I was being watched.
I was being watched at a time when Rain was gone, hiding, when Tattletale was in play. We had enemies, I’d drawn attention. These things, though, weren’t at the forefront of my attention. It said a lot that they weren’t.
The slash on Moose’s face lingered in my mind’s eye, when I wasn’t careful about where that eye was turned.
The train was noisy as it rolled along the tracks. With the longer train journeys, I was primed to expect that the urban would give way to the rural or the buildings on either side would stop. It didn’t. Like a car driving down the highway at night, the streetlights reaching into the vehicle interior and then dropping away, the sun’s light did much the same when it reached in at a low angle, extending between buildings to light up the dark train car.
It was just late enough in the morning that most students had made their way to school, but the students with classes in the afternoon block that had stopped in to check in or change were now leaving the schools. They were heading off to work, to do light construction work, for academic clubs, study halls and to join the patrol block, and many were dressed accordingly. They looked so young.
The train car was packed, and I was glad I’d managed to get a seat, even though it was one of the narrow, tiny ones by the door that flipped up to be flush with the wall, when a wheelchair or baby carriage needed the room.
I’d first noticed the person watching me because her face had a lot of freckles, and out of the corner of my eye, I’d thought she was someone else. On closer look, though, I could see that her hair was jaw length and straighter, her facial structure was different, and she was wearing the clothes of a student athlete, with bare shoulders and arms, gym shorts, and a towel around her neck.
I might have dismissed her then, but she’d been looking at me, looking away when I glanced her way. I found myself looking again a few moments later, because one look wasn’t enough to dismiss the unease I felt in response to a freckle-covered face looming in my peripheral vision, peering past the crowd. The same thing happened the second time I looked at her. I caught her staring, and she looked away.
There had been a time that I would have automatically assumed it was positive. I was recognizable, I’d been a hometown celebrity in a town with a fair number of prominent people, and that had led to me getting recognized by at least one person each time I went out. I’d reveled in it.
Now? Traitorous instincts made that the second or even the third rank option in a list. The first thought in my head on realizing I was being stared at was to go straight to the hospital room, to people staring at wretched me in a vain effort to try to comprehend what they were looking at. They wondered how I even functioned, how I worked, tried to understand the configuration. When I moved automatically, the movements caught the eye.
Even with the most polite and iron-willed of them, they struggled to find which eye or eyes they should look at to make and maintain eye contact, and in the search for that common, natural thing, they ended up staring at the rest of me.
At the rest of the wretch, the sideshow freak, the monster.
How had Byron put it, at the meeting with Foresight? Tristan was nourished by the hardheaded struggle. Byron was recharged by periods of rest. It gave Tristan a natural advantage in their endless struggle over a single body.
I was closer to Byron in that. I was recharged by attention, by adulation, encouragement, worship. It was a natural progression of the fact that I’d been built to be a hero, because I could put on a costume and do great things and get that attention and encouragement.
Had I done things in a different way, it could have even been constructive and healthy. But I’d been a stupid kid. Arrogant. A little worship was good. I’d worshiped Dean. He’d worshiped me. On a level, I’d reached for the wrong things in places, prioritized certain things over others in how I handled the adulation and the public. There were a lot of things I wished I’d done differently.
That wasn’t even the biggest part of why, much like Byron, I couldn’t go to my most natural ways of finding recharge. Like how mental illness obscured the ability of the person in question to even see the problem at hand, my capacity to recover was distorted and damaged. Tainted.
Tristan had remarked on it too, now that I thought about it. Needing people. He wanted to party, to abandon restraint. I wanted… I supposed I wanted not to illogically, automatically, inevitably think of the wretched thing that had occupied that hospital room, anytime someone paid particular attention to me.
I wanted to not feel a deep sadness sinking in when I caught someone staring.
In the places my head went, the wretch loomed in first place, the hero celebrity in second. The third place possibility was that this girl looking at me was something nefarious, and that the young, freckle-faced athlete was an agent of Tattletale or a hire from Cedar Point. Not impossible, but not likely.
Then the fourth place possibility, that she thought I was attractive, not impossible. The fifth place possibility that I had a piece of my breakfast stuck to my cheek or something in my hair. The sixth place possibility, that she was staring off into space and I was somehow always in the way…
My thoughts were mired in something so minor, my heart ached indistinctly, and I was just making myself anxious and upset.
I checked my phone. I could focus on the job. The mission at hand.
You have 49 unread emails.
It was rare for me to have more than three.
Pinned Email: Houndstooth (2 hours ago)
[7 prior messages]
9:15am it is. I’ll meet you guys at the station.
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (5 minutes ago)
oh I wanted to ask again is there any word on Rain? you should be seeing Tristan soon and they are probably in contact
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (18 minutes ago)
thats not me trying to guilt you either
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (19 minutes ago)
it’s okay if you don’t answer
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (20 minutes ago)
but seriously who starts the day with math right?
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (20 minutes ago)
not that they give me detention anymore.
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (21 minutes ago)
I went to the bathroom to send that last stuff because we’re covering the angle stuff and oh m god is it so boring. is worse because I’m not allowd to raise my hand more than a certain number of times now. better to go to the bathroom n be productive than to fall asleep in class or get detention right?
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (24 minutes ago)
I’m super excited to do this
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (27 minutes ago)
I think I decided on the name Looksee. it’s cute right? It’s different enough from optics to work.
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (34 minutes ago)
[Attachment: costumedoodlewoo_2.i – Touch to open in a new window]
(Unread) Kenzie Martin (38 minutes ago)
I know I said I wouldn’t send you any more messages but I forgot I had these scans on my phone:
[Attachment: costumedoodlewoo_1.i – Touch to open in a new window]
[You have 39 more unread emails. Touch to continue reading]
If they’d been texts I would have been alerted with each one, but I hadn’t, and they’d accumulated. I was prepared to continue browsing, wrapping my head around reading through the emails in reverse order, but the train slowed, brakes squealing.
The signs above the exits changed. Car 3: Blackrock Station.
Students departed, then more entered, but the end result was that things were far less crowded. I got a look at the girl who was staring at me, and she glanced away, reflexively.
As people exited, seats here and there were freed up. There was a bit of a shuffle as people hurried to claim seats. A sixteen-ish year old boy claimed the vacated seat next to me.
In that same moment, though, Ashley moved between train cars, entering mine, spotted me, and approached. She wore sunglasses and the black dress she’d picked up at Cedar Point. Strapless, with sheer black fabric enveloping the shoulders and arms, decorated with a lace-like pattern of feathers. The sleeves disappeared into fingerless black gloves. Her little black shoes looked like dancer’s shoes, which fit with the dress she wore.
I raised my hand in a little wave.
“I thought you’d be around,” she said, lifting her sunglasses.
“I messaged you when I boarded,” I said, touching my phone. I saw her expression change. “And you don’t like phones.”
The seat I was sitting in was positioned such that the backs of the actual booth seats were to me. Ashley leaned against the back of one of the other seats, facing me, and the boy just beside me lifted his bag from his lap and used the room she’d given him to vacate the seat.
“Do you want my seat?” I asked him.
He glanced back, looked at me, looked at Ashley, then shook his head. He nearly lost his balance as the train resumed moving.
Ashley took the seat, pulling it down from the side of the train and then sitting on it, crossing one knee over the other and placing her hands on top. Posed, in a very deliberate, conscious way. Even the angle of her head.
I looked past her to the freckled observer, who again looked away. Was it my frame of mind, sitting with Ashley, that made it so the wretch wasn’t as close to the surface, the look not nearly as bothersome?
Or was I overthinking it? Was it that I’d seen the look enough times and seen her reaction enough times that it didn’t feel so heavy, pressing, or potentially hostile? Less about me and more about her, now.
“He’s sensible,” Ashley said. “He’ll go far.”
She might have thought I was looking at the boy who’d run.
“Did you take off your sunglasses just to intimidate him into giving up his seat?” I asked.
She put her sunglasses back into place and gave me a small smile.
“You shouldn’t,” I said.
“Why not? If there was a chance I’d see him again, maybe I shouldn’t, but I won’t. The city is too big.”
“The little things ripple out. If you make a positive or negative impression, people mention them to others, those people mention them or carry them forward. You’re not just interacting with him. You’re interacting with everyone he’s potentially going to interact with in the future. To lesser degrees, sure, but I absolutely think it matters.”
“What’s he going to say? I didn’t do anything, and he willingly gave up his seat. Is he going to tell all of his friends and family that he saw a lady with scary eyes and he ran away like a stray with its tail between its legs?”
“I think it matters,” I said.
“I wanted to learn from you all. I’ll have to take that sentiment and think on it-”
“Good,” I said.
“-because you’ve only given me sentiment. Not one good argument yet.”
I turned my head her way, frowning. She smiled a little more.
“Let’s say you entered the scene, you’ve gathered all your info, you have a nice costume, you’ve trained, you’re badass,” I said.
“Mm,” she made a sound.
“You have your first big job. You make a splash, there’s some media attention, video, something like that. It appears on TV briefly, but people talk online. They’re the ones who create your online profile and fill in your info, they apply the labels, describe things, set the tone. What if the guy you scared off ends up being one of them, and he ends up sitting at his keyboard, remembering you as he decides what to write?”
“I didn’t do a thing to him.”
“But did he leave with a good impression of you?”
“What happens if this guy finds himself in that situation, ready to make a call about you or share his thoughts, and he describes his horrible encounter with you on the train, how you intimidated him and said odious things?”
“I said nothing.”
“And he’s a teenager, he’s a guy, you’re a girl, he’ll think about this scene again, he might be bothered, and he’ll want to resolve that feeling. Maybe he lies and badmouths you online.”
Ashley looked like she was the very definition of unimpressed.
“I hate the internet,” she said. “Despise it. When I become a villain, I’ll move out to a border world where the internet isn’t established and I’ll take over. I’ll rule as a queen, without any need to concern myself with teenagers who could lie about me without fear of reprisal.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. It was my turn to shoot her a small smile.
“Yes, yes,” she said. She brought her head back, leaning it against the wall behind her. “I’ve been brought low, relying on sentiment over fact. How the tables have turned.”
“That wasn’t actually what I was thinking,” I said.
I didn’t get a chance to elaborate. The girl with freckles approached. She looked spooked, arms close to her body as she held a notebook, but the ‘spook’ was aimed more at me.
Too petite to be the person I’d worried I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, earlier. Years younger – fourteen, if I had to guess. Timid, yes, fidgety, that was similar, but in other ways, she held herself differently. This girl dressed different, sporty and confident.
“Hi,” I said.
“Are you- you’re Victoria Dallon.”
“I’m a fan. I’ve been a fan for years.”
“What’s your name?”
“You know, Presley, I was just thinking about how I missed the days of living in Brockton Bay, when I’d get to make connections with people. I missed that, and you might have just made my day.”
Her smile was tentative at first and then solidified into something more confident.
“I lived in Brockton Bay for a year when I was nine. My family was going through stuff. That doesn’t really matter but it’s why I was there, and I saw this picture of you and I loved it. I didn’t even know you were a real person or what your name was until a month later. I got a poster of the same picture for my birthday.”
“Oh, it had a yellow background, and you were flying, and you had your arms out and behind you, like-”
She took a bit of a pose, chest pushed up and out, arms back with fists clenched near her butt. Well, one fist. She held the notebook, still.
“I know the one,” I said. “That was a magazine cover first, I think.”
“I have the magazine too. And a bunch of other things. Even after I moved to Portland I did everything I could to collect each thing that came out. But the poster was important to me.”
“I’m really glad,” I said.
“It was one of the first things I put on my wall every time we settled into a new place. Later, whenever I was feeling lost I’d look at it. I got into sports because I read you were an athlete before you were a hero, except it’s soccer, not basketball, because I’m too short.”
She looked disappointed as she said it.
“You’re in the athletics block,” I said. “They don’t let just anyone in. I’d bet you’re better at soccer than I was at basketball.”
“No,” she said, with an expression like that was impossible to fathom, even upsetting, eyes wide.
It seemed she needed me as an idol more than she needed me as a connection or someone she could relate to.
“I got a lot of extra flack and attention from the enemy team because I came from a family of heroes and a lot of people knew my name,” I said. “Maybe that was why.”
Presley nodded very quickly. “There’s someone on my team who’s really good, she gets something like that. I really look up to her too.”
“Are you going to keep hugging that notebook or are you going to hand it over for her to sign?” Ashley asked.
Presley looked startled at that, afraid. She’d been working her way up to it, and the issue had been forced.
“Be nice,” I said.
“I’m being nice,” Ashley responded. “The way this is going, this girl-”
“Her name is Presley,” I interjected.
“She’s going to finish telling you how awesome you are, she won’t work up the nerve, and she’ll kick herself for not getting the autograph.”
I rolled my eyes slightly and turned to Presley. “Do you want me to?”
“Please,” she breathed the word more than she said it.
I took the notebook and I took the pen. It had been a little while since I’d done this.
“When I looked at you in the poster I told myself that was everything I wanted to be, fearless and fair and strong and poised. Every time I entered a new part of my life or moved to a new place, I looked at it in different ways.”
I wrote my message on the inside cover, listening while the pen scratched.
“When we had to evacuate because of Gold Morning, we had to leave everything behind.”
I looked up. “I’m sorry.”
“But we went back, after everything calmed down. We went back to the house and it was mostly intact, except for broken windows and water damage. We could only bring what we could fit in the car, but I made sure to bring that. I wanted it with me for whatever comes next.”
“I can only encourage and inspire, and I’m really glad if I’ve helped with that. The strength, the fairness, the poise, though, that comes from you. Everything you’ve triumphed over, surviving the bad days, getting to here, then doing well enough to be part of the athletics block,” I said. I closed the book, the pen still between the pages. I passed it to her, and put my hands over hers as she took the book. I met her eyes. “That’s you. That’s your power. Pretty much what I wrote, but I wanted to say it too.”
As I moved my hands away from hers, she smiled and hugged the book.
A moment later, she turned to Ashley. She lowered her voice, “Do you have powers?”
“Can you?” Presley held out the notebook.
“No,” Ashley replied.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Presley said, too quickly, too defensive in how she pulled her book back, how she held it. She looked at me. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said.
But as I said it, Presley was already retreating, fleeing back to her spot by the doors, amid all the other students who were standing in the seatless area that would have bikes and prams in it at different stages of the journey.
I could have pressed, even taken issue with how Ashley had handled that.
Instead, I gathered my thoughts. On a level, I did feel refreshed. It had been a really nice moment, the minor issue at the end souring it slightly, but nice all the same.
I was having to get used to having the nice moments be routinely touched with those sour notes.
“I can’t hold a pen,” Ashley murmured.
I looked at her.
She moved her hands from where they rested on her knee. She turned one over, moved a finger. It trembled throughout the small movement. “I’ll have my appointment after we talk to Houndstooth, get tuned up. Until then, it hurts to move my hands and I don’t trust my power. That’s why.”
“You could have explained.”
She gave me a look.
“You could have,” I said.
The look was maintained. Even with the sunglasses she wore, the disdain was clear. “Ripple effects, you said. I wouldn’t be revealing it to her alone. I’d be risking revealing it to everyone she meets from here on out.”
“The good things have a way of rippling out with more strength than the bad things do,” I said.
“So you say,” Ashley said, “while riding on a train through a city in the post-apocalypse. Just one of many shattered, damaged worlds.”
The train slowed. Presley was at the door, joining the group that was ready to depart.
“I’d like to tell her,” I said, my voice quiet. “Even if we called it an injury, so you weren’t revealing something vital.”
“You really care about this.”
“Yes,” I said. “Don’t you?”
“I care,” she said. “I don’t want to lie and look weak while you lie to look better.”
“You’re strong, yes,” she said, her voice barely audible. She took off her sunglasses. “Poised? I think it’s an act. An effective act, the kind that becomes reality after enough time. But not enough time has passed. Fair? We’ll see. But fearless?”
She made the smallest of scoffing sounds. The train came to a stop.
I started to respond, but there was a hollow feeling in my mouth and throat, where the words were supposed to be. I closed my mouth, then said, just as quiet, “She needs that lie.”
Ashley stared me down.
“Frankly,” I said, still quiet, angry now, “you come across worse and smaller as a person when you say no to something that costs you nothing than you do by admitting you’re disabled.”
“Temporarily disabled,” she said. “You’re wrong. I can’t think of anything worse than groveling before a child and telling her I’m weak when I’m the very opposite. I could kill everyone on this train if it came down to it. One after the other. By the time I made my way to the next train car, they would be ready for me, and it wouldn’t matter.”
I tensed as heads turned. They weren’t responding to the words. Only the emotion behind them.
Had I just provoked her into another rage on a relatively crowded train?
Would my next words? Would my silence? Would leaving? Staying?
“She doesn’t know that it’s only temporary,” I said. “She just thinks there’s something wrong. With you or with her.”
“Let her,” Ashley said. “Do what you want, but don’t make me regret telling you anything.”
I looked over to the side. The people had departed the train, Presley included, and the ones boarding had mostly filed in.
“It’s too late anyway,” Ashley said. “Another face we’ll never see again, that probably won’t make any ripples.”
I stood from my seat. “I’ll be back.”
Glancing back, making sure she wasn’t about to go on a rampage as she had threatened, I ducked and pushed past the crowd, hurrying to the door. Tristan touched my shoulder as I passed him.
“I’ll be right back. Can you watch my bag?” I said, turning to face him and walking backward as I said it. I pointed in Ashley’s direction and mouthed ‘and Ashley’.
He gave me a short nod.
The doors closed behind me as I stepped onto the train platform. I took to the air.
Why was this so important to me?
With a bird’s eye view, I could search the crowd, looking for the right hair color, the right height, the clothes, freckle-covered shoulders, chin-length hair.
Was this ego?
Was I just seeking out perverse, self-centered worship, after going without so long? Tantalus finally getting a drink of water after centuries without? A parasitic, sad wretch of a vampire like in those bad Maggie Holt movies, finally with a willing victim?
I’d found her and I hesitated.
But the train was getting away from me. I had to act.
Instinct, rather than action. I wasn’t thinking things through. I wasn’t acting according to the mission I’d planned and set out, was I?
I landed, forward momentum becoming a brisk walk, then a slower one. I saw the surprise on her face. People nearby were startled.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m in a rush. I don’t suppose I could get your email?”
She looked around, possibly looking for Ashley, or at the crowd.
She still held her notebook, and she opened it, scribbling something down. She tore off the corner of the page, then handed it to me.
“I’ll send you something,” I said.
She nodded, wordless.
I left the ground much as I’d landed. The train was already pulling away. I flew after it.
Had I made a mistake, leaving Ashley, when she was riled up? I had no idea how well she and Tristan got along. Were my perspectives straight?
It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning, and I was mired in a week’s worth of doubts and second-guesses. That wasn’t me. It wasn’t supposed to be.
I checked my phone as I flew.
You have 52 unread emails.
I’d had thirty nine or forty, after browsing the initial selection.
I was here for a reason. Kenzie was one. Ashley another. Tristan, Chris, even Sveta… and Rain in particular. Rain who was taking a day off from everything.
They needed help. That was the job, the mission. Given to me by someone I cared about, involving another someone I cared about and the team and place in the world she so desperately wanted.
I could do that. But I didn’t want to do it at the expense of people like Presley.
The feelings and the ideas took on a different light when I framed things that way.
It played into how I carried myself, after I touched down on the back of the train, on the same kind of little platform at the rear that Rain had used to jump off.
It played into how I walked, how I organized my thoughts.
I could remember going home after my first official arrest. Bad guy beaten, caught, delivered to authorities. Everything official, with my mom attending. I’d walked in the door, and my mother had told my dad that I’d had two firsts. My first arrest, my first war wound- a cut to my forehead, already stitched up. She’d used her fingers to move my hair, to show my dad.
He’d looked very tired as he bent down, kissed the top of my head.
He’d offered me cookies and milk and I’d rolled my eyes, even though I’d really wanted the cookies.
I wasn’t sure at all about why or if the cookies played into things, but I did remember how I’d stood straighter, how I’d felt taller, more focused.
That was the feeling I wanted to capture, as I walked down the train car, entered the next, walked down that train car, and then entered the car I’d been in before going after my fan.
Tristan was in my seat, talking to Ashley. Ashley was tense. She didn’t look as if she’d calmed down in my absence.
Tristan wore a black jacket over a red t-shirt in a material that looked like it was meant to have sweat wick off of it. He’d painted his hair again and the color reached to the roots.
He moved over from the seat as I approached, leaving the one between him and Ashley empty. Ashley didn’t move, her eyes hidden by the sunglasses she wore. A thin beam of light swept through the length of the train car. Not as pronounced an effect as it had been earlier, with the train slightly lower to the ground, the train at a different angle.
“I’ve come to believe you’re more deluded than the rest of us,” Ashley said, as I took the seat. “Thinking any of that matters.”
“Maybe,” I said. I fiddled with my phone, typing in the email.
“Did you tell her?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I got her email, and I flew after the train. Hi Tristan.”
“From what I gather, you have a fan, and you and Ashley had a disagreement,” Tristan said.
“Yeah,” I said, still typing. “Any word on Rain?”
“Scared as shit but safe.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Is he going to be okay?”
“No idea. But if they go after him, we’re not in a position to do anything. I’d like to ask Houndstooth for advice, see what resources we can tap.”
I paged through the phone, the email entered, and found myself at the home screen for the mail.
You have 55 unread emails.
I checked nobody was in earshot. There were people in the chairs just beside Tristan’s seat, but they had headphones on. I figured we were pretty safe.
“Kenzie might be melting down,” I said. “Or something. I don’t know how to interpret this.”
I showed Ashley. I went to show Tristan, and he was already pulling his phone out of his pocket.
He showed me his.
26 unread emails
“She likes you more,” he said.
“I told her I don’t use my phone. She was bothered at first, but she accepted it,” Ashley said. “Now I’m glad.”
“What is this?” I asked. “There’s a part of me that’s weirdly glad for the stream-of-consciousness insight into who she is and how she thinks, even if this isn’t good, but… this isn’t good. It’s not healthy.”
“It isn’t,” Tristan said. “But it could be worse. If anything, it’s a good prelude or warm-up for our discussion with Houndstooth. We’ll talk with him, we’ll send Kenzie a message, if she hasn’t had her phone confiscated, and we’ll see how things go from there.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m not sure of anything,” he said. “But we all have our weaknesses, and Kenzie’s wrestling with hers. We’ll figure it out.”
I nodded. I took my seat between the two. “Can I ask you two a favor?”
“What favor?” Tristan asked.
“Why not?” Ashley asked. “I made the mistake of going along with an errand with the two most stubborn people I know. I deserve whatever I’m subjected to.”
“Could be we’re the two most stubborn members of the group,” I said. I found myself reaching for that part of me that stood taller, that focused on the mission and the role. “But we’re the three most style-conscious people in this whole exercise. We might be missing Kenzie in that. Three of the four most style conscious.”
“I wouldn’t say Kenzie’s style-conscious,” Tristan said. “But that’s a conversation for another day. What’s this about style?”
“I want to take a picture. Lean in close,” I said. “Please.”
Ashley gave me a look.
“Please,” I said. “And since you don’t have masks, you can use my hand, Ashley. Tristan, cover up a bit with your hand. Look photogenic.”
“I’ve only had my photo taken twice,” Ashley said. “They were basically mugshots.”
“Did you look good for the mugshots?”
“Then look good for this. Come on. This could be your equivalent to a poster. She thought you were cool enough to ask for an autograph, let’s give her a good picture.”
“Okay,” Ashley said.
The two leaned in close, my hand in front of Ashley’s eyes, fingers parted in the middle to reveal one of her eyes. Tristan used one hand, positioning himself so his hair wouldn’t be in the camera’s frame.
I winked and hit the button to take the picture.
“None of this matters,” Ashley said.
I applied a caption to the picture.
Thanks for coming and saying hi. Picture just for you– keep an eye out for us in the future.
I showed the others the picture and caption. I got an okay from both, and sent it.
I held the phone where everyone could see it. With the first excited response, half of Ashley’s tension seemed to dissipate. With the second and third, she smiled.
Doing this, helping, functioning in my role, I felt less like a vampire. Less like I was serving myself, because the feelings were set aside to where they were secondary.
It felt like a good warrior monk frame of mind for my discussion with Houndstooth.
We had to walk a little ways to get to where Houndstooth waited. He was in costume, and his appearance at the station would have risked a disruption.
All through the short walk across Greenwich, there were signs of the protests and strikes. Crude posters had been put up, with slogans and rallies to the cause.
It was too early in the day for a real protest, though. Just groups on street corners, some scattered people making a mess and some cleaning up. Stasis.
Houndstooth waited on a hill overlooking the city sprawl. He looked as he had in Kenzie’s projected image. Anubis writ Western, with a shorter, blunter snout and a costume of mixed panels that straddled the line between being a bodysuit and being armor.
“Thank you for making the time,” Tristan said. He shook Houndstooth’s hand.
“It was my request,” Houndstooth said.
“Hi,” I said, as he shook my hand.
“Thank you for coming, Victoria.”
He turned to Ashley. She stood with her hands clasped behind her.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.
“It’s nice to meet you as well,” he said, taking the lack of a handshake in stride.
The conversation hung there.
“This is hard,” he said.
“We appreciate you helping out with Cedar Point,” Tristan said.
“We can open by talking about that,” Houndstooth said. “You’ve visited?”
“Yes,” I said. “Two of us. One of us more covert.”
His snout moved more in Ashley’s direction, then he nodded. “How bad is it, once you’re there?”
I answered, “Protection racket in full swing. Villains moved in en masse. People moved away when they could. Those that couldn’t are paralyzed now, helping to maintain the very thin veneer of normalcy while paying what little they can to the villains in control. Prancer and Velvet are some of the most prominent drug distributors right now and they’re in charge, so it’s likely serving as a hub for that.”
“Some very violent capes are active there,” Tristan said. “A few of them we have a tenuous relationship with seem to be gathering soldiers with an intent to go to war. It looks like that might include us, but we don’t know one hundred percent what they’re up to.”
“As expected, then,” Houndstooth said.
Ashley said, “They have rooms to rent, but they cornered that market. They’re welcoming newcomers, but only capes, only ones who will help them out. The businesses are struggling or closed, and nobody outside of Cedar Point is moronic enough to buy in. Cancer at the roots, the tree will die.”
Houndstooth said, “I remember back on Bet, we had a system we used for the areas where the good guys couldn’t win, or where things were too bad to recover. It was mostly small towns. Evacuating, shutting off all power and water from the outside, closing down and blockading the roads, making living there as difficult as possible, perimeter blockades, regular raids, visits from big name capes. There was serious consideration given to giving Brockton Bay that H.O.S.V. designation.”
I had to assume his attention was on me as he said that last bit.
“They said no in the end,” I said.
“What’s your feeling on that?”
“I think I would have made peace with it if they’d said yes,” I said. “It wouldn’t be what it is now.”
“It’s a pretty mixed thing right now.”
“It is,” I said. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. As it is, it has its positives, it’s meant a lot to some people that it recovered as much as it did, it was a huge part of us rebuilding after the end. But I’m not at peace with it either.”
“What happens to Cedar Point in the end, then?”
“We weaken their hold, we leave room for more established parties to settle in and act as a counterbalance, instead of things all going the wrong way. You mentioned Brockton Bay. We saw what happened when the scale tipped too far one way. Too many heroes out of the picture, myself included, not enough coming in.”
“If we uncover anything particularly bad, and we might have already found something bad, we’ll strike at them as we make our big play,” Ashley said.
Tristan and I looked at her.
She added, “With the help of other groups and forces.”
“We can be one of those other forces,” Houndstooth said. “Kings of the Hill aren’t big or strong, but we’ve got our territory and we’re helping to keep the peace. In exchange, we could use help when it comes to tackling some of the other problems. Ideally, it would be you three. Not…”
“Kenzie?” Tristan asked.
“I’d prefer to say kids,” Houndstooth said.
“You’re going to have to get around to talking about her,” Ashley said. “You can’t dodge the subject forever. I’ll get irritated and walk away if you try.”
He folded his arms, walking over a little. The hill had several trees on it, and his armor panels glinted here and there as dappled light touched it.
“You said this was hard,” I said.
“Did she touch any of you before you came here?” Houndstooth asked.
“She went to school this morning. We came here,” Tristan said.
“I suspected that would be the way it went. It’s why I wanted to meet when she was in school. Minimizes the chances.”
“Why does it matter?” I asked. “We’re bugged?”
“Trackers, cameras, microphones, or-” he paused, and his mask meant that if he was making an expression or trying to convey something with the pause, it was more or less lost. “-Sound cameras.”
“She’s a lot better than she was when you knew her,” Tristan said.
“That’s great,” Houndstooth said. “I really do want things to work out for her. It’s just hard. I need to protect myself, my old teammates. I want to protect you. I want people in general to be safe. All that aside, again, I do want positive outcomes for her.”
“But?” I asked.
“But the Kenzie I know didn’t allow for that,” Houndstooth said. “So I had to prepare for this meeting, trying to figure out what to say and how to frame things while not hurting anyone.”
“She’s been in therapy for a little while,” Tristan said. “She’s improved by leaps and bounds from even the first time I met her. I really want to reinforce that.”
“I hear you,” Houndstooth said. “I’m just worried you’re not going to listen, and if that’s the case, then it’s a bad replay of me, our Protectorate leader and our PRT liaison talking to her school. It’s a replay of us having a meeting with her new foster parents. It’s a repeat of us talking to the parents of a new friend she’s made.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“We explained, they heard us, but they didn’t listen. They didn’t take it to heart, because she is- was nine. She’s cute, she’s precocious, and she has a really skewed skillset where she’s really good at getting close to people and she’s really, tragically bad at staying there. Messes follow.”
“She’s moving in a more measured way as she relates to the people around her now,” Tristan said. “She’s more easygoing. And so far, staying close? She’s doing okay. Fingers crossed.”
Houndstooth’s hand moved, thumb tapping against the side of his finger, and it looked like he was going to say something.
“Capricorn, was it?”
“Tristan. I hear you. I’m listening. She’s in therapy, she’s better. She’s made strides. If you had to give her a number, how much better is she? Throw a number at me. Eighty percent?”
“Ninety five,” Tristan said.
“Ninety,” Ashley said.
“Okay,” Houndstooth said. “Five or ten percent of what I saw? Still pretty fucking bad. I’d like to give you some advice and double check some things. As the person who’s been there and crossed his fingers before.”
“That’s not fair, you’re-” Tristan said.
“Tristan,” I said, cutting him off.
I was focused on Houndstooth. I was pretty sure I’d beaten him by a hair in responding.
“I asked you to have this chat as my side of our mutual agreement,” Houndstooth said. “I’m asking you to let me convey this to you. A lot of it is pretty mild. Give me a chance to say my piece, and you decide what to do with the knowledge.”
I glanced at Tristan.
“I’ll shut up,” he said. “Sorry.”
“I’m here to listen,” Ashley said. “Then I’ll say my piece.”
She had a piece to say? I hadn’t known this when she’d invited herself along as one of the group’s ‘leaders’.
“Please,” I said, to Houndstooth.
“I’ll give you some of the same advice my bosses gave to us and the people who interacted with Kenzie. Minimize the homework she does. That includes work-homework. Cape homework, if you want to call it that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she’s so eager to please she’ll hurt herself in the process. She had an art project in fourth grade, it was supposed to be done over the course of a month, following the instructions from regular handouts the teacher gave. Eight or ten handouts, I think it was. She asked kids a grade older than her what they’d done for the same project, and she pulled two consecutive all-nighters to do it. Her foster parents didn’t even realize she was doing it, because it turns out a surveillance-countersurveillance tinker is really good at sneaking out to the garage and being quiet.”
“Surveillance-countersurveillance,” I said.
“She went that far because she wanted to wow her teacher and see the expressions on their face,” Houndstooth said.
“It wasn’t good,” Tristan said. “Their reactions.”
“Shocked, almost horrified,” Houndstooth said. “And Kenzie was devastated to the point of being broken when it didn’t get the reaction she wanted it to. She was so stressed out over it in the days after that that she threw up in class, which- it didn’t win points with her classmates, and it led to her being transferred to another class. Devastating on both fronts, because she had classmates she liked and she loved her teacher.”
“How do you get ahead of that?” I asked. “What do you do to balance it?”
“Treat it like a full-time job?” Houndstooth asked. “Preventative measures, like the ones I’m recommending. She’ll go the extra mile unless you set up a roadblock to disallow that progress. So you have to stay ahead of that. She’s a headache in that.”
“She mentioned she has a slip for study hall that gets her out of homework. It sounds like they’re letting her use it,” I said.
“Great. I’m glad that’s there. It goes beyond just school. She’s working on this job of yours at Cedar Point?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What limits did you set on that? On her schedule?”
“She needs to do her schoolwork, she doesn’t let it impact her grades or attendance. Standard rules of conduct for Wards, carried forward.”
“That’s one step, but it’s not enough. She’s ninety-five percent better? That five percent says she’s losing sleep, sitting in her bedroom or bunk in the dark, checking cameras and feeds or searching old footage. She’ll work herself to the bone trying to uncover that gem that she can turn in to earn your affection.”
I looked at Tristan, then Ashley.
I looked at Houndstooth. “You think this is likely? Even with her doing better?”
“I would bet you real money. And I’d be thrilled to, because my team is in a bad spot for funding, and it’d help.”
“Fuck,” Tristan said. “We can narrow the window, set time restrictions.”
“Or we have her keep the majority of the tinker stuff at our place,” I said.
“Do both,” Houndstooth said. “She’ll be working on other projects, possibly surprise projects, very similar to her art project in intent and execution.”
“She’s working on some side projects,” I said. “The eye camera. A teleporter.”
“You do realize she doesn’t build teleporters, right?” Houndstooth asked.
“She doesn’t lie,” Ashley said, stern. “Don’t imply she does.”
“I wasn’t implying,” Houndstooth said. His voice softened, “I framed that wrong. I think she can build Teleporters. But she doesn’t. For the same reason she doesn’t build guns, mechs, A.I., chemicals, bio-stuff. She can do that stuff, but she’ll make half a percent of progress in the time it takes her to complete a whole project in her skillset. She’ll spend hundreds of dollars in materials to get that half a percent.”
“And the way you describe this-” I started. “She’ll actually, genuinely try to complete the teleporter project, even at a glacial pace, at a massive cost to her well-being?”
“Exactly,” Houndstooth said. “At least as far as I understand it. She’ll try to finish the project, she’ll believe it and make others believe she can do it, but I’d bet she’d self-destruct before getting a fifth of the way.”
“For all this talk of self-destruction and sacrificing health and sleep, she seems to be doing okay,” I said. “Freaked out after her call with you, weirdness, but… nothing that can’t be handled, I don’t think.”
“After the art project thing? When she threw up in class? Didn’t cry before, didn’t cry after. Not that we saw. I saw her cry once, and we were all crying then. Somewhere along the line, she learned that being troubled means people pulling away or pushing her away.”
“She’s gotten better at showing it,” Ashley said. “The bag. That was positive.”
“That’s really, really good, then. Because before? It took the world ending to crack her. Outside of that, you’d have a nine- she’s eleven now?”
“Yeah,” Tristan said. “Thereabouts.”
“You’d have an eleven year old, then, who’s internalizing so much that she loses hair in patches or makes herself sick. She didn’t ever cry, she didn’t signal how upset she was. Even if she’s doing better, you have to pay attention.”
“For ten percent of what you dealt with?” I asked.
“Victoria,” Houndstooth said. “The school stuff, the Wards stuff was structured. There was natural pushback when she stepped over lines. Punishments, rules for the classroom, rules for the Wards, oversight, teams of people having hours-long meetings about her. The art project, moving classes, her being bullied because of her behavior and her visceral reactions to that, the bullying in school, all of that was the easy stuff.”
“Can I ask about the hard stuff?”
“You can ask, but I don’t know if I can summarize it. We had a nine year old girl with no stopping points when it came to anything social. No brakes, a practically nonexistent sense of boundaries, and zero emotional defenses.”
“An acquaintance of ours described her as a bull in a china shop with a profound love for dishware,” Tristan said.
“Don’t joke,” Ashley said.
“It’s pretty apt,” Houndstooth said. “And I don’t think anyone’s laughing.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“One of her classmates’ families moved away, in large part because of her. One or two other families were seriously considering it. At least one of her teachers from the training camps was being investigated with a job and career on the line. Most people who were involved knew what the reality of Kenzie was, but procedures had to be followed, and when you have someone as vulnerable as she is, you can’t ever be one hundred percent sure. We had a similar thing with our Wards team leader, early on, but we were more proactive in anticipating it, and they were allegations of a different tint. I wish I could convey the trail of destruction.”
“No,” Ashley said.
“No?” Houndstooth asked.
“She’s not a bull in a china shop. She’s not a headache, she’s not a bringer of destruction, a tinker, or Ward, a nine year old, or an eleven year old. You keep reducing her down, you make her small, and you make the problem big.”
“The problems were big,” Houndstooth said. “The problems threatened to end several careers, derailed others, and uprooted a family from their lives and hometown. She likes and falls in love with everyone and it’s only because of us being attentive that she didn’t actively let herself be the prey of a villain group or dangerous lunatic in some desperate hope of finding a connection with them.”
“She’s not prey either,” Ashley said, more heated. “She’s Kenzie Martin. She’s a person. You may have only seen her cry once but I’ve seen her cry more times than I can count.”
“Really?” Tristan asked. “When?”
“During the meetings. After. During private conversations.”
“Crying is good,” Houndstooth said. “It’s a step forward. It’s very possible she’s made a lot of steps forward. It’s clear you guys care about her and believe in her. But I’ve met and interacted with Kenzie Martin, and I have a really hard time envisioning a Kenzie that’s fixed.”
“Like she’s a broken machine,” Ashley said.
“I don’t want to say better because better can mean partway. What I’m saying is that I can’t see a Kenzie that was that badly off, who’s… normal now. Or ever.”
“I hate that word,” Ashley said.
“I don’t think there are any good words for something that hard to encapsulate,” Houndstooth said.
“What do you advise?” I asked. “About the non-school, non-Ward stuff?”
“Pay attention when she talks about new friends or people in particular, get ahead of that, introduce yourself, keep a close eye on things. Talk to her teachers. Talk to her foster parents, or the people at whatever institution she’s at. They’re probably pretty overloaded, but make them pay attention. Get everyone on the same page. Same rules for everyone, boundaries, sticking to those boundaries, limit physical contact and gestures of affection unless okayed by the therapist.”
My eyebrows drew together. I glanced at Tristan, and he gestured, hand moving as if to dismiss, urging me to move on. I was pretty sure Houndstooth saw it too.
He didn’t speak up or act on it, though.
I made a mental note about the emphasis on foster parents. I’d need to have a conversation with others and pay more attention to Julien and his wife.
“Frankly, I’d really lock down the school thing. See if you can have her rotate classes or do something non-classroom. Discourage friendships with classmates, because that’s not going to go well. If she starts showing true romantic interest in anyone, shut it down hard. I wouldn’t advise her being on your team, frankly.”
“That’s extreme,” I said.
“It’s dehumanizing and disgusting,” Ashley said. “Until she’s better, no human contact or relationships. Nobody can get close to her, nobody can show kindness, nobody can help her or accept help from her? Just a breath or two away from you saying you don’t ever think she’ll be normal. You’re disgusting.”
She was starting to walk away, toward the path that had led us up the hill.
“Ashley,” I said. “I get what you’re saying, but we did agree to hear him out as a favor.”
“You hear him out then,” she said. “Tell me what you think I need to hear when you tell the others. But I’m not going to stay here and listen to this degenerate imbecile reduce her to a problem that can be solved like that. She’s human.”
“Can I tell an anecdote?”
“Could I stop you without killing you?” Ashley asked.
“Can you wait for us at the station, Ashley?” Tristan asked.
She stalked off, and we were left with Houndstooth.
Houndstooth looked toward me and Tristan. “There was a time, about a year back, where I was talking to a teammate. He said a food addiction was the only addiction that you couldn’t go cold turkey on. You can’t not eat, and that’s hard, when the addiction makes dealing with food in moderation next to impossible. Immediately, I thought of Kenzie. I thought, within a second or two of him saying that, he was wrong, there was another addiction like that. You say she’s human, but she’s a people addict. She’s addicted to humans. You can’t expect a young girl to not interact with people, and you can’t expect her to deal with people in moderation.”
“And you think the way to solve that is to… minimize that interaction to the barest bones?” I asked.
“Over months and years, gradually loosen that belt. If the therapist okays it.”
“She’s doing exceptionally well,” Tristan said.
“You could hold a gun to my head, and I wouldn’t say she lacked a work ethic,” Houndstooth said. “She’s brilliant for her age, she’s good-hearted in her way, and she doesn’t deserve a thousandth of what she’s gone through. It’s heartbreaking and worrying.”
Kenzie had named Houndstooth’s team as her second big heartbreak.
“Fuck the agents.”
“Powers and agents don’t even really play into this,” Houndstooth said. “If you took away her powers and the influence of her agent today, I’d give you all the same warnings tomorrow.”
We let ourselves into the headquarters.
Sveta was on her way. Chris was taking the day off for more Indulgence, not Wan, and that last part was supposed to be important.
Rain’s absence in particular was very much felt, now that his situation had been painted in stark relief. Everyone was a little bit worried, now.
Ashley had her appointment. Tristan had to give Byron his turn.
Kenzie sat in her chair at the table-turned desk, the projector showing the camera’s image of Cedar Point.
“Did you skip class to get here as quick as you did?” I asked.
“No,” Kenzie said, not turning around. “I went to class, I stopped in at study hall at the start of lunch and asked if I could go early. They said okay. You can call if you need to check.”
“I don’t need to check,” I said. “You’re honest.”
“Sorry for all the emails. Sveta yelled at me. Well, she didn’t yell, but she came close. I sent her almost as many as I sent you.”
“Did you eat lunch?”
“It’s in my bag, in case I get hungry.”
“Too nervous?” I asked.
She turned around in her computer chair and smiled. “Yeah.”
“Houndstooth wanted to make sure you were okay first. Making sure you weren’t getting too much homework,” I said. “He had some tips about how we should make sure you aren’t tinkering yourself to the bone after hours.”
“It helps sometimes. Distracting myself with it.”
“We should figure out a balance. He was suspicious you were staying up late, watching and rewatching camera feeds.”
“When I can’t sleep it’s nice to be able to watch that stuff with my laptop beside me in the dark room. I doze off.”
“Did he say the embarrassing stuff?”
“I don’t know what qualifies as embarrassing,” I said. “Problems with teachers, school. Tristan and Ashley defended you pretty fiercely.”
“I just want to figure out what needs to be figured out,” I said. “So everyone’s happy and healthy, and the team stays together and positive overall. I shared some of the good stuff I know of.”
“Did he mention the old lady?”
“I’m not sure.”
“She was on the internet and she wanted a replacement for her dead daughter and I almost went with her, and then later we started thinking she killed her daughter. Embarrassing.”
“That did come up.”
“And how I fell asleep watching TV on my friend’s couch?”
“That didn’t, I don’t think.”
“Super embarrassing,” she said. “And my foster parents?”
She nodded. She smiled. “Thanks for telling me.”
I put my hand on the back of her chair and spun her in circles, my arm passing over her head on each rotation. “Sveta’s on her way. I think the others are mostly getting sorted out. With Rain hiding out, they’re resting up and getting prepped. Did you get the email?”
“I had my phone taken away. I’m supposed to go to the principal’s office with my mom or dad tomorrow if I want it back.”
“I suspected it was something like that,” I said. I smiled. “Less emails, and no using your phone in school unless it’s an emergency. Houndstooth is going to make a move late this afternoon.”
Kenzie put her hand out and stopped herself from spinning.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“He doesn’t want to see me or say hi?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“He probably had a good excuse. He’s good at those. It took me a while to figure out.”
“He doesn’t want to tip off the villains about his relationship to us.”
“It makes sense,” Kenzie said.
“Do you want help with homework while we wait? And you can eat your lunch?” I asked. “If that nervousness has eased up.”
“I’ll eat,” she said. “Help with homework would be a good way to kill the time, too.”
“Perfect,” I said.
I stepped away to look at the whiteboards while Kenzie got ready.
Her voice small and quiet, I heard Kenzie remark, “At least I get to see him on camera.”