I gripped until my fingernails threatened to penetrate the skin, squeezing, strangling, until my hand hurt and my bullet wound hurt more. The pain in the bullet wound intensified, until the muscle started to cramp.
Relaxing my grip was a thing I had to tell myself how to do, more than pushing on through the pain had been. I released the stress ball with the doofy character face on the front. Bloodshot eyes receded into sockets and the mouth closed to settle into the infuriating little grin. My handprint remained as an indent on the ball’s thin skin, slowly disappearing.
“Agh,” I made a sound. The cramping feeling in my arm wasn’t going away. It was like a charlie horse, but more intense than any I’d had.
“Are you okay? Was it too much?” She gingerly touched my arm, being shy of the wound, and felt out the muscle. “Let me know if this hurts.”
I nodded, because I couldn’t really talk. The massage helped. It did hurt, when the fingers pulled against skin closer to the bullet wound, but the massage soothed the cramp enough that the pain was worth enduring.
“I wasn’t sure if you were using super strength or if it was you,” she said.
Then ask, I thought, the pain sharpening thoughts that might not have been so sharp five minutes ago or five minutes from now.
“Well, it seems like you have good strength in your hands.”
“It doesn’t feel strong,” I said.
“Okay. Not to worry! That’s something we can work on.”
Anne Lynn was my physical therapist with a first and middle name that she’d insisted were to be used together because she was not an ‘Anne’ and she definitely wasn’t a ‘Lynn’. Okay, fine. Going by first impressions, she seemed to be a lovely, warm, caring person who was painfully new to what she was doing. She went to her mentor, who was in our mostly empty activity area, for things I didn’t imagine really needed clarification or reassurance. She did much the same for me, double-checking what I said in a way that made me think she wasn’t taking me at my word.
It seemed she also didn’t ask for clarification at times she needed it.
She was a hard person to really dislike or resent, though. She was shorter than average, cute and bubbly, and her smile seemed persistent and genuine. That was a hard thing to find, given recent events.
“No super strength, for the record,” I said. “I turned it off. It kind of defeats the point, doesn’t it?”
“We should make sure that works as you heal,” she said.
“It’s not a concern,” I said. “I could be the strongest or weakest person in the world and it won’t affect how my super strength works.”
“Oh? Okay, got it. If you’re sure.”
There it was. The vague impression she doubted me. Was I being unfair?
“If you keep me talking about this I’m going to go full powers geek on you,” I said.
She snorted. “That’s convincing. Oh no, please don’t tell me about your power or show me anything neat!”
“Ahhh,” I said. So she’d hoped to see something. I thought about how much she didn’t want to see my uncontrolled forcefield in action, and I smiled anyway. “Maybe sometime.”
“Sometime, if you’re comfortable doing it. But not today, our session is just about over. How’s your arm feeling?”
I tried moving it. The cramp had mostly subsided. “Better.”
She smiled, reaching for the shelf under the bench I was sitting on. Papers and plastic bags rustled. She put a pile of stuff beside me. “I have stuff for you.”
“Some! Papers, this one has your instructions for your physiotherapy you can do at home. We want to keep up your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder strength while letting your arm recover. This paper here has some recommended tips for recovery and pain. On the backside, we have some things to watch out for.”
“Neuromas, muscle cramps lasting for long periods of time, persistent fever, swelling that appears suddenly or doesn’t let up. Got it.”
“If any exercises are too painful for you to do, make a note. I’ll see you in two days and you can tell me then. We’ll figure out if there’s something wrong or if it’s something we want you to work through. If I don’t know for sure then I’ll talk to someone who does. We’ll meet two days after that session, then scale down to twice a week after that, and once a week toward the end.”
“My doctor told me I should expect two to four more weeks recovery.”
“That’s for the muscle damage. Longer with the bone healing, but my notes say that was minor. I printed this out for you. Bone fracture healing is explained on this sheet. I included a copy of the list your doctor gave for the supplements to take. Okay, that’s all the papers. We have some slings for you- various colors and styles.”
A sling. Ugh. “Great.”
“And finally, a bag of rubber bands for some of the hand exercises and-” she paused, raising a bag filled with colorful stress balls. “Stress helpers! We have a variety!”
There was a part of me that wanted to groan at the forced cheer, and at the even more forced use of ‘helper’. I went with it, maintaining a smile and peering at the bag. It wasn’t worth making her an adversary.
“We have the faces, Grimace Gus, Dopey Dan, Pinhead Pam, and a few others. I have a few of these myself. You can pick one to represent someone you hate and channel that emotion into getting better.”
No blonde Smug Susans. Too bad.
Hearing Anne Lynn get so excited over little toys helped me put my finger on her image and way of presenting herself. She made me think of a kindergarten teacher. I could imagine her hyping up a class of munchkins with the same attitude she’d shown around me.
I poked the bag. It was a resealable bag, but it was old enough that it had crinkled and scuffed to the point it was foggy. “You have a few of these, huh? Do you have a Grimace Gus in your life?”
“I do,” Anne Lynn said. “But it’s mostly the Dopey Dan and Pinhead Pam that give me grief. Family.”
“Ah. I hear you on that.” I liked her a little more than I had, hearing that. I peered at the bag.
“We have other things, like the animal balls. Let’s see… beetle, ick, the bird, the snake, the lion-”
“Lion,” I said.
“Do you want to check the bag? There are others.”
“The lion would be great, thank you,” I said. “I had a childhood toy that was a lion.”
“Perfect,” she proclaimed, while retrieving the lion. It was just a head, with two black dots for eyes, no mouth, and the mane taking up three quarters of it, with ears poking up on top. “Your therapy partner for when you’re not with me. Treat each other well.”
There was a part of me that felt like she was treating me like a kid, but that might have been her usual demeanor. I could have rankled at it or said something, and I didn’t. Another part of me that felt very tired, and that part of me welcomed having a stress doll that reminded me of the stuffed toy I’d loved to the point it had looked monstrous. That tired part of me almost welcomed the cheer and the being taken care of.
Picking my sling was a little less interesting than picking the stress ball. I tried on two and went with the most comfortable, holding it instead of putting it on. I said my farewell to Anne Lynn and walked past others who were in the midst of their own exercises at parallel bars, benches, and weight machines.
One woman with tan skin, black and gray exercise clothing and her hair in a bun was at the weight machines. She gave me a nasty look. I had no idea who she might be.
I dropped my stuff off at my locker, then made use of the shower that was adjacent to the therapy area. It wasn’t that I’d worked up a serious sweat, but I hadn’t slept well, and so I’d flown around before my appointment, checking that all was well.
All wasn’t well.
Rinsing off gave me a chance to refresh myself, resetting to zero, and it allowed me to change my clothes. What I wore for a doctor’s appointment and preliminary therapy session wasn’t going to serve for the rest of the day. Once I’d dried off, I put on a top with a collar that had a fine gold zipper instead of buttons, chosen because it was easy to put on with an injured arm. I pulled on a pair of olive slacks that served as good all-purpose pants. The pants proved to be less of a stellar choice with two stubborn buttons that needed doing up, but they were business casual and they’d survive if a fight broke out, which I wasn’t quite ruling out.
I stopped at the mirror to braid my damp hair as best as I could with the one hand, taking my time to do it, and then put a bit of makeup on around my eyes. I was mid-application when the woman with the bun who’d given me a dirty look passed through the shower room, walking behind me and into the locker room, eyeing me as she passed.
I almost said hi. Maybe I would in the future.
I got my things, put them in a bag, took a minute to situate my arm in the sling, and situated my bag on my other arm.
Leaving the building, I left the smell of sweat made muggy by showers behind me and ventured into the cool outdoors, closing my eyes against the cold sun. Opening those eyes, I saw the gold-tinted city and a mostly blue sky that would have been pleasant in any other circumstance.
Pleasant if the horizon hadn’t been shattered like a dropped mirror. The sky was divided, with vague shapes stabbing up into it, the sky on the far side taking on different tints and weather.
The portals hadn’t been flat doors that things could pass through, but three dimensional objects, transition points with rules that we’d simplified by driving trains straight through them. Nothing about it was simple now.
Four portals in this area of the city had been drawn out to a height taller than our tallest buildings, and expanded out to encompass multiple city blocks. The fourth had been a surprise by a parahuman that had used a power to hide until the heat had died down. The worst expansion covered twelve blocks, and it would have covered more if it hadn’t been close to the water.
At the edges of those portals, buildings and one bridge had collapsed. Within the areas encompassed? We still didn’t know. The portals had expanded out, bled into one another to surround one of the more critical areas of the city, because that area had been centered to be symbolically near the largest cluster of portals, and they’d scrambled. They didn’t point to where they once had.
I checked the coast was clear enough that I wouldn’t scare anyone, and I took flight.
The bugs in the city were bad, stubborn even as the weather was cooling down. It had been that way for a while, but the spring and fall seemed worst. They hadn’t gotten the message yet, that the city was here and wildlife and insect life needed to move elsewhere. Now, though, we had wind. Different earths had different weather and we had gaping holes in our city with starkly different pressures on one side than we had on the other. Flying, I could feel it.
I could feel it more as I flew over the portals, to the point that I was course correcting more than I was flying forward. Crosswinds. If my hair hadn’t been in a braid, it would have been all over me.
In the center of the portals, three separate doors sloshed together. The Wardens headquarters had been there. Key members and staff of the three sub-teams and the Wardens themselves had been stationed there when it had all gone to hell. Jessica had been working late.
Option one suggested that they’d been torn to shreds, caught by three portals that were clashing together and switching what world they were connected to moment by moment, until they finally stopped expanding and settled.
Option two might have been worse. The Wardens’ head office had been serving as a place to sequester dangerous capes. Slaughterhouse Nine, ex-Birdcage capes, international enemies, and Class-S threats like Nilbog. Even the ones who had been cooperating had been kept under close guard because cooperation didn’t necessarily equate trust.
If Jessica and the other late-evening staff at the Wardens’ HQ were out there, stranded somewhere after the portals swallowed the area up, then they weren’t in good company. I imagined it ending up something like the Lord of the Flies, if the talking severed pig’s head was the least fucked up around.
It wasn’t a good imagining.
Construction crews were working to mend the damage. Building hadn’t even begun on the structures that might contain the portal. It was a herculean undertaking, even with powers helping.
Even after I returned to the streets, the wind was something I noticed, a constant gust that was either coming or going from the direction of the disaster.
Life moved on like normal but the cold wind blew hard. People on the street kept their heads down and walked briskly, even less likely to make eye contact or offer a kind word than they had been before this. Businesses were the same, when they were open. That was saying something, considering this area was the closest thing we had to New York.
Brockton Bay, when I’d paid a visit, had been similar enough. It had been more of a slice, cutting the city and its industry in two, leaving one half without power or internet. The attitude shift had been felt there too.
All of the affected areas. The affected areas of the city felt like ghost towns that weren’t empty nor were they towns. The warmth wasn’t there, there wasn’t a soul or community, and everything felt eerie. Too new, too worn out for how new they were, insects clustered on warm surfaces, and too many businesses were closed with all lights off, despite their posted hours.
It was no surprise that I arrived early at the meeting place and yet Kenzie had beaten me there. She was at the table with her laptop, hair immaculate, and what looked like a set of two individual hair pins that were each one part of a heart, the heart split down the middle by a crack. She wore both halves, the pins set in her hair so the cracks meshed. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a ‘BFF’ style thing where each friend wore one, or if she was supposed to wear each pin on one side of her head. She wore a maroon dress with a pattern of black scribbled hearts, and black tights.
Her dad stood by. He wore a long peacoat, one side of the collar turned up against the wind. His hair had pulled away in strands that swayed with the wind.
The patio area was otherwise empty. The business it served was closed. There weren’t that many people on the street.
“Victoria is here,” he said.
Kenzie sat up to peer over the top of the screen, her eyes large.
“You’re early,” I said. I sat in the chair across from her, scooting it over so I could see past the laptop to her, and see Julien standing behind her. Considering we were nearly as close as we could get to the city center without being able to see the base of the portals, there weren’t many people around.
“I like seeing people arrive places. When they arrive and where they sit tells you things.”
“Yep. People sit closer to people they have an affinity with. It’s not always people they like, but it’s usually people they relate to. And whether you’re a boy or girl matters. Girls tend to sit next to others or across from others, but guys sit diagonally across. Once you start noticing it, you’ll see it all over the place. It’s a puzzle.”
“You like that kind of thing, huh?”
I leaned back into the back corner of my chair, the armrest and the wall beside me supporting me as much as the chair back did.
“How’s your arm?” she asked. She closed her laptop and turned it over, pressing her hands down on the warm underside.
“Doctor said it’s healing well. I’ll spare you the gorier details. Physio started today.”
“What happened?” Julien asked.
“I told you this stuff, dad,” Kenzie said.
“When you tell me things it comes in a stream. I pick out what I can.”
“I got shot,” I said. “In and out. I had to have two fragments of bone removed.”
“I’ve been shot,” Julien said. “Twice. Except I didn’t get physio or doctor’s appointments after.”
“I only know about the once,” Kenzie said.
“Both before she was born,” Julien told me. “I grew up in a neighborhood where you either went to a gang or the gang came for you. I went to them when I was twelve, they raised me. I got shot once while working for them, and once when I left and didn’t keep it secret enough.”
“I only heard about the second one,” Kenzie said.
“Why did you leave?” I asked.
“If you asked me then, I would have said there were different middle managers. Now? Wasn’t me.”
“You said you were good at it,” Kenzie said. “Sales.”
“Mm hmm,” Julien said. “It wasn’t good for me.”
“I can respect that,” I said. “Leaving. That can’t have been easy.”
“Thank you,” he said. He looked down at Kenzie. “Was she at any risk?”
“Minimal to no risk,” I said. “Given how everything went last week, it might have been riskier for her to stay home.”
“My wife invited you over, but with everything that happened and the station exploding near our home, you’ll need to give us a few days to get organized.”
“It’s a mess,” I said.
Julien nodded. His hand rose to his chin as he stroked his beard. His eyes were on the distance, first on the shattered horizon, and then on the street. “I can’t tell which one that is.”
I turned to look, wincing as my elbow banged the chair back.
I couldn’t tell who it was either. He walked with confidence, head high, but his hair had no paint or dye, and it was combed neat. He wore a vest over a button-up top. A lot about that image seemed to convey ‘Tristan’, but the lack of color and the more serious expression didn’t. He seemed to have Tristan’s build, but the cut of the outfit could have created that illusion. It was a nice suit, minus the suit jacket.
“Victoria. Kenzie. Good to see you two. Mister Martin,” he said, as he arrived at the table. By voice and manner of speaking? That was Tristan.
“Tristan,” Julien Martin replied. He put a hand on Kenzie’s chair back. “Kenzie. You wanted me to stay until people came?”
“You can go, dad. Thank you for sticking around.”
He gave us a nod, and with hands in the pocket of his coat, he walked to his car, which was in what should have been a heavily contested parking spot.
Kenzie smiled, giving me a shrug. “Sorry.”
“Why sorry?” I asked.
“You pick the weirdest words,” Tristan said.
“Embarrassing doesn’t feel like the most accurate fit.”
“What do you think about him, then?” she asked. She leaned forward, hands still on her laptop.
“I-” I started. “Is it undiplomatic to say he gives me a weird vibe?”
“No,” Tristan said, settling into his chair.
“No,” Kenzie said. The smile fell from her face. “I give off a weird vibe, too. I had to get it from somewhere, so obviously I overachieved and got a full share from each of my parents.”
“Speaking of overachieving and casual segues away from uncomfortable topics,” Tristan said. “I like the saintly laying-on-hands you’re doing for your laptop there. That’s a new thing.”
“It’s warm and my hands are cold, duh.”
“Of course. Too bad, I liked the image of you as technology Jesus.”
She closed her eyes, leaning back, and hummed. She kept her eyes closed as she stopped humming, and said, “I wish I actually got to go to Church enough that I could know something fancy to say.”
“I’m not much of a memorizer,” Tristan said. “Most of what I could tell you is what I remember from choir. I could give you Byron, but I don’t know how he’d feel about that.”
“No, it’s okay. Not a big deal,” Kenzie said.
Chris was making his way down the street. Where Tristan had been confident and well dressed, Chris wore a sweatshirt and ducked his head. He had the headphones on, but not the braces. He looked very much like a thirteen year old boy, down to the sullen look in his eyes.
“What the hell, Tristan? I feel underdressed,” Chris said.
“You dressed up a little,” Kenzie said. “No braces. It’s nice.”
“No braces because I have back to back dentist appointments,” Chris said. He put one finger at the corner of his mouth, yanking it back to show his teeth. The mounts for the braces were still on the teeth, and two of the teeth were missing. A canine and the molar behind it, at the top.
“You changed too much,” Tristan made it a statement and not a question.
“And I got dry socket. I’m fucking miserable.”
“You shouldn’t change too much.”
“Oh yes, thank you Tristan. I completely forgot. I need and want to change, in case you forgot. Like right now, I want to get back home and change into a puddle of flesh with no nerve endings or teeth. But we’re doing this instead.”
“We’re just missing Sveta,” I said.
“The only person without a phone. Great,” Chris said.
“The trains are down so getting here is tough. I know it sucks, but stick it out,” I said.
“Do you have any fun painkillers your doctor prescribed you?”
“I have some. I’m not going to give them to a minor who didn’t have them prescribed to him. Do you want a boring over-the-counter painkiller instead?”
Chris nodded, and I got a bottle from my bag, passing it across the table to him.
He tipped four or five pills into his hand and before I could get an accurate count or realize what he was doing, tossed them back into his mouth, swallowing them dry.
“Fuck off,” he said. “I know my physiology and I know what I’m doing.”
“You keep saying that,” I said. “It sounds less convincing each time.”
“Chris!” Kenzie said. “Do you know any good prayers I could say over my laptop? It’s a thing we were talking about.”
“Do I strike you as the churchgoing type?”
“Some random latin. Ex nihilo nihil fit, I think is a good phrase for you.”
“Why do I feel like you just insulted me?” Kenzie asked.
“It’s not insulting, nimrod. It’s actually a compliment.”
“Which I’m regretting now.”
“I’m struck between the fact that you know that, first of all,” I said.
“I spend a lot of time reading when I’m waiting out a form.”
“And the fact you’re doubling down on the moody teenage boy thing. Most just get into nihilism, but you fit two ‘nihil’ in one sentence there. What is that? Word, nothing, nothing, word?”
“Why do I even talk?” Chris asked, leaning back. He pulled his hood down over his eyes.
Sveta arrived, spotting us before jogging to us in an ungainly way that made me worry she might fall. She didn’t crash to the ground, but she did teeter, and stopped, her hand resting against a window to catch her balance.
She wore long sleeves, a new wig, and her body was scrubbed of paint. Her dress was long, layered in stages of darkening green from layer to layer, with shapes cut out of each lower portion. Fish or leaves, it looked like.
“I love the dress,” I said.
“Oh, this? It was a gift from Chief Armstrong,” she said. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t think we’re all late.”
She smiled. “I’m weirdly nervous.”
“It’s a weird thing,” Tristan said.
It was a weird thing. In timing and place, in atmosphere, and in aim and objective.
The wind whipped around us as the five of us walked as a group. There weren’t any crowds, and the building was largely empty as we made our way inside. The interior of the building was dim, but it was mostly because the lights were off and illumination came from the windows to the outside.
“No word on Mrs. Yamada?” Tristan asked.
“No,” Sveta said. “Not according to Weld.”
“And we don’t know who was behind it?”
“Not yet,” I said.
There were some simple folding chairs lined up down the wide hallway. Either end of the building had large windows, which let the light come in, casting its long, vague shadows. Some people were already in the hallway, clustered in groups.
There was a man sitting alone who gave me a curious look as we looked for a spot to situate the five of us. He was the kind of guy I might have imagined as a kid’s baseball coach, with a bit of a belly, short hair, and a soft expression with lines in the forehead. As easygoing as he looked in the moment, I could imagine him getting really intense in the right occasion.
He stood when he saw me, and that got my attention.
I left the group to approach him.
“Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” he said. Before he continued, I was already placing his voice from the phone. “We had an appointment today. I’m Dr. Darnall.”
“Oh,” I said. I felt momentarily awkward and weirded out both. “I’m sorry to reschedule on you.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “Both reschedules were for very good reasons.”
Outpatient surgery and this.
“You’re here, though.”
“I was asked to consult,” he said. “When you rescheduled to attend, I realized the connection to this. I thought I’d look in and see how he made out, and get our first meeting out of the way, so you don’t have to worry about it.”
“I’m not worried,” I said. “I’m just trying to work out a lot of things, and timing gets awkward.”
“Absolutely,” he said. He had an easygoing tone. “Is that the team you’re looking after?”
“Kind of. They’re not so much a team anymore, but I do want to look after them.”
The group was all together, talking, with Sveta being the one to look momentarily exasperated. Each one of them was glancing my way now and again, checking on me. When the door opened, they would look, waiting to see if we’d see Rain or Ashley.
“Understood,” he said.
“They’re catching up after a week of everyone going their own way.”
“You don’t need to justify or explain, Victoria. These things are complicated. If you want to talk about it someday, we can. If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine too.”
“I’d rather they had therapists than I had one,” I said.
“I’d like it if they had therapists too, but I don’t have the room in my schedule. When the plane is going down, it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on first. If we can’t address all of their issues, we can at least help you enough that you can help them. If you want.”
“Mrs. Yamada- you know her, right?”
“I do. We were friends. I attended her cousin’s wedding with her. As a friend of hers.”
Weird to think about. I’d never heard mention of a cousin.
“She thought something really bad was going on with this group. It could be really serious.”
“Yeah,” he said. He glanced at the window, where the shattered skyline was visible in the distance. A damaged building still stood, but with a chunk missing. The girders and beams stabbed out into the gap left by the missing chunk. Black bones and a tinted yellow exterior. “She seemed very worried about something. She didn’t confide in me about it. I can’t think of many others she would have talked to.”
“It’s on my mind,” I said.
The door opened. I glanced at it, checking to see if it was Rain or Ashley. It wasn’t. It was a middle-aged woman with glasses.
“Rain Frazier,” she said.
People began filing in. The others made way for others to pass while looking in my direction.
“I won’t get in your way,” he said. “I’ll be in the back, seeing how I’ll have to leave. I have an appointment with a patient in ten minutes.”
“It was nice to meet you,” I said. “Sorry for rescheduling.”
“I work with superheroes and supervillains. Some stay up all night, others run off to manage crises partway through most sessions. A couple of reschedules isn’t a blip on my radar.”
“You still came to find me.”
He shrugged. “My clients rub off on me. Sometimes you can’t limit yourself to chasing after or staking out and waiting.”
“Getting out ahead of the problem,” I said.
“If you want to put it that way,” he said.
The others were waiting for me, so I ducked my head in a quick farewell and went to join them.
It wasn’t a courtroom, but there was a layout that echoed one. A series of tables had people behind them. A woman from the Wardens that had been there when we’d pitched our response to the Fallen hit, then others I didn’t know. An old man, another.
Ashley was sitting in one of the chairs off to one side, and so we all joined her, filing in to sit around her.
Rain sat past the divider, facing down the tribunal. He’d cut his hair.
With us, Ashley looked the same. Kenzie sat beside her, her head leaning on Ashley’s shoulder.
What did it say, when I had no idea what outcome we wanted? He wanted consequence. Whether he was found responsible or somehow allowed to go free, the resolutions felt right and wrong both.