Torch – 7.2

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“Rain, would you please stand?”

Rain stood, his chair scraping, the man beside him remained seated, attention and pen on a pad of lined paper in front of him.  Two women and three men sat at the end of the room.  It was a fairly handsome, clean-shaven twenty-something year old in a suit and tie who was doing the formal stuff, it seemed.  The guy put more attention into his grooming and styling his longer blond hair than anyone else at the table had put into theirs, the woman from the Wardens possibly excepted.

“Today we’ll be addressing the case of Rain F, that’s R-A-I-N, full name redacted, case number seven-seven-one-one-two to pass our desks here at the Meadows-Corona office.  Rain is a minor at seventeen years of age, and his middle and last names will be redacted and abbreviated, respectively.”

Fat lot of good it would do to trim his name when it was as unique as it was.

“Our intention today is not to sentence, but to assess if the case is worthy of the court’s attention.  Spoiler, there are charges of manslaughter, so it probably is.  Our secondary duty today is to decide what we’ll do with the person or people in question in the time between now and when the courts can see them.  Have you sought or been provided with counsel, Rain?”

“I was provided with counsel, yes.”

There was a pause.  The stenographer shifted her keyboard on her desk at the side of the table and it squeaked as it moved.

“To summarize, Rain was one of many to submit himself to the custody of the patrol block when the independent farming settlement outside of New Haven was raided.  Both heroes and villains were on the scene, with members of the patrol block supporting the heroes.”

Rain hesitated, then bent down to whisper to the lawyer that sat beside him.  The men and women at the table at the far end of the room waited until Rain straightened and raised his hand.

“Yes?”  The response came from a man with a gruff voice, a nice suit and white facial hair and hair in need of a bit of a trim.

“Can I clarify something?”

“Yes.”

“If we’re summarizing, I think it’s important to note that the compound was run by the Fallen.  It was a cult.”

“Your statement will be noted, Rain,” was the gruff response.

“Yes, sir.”

There were two women at the table: one was from the Wardens.  The woman that wasn’t was Hispanic, slightly overweight, and dressed a little more casually than I’d expected for a court proctor.  She offered a more gentle elaboration, “This office has more than a hundred people from that settlement to process.  To avoid bias and to be as fair as possible, we’re not going to make any early conclusions about what it was or wasn’t.  As we address you and your situation, we’ll hold to this idea, but we won’t hold you to it.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I can say things as I saw it.”

“Exactly,” she said.

The second of the men went on with the formalities.  “On that note, to continue the summary, Rain is one of many that this office will be sorting through in the coming days and weeks.  For easier processing, most are being addressed as groups, where the circumstances are similar.  Rain is a unique case.”

Hard to deny.

“Rain is unique because, point one, he has turned himself in to the authorities with respect to a case of multiple manslaughters.  He expressed the intention of pleading guilty.  Some of those affected are here at the office today, and will provide testimony.”

As Rain looked over his shoulder to glance at the people in the room, I followed his gaze.  There were others seated, and any number of them could have been people from the mall.

“Point two, Rain admitted to the authorities that he killed a costumed villain with his own hands, known to this office as a Jonathan Seiter, in what Rain states was self defense.”

Snag.  How that particular thing was addressed would impact Ashley quite a bit.  Ashley wasn’t conveying much.  She sat with Kenzie.

“Point three, Rain admitted to the authorities that he committed, quote, more crimes than he could count, with crimes including theft, grand theft, auto theft, vandalism, and arson.  Much of this occurred before the end of the last calendar era, at what the individual claims was the behest of a villainous group.”

He’d done stuff with the Fallen between the time he was a child and the incident at the mall.

“Point four, Rain provided information and assistance during the attack on the farming settlement outside New Haven, and this information and assistance was instrumental in mitigating damage and saving lives.”

That was our contribution, in part.  I’d spent the better part of a day trying to figure out how to word my letter to the court proctors.  It had been a distraction from the surgery I’d had looming.

“Point five, not unique to Rain himself, but necessary to state for the record, is the fact that he and others were under varying degrees of… how did you put it, Kimberly?  We didn’t write it down in the notes.”

“Soft mental compulsion,” the woman from the Wardens said.  “Those affected weren’t controlled like a puppet, but they were under threat, much as if there was a gun to their heads or the heads of a loved one.”

“Thank you.  The Wardens, corroborating witnesses and others have given us their input on this.  It’s a thing, this compulsion, but it’s not a thing we can prove was in place.”

Rain raised his hand again.

“Rain?” the woman with the frumpier clothes asked.

“I don’t want her power to be a mitigating factor.  I do want to make sure that woman goes to jail and stays there for a long time, that’s the only reason I brought it up.”

“Have a seat, Rain,” the woman said.  “Let’s have a conversation.”

“A conversation?” he asked.  He took his seat.

“I do think we want to talk about that, but let me start off by saying what our goal is here.  When a case crosses our desk, it’s our job to decide if it’s worth the time of a proper court.  If we say yes or no, that doesn’t mean it’s a for-sure yes or no.”

Rain nodded.

“My personal view is to imagine four cases.  If I put yours with them, is yours going to be the standout case?  Manslaughter, murder, arson, and grand theft are serious things.  I think yours might stand out.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You’re turning yourself in.  I imagine your lawyer advised you that if you kept to yourself, you might fly under the radar.  It’s a lot easier to recommend your case to the courts for processing if it’s a plea.”

“He did tell me that.”

“Why turn yourself in?” she asked.

“Because-” Rain started.  “Before that thing at the mall happened, I was a kid, it felt like a long, unpleasant dream.  I was raised with these people, they chose what I read and what I watched for most of my life, and I was raised in compounds like the one that was attacked last week, or in small towns, or cabins.  Nobody really questioned, nobody said any different.  But then the mall happened and for the first time I had to make a choice.”

“Elaborate,” the man with the nice hair said.

“I was told to guard the door of the mall.  It was left so I could open it if I had to.  I knew… I knew it was a trap.  I was threatened, told not to open it no matter what, but I realized that if I didn’t open it then I’d be in trouble too.  I still didn’t open it, even when I realized people were hurt and scared.  That’s not okay, and I deserve to be punished.”

“Were you compelled?” Kimberly asked.

“Um.  By Mama Mathers, you mean?”

“The soft compulsion,” she said.  “Mama Mathers, yes.”

“She was there in the back of my head.  You see visions of her if you think about her, and I thought about her and what she’d do.  She was there, then.”

“She can make people lose their minds if they don’t do what she wants,” Kimberly said.

Someone in the back stood up.

“Sit,” the gruff man said, annoyed.

“You can’t go easy on him,” a man said.

Sit.  We will ask you to speak when your turn comes.  If you do not take your seat and remain silent, you will be removed.”

There was a pause as people got settled.  There was murmuring, and a bald man at the end of the court proctor’s table banged his cup against the table a few times, in lieu of a gavel.

When all had nearly settled, Rain said, “I don’t want you to go easy on me.”

“We want a full understanding of the situation,” Kimberly said.  “She could have made you lose your mind, yes?”

“Not as much as some did back at the attack on the camp.  I hadn’t talked to her recently, so it wouldn’t have been as strong.”

“Still.  She could have.”

“Yes,” Rain said.  “But people died and were hurt.  I see and hear them every night in my dreams.  I should have made the call and opened that door.”

“Do you think turning yourself in will make that better?” the frumpy woman asked.  “Seeing them in your dreams?”

“No,” Rain said.  “I don’t see how that matters.”

In the back, Dr. Darnall stood and left the room.

I set down on the rooftop as Dr. Darnall erected a blue patio umbrella.

“That was quick,” he remarked.  “I thought you would take a few minutes to spot it.”

“There aren’t that many rooftops that are that easy to lounge on,” I said.  “A lot of them are in pretty scary shape, actually.  Flying over, I see cracks and water that’s been there long enough to have algae or something form.”

“That would explain the mosquito-like flies we’ve been getting,” he said.  “I’m glad to have you here.  Is Victoria okay, or do you prefer a cape name?”

“Victoria,” I said.

“Victoria,” he said.  He reached over for a handshake, and I shook his hand.  It was cool- probably from the recent work with the umbrella.  “I’m Dr. Darnall.  You can call me doctor, Wayne, or whatever you prefer.”

It was hard to imagine calling him Wayne and taking him seriously.  “Doctor,” I said.

“Very well,” he replied.

He worked with the umbrella for a bit, and I offered my assistance with my one good hand, pulling the fabric of the patio umbrella around one of the prongs.

We each settled into chairs.  The metal was cold- even though it was only September, the weather was turning.  There was a gravity to the seasonal change that I couldn’t remember ever experiencing back home on Bet.

“Did your friends have their turns in front of the tribunal?”

“No.  Rain had his.  Ashley will have hers soon.  I’m helping her pack up her apartment tomorrow.”

“With one arm?”

“It’s for emotional support, as much as anything.”

“Drink?” he asked.  He reached down and pulled a small cooler out from beneath his chair.

“Please,” I said.  “Whatever you have would be great.”

He had an assortment of sodas, water, lemonade and iced tea.  I took the iced tea, set it down, and got the papers out of my bag.

“The stuff you asked me to fill out.”

He took it, leaning back in his seat.  It was disconcerting to deal with the silence, when I was used to one person guiding and leading conversation, steering things and making the most out of the hour and a half or however much time was set aside.

That had been back at the hospital, though, and maybe the need to fill the silence had been because I’d been something less human.

He read through the paperwork, and put it down on the table with the last page on top.

My ‘homework’.  I’d submitted the critical information back when I’d made my first appointment, which I’d had to cancel for surgery.  I’d walked away with some information on therapy and what to expect, and this.  Questions.

The page he’d left on top had been the unusual exercise in the batch.  The bottom half of the page had been left empty, but for a circle with a thick bold line.  The instruction had been to draw, not write, how I was feeling, and to leave the paper and pen in arm’s reach for a while before and after using the space.

I’d settled on a face, drawing it like I might a sighing emoji, eyebrows slightly turned up in worry.  I wasn’t much of an artist.

In letting it sit, though, I’d drawn around the perimeter of the face, lines circling the bold circle that framed the face.

I felt self-conscious about it.  Now it sat on the table, between the two of us, the page facing nobody in particular.

“Anything you want to get off your chest before we start?” he asked.  “Some people come to a session with something in mind.”

“Uh,” I said.  I leaned back, holding my iced tea.  “No, no I guess not.  This feels pretty different from what I’ve experienced in the past.”

“The therapy you got at the hospital?”

“And what I saw of the session with the group,” I said.

With Jessica.  The rooftop seat gave me a view of the broken skyline, and the place where Jessica might have died.  It made me uneasy.  Powers had taken my body from me, they’d briefly taken my heart, and they’d almost taken my mind.  They’d taken my forcefield and strength and given it over to something else.

Now they’d taken the sky, and with it, they’d taken the one person that I’d known in my life who could make things better without betraying me.

Maybe that was unfair to Crystal and Gilpatrick, to give them the unfair label of people who had helped me but who didn’t help, in that way that I couldn’t put words to.

“Thinking of Jessica?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I don’t want to dwell on it too much,” I said.  I put my iced tea down.  “I’m here for therapy.”

“The therapy I provide is going to be different because I’m new to working with capes.  My background is in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and in the past I worked with police officers, paramedics, firemen, doctors, and other rescue personnel.”

“It seems pretty relevant,” I said.

“I think so,” he said.  “But powers are complicated and you might have to talk me through some things you take for granted.  If you can be patient with me, I’d like to work with you on identifying problems and goals, then addressing your patterns of thought and action to change your emotional landscape, fix the problems, and reach the goals.”

“You might have a bit of an uphill battle, doctor.”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Thought, action, emotional landscape, problems and goals.  All of the fucking above.”

“Do you want to try explaining it?” he asked.  “A big part of what we would be doing is setting goals.  A starting point in figuring out what to address or explaining yourself in totality could be starting off with where you’re coming from, where you are currently, and where you’re going.”

“I-” I started.  It was hard to put things into words.  “Currently I’m bothered.  Because I feel like ambushing me at the courthouse, having me draw the image instead of writing out my feelings, leaving that image out where I can see it, and having this meeting on the rooftop, it’s… confrontational.”

“Confrontational,” he said.  His eyebrows went up briefly.  “Can you elaborate?”

“Pushing me, or testing my boundaries, trying to catch me off balance.  It feels like little plays I’ve had to deal with for a long time.  I don’t know if you’re doing it intentionally because you want to get past my guard or if it’s unintentional and you’re doing it because you’re insecure.  Because I have experience dealing with people who do that.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get back to that in a minute.”

“Fine.  Where am I from?  I was raised by capes to be a cape, and after finally getting powers I lived a lifetime in three years.  I was reborn, I rushed through my education, I made mistakes, I started working, I found someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I… started losing people.  I went to the funerals.  I gave my dad showers, because he needed the care.  Then it was my turn, except… worse than death.  I ended up in a hospital and a care center, broken and kind of forgotten or ignored.  I can’t leave that hospital room or that feeling.”

“I’ve heard the general story.  We will touch on that.  I think I can help you if you want that help.  I’ve dealt with a lot of people who had rooms or scenes they couldn’t put behind them.”

I shrugged.  “I don’t think it’s that easy.  It was two years that I was like that.  Every moment was a scene unto itself.”

“Understood.  Just do me a favor and don’t dismiss the idea of it being fixable right away.”

“Okay,” I said.

“That’s where you’re coming from, then.  A lifetime of crisis is hard enough to deal with, and you didn’t have the tools to deal with it.”

“I had some,” I said, annoyed.  Annoyed because he wasn’t jumping to the right conclusion and because he wasn’t Jessica.  There couldn’t be a Jessica because Jessica was gone.  “I was raised to be a heroine.  I didn’t do it all right, I cringe at who I used to be, and how I used to hurt people, but I was given more tools than most people my age, I think.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Yeah.  I’m getting sidetracked.  Where am I now?  I’m trying to make sure that a whole lot of people, some of Jessica’s old patients foremost among them, don’t end up like I did, because there’s nothing I’m willing to do to undo that or unlive those years, but I can at least save other people from it.”

I stabbed the table a few times with my finger to punctuate the last few words.

“You feel what you had to deal with with could have been averted, and you want to avert it for others.”

“One thousand percent,” I said, with emotion.  “One thousand fucking percent, it could have been averted.”

“By an outsider?  Or by someone close to the situation?”

“Both.  By- by any of us paying more attention or communicating more, or paying more attention to powers and how powers work, or being a little bit more of an actual family.  It could have been better if I’d fought better or harder and torn through some mutant dogs and gotten home sooner, if I’d dodged that one acid spittle or follow-up hit and avoided being taken out of commission, or if one less person had died maybe those of us who were grieving might have been clearer headed and we could have steered things away.”

He gave me a sympathetic look.  When he answered me, I couldn’t hear him that well in the physical feeling of how agitated I was and how uncomfortable I was in my own skin.  I hadn’t nosedived into panic or feeling off, but I’d walked here and I’d gotten out of breath walking.  Now I couldn’t get back into breathing regularly.

I wasn’t making sense, because he didn’t have the context for all of that.

I didn’t want to make sense.

I wanted to put him off balance, to shake him and get more of a sign than a sorry look and kind, quiet assurance that he could put me on the right track.

I wanted to gut him.  Not to impale him or tear his stomach out, but to make him feel a fraction of what I felt, emotionally.

“Breathe,” he said.

“I’ve become pretty-” I started.  I stumbled on the word.

“Breathe.”

“Pretty accustomed to the breathing, thank you very much.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Good.  Come back to here.  This rooftop.  Cool weather, your drink.  Have a taste.”

“I’m not not here,” I said.  “Okay?”

“Got it,” he said.  “Do you want to take a minute to catch your breath?  What works for you?”

“I don’t-” I said.  I stopped.  “I’m fine.”

“Do you want to carry on with that thread of conversation, or would you like to change topics?”

“I don’t see the point in carrying on, I guess,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound like I’m resistant to therapy or anything, but I’m kind of frustrated.”

“Okay,” he said.  “You don’t see the point- are you frustrated because you think this is insurmountable?  Or is it because you don’t feel heard?”

“Both,” I said.  “No.  Actually, neither.”

He nodded slowly.  “Neither, then.”

“I think there are skills I can learn and ways I can deal better.  I think this is doable.  But I think the way we’re going about it is wrong.  Because you hear a good bit of what I’m saying, not all, and you don’t understand.”

“Fair,” he said.  “I can’t know your experience.  I do think I can come to understand it.”

“That feels like a canned answer,” I said.  “Like the kind of thing someone says when they can’t come up with a good response.”

“Victoria,” he said.  “I am on your side here.”

“I know,” I said.  “Absolutely.”

“Okay?” he asked.  “Yes, maybe the response was a little trite, but I don’t think it’s wrong.  I can’t know where you’re coming from.  From what you describe, that could be a good thing.  From what you describe and from what I was told, the experience was legitimately horrifying.  Sometimes when you’re in a bad place you need someone who isn’t in that place to lead the way out.”

I drew in a breath.  He held up a hand.

“Canned, I know.  Bear with me, please.”

“Bearing,” I said.

“If it reassures you, I have a lot of experience helping people through trauma.  I’ve spent twelve years with people, with heroes, who were traumatized on and off the job.  I’ve dealt with people who were scarred head to toe, and their experiences after were not too dissimilar to what you most likely experienced in that hospital room.  Others have been through what you’ve been through and they found their way through it.  I have confidence that I can help you do the same.”

I drew in a deep breath.

“You are not alone,” he said.

“You spent a lot of time with heroes, you say, but you don’t mean capes when you say hero.  You’re new to helping caped heroes, you said.”

“Yes,” he responded.  “I get it.  You came from a background that celebrates capes, that puts a lot of importance on costumed heroics.  You value that and it matters that I admitted I’m not that experienced.”

“I celebrated capes, yeah, but you know my aura is all about awe and fear, right?  I put my awe of capes behind me a good while ago,” I said.  “So that background?  It’s not that I’m elitist.  It’s that I’m worried.  I’m worried you don’t understand because the normal rules do not apply.  Every cape you deal with is alone and unique.  They have their own rules and neuroses.  They have their unique, personal powers and challenges.”

“Everyone’s unique, Victoria.  I don’t think that’s exclusive to capes.  We can look to common ground.”

I shook my head.  I was getting annoyed again.  I couldn’t put words to what I was trying to encapsulate for him.  Something I felt Jessica Yamada got.  The consequences.  “Capes magnify, okay?  They exaggerate.  The personalities, the issues, the disorders.  Everything gets bigger or more distorted.  It’s why, if you really truly understood what I’m trying to convey, you’d hear what I said back at the courthouse, and you’d find those kids someone.  Because Jessica was worried and Jessica got it.  If you understood, you wouldn’t be here with me, you’d be running to get these kids some attention.”

“There aren’t resources.  I’m sorry.”

I drew in a breath, then huffed it out, because I couldn’t quite get enough oxygen.  I was too agitated to be still, even to the point of keeping my lungs in a state of equilibrium.

I hadn’t responded, so he carried on.  “If you were to work with me, we’d work on outlining goals.  What I would work on you with would be fundamentals.  Fundamentals work because they apply whether you’re a five year old, a police officer, a surgeon, or a person with powers.  You are human.  Most of the rules still apply.”

Hosting this first meeting on a rooftop was a mistake, because I felt the very real impulse to just stand from my chair, put down my iced tea, and fly away.

I felt other impulses too.  To break the table, to try to drive some point home by scaring him through a display of power.

The Warrior Monk wouldn’t have approved of that, though.

My voice was small.  “I don’t know if I’m human.”

“I beg your pardon?  Is this a case of arguing the idea of ‘parahuman’?”

“No,” I said.  My voice sounded very automatic, as I found the words.  “When my- when the incident happened.  I was mutated, changed into a tangle of limbs, heads, torsos, pelvises and connecting tissue.  I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t eat without assistance.  I could barely move under my own power.”

“That was outlined for me,” he said.  “I can’t even imagine.”

“I had my emotions twisted around.  To make me fall in love with the person who did that to me, and to experience unending heartbreak over the fact that she couldn’t be with me and I couldn’t be with her.  My- she was family, I always saw her as family.  I didn’t exactly leave that behind or stop seeing her that way, so it felt wrong, twisted, even as I felt it in full.”

“You would argue, then, that this is beyond the usual human experience?”

“I don’t think I’m human, doctor, because when Gold Morning happened, she put me back together.  She fixed the feelings and she stripped away the excess flesh.  She made me the way I had been on the day I’d been when I was turned into a monster.  People came and wrapped blankets around me, and I was numb from shock and trying to remember how to move again when she talked to me.”

“She talked to you?”

“She rambled.  She was never good in a crisis and me being fixed was a crisis, I guess.  She told me, um-”

I scratched at my arm, then stopped myself.

“There’s no rush,” Doctor Wayne said.

I met his eyes.  “She told me that when she made that body, larger than mine, the sprawling, broken, wretched thing, raw materials were harvested from stray cats, dogs, and rodents.  Birds, bugs, other things.  People’s household pets that were left behind after Leviathan attacked.  She said, um, she said-”

I felt like I’d get caught up in a loop of ‘ums’ if I let myself continue talking.  I stopped to drink some of the iced tea I’d barely touched.

“Um,” I said, defeating the point of the pause.  “Just, you know, I should be careful about giving or getting transplants.  There’s a chance it wouldn’t be compatible with humans.  Understand?”

He didn’t respond.  Good.

“Because she didn’t want to get carried away, she wanted to get me as close to normal as she could get me and stop herself there.  Then she said- she’d ask if I wanted more fixes, and I couldn’t talk so I shook my head no.  She asked if I wanted my memories of things erased and I couldn’t let myself have that because there’s nobody left in the world I trust enough to protect me from her, except me.  So I told her no, and I told her never to show her face in front of me again.  So I’m- I’m-”

I blinked away tears.

“I am very alone, doctor,” I said.  “My maybe-not-one-hundred-percent-human self is going to fight like hell to save people from… from that-”

I indicated the horizon.  The portals speared and lurched up into the sky, frozen where they were, the sky on the far side a different shade.

“-And from other horrors.  I’m not going to win every fight.  I would really appreciate some help to keep me in the fight.  Because we have a brief moment of calm, and history suggests the periods of calm before the crises get shorter and shorter.”

Again, there wasn’t an immediate response.  He fixed his gaze on the broken horizon because it meant he didn’t have to make eye contact with me.

I’d gutted him.  It was wholly satisfying and far from being a good feeling.  He’d felt something, been shaken, he was forced to reassess his perspective, and now maybe there was a chance he’d understand.

These things weren’t easy.  They required a little baring of the naked and vulnerable soul.  Revealing who and what we were.

“Freak.  Monster.”

“Enough, thank you.  Please.”

The formalities of a courtroom were looking pretty darn sweet, now that things had reached this point.  Rain’s accusers were noisy, and the officers in the room were fighting an uphill battle to keep the peace.

They’d been given a chance to speak and make their arguments, and every one was as angry and vicious as the last.

I felt uncomfortable.  I was only on the periphery of it.  I couldn’t imagine what Rain felt, being the focus.

“That should be enough.  Thank you.  Your feelings have been made abundantly clear, and I and the other court proctors, I’m sure, agree that the pain and loss are real, profound, and very much present.”

There were more noises from that part of the room.

“May I speak?” someone asked.

“If you have something to add, that hasn’t already been stated.”

“I do, sir.”

It was a young girl, twelve or so.  She had thick, straight dark hair with severe bangs and an ankle-length dress.

“Hi, Rain,” she said.  Her voice was steady, but she held a paper or a letter, and it fluttered in her hands.

“Hi,” Rain said, his voice faint.

“My name is Staci.  I was at the mall, the day the Fallen attacked it, but I was not inside when the attack happened.  I really do not hope that people get upset because they think I have no place to speak.  Two of my friends died that day and I think because I saw the aftermath and how the school and the families dealt with it, my perspective is valid.”

Her speaking style was stilted, as she read from the page.

“Two people died and three families were left devastated.  Many of their friends were anguished to hear about what happened.  School has not felt the same.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rain said.

The girl nodded, an intense motion that betrayed nervousness.

“I can not imagine what it was like to come from where you did.  I wrote another letter that I planned to read here or give to you and I changed my mind while I sat here listening.  I wrote this down over the last hour.  I don’t think you should blame yourself.  You were a teenager and teenagers don’t always make the best decisions.  I have a big sister, so I know.”

It was an attempt at a joke, as she turned to her sister in the seat beside her.  Nobody really laughed, though, and the silent disapproval of the people sitting around her seemed to drive things home, because her nervousness amplified tenfold.  Her mom reached over to rub at her arm and shoulder.

“I don’t speak for everyone.  I definitely don’t.  But I’ve hurt and cried a lot over the past year and I’m glad you came here and you did this.  Thank you.  I don’t expect others to but I forgive you.”

There were noises of discontent.  People couldn’t shout down a child, but they could make it clear they didn’t agree.

“Thank you,” the court proctor said.

“Everly?” Rain asked.  “That was your friend?  With the red hair?”

“Yes.  And Sarah was the other.  How do you know that?”

“I see and hear them every night, in my dreams,” he said.  “Sarah had the blonde hair then.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve memorized the faces,” Rain said.  “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t blame you for them dying,” Staci said.  “The people who set the fires were the ones to blame.”

“I didn’t save them.”

“You were scared.”

Rain had wet eyes.  “I was so stupid.”

“You didn’t have a chance to know better.”

The noises from Rain’s detractors grew louder.  Things dissolved from there, with the officers trying to keep order.  Staci ducked out, her parents providing a bit of a shield.  They left through the door.

The man with the nice hair announced, “The court would like to take a brief recess.  We’ll give Staci and her family a minute, and then we’ll leave.  There are refreshments out in the hall.  Rain’s acquaintances can stay, as they wanted to provide their testimony regarding his character in private, without giving up identifying details.”

The room emptied.  The court personnel, minus some guards that went to the hall, Rain, Rain’s lawyer, and our group remained.

“This is hard,” the gruff man with the white, messy hair and beard said.  “We’re short on heroes.”

“I know,” Rain said.  He wiped at his eyes.  “I’m not much of a hero.  But I’ll be one in the future, given a chance.”

“But you’ve expressed a desire to go to prison,” the gruff man said.

“This kind of thing can’t be something where nothing happens,” Rain said.  Sveta’s sentiment.

“Prison isn’t there solely for your absolution, Rain,” the frumpy woman said.

“I know.”

“You reported one attempt on your life.  Do you think you’ll be safer if you’re in custody?”

“No,” Rain said.  “Probably the opposite.”

“We’ll do what we can.  Your friends.  We will have some questions for the record, but to start us off, do we have any arguments against a stay in the juvenile prison while we wait for the courts to process the young man?”

“Yes,” Kenzie said.  Heads turned her way.  “No.  I just think it isn’t right.”

“These things rarely are,” Kimberly, the woman from the Wardens said.  “Then to get this out of the way, we note no strong arguments against a stay in our custody.  The crimes are severe enough to warrant one.  You have a few months of wait before the courts will even begin to address your case, but it should be quick once you reach that point.  Time served will count against any sentence.  There will be no remuneration if no sentence is doled out.”

“I understand,” Rain said.

“Then when the recess concludes, we’ll note the verdict and seal the paperwork.  Until then, if my colleagues don’t mind, I’d like to get as much information as possible from you and your group, for the court record and the Wardens.”

“I will help however I can,” Rain said.

“Then, to go back to the timing of when you provided information about the Mathers, why the time provided?”

“I was sedated for a surgery, swapping my eyes and ears out.  I started to provide information as soon as I was able.  Before then, Mama Mathers was in effect.”

“Tell us about the timing of your interactions with her.  We would welcome input from the rest of the group as well.”

Rain continued, and I added my own comment.

In the moment, though, I was mostly just taking in how Rain seemed to be.  He sat straighter, and he spoke with more conviction.  Something in him that had been bound up was free.  In the face of his sentence and an interrogation from a staff member of the Wardens, Rain looked at ease for the first time I’d ever seen him.  He still wasn’t one to smile, but I imagined he could come close.

If only we could all have a Staci.

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90 thoughts on “Torch – 7.2”

  1. Wow, Staci is a mature, understanding person. I only wish more of Rain’s detractors could see what she sees in him.

    1. I am not sure if this is deliberate (probably is, knowing WB), but Staci absolutely does not sound like a 12 yo.

      1. She actually sounds a lot like a 12 year old to me. That’s right around the age where kids start being able to stitch together stuff they’ve heard from their parents and people around them, but they still haven’t done enough in-depth original thinking to piece it together without gaps and discontinuities. And that’s what her speech sounded like to me.

        1. Kids that age also often start feeling the need to appear more mature than they are, especially when they’re under scrutiny from other people or nervous

      2. Keep in mind that this was a statement she wrote over an hour to speak in front of a court, not something off the cuff.

    2. “I only wish more of Rain’s detractors could see what she sees in him.”

      I’m not sure it’s what she sees in him, but what she want’s to see in herself. Consider the idea that she didn’t forgive Rain for his sake, but for her own. She is making the choice to be the type of person who doesn’t carry all that hate with her for years.

    1. Last chapter, the case was called out loud as Rain Frazier. Presumably that should be edited to Rain F, since his name is redacted/abbreviated here?

    2. “what you had to deal with with could have been averted,”

      “What I would work on you with would be fundamentals.”
      > “work with you on” ?

  2. Damn it Vicky you aren’t supposed to make your therapist need therapy! On the other hand just being able to say some of that to anyone is a huge breakthrough.

    And Rain is a real complicated piece legally and ethically and morally, isn’t he? If nothing else just the stuff he could give on the Fallen would be a fascinating case study for Parahumans and cults, and of course cults involving parahumans.

    1. She may not be Taylor, but I guess you can’t be a Parahumans heroine without a little bit of Skitter slipping in. ;p

      (Kidding, kidding. But the sort of confrontational “you know nothing about how this world works vibe *did* make me think of her.)

  3. WELP.

    Rain’s going to the slammer. Not forever (clearly), but he’s 100% going to be on probation. My suspension of disbelief strained when a MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL, who had AMPLE TIME to get acquainted with the literature, somehow managed to assume that he can go straight from firefighters to capes. I mean, we’re talking about a man who lived through Gold Morning here.

    Other than that, no major complaints.

    1. I didn’t get that Darnell was saying that he understood, but that he could come to understand. It may be a fine distinction, but it’s there. I’m not sure that Victoria sees it that way though.

      Plus she, like us, feels the very real need to punish him for the unforgivable crime of not being Jessica Yamada. Jessica would have understood the heart of the issue immediately and figured out what was needed. Or at least that’s how Victoria sees it. Darnell has the very real problem that he’s not being compared to the real Jessica, but to the idealized version of her people remember in her absence.

    2. More like someone has to, and he might be the best equipped to now that Jessica isn’t here.
      He will have experience with PTSD, survivor’s guilt, traumatic injury, and other relevant things. He’s not a specialist on capes, but better than throwing someone fresh out of school at it.

        1. Is that something that capes share with non-capes? or is there like, an unwritten code that is an understanding that that is only a cape thing? Sharing that an alien hijacked your mind would really really freak the anti-cape crowd out if it became common knowledge.

  4. I think most of us understand the way Victoria felt with Wayne; When someone insists that they understand what you’re going through or minimise your experiences. And the guilty satisfaction you feel for using your trauma and tragedy as a cudgel against those only vaguely deserving of it.

    Damn though, what next? Rain is in a cell for a bit and Love Lost and Cradle are still out there.

    1. >When someone insists that they understand

      He explicitly said he didn’t understand.

      The entire point of the first meeting was to help him understand better and get more detail that reports didn’t provide.

      1. I did get the feeling that he’s trying. Whether that’s good enough remains to be seen. But even Jessica had to start somewhere.
        I really hope he can get up to speed fast enough to help Victoria. And I sort of agree with his point about oxygen masks last chapter. The group needs Vicky stable.

  5. Please don’t tell me Carol knew all of this and tried to ambush Victoria with Amy anyways.

    Also: I really like Dr. Darnall. He seems like the real deal.

    1. Maybe not all that. Depends on how much Amy told her – I don’t think Victoria would have confided in her.
      Still, she knew enough for that ambush to have been horrifying.
      I don’t expect her to completely disown Amy, if she’s shown genuine remorse, but I do expect her to keep her the fuck away from Victoria.

    2. Sometimes parents have this idea that you should forgive family even for the worst offences, just because they’re family. That’s run of the mill non-parahuman parents, with standard human issues.
      I have no doubt Carol thought it was a good idea from her own point of view, regardless what details she was told of it.

    3. Carol thinks everything would be so much better if Victoria just got over her trauma. I think she’s probably right, too. It’s holding Victoria back, and making her unhappy. The way Carol’s approaching it is obviously not going to work, but I can understand why she’s trying.

  6. The “Our intention today is not to sentence, but to assess if the case is worthy of the court’s attention. Spoiler, there are charges of manslaughter, so it probably is.

    “The” shouldn’t be there. This also sounds a bit to colloquial with the “spoiler ” line. I feel like that’s not language appropriate to a courtroom setting but that may just be my opinion.

    1. Which “the”? They both seem appropriate to me, since the sentence refers to a specific case and a specific court.
      But yeah, “spoiler” seems quite informal. Perhaps an indication of the consequences of the system being rebuilt from its ashes.

      1. > But yeah, “spoiler” seems quite informal. Perhaps an indication of the consequences of the system being rebuilt from its ashes.

        Definitely! I found it really jarring; not what I expected from a courtroom (or pre-courtroom) scene at all.

        If it was intended to be jarringly informal, then well done Wildbow. If not, maybe reconsider the wording.

        1. It sounds deliberate. Like the person saying it did it deliberately to say “this isn’t court.” Also like “hello fellow teenagers how’s it hanging” or something similar, it ends up signaling “I’m not your friend but I’m hoping you think I am.”

        2. I thought it was a literary mistake at first, but when I noticed the judge (?) used his coffee cup as a gavel I think this was quite intentional to show the relative disarray of the current court system.

  7. Funny Victoria should say that. I wonder if she ever considered Amy might need a Staci.
    Not that I blame her; it’s not on her to consider the needs of her abuser, and it never should be. But I wonder.

    1. “I wonder if she ever considered Amy might need a Staci.” I love this. I agree, she shouldn’t be responsible for her abuser’s mental state, but I think her awareness of the moral-greyness of the situation speaks volumes for her growth. We’re making progress for the inevitable reunion!

      1. Technically, Victoria (or her awe-power) actually was responsible for Amy’s mental state, from the day she triggered until they went their separate ways.

        1. Not trying to stir that pot up again, haha. I considered putting quotation marks around “abuser” but didn’t want to set the Victoria Defense Squad off.

          Suffice to say that they’ve both hurt and been hurt by each other and to make them responsible for each other’s mental well being is asking for even more trouble. I hope they both heal and grow before the story inevitably brings them together for closure/drama purposes.

        2. The theory about aura is a theory, and one that’s less compelling when you remember the actual ages involved.

          Also you could blame her for things she actually did, like emotionally blackmailing Amy to clean-up her brutality.

      2. And hopefully their reconciliation will be under nice stable conditions, and not “The Simurgh, Sleeper, the three Blasphemies and a living avalanche of breakfast cereal are all attacking at once! Also Vicky’s lost all four limbs!” conditions. Oh who am I kidding.

        1. Four limbs? Ha! She has dozens to spare from her cephalopod like Wretch. Think more like, 28 limbs ripped off and she is all out of spoons and Wretch Mammory Secretions to fend off the breakfast cereal. Only then will Amy be her Lucky Charm.

          1. Now I’m imagining her as a sort of limbless body sort of just using the Wretch to get around. Horrifying.

  8. This chapter made me cry. Staci’s letter… Victoria opening up about identifying as nonhuman… Jesus, Wildbow. This is a chapter only you could write.

    Doctor Wayne is *good.* Not sure if he’s a Thinker or just *really* good at his job. Meeting on a rooftop was a masterful selection of venue for their first session: Victoria would never feel trapped because she could always fly away, and it’s also a private enough space that she could open up, even yell without feeling self-conscious. Giving her a selection of drinks emphasized her power of choice. Getting her to draw her emotional state in a freeform, non-linguistic way got her to think about her emotions in a non-linguistic, experiential way that she then gets to actually, FINALLY process by describing it out loud to him.
    She kept feeling frustrated that he’s not listening properly, but he’s listening very well: well enough to draw out her worst problems in their first therapeutic conversation.
    And much as Victoria was put off that he tracked her down, she *had* repeatedly rescheduled– and I’ll bet that’s something he’s seen police officers and firefighters do, too, tugged around by responsibilities and emergencies.
    I hope this guy isn’t secretly a villain. He does seem like somebody who Jessica would be friends with.

    1. Feels like falling in love with Wildbow’s writing all over again, no? I remember what first drew me to Worm was the description of Taylor’s feelings. Ward has recaptured that strength, with the advantage of over half a decade of experience on top.

      1. I agree wholeheartedly. This chapter feels like a huge emotional pay-off to so many nuanced character development moments.. The moment I begin to see Rain in the light of his potential. The moment we crack into some of Victoria’s real trauma, and offer some of her own true thoughts on it.. As well as (imho) an exceptionally well written therapist, whose outsider status helps V bring it back to explain what being a parahuman truly means.

        7.2 truly feels like a masterful piece of writing. Bravo, Wildbow!

    2. I love your breakdown of Therapeutic techniques Wayne is using here. I have a lot of trouble not getting drawn into the mindset of the POV characters (I blame WB’s masterful writing) so it felt like he wasn’t GETTING it, despite my desire to like him. Your read really makes me hopeful for the help he’ll be able to provide Victoria (provided she sticks with it). Kudos!

  9. Vicky mentioned she’s biologically a cat-dog-bird-spider thing, and it shut up her therapist pretty quickly.

    Imagine how fractured his mind would have been if she had also explained the part where she’s host to (and dependent upon) a parasitic baby slug god that literally smashes people with her body image issues.

    1. Pfft, come on. Look at other superheroes out there. Spider-Man? Spider DNA. Superman? An alien. The X-Men? Legally declared non human so as to save on import tarriffs for their action figures. Vicky’s perfectly normal by superhero standards!

      So does having bug DNA mean Taylor could control her?

      1. Probably not. Besides its not like Victoria actually has the DNA of all these different animals and insects. Amy just collected all them and broke them down into protein to supplement Victoria’s body because Crawler’s acid was eating through her flesh faster than Amy could heal her. That doesn’t mean Victoria’s DNA is *actually* a cat-dog-insect hybrid DNA structure.

        1. Amy is incapable of creating matter. She can only heal with what she has to hand- and healing is nearly a byproduct of her ability to rewrite biology from DNA up. She used the animals as biomass to replace what Crawler destroyed. A cat had its biology rewritten to replace/repair the lungs, spiders became muscles, and so on.

          So some of Vicky’s cells might have nonhuman DNA. Most of her is human, but deep in her body there may be a cluster of cells with the wrong DNA. Not necessarily all cat DNA; might be some cat, some mouse and a scattering of spider, or it might be partially human with traces of nonhuman DNA, or it might be totally off, rewritten by a tired and mentally drained Panacea so it doesn’t resemble any other DNA.

    2. I’d say not much at all.

      In fact; I’d say the reason he didn’t talk over Victoria is because he to listen to her and learn more.
      The very thing he said he wanted to do.

  10. Colossal respect for Rain here. Just, holy shit. So good. Come through all of it, done everything that he can, and waiting patiently to take the hits for what he’s done. Spectacular integrity.

  11. I find that Victoria may be able to shape Wayne into a decent cape shrink now that she gave him a taste of the parahuman condition. Her situation may be a bit worse than the average, but her combined knowledge of being an honorary Case 53, hereditary cape, cape groupie, cape chroniclet and cape may be invaluable to fix his preconceptions and adapt his skills to the new task.

    Also, Staci for president.

  12. I dunno if WB has ever looked into the Truth and Reconciliation Council after the end of apartheid in South Africa, but I feel like those are probably the closest realworld equivalent to what’s going on here.

    There’s a lot of powerful stuff there. I’d recommend anyone who’s curious about how to deal with the moral questions involved here look at it.

  13. “Again, there wasn’t an immediate response. He fixed his gaze on the broken horizon because it meant he didn’t have to make eye contact with me.
    I’d gutted him. It was wholly satisfying and far from being a good feeling.”

    Am I the only one that finds it ironic that Victoria is doing exactly the thing that Tattletale does? Even more so, Lisa once told Taylor she could not go to therapy because there wasn’t a shrink in the world she wouldn’t gut in under five minutes.
    Neither of these two would want to hear it, but while they are polar opposites in many aspects, they are eerily similar in some other ones.

    1. Absolutely agree. In a more black and white hero story, Lisa would DEFINITELY be Vicky’s big nemesis, but this is a WB story so we get a much more complex and interesting relationship between the two.

      More please, Wildbow!

    2. There is actually a difference: Vicky gutted Wayne with her issues. Tattletale would do it with Wayne’s issues. So even here, where they’re similar, they’re still opposites.

      Also, I think Vicky took longer, regrets it more, and will come to appreciate it more in the long run.

  14. A few months later someone will finally figure out where the space covered by the intersecting portals has been shunted to and they will travel there, only to find a peaceful settlement of former villains, heroes and civilians all living together, ruled by Jessica Yamada. She didn’t want the job but everyone insisted…

  15. So Victoria is an amalgam of available organic materials. I wonder if she curls up at the foot of the bed like another femme fatale we know 😉
    *cough* *Helen* *cough*

    1. Funny thing is we’ve sorta known this the whole time! Amy mentioned she was doing it way back when they found her to cure the Bonesaw plague.

      1. I thought she was just referring to the flesh sarcophagus thing she had made to cart Victoria around in, but d have to go back and read that part again.

  16. Figured I’d let you know, Grand Theft Auto isn’t an actual criminal charge. Auto theft and Grand Theft are, but Grand Theft Auto is a made-up term.

  17. Staci’s the best. May she successfully avoid the rest of the story and live out her days in peace. :p

  18. another great chapter <3 WB did a great job of portraying the feeling of dealing with a new therapist- it's difficult, they know nothing, and yet as long as they're a decent person they really do want to help. I've totally felt like Vicky here at times.

  19. Also, Staci’s letter was amazing, and it feels like Rain might get through this all without being crushed. (Unless he gets literally crushed by Cradle.)

  20. The… scratching yourself from being so upset. The infinite loop of “um’s” that make it impossible to say anything. These little things made the scene between Victoria and the doctor feel particularly real and painful.

    And I started tearing up during the end of the chapter, from Staci’s letter. This was a fantastic chapter.

  21. I think it tells when autorities consider Vicky to be in more need of therapeutic help, then the rest of the group.

    She really is one more bad morning from turning to inhuman monster.
    And with how the story unfolds I do think it will (temporarily) happens.

  22. Very well, Rain didn’t get scapegoated… I get -1 precognition points which is split evenly amongst my naysayers so the have somewhat more than zero precognition points.

    I do have a sudden attack of thinking of Rain like Jean Valjean though. And i can hear the anti-cape crowd singing the song of angry men.

    I wonder how many of the anti-capes are being stirred up by agent provocateurs of the other side of the war.

  23. I liked the therapy session. Victoria having a panic attack and getting mad at her therapist, her revelation of the gory details of her post-GM healing: it all feels a lot more sympathetic and visceral than the calm, super-abstract conversations with Mrs. Yamada. The smaller descriptions of the giant portals blocking off the skyline and the weather changing were good, too.

    It’s particularly sad when Victoria wishes her family had been closer, or that she could have gotten home faster to save Amy from Bonesaw. There’s no physical barrier left to Victoria having whatever family life she would have liked to have had in those scenarios, except the emotional weight of what happened. She thinks she would have been willing to keep living with past-Amy, but she can only feel terrified of current-Amy. On the other hand, she does seem to have forgotten that she doesn’t believe in forgiveness.

    And Rain is going to jail without going to jail. Well, he does need a place to stay. I’ll be surprised if he actually serves out three months, but between that and Victoria’s injury, perhaps a timeskip is coming?

  24. I like the breadth of your stories and world building : therapy, physical therapy, court rooms, parents, awful trauma, ethical and biology questions.

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