“Hello? This is Andre Giannone.”
“Andre, hello. We were hoping you could help us out. We want to rent some locations in Cedar Point.”
“Where did you get this number?”
“We went to the source. Mortari Construction handled the building in Cedar Point, and they gave us the name of… Andrea Giannone? Could it be your daughter we’re wanting to contact?”
“I am Andrea, I go by Andre. Easier, not having to explain that I’m not a woman. It’s a man’s name where I was born.”
“That’s great. Andre, aren’t you the one charged with leasing the properties?”
“Their records are out of date. I’ve washed my hands of the business. Look elsewhere.”
“Can you give us the number of the person we can call?”
“No. There are no vacancies in Cedar Point right now, and I won’t give you the number because I don’t know who is handling things.”
‘Won’t give you the number’, I noted. Not ‘can’t give you the number‘. Despite not knowing?
“A cursory internet search suggests there are a lot of vacancies in Cedar Point. People are noting it and asking why.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You live there.”
“I keep to myself. Look elsewhere. Stop bothering an old man.”
“Mr. Giannone, I understand if you’re scared. Don’t answer me if you’re worried people are listening in. We’re heroes.”
Was the summary silence on the other end because he was worried people were listening in, or was it shock?
“We’re heroes. We’re a corporate team with plans of settling in. We know there are vacancies, and we know you still have signs up. If we can get this working, we’re going to look after you and the people in Cedar Point.”
“What? A corporate team?”
“Of heroes, Mr. Giannone. We call ourselves Auzure. Au for the chemical symbol for gold, azure for blue, I don’t know if that will help you remember. You’ll see us around, if we can do this without stepping on anyone else’s toes.”
I glanced over the others, and saw Tristan doing the same thing. His eyes met mine. I wondered if he had the same thought I did, about how Dido’s clarification about the name would only confuse people.
“Jurisdictions, Mr. Giannone. It wouldn’t be good if we turned up there and ended up in a turf war with fellow heroes over who gets to help.”
“Why would there be fighting to- there’s nothing here. There’s nobody here. It’s a nowhere place. Everyone who could leave left. Everyone else wants to be left alone.”
Was he aware of the contradiction in what he’d said? That there were no vacancies, but there was nobody there?
Dido went on, taking on a tone that made me think she was in sales. “It might be a nowhere place right now, Mr. Giannone, but I promise you, Auzure can change that. The other heroes want to change it. Whatever happens, you’re going to get some stellar heroes in your neighborhood. Hopefully it’s us, and we can clear the way so that everyone that left can come back.”
Dido’s earnest, almost painful optimism toward the end was contrasted by the sputtering reply.
“You’ll make this place a warzone.”
“We’ll handle things in a good way. Trust us. Auzure is gentle but we get the job done.”
There was inarticulate sputtering on the other side for a few seconds. “I’m not the person to bother with this. Don’t call me again.”
Mr. Andre Giannone hung up the phone.
“Kenzie,” Tristan said, putting a hand on the back of Kenzie’s chair.
The camera shifted, focusing on a small house on the edge of the downtown strip. Tall windows and a realty sign, with the second floor having suggestions of an upstairs apartment.
“I feel bad,” Dido said, speaking to the dead air.
“Can we talk back to her?” Sveta asked.
“No, but-” Kenzie hit a few keys. The call ended, and then the phone rang.
“Here you are,” Dido said. “Beautiful. Was that what you needed?”
“We’re going to see,” Tristan said. “The man you called is going out for a walk.”
Mr. Giannone was dressed in a suit jacket over what might have been a thin sweater or long-sleeved shirt, with nice hair combed straight back from his face, but where he might have looked dashing, gray hair or no, he had bad posture that made him look older than he probably was. He walked with what I could only call alacrity.
“Patching in,” Kenzie said. “We’ll send you the video after, but for now it’s going to be audio only.”
“Lovely! I get to see and hear the rest?”
“It’s part of the deal,” Tristan said. “We’ll pass on info about villains and the greater villain network as we pull things together. We’re hoping you’ll keep from stepping on our toes in the meantime, as you put it. Houndstooth was saying you were better than some of your teammates about jumping into something like this without regard for us.”
“Hmm. I could see it if we were itching for something to do, but I don’t think it’s likely. Right now, I don’t think we could. Too much to do already.”
“The war?” I asked.
“That’s a big part of it.”
“How is it? How bad?” Sveta asked.
“I have no idea. It feels like none of the people doing the talking and negotiations want it to happen, especially as we’re getting hints about how bitter a war it could be. Earth C doesn’t mess around.”
“Do you think it’s going to happen?” Sveta asked. She sounded more anxious now.
“The diplomats and most of the people at the very top on both sides are fighting it, but it seems like things are moving inexorably in that direction. Yes.”
Sveta’s chin dropped a bit as she looked down at the ground. I reached out for her, and stopped as I heard a small ‘thup’ sound, followed by another.
Her arms and legs hadn’t moved, so I took it as her tendrils striking at the interior of her body in the same way a prisoner might punch the wall of their cell.
“My hope is we’ll keep moving at this steady, unwilling pace, there will be an initial exchange of blows, and both sides back off,” Dido said. “My worry is that something explosive will happen. Another broken trigger, an attack from Earth C doomsday radicals, an attack from the Fourth Sect, someone stupid from our world trying to take territory over there. I could go on. It might spark something lasting.”
I approached Sveta in a way that let her see I was coming, moving slowly. I wanted to ask if it was okay to make contact, and I didn’t want to say it out loud, where the others or Dido might hear.
“Fourth Sect?” Tristan asked. “Have I heard of this before?”
Sveta saw me and reached out. I took her hand in mine, and reached out with the other arm to put it around her shoulders.
“I’d call it a cult but I’m not sure it’s the right term. They’re a minority power with a strong political voice. They want war, to thin their own populations after too much ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Hard to get into in any detail on that cycle. Some of Gimel’s biggest allies in Earth C are people who want to postpone war because it makes the Fourth Sect weaker.”
“Your thinking is if they get to the point where they’re desperate, they’ll try to spark something,” Tristan said.
“Not my thinking. People higher than me. They’re some of what we’re watching out for.”
Tristan glanced at Sveta, then said, “We’re okay, right? We do have the edge on powers. Makes for an incredible toolbox.”
“We have an edge, but it’s not as big as you might think,” Dido said. “Our side has people who can detect or see powers, and what we keep hearing from them is that this guy has powers, but on the down-low. That woman has powers, nobody seems to be aware. A lot of them are using their abilities to maneuver into positions of power.”
“Can we stop talking about this?” Sveta asked. It felt strange hearing so abrupt a question when I hadn’t felt it in her body or breathing.
“We can,” Tristan said.
“Sorry,” Sveta said. “To cut in like that.”
“I don’t mind, love,” Dido said. “We can talk about other things. I’d welcome the distractions.”
“Mr. Giannone is at the center of town. He seems to know where to go to talk to the villains,” Tristan reported.
“Lovely,” Dido said. “Some silliness to take my mind off of things.”
Silliness. We were treating this situation as serious, we were trying to save Cedar Point and the people within, and we were trying to break up a criminal organization before it extended its reach too far or imploded. With all of our various issues, with one team member’s life on the line, we were making sacrifices and devoting ourselves to this in the long term.
To someone that was trying to head off a war with another universe? I could concede her that, but I could also think she could have worded it way more respectfully.
I decided to write her off as a bit of a ditz and let it be.
Giannone entered the bar, and my first thought was that we wouldn’t have the audio or video.
Moments later, however, he emerged with Prancer.
“…not involved in this.”
“Andre, if you don’t want to be involved, walking into the bar where we gather isn’t the way to do it. Not voicing your issues in earshot of ten people with powers. Let’s talk in my office.”
“Being seen walking into your office isn’t any better,” Andre Giannone said, resisting being led by the arm. Prancer stopped trying, and the older man said, “Thank you.”
“We’ll keep it polite,” Prancer said, “Both in what we talk about, and in appearing civil.”
The people in the bar could see out the window.
“They called me. What am I supposed to say? If this goes to court-”
“Let’s not talk about court.”
“What if?” Andre said.
“It’s not going to. The courts have too much to do to bother with someone like you. Even with people like us.”
“You said the heroes wouldn’t bother either, and how many have we seen or heard about now?”
“Andre. Listen. If they decide they’ll bother with petty crime, they’ll come after me, the other villains. They won’t go after the scared citizens. If they thought someone had done something, they would think it was because the people were forced.”
Prancer’s tone changed at the end there. Too light to be anything but joking. I wondered how tone would play out with the court, if Giannone was charged. I let go of Sveta and walked over to the whiteboard to note the question. Something for a future discussion with Natalie or someone like her.
“I don’t want this hassle,” Andre Giannone said.
“I understand. We’re already taking steps. We’re getting information, we’re getting help. We’ll have more in a bit, and we’ll fill you in.”
“What am I supposed to do when they call?”
“Hang up. Say whatever you said. Tell them you have no space. Do whatever you have to, but don’t rent to them. And don’t show up at the bar. Call me.”
“I wanted to get you sooner than that.”
“Call. Now, who was it that called?”
“Something about blue and gold.”
“No. I don’t know. Maybe.”
I felt a kind of satisfaction at the confusion. Dido was a salesman, maybe, or a face-person, but she wasn’t a marketing person. The way she’d described Auzure hadn’t been a good way to make it memorable.
“Could it have been Auzure?” Prancer asked.
“That’s it, I think.”
“Okay,” Prancer said. “I know someone I can ask for more details on what they’re doing. That’s good. Useful.”
“Who do you know?” Dido asked, as if Prancer could hear her.
Prancer continued talking, oblivious. “Next time, remember. That’s all you need to do. Leave it to me to decide if we need to worry.”
He laid a hand on Andre Giannone’s shoulder as he said it. It was a way to show support, and also a way to steer his conversation partner, suggesting the man walk back the way he came.
“I’ve held up my end so far,” Andre said, resisting being guided as he said it.
“And you get allowances others in the neighborhood don’t. Nobody knocks on your door. You have tenants.”
“Nobody’s knocking on my door, maybe, but I’m getting calls.”
“A call. One,” Prancer said. He walked, one hand on Andre Giannone’s shoulder, getting Andre started on his way. “And we’re taking steps to rectify the unwelcome attention. Things should calm down soon.”
“Okay,” Andre said. He looked at Prancer. “I don’t need to worry?”
“You don’t need to worry.”
Andre walked away. Prancer stood where he was, hooking thumbs in his jacket pockets, head tilted. The camera got a good angled view of his expression as he turned around. A confident smile.
A smile for the people in the window who might be looking at him, but he spoke under his breath, too quiet for even Kenzie’s camera to pick up.
“Can you get that for us?” Tristan asked.
It took a short bit, and Prancer didn’t re-enter the bar, instead walking over to the building across the street, where his ‘office’ apparently was.
“What the hell is going on?” Prancer’s hiss came through the speakers.
“We’re going on,” Chris said.
“Thank you for the help, Dido,” Tristan said.
“I’m glad to, hon. I was worried I’d bothered an old man for nothing, but he’s in this, isn’t he?”
“We had cues he was.”
“Let us know if you need anything else.”
“Thanks,” Tristan said.
The conversation wrapped up with some goodbyes, and the call ended. Windows closed, and parts of Kenzie’s computer-cube went dark.
“We’ve got one group passing through later this afternoon. We could postpone it if needed. These guys are Houndstooth’s recommends,” Tristan said. “Victoria? You’ll handle it?”
“My cousin will come with. Just in case they’re keeping an eye out for me and have surface-to-air planned.”
“Missiles?” Chris asked.
“Anything,” I said.
“They’re starting to adapt,” Tristan said. “Info and help?”
“As far as info goes,” I said, “Natalie said someone tried hacking into the Wardens’ headquarters, specifically targeting my mom.”
“Wasn’t me,” Kenzie said.
“I feel like if it was Tattletale, they would have been cleverer about it. Sveta, since you were seen too, though they probably can’t connect you to your past self, you might want to make sure all accounts are secure.”
“Okay,” Sveta said.
“Then that only leaves Rain,” Tristan said. “Decompress, take notes, do whatever. We leave to meet him in a few minutes.”
He was taking on the leadership role. Ashley had seemed to want it, and she’d included herself when Houndstooth had wanted to meet people in charge, but she wasn’t fighting him on this.
I noted that, and I wondered.
I watched as the tight cluster of the group broke up. No longer gathered around the screen, standing behind Kenzie’s desk, they moved toward their individual spaces. Chris had the largest bubble around him, where he didn’t have people within it. His gait was different than it had been.
Ashley went to her board. She’d been quiet throughout, and now she stopped in front of her whiteboard. A mix of her writing and Kenzie’s marked it, with her writing along the center, each line slanted as if it was written on an angle, like a tower of stacked coins that was about to buckle and fall. Kenzie’s writing marked the bottom third, with a few drawings of eyes.
Whatever means of communication they had devised between them, I couldn’t decipher it. I couldn’t even begin to read Ashley’s handwriting. Kenzie went to Ashley to resume their prior discussion.
“You okay?” Tristan asked. I turned to look. He was talking to Sveta. “You didn’t like that talk about war.”
Sveta shrugged. She smiled as I joined their conversation. “Thank you for the hug. I didn’t even realize how upset I was until you came up to me.”
“Anytime,” I said.
“Was it the thought of Weld over there that got you?” Tristan asked.
Sveta shrugged, but it wasn’t too effective with her suit. “What threw me was when Dido talked about how people with powers were getting positions.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it might not be only that. The people with positions might be getting powers.”
“Cauldron?” I asked.
Sveta nodded. “Earth C is a major reason we had the supplies to rebuild. They say they did it out of goodwill. I think Cauldron made it happen. Gave powers to key people so they would agree, made deals.”
She put out one arm, indicating the window and the city beyond it.
“How much of that was bought and paid for with crimes against humanity? I saw some of what they did. I heard a lot more about it. My entire life, this body of mine, it’s because of them,” Sveta said. “It’s awful to think about.”
I looked out at the city that gleamed with traces of yellow and gold in the light of the early afternoon.
“I don’t know a lot about them,” Tristan said.
“I only know some,” I said. “The info came out after, but it trickles out, there’s a lot of guessing to be done.”
“I don’t have to guess,” Sveta said. “I can tell you more some day. But it’s going to take a few minutes longer than it takes to talk to Rain.”
Chris had joined Kenzie and Ashley’s conversation. Kenzie was bouncing with excitement, trying to get Chris’ input. He seemed reluctant to dish, but quick to shoot down this idea or that idea.
“You want to sit on this, skip out on the Rain conversation?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Sveta said. “I think I have to go, because I’m one of the only people who knows most of the story. It feels like I’m the only one who knows most of everyone’s story. I know yours, Victoria. I know Rain’s, I think. I have my suspicions about what he’s going to say.”
“I think I know,” Tristan said. “And I have a few big worries.”
I flew around the area before settling down. Everyone was gathered.
Erin drove a different vehicle than the last time. It was a sedan, small and very dusty. The accumulated fine dirt on the side had settled into waves that looked like very flat, spread out sand dunes, set on a vertical surface, with peaks, valleys, and patterns.
Erin opened the door. The dark makeup around her eyes was heavier, her hair was unwashed, and she wore a slim-fit sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up, a cat on the sleeve. Her low-rise jeans were tucked into calf-height boots.
“Hi Erin,” Kenzie said.
“Hi, critter,” Erin said. “How are you doing?”
“I was having a good day, but now this is happening. Feels ominous.”
“Yeah,” Erin said.
Rain took more time to get out of the passenger seat. He moved like an old man, shutting the door, letting a backpack fall to the ground by one of the car’s wheels. He had a black eye, his ear was swollen and scraped up, and his face looked asymmetrical in a way that suggested swelling on one side, with no distinct source. His knuckles and fingers were badly scraped up, with tape covering up some of them.
He was wearing a raglan tee with black sleeves, and jeans so old that they must have been as soft as sweatpants. The knees were worn through, and the knees beneath were speckled with scabs.
“You’re hurt,” Kenzie said.
“Did you get attacked?” Chris asked.
Rain shook his head. “Not by Snag’s group.”
It was hard, to pull back and watch. I’d tried for the call with Dido, stepped back to observe, letting Tristan take point with directing the others. He was good at it. Sveta being the one who had struggled had pulled me in a bit.
I wasn’t sure strict objectivity was the way to handle this, but getting too close didn’t help either.
That line of thought got me thinking about how I hadn’t ever really had to watch my back. Not among those I considered allies. Not among friends. Not among family.
And that, in turn, made me think about my sister, and the sick, hollow, angry experience of being betrayed by someone I’d thought I could trust more than I trusted myself.
I stood across from Rain and I felt like I had in the bank. The bank had been dusty, partially my fault, the floor scratched up by the passage of giant dogs, littered with discarded pieces of paper and dropped belongings. It had been dark, the rain pattering outside.
Much like Rain stood by the front of the car, hurting, his life in danger, my sister had stood a distance away from me, a knife to her throat.
Following that there had been the revelation of secrets. It wasn’t that I held Rain close to my heart or anything. It wasn’t even that I particularly trusted him. Only that I recognized the pattern.
“Shit,” Rain said.
“If you’re going to draw this out, at least tell me this isn’t you explaining everything and dropping something heavy on me,” Tristan said.
“No big news for you,” Rain said.
“You’re going to tell us what’s been going on with you?” Sveta asked.
Rain looked at Erin. “Yeah.”
“She’s tied to this?” Sveta asked.
“Yeah,” Rain said. “Kind of. She could walk away free and clear if she wanted, I think. She knows most of my situation. Not all.”
“I’m moral support,” Erin said.
“No,” Rain said. “Because there’s stuff you don’t know. Kind of. It’s complicated.”
“You’ve got a look in your eyes,” Ashley said. “Fiercer.”
“I spent a good day and got a beating trying to find that fierceness,” Rain said. “That thing that would let me say this. Tristan called me out, said I needed to tell you guys, because it impacts what we’re doing. I needed to do some figuring out before I was able.”
“Yeah,” Tristan said.
I was silent. I could only see the parallels. I held my tongue because I didn’t trust it. If this was an echo of that situation in the bank, I had no better idea on how to handle it now in the present.
No rain, no enclosed area. We were at the edge of a park. It was sunny out.
No knife to anyone’s throat, not that Rain’s expression said any different.
“You’ve been hiding with powerful people,” Ashley said. “Capes, probably.”
Rain opened his mouth, then nodded.
“A family,” Rain said. “Gang doesn’t really say it.”
“It was always us and them. And there was a lot of hate directed at them,” Rain said.
The in-group, out-group… and family. I could connect dots. I deliberately avoided doing so.
I focused on the situation instead, on the others. Chris was quiet, smiling slightly, but the smile had been a small, persistent thing since he’d nose-dived into indulgence. Tristan was quiet, but most of what he had to add were things that it was Rain’s responsibility to share. Ashley handled the questions.
No- Sveta joined her voice to Ashley’s. “You’re related to those powers. It’s why you have such a hard time pulling away.”
“The Fallen,” Rain said.
I winced. There were a lot of implications to that.
“Oh,” Kenzie said.
“I kind of connected the dots already,” Sveta said. She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder. “You first connected to Tristan after the God thing.”
“Religion came up in therapy,” Rain said, for the benefit of the rest of us. “Tristan came up to me after and asked about which church my family attended. I’d had a bad week. Nearly as bad as this week has been. We’d already connected some. Both of us have people invading our heads, questions of self, we talked a lot together in therapy. I cracked. I told him.”
“Yeah,” Tristan said. “Mom and dad were looking for a church. I thought I’d ask Rain. I don’t think Rain’s church would’ve suited them.”
“It’s not funny,” Kenzie said. “Don’t make jokes.”
“I’m not laughing, Kenzie,” Tristan said.
“They hate black people, don’t they?” Kenzie asked Rain.
“They’re a big group,” Rain said. “It’s hard to get into just how varied the branches are, the different beliefs, how they add up, some of the leaders that have come and gone. It’s hard to just point at them and say they hate this or they hate that.”
“Most of them hate black people,” Kenzie said.
“Did your family? Did you? Do you?”
Rain looked back at Erin. “Yeah. I did. Once. You have to understand- it’s hatred for anyone and everyone, because that way it keeps everyone close to the family. So ‘black’ was just one more label, you know?”
“Back at the first meeting with Mrs. Yamada. You kept giving me looks,” Kenzie said. “They weren’t because I pay attention to the clothes I wear and dress nice, or because you were trying to figure out what was wrong with me.”
“It wasn’t about you,” Rain said. “I was figuring stuff out then. I was trying to reassess my whole way of thinking. It was me, not you.”
“It was you,” Kenzie said. She paused. “Being uncomfortable with me being there.”
“It was-” Rain started. “Me being uncomfortable with everything.”
“Including me. Especially me, right then,” Kenzie said. She paused, waited for a response. When Rain didn’t deny her, she added, “That… sucks.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“I’m not saying you suck. It sucks to hear it.”
“If it helps,” Rain said. “I’ve changed a lot since then. I’m still figuring some stuff out.”
“A lot of different groups to un-hate,” Chris said.
“I- kind of,” Rain said. “I still catch myself a lot. I think of things, I realize I’m making these assumptions. Then I want to change and I don’t know how. I try to use you guys as role models or talk to Mrs. Yamada, or I read, look up and watch a movie. But it’s a lot to re-teach myself.”
“Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Natives, Middle Easterners, then gay, trans,” Tristan rattled off.
“Deeper than that,” Rain said. “I had to start with re-figuring women and how I thought about them. I’m still pretty shitty, as much as I’m trying, because I hear you rattle that off and my first thought is ‘some of these aren’t like the others’ and I have to stop myself.”
“You’ve said a few things,” Chris said.
“I figured you were a redneck.”
“Worse,” Rain said.
“They get in your head,” Erin jumped in. “They got my parents. My little brother. They got Rain when he was little. I accept he’s trying.”
“There was a Fallen group that found a pair of people like me,” Sveta said.
Rain closed his eyes, looked down.
“Boy and a girl. Case fifty-threes. Arizona. Peat and Fen. They showed up in a few cities, did some stunts, hero-ish. Junior level stuff. But they were juniors, we think.”
“I know the story,” Rain said.
“They were terrified of vehicles and they hated the idea of the PRT. They had a lot of peculiarities. They couldn’t stay in one place for long. Communities pulled together. It was a really cool thing, they’d get motel rooms paid for by fans, they had tutors come to visit. There was talk of trying to get them into the school system. It was tricky because they were tricky.”
“It was a really cool thing,” Sveta said. “There were blogs that followed them, and they were really positive. There was art drawn of them- I really liked that. A couple of times a week there would be articles talking about how they were doing something new and better and it was a step forward.”
“I knew some of it,” Rain said.
“You should know all of it. There was a time in my life when I could only vicariously enjoy those sorts of things, and I’d wake up and I’d tell myself I would check the blog after lunch and I would check the art page after dinner, and that was the sort of thing that helped me get through the days. Weld stuff was first thing. There were others. But Peat and Fen were big.”
“I know,” Rain said.
“They went down the wrong stretch of road and some Fallen jackasses on motorcycles thought they’d get a good reaction from people by holding the pair down and taking a chainsaw to their horns. To decorate their fucking helmets!”
Rain nodded, averting his eyes.
“Knife marks suggested someone tried to cut off one of their faces to wear it as a mask. You can imagine how I felt,” Sveta said. She moved her hair, showing the edge of her face, the mass of pencil-thin black tendrils behind it. “Since I’m only a mask and an assortment of lethal weapons. You can imagine how I felt, when instead of my daily pick-me up I got the news that they’d died from loss of their horns.”
Kenzie ducked her head, and started to walk away. When I went to follow and check her head, Ashley held up a hand and bid me to stop, following Kenzie instead.
“This isn’t an inquisition,” Erin said. “Rain isn’t responsible for everything the Fallen have done.”
Sveta ignored Erin for the moment. “Other Fallen groups have taken us for freak shows. The embodiments of the end times. Tom and Jake Crowley. I know that’s not on you, Rain, but you have to realize they aren’t good people.”
“I’m more than aware.”
“Then at least tell me you’re not going to go back,” Sveta said.
“I have to,” Rain said.
I could see Sveta’s face fall.
“I have to,” Rain said. “I have no choice. Really.”
“Okay,” Sveta said, her voice sad. “I think you have more choice than you think you do.”
“I really don’t. If I could do anything else, I would. I’m aware of a lot of things that are worse than Peat and Fen,” Rain said.
“What happened to Peat and Fen is pretty fucking bad,” Sveta said. She turned to Erin. “You’re not responsible for what others did, but if you’re leaning on them for protection or strength, then that’s not okay. You can’t use that strength.”
“They have my family,” Erin said.
“And they don’t let you go,” Rain said. “It’s all… very complicated.”
Ashley returned to the group. Kenzie was still sitting in the grass, a distance away, her back to us.
When I looked, Ashley gestured. Telling me to stay.
Rain looked pretty battered. Dejected.
He met my eyes.
“There’s more to it,” Ashley said.
“Oh yeah,” Rain said.
“If you won’t say it, then I will,” Ashley said. “I’ll guess. You killed people.”
Rain went very still.
I could remember a similar look on my sister’s face.
He huffed out a breath, hands at his lap as he slouched back against the front of the sedan, sitting against the hood. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.
“Yeah,” he finally said.
“Innocents,” she said.
“Kids,” Rain said. He looked in Kenzie’s direction. At Chris. Then he looked over his shoulder at Erin.
“Why?” Chris asked.
“I’ve been asking myself that a lot.”
“You maimed people,” Ashley said. Still on the offense.
“Long term injuries. Burns,” Rain said. “To people of all ages.”
“For fun?” Ashley asked.
“For respect, if anything. I don’t know,” Rain said. He looked back to Chris, since he was really answering his question. “Because a large part of me had only ever known the family, the lifestyle. All of the language – outsiders were… less. It was okay to hurt ten of them if you helped one of the family’s.”
“They had your whole childhood to work on you,” Erin said.
“Doesn’t excuse it,” Rain said.
“No. But it explains it,” she said.
“Your whole life?” I asked. My first time speaking in this conversation, maybe. I wasn’t sure – I was in a different mode.
“My parents were early adopters, mostly on the fringe. They got more into it as it grew. Renamed me early enough I don’t remember my original name. Rain O’Fire Frazier.”
“That’s terrible,” Chris said.
“Shush,” Sveta said.
“Everything about the Fallen is terrible,” Rain said. “A few years after the name change, they sold me to a family halfway across the country, used the money to fuck off traveling like they’d always talked about. My guardians right now are people I’ve called my aunt and uncle my whole life. I got powers with the cluster trigger, at a time I was just one more set of hands and a weapon, a henchman. That was supposed to elevate me and… it did the opposite. That was my wake-up call.”
“It’s good you had one,” Tristan said.
“I don’t like the idea of you going back,” Sveta said. “When you pull away is when things get worse, when violence happens.”
“It’s why I’m not pulling away,” Rain said.
“You’re with us,” Tristan said. “You’re doing your own thing.”
From the bank robbery to the period after. Trying to find normal again. Rain had been more open. Did that change the course of this particular river, compared to the one I’d known? Or were the key elements all there, still? The discomfort, the ‘I’m trying but I’m not going to do anything different’?
Did it still lead to disaster in the end?
“Is the critter okay?” Erin asked. “Kenz?”
“She’ll be fine if this ends and the group is still together,” Ashley said.
“Are we?” Rain asked.
“I’m not going to say no,” Sveta said. “But I think you need to go. Yesterday. Get out of there. Trust the Wardens.”
“I would if I thought they would protect me,” Rain said. “But they’re busy. The news articles say they’re not even here lot of the time.”
“I’m okay,” Tristan said. “This is ninety-five percent known stuff, and elaboration on other stuff.”
The voices of the others were a jumble. Chris didn’t care about anything. Ashley, as odd as it was, seemed most uncomfortable.
“Victoria,” Rain said. “You’ve been quiet.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I was aware of the silence that followed my statement.
“Snag’s army. They’re after the Fallen,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“But they want you.”
“Yeah,” Rain said. His expression darkened as he said it. No illusions about what was in store for him if that happened.
“Because of the kids, and the others you killed. Because they blame you.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“I can tell you the details, if-”
“I’m going to go,” I said, interrupting. I was aware of the looks I got. “Tell Kenzie everything’s cool. I’ll be back. I just need to think on this.”
No actions out of instinct. I’d think, piece everything together.
I flew away from the scene before I could say or do something I’d regret.
Another group was patrolling the area that afternoon. Crystal and I stood on a square of crimson forcefield, well above Cedar Point, watching.
They were an older group, a bit of armor, some swords, a spear. One of them was a Brute who carried a crossbow bigger than I was. I’d always liked those things.
Simple. Easy. Bad guys bad and a bit lame. Good guys a bit lame and doing good work.
“I’m going back to the PRTCJ,” Crystal said. “Next week.”
I didn’t want her to go back. There was very little to like about the group.
Ironically, the advice I was following in regards to that had to do with cults. Not putting up too much of an offense, not scaring them into throwing up walls.
“It’s been two weeks,” I said. “How do they handle that?”
“No idea. Pay deduction, extra drills, demotion.”
“I told you what I heard from D. There’s war on the horizon.”
D. Dido. In case we were being listened to. Prancer’s clairvoyants could have been listening in, and he could have hired additional intelligence gathering. No telling. We dodged particulars.
“That’s part of why I’m going,” Crystal said.
“Spooks me,” I said.
“You doing this spooks me,” Crystal said. “I want to meet everyone at some point.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“You think you have a handle on this?”
“I think so,” I said. If ‘this’ meant Cedar Point. “On other stuff? Less sure.”
“What can I do? We want you more sure.”
“Looks like our guests are free and clear. We’ll see what they say later. I’ve got a meeting. Do you mind flying with me?”
“I’m glad to. But we gotta eat.”
I wasn’t hungry, I was rarely hungry after thinking too much about the past, and I’d been thinking about it a lot during the discussion with Rain. Still, I nodded.
I picked up the bag and the books I’d placed atop the field, putting everything away. Crystal dropped the forcefield, and we flew with me leading the way.
It was already getting dark. The flight wasn’t a short one. I put on my music, because conversation was hard with the wind in my ears.
Time to think about Crystal and the PRTCJ. The war with Earth C. Rain. Kenzie. About what the hell I was doing here.
The sun had set by the time we arrived. The waterfront had a railing with oversized posts a boat could be lashed to. I leaned against the railing, checked my phone, and sent a message.
Mrs. Yamada approached from our right. She had food from a nearby food truck.
“Crystal,” she said. “It’s so nice to see you.”
“You too,” Crystal said. She gushed just a bit as she said it. She’d met Mrs. Yamada at the hospital. They’d had talks about things. About Crystal losing Uncle Neil and Eric. About me.
There was a brief catching-up. Pleasantries. I chimed in once or twice, then found I didn’t have it in me. I stared out over the water.
“I think- do you mind giving us privacy?” Mrs. Yamada asked.
“Sure. How’s the food here?”
“This? It’s good.”
“Wave when you want me to come back. I’ll be enjoying the view until then.”
Mrs. Yamada leaned against the railing next to me. Her dinner smelled amazing and I still didn’t want to eat anything.
“Sorry to be eating while we talk. I haven’t had a bite to eat since grabbing a protein bar and a pear at five forty-five this morning.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Please eat. Thank you for seeing me.”
“Thank you. Is everyone okay?”
“Intact, yes. Okay? Were they okay when I met them?”
“They were in a place where I felt like they could finish their own journeys. Most of them. I imagine there’s some backsliding here and there, difficulties and things that aren’t okay because of external stresses and internal factors within the group.”
“Some,” I said. “Some figuring things out from moment to moment. Small triumphs.”
“That’s good. More or less what I expected.”
“Rain revealed his situation,” I said.
“I heard,” Mrs. Yamada said. “You wanted to do some thinking.”
“I did,” I said.
“I can’t do that thinking for you. But if you want to talk out loud, I can help you along the way.”
“When it comes to Rain, I think I get it,” I said. “I’m not okay with it, but not in a way that’s going to ruin anything. It sucks to see the big and little things that affect the others. Some issues close to Sveta’s heart.”
“You’re thinking about something else,” she concluded.
“Yeah,” I said. “When Weld showed up at the first session, he said he was sorry he couldn’t sit in.”
“You asked him to counsel the group on their hero idea before you asked me.”
“Before the community center, before your boss called me. Yes.”
“He said no, but he could help in a while.”
“More or less.”
“But you chose me in the end. You could have waited and had him sit in, and he’s… a great guy who everyone respects. You chose me, for reasons besides timing.”
“I’m not much of a schemer.”
“That’s not saying I’m wrong,” I said.
“No it isn’t. But I’m worried if I say yes, then there’s expectations, and there’s disappointment if this doesn’t end up going well. I’m far from superhuman, I make mistakes, and this could be another. What are you thinking this is?”
“You wanted a quality I had, that Weld might not. I was thinking about the team, the traps we could fall into. Is it the paranoia? The fact I can’t quite trust people?”
“That seems like an unkind way to describe yourself.”
“You wanted someone that isn’t too enmeshed into the group. Someone wary that’s seen the Asylum and knows the sort of thing that comes out of there. Someone that might see how they operate within the dynamic now that most have let their guards down. You think something’s up, and you didn’t tell me what it is because you didn’t want me going in with too many preconceived ideas. Because… you wanted to see if I drew the same conclusions. Something bad’s in play with this group.”
She nodded to herself.
“Am I wrong?” I asked.
“You’re not wrong,” she said.