Chris cackled as we jerked to an abrupt stop.
“Ease up, Chris,” Tristan said.
“Ignore him,” I suggested.
“Look,” Tristan said, leaning forward to peer over the steering wheel. “I can admit it when I’m not good at something. It’s different when you have someone looking over your shoulder and acting as your laugh track.”
“You’re doing fine,” Kenzie said.
“Compliments are a supply and demand thing,” Chris said. “If you give them out for nothing, they aren’t worth anything.”
“Thanks, Chris,” Tristan said, sarcastic. Traffic started moving again. He started the van moving again, then made another abrupt stop. My head smacked back against the headrest.
“How do you not know how to drive?” Chris asked.
“I know how to drive, Chris. I got my license before the raid on the Fallen, in case we needed to drive a bus or something. I needed something to do when I wasn’t at the hideout.”
“I can imagine how that would have gone. Not to worry, fellow heroes, I learned how to drive just in case this happened! Then you drive us straight into a ditch.”
“I can drive straight, Chris, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“I did notice, but it was easier to word it that way than to try to describe what you’re doing now, with the stop, start, stop, start thing.”
“Traffic is stop-start.”
“Traffic is stop, coast, and start. I was thinking you were wearing the boots from your costume, because your foot is so heavy.”
“He’s new, Chris. Ease up,” I said.
“Okay,” Chris said, before immediately betraying his word by saying,”Isn’t it a rule that every self respecting teenager has to be in line to get their license the moment the DMV opens on their sixteenth birthday?”
“The DMV wasn’t open the day I turned sixteen,” Tristan said. “On account of the world having ended the year before.”
“Excuses,” Chris said.
“I didn’t get my license when I turned sixteen,” Sveta said. “But I don’t have hands, feet, or a definitive birthday.”
“Excuses,” Chris said, again.
I offered my own input, “I can fly, so it was never a priority. I can drive, I had my license, but the only practice I really got in the last four or five years was driving the Patrol buses from parking space to parking space so we could shovel the whole lot. Tristan is a better driver than I am.”
“Why are you guys so lame?” Chris groaned. “Not being able to drive sucks, and I’ve got to wait three years.”
The road was fairly busy. The timing of our trip meant we were traveling down the main East-West highway that ran through the city, and it seemed like a lot of the farming settlements were transporting stock out to the east, traveling in the direction of the Brockton Bay and Boston areas of the sprawl. That procession was compounded by the stream of construction vehicles heading toward the city center.
In the van, we had Tristan in the driver’s seat, me in the passenger seat, and Kenzie wedged between Sveta and Chris in the back.
Tristan stopped again, but there was more than enough clearance between himself and the car ahead of him, and the stop was premature. A car behind us honked, long and loud.
“Why did you stop just now?” Chris asked.
“I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.”
“There wasn’t any movement,” I said.
Tristan crept forward until he could stop at a more reasonable distance behind the car ahead of us. “I know that now. It was a shadow. I’m in battle mentality, I think. I’ve spent years as a cape and I’ve only been behind the wheel for a few hours now, I’m stressed, and my brain is going for what it knows.”
“That might make sense,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on fixing it.”
“I know, I know. I can get past this,” he said. He was frowning, staring at the road, even though the van wasn’t moving. “If I’m reactive and defensive, I need to make that work with something that’s either stop or go.”
“It’s a pretty crummy battle mode if you’re reacting to things that aren’t there,” Chris said.
“Hey Kenzie,” Tristan said. “Do me a favor?”
“Get him. Shut him up by any means necessary.”
Chris was directly behind me, so I couldn’t see anything more than the periodic glimpse of a flailing limb I got in the window’s reflection.
Tristan continued driving, a little more confident now that he wasn’t being heckled and cackled at. He seemed oblivious to Chris’s noises and curses of protest.
No, not oblivious. He smiled wide without looking back as Chris protested with, “No tinker tech!”
Outside the van, the city was in a weird place. There were a lot of businesses with signs left dark, and a lot of people out on the sidewalks and stairs. People weren’t going to work, or they couldn’t.
Something was simmering.
I could understand it. The sky had been taken from us. There might have been an undercurrent of hope, the idea that if we tried hard enough and waited long enough, we could do things right this time. Every last person had lost someone or something they cared about. We’d all had to work hard to get through the first winter and contribute.
There had been an implicit hope, I imagined, that if we made those sacrifices and threw ourselves at the problem, we’d be rewarded with a city that had learned from the mistakes of the past. We’d experienced a paralysis in terms of leadership and even the name we gave the city, and the conflicting desires from the various groups who had very different ideas of what that perfection looked like might have played a role.
That hope had been leveled. There wasn’t a point in the city where one of the portals wasn’t visible at the horizon. There were several points in the city where the portals loomed overhead, dense areas where the main infrastructure of the city had been positioned close to the portals.
“Tristan,” Sveta said. “There’s something I wanted to bring up, but it’s awkward to, and I don’t know if it’s going to be any easier to fit things in when we get to Ashley’s.”
“Oh geez, you’ve got to drop this on me today?” Tristan groaned.
“My friend goes to jail, we’re anticipating another friend doing the same, and I have to drive through this mess, and now you’re bracing me for something.”
“Sorry. It’s not a huge thing, but I thought you’d want to know.”
“Is it the sort of thing where I’m wearing my pants backwards and nobody’s had the courage to tell me, or-”
“Help,” Chris eked out the word.
“-Yeah, yuk yuk, Kenz,” Tristan said. “Or is it bad news, Sveta?”
“It’s bad news, I guess.”
“I know you have issues with Moonsong. The Shepherds lost some members, and she impressed people enough that she’s getting promoted.”
Tristan didn’t immediately reply.
“Sorry again. I thought you should know before you ran into them,” Sveta said.
“A promotion. She wasn’t my favorite person, but I always respected her talent. Reach- we had a lot of good capes. It doesn’t surprise me.”
“What kind of promotion, do you know?” I asked Sveta. I could see her over my shoulder. “To a specific function, like team liaision, or a captain of a sub-team?”
“Second in command of their first team. Which Weld said puts her third in command overall, somehow.”
“Damn it,” Tristan muttered.
“That’s because the Shepherds folded into the Attendant, bringing their name and logo,” I said. “The people who worked together stayed together as they merged, making them two teams under one name. If something happens to the leader of their A-team, the leader of the B team takes over the leadership of the whole group.”
“I know Weld is busy,” Sveta said. “I barely saw him before but now I only see him for an hour a day, sometimes. Maybe Moonsong will be too busy to pay attention to you.”
“I don’t know,” Tristan said. “Damn it. Thank you for telling me, that really does help.”
“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.
“Yeah. I’ve gotta figure out what I’m doing. Now I know to stay a solid distance away from them.”
“I hope I’m not prying,” I said. “You never really told me what happened.”
“I lost it,” Tristan said, his eyes fixed on the road even though traffic crawled. “I’m not trying to deflect blame or anything, but I was dealing with the C-seventy bullcrap, three-point-four GPA, kicking ass as a hero on a kick-ass team, made friends and hung out with those friends. I did it while living half a life… and something gave.”
“That happens,” I said, trying to sound neutral.
“It happens, yeah. I got desperate and I stopped thinking straight. I did some impulsive stuff, dug myself into a hole, and then kept digging. I look back and I don’t even recognize the person I became.”
“We all deal with that to some degree,” I said. “It comes with powers.”
“Yeah. Dug myself into a hole and kept digging down, and the power situation didn’t help. I’ve always been good at what I do. Sometimes it takes time to learn, but if I have the chance to practice, I’ll practice like hell, and I’ll be kicking ass in no time. It’s why I’m grinding my teeth over the driving. Nobody’s around to teach me and I don’t have a car I can use to practice. I’m really worried I’m going to break Kenzie’s parents van, here.”
“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “It’s not a big deal. The van was kind of a present to me, to help move my tinker stuff around. I really appreciate you taking us.”
“It’s your family’s van,” Tristan said. “You’re the one that’s being a big help.”
“What about your parents? They can’t help with the driving?” Kenzie asked.
“It goes back to what happened with Reach. I tried to do it all and when I couldn’t do it anymore I let something slip, I became a villain and didn’t even realize it. I got arrested, I lost most of my friends from back then, my team, my academic record, and I lost my family. My dad doesn’t want to do dad things with me. My mom is really careful around me, like it’s all forced. They don’t call me, it’s always me calling them.”
“You go to church with them,” Sveta said.
“It’s bittersweet,” Tristan said. “They’re almost normal when we’re at the church, but I think it’s because they think I need redemption.”
“Rain and Ashley are looking for their redemption by turning themselves in,” I said. “Would you do the same thing, or am I missing something?”
“Rain is,” Tristan said. “You’re right on that one. Ashley?”
He made a creaky sound, moving his hand.
“Not redemption?” I asked.
“I don’t think that’s so on the nose for her. I could be…”
Traffic was moving, and Tristan was going a decent speed, and this time, as something moved across the road, it was real, and not a phantom shadow. Tristan hit the brakes, and I could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be enough.
I flew, rising up in my seat, and activated my defenses for a moment, pushing back against my seat. I could hear the metal where it attached to the rest of the car protesting, and the entire van lurched. A sharp sound to my right marked the Wretch whacking at the door.
We stopped with a few inches to spare. A group of people were running across the road. Many had masks on, of the mundane sort.
“Thanks, Vic,” Tristan said. “Good move.”
I checked the coast was clear, opened my car door, and flew out, closing it below me before giving chase.
With a higher vantage point, I could see the line of traffic, stretching out down the road, avoiding the area where a portal’s expansion cut through the highway, forcing a detour onto smaller streets.
I could see the stores and the people clustered around broken windows.
Cause and effect. People couldn’t get around, which meant they couldn’t get to work easily and they couldn’t go to stores to make their purchases. Power, water, and the delivery of other resources had been interrupted in places. Stores, restaurants, and services closed or reduced their hours, because they lacked employees, customers, and resources. More people were dicking around with no or temporarily interrupted employment, frustrated at the backslide in progress and the overall hopelessness of things…
People wanted what they were owed, maybe. Or they wanted to feel like they were making some headway in things, when it felt so hard to obtain. They saw the unmanned stores and they noted the lack of proper law enforcement.
Looters. These weren’t the first I’d seen, and they weren’t the only symptom of the city’s current ails.
Will these unpowered people look back and think that they can’t recognize who they were? Or is it easier to justify and massage past events and past wrongs committed, if you don’t have powers to punctuate, exaggerate, and highlight it?
I didn’t have my costume, and I still had my jacket threaded through the triangle of upper arm, forearm, and sling strap, so it rested across my forearm.
Their getaway vehicle was on the other side of the highway, and there was less traffic going toward the city center. They’d drive off and disappear into the side roads somewhere. The ones at the front of the pack were loading up the trucks with bags of stuff, on the road just beyond the highway. The middle of the pack was already over the concrete barrier that separated the westbound traffic from the eastbound, and the stragglers were just behind them, hesitating because traffic was incoming.
I intercepted the people who were climbing into the first of the trucks. I used my aura to spook the first guy and to try to get his grip to ease up where he was holding onto the door and the side-grip at the chair back. He twisted around, hands up to defend himself, and I simply tugged him back, letting him fall to the ground. No strength needed.
I used my toe to nudge the keys from his grip to the ground, and he didn’t fight me. Then I stomped on them, forcefield up, with enough force to drive the metal into the concrete.
I pointed at him, and I ordered him, “Stay.”
I believed him. Marching toward the other truck, where people were rushing to load electronics into the back, I spotted orange lights at the base of the truck.
No need to bother, then. I ignored them, walking casually, and the fact I ignored them seemed to throw them off.
I chose the largest group that had assembled off to the side. Six individuals, all together. I let my aura burn and I watched the effect it had on them. My eyes searched for weapons and saw none.
This wasn’t a planned thing, a raid or a rush.
It was impulse. I could even imagine it was desperation, like how people stole for a loaf of bread. The difference was that this wasn’t to fulfill such a basic need.
Probably, anyhow. The cold season was sneaking up on us, and they might have felt they weren’t ready. Maybe this was borne of that.
Except I felt they’d probably be more organized if they were thinking that far ahead. There were bags of what looked like clothes, and they weren’t winter clothes. Not needs in the sense that those clothes would help survive the winter.
“Bad luck, guys,” I said. “You pulled this just as my friends and I happened to pass by. Let’s make this easy. Surrender.”
A woman hucked a brick-sized package of batteries at my head. My forcefield caught it, knocking it aside. Heads turned to look at her.
I could remember the movie scenes where the mob of criminals went after the cape or hero, shot, saw they were invincible, and then kept shooting despite the futility of it. I was suspicious the PRT had used leverage over the media to encourage those scenes, with the follow-up of the mob getting taken to pieces. A way of affecting the public’s approach to capes and the willingness to go all-out.
“Oh. I am really, really sorry,” she said.
There it was.
“Get down on the ground,” I said. “Hands on your heads.”
Some started to obey, the woman foremost among them. A group of others at the periphery and around the first truck dropped their stuff and bolted. They all ran as a group at first, and then, as I took off and one saw me on the approach, the idea went out. They scattered.
The car door behind me slammed. The driver had climbed into the second truck, and others were piling into the back with the stolen merchandise. The truck peeled out, making it about half a foot before the spike of stone that Tristan had made popped the tires.
“Stay,” I told the ones who were already on the ground or partway there. “The way things are now, if you cooperate and own up, you’ll get off with a slap on the wrist. Okay?”
I saw a few nods.
I went after the ones who were running. I started at the far left.
No forcefield, no super strength. I flew to catch up and I caught the first one mid-run. Because I could maneuver in the air at the same time I caught up, it was relatively trivial to get in a position to stick my leg between his knees and trip him.
I left him behind, relatively sure I could catch a second one before he picked himself up and got far enough away.
The second went roughly the same way.
The third one I caught up to had a knife that was made for the kitchen, not for fighting. She disarmed herself swiping at my forcefield, and promptly surrendered.
By the time I checked on the first and caught him limping away, Sveta had rounded up the others, including the second and third I’d stopped.
She was fast, she had reach, and she was mobile. This was very much her thing. She hadn’t left any marks more serious than a palm with road rash.
We herded the ones who had bolted in the direction of the disabled getaway vehicles. The ones I’d told to stay had stayed. The van had pulled off the highway, and Looksee was standing on the top, watching over things. She’d have projected her costume. Capricorn had his costume on with no armor but the helmet, and was standing guard by the store with the broken windows.
I flew closer to them to get a status update, and as I passed the van, I could see Chris still in the backseat, gagged and ensnared by Looksee’s eyehook, the prehensile tendril with the camera and claw at the end.
“Lucky that we happened to be passing by,” Looksee said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her. This kind of low-level dissent was happening all over the megalopolis. I could see it whenever I flew over. When I’d told Ashley that we intended to arrive at two thirty, I’d plotted for a detour like this, because it was next to inevitable.
It would get worse; the shock was wearing off.
An armed Patrol soldier greeted us at the door. His was a face I’d seen from the Stratford patrol, not far from Bridgeport.
“We sent our information ahead,” I said.
“You did. You’re the girl from the community center thing, right?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed.
“Okay.” It wasn’t a smiling, accepting okay. “She’s inside. Be good.”
Sveta raised her eyebrows at me the moment we were past the guard and inside the apartment. Some things were already set aside, lining one side of the hallway, making the fit through fairly tight. Sveta had once described the apartment as being an unusual mix. I could see it in place now- cardboard boxes and plastic totes in places, and then furniture in other places that definitely hadn’t come from a box store.
The table by the kitchen door was wrought iron with curled-up feet, meeting and melding at knee height and then separating out to grip the edges of dark-tinted glass top. There were some bills on top, unopened. A mirror with a wrought-iron frame loomed ominously above the table.
I really hoped the mirror was fastened securely, because it had to weigh fifty pounds with all the iron curls and thorns, and the tinted glass below it would not survive an impact.
The kitchen had a similar theme, but the appliances were red, and the clear glass electric kettle, table, and stool were glass with a red tint. There wasn’t much wall space, and narrow scroll-like strips of cloth ran down the available spaces between cabinets. Calligraphy-like strokes of red paint suggested a male’s head, broad shoulders and buttocks, and the woman standing in profile. A flick of the brush suggested the nipple for the woman and a knot-like flourish indicated that which was visible between his legs. The electric kettle was on, burbling.
The dining room was the most conventional of the rooms, with dark, stately furniture, a rug, and an ornate gold-painted picture frame behind the head of the table. A massive brown horse with the whites of its eyes showing had its teeth around a man’s head, while its hoof held the man’s body down. It was partway through tearing the man’s head off, ribbons of gory flesh still connecting the head and neck, and the man’s fingers were slipping from the horse’s reins.
It was such an odd thing to see that I paused mid-stride to confirm it wasn’t my mind playing tricks on me. Had she found it or commissioned it? If it was the former, who painted that kind of work and put it out into the world? If it was the latter, why that, specifically?
I glanced at the candlesticks without candles, and an empty picture frame on the wall behind the length of the dining table, just as ornate as the horse one. There were boxes in the corner, too.
The apartment was narrow, and it looked like sets of stairs allowed what I assumed were the bathroom and bedroom to be right above the living room.
The living room had a reclining couch and a series of chairs, none of which matched but all of which seemed to follow a theme. There were bookcases along the wall, all of the same make, with a unique design element that really came into its own with the bookcase closest to the window. Starting with the middle of the five bookshelves, getting progressively more intense, the wood had been burned, and clear resin had been molded in a shape to emulate the unburned bookshelves. Flakes of something red and metallic had been set in the burned parts of the wood, so they caught the light from the window and made it look like the wood was still hot from recent fire.
Ashley was perched in a narrow chair with long legs and a high seat, hands clasped together. Jester was there too, reclining on the couch. A large black and white picture of a lithe, bare-chested or naked man was on the wall above Jester, the head and lower body out of frame, his arms twisted up behind his back in a tortured position with ribbons loosely binding them.
“Hi Ashley,” I said. Others offered their greetings. “Hi Jester.”
“Why’d you come?”
“The others either didn’t want to or didn’t care, and I wanted to. I still probably owe you something from when you carried the slack back at work.”
“Nothing’s owed,” I said.
He just shrugged in response.
“This place really came along since my last visit,” Sveta said.
“I would hope so,” Ashley said. “It’s been a little while.”
“It’s a shame to pack it up,” Kenzie said. She hopped into a chair.
“Yes,” Ashley said. “Yes it is.”
“I love the bookshelves, especially the one at the end,” I said.
Ashley smiled. “I do too.”
“There were three the last time I came,” Sveta said. “The one at the end had to have taken the longest to put together.”
“It did,” Ashley said. “It came out well. I’m pleased.”
“I’d be worried about the resin refracting light at the wrong angle and starting a fire,” Chris said.
“You are just dead set on being a stick in the mud today, aren’t you?” Tristan asked.
“It’s fine,” Ashley said. “I was warned about that, and I was careful.”
“If we’re admiring decor, I like this ribbon dancer dude,” Tristan said, indicating the picture above the couch.
“I wish I had the artistic sense to figure out what it’s saying,” Tristan added.
“If you have theories, keep them to yourself,” Ashley said. “I’d hate to have it ruined.”
“Lips sealed,” Sveta said.
“We got in a fight on the way here,” Kenzie said. “I barely got to do anything, there were looters, and they raided a store, so I got most of their pictures before they could run, so I could track them down later if I had to. Then I did a sweep of the crowd to see if any looters were trying to hide among the bystanders, but I didn’t find anything.”
“That’s too bad. It would have been a nice little victory.”
“I wish I knew if it didn’t find anything because there wasn’t anything or if it was because it didn’t work.”
“You’ll figure it out. You’re clever,” Ashley said.
“How are you doing, Ashley?” Sveta asked. “Is there anything we can do?”
“I’ve committed a cardinal sin,” Ashley said. “I asked you to help me move, and I don’t have things packed. I put most of my books away, and some of my clothes, but…”
She moved her hand in her lap. Her fingers moved slowly, and they seemed to hit a limit where they wouldn’t go completely straight.
“Have you had that looked at?” I asked.
“Rain did. He did what he could to fix things, but my usual tinker is gone. If these hands fail, then I won’t have hands unless they allow me to meet with Rain again,” Ashley said. “I haven’t been able to pack, as I said, and I’m being a poor hostess, because I have food but can’t serve it.”
“I can grab it,” Jester said.
“The water for tea should be boiled. Pour it in the pot and bring it straight down. There’s a shutter by the stove. Inside you’ll find nuts, chocolate and cookies. The serving tray and sugar bowl are above the shutter. There are cold drinks in the door of the fridge for those who don’t want tea, and a little pitcher of milk.”
“That sounds like a lot,” Tristan said. “I’ll come with.”
“I normally allow myself one treat a day, with the same for any guests- I don’t have many,” Ashley said. “But we should treat ourselves.”
“Are you okay?” Sveta asked, again. “In the heat of everything last week, I said some harsh things. I feel guilty now that we’re here.”
“If I’d refused or if I had tried to get away with it, you would have resented me for it. Most of you would have. You were right,” Ashley said. “Don’t feel guilty.”
“If you changed your mind, I’d have your back,” Kenzie said.
Chris swatted her over the head. “No. Bad.”
Kenzie stuck her elbow out toward his middle, digging it into softer flesh. He grunted.
“What would be the point, Kenzie?” Ashley asked. She brought her hand up to her hair to tuck it behind her ear. It looked harder than it should have been, with her fingers not cooperating. “What would motivate me to stay? I like some of you, I wouldn’t be able to stay with you. I like my place, I’d have to leave it behind and run.”
“If the tables were turned, and I had to choose between going to jail or staying, getting in trouble, and spending ten percent of the time I do with you guys, I’d stay,” Kenzie said.
“I know,” Ashley said. “That’s who you are.”
“I think there’s a better chance that you guys can stay in some form of communication if she sticks to the rules, than if she runs and periodically makes contact,” I told Kenzie. “We can ask them to make sure something’s allowed.”
Kenzie smiled a little.
“I will make it up to you someday,” Ashley said. “I promise that.”
“Okay,” Kenzie said. She offered more of a smile.
Ashley dropped her eyes to her hands, flexing her fingers.
“You’re going to miss out on a lot,” Chris said. “Shit is slowly and steadily going down, and after this stuff with the portal, it’s pretty clear the major players are starting to act. We still don’t know who did it.”
“The Birdcage was emptied for Gold Morning,” Ashley said. “If something serious happens, I hope they’ll release us. I could join you then, even prove myself.”
“You might not go to prison, you know,” Kenzie said.
I felt so sorry for that kid. She didn’t deserve this.
“They gave me a short leash, given my history and the people I’m connected to, and they told me what to expect,” Ashley said.
Jasper and Tristan appeared, each carrying a tray. The chocolate looked like shards of dark chocolate with chunks of salt embedded in it. The cookies were wafers partially dipped in more dark chocolate.
“We’re going to end up eating and not doing any packing,” Tristan remarked.
“You don’t need to worry about the furniture. If the girls could look after my clothes, and if you could put away my books and pictures, that would be enough for today. I’ll help where I can.”
“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.
“Ashley said the van would be enough,” Kenzie said.
The tea was doled out to those who were drinking tea. Others poured their drinks. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone present, so I sat on the ground around the crates that were gathered together to act as an impromptu coffee table.
“Ashley,” Tristan said. “I talked to Rain about this, it might be worth talking to you. Do you have a plan of action if anyone comes after you?”
“You were thinking Love Lost might go for Rain where he is,” Ashley said. “And the past allies of Beast of Burden might come for me.”
“It’s not out of the question.”
“I won’t be alone,” Ashley said. “I have friends waiting for me.”
“Still,” she replied.
As people finished their drinks or got restless, they stepped away to start investigating what needed to be put away. I licked chocolate from my fingers and cleaned them off with a damp napkin.
Ashley stood, stretching as she walked to the window. The unnamed Patrol member who stood at the top of the stairwell cleared his throat loudly.
“I’m not doing anything,” Ashley said.
“Away from the window,” he said. “You’re on paper as a low-rated mover.”
“Harry,” Jester said. “I think we’re okay.”
“Away from the window,” Harry said.
I tensed, seeing Ashley bristle, standing a little taller, her pupils disappearing.
I thought about intervening, and I had no idea how I was supposed to go about it. Maybe getting Harry to safety.
Ashley stepped away from the window. “I’m going to have to get used to this, I think. It’s going to be hard.”
“You promised me there’d be a someday we’d meet again,” Kenzie said. “And you’ve already broken one promise.”
“I know,” Ashley said.
I’d been told to do the clothes, but it felt weird to go through Ashley’s bedroom and things without her there, so I started on the bookshelf.
The team wasn’t technically a team anymore, but we couldn’t break away clean.
The moment Ashley was on her own retreating to the stairs to look down at the rest of us, it was Chris who went straight to her. The two of them walked into the dining room. Ashley rubbed at her arm as the two of them talked, and the patrol officer stood a ways back, watching them closely.
That was interesting. Were there commonalities, in the physical breakdown?
I noticed Kenzie was off on her own, fidgeting, and made a concerted effort to rope her into helping me. I made it something of a game, filling the box as quickly as I could with one hand while being kind to the books, with Kenzie holding the box, and then taking turns, as she pulled books off the lower shelves.
“Victoria,” Ashley said. “Can we talk?”
The moment Ashley had been free, Chris had gone to her. The moment she was free, she chose me?
I was caught off guard, but I nodded.
She led me up to her bedroom. There were pictures by the wall that hadn’t yet been hung up, judging by the lack of marks on the walls. The bed was a four-poster with black silk cloth.
“Who are you keeping an eye on?” she asked.
“Everyone,” I said. “I’m making plans to check on members of the team.”
“Don’t neglect Sveta,” Ashley said. “Her teams are her families. She’s not so different from Kenzie. The only people who stick by her are the same kinds of people who get caught up in helping other people. It’s a very lonely thing when you’re not anybody’s first priority.”
“There’s Weld,” I said.
“Make sure he remembers, then.”
“These feel like the final instructions of someone who expects to die soon,” I said. “Do I need to worry? Do we need to worry?”
“If Death comes for me I’ll shred him with my power,” Ashley said. “I beat him once, and I hardly expect to kneel before him now.”
She shrugged. “Death doesn’t worry me. Destruction does.”
“Of me,” she said.
I glanced around the room, then indicated the wardrobe. She nodded.
I began packing up the clothes as best as I could, when I couldn’t fold very effectively. She didn’t seem to mind.
“Destruction of you? How is that different from death?”
“Before you all came, I nearly destroyed those bookcases, and the artwork. I almost destroyed that man, Harry, from the patrol. I could have shredded him, and it would have been easy.”
She said it so casually.
“The girl from the train, Presley, she looks up to you in a way, I think. She thinks you’re awesome.”
“I am awe inspiring in my own right. It’s not a surprise, Victoria. I don’t need a gimmick to do it.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Alright, but- does that not give you a reason to hold back from those impulses? For this girl who really wants to know how to get her hair as white as you have yours, because she wants to emulate you? For Kenzie?”
“It’s hard to explain. Today, I knew you were all coming, and your friend Jester was there, talking to me about nothing. I don’t know what the reasons for holding myself back will be next time, or if I’ll look for reasons and find nothing there.”
I nodded. I focused on folding a dress.
She went on, “I’ve been told a sentence is inevitable. I’ll be confined, and people will bark orders at me and expect me to comply. I’ll be destroyed or I’ll come through it with a better idea of what I need to do to manage it.”
“You made a promise to Kenzie,” I said. “You can’t betray that. Don’t give yourself any other choice except to manage it.”
“You look after her in the meantime, then?” she asked.
“Then that leaves only three more things,” she said.
“The clothes. Pack them, please, but keep anything you like.”
The clothes were black, black, and more black. More to the point, she was a different build than I was, almost narrow, while I considered myself more of an athletic slim. There might be issues with fit.
“Thank you,” I said.
“The other two things, hm. I could offer it as a trade.”
“A trade of what?”
“I’m stealing Rain’s thunder, maybe, but… a haircut?”
“I’m working with one hand. I can use the other some, but… how much of a haircut?”
“The haircut we thought would work for Swansong,” Ashley said.
I paused. “I think I could manage something.”
“In exchange… take my keys. Take over the rent for the apartment.”
My eyebrows went up.
“You’re staying with your cousin, you said. If you haven’t found a place, then stay here instead. Keep the things you like and store the things you don’t.”
“You planned this.”
“I never had a place, Victoria. My life is vague dreams and clear destruction. Again and again, life tells me I can’t do this, I can’t do that. It goes wrong or I can’t think of it as being right… and I’m not talking about right as good. The thoughts loop through my head, that nobody can be trusted, everyone is out to get me, and… dying is a really good reality check. I’m trying to take that to heart. I was trying.”
“What happened? There were so many moments that seemed so cool, the photo on the train, Swansong, seeing how you were in the sparring…”
“All punctuated by fits of pique, madness. It’s not something that goes away or gets better.”
Those words were uncomfortable. There were already some parallels. The idea that there could never be a fix to this side of me that I couldn’t control…
She continued, “Some things are starting to make sense, about the group members, my memories, and how this all works, and I can’t even figure those things out because getting to tomorrow is already so hard. It’s been hard for too many days.”
“It doesn’t get easier when you’re in prison. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go, but…”
“When I make a mistake now, I kill Beast of Burden. If they incarcerate me? I can let myself be someone else’s concern. I think I know what it’s going to be like, and I’m ready for it.”
I nodded. I struggled to voice a response, because I was pretty sure she was wrong.
She was trying to build a new self like someone built a house of cards. It was a precarious thing, and if she slipped up once- destruction of the self. Something completely different from death. If she had a last chance then this would be it.
She tried to sound confident in tone, and she wasn’t convincing me.
It was a long, long walk along a razor’s edge.