“Help me understand how this makes any sense at all,” Natalie said.
We were outside of a bagel place, close to the station nearest the Wardens’ Headquarters. Natalie had bought a salad with chicken bits in it. I’d never liked eating cold chicken, so I’d picked up a salad without the extras, and a toasted bagel sandwich with fish, black olives, tomatoes and cream cheese. We sat at a table outside.
Natalie was wearing a shirt with a folded collar under a work-suitable navy-blue sweater, with black slacks. I’d seen Kenzie wear a similar outfit a few days earlier, though Kenzie had had a skirt, and Kenzie had worn it better.
The group’s ‘lawyer’. She was just a student, but mom’s verdict was that she knew her stuff well enough to serve, and she had a good sense of what was happening in the future.
I explained, “The area we were surveilling had a team of heroes come through, at our urging. They had a brief interaction with the embedded villain population, suggested they might be sticking around, and then left.”
“And they were followed? By the entire group of villains?”
“By two, Hookline and Kitchen Sink,” I said. “They were angry following the discussion, were previously established as exceedingly violent, and they have criminal acts that are awaiting process.”
“They’re not in the nine percent?”
“Is it nine, now? I was hoping the number would go up, not down.”
“Nine now,” Natalie said.
“They aren’t. I think most of the villains in Cedar Point are trying to stay clear of that line,” I said. I took a bite of my sandwich, then wiped the cream cheese from the corner of my mouth with a flick of my thumb. Thoroughly disappointing.
Nine percent. I’d known it as the ten percent, which had been a neater, rounder number. With the courts badly behind, only a certain number of crimes and criminals were being rushed through court, and it wasn’t based on the time of the deed. There was something which might have resembled a balance right now, but it was slipping fast. People wanted to focus on getting themselves sorted out, there was plenty of work with reasonable pay, and the people who thought they could game the system ended up falling into the ten percent. For those who did, the hammer came down hard and decisively.
There was, however, a population of people who’d realized they could get away with things if they avoided being among the nine or ten percent worst offenders. It seemed to me that the gap was widening as people got more settled in and dissatisfied. I knew some areas were using a lottery system to deter the lesser criminals, choosing the crimes they’d act on and prosecute by drawing them at random.
“Do you and did you know the crimes these two have awaiting process?”
“Hookline dangled someone out of a fourth story window. Witnesses saw. He was presumed to be acting as collections for a money lender. The neighbors heard shouting about debt, not when Hookline was there, but in general, with the victim and his partner.”
“And you know this how, if it wasn’t pursued?”
“It was reported on in the paper for that area, a few months ago. I have a copy of the article on my laptop. I had to take the picture with my phone so it’s not the best. Do you want to see it?”
Natalie shook her head. “I’ll believe you.”
“After the article there was a reaction to Hookline. Some public gatherings, anger, some backlash against the money lender. Hookline left. No telling if he was made to, fired, or if he wanted something easier. Ended up at Cedar Point.”
“And the other one? Kitchen Sink.”
“One of a couple who worked under Beast of Burden, who was crime boss for New Haven. Sink handled collections for the protection racket.”
“Any serious crimes?”
“He trashed one business in a way that made it very clear his power was at use. He creates semi-random items and flings them around, and the business had a lot of semi-random items flung around, shelves trashed, windows broken.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “Victim didn’t pursue anything. Authorities aren’t going to do anything if the victim isn’t talking.”
Natalie’s forehead wrinkled. It was a weird contrast for someone who had a whimsical pixie cut with a curl at the front and oversized glasses, to seem as joyless as she did. She didn’t seem to like her meal, and she seemed interested but not excited or engaged by this.
I ate more of my bagel sandwich, letting her think. It would have been so much better if it was salmon, but it wasn’t. The olives were mushy and lacked bite, which made me wonder if they were old, scavenged, imitation, or if they’d lost something in transport. The worst thing was the bagel – I’d eaten here before and it had been better then.
“You assaulted and battered two individuals,” Natalie said.
“Let me get my laptop out.”
“They didn’t make the first move, by your own admission.”
“Their intent was clear. They had weapons. I’ll show you the video.”
I fished my laptop out of my bag, packed up my bagel and set it aside, and set the laptop down so Natalie could see. It was a bit warm from being in my bag and being left on low-energy mode, but the boot-up was fast. I already had the pertinent files and videos in a folder.
“First video, overhead view. Do you have headphones?”
I waited until she had them out. She put them on, and I plugged in the jack. I hit the spacebar to start the video. She watched, putting her arm up and over the top of the screen, to shield it from the sun. I offered my own arm to help. The video came in at an angle, zooming in, and showed most of the conversation, followed by Hookline and Sink’s retreat.
When she started to take off her headphones, I held up a finger, then navigated to the second video. It showed same events, but a better view of Houndstooth’s group, and then expanded out to show how Hookline and Sink were closing in.
Natalie watched the fight and the follow-up, with Sveta and I retreating. Moose did the work of freeing Hookline from underneath the car I’d blocked in.
It was hard to see in the noonday sun, especially when I was half-standing, my arm out to help shade the screen, but I could see Hookline’s reaction, slapping away Moose’s hand. He stalked off, and Sink belatedly followed, something held to his bleeding nose.
“Clear intent to injure,” Natalie said.
“That’s what I said. I did mention the weapons.”
“There’s a view, and it isn’t my view,” Natalie said, reaching for her salad, “that if you have a power then you’re armed at all times. Sometimes judges hold that view. I would rather assume that you would have a judge that held that perspective and be wrong, than to assume the opposite and be wrong.”
“Right,” I said.
“A better option would be to inform the heroes.”
“Couldn’t. Clairvoyants with some clairaudience,” I said. I opened a sub-folder, clicked an image, and let it pop up. A boy in a wheelchair, a woman pushing it. He wore a helmet with a fake brain under glass at the top. She wore a bird mask. “They’d hear anything we communicated, so it was radio silence.”
“You could have dropped down in front of Houndstooth and told him about the situation.”
“Similar risk. We don’t want to hint at the prior relationship and we do want to suggest there’s a growing presence of heroes, to give them reason to second guess.”
Natalie sighed. “I’m not a very conservative person in reality, but I do think your situation needs a conservative eye.”
“I can agree with that,” I said.
“With a citizen’s arrest, there needs to be an actual arrest. I recognize you had to leave after the other villains showed up, but normally the process of performing an arrest like that needs clear indication of a crime in progress or one just committed, and it needs the authorities to be involved.”
“Citizen’s arrest?” I asked. “Capes get a lot more leeway with those.”
“One second. The process would be for you to contact me and contact the authorities, before anything happened.”
I opened my mouth to respond.
“Where possible, and it wasn’t possible here. I get that.”
“You would, with my counsel and go-ahead, step in, take action, and then wait for the authorities to arrive.”
“Authorities who are only acting on nine percent of the cases,” I said. “Why a citizen’s arrest and not an arrest with standing?”
“A costumed arrest? We don’t know for sure if they’re going to allow those with the new legal system. I’d rather lean on something tidier that we can be fairly sure will carry forward.”
I leaned back in my seat. “That’s a lot more conservative than I anticipated. Operating as if capes aren’t a thing?”
“I think capes are going to be a thing,” Natalie said. “But we have reason to believe they’re going to be a thing people are going to want to handle in a different, more careful way, now.”
I packed up my sandwich and pitched it into a nearby trash can.
“No good?” Natalie asked.
“Bagel was flavorless and textureless. It looked great and tasted… not like it looked.”
“They got popular, so they started freezing excess bagels and defrosting them to serve.”
I made a face.
“We’re making strides, Victoria, but I think we’re in for a culture shock when people realize that as much as they’ve been waiting eagerly for things to get closer to normal, we’re not going to get a lot of the old normal we’re eager for, and we’re going to get some of the less pleasant parts.”
“You’re talking about the law?”
Natalie shrugged. She was holding her plastic thing of salad, spearing some with a plastic fork. Before popping it into her mouth, she said, “Lots of stuff.”
My laptop was taking up some of her table real-estate, so I closed it and pulled it closer to me.
“Expectations,” she said, once she was done swallowing. “If I’m working with you, I need to know what yours are.”
“That’s a simple question with an answer that could take me a day to get through.”
“Your mom wanted me to ask you if you were still looking for work,” Natalie said.
I tensed a little.
“I was asked to ask the question and pass on the response if you gave it.”
“When we pay you, it’s not for you to be a messenger between me and my mom. If I want to talk to her I can call her.”
“Okay,” Natalie said. “She had something else to pass on.”
“And I’m not interested,” I said, my voice firmer. “Thank you. I will get up and walk away.”
“Please don’t. Really, please don’t. There are a lot of things I want to talk about sooner than later,” she said. “During our last meeting, I know it was brief, but I wanted the lay of the land. I was hoping this meeting would be a chance to get a more comprehensive sense of what you wanted to do, and what I’m doing for you. Both of your mother’s questions tie into that.”
“Did you talk to her about our meeting?”
“No. Not for the last one. For this one, I went to someone lateral to her. She approached me independently with these things, and told me to reach out to you if you didn’t reach out anytime soon. Because you would want to know.”
I wished I hadn’t thrown my lunch away. I would’ve liked to have something to violently toss into the wastebasket, as an outlet for what I was feeling. I shook my head a little.
“It’s relevant,” Natalie said. “And it’s important. I promise.”
I shook my head more. All around us, people were going to and from lunch. There was actually a city-like stream of cars on the road toward the center of the megalopolis proper.
“Tell me then,” I said.
“There were two attempted breaches into our email server last night. It looked like it was directed at your mother. They put a moratorium on sending and receiving email for three hours while they did some backend stuff, and there was another attempted breach partway through that. Tech people are looking into it.”
I nodded. I looked at my laptop. Cedar Point, except I wasn’t aware of anyone who would be especially good at that stuff there. The speedrunners were tinkers, but nothing suggested they were tinkers with talents that translated to hacking into the email servers in the Wardens’ headquarters. Bitter Pill was a full tinker, but her specialty put her even further from that kind of operation.
Houndstooth appears, adding to pressure, Sveta and I make our appearance, and a little while later, an attempted look at a close relation’s emails. I could see the thread.
Would Tattletale have succeeded? If she had the power to see weaknesses, it could extend to security systems. During the bank robbery, she’d done something to gain access, though I couldn’t remember particulars. It had been ambient noise around then. She’d also collected info on Empire Eighty-Eight.
Someone they hired? Was the fact that they didn’t go straight to Tattletale important? A sign of a schism?
“My mother thinks it has something to do with me,” I concluded.
“She was called in for confidential discussion this morning, she got out of the meeting, said she couldn’t get in touch with you, and told me to reach out. I think so, yeah.”
“I can’t have you being her messenger. It’d impact how this arrangment works,” I said.
“Even if it’s pertinent? Letting you know things like the possible breach into emails? That they’re looking into people close to you?”
“The problem is that it’s always going to sound like a good reason.”
“Could it sound like a good reason because it is one? Sometimes, even?”
I drew in a deep breath. I collected my laptop and put it into my bag.
“Don’t leave, please. I don’t want to drive you away. I do want to understand,” Natalie said. “The first and last thing I said at our last meeting was that I was concerned. I’m more concerned now.”
“Why ask me about whether I was looking for work?”
“Because she asked me to ask you, if I thought it was appropriate, and I thought it might be.”
“Of fucking course,” I said.
“Don’t get angry,” Natalie said.
“I’m not angry with you.”
“Before we got derailed, I was talking about expectations. You flew into that scene with no hesitation.”
“I’m invincible,” I said. A lie, yes, but I wasn’t about to trust her with the truth.
“I know that, but isn’t there always some risk you’ll be hurt, or that there will be some consequence? You’re paying me, you’re involving your family, and the hack could be the tip of the iceberg. I have to wonder, how much are you putting into this?”
“I know my own limits, Natalie.”
“Are you looking for work?”
“Are you going to report to my mother and tell her if I’m not?”
“No,” Natalie said. “And I’m offended that you’d ask.”
“I’ve been pulling occasional shifts here and there doing cape work. Keeping the peace at protests, standing guard here or there, in the general vicinity of cape functions. I volunteer too.”
“Is the volunteer stuff as a cape?”
I sat back in my chair, and shifted the position of my bag. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
“It doesn’t seem like much of a balance.”
“You’re aware I’ve never had that balance?” I asked, in my best ‘get real’ tone.
“You went to high school once upon a time, didn’t you?”
“As the girl that was an out and open superheroine,” I said. “Because of a decision my parents made.”
“I haven’t seen my dad in years. I don’t even know if he survived. I know what it’s like to have parent issues,” Natalie said. “I do get it. But is this really what you want? Your mother is concerned-”
I grit my teeth.
“-I’m concerned. I can definitely see the similarities between you two. You’re both firm in your convictions and it seems like you both give things your all. She’s usually the first one in and the last one out at work.”
“Can we stop talking about my mom?” I asked. Angrier than I’d intended.
“Okay,” Natalie said. She stopped there. “Give me a second. I’ll compose my thoughts.”
I gave her a few seconds. My ankle crossed over the other, and the top foot tapped against the ground. My fingers fidgeted with the strap of the bag that laid against my chair.
“I’m your lawyer. For you and your team.”
“Not my team. Just a team I’m looking after.”
“There’s an implication of overseeing and ownership, but okay. I’m the lawyer. I can give you counsel, and if I know who you are and who you want to be, I can tailor that counsel. My tendency is to be conservative, because there’s a lot we don’t and won’t know.”
I nodded. “There’s a degree to which I want conservative.”
“I hear you. I would strongly encourage something more lawful. Calling first, letting authorities know, checking with the lawyer, doing what you’ll do, working with authorities after.”
“Not every situation allows for that. Having a plan is great, and I’m all about laying stuff out and being smart about things. Sometimes there’s no time, and you have to make choices.”
“Yes,” Natalie said. She paused, fixing her glasses. “Yes. If these are the three stages of the plan, with prelude, action, follow-up, maybe you can skip one, and you can explain it away to the authorities.”
I nodded. “That’s not unreasonable.”
“Except… If you have to skip two and rush the other, is it possible that you shouldn’t have acted at all?”
“We should have just let Houndstooth’s group get attacked from behind?”
“Or waited to send them in,” Natalie suggested. “Or not had them come in at all, if you couldn’t be sure you’d be able to handle the lead-in and follow-up.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. “There’s more to it. These guys are in contact with people. If we let them operate as normal, try to catch them in the act, they’ll use their leverage and catch us first. We have to apply some sustained pressure. Test their relationship with their contacts. We’ve talked it over with other groups and they agree it makes a degree of sense.”
“They were one. They really liked it, even.”
Natalie’s brow wrinkled. “You said sustained. Do you have more lined up?”
“A team is going to call a local realtor, looking into the possibility of moving in. We’ll see if they react.”
“Then?” she asked.
“We might have some more people lined up. Another group might be passing through, and we’ll be more ready if something comes up. My cousin is swinging by.”
More brow wrinkles. “You’ll pressure them until they crack.”
“Until they start to. Then we or someone we trust targets that weak point.”
“When things crack, it’s often sudden. Hook and Sink would be an example of that.”
“If it’s sudden, it’s hard to take the necessary steps before and after,” Natalie said.
“It could be,” I said.
“You don’t have to give me an answer right now, but please think about what you want this to be. You can act faster and more flexibly if you’re loose with the law, but you’ll lose your chance at getting a big success past a judge’s desk. I can help you if that’s the route you need to go.”
“But you think we shouldn’t go that way.”
“The people on the team are young, so you need to think about what you’re teaching them. You need to think about your balance of real life and cape life.”
“I’m not-” I started. “I never got that. Even before I had powers, the cape life had taken over.”
“I can understand why you would resent her for that, but-”
“That’s not it,” I said.
She sat there, waiting like she was expecting me to elaborate.
I almost got angry. I pushed that back.
“I’m not going to get into particulars,” I said, calm. “It’s between me and her, and it would make things messy. Nobody benefits from that. Least of all you.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll think about what you said. About what I want, what I’m doing, keeping an eye out for balance. The team and what they need.”
“The kind of counsel you need me to be.”
“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely. But I need something from you too.”
“Don’t involve my mother in this. Don’t pass on information, give hints, or respond to hints. Lawyer-client confidentiality should be in effect.”
“I’m not a lawyer, exactly. I can and do intend to do that, absolutely, but-”
“Act like one, here. Please. She’ll convey her side of the story, probably not in an obvious way, and I need you to be neutral. I won’t be sharing my side, but assume I have one.”
“Okay,” Natalie said.
“I can’t get into that stuff. I can’t afford to,” I said.
“She does care about you, you know,” Natalie said. “She might not handle it in the best way, I don’t know the details, but I know that she is smart and caring, and both of those things are magnified when it comes to you.”
I stared at her. My first thought was that I wanted to strangle her, because of the frustration I felt even before what I’d just said, her going against it, and how she seemed to not get it at all. Even with an absent parent? I wondered if it was something wholly different, like a parent that had left and cut contact of their own volition, rather than a parent that she’d cut herself off from.
My second thought was to tell Natalie what my mother had done, and to hope she understood. Even if I knew it would blow things up, cause chaos, screw up Natalie’s relationship with a superior.
I could see the worry on her forehead, as she looked at me. In that look, I could see that I was the bad guy here. I was the one Natalie thought she had to worry about, and my mother was the smart, capable, caring professional.
Anything I did in reaction to this would only make me seem more unreasonable.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” I said, pushing the emotion back, doing my best to sound normal. “Are phone payments okay?”
“They are,” Natalie said.
I took a minute to get everything sorted out, glad to have something to focus on, then tapped my phone against hers.
Sixty dollars out of my account. A glance at the screen verified my account standing. I had two hundred for rent to Crystal, seventy five for utilities. Even before any possible temp jobs in costume, I had enough to get through next month, two or three more meetings with Natalie or even fewer with anyone we replaced her with. Natalie was cheap and willing and I didn’t disagree with her non-family related advice. It made sense.
“Thank you,” she said. “And thank you for lunch.”
“I’ll see you later,” I said.
She was the pawn, not the problem. My mother had chosen her for a reason. A play of a sort, possibly unintentional or automatic. It wasn’t a play my mom had made because she was a mastermind, natural or otherwise. It was just how she was, how she navigated people. Everyone close to her had had to learn how to deal with it.
The tragedy was that as much as it was a conscious or unconscious bid for a reconnection with me, it would achieve the opposite.
I put my music on, and walked to the nearest bit of park so I could take off without causing too much of a commotion.
I let myself into the headquarters. I was secretly glad to find I wasn’t the first person in, seeing Kenzie at the desk, wearing the same clothes from yesterday.
As that fleeting sentiment passed, I was alarmed, seeing Kenzie at the desk, wearing the same clothes from yesterday.
“Kenzie?” I asked.
“Oh!” I heard her speak, though she didn’t move. Kenzie-at-the-desk winked out of existence.
“…Kenzie?” I tried again.
“I’m on my way!” she said, through the computer speaker. “I was hooked in by phone and forgot I had a virtual me set up to appear if I called. It’s only half done. I’ll be there soon! How are you?”
“Don’t dive too deep into the team stuff or tinkertech, Kenzie,” I said. “Take a break, turn off your brain every once in a while.”
“I turn off my brain by tinkering,” she said. “It’s like how on some computers you can push the number so high it goes back to zero, except it’s brain activity.”
“Kenzie,” I said. “Put the phone away. Close your eyes. Don’t fuss about things.”
“Is there an emergency?”
“Then hang up, put the phone away, close your eyes, and don’t worry. Everyone’s coming, we’ll tackle some things, compare notes, and all will be good.”
“Bye Kenzie. See you soon.”
“In… twelve minutes. About. And Rain is coming, but he’s going to be later. He’ll arrive in-”
“Hang up the phone,” I said. “Or I’m going to start unplugging things at random.”
I didn’t respond, because it was apparent that Kenzie had to get the last word. The ambient noise came through the phone for another few seconds before she hung up. The cube to the right of her desk went dark.
It was strange to be in the space when the others had yet to arrive. Normally, my focus was on the task at hand, here. I wanted to be the rock, unmovable, in case others needed to reach out. It was hard to be that with Natalie’s words in my mind and the room empty.
The whiteboards were people’s thoughts encapsulated. Mine was numbers to call, things to do, a rough timeline of events, with the next being Auzure’s call to Cedar Point. They were Houndstooth’s recommendation. I added notes about the hack.
Kenzie had her costume notes, tinker notes, some drawings in erasable marker of her face, a circle with large eyes, a kiss-shaped mouth, and two buns, and various hearts and stars. She had two boards, one mounted on the wall behind the one with two legs and four wheels, and the tinker notes spilled out from the side of the one in front to the one in the back. So did the stars and hearts, for that matter.
Chris’ was at the other end, opposite her desk. I walked over to it, glancing at the others on the way. There were some names written down, but most had been erased.
Zoological or Zoologic?
Hodgepodge or Hodge? Podge?
Note to self: bring books for Rain
All written in the bottom left corner. ‘Chris’ was in the top right corner, the ‘h’ smudged where a sleeve had rubbed up against it mid-write.
Ashley’s board was empty, except for a very elaborate, stylized rendition of her name. Kenzie had found some fonts and displayed them on the whiteboard for tracing. Ashley had okayed this one.
Just ‘Ashley’. Nothing else figured out.
Rain had two boards, like Kenzie. One on wheels, another on the wall behind. Unlike Kenzie, they weren’t even remotely organized by topic. Snag, Love Lost, Cradle, ‘5’, known acquaintances, tinker hands, contact pads, timeline for Snag’s operations, known places the cluster had been with lines drawn to names of acquaintances, name ideas with ‘handbreak’ crossed out because Tristan had apparently vetoed it, a crude calendar with the names of cluster members filling in blanks, Love Lost due tonight… and so on.
Just red marker and some brown, presumably to put in different words in gaps yet keep them distinct. Or because Kenzie had stolen the red marker to draw hearts.
Tristan’s was next to Rain’s, and Tristan’s was mostly devoted to team name ideas, room layouts, broader organization and schedule, and some minor notes on money spent. Byron hadn’t really showed up in the hideout, but Tristan had still devoted a quarter of the board to him. A list of movies. Aimed at letting Byron maintain a degree of communication with Chris and Rain, it seemed, from the comments on the side.
Sveta was taken up by a mix of art and names. She’d written out names not in a list, but as solitary words. Images had been drawn around them. Beneath ‘Moor’, a girl’s hair, wavy, with a fish head poking out to the right from between the two curtains of hair. It was very detailed for art on a whiteboard, with each scale getting a texture. Above ‘Lash’ was a feminine figure in stark black lines with back arched, head back, and breasts pointed skyward, the breasts so pointed they could have been used for Kenzie’s geometry homework. To the right of ‘Cirrus’ was a face drawn out in lines, frowning. ‘Berth’ was sitting in the bottom right corner in tiny text. The image was so small it was barely legible. It might have been Sveta’s rendition of herself, potato-shaped with arms and legs flailing. A line was drawn between its head and the word ‘no’, a speech bubble without the bubble.
I felt oddly fond at seeing it. That kind of mental working was inexplicable to me, but I liked seeing the hints of it.
After Sveta was my whiteboard, neatly organized, then Kenzie’s two, which I’d already noted.
I wanted to help them.
No. The boards didn’t convey it, the boards were things as they should be, even, but they needed help.
On so many levels, they needed help.
The by-proxy interaction with my mother had affected my mood. Natalie’s words and concerns had too, but it was hard to know how many of those were my mother’s and how many were her.
The concern, with emphasis on the word like I could remember Ashley doing… Even after I’d been hurt by the Nine, had worse done to me by my sister, and gone to the hospital, I couldn’t remember my mother ever expressing concern for my activities as a cape. If such was expressed in Natalie’s expression and words, then I could believe it was Natalie’s.
Concern for what I was doing, the path I was walking? I could see it being my mother’s, through Natalie-as-proxy.
It made me sad and angry and frustrated all at the same time, and I didn’t have any outlets for that. The punching bag hadn’t yet arrived and been set up, and I wasn’t about to throw myself at the villains. Not that I wanted to operate that way.
The villains were so simple, so easy. Cedar point. Bad guy central. I was supposed to dislike what they did and I did dislike it. I didn’t see anything redeeming in them, I had the power to stop them, and I wholly planned to. If I could mess with Tattletale in the process? Bad guy, I was supposed to dislike her, she’d done little that redeemed her, and it was personal, besides? Yeah. Fuck yes. But I’d do it smart, not by impulse.
Others… not so easy. My dad. Gilpatrick. Mrs. Yamada, even. They were the good guys and they hadn’t handled things perfectly. I felt varying degrees of heartbreak because of them but I couldn’t blame them. Not easy.
My life was filled with people I wanted to get angry at and couldn’t, because they were fundamentally broken and flawed. My mother. My sister. Amelia. Amy. I’d said her name and thought about her for ten lifetimes’ worth, in just the span of two years. I felt vaguely ill that I was doing so now, even if it was for the sake of doing as Natalie had asked me to.
The only thing I hated more than being victim to other people’s emotional impulses and fucked-upness was when those other people were so close to me that it all came down on my head. The furthest thing from easy.
The door opened, interrupting my thoughts. I turned my head to see.
Sveta and Ashley. Tristan absent, even though he would normally catch the same train.
“Hi,” I said.
“What are you doing standing in the dark? At least turn the lights on,” Sveta chided me.
“There’s more than enough light from the windows,” I said. “It’s bright out.”
“I’d expect that behavior from Ashley, not you,” Sveta said.
“Sounds right,” Ashley said.
Sveta flicked the switch, looking up as the lights took their time coming on. It made me think of my mom. Turning on the lights, even when not strictly necessary. I could remember visiting friend’s houses and feeling like something was odd when other parents didn’t do it.
“What are you doing?” Sveta asked.
“Constructive thinking. I think. I hope. Had a chat with Natalie.”
“Uh oh,” Sveta said, again, as she sidled up to me.
I gave her a light push. She smiled, righted herself, and half-stepped, half-stumbled right next to me. She gave me a hug from behind, setting her chin on my shoulder.
Familiar sensation, there, in an eerie not-familiar way.
“Tristan’s walking the sprogs,” Sveta said. “Rain’s late.”
“Kenzie mentioned,” I said. “The second part. Sprogs?”
“Chris and Kenzie. I thought it was clever.”
She nodded, head moving against my shoulder. “You’re looking at the boards?”
I gestured in the direction of the whiteboards. “Natalie wants to know our mission statement, so she can fine-tune her advice. She wanted a lot of things, some harder to put into words than others. I’m looking at the whiteboards, trying to figure out what the thread is and how I can help.”
“Your board is empty, Ashley,” Sveta said.
“Are you going to call yourself Damsel of Distress?” I asked. “For that matter, what are you doing, costume-wise?”
“If you’re going to tell me not to wear a dress while I’m out with you all, you can fuck off,” Ashley said.
“Not wearing a dress could help with the Manton issues. You’re more likely to use your power to blow up the edge of a flapping dress than the part that hugs your body.”
“You can fuck off,” she said, again.
“Ashley likes dresses,” Sveta said. “We’ve had conversations about it. She thinks I should wear some, and I’ve had to repeatedly reinforce that I don’t have the legs for it, because I don’t have legs.”
“They multiply a lady’s grace,” Ashley said.
“You can’t exaggerate a negative,” Sveta said.
“You’re attached to the image,” I observed.
“Obviously,” Ashley said, turning to face me.
She was attached to just that image. I wasn’t sure if she had multiple versions of the same dress, but she didn’t change things up much. She had, however, bought the new dress in Cedar Point, and we’d seen on camera as she considered nail polish.
She wanted to change, maybe. But… how long had she stuck to this style? I’d fancied taking Sveta shopping, but now I was intrigued by this puzzle.
“It’s a shame you damage your dresses,” I said. I indicated the hem of her dress. “Are you learning to tailor or do you hire someone?”
“I’m studying it. Saves me money.”
“Okay, so… I have a bit of a crazy idea,” I said.
She narrowed her eyes.
“Bear with me,” I said.
“Bear with her,” Sveta said. “Victoria knows fashion.”
“You’re leading up to this like you know I’ll hate it.”
“Out with it, then,” Ashley said.
“Hair,” I said.
“No,” was the response, without a beat missed.
“I can’t promise it would work, but hair can confuse the Manton effect. It might be that the power gets confused because it’s a part of your identity and a part of you, but it’s not alive either. There are parahumans who impregnate their costumes with hair to make them resistant to their own powers. There are some who have costumes that are just hair, or mostly hair, but those are pretty scanty, as you can probably imagine.”
“I think I’ve heard of that parahuman,” Sveta said. When I arched an eyebrow, she said, “The hair impregnation thing.”
“I’m not going to cut it off,” Ashley said.
“That’s fine. I’m not even sure it would work, and it would be a shame to do it if it didn’t.”
“You could try saving the hairs that come free while you’re sleeping or brushing your hair,” I said.
“How much would I need?” Ashley asked.
“If it did work, you might not even need much. A strand every quarter-inch or so, along the length, or along the parts that are likely to get clipped by your power. Maybe a bit more.”
“And it’d be white hairs on a black background,” she said.
“You could, you know, not wear black?” I ventured.
“I like black,” she said. “It’s elegant. It works. The black dress every woman has in her closet for occasions is black for a reason.”
I was actually enjoying myself, because of the puzzle, and because it was my longest interaction with Ashley that hadn’t come to blows.
“Dye it?” Sveta asked.
“Doesn’t work,” Ashley said. “I have natural silver-blonde hair, but I use my power-”
She put her hand to the side of her head and used her power. I stepped back, stumbled into Sveta, then reached out to help her catch her balance.
Ashley’s hair settled back into place. Her pupils took a long few seconds to reappear.
The door swung open. It was Tristan, looking alarmed.
“We good,” Sveta said.
“My eyes and hair lose their color,” Ashley said, in a non-sequitur for Tristan.
“You’d lose the dye,” I said. “Probably.”
Kenzie and Chris appeared behind Tristan. He let them in.
“What happened?” Chris asked.
“Talking fashion,” Sveta offered.
“Which involves reality-shattering explosions, naturally,” Chris said. He grinned.
He was wearing a newer t-shirt, with a gorn-metal band’s album cover on the front. Not my style. He was broader around the middle, but I diplomatically avoided mentioning it.
“You’re taller,” I observed.
“One and a half inches taller,” Chris said.
“He went with the indulgence thing yesterday,” Tristan said.
“Yeah,” Chris said. “I knew there was a risk I might be useless for the day, putting myself in a state where I just sit around, eat, play games. So I fucked off. I’ll hit anxiety a few times in the next while, but I’ll make it mad twitchiness so there’s some more motive behind it, instead of it being paralyzing. That’ll be fun.”
“That sounds like you’re going overboard. Shouldn’t you be balancing things out?” I asked.
“Shouldn’t you be minding your own business?” Chris asked. “Go talk fashion. I’m fine.”
He walked over to his corner, near where his whiteboard was. Kenzie moved to follow, and Chris turned around, reached out to grab her by the shoulders, and turned her to face us, before going back on his way, to his whiteboard.
“Fashion,” Tristan said. “Okay. We’ve got some stylish and artsy people here. I’m not so up there on girl-fashion, but I’ll contribute what I can.”
“Ashley is married to this look,” I said.
“Married is the wrong word,” Ashley said.
“How would you put it?” Sveta asked.
“A long time ago, when I was still finding my way, I didn’t even have the clothes on my back, not intact ones. I had no friends, no family, and law enforcement was after me. I had nothing. I spent a lot of time thinking about who and what I wanted to be. Characters I liked, clothes I liked, people I’d thought were elegant and imposing. I found this. I built this,” Ashley said.
What had her role models been, for aesthetics? Cartoon movie villains? Evil sorceresses and witches?
“When you had nothing, you found this, and you want to hold onto that,” Sveta said. “I can understand that. I hold onto things that were important to me once.”
“Like Weld,” Kenzie said.
“Among others,” Sveta said, giving me more of a hug.
“I don’t want to hold onto anything,” Ashley said. “I am that. People spend their entire lives trying to find the right image for themselves and I found it when I was Kenzie’s age.”
“I don’t think you’re going to win this one, Victoria,” Tristan said.
“Theoretically speaking,” I started.
“Alright. I’m getting out of the line of fire,” Tristan said.
“Don’t be mean,” Kenzie said.
“Call with Auzure in a short bit. Rain might miss it,” Tristan said.
“Theoretically speaking… can I put something out there?” I asked.
“Can I stop you?” Ashley asked.
“Tell me to and I’ll stop right here. You can do your thing.”
Sveta rocked her head left and right on my shoulder, chin digging in, until I shrugged her off. Ashley considered.
“Theoretically,” Ashley said.
“Theoretically,” I picked up the prompt, “You’re going to be a hero. You have a crystal clear image of what you’ll look like as a villain. Your every expectation is that you’ll stop being a hero at one point and return to villainy.”
“That’s not theory. That’s fact.”
“But what is theory is… what if, to avoid your hero self and villain self getting mixed up, you tried something different, in the here and now? It keeps your villain persona distinct.”
Ashley folded her arms.
“Different how? I get the impression you have something in mind,” Sveta said.
“Pshht!” Ashley made the sound, shushing Sveta.
“Don’t pshht me.”
“What if, theoretically,” I said, “You cut off the hair? White hair for a white costume. You can still do something with black accents here and there, but we can go more… white goth. Or something in that vein.”
“I’m not goth,” Ashley said. “And I’m not cutting my hair.”
“Theoret-” I started.
I saw her expression change.
More seriously, I said, “You cutting your hair could be a commitment. You could go back to being the long-haired villainess, but only after a period of time. You’d be locking yourself into being a hero in the meantime.”
“A hair-based time commitment,” Sveta said.
“There’s no reason to do it,” Ashley said. “To preserve my costume? For that minor gain, I’m supposed to risk looking like a simpleton? No.”
“What kind of black accents?” Kenzie asked.
“No,” Ashley said.
“Black around the eyes, like heavy eyeliner, maybe decoration in the hair, or as part of the mask, something to frame the edges of sleeves and dress.”
Kenzie went still. She gave Ashley a sidelong glance.
“What?” Ashley asked.
“Back before Mrs. Yamada told me I wasn’t supposed to give anyone a birthday present, I was thinking about what to get you.”
“If Mrs. Yamada said no, then there’s probably a reason,” I said.
“The group was new and Ashley and I were only just starting to talk, so it would’ve been weird, I think. It wouldn’t be for just Ashley either, it’d be for the group.”
“Spit it out,” Ashley said.
“Eyes,” Kenzie said. “I can put these things in your mask and it would project over your eyes. We could have you wear a white costume, and then there would be bits that are black, and then we could make your eyes totally, one hundred percent black, or totally white.”
“Hold up,” I said.
Kenzie turned my way.
“When you say something like ‘I can make this’, I have to ask… how easily?”
“Super easily. A few hours easy,” Kenzie said. When I didn’t shut her down, she turned to Ashley, “We could have it so smoke comes off of your eyes and trails behind you as you walk. or blurry light, like when you wave a sparkler in the dark, or particles, like shapes, or blurs like your power makes, or-”
Ashley put a hand on top of Kenzie’s head. Kenzie stopped talking.
“Do you want to? Do you like it?”
“If I went to buy you a gift, to balance it out, so it was equal, what would you want?”
“Went? I don’t want you to go anywhere.”
“I meant some other time.”
“No gift,” Kenzie said. “Hang out. Talk with me. Come on, we can use your whiteboard. We’ll talk and take notes, and figure out what your costume might be. Let me search for things on my phone-”
Kenzie took Ashley’s hand and led her to the whiteboard, tugging her along. Ashley didn’t object too much along the way.
Near Kenzie’s computers, Tristan had his arms folded, his eyebrow raised. Sveta had her head cocked to one side as she studied me. Chris was dumping his bag out on his little table.
“She’s not hard to figure out or anything,” I said, quiet enough that only Sveta would hear me. “At one point she said we were pretty similar people.”
“That leaves me with way more questions than answers,” Sveta said.
Tristan called out, “Don’t get too into it, you two! We’re listening in on the call with Auzure soon!”
Ashley raised a hand, waving him off. Kenzie was just nonstop background chatter now.
“What are you thinking?” Sveta asked. “You’re introspective today.”
“Extraspective, right this moment,” I said. “Thinking about the big picture.”
“Think out loud.”
I shrugged. “The team. How it fits together. How I fit into it.”
“A bit of introspection then.”
“No, not exactly,” I said, the thought clarifying as I said it. “How’s Weld doing?”
“If he could get tired he’d be dog tired. I need to have a talk with him soon, before things get to a point where I don’t see him ever,” Sveta said. “I hate to add anything to his plate, but I have to be assertive.”
“I’m glad you have him,” I said.
Sveta smiled. “I’m glad I have him too. Even if he’s tired and gone most of the time. Why are you asking about him?”
“When Jessica- When Mrs. Yamada asked me to sit in with the group and help out. She asked Weld first, didn’t she?”
“Ah, you caught that,” Sveta said. The smile disappeared. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure if you did, and I didn’t want to risk hurting your feelings.”
“Was I second choice?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. Sorry, I don’t know for sure, but Weld was asked and he said no, but he said he’d be free a little while after. She could have waited and had Weld sit in, but she chose you.”
“And she seemed okay, almost relieved, at me doing this,” I said.
“As okay as she is with any of this,” Sveta said.
The display on the wall lit up. The trill of the phone filled the room.
“They’re calling us first,” Tristan said. “Everyone come. Seems like Rain is going to miss this. Sucks.”
We gathered at the desk.
“We need something to call you,” the woman’s voice on the other line said. “Dido speaking, with Auzure.”
“Dido, this is Capricorn. You’re on speaker with most of the rest of the team listening in. We’re working on the team name. We’ll have something soon.”
“I wanted to go over the particulars, make sure we do this right. We’re going to be calling…”
I mostly tuned it out. Tristan had it handled, and it wasn’t rocket science. I wasn’t that fond of Auzure, either.
Natalie had asked me what I was doing.
I’d been asked to be here. I was damaged, and Mrs. Yamada knew it. Why was I here, then? Yesterday, I might have said it was so I could provide this kind of direction and guidance. So I could talk to the lawyer, handle situations like Kenzie’s and Ashley’s, and be a friend to Sveta.
Was I right? Thinking that Yamada had felt like she’d done her job in putting me here? Was I overthinking things after my talk with Natalie, paranoia rearing its ugly head again?
“Beautiful,” Dido said. “Should we conference you in?”
“No,” Tristan said. “We’ve got a number you can call, it’ll route through to them, and it won’t be as blatant as a conference call.”
“Lovely. I wondered if I should mention something. Good to work with people who know what they’re doing. What number?”
Sveta mouthed the word ‘slimy’ at me.
Water off my back, now. I’d just dealt with my mom and this was easy by comparison.
Tristan gave the number, and the call was terminated.
He checked his phone.
“Rain wants to know if people are okay with him inviting Erin. They’re still half an hour away. She gave him a ride and they stopped along the way. He says he’s safe, no trouble, but he wants to talk, and he wants her here when he does.”
Tristan’s voice was just a bit tight.
“I have suspicions,” Sveta said.
“I know, I think,” Tristan said.
With that, I felt like the musings crystallized. I wouldn’t know until I talked to Jessica, but I had more of an idea. Things made a degree of sense.
“Not here,” I said.
“Hm?” Tristan asked.
“Gut feeling, but we’ll meet him to talk somewhere nearby, as soon as this call is wrapped up and we’ve seen how they respond. Half an hour should be plenty of time. But let’s not do it here,” I said.