“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”