Experience told me that after waking up from a bad dream, it was better for me to move. The emotional and mental impact of being tired for the rest of the day was far lower than if I remained in bed and stewed. Either way, I rarely fell back into sleep.
It was one of the few things that had been easier at the hospital. Sleep had been regular, reliable. There hadn’t been any stretches where I’d have nightmares or insomnia for three nights in a row and the littlest things would be a grind by the third day. The drugs had been part of my diet, to ensure I fell asleep and woke up at certain times. They didn’t do much about the nightmares, but even waking up hadn’t ended the nightmare back then.
I was perpetually tempted to get something to help, but the degree to which I was tempted was a warning bell in the back of my mind.
Sleep, eating, having a space to retreat to, physical affection, attention, socializing, breathing. It was always the basic, animal things that came apart in the wake of stress and crisis. Things broke down, got twisted, or they were reminders.
I woke up and I pulled on a pair of jeans. Red-dyed raw denim, washed with something dark that made the creases and seams very apparent. They were a little looser fitting than my going-out jeans, and I’d settled into wearing them when I was at home and my dad was around, or now, when Crystal was around. It felt less like I was a slob if I was wearing them at home, especially if anyone dropped in.
Dean had tried on red jeans once, while I was shopping with him. His uncharacteristically self-conscious reaction had had me in stitches. If I hadn’t been able to fly, I would have been on the floor laughing. It was a good memory and a large part of why the jeans were a security-blanket level thing for me.
The memory had a nice second part, when Dean had mentioned that even the brief wearing of the jeans had turned his legs and underwear red. His best friends and I had been there as he’d recounted how concerned he’d been before realizing, and how the redness on his underwear had been worse where it pressed against the jeans, especially at the front. He’d described it as a clown-nose smudge on the front and his friends had been nearly falling out of their seats.
Even now, it put a smile on my face.
There were other memories too. Some from the same trip, others from other dates. He’d tried on a lot of jeans and to this day I could remember a pair where he had looked perfect: in profile, in the narrow waist and hips, the broad shoulders, the pert butt. He’d lifted up his shirt so I could see the fit, and I’d seen the thin trail of body hair leading up to his navel, his flat stomach, and the bones of his hips just above the jeans. Already warmed up by my laughing fit earlier, I’d worked myself up into a tizzy, the best words for it, and I’d maintained the tizzyness until twenty minutes later when we were cutting through the parking lot to the bus stop. I’d pulled him aside for a make out session.
I missed him so much it hurt, but the memories were happy ones and they were a good buffer against the bad night’s sleep. I kept my t-shirt and underwear on from yesterday and I went without a bra, pulling on a white sweater with too-long sleeves and a wide collar that left my shoulders bare.
The fit was snuggly and enveloping, as if the sweater itself was giving me a hug; kind of what I was shooting for when a not-insignificant part of me felt like I was five years old again, scared and wanting to crawl into bed with my mom and dad.
Set on putting the nightmare and the associated feelings behind me, I got some socks, underwear, sports bra, and a camisole top, stowing them in my bag where I already had my wallet. I pulled on some sneakers, sans socks, and headed to the balcony door. I eyed the clock in the kitchen as I passed it. Fifteen minutes to five.
I flew toward Cedar Point.
“You’re not wrong,” Jessica Yamada said.
I stared out over the water. There was something sinister at play with the team.
Crystal was out at the water’s edge now, leaning over the railing. Forcefields made a kind of table or tray for her to set her food down on. It drew the attention of bystanders, in a ‘look at that, how cool’ way.
“Double agent? Someone under the influence of another?” I asked.
“Telling you would be telling you who,” Jessica said. “Which, unfortunately, would be betraying confidence.”
“Can I think aloud?”
“I got on this track of thought because I have an ominous feeling. I liken it to, uh, to my sister.”
“Keep in mind that hindsight might distort the picture with your sister. It’s easy to look back and think things were better or worse than they were.”
“I- yes,” I said, conceding the point. “Yes, but I can take key moments in isolation, scenes I remember with vivid detail, conversations down to the word, and I can use those as waypoints. I can recall what led up to what and what happened after, because I’ve replayed it all in my head a thousand times, and I can compare that to this.”
“Don’t lose sight of how replaying events in your head to such excruciating detail might distort the picture, as will gathering all of those like memories together.”
“I’ll try not to,” I said. “Thinking aloud… you think something’s up. You’re equipped with all of the facts, you know people’s stories, most of the secrets. Sveta said something about how she’s kind of unique in how she knows the most about most people, if I’m included in things.”
“I imagine she does.”
“I had no background going in, but I called you to talk because I had worries, and I’m realizing the general shape of your worries and why you brought me in. We’re at the same conclusion, but we got here by different roads. Something’s wrong or it’s going to go wrong.”
Jessica ate while I talked.
“You would be allowed to break confidentiality if there was a real and imminent risk of danger, or if there was a danger to a vulnerable group. And in the event of child abuse?”
“I would if I knew there was a danger to any involved,” Jessica said. “I would also have to disclose if required by law – a muddy thing these days, with the world hanging in suspension while the laws are being written.”
“I’ve run into that a bit,” I said, thinking of Natalie.
“And if I had to disclose to obtain payment or ensure proper care, as I would if I was giving care to someone who then had to go to the Asylum. In either of those two cases, for law or working with other mental health professionals, I would get the patient’s permission first.”
“So it’s not that, obviously. But you’re really worried. It’s something that you think is likely enough that you want me there to keep an eye on things.”
“I gave some serious consideration to whether the risk, though not a certain one, was worth the cost to the patient, to my career, and to the other patients I might no longer be able to look after.”
I looked at Jessica. She took another bite of her barbecue chicken sandwich, adjusting the wrapper to catch the drips of sauce and bits of lettuce and onion.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
With index finger and thumb still holding the sandwich, she held up some fingers to block her mouth while she chewed. I nodded, and waited for her to finish the mouthful.
She swallowed, paused, and then said, “I mean that if I were to report, there is a chance my reasons for reporting might be seen as insufficient, unproven, or unclear.”
“Just a suspicion. A strong one. Not enough reason to bring authorities into it or take action against the person or people you’re worried about.”
“Yes,” she said.
“What would happen?”
“It’s hard to say. The future of the law is unclear. But I can say I would be tied up in proceedings as they judge whether I had merit, which could take months or even more than a year. Even if nothing happened, the fact that it even had to happen in the first place might impact who I could work for. I might have to take a leave from work, and I might not be able to work with the Wardens or with critical-risk, powered juveniles.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“The PRT was stringent about who they would hire and take into confidence, and there’s no reason to believe the next group to take power will be any less careful. Even with that in mind…”
She trailed off.
“You thought about telling people. That doesn’t seem… just. There are a lot of people that rely on you. Even with the group therapy kids, it’s pretty clear. I feel like if they didn’t have you, some pretty bad stuff would happen. And they’re, what, ten percent of your caseload? Less?”
“Less. But I can’t ignore one wrong involving my patients for the sake of ensuring I can maintain care for the rest. Thankfully, it isn’t that binary in reality. I can act clearly and decisively when there’s a clear and decisive danger. I can ask multiple someones that I know and respect to keep an eye out.”
“Me being one?”
“Yes, Victoria. You’re one of several. Some are waiting until the group is more visible, people in the Wardens will reach out and coordinate, they know where your group originated and that I’m concerned about where it may go.”
“I may not be the best choice- I know you didn’t choose me, exactly. You wanted me to try and steer the group away from the hero thing. I volunteered myself for this and you were…”
“Relieved to have one set of eyes on things, on a more ongoing basis.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If you need to back away from this, you can,” she said. “Tell me and I’ll help. Others will help to keep an eye on things, if at more of a distance. I involved you initially and I was glad when you seemed to be interested and invested in a way that played to your strengths and that you enjoyed. I was, again, relieved to have more eyes on things. I do not, however, want you to suffer for it.”
I looked out over the water, which was so very dark and expansive. The city didn’t keep many lights on at night, with the power situation being what it was. Less lights to reflect down on the water after dark, less light reaching the clouds up above, to make the sky lighter.
Ink black darkness.
“How have you been?” she asked.
“Back at the Asylum, after you had worked on your motor control, I had you keep a journal, with the attendant’s help.”
Dark, heavy feelings, to match what I saw over the water.
“Each day in the calendar started with a drawn out cross, with a number written in each of the four quadrants. We tracked how you were doing in various areas.”
“I didn’t make much progress.”
“You moved on to the independent care facility.”
More dark, heavy feelings.
“How would you fill it out now? Physically, emotionally, contextually, and in the immediate picture with your personal needs.”
“I have no earthly idea,” I said.
“It might be worth paying attention to,” she said. “Have you called the number I gave you? The therapist?”
I shook my head.
“If you sat down with a friend or a loved one and they told you they felt as you have these past few days, their worries, wants, needs, and problems, would you want them to talk to someone qualified?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I would.”
She took a bite of her sandwich, diplomatically avoiding saying something.
“Yeah,” I said. “I hear you.”
I stopped in at the group’s headquarters, landing on the fire escape, and unlocking the door with my key.
Lights started to turn on, computer monitors appearing, Kenzie’s cube glowing at the corners, as her projected image appeared in the computer chair, fritzing.
“It’s fine. Go back to sleep, Kenzie,” I said, to the room. “I woke up early and decided to go flying. I’m using the shower.”
There was a pause, and then the various projections, images, screens, and lights went dark, in the reverse order they had turned on.
I wondered if I’d actually woken her up, and if she’d actually heard me.
The apartment was fairly spacious, to the point it could have been a two-bedroom place if it actually had walls. As it was, the only walls encircled the corner, where a single shallow closet and the bathroom were. The bathroom, I couldn’t help but note, was ridiculously small for the size of the overall apartment. Toilet, sink, and shower stall, with barely any room to squeeze in between one thing and the thing or things beside it.
I stepped into the bathroom and disrobed, leaning out past the door to hang up my jeans outside, so the humidity of the shower wouldn’t get at them. I hung up the rest of my clothes on the inside of the door.
It was paranoia over preserving the raw denim and bringing out any dye that regular wearing hadn’t already worn away, maybe, but I’d spent a week’s pay on the jeans. If they had been free, I still would have been attached to them, because they reminded me of Dean, and because they were getting to be the most comfortable jeans I’d ever had, after rigorous wearing. I was going to be fussy.
I hadn’t gotten to be fussy with other things. A year after I had gone to the hospital, my mom had donated just about all of my clothes to charity.
There had been things I’d bought with Dean, with friends, with Aunt Sarah or Crystal. Uncle Neil had always spoiled me rotten, going to Crystal for tips on what to get me, and there had been four or five things I would have liked to have. Some had been milestone things, dresses I’d worn to school events, clothes I’d gotten to take home from photo shoots, and small accessories I’d bought as rewards to myself, like saving my first thousand and two thousand dollars, when I’d thought I might move to another city to follow Dean, if the PRT moved him.
It hadn’t been like she’d needed the room. Dad had moved out by then, I was gone, my sister was gone. It had been… her ripping off her own band-aid, by giving away my treasures.
I could have turned the shower to a scalding heat to try to find a physical way to reflect what I was feeling otherwise. I could have turned it to freezing cold, to wake myself up.
I opted for the embrace of warm water in lieu of the warm hug of the sweater I’d taken off. I got into the shower and used my flight, bringing my knees to my chest and hugging my legs tight, closing my eyes.
I rotated in the air a few times over the course of what might have been twenty minutes, letting the water pour over me. I didn’t open my eyes once for the duration, and I didn’t feel like I might fall asleep.
I finished my recounting of my observations of the team. Jessica finished eating.
Rain was in a bad spot, and he’d revealed himself to be Fallen. Kenzie and Houndstooth. Ashley and her outbursts. Chris and his lopsided dips into one emotion. Sveta’s worries. Tristan and Moonsong.
“No team name, a lot of missing cape names. I know you don’t like the cape name thing-”
“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Mrs. Yamada said. “I think it can make sense to take a hero name as an adult, but for someone younger, it can be one part of a greater issue. It’s hard enough for a teenager to decide who they are without the icon, the mask, and the name taking so much focus.”
I wanted to argue the point so badly, and I was too tired to do it. A passionate debate about powers, identities and costumes with Jessica, outside of the bounds of a therapy session? It would have been great.
“There’s going to be a war,” I said. “Rain is going to be swept up in it, if he hasn’t already. They’re hoping to kill him in the chaos. The others might be swept up in it.”
“We’ll try to keep that from happening.”
“If it happens, we can try to make sure it happens in the safest, most controlled way possible,” I said. I saw the look on her face, and hurried to add, “I know you want to keep it from happening, but they want to protect each other, and they do want to stretch their wings and flex their powers. It’s part of being a cape.”
“It is,” Jessica said. “What about you?”
“Will you be swept up in it? Do you want to stretch your wings and flex your powers?”
“I don’t want to flex my powers,” I said. “I do want to be involved. I… see this as a snowball rolling downhill. It’s chaotic and it has the potential to do a lot of damage, some of it inevitable. But for all their flaws, I think they are holding onto what you wanted to impart on them, for the most part they need… nudges.”
“To change the course of the snowball. Reassuring Sveta. Redirecting Ashley or giving her an excuse to do what she wants to do anyway. Keeping Kenzie from overcommitting herself. Tristan gets into things and needs a bit of a shake, and he’ll step back from the headlong charge. Rain- more complicated, because it’s not him, exactly. Self doubt, but it’s external factors pushing in on him that we need to worry about.”
“I don’t even know. I plan to keep a close eye on him, because I haven’t figured him out and he doesn’t seem like he wants to share any of himself, which makes me worry. I’ll see if I can figure out what to do.”
“Nudges and keeping an eye on things,” Mrs. Yamada said. “I think you’re on the right track. Step back if this is wearing on you.”
I shook my head. “Everything wears on me. Eating and sleeping wear on me. Stepping back wouldn’t do me any good. I’ll call your colleague. Do what I can.”
“Self care,” Jessica said. “Yes. Be kind to yourself, reach out for help if you need it. You have friends. Don’t lose sight of that.”
I looked over in Crystal’s direction. She waved the foil-wrapped sandwich in the air, as if baiting me. I found myself tempted, when I hadn’t even been hungry before. “Yeah. I just realized how ravenous I am. I feel like there are a hundred more things I should tell you that you need to know, but…”
“Not enough minutes in the day, even if and when I get more with a helpful someone’s power. I know. Go eat.”
I stepped back from the railing. “Sorry, I skipped breakfast and I tossed my lunch.”
“I’d have stern words for you, but I barely ate today either. Take care of yourself, Victoria.”
She hugged me.
“We’ll talk again soon,” she said, without breaking the hug.
I hadn’t worked out what I was doing in regard to Rain. A part of me had hoped for guidance. In the end, it had been better to give Mrs. Yamada the lay of the land. If she was suspicious, then my mention of outbursts, of backsliding, of stubbornness, confrontations or secrecy might have been the cue she needed to make a decision.
If she was okay with where things stood, then so was I. I would nudge, I would keep an eye out, and I would look after myself. I felt more peace than I had, having had the conversation.
“Bye,” I said, my voice not all there because I was a little choked up. I couldn’t wholly pin down why.
I broke the hug and went straight to my steaming barbecue chicken sandwich. Crystal too.
Shower off. Tangled mane transformed to wet combed locks, wet locks transformed to damp braid. Clothes on: sports bra on under sweater, sleeves rolled up around the wrists, red raw jeans, socks and sneakers. The clothes I’d hung up on the bathroom door had been effectively steamed while I was in the shower, and my hands smoothed out the wrinkles that had accumulated from my clothes being in my bag.
Self care, to have a shower with no disturbances or worries about bothering Crystal. To dress in things that felt right.
The computers illuminated as I walked through the main room.
“Go to sleep,” I said. The computers went dark.
I had to fish through three coarse paper bags of groceries that we’d stowed under one of the tables to find the food supplies. A small bag of lime and chili chips, a protein bar, some preservatives with pepperoni stick added in, more stick-shaped preservative packs with cheese in the mix, dried fruit, two bottles of vitamin water, and a large thermos of regular tap water
Laptop. I flipped it open and turned it on. The agenda for the day was laid out in glowing words against a dark background. More groups would walk through.
I had messages from the night prior. Fume Hood. Another friend and support. Hero teams planning to patrol in Cedar Point. Other, related things. There was a vein of positivity running through it all. The hero teams reaching out, expressing interest, wondering about the response they’d gotten, or expressing curiosity about villains who’d showed their faces but hadn’t been involved. Who was that guy? What’s her history?
It was easy to be standoffish, to draw lines in the sand when it came to jurisdictions, to make territorial noises and see the other teams as competition.
This was a balancing act, but there were benefits. The heroes we were connecting with knew some of our names, faces, and voices.
The clock told me it was a quarter after six in the morning as I left the headquarters.
My feet left the fire escape and touched down in Cedar Point a few minutes later. The shifting temperature and the proximity of the water cast Cedar Point in a heavy mist. There weren’t many lights on, but the ones that were on made the surrounding mist glow.
Not many people awake.
I walked along the rooftops, flying up to the points higher than I could get with a skip or a jump. Briefly, I turned on my forcefield.
Briefly, I saw the mist stir, as facial features and hands moved through it. If I hadn’t known what I was looking at, I wouldn’t have been able to make much sense of the swirl here, the vaguely oval void there.
It wasn’t a good feeling, to verify that, but I’d treated my heart gently this morning, armoring it in sentiment. I could take that much.
I sat on the edge of a random rooftop, got my laptop out, and opened it.
There wasn’t internet here, but I had files saved on my computer. Random pictures I’d saved, old PRT documents I’d scanned and saved for printing for my collection, that I hadn’t gotten around to deleting or printing, and some things I’d typed up for the Patrol block.
One leg folded under me, the other dangling off the edge of the roof, I poised the laptop on my knee and dug for what I could find on costumes and branding. I created seven folders, one for myself and one for each of the six members of the team, and began copying files over to each, where relevant.
The pepperoni sticks were stale, brittle and tough enough I had to gnaw on them to soften them enough to bite through. Tasty, though.
A small truck beeped with surprising loudness as it backed into an alley. One person got out to guide it, waving and gesturing, as the headlights of the truck illuminated him in the fog.
The truck fully backed in, he turned around. Pausing, he looked up at me on the rooftop. He raised an arm.
I packed up my laptop and hopped off the roof. I landed silently behind him. He wore a jacket with a lime green reflective vest over it, and the combination made him look much bulkier than he was.
“You’re the one who knocked Moose on his ass,” he said.
“Just… hanging around with your computer?”
I shifted my bag at my shoulder.
“I saw the glow of the screen,” he said.
“Felt like I should make a stake. It’s easy to show up during the daylight hours, but it means something else if I could be here at midnight or at six in the morning. It’s interesting that it seems like the people who keep watch haven’t responded to me yet.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “Huh.”
“What’s in the truck?”
“Produce,” he said. “It’s not a good haul. My buddy back at the depot picked up a box of melons, it was liquid. Sloshed himself in watermelon juice, shoulder to toe. Long day of work ahead of him.”
“Just shipping it out, leaving it to the stores to complain?”
“I guess they hope enough people won’t bother that it balances out.”
“What do you think?” he asked. He extended an arm.
I drew in a deep breath.
“About Cedar Point,” he clarified.
“I think this place is going to get wrapped up in a war,” I said.
“Yeah?” he asked. “Because of the heroes coming through?”
“Because it’s building up to something, whatever the people in charge seem to want,” I said. “The war is going to start here or it’s going to come here.”
“Should my buddy and I get out?” he asked.
“You might want to,” I said.
“We pay a fee to do business here, our manager covers that, but we have to face down the people in costume who collect the fee and give us a hard time, too. Boss can’t handle that. Stuff off the boats and trains hasn’t been as good lately, profit margins are getting slimmer. Maybe we’ll try telling the manager it’s not worth it.”
“Is it a problem? The heroes being here?”
He had to think about it.
“Yes,” he said.
“Okay,” I responded.
“But it’s a necessary one,” he added.
It meant a lot to me, to hear that. I held myself to the idea that if I couldn’t trust the law, I could trust what was right. If I couldn’t trust either, I could reach out.
I couldn’t trust the law. It was in flux. Natalie was trying to predict it, but it was more question mark than full stop. As for what was right, I wasn’t sure I could trust myself, and I couldn’t trust the team. Jessica could give me some direction, tell me that I was all clear if I kept an eye out, to nudge. The other teams could validate and suggest they liked this direction. Collaboration, at least, felt right.
Reaching out, I could get some affirmation from this nameless guy in a reflective green vest.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You said war,” he said. “Not a battle?”
“I think it matters more,” I said. “There are other places. They’ll follow suit. The entire city might change course, depending on what happens.”
“Huh. I’m Jerry, by the way,” he introduced himself. He pulled off a glove to extend his hand my way.
“No hero name?”
“No hero costume,” I said. “Yet.”
“Can I give you a nod or a wave if I see you, while you’re hanging around, then?”
“Better not. When the villains are awake, they’ll be keeping an eye on things. With powers.”
“On everything,” I said.
“I might talk to my boss, then,” he said. “Sounding more like I should stay clear.”
“Good,” I said.
“And you’ll be here, then? Staking a claim? Preparing for war?”
“Making sure that if nothing else, instead of it being fifty villains and no heroes, it’s fifty villains and one hero. It’s me being ridiculous, but I feel like that’s important.”
“Lonely,” he said.
“Nah,” I said. “I think I’ll have allies when it counts.”
The entire group arrived pretty much all together. Tristan, Ashley, Sveta, Chris, and Kenzie. The westbound train arrived at twelve-thirty, and the eastbound train was just shy of ten minutes later. Delays and other passing trains changed things up, but it seemed if the group wanted to meet at the station and walk together, they could.
“Here already,” Ashley observed.
“Yep,” I said. I held up a hand as Kenzie walked past, and she gave me a high-five.
“Cool jeans,” she said, without turning.
“Thank you,” I said. She went straight to her desk, kicking the cube that sat on the ground by her chair to boot it up before falling back into her chair and hitting the lever to boost herself up.
“Did you see the emails from the other teams?” Tristan asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” Ashley said.
“I’ll show you in a moment. You’ll like it,” Tristan said. “They were talking some and they like this. Cedar Point was a thing that was bothering a lot of people, I think.”
“Civilians too, maybe,” I said. “I dropped in early enough the villains weren’t really awake. Talked to a few. Feelings on heroic intervention range from positive to mixed. Considering that feelings on heroes are mixed in the first place…”
“We were talking, thinking I’d pay a visit,” Chris said. “Keep them on their toes.”
“I’d rather wait,” I said. “Rain said his trigger group would be out of commission for a few days while repairing and healing from injuries. It’s been a few days. They were hiring people, and they probably won’t wait too long before they use those hires, or else those people might get caught up in other activities.”
“I’m primed to do something, and I think you guys would rather I do it there than in here,” Chris said. “We’ve got- what, two teams coming through today?”
“Two with a third holding back. Third one is a single cape, they want to actually do something,” Tristan said.
“We need to discuss that one,” I said.
“They’re paying,” he said. “If we give him clear directions on how to ruin a villain’s day, he’ll pay us two hundred bucks. It’s a good precedent.”
“People are coming through,” Chris said. “If we need it, I’ll be a distraction. I’m quick, I’ll be in and out.”
“Maybe,” Tristan said. He looked at me and Ashley.
“It was the original plan,” Ashley said. “I say let him.”
I made a so-so gesture.
“Yeah,” Tristan said. “We’ll debate it when the time comes. It’s anxiety?”
“Yep. Mad Anxiety.”
“Great,” Tristan said. “It’s not the screaming one, is it?”
“Mad is the screaming one,” Chris said. “I wanted to make an impact and if we need me as a distraction then screaming is good.”
Tristan said something Spanish under his breath and went to his whiteboard. Swear words, if I had to guess.
“I’ll go in,” Ashley said. “We said I would after a few days, and if things are happening, I want to already be recognizable around there. Will the eye camera be ready?”
“Yes,” Kenzie said. “Oh, Victoria, I bought some energy drinks if you want them. And I have a thermos of a coffee my dad and mom really like.”
“What coffee?” Sveta asked. “Weld and I were trying to find one he might like, but it turned out he wants it super bitter, because that’s the only way he can taste it. We had a bunch of things of coffee taking up space, and I took it on myself to drink it. I even gave some away.”
“You should bring it in,” Tristan said. “Supply the team.”
“I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me. Except I can, because I don’t think about what I have in the cupboards unless I’m standing in front of an open cupboard. I have other stuff.”
“How far has this food experiment with Weld gone?” I asked.
So it went, the conversation sprawling, back and forth, casual, from work to life.
I’d woken up before dawn, taken the necessary time to pull myself together, and then tentatively reached out, to make sure I wasn’t just centered in my own self, but in what I was doing. Reaching out to make sure it seemed right and, to a slightly lesser extent, that it was within the bounds of the law. Reaching out, too, to have more contacts.
I had a bad feeling. No, more than that, I had bad feelings. About the team, what lay beneath the surface, the war over Cedar Point, the Fallen, the clash between Snag’s group and the Fallen, and the danger to Rain.
But I knew why I was here. A potential disaster lurked here. Knowing that made everything easier, in an ironic way. The dissonance of not feeling right about being here had eased.
There were clear, defined, acceptable enemies to face down.
“I don’t want a wig,” Ashley said, to Sveta.
“I’m saying, if you cut your hair-”
“Then it’s an option. It could even give you a secret identity. Kenzie, the eye thing you were talking about, you can give Ashley eyes with irises, right?”
“Eye color, hair color, clothes,” Sveta said.
“Wigs get pulled off or lost in a fight,” Ashley said. “It’s undignified.”
“You do realize I’m wearing a wig.”
“I realize you’re wearing a wig and you have the capacity to pound someone’s face in or dangle them off the side of a building. They’ll learn to respect you if you make them,” Ashley said.
“You do realize we’re supposed to be heroes, right?” Chris said. “Nominally?”
“Not nominally,” I said.
“What’s nominally?” Kenzie asked. “How do you spell it? I’ll ask the computer.”
“And I’m not about to do any of those things,” Sveta said.
Ashley ignored us. “Me? I can kick them, or I can turn them into a bloody smear using my power. That’s pretty much it. I don’t have the manual dexterity or hand strength to use a weapon, I can’t punch them without damaging my hands. Kicks won’t do enough, using my power does too much, and the mess would be inconvenient. I don’t want a wig.”
“You don’t want a wig. Fine,” Sveta said.
“I have some images on my computer,” I said. “Hair and eye makeup, some costume related.”
“Show me?” Ashley asked.
We walked over to where my computer was on a table. I found the folder and opened it.
Sveta leaned over me, half-hugging me from behind as I clicked through the images.
“I was thinking of a name to do with swans,” Ashley said, as I clicked.
“An awful lot of the bird names are taken,” I said. “It was a trend once. What were you considering?”
“Swansong,” she said. “If I go with the white costume.”
“I can check, but I’d have to go through my paper stuff,” I said.
“Isn’t that kind of a bad omen of a name?” Sveta asked “Like, last dance or ‘I’m going to retire today’?”
“I like bad omens,” Ashley said.
“I like this one,” I said, indicating an image. “I have a folder for you too, Sveta, just so you know.”
“I’m curious what you’re thinking.”
“All over the place,” I said. “Lots of stuff where I might not even remember why I saved the image in your folder.”
“Guys,” Tristan said.
He had our attention. His phone was to his ear.
“Rain’s nearby. He wants to know if he can bring Erin.”
Just like that, the mood of the room shifted.
We exchanged looks, and there were tentative nods, some real nods, no vetoes or refusals.
Tristan gave the a-ok. He hung up.
The silence lingered for a few seconds.
“I like Erin,” Kenzie said. “And I’m really glad Rain’s coming back so soon.”
“Yesterday was hard on him,” Tristan said. “And… Coño, it was his night last night.”
“His night?” I asked.
“His dream,” Tristan said. “It’s always hard.”
“Sounds like a good dream to me,” Chris said.
Tristan picked up an eraser from by the nearest whiteboard and threw it at Chris.
“I like this one,” Ashley said. She tapped the frame of the laptop screen.
“Elaborate,” Sveta said. “You’d have to draw it on every time you went out in costume.”
“It could be projected,” Ashley said.
“It could,” I said. “If it’s easy to do, we could do that. I think the thing to do would be to make sure you look good if the projector breaks or loses power, and then build on that.”
“Like the wig idea,” Sveta said.
Rain opened the side door of the headquarters, letting Erin in first before following.
I’d gathered myself together earlier in the day. For the first time since the Patrol block job, I felt like I almost had my feet under me.
Tristan had said Rain had dealt with a hard night on top of a hard yesterday. It showed. Something hollowed out, something wounded. He looked like I’d felt after Snag had gotten his hands on me.
When he approached the table next to his whiteboards, Erin stepped back a little to let him pass. It was a subtle thing that I couldn’t help but notice, but it played into the second half of my observation of him. That he seemed more dangerous. Where I felt stronger because I’d pulled myself together some and clarified my direction with Mrs. Yamada, Rain conveyed something more in how he’d come undone.
Even yesterday, his face swollen on the one side, black eye, cuts and scabs, it had seemed that idea had held true as he’d found the strength to reveal his background.
What had he dreamed, last night, that this was what had come to the surface? Was this the strength of desperation? Something else?
Rain greeted Tristan first, almost falling forward in a ‘bro’ half-hug with just the one arm, the pat on the shoulder.
He gave a nod to Ashley as she was closest to him as he rounded the table. Sveta gave him a pat on the shoulder, a smile, and a few murmured words that got Rain to nod a little, his expression relaxing a little in what might have been a smile for someone else. She left us to go talk to Tristan.
Rain stopped a distance away from me. He didn’t quite face me, and instead said, “We good, Kenz?”
“Yup. I’m glad you came. And you brought Erin. You want to see my toys, Erin?”
Erin walked from the side door to Kenzie, but ninety-five percent of her attention was on Rain and me. I hadn’t quite seen her like this.
I hadn’t seen Rain like this. He almost swayed where he stood, eyebrows slightly furrowed, clearly in deep thought.
I didn’t like the Fallen. They scared the shit out of me. I hated everything they represented. He’d killed people, children, and it didn’t seem right that he was standing here and that was passing without incident.
Maybe his condition, mental and physical, represented just how hard he was fighting to get free. Maybe it suggested it wasn’t passing without incident.
I put out my hand. When he went to shake it, I grabbed him by the wrist, instead.
He flinched at the unexpected gesture, looked to one side, and stared off into space momentarily. There was a part of me that recognized that too. Bad dreams.
He forced his attention back to us and our exchange, looked down at our hands. He took my wrist. A clasp, more than a shake.
“We good?” he asked, not making eye contact. His voice was faintly rough-edged, like he’d screamed himself hoarse. As if a small part of Snag had found root in Rain’s throat.
“We’re good,” I said.
“Let’s get ourselves organized,” Tristan said. “Training wheels are off, and we’ve got a few things going on today. Ashley’s going back in, and it makes sense to insert her before things get messy. Two hero teams are swinging through sometime after that, we’ve got Chris on standby and one hero who wants to pay us to get a chance to do something, which we’ll want to discuss.”
“There’s Prancer to account for too,” I said, releasing Rain’s wrist, approaching, “He’s had a day to think about what we’re doing and a day to get countermeasures in place. He reassured his friends that he had a handle on this. Let’s prove him wrong.”