessica.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make the time to sit in.”

“Totally understandable.  Good luck.  We may run into each other if you stick with the Wardens.”

“Excellent,” Weld said.  He glanced at us, delivering a wink probably more meant for Sveta than for me.  “Fantastic.  I’ll text you when I have an idea of what’s happening with my afternoon, Sveta.”

“Good luck,” Sveta said.

With a parting salute, he was gone.

I took my seat, giving my hand to Sveta, as she collapsed into the chair on the other side of me.  Now that she wasn’t bear-hugging me, I could see that a lot of the color on her was that the prosthetic body she wore had been painted.  Bumps and collisions had chipped some of the paint, but from the neck down, everything that wasn’t covered in clothing was painted in rolling waves, in sea serpents, birds and reptiles.  The colors were bright and bold, like graffiti, the living things hot orange, the background cool blues and greens.  Her clothes were relatively plain, a black top and brown pants, and looked to be relatively thick and durable, but the plain-ness was marred by the small streaks and smudges of paint that she’d gotten on it, most of it in long, thin slashes.

The seating arrangement put me between her and Kenzie.  Kenzie, for the time being, was leaning over to the new addition to the group, the boy with braces.  She seemed to be filling him in on what he’d missed.

“Tristan,” the magenta-haired boy said, approaching.  He extended a hand.  I shook it.

“Victoria.”

“Will your brother be joining us today?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“I asked, he didn’t reply,” Tristan said.

“Brother?” I asked.

“Twin,” Tristan said.  He pointed at his hair.  “Part of the reason I make myself so easily identifiable.  He’s Byron, he used to have blue-green hair to match me, but he quit doing that.”

“Good to know,” I said.

Blue hair.

I thought of my youngest cousin. Where Crystal had always had the red-magenta look, Eric had gone with the blue, dying his hair.  It was a sad, wistful thought.  With so many losses in recent memory, so much tumult, it felt very distant.  That distance didn’t make it it feel any less painful.  If I’d been burned on an hourly, daily or weekly basis for the last four years, the death of Eric and Uncle Neil would have been the very first time my hand was shoved down and held to the oven ring.

Alarming and hard to process in how devastating and raw it had been, important, but still a very long time ago.

I changed up my focus, “You all came in together.  Are you friends?”

“No.  Or kind of?” Tristan asked.

“Kind of,” Sveta said.

Tristan explained, “I ran into Weld and Sveta on the way into the first session.  He dropped her off at the front door because he had a place to be, and I offered my arm.  Sveta and I geeked out together over Weld.”

“He’s geek-out worthy,” I said.

Tristan smiled.  “Does the impromptu Weld fan club have another member?”

“Nah,” I said.  “No, I’m just a fan in a very mundane way.  I think he’s a good guy.”

Sveta nodded emphatically.

“At our first meeting, Tristan kept saying he was Weld’s number one fan,” Kenzie joined in.

“Oh, that.  Don’t remind me,” Tristan said.

“I won’t, then,” Kenzie said, deflating a little.

Tristan sighed, glancing at the rest of the room.  “Nah, it’s no good to leave our guest in the lurch, and I’m supposed to be holding myself accountable.  You might as well share, I’ll take my licks.”

“Alright,” Kenzie said, perking up considerably at the same time Tristan withered.  “So Tristan kept saying it, casually mentioning the posters he had before, and he had merchandise.”

“Weld figurine, from his stint in the Boston Wards.  One where he was wearing his first costume, too,” Tristan said.  “I miss that thing.”

“I want one,” Sveta said.  “Would it be weird if I had one?”

Kenzie continued, “So he kept saying all that, because he was so psyched he got to meet Weld.  Then Sveta finally speaks up, and she was very quiet when she said it, but she said ‘I probably have you beat.’”

“I’m competitive,” Tristan said.  “So I was pretty adamant that no, no she didn’t.”

Sveta looked like she was on top of the world, smiling to herself.  She wiped at her face with one prosthetic hand- she still had tracks of tears on her face.  I leaned closer, whispering.  “Want a tissue?”

She nodded.  I stood from my seat while the conversation continued.

“…And she says she’s his girlfriend,” Kenzie said.

Tristan sighed.  “Yep.”

“She’s living with him, and they sleep in the same bed, and they make each other breakfast,” Kenzie said.

I liked the mental image.  I liked that Sveta was smiling as much as she was.

“It’s hard to beat that,” Tristan said.

I collected a tissue from Mrs. Yamada’s desk, glancing at her.  She seemed pretty unbothered by this, so far.

“I don’t think it’s about winning,” Sveta said.

I handed the tissue to Sveta as I retook my seat, and she set about patting her cheeks dry.  A little bit more of the cover-up makeup came away from the tattoo.

“Yeahhhh,” Tristan drew out the word.  He added,  “Easy to say when you’re the clear winner.”

“That’s fair,” Sveta said.

“That’s a joke, by the way.  I’m not being serious here.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I was wondering there.”

Another person had entered the room.  A boy, Caucasian, with shoulder-length brown-blond hair.  He had a cut under one eye and another cut on the bridge of his nose.  His jeans were ripped at the knee and his shirt was baggy, a size too big for him.  The sleeves were long, red where the torso was white, and they had been rolled up to the elbow.  His sneakers had seen a lot of abuse, by the looks of it.  The white parts were brown and grey in a way that made me suspicious that even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t get them purely white again.  He looked sixteen or seventeen.

“But yeah, damn, I don’t look good enough in a dress, so I have to concede.  Hey Rain,” Tristan said.

“Heya,” the boy who was apparently called ‘Rain’ said.  He took the empty seat next to Tristan. “Why are you wearing a dress?”

“Just joking around.”

There were still two empty seats.  One would be Jessica’s.  There’d be one more, then.

“You made it here okay?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah.  I got a ride.”

“How are things?” Kenzie asked Rain.  She gestured at her head in a way I didn’t see, with her head blocking my view of the hand on the other side.

Rain seemed to take a second to ponder it.  He frowned a little.  “Not great.”

“Better or worse than last week?” Kenzie asked.

“Let’s save the therapy-relevant stuff for the session,” Mrs. Yamada interrupted.  “Small talk and catching up for now, please.  We don’t want to get started before everyone’s here, and I want to go over ground rules and expectations before we ask anything too personal.”

Kenzie smiled and shrugged, settling back into her seat, hands in her lap.

“Alright,” Rain said.  He turned his attention to me.  “This is the heroine?”

“Ex-, kind of,” I said.  “But yeah.  Victoria.”

“Hi.  I’m Rain.  Spelled like the water that falls from the sky.”

“Cape or civilian name?” I asked.

“I hate that you have to ask.  Civilian.  And before you comment on it, yeah, I know.  It’s unusual, I’ve heard the jokes.”

He’d said it as if his patience on the subject had run short a long time ago.  I threw up my hands in mock surrender, my mouth firmly shut.

He said, “You said ex, but you didn’t sound sure.  Are you taking a break?  Or…?”

“Trying to get back into it after a break, but ended up taking another short break to focus on some background stuff.   Getting a handle on things.”

“Yeah,” he said, as if I’d said something very heavy, and he’d felt part of that weight.  “I feel like I’ve been trying to get a handle on things since I got my powers.”

“For a while now, then?  If I can ask?”

“Just under a year ago,” he said.  “I think, along with Chris, I’m the rookie here.”

Post-Gold Morning.  That helped put things in context.

Chris, too.  By process of elimination, he’d be the boy roughly Kenzie’s age.

“Family thing.  You said that once,” Kenzie said.  Rain acknowledged that with a nod.

“Second gen?” I asked.  I wondered if I had any kindred on that front.

“There are a lot of questions you can ask about the parahuman stuff,” he said.  “When it comes to me, the answer to most of them is ‘it’s complicated’.”

“That’s fair,” I said.  “For a while now I’ve thought that parahumans should get a membership card, materializing in our hands when we trigger, or arriving in the mail at the first opportunity.  A warning on one side, ‘handle with care’, and then on the other side, ‘shit is complicated, don’t ask’.  Something that we can flash now and again, like a get out of jail free card.”

“Mine would be worn out, both sides,” Rain said.

“I could get good mileage out of the ‘shit is complicated’ side,” Tristan said.

“Now I feel left out,” Kenzie said.  “I’d like to think mine would be nice and neat, stored away as a just-in-case.”

“Really?” Tristan asked.  “Really?”

“Ruh-heally,” Kenzie said, with exaggerated emphasis and a roll of the eyes.  Tristan mirrored her pose some.

“I do like the idea,” Rain said.  “The card.”

Rain wasn’t a smiler, by the looks of it, but he’d seemed to relax more as I talked to him.

“By the way, I should have asked, am I allowed to swear?” I asked, twisting around to face Mrs. Yamada.

“Swearing is fine In moderation,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Being here wouldn’t be nearly as positive if you couldn’t say what you wanted to say.  There’s a point where swearing takes away from the communication and expression I’m hoping to see, where you hide behind the swearing, or where it’s disruptive.  I think you six have a good sense of where that point is.  I may referee if we get close to it.”

“Alright,” I said.

“I remember the group therapy session we had back at the hospital,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” I said.  Sveta had only been there for the initial sessions.  She’d left, I’d stayed.  “Plenty of swearing.  But it was different, and we didn’t have any kids in the group.”

“Well, not young kids,” Sveta said.

I looked over at Kenzie and Chris.  “Will I be overstepping or bothering you if I call you kids?  I’m not sure where the comfort zones are.”

Kenzie snorted.  “It’s fine.”

“Nah,” Chris said, “Hospital?  You were at the Asylum?”

He’d barely hesitated a second.  He’d been so quiet up until now, and then the moment I’d given him an avenue to join the conversation, he went straight from negation to asking questions.

Not pleasant questions either.

“Oh.  Sorry,” Sveta said, to me.  “I should have thought you might not want to broadcast it.  I’m sorry.  I kind of brought it up earlier, too.”

On its own, it was something I could handle most of the time, but it might have been a return to the group therapy session, the presence of Sveta and Mrs. Yamada, even, and possibly the fact that I’d had a few reminders and it was harder and harder to surface, while it almost felt like Chris was pressing down.

Dark, uncomfortable memories stirred.  Being paralyzed, silent, the interminable restlessness.  The way the things on the television and radio had been almost unbearable to see and listen to, not because of the subject matter, but because of my inability to change the channel or shut it off, even though I’d asked for it to be put on in the first place.

I had to take a second to swallow and remember normal breathing and cadence again, after thinking about it.

“Let’s not put too much pressure on Victoria, please,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I understand that you might feel the need to vet her or figure out if you can trust her, and that makes sense, given the degree of what’s shared here, but let’s be fair.  Let’s keep the small talk small, I’ll outline things as we start, and you can decide if you’re uncomfortable.  If you are, then we’ll figure out a way to move forward.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“If you’re sure.”

“It’s fine,” I said, glad I was able to find and use a normal tone of voice without any giveaway.  I turned back to Chris, “Yeah.  I was there.  Arrived midway through twenty-eleven, year and a half, and then the Asylum-supported housing after.”

“Right,” Chris said.  “Brockton Bay before that?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wondered for a second at his jumping to the conclusion, before I remembered I had the city and its name on my dress.

“There was a lot of Brockton Bay in the news, before,” he observed.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Not a lot of it good.”

I wasn’t sure how to approach the conversation with Chris.  He was hard to read, in fashion, in expression- I’d glance at his mouth to see if he was smiling or frowning and I’d only see the braces.  He’d been quiet up until now, too, which meant I didn’t have a lot to go on.

Something about him bothered me.  It wasn’t just the slant of his questions or the way it felt like they were pressing at me, but his demeanor, and little things about his appearance I couldn’t put my finger on.  The messiness of his hair was one of those things.  It looked like he had three cowlicks – two at either corner of his hairline and one by his temple.  With his hair pushed back by the headphones he hadn’t taken off, they looked a little like small bald patches with the way the hair splayed out from those points.  He held his hands with his fingers curled in.  It was offputting in a mild way that lined up with how he came hitting me with those uncomfortable, prying questions and comments.

I wondered if he was one of the ones Mrs. Yamada had been worried about, as part of this group.  One of the additions that catalyzed something volatile.

That might have been unfair.

“Weld was there for a lot of it,” Sveta said, backing me up.  “I’ve heard some of what happened.  Things got scary.”

In all fairness, as fond as I was of her, I did find something amusing in how it was Sveta saying that last bit.  “Scary’s a good way to put it.”

“But you’re still wearing the shirt,” Rain observed.  “You’re attached to the city.”

“Sure.  It’s my city.  I grew up there.”

“But you admit it was scary?” Rain asked.

“The city isn’t defined by what happened to it.  Just like we aren’t the bad experiences that happen to us,” I said.

“Aren’t we?” Chris asked, leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees.  “We’re the sum of the things that have happened to us, good or bad.”

“We aren’t,” I said, firmly.  Then, on a moment’s reflection, I added, “We can’t be.  There’s a lot of other things going into it.”

“You’re making me think back to science class,” Rain said.  “I sucked at science.  What was it?  Nature or nurture?”

“Nature versus nurture, yeah,” Chris said.

“That’s it,” Rain said.  “I should have remembered that.  Are you all about the nature, then?”

I thought of my family.  I’m not sure that’s much better. 

Amy had agonized over that one.

“We’re getting into territory that’s close to being therapy again,” Mrs. Yamada said, rescuing me from the line of thinking.  “So I’m going to interrupt.  But it’s a good point to keep in mind for our discussions later today.  I’m keeping an eye on the clock, and we’re ready to start.”

Sounds good, I thought.  I glanced at the empty chairs.

She walked around the perimeter of the room, stopping when she stood behind one of the empty chairs.  “Let me recap for our visitor and remind the rest of the group what I said at the start of the first session.  This particular type of group therapy focuses on self-reflection, effective socializing, supporting each other, helping to problem solve, and examining the patterns we fall into, both the constructive and the problematic.  Each of you has spent some time with me working on these things, and this is the platform where we put a lot of that into practice.”

My role in this, Victoria, is to be the referee and the coach.  I’ll try to ensure everyone gets their turn and has a voice.  I’ll try to head off or steer the discussion if it gets into less constructive territory, and to keep things moving if needed.  I’ll be chiming in periodically to ensure that confidentiality is stressed.  I’ve had Victoria review the same materials I gave the rest of you.”

I nodded.

“While I can promise you confidentiality on my part, and while I’ll encourage you all to maintain it, I can’t guarantee it.  If any of you were to pursue villainous activities, the other members of the group could be compelled to testify against you.  ”

The final member of the group entered the room.  She was somewhere between eighteen and twenty, but her height might have been deceiving.  Her white hair was long enough to reach the small of her back, her irises especially pale or similarly white, and she wore a black dress with a dozen straps overlapping in an intricate way at the shoulders and back.  The hem of the dress was damaged at one end.  Threads frayed, polyester melted, with a noticeable hole in it.

“Hi, boss,” Kenzie said, a twinkle of mischief in her eye as Mrs. Yamada gave her a stern look.

“I’m glad you could make it, Ashley,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’ve spent the last minute or two going over the basics, reminding others about the aims of the group and how confidentiality works in a group session.”

“To fill in our guest?” ‘Ashley’ asked.  She went straight to the table at the side of the room where a pitcher of water and paper cups were arranged, pouring herself a glass.

“Yes.  Her name is Victoria.  If you’ll take a seat, I’ll bring you anything else you need, but I’d like for everyone to be seated so I can continue.”

Ashley walked around behind me and circled the perimeter of the group to reach one of the empty seats.  She swept her hand behind her to brush her dress to one side, so it wouldn’t bunch up awkwardly beneath her as she took a seat on one of the two chairs between Rain and Chris.

She stared at me.  Maybe it would have been better to say she stared me down.

I, meanwhile, was left to digest the mistake of Mrs. Yamada’s that I was here to help address.  I was ninety-five percent sure I knew who ‘Ashley’ was when she was in costume, and I was left to take that knowledge and see how it fit together with the issue at hand.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “Use your own discretion when deciding what to share.  You’ve all agreed to participate, knowing the risks and difficulties inherent.  I’m hopeful this will be a positive set of exercises.  I think that more or less sums it up.  I suspect Victoria’s presence and the fact you’ve all had a week to think about what we talked about last session means you’ll have some questions.”

“It’s pretty late to be bringing her in,” Ashley said.  “Is she joining the group?”

“We hadn’t planned on her joining, per se,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I invited her because she’s exceptionally well equipped to address the topics that came up last session. We’ll build on it and you can decide what you’re willing to share here.  During our next and final session, depending on your comfort levels and how much you want to carry on today’s discussion, she may or may not be in attendance, or not for the full duration.”

“Is it really an ‘issue’?” Tristan asked, making air quotes.

“I think it could be.  Victoria can expand on why, shortly.”

“Are we supposed to know who she is?” Ashley asked.

I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  She was taking her seat between Ashley and Chris.  From the gesture in my direction, and the fact that she wasn’t stepping in, the ‘referee’ was leaving the ball in my court.

“I’m Victoria Dallon.  If you study Parahumans, my family comes up, because it’s a literal textbook case of powers running in families.  I… believe you’ve run into my family, Ashley.”

“Have I?  I’ve met so many capes it’s hard to keep track.”

“Do you know New Wave?” I asked.  “White bodysuits, symbols in colors?”

“I know a few people like that.  I didn’t always pay attention to names.”

“Would’ve been in Boston.  The slang term in the ‘scene’ was the Boston Games.”

Ashley smiled for the first time.

For the rest of the room, I explained, keeping half of an eye on Mrs. Yamada, to make sure I wasn’t overstepping.  “A series of arrests in Boston saw a shift in the power balance of local gangs.  That’s a pretty common thing, but the Protectorate team followed up on it hard, toppling just about every major and most minor gangs and villains in the city, leaving a void that was bigger than usual.  Villains of every power level and stripe flocked to the city, villains in neighboring cities had a vested interest in having a foothold there as a place to retreat to or a place to expand, and it became an entangled nightmare of villain politics and power plays.”

“Time of my life,” Ashley said.

“Heroes, like the PRT, and like my family’s team, followed, to try and keep the peace until things settled.  My family’s team was Lady Photon, Manpower, Flashbang, Brandish, Lightstar and Fleur.”

“The heroes without masks,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I remember them.  I was one of the villains who flocked,” Ashley said.

That confirmed that she was Damsel of Distress then.  B-list villain, chronic headache for the PRT of yesteryear, unpredictable, dangerous, unstable, and fortunately, she’d been more of a problem for herself than for others.  She had been recruited by the Slaughterhouse Nine, to pad their numbers, and had died shortly after.

Her history was one of self-sabotage punctuated by events every two or three years where she was cause for alarm.  She had thrived during the Boston Games, in a sense, enough to get her name out there to capes in Northeastern America as a just in case.

She’d later found a place in the Nine.  She was of a particular brand or species of cape, who somehow rose up when everything else was sinking.  It almost made a degree of sense, then, that in following with that pattern, she’d risen up from the grave at the same time the entire world was plunged into chaos.

Kenzie was saying something, and I was having trouble tuning in.

Slaughterhouse Nine meant Bonesaw.  Crawler.  That in turn led me to think about my last coherent, me moments, the blank in my memories, the aftermath.  It made me think about actual monsters,  and the very real possibility that Ashley was one.

“Were you there?”

It took me a second to connect with Ashley’s question.

“If you’re uncomfortable getting into it, we could change the subject,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Could I just get some water, actually?  Sorry, you meant Boston, Ashley?”

“Yes.  During the Boston Games,” Ashley said, as Mrs. Yamada stood and went to get the water.

“I was a little too young.  I followed along back at home, where we made the dining room into a kind of headquarters, putting up a few bulletin boards.  I colored in the maps and moved pins as the territories changed hands while doing homework and stuff.  Is it a problem?”

“No,” Ashley said.

“What are your thoughts on the subject, Victoria?”  Mrs. Yamada asked, handing me the water.

I drank before answering.

“It’s fine.  Boston was mostly fine,” I said.  “My family didn’t get hurt.  To me, she was just a pin on the map of Boston we had in the living room-”

I saw Damsel’s expression shift.  A slight narrowing of the eyes.

“-And a few interesting and impressive stories my aunt, uncle, and dad brought home.”

That amended the narrowing.  Lesson learned.

“Good,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’m glad to hear that.  Questions, thoughts, observations?  Anyone?”

Ashley wasn’t done with the questions and comments.  The words she spoke next were an accusation, and she was very good at sounding accusatory.  “You brought her here to change our minds.”

Our conversation stalled as a waitress wiped down a table behind Jessica.  I swished the ice around my now mostly empty glass.

“I never liked the codenames,” Jessica said.

“We might be very different people in that.  There’s something fun about them.  They’re revealing.”

“They are, but they often reveal just how badly the patient wants to escape, to leave their humanity behind and dive into something well beyond humanity.  Some don’t surface completely.  Some hurt others on the way down.  Some drown in that vast, incomprehensible sea.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Feeling poetic?”

“My own kind of escapism, maybe.  I think sometimes about a world where all of my patients can go by their real names.”

“I’m not following the train of thought, I’m afraid.”

“I arranged the group therapy.  I thought for a long time about whether any of my patients were a significant danger to the others, or if they’d set the therapy of their peers back.  I took precautions, I pored over the notes, trying to visualize how things might go, or the topics that I could safely broach or go back to.  Like I said, the first meetings are hard.”

“Yeah.  I can imagine that.”

“And while I don’t like the way the idea is often interpreted or the conclusions it’s taken to, there’s the notion of volatility, and the exponentially increasing chance of trouble as the groups of capes grow larger.  With parahumans, things are often exaggerated, both in weak points or the hot button issues they have, or their inclination to push certain buttons.  The more you put in one place, the higher the chance of the wrong button being pushed.  That was another concern of mine.”

I nodded.  “How long has the group been running?”

“Two months and a week, with one or two sessions a week, as situations allow.  We’re not quite at the end, but it’s close.  This was supposed to be the easy middle stretch.”

“Supposed to be?  You let your guard down?”

“In a way.  Maybe from the beginning,” Jessica said.

She looked genuinely bothered.  I held my tongue.

She went on, “I spent so much time anticipating and planning for disaster, that I failed to see the other side of that coin.  I didn’t want to think of them as capes.  I sought out the things that would help them connect and find reasons to listen to one another.”

I realized what had happened.

Jessica was nodding to herself.  “That was my mistake.  We were approaching the end stretch, and I reminded them of the date we would wrap up and finish.  The conversation took a turn, and I was caught flat-footed.  They expressed interest in staying together.  They want to found a team.”

“A team of?”

“Heroes, it sounds like.”

“Is that so bad?” I asked.

“Without going into any particular detail, Victoria, several are troubled, vulnerable, or both.  No, I don’t think it’s good.”

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170 thoughts on “Flare – 2.5”

  1. I guess now we have confirmation that Heart_Shaped_Pupil is a tinker.

    Nice to see Weld and Sveta again. They were great characters and Sveta had some vey emotional scenes at the end of Worm that I still think about a lot.

    It’s mentioned that Damsel of Distress died, is this a leftover clone or does “death” refer to time spent on the pocket dimension?

      1. This would be the case even if we didn’t know which Damsels were clones and which weren’t. Jack ordered Bonesaw to go a bit nuts with the clones.

    1. The remainder of Kenzie’s group on PHO was Mangled_Wings (referred to in the group as “A”, which means Ashley, which means Damsel), Adjective_Animal (“C”, so Chris), of5 (“R”, so Rain), and Space_Squid (Sveta). Tristan is Capricorn, as his chat with Moonsong bore out. Chris appears to be a breaker or shifter of some kind, given the multiple accounts and the nature of the proof for the PHO admin, and Rain has his multitrigger grab-bag of powers. As for Sveta getting control over her powers, she probably just got a lot of practice, in a safe and loving environment that doesn’t feel like a prison or a punishment.

          1. … Can’t believe I am commenting on this, but I don’t think the children would resemble either of them. This actually raises an interesting question though, can Case 52s reproduce? I’d guess Sventa and Weld are sterile, but what about ones like Newter (ironic given his name) or Gregor the Snail, who at least seem like more or less humanoid biological organisms? If they did reproduce, would the child necessarily inherit any of their Case 52 characteristics, without having a trigger event? Even if this did happen, I highly doubt a child would inherit characteristics from both parents shards, since that doesn’t happen with normal capes. I tend to doubt they would inherit any powers, unless the process overwrites the Case 52’s DNA somehow.

          1. I think Shifter is a term in Worm, but not a classification for the PRT. It’s like Nuker as I understand it, the PRT use to use it for classing threats, but collapsed it into the Changer classification for simplicity. It is still used though, and refers to a cape who can alter their physical appearance. Think more changing into someone else than sprouting tentacles or something. Probably was a mistake in the above comment, but for the point of argument.

  2. I doubt that Victoria and Jessica will be able to change their minds, but I could see them choosing to have Victoria stay with the team. She could use her newfound deescalation skills to keep them from tearing eachothers throats out. How much control does Sveta have when she isn’t in her new ‘body’? Is there still a risk of her killing people at random? Chris seems like he’s going to be the troublemaker of the group, along with Ashley. The rest all seem to be nice, or at least don’t immediately seem like raging asshats.

    1. It’s not tinker-tech, so I guess it’s not an actual dragon suit, but it might be close to it. It uses machine learning, so I’d imagine it’d be a bit like a powered suit, only designed to stop the user exerting too much power instead of increasing it. Though it would probably have an over-ride for emergencies unless there’s also a combat model for Sveta to pilot should she go out as a hero.

      1. And the question was when she *wasn’t* in the suit. Oops.
        Considering the use of machine learning to ‘meet her partway’, I’d guess she still doesn’t have great control and her limbs still take a lot of queues from her subconscious. So while she may have made great progress is keeping calm and such, it would probably still be dangerous to be around her if she didn’t have something to latch onto like a stress ball.

      2. Although I wonder if any Tinkers helped out with making it, even if the final product isn’t active tinkertech … Ashley may or may not have a friend who’s quite good at this kind of stuff.

        1. Dragon and a Mannequin working together would probably make the best possible Svetta exo-suit.
          Though it would probably end up having dragon claw shaped blades pop out of it anytime Svetta twitched the wrong way. ; )

          1. Mannequins specialty was never human equipment, I doubt he could really make a proper prosthetic suit without causing serious problems or using incredibly invasive techniques seeing what his specialty is.

            They WOULD make one helluva hazmat suit though.

          2. You’re probably thinking of Bonesaw and Dragon. Also, I was sort of thinking/hoping that Amy had helped Sveta, but it looks like she hasn’t. I guess that could become groundwork for reconciliation, though.

          3. Well, Svetta isn’t overly human-shaped as I understand it, so Mannequins lack of practice in that regard probably isn’t much of an issue. But making a perfectly sealed environment so that there isn’t a risk of ‘tentacles leaking out around her face’ is right up his alley.
            And he did seem to have a pretty good grasp of making limbs work even without any of “him” actually in them.

            And Bonesaw would only be of help if you were planning on permanently welding Svetta into her human suit, though the result probably *would* give her better control over it.

            I think I remember reading that trying to “heal” some of the case 53’s didn’t work because their shard would either just keep reverting them, or because their case 53 state had become their “natural” state, that some powers used for healing wouldn’t find anything to fix.
            The second situation wouldn’t stop Amy but the first would keep undoing her work and any work arounds she created to make their body continually work to undo the changes the shard kept trying to make would possibly make their lives even more miserable.

  3. TYPO THREAD! BRING YOUR TYPOS!!!
    So, first typo to the typo thread…

    “reached back to hwere the damp, folded paper ”

    *Where

    1. Maybe not a typo, but there first mention of Chris’s name happens way before we should know it.
      “Kenzie, for the time being, was leaning over to the new addition to the group, Chris, the boy with braces. ”
      But later “Chris, too. By process of elimination, he’d be the boy roughly Kenzie’s age.”

      1. On the subject of things, that might not exactly be typos.

        There were still two empty seats. One would be Jessica’s. There’d be one more, then.

        Shouldn’t two here be three, one for Jessica one for Ashley and one that Ashley didn’t sit in and which presumably would be for Tristan’s brother if he had decided to come?

        1. Given Tristan and Byron’s condition that might have been on purpose, but if that’s the case, it seems a bit strange that Victoria can calculate that they are missing someone before Ashley arrived and this bit here:
          “Ashley walked around behind me and circled the perimeter of the group to reach one of the empty seats. ”
          should refer too the last empty seat instead of one of the empty seats since Yamada had already taken one.

    2. >“Yeah,” I said.
      Gold morning.

      “morning” should be capitalized, since it is later on

      >“Swearing is fine In moderation,” Mrs. Yamada said.

      “In” is accidentally capitalized

      >Each of you has spent some some time with me working on these things, and this is the platform where we put a lot of that into practice.”

      “My role in this, Victoria, is to be the referee and the coach.

      If these two paragraphs are both Yamada speaking, then the first one should have no quotation marks at the end. When a single “line” of dialogue is long enough to extend into multiple paragraphs, every paragraph has opening quote marks but only the final one has closing quote marks.

        1. If I saw a paragraph that had closing quotation marks at the end, I would assume that the person had stopped speaking. If the next paragraph opens with quotation marks, I would assume that it’s a different person speaking.

      1. For the quotation marks, frankly, every time I leave one off in a multi-paragraph speech, I get, like, 50 messages helpfully letting me know it’s missing. As I understand it, leaving it off is optional.

        1. My understanding is that if it’s the same person talking, leave it off – that way readers can tell if it’s he same person talking or another person.

          1. Sort of.
            Normally, yeah, that’s the rule. You don’t close the quotation mark if the speaker is talking in multiple paragraphs without interruptions.

            There’s is an exception, however, and it’s pretty dumb. This exception is when the work’s style includes multiple speakers exchanging dialogue.

            The reason is this: the reader gets used to seeing a new paragraph that begins with a quote and assumes it’s a different person, because that’s the style of the work they’ve been reading until now.

            Yes, that’s the actual exception of this rule of writing. The reason why I hate it and the reason why it’s dumb is simple- the lack of ending quotes is literally for that exact reason and shows that the same speaker is still going.

            But I didn’t make the rule, nor its very dumb exception. The end result is that in the event of having a dialogue-heavy style, the author can choose to do the ending quote in multiple paragraphs of the same speaker or not to. It’s their choice at that point.

            Why? Because the people who decide the rules of writing in English didn’t think we suffered enough when they invented a semicolon.

    3. “droplets still beaded the blinds closer to the bottom.”

      I think this is supposed to be “beaded on the blinds”? Might just be phrasing I’m not familiar with.

      1. bead as a verb can mean either ‘form into beads’ or ‘cover with beads’ so yeah, just an unfamiliar but valid phrase.

    4. ‘I’d like a bit of help, if you heard me out and were comfortable giving it.’
      The tenses are wonky here. Gotta change ‘heard’ to something else, add some particles.

    5. She wore blue corduroy pinafore dress with metal studs forming a star shape at the leg.
      -a blue

      “Watchdog, grrr” she said. She’d made a pretty sad attempt at a growl, mischief in her eyes.
      -grrr,

      “I’m all emotionally open and shit now,” she whispered.
      D:
      Who taught her to curse?

      “You’ve said that a lot,” the Magenta-haired boy said.
      -magenta

      “Ruh-heally” Kenzie said, with exaggerated emphasis and a roll of the eyes. Tristan mirrored her pose some.
      -heally,”

      “I’m Victoria Dallon. If you study Parahumans, my family comes up, because it’s a literal textbook case of powers running in families. I… believe you’ve run into my family, Ashley.”
      -should this be parahumans, or is this the name of a course?

      B-list villain, chronic headache for PRT of yesteryear,
      -the PRT

    6. “I’d like to think mine would be nice and neat, stored way as a just-in-case.”

      Not sure if “stored way”should be “stored away”

    7. You say “ice coffee” in one paragraph, and “iced coffee” in another. You might want to pick one.

      I like the pacing in the new series!

  4. So, MangledWings is confirmed as DoD, Weld and Sveta might be stepping up as main characters, we finally meet poor Kenzi

    I think this is the best Ward chapter yet.

    1. Since Damsel’s here, I wonder what other surviving clones are out there. Alan’s power seems like it’d be perfect for helping out with the rebuilding …

      1. IIRC the surviving Number Man clones wound up joining up with Cauldron during Gold Morning. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d all joined up with the Thinker portion of the Wardens.

      2. In Arc 30, there’s mention of three Damsels of Distress and a Breed-Crawler hybrid. Apart from the Harbringers, they are probably the only surviving ones.

        1. For some reason I can totally imagine three Damsels of Distress getting into an arguement, rolling around on the ground yelling
          “I’m the real one!”
          “No I’m the real one!”
          “I’m the only real Damsel of Distress here!”

  5. This chapter made me so happy! It had a lot of fascinating moving parts, but mostly I just love that Weld and Sveta are together and relatively happy. 💕

  6. I am again happy to see that Ward is not Worm.

    I greatly enjoyed this chapter.

    I’m particularly pleased by the fact that (we as readers and) Victoria can’t really know if it’s Jessica’s own biases or the truth that these individuals would be better off not banding together.

    I look forward, also, to matching these individuals together with hints from Glow-Worm.

  7. I didn’t expect the favor would be group therapy and the mistake is quite understandable. Loved meeting Sveta and Weld and I guess the gang from glow worm. My jaw did drop though at the DoD reveal. A teammate who was part of the Nine is never a good thing. Gods

    1. Damsel’s situation is certainly interesting. Of course she has trouble remembering the New Wave, she never met them. The memories of her time in Boston were rebuilt from scratch by Bonesaw. I’d say she did a pretty good job, judging from this conversation. I wonder if Damsel knows she died? Has she spoken with Bonesaw after Gold Morning?

      1. Huh, actually, I think that conversation did a nice job poking at potential limits to Bonesaw’s tinkering. She doesn’t recognize the description of New Wave at all, or the team name, but she recognizes their individual cape names.

      2. I’m going to guess that she learned her template’s fate eventually and her willingness to try therapy and potentially even the hero life are direct results of rethinking the behaviors that led to joining the Nine and dying.

        1. Huh. Yeah. I wonder how much of Ashley’s decision is just her thinking “hero, that’s the furthest thing from villain, I should do that so I don’t go down the same path as my predecessor” without actually tackling the underlying problems which were the real root of her demise.

  8. Sooooooo glad that Sveta is alright! ^_^ Seriously, after everything we saw her going through in Worm, she deserves good stuff in her life. =) And I’m happy to see Weld as well. He was always a pretty chill guy.^^ Additional bonus points if they get to be center stage for at least a while. 😀

    There are two things that confuse me, though:
    (1) What does Victoria mean with Damsel of Distress rising from the grave? If this is a leftover clone, she seems QUITE a bit different from the one from the Bonesaw/Riley Interlude… Or was Valkyrie really able to bring some people back?
    (2) HOW did Clockblocker keep his name with the Youth Guard around? I remember somebody (Vista?) mentioning that there was some commotion about it and he announced his name in front of cameras, but… This seems like an issue where the Y.G. might demand heads from several people in leading positions… xD

    Overall, this was kind of a feel-good-chapter, even though I am somehow waiting for some HUGE boot to drop…^^

    1. The clone from the Riley interlude got murdered for not being a good enough match for Damsel, so that’s why this one is quite different. I really doubt Damsel would be a priority resurrect, and the real Damsel died while GU was in the cage anyway.

      And he kept his name because it was announced. The YG could hardly demand heads from people in leading positions when it was the kid himself who picked the name and announced it without permission.

    2. I don’t think the Y.G. would care. The people who were mad at him were PRT higher ups because the PRT does not use curses, lewd language or innuendo in code names. That is just a policy decision. the Y.G. exist to ensure that treatment of Wards and other under 18 parahumans never becomes abusive, or crosses certain lines. I see no way they would care about this. He chose a sexual name, against the PRT’s orders, of his own volition. If they look into it, they will find he was specifically ordered not to, and had been given a different name entirely by the PRT.

    3. >(2) HOW did Clockblocker keep his name with the Youth Guard around?

      IIRC, the Youth Guard were actually the ones responsible for Clockblocker getting to keep his name, though I can’t remember if that’s a Word of God, or just implied by the PRT Quest materials. One of their restrictions was that the adult leadership of their teams had to respect the identities of the child capes in their care, both in the context of things like their cape names and costumes, but also in terms of things like sexual identity and gender.

    4. The Yought Guard is a ridiculous concept in context of Worm that feels very much like a ret-con made during the PRT Quest after it had ended.

      Its best to just consider any mention of it non-canon.

      1. I’m not good at keeping track of timelines and such, but I get the impression that when Worm started, society had already gotten at least a subconscious realisation that everything was slowly spiralling down the drain or at least wasn on the brink of it. The Youth Guard would initially have been making sure kids weren’t being exploited for their powers by ruthless adults but by the time Taylor triggered, they’d come to something like an unwritten understanding that all the powered help possible was needed to keep humanities head above water and settled for making sure the kids weren’t being forced or unreasonably coerced and as much as possible, got to have something of an actual childhood.

  9. Well, now we know the identities of the chat group from glow worm:

    Capricorn = Tristan
    Strange_Mammal = Chris
    Mangled_Wings = Ashley
    Heart_Shaped_Pupil = Kenzie
    of5 = Rain
    Space_Squid = Sveta

  10. I wore a white dress with a black hood built into it, the Brockton Bay skyline printed in what looked like black and grey watercolors across the breast, the city’s name below and to the side.

    I guess that explains Victoria’s shirt design on Wildbow’s patreon banner, even if the outfit she’s wearing this chapter is slightly different from that one. The watercolor part seems like an allusion to how Brockton Bay is like a fading memory now, but the fact she has tourist merch reminds me that she’s gone scavenging back there.

    Thanks for releasing chapters so close to the holidays. Merry Christmas!

  11. HAHA. I’m only laughing because this chapter was so, so amazing. It feels like all of Ward, the whole first two arcs and Glow-Worm, have been building to this. I’m so happy that Sveta is doing well, but jesus, they’re looking at Damsel of Distress as “boss”? Or at least Kenzie is…this is Very Scary. I’m more excited than ever to see where this goes.

    1. I was really loking forward to meeting DoD since maybe Bonesaw started cloning her teammates. As far as I can tell Kenzie is doing precisely the right thing here, as Ashley seem to have a very fragile ego and a crave for respect.

      1. Kenzie seems to be ‘precocious by nature, cute by practice’ – tinker psychology, maybe? Puts her in the HR position, while Hugging_Kraken takes on the PR (next upgrade: Dragon-tech +5 to hugging).
        Anyways, good to see Weld’s doing good/well.

    2. From Glow-Worm it seems Kenzie is latching onto Damsel because she’s not afraid of her. Kenzie wants friends and connections, but apparently, she creeps people out. I don’t think we have to worry about everyone else in the group looking at Damsel as a leader.

    3. There’s a possibility Ashley and Kenzie are hitting it off because of both feeling a bit inadequate regarding their powers. Kenzie’s speciality was not exactly specified in Glow-worm (well, she’s good enough to build a computer but not Dragon-level genius), but I feel that it could help keep Damsel’s power more reliable/manageable.

      And of course Ashley’s the boss – if only to placate her Shard. There’s a lot of development potential there, and a lot of frustrating moments as well. Who knows, depending her choices she might end up as my favourite character in this story.

      1. Kenzie managing to create some less invasive (though probably less effective) gear to help manage DoD’s power would be cool

  12. Beatiful chapter ‘Bow! glad to see the group from glow-worm finally arrives.
    mmm, i want to comment more things on the chapter, but there is one thing that i can’t quite get out of my head and i just need to ask.
    Gimel, and some other earth had humans go extinct a long time ago, or never appear at all right? does that mean that somewhere out there, there are worlds with Holocene Megafauna running around? having Mammoths or Saber-toothed tigers appear in a chapter would be delightful, even if just as a background event.
    Maybe bitch has been hunting some “Fucked-up elephant things” eh?

  13. This is more for my own sanity than anything else, but putting this out there for other’s benefit as well – feel free to correct me on any of these if I am wrong.
    Matching these people with the online characters in the prequels arc

    Tristan is Capricorn – used to be on Team Reach which we don’t know much about. Implication that he *might* have put a hit on one of his former teammates.
    Ashley is Mangled_Wings? – seems to fit the bill. That she is also DoD is… Concerning.
    Kenzie is Heart_Shaped_Pupil, no question.
    Chris is Strange_Mammal – among his 31 other names. I am guessing he might be a thinker of some sort?
    Rain is of5 – A multi-trigger cape. According to March (Flechette’s old nemesis) has a bad case of Kiss/Kill.
    Sveta is Space_Squid – of course. She always had a penchant for fitting online names.

    Yeah. Mrs. Yamada definitely f’d this one up 😛

    1. A hint as to Rain- when fighting Snag, Victoria mentions in narration that she’d heard of a ‘recent multi-trigger’, and thought Snag was in on it. Seems likely that he’s a Mover, a Tinker and has some empathy-based power. Hopefully he’s nicer than Snag, too; Nursery said she’d not want him on a team long-term.

      I don’t know enough about cluster-capes, though. Snag might have ‘Snagged’ all the good stuff, meaning that Rain can make people cry by looking at them, hover a foot off the ground and build mechanical rabbits.

      1. Also, if they invite Victoria into their group chat, Ashley may get surprised- they’ve communicated before. PointMe@TheSky gave her tips on getting herself verified as a cape on the forums.

      2. If you can’t see a way for someone who can make people cry, hover a foot off the ground and build mechanical rabbits to be deadly in this setting, I pity you.

        1. Oh, yeah, it has potential- if you’re smart. Twelve inches is quite a bit, but if you can make it less, then you can lure people onto mud, quicksand or dangerously thin ice. And maybe water counts enough as ‘ground’. Making people cry’s a useful distraction. And who hasn’t run from a thirty-foot tall clockwork rabbit with anti-aircraft guns built into the ears?

          It’s just… A little underwhelming, until you’re running from the thirty-foot-tall clockwork rabbit. Or army of rabbit-shaped homing mines.

          1. Noone imagines perishing at the hands of a child’s toy !

            Although said toy was 50 feet tall rather than 30.

        2. Making plush toys was literally Parian’s power. They didn’t even have guns.

          Other silly powers that turned out to work quite well include maths, swearing, song (at least three), and insect control.

  14. Now I’m curious … what does Weld eat for breakfast? For that matter, how does Sveta physically manage eating?

    Also, I wonder if Damsel’s got the other S9000 clones on speed-dial …

    1. Weld eats normal food, though not much – it’s stated in his interlude. Sveta has hands now, but either way she has her tentacles and a mouth.

    2. He also absorbs metal by touching it, if I recall correctly. He was nervous about the lift when he first arrived in Brockton Bay. And he was immobilised by a very long pole sticking his arms to his chest, and I seem to remember him musing about pranksters throwing cutlery at his face.

    3. I am REALLY concerned about Damsel.

      Why where the clones allowed to exist? General amnesty yay or nay, they were purpose build biomachines by bonesaw to facilitate the end of the world, programmed with a fake personality designed for maximum murder-hoboism.
      Hell, they have a freaking _remote control_ (that Contessa should have at the moment).

      I mean, good for her, but that needs some serious explanation…

      1. How do you think that would have gone over?
        “General amnesty for everyone! Except you bunch, you get summary executions. Valkyrie, eat them.”
        I don’t think Chevalier is the kind of person who would order that, any more than Victoria is going to casually kill Ashley in the next chapter.

        Anyway, i’m sure she’s fine. She wasn’t really purpose-built to facilitate the end of the world. That was the main goal, yes, but it was also a bit of an art project. Bonesaw tried to make the clones as close to the originals as possible, just because she could. Besides, she could have given them a tune-up after Gold Morning. To disable the remote control, at least, and it shouldn’t be hard for her to tinker with the clones’ brains to make them more sociable, if that was needed. I’m not sure if it would be. Most shards drive theirs hosts towards conflict, and a lot of people who trigger are just broken to begin with. The former S9k should fit right in.

        Although now that I think about it, the old PRT could have saved themselves a lot of hassle if they’d just shot Shadow Stalker (with electric bullets) the first time they caught her.

        1. Disabling/removing any sort of remote control and other bite-you-in-the-ass-later contraption was most likely first on the huge list of things they gave Riley for her (probably still ongoing) atonement.

  15. I LOVE KENZIE.

    ” The people I’ll be helping will be people who can help a lot of people in turn. An incredible number, in some cases. ” …Valkyrie.

    The impromptu Weld fan club is good and should exist.

    Oh man of course she also has Crawler trauma. (Tho I don’t recall her encountering Bonesaw.)

    1. Victoria’s main encounter with Bonesaw was coming home to find a bunch of mutilated corpses strewn about where Bonesaw had forced Amy to kill her experiments. Bonesaw is up there with Tattletale in the list of “people who screwed Victoria’s sister up.”

  16. This was a good chapter, and it’s hinting at what I’ve been wanting from the beginning, which is Victoria to join this group of characters we saw at the beginning. I don’t want to say for certain this is the route Wildbow will take, but I kinda hope he does a little. I think I’m starting to miss a solid team dynamic like in Worm. It really helps to make things flow better, and helps as get in touch with a solid caste of characters to know and understand. Right now, I feel like this is sorta lacking that. Victoria is alone, adrift, and trying to find her way, and while that is interesting, I feel like it could eventually feel aimless. I suppose I really want her to end up joining their superhero team. It does feel like that would make sense and be a perfect fit for her. She needs a team, they need someone who actually has real experience as a superhero. I feel like Victoria would end up being the leader, much to DoD’s chagrin. She has experience, she can be a figure the authorities (Wardens) can trust not to be stupid, and she has the PR skills.

    1. Frankly, it feels like ralroading.

      Yeah, like EVERYBODY suggested from 1.1 on, Vicky will end up with the group from glow.worm, because why would that prologue even exist otherwise.

      I just wished that the plot were as compelling as the the characterization. It feels very much like “lets all wait for the plot to begin, meanwhile enjoy the scenery”, which isn’t really the best way to start a work with.

      1. That’s literally how all of Wildbow’s stories have started. It can feel different when you can binge read the first few arcs, but it’s how they’ve all started.

        Remember this is only arc 2, and probably less than halfway through it at that.

      2. The plot is ‘enjoy the scenery’, but as you watch the scenery you notice several fires starting around you. You know they are going to rage out of control at some point soon, but currently they seem manageable. Manageable enough to focus on personal problems rather than public problems… but we all know it won’t last.

        I think this is significantly better than if a whole bunch of plot was resolved before we cared about the characters.

        1. Yes indeed. So far there’s the blame for Gold Morning, there’s Prancer’s Group, and there’s the Broken Triggers. Have I missed anything? Oh, right, it’s that outright warfare is something Wildbow is comfortable portraying. Fun!

  17. Typos

    Kenzie says, “stored way”. Should be “stored away” in reference to the card idea.

    Also, “Each of you has spent some some…” has some some’s left over.

    Other than that, I wonder what sort of team they would make. It’s cool that the prequel chapters make more sense now too~

  18. Okay, so I have to just fanboy a bit in hopes Wildbow can see this:
    WELD. THANK YOU SO MUCH, OHMYGOD I’M SO PSYCHED. AND HE’S JUST AS HE WAS BEFORE.(that Irregular betrayal didn’t weaken his spirits, and he bounced back to normal) YESSSS!
    I can’t even, seriously so excited to see more Victoria/Weld/Sveta interactions.He’s such an amazingly character, and having them couple up, seems legitimately cute.

    Interesting dynamic though this group, I’m really looking forward to what becomes of it. You kind of have Ashley,Chris leaning more evil. Kenzie,Sveta, Tristan leaning more good. (The way he fanboyed over Weld, and the interaction they had would make you think he’s over the hit) and Rain being gone neutral. Only because it seems his powers are volatile.

    Thanks again Wildbow!!!

      1. I got the impression that either he took out the hit on “Byron” or “Byron” took out the hit on him. They share a screen name, they possibly share a codename…and maybe even a body.

        1. I had that thought as well, further evidence for sharing a body is that Yamada had no reason to believe Byron wouldn’t show, yet there are still only eight chairs.

          1. Ehh, taking into account Glow-worm and the weird things that powers do, I’m pretty sure in this case Occam’s Razor tells us they share a body. 😛

      2. Yes, Tristan may have taken a hit out on someone, but has anyone entertained the idea that he was genuinely looking to buy figurines? Because that would be hilarious. Trying to buy an action-figure from an assassin.

  19. When Ashley was first getting described, I thought she might have been a Winter clone. I suppose I was half right, because the original Damsel of Distress was definitely killed in Worm.

    Anyway. She was definitely the last person I was expecting to show up.

    Also… Weld and Sveta… hell friggin yes! Those two, Weld especially, were some of my favourite minor characters. I mentioned loving their name drops in a few previous posts but them showing up IN PERSON just made my day.

  20. Wildbow I have to say you managed to make me feel genuine joy and happiness when Victoria met the iron choker. Thank you so much for that moment it was wonderful.

  21. Damsel of Distress? Sveta? a team made up from group therapy-goers?? And my new daughter Kenzie??? Not sure if Wildbow celebrates christmas but this feels like a christmas gift to me!

  22. I can see how letting Damsel of Distress become “boss” to a group of vulnerable capes could be considered a small mistake.

    1. That wasn’t the mistake; Victoria specifically told us that Mrs. Yamada told her that the mistake was that she didn’t realize that the kids would want to form a hero team in the first place. And, I don’t think that Ashley has any bad intent at heart. I really think that you’re just misreading the situation.

      1. I don’t think Ashley has to have bad intent at heart to be a “mistake” as a leader. She is a former member of the most cruel and malicious group of serial killer caps ever assembled, and she basically joined it because she is so insecure that she will do whatever it takes to be taken seriously. She frankly needs to sort through her issues before she can be in a leadership role.

        Also, I think you could argue she is at least being a tad malicious. Remember all the stuff she said in her interlude as Mangled_Wing? She at least clearly sees herself as a villain, which can definitely be a problem is she is leading a superhero team. At best, she is intending to use them, at worse… Well, you can imagine.

        In all honesty, I feel like she is willing to do anything to make herself feel bigger. She has a very sensitive ego, and I think if being a “hero” makes enough people respect her she will probably stick with that, but right now the main way she tries to make others respect her is by making them see her as dangerous.

          1. I mean, I doubt we know for certain right now. We never saw her much in Worm itself, but she was likely at least partially coerced. It’s just the way Jack Slash and the S9 worked with recruiting. I mean, everyone they offered a place to was told they’d be killed if they didn’t get in basically. It is kinda part of their whole sickenly evil MO. I suppose we may learn more about it in future, but I got the impression at least part of it was her not wanting to be seen as a bit player, which seems to die into her character well from the previous interlude and how she acts in this chapter.

  23. Well, I guess Victoria found her team. The issue going forward I think is that Jessica doesn’t seem to want them to become a team, and… Victoria is supposed to talk them out of it? Join them?

    Become Ashley’s number two? What?!

    1. In Worm, Foil found happiness and success as a number two. The same could work for Victoria, for a time, even without the romantic aspect. I’m not as eager as others seem to be, to write off S9 clones as lost causes. Bonesaw was good at what she did, but she would have considered clones “successful” if they played one or more of a particular set of roles in the specific context of an S9 operating as S9. Ashley is definitely not in that context now. Her brain hasn’t existed for more than a few years. Even if she is set in some of her ways (e.g. a need for flattery), she might be flexible in other, unpredictable ways.

      The description of Victoria’s costume prompted me to guess at her new cape name: “The Brockton Bay Avenger”. b^)

  24. I’m calling it now. At some point some poor opponent is going to break Sveta’s prosthetic body, thinking that means he’s won. Then the poor bastard is going to be really sorry. For about 5 seconds.

    So I’m going to guess that Kenzie is a computer or programming tinker?

    1. Maybe Kenzie is Dragon’s lost bastard child? Suppose she was involved in Protectorate bureaucracy before she got powers, for some reason, and Dragon ended up spending so much time observing her that the shard split. Of course, that would make her a third-generation cape, starting from Andrew Richter, which doesn’t really match the apparent quality of her work so far. Her helper AIs didn’t look particularly sentient. Perhaps she’s hiding her true powers? Perhaps she needs a second trigger event to truly realize her programming skills?

      Or perhaps, Dragon doesn’t have Richter’s shard at all, but the one Teacher gave Saint! Dragon didn’t do that much programming, and she was completely forbidden from Richter’s main field, AI design. Saint, meanwhile, had the power to understand tinker technology, much more in line with Dragon’s work. It all matches up! The abilities Teacher can grant aren’t very strong, but Dragon was able to leverage her natural brilliance and unique resources to become the greatest tinker in the world with a weak thinker power. And Kenzie’s third-gen copy of the shard has gathered more data from Dragon, making her on par with a regular first-generation computer tinker!

      “You never did figure out what happened to your father.”
      “What? I know exactly what happened to my father. He died when Leviathan hit Newfoundland.”
      “No, Dragon. *I* am your father.”
      “No. That isn’t possible!”
      “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.”
      “NOOOOOOO!”

      1. I’m inclined to think that Dragon’s shard is first-generation. “Intuitively understands Tinker tech” just isn’t Teacher’s power. I mean, sure he can grant Tinker powers which grant knowledge of Tinker tech. But he can also grant clairvoyance and precognition. I think any similarities between their powers are a case of coincidental overlap rather than lineage.

        That said … it is a very interesting thought that Kenzie might have a piece of Dragon’s shard.

        1. Richter’s shard let him understand and copy intelligence. Dragon’s shard seems to understand and copy the intelligence of other tinker shards. I’d guess those two are the same.

    2. I think it may be more likely that Kenzie -is- an AI tinker who was forced to operate within a strictly limited sphere by the PRT because of the “dragonslayer” incident . Would explain why her old teammates want nothing to do with her if anything about what Saint did to Dragon is public knowledge / even somewhat known by capes

    3. My speculation is that Kenzie is a surveillance tinker. First of all, her former cape name seems to have been “Optics”, which is a huge flag for powers related to “seeing”.Sshe has a penchant for knowing things she shouldn’t know (like private online conversations) and the main AI bots she had were all about gathering information.

      The power is probably closely tied to her trigger and psychology. Personality-wise, she seems to be the nosy, busybody little sister type–the kind who wants to know EVERYTHING you’re doing and is always getting into your stuff. She craves attention and connection from the people around her, but as a result of her nosiness (and her power), people push her away out of annoyance or unease. It’s a typical Worm scenario, where her powers solve her issues in a literal sense (by letting her watch anyone she wants) while exacerbating her broader issues. Poor Kenzie, I just want to give her a hug =[.

  25. The above mention of alternate earth megafauna and Bitch hunting Mammoth has me wanting her to raise an army of Dire Wolves… Now if she could just rescue a three-headed dog from some bio-tinker’s lab.

    Also, Kensie’s chatbots seem more on the level of real life computer geek dabbling with AI than mad scientist programmer, so I’m guessing she’s either holding back or her specialty is in a different area.

  26. So havig gone back and reread Glow-worm: Ashley is totally evil. She’s most likely going to manipulate the people she can to have her own ‘team’. But it’s not really a team, more like her subordinates from her perspective. I can definitely see her and Victoria clashing, with V trying to get them away from her messed up grasp. I’m really really stoked for the conflict which should most likely arise, and the formation of the proper team. Minus all the evil bs.
    (I’m totally holding out hopes they’ll be a division of the Wardens, with Weld joining to make them credible with the higher ups!)

  27. I’M SO HAPPY if there is a weld and victoria team up in the future I will DIE Everytime Taylor worked together with him they kicked ass I’m so ready

  28. I have to say this is reading more like a supernatural horror, 90 odd people destroyed by their brains beings ripped out of their own heads through no fault of their own or even a villain, that reads much more as horror not supers. I’m not complaining it’s still enjoyable to read, I’m just mentioning it.

  29. New favorite chapter of Ward.
    I honestly feel spoiled after reading this, it gave us so much, in so many ways.

    A quote from Worm, the first time we met two of our favorite people, to celebrate their return:

    Merry Christmas, Sveta.
    My ‘everything’ has just been made, so I wish you a happy holiday too, WB!

    1. Welp, the quote got messed up by syntax and can’t edit comments, so here it is:
      ____
      “It’s okay,” Jessica soothed. “You remember our goal, right?”

      “Christmas?”

      “I think you’re well on your way to your goal. That’s what you think of when you’re trying to be positive, right? You can celebrate Christmas with a few other patients, people who you can’t hurt. I just met one of them, I think. A new patient of mine. She’s someone who could use some friends.”

  30. Just gonna say this:
    Seeing Sveta made me go “d’aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw”.

    Also, good to see YG confirmed one way or the other after so much speculation. Did they just stay out of BB because of reasons? (“Excuse me, Kaiser, but we need to ensure that Rune is being treated we-URGH!”)

    Seriously, Weld and Sveta just made this story twenty percent more awesome sauce. I’m also loving the re-characterisation of Vicky, how she’s got scars (both visible and otherwise) from her experiences, how it’s shaped her, but also how she’s able to draw on the actual expertise of having been a real superhero in a real team.

    If I’m not much mistaken, Fleur was killed not so very long after New Wave was announced. So the Boston Games must have fallen into a very narrow time window, sometime around late 2000 … ?

    I do like how Vicky tried out for the other teams, but was turned down for actual reasons, leaving her open to be free for this one, where they’ll need her to be the ‘team mom’. Dis gun be gud.

    So very watched.

    1. I doubt the Youth Guard meddled with villain teams much. I mean, they’re villains; people *expect* them to break the rules. Besides, if they did, they probably would have gone after the Undersiders, and we would have seen them in Worm.

  31. Amazing chapter; this helped put many things into perspective without the bonus of creating mysterious, new perspectives.

  32. The Sveta reunion was heartwarming as all hell. And the way Weld reacted, he really needed that ray of sunshine.

    …Hm. Is the setup here is that Vicky will have to join them to keep them out of trouble?

    And a bunch of people taking therapy sessions deciding to go around beating up criminals? Geez, no wonder Jessica is bothered.

    Thank you for your writing.

  33. Firstly, I like the update on the Patreon page. It looks like the only bona fide hero is stood back and keeping a careful watch on the other three,especially that pesky bug control girl who even with four serials in existence, still grabs everyone’s attention.

    Maybe Victoria’s concerned that there’ll be a Blake/Taylor/Sylvester alliance? She’d probably join to try and

    Well, awesome chapter, loved seeing Sveta and Weld. The team does seem like a bad idea though and if it does form, it could probably use Victoria. That said, stopping the team from forming might just light the fuse of Ashley’s insecurities.

    And now, the list of capes confirmed alive post Gold Morning.

    Ashley
    Bitch
    Biter
    Brandish
    Chevalier
    Contessa
    Defiant
    Dinah Alcott
    Dragon
    Foil
    Glory Girl
    Imp
    Jack Slash
    Laserdream
    Legend
    Lung
    Marquis
    Nilbog
    Panacea
    Parian
    Riley
    Shadow Stalker
    Sveta
    Tattletale
    Teacher
    Valkyrie
    Vista
    Weld

    Honourable mentions, anyone who died anywhere near Glastig Uinae. (Clockblocker, Eidolon and Grue come to mind)

    More

    1. Quick shout out to the remaining Endbringers too. I know Simurgh was one, and Khonsu (I wanna say bonded to one of Teacher’s minions). I think either Toho or Boho died, but only one of them. Also, I think Jack Slash is effectively dead now. Wasn’t he trapped in a Grey Boy Loop on the now destroyed planet?

      1. I considered the Endbringers and in way they’re second generation capes themselves, bu in the end I decide to just stick with human and mostly human ones. You’re right about Jack Slash. And If I include him, I suppose I have to include Velocity, Dauntless and the E88 cape with them, whose name I cannot recall. Was it Alabaster? After all, they got trapped in a time trap, too.

        Oh, I really did leave two out, didn’t I? How could I forget Taylor and Theo?

      2. Yeah, Jack was last seen trapped in a Grey Boy loop in LA, coated in roughly three tons of containment foam. He may or may not still be alive in there; since Foil successfully killed Grey Boy I think we can assume Scion has the capacity to kill people in the time loop but wouldn’t necessarily use it for continental sweeps.

  34. Everyone else is so happy and excited to see Sveta and all I can think is, “Oh God. Not like this. Not like this.”

    When she started her stagger run to hug Victoria I almost got up and ran away myself. Well, good to see some things have changed I suppose.

  35. Well, seeing as I’m getting caught back up again after a brief break, I wasn’t intending to comment. The discussion on code names reminded me of the words of El Hijo Del Santo when discussing the significance of masks:

    “When I put on the mask, I’m transformed. The mask gives me strength. The mask gives me fame. The mask is magical. When I remove the mask, I’m a normal human who can walk right by you, and not even get a “hello”. Usually with the mask on, everything is positive. Without the mask I’m a normal being who has his problems, who cries, who sometimes suffers. I could tell you that I really admire El Hijo del Santo. But do you know who I admire more ? The human being. Thanks to him, El Hijo del Santo has a life. And this human being sometimes sacrifices a lot to give the this other identity life.”

    Most people remember the fantasy, but the sacrifice of the human is perhaps not always handled as well as it could be. Here you get a bunch of broken people, our friends from the prologue, who don’t really have the human life part anymore. What will happen, I wonder, when their opportunity to wear the mask is threatened?

  36. We finally have all the glow.worm characters together in a room!

    Sveta and Victoria’s reunion, with Weld’s beaming happiness as a back drop, was very moving.
    (And I don’t like Ashley yet, but I am curious to see…)

    The flashback scenes were very well handled, the effect made for a lot of suspense while being very easy to read 🙂

  37. Well it feels as though I’ve finally reached the main “hook” of the story. Sort of akin to the moment the Undersiders offered Taylor membership. Color me excited as to were the story’s been headed so far.
    I quite look forward to catching up and being able to experience Ward as it comes out. Though, on the flip-side, I dread the prospect of archive-binge-withdrawl. Luckly I can alway shift over to finally picking Twig back up, and actually finish reading it, to scratch my Wild-borough stories itch.
    Glad be to starting what I hope to be a long and enjoyable experience as part of the Parahumans comment section community.

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