Torch – 7.3

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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?”

“Any time.”

“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.

“Sorry.”

“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-”

Kenzie snorted.

“Help,” Chris eked out the word.

“-Yeah, yuk yuk, Kenz,” Tristan said.  “Or is it bad news, Sveta?”

“It’s bad news, I guess.”

“Great.”

“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.

He nodded.

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 smiled.

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.”

Jester smiled.

“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.

Chris snorted.

“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.

“I did.”

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.”

“Still,” she replied.

“Okay.”

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.”

“You’re sure?”

She shrugged.  “Death doesn’t worry me.  Destruction does.”

“Destruction of?”

“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.

She smiled.

“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.

I nodded.

“Then that leaves only three more things,” she said.

“Three things?”

“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.

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82 thoughts on “Torch – 7.3”

  1. Typo thread?

    “If something serious happens, I hope they’ll release us. I could join you then, even prove myself.”

    They’ll us?

    1. “like team liaision,”
      (liaison)

      “leader of their A-team, the leader of the B team”
      Inconsistent hyphenation.

  2. This was a heartwrenching chapter. Ashley’s acting as if her life is over (and in a way it is, and I’m hoping she gets to come back to it, whether as Damsel or Swansong), Victoria’s musings on the City falling apart and failing both as a city and an idea, the tensions in the team…

    And Jester keeps making things better, bless his heart.

    This was a brilliant picture of that moment of teetering on the brink – for the City, for Ashley, for Victoria, for Kenzie maybe.

    But also, is it time to play “keep it or take it down” in regard to the apartment?

  3. There’s this slow moroseness and resignation to Ashley that jibes so much with the ranting lunatic child we first met. I reckon she’d have fit in nicely as a character in Twig, with the mental issues cloning and whatnot.

  4. In continued awe of how well this serial is written – this is a another seriously good chapter. I enjoyed the team’s trivial riot suppression, and how casually the team was able to handle something that could have been a chapter in its own right, for any smaller scale team. All while considering the implications of this literally world shattering event that they were apart of.

    Really enjoying the insight into Ashley as well.. there were a lot of subtleties that cropped up here, reminds me of the way Stephen King’s On Writing describes how to set a scene’s tone with pertinent details and descriptions that lend atmosphere. The emotional undertow is deep here. Bravo, ‘Bow

  5. I love the relationship between Ashley and Victoria. They are so different, yet so similar at the same time. They can connect on how they care for the team, with things like Ashley telling Vic to look after Sveta. Whether Ashley goes to jail or not, their future interactions are sure to be interesting.

    Great chapter.

  6. Chris’ jokes and cackling really reminds me of Imp. I bet they’d *totally* get along if he let his guard down around her. Them bantering and up to no good sounds friggin hilarious 😀

  7. “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.”

    Ashley’s lines are the best.

  8. The last chapter hardly grabbed me at all, in stark contrast to the praise some of the commenters heaped on it. But THIS chapter, this really got me!

    I like Ashley a lot and I hope she gets on top of things somehow. I mean, her life sucks enough that Wildbow could comfortably keep her around for quite some time without the need for nasty sudden twists. Maybe she will earn a happy ending.

    It will probably come AFTER Contessa used the remote control to force into torturing Kenzie because Contessa’s PTV requires Kenzie’s second trigger, but so it goes.

  9. @Wildbow. Giving you a heads up. IMO (and I’ve seen other people say similar things) the overall pattern of the main characters facing defeat or failing to meet goals is getting a tad old. It’s starting to feel like Pact in the sense that we feel like the main character is screwed no matter what he does. There’s such a sense of foreboding, the sense that nothing is going to go right, that it’s starting to get depressing. Don’t get me wrong, in terms of exploring characters’ psychology, these past 2 chapters have been*excellent*. The nuanced bits of character development that have been previously established now make for fantastic character dialogue and interactions. The fight scenes have been great too. I’m taking about the story’s *overall* pattern. The only win we’ve had so far is Kenzie being a total badass by taking Mama Mathers out. The characters need more wins. Second in importance is touching base with characters from Worm. We’ve seen some of what the Undersiders are up to but I’d love to see more–and I’m sure others would too.
    I guess introducing a way to repair the portals would be too much to ask for…But some sort of win, a way to give the main characters or the world *a little* bit of hope would go a long way. I really love what you’re doing with Ward and I don’t want what happened with Pact to happen with Ward. If the depressing pattern continues, I’ll have to drop it like I did with Pact.

    P.S. The comic relief in this chapter was great and very much needed. Reminds me of the Undersiders’ early days. 🙂

    1. I’ve heard a couple of readers echo this sentiment and I partially agree with it. WB tends to let things get BLEAK for his characters but manages to give just enough hope to keep them (and us) going. I personally feel like he’s self-corrected from the pit that Pact got stuck in (I thought it was an AMAZING read, but Blake deserved better damn it).

      I’d argue that it’s a deep theme in WB’s works that his characters must persevere through the dark in the hopes that things can and will get better if they work for it. They (and the rest of us) just need to stick it out 🙂

      1. You need to give them wins once in a while. Clean wins, not “Well you took down the Fallen, but oops Portals got opened wider, fucking things worse!” wins. You need to make it feel like it’s not five steps back for the setting or the characters every step forward after a while.

          1. The time she killed Coil, freed Dinah and took over the city. At least for a while. Also it technically only ended because she handed herself in.

    2. Gonna have to disagree. I’ve always been kind of annoyed with the hate that Pact gets from a huge portion of the fanbase and even its author. Pact is by far the most distinct of Wildbow’s works, and to an extent I suspect that people dismiss it because it’s different. It’s fine to have preferences, but Worm ended four and a half years ago, and trying to duplicate it directly is only going to hurt it and Ward. This is the best chapter of Ward by a long stretch, and the first to really break away from Worm’s tone in an effective manner. And I’m glad we’ve had relatively little following around of major Worm characters (even those more closely connected to this story, like Weld). Without it, there’s a serious danger of the story re-centering around those old Worm characters, to the detriment of the actual protagonists. I want to read Ward, not Wildbow’s fanfic of his own most popular story.

      And, finally: a grand total of three major things have happened so far. There’s clearly a fair bit more to tell in this story, my guess is in at least two more major segments, maybe three or four. It is way too early to be judging the overall tone of the serial at this point.

      1. I’m with gazeboist – sure these people need a win or two, but only after they’ve earned some, and have bettered themselves. Getting wins right now wouldn’t help them with overcoming their flaws at the moment, and them sitting with themselves and working through their issues is what I’m here for.

        I wouldn’t say this was the best chapter of Ward by a long stretch, because the chapter with Victoria and Ashley on the train had me in tears, and the chapter with Sveta at home melted my heart, and Snag’s interlude had me crying over wasted potential and thinking about his story for days, but this one is right up there with them, because I GET Ashley, and this chapter was so beautiful and melancholy. I have high hopes for her.

        Also, yeah, people who don’t like Pact read a different story from me, because that was thrilling and touching and amazing, and the part in the netherworld with the witch Blake stumbled into that one time really stuck with me. I love how Ward is going, it’s perfect, don’t change a thing.

        1. Cosigning gazeboist and Jeremeymlad above.

          Also:

          As much fun as Worm was, I’m reluctant to recommend it due to the essentially nihilist construction of the world and story. From thousands to millions to billions of people dead and tortured, just to prove out that ultimately the only meaning lies in tactical application of power.

          What won me over to wildbow as an author was a scene early in Pact when Blake’s growing understanding of the rules of his predicament impelled him to cultivate his most honest self and human connections with others (rendered all the more poignant by the ironic revelation about him much later). I didn’t love that the implacable Conquest erased that development, nor the extent to which karma fraud turned out to be a viable tactic, but the idea of a world that cares whether you act with integrity was a powerful one.

          Ward, so far, reads to me like an existentialist integration of Worm’s nihilism and Pact’s embittered humanism, and the recent Ashley arc really highlights that theme. No abstract force compels or rewards Ashley–arguably a philosophical zombie, an engineered host for an agent of chaos–to act with any humanity toward Kenzie or Sveta or especially Victoria, and her care is strategically worthless. She makes her own meaning, and we see her struggle to create a meaning that ascribes meaning to others’ humanity as well. And that is the central problem for humanity after the world ends, laid out clearly for us just as the first major conflict resolves.

      2. I liked Pact but it had it’s issues… In a lot of ways it reminds me of the first game of Rifts I played with some friends. We’d just won our first encounter with an enemy, and the DM was going to follow the small fry up with something tougher. So he grabbed something that had a cool picture in the book at us. After the fight started he looked at the stats. The damn fucker was something that would have given a max level, well equipped party a hard fight. Our level one newbs were utterly doomed.

        Pact was like that only worse for Blake.

      3. Your comment got me thinking. Actually, Ward *is* like a WB self-fanfic of Worm… he’s taking an obnoxious character and making her more relatable, and a well-liked character, and writing a new story about them with occasional fan-service by bringing up other popular characters… the recipe for many good fanfics. Generally “sequels” do follow the same characters (OK, I fully expect that Taylor’s story has ended), so Ward is more like a “spin-off”.

        When you say “I want to read Ward”, did WB ever say explicitly what Ward was going to be? Did he say it was *not* going to be like a “fanfic of Worm”? Anyway I’m not saying I don’t like the direction of this story or the narration, but I would enjoy it just as much if WB had chosen to write the main text from an Undersiders POV. Not like he’s asking readers to pick or anything.

      4. The problem is that all the old Worm characters are the best ones who’ve gotten even a slight focus so far. Sveta and Ashley are the only two characters I always enjoy seeing on screen. The rest of the crew are low rent versions of the Undersiders in a lot of ways (with several feeling like cheap reproductions of Regent, the least likable of them).

        If they don’t become more interesting quickly, they may as well be dropped in favor of more interesting and already developed characters.

      5. Also, about Pact [*spoiler alert*]–the ideas were amazingly creative because well, he’s WB. However, no matter what Blake did, how hard he tried, how much he gave of himself, he was always screwed. Anytime he achieved his objective, Blake still suffered consequences along with that success–consequences that ultimately outweighed any of his achievements by a fuckton. No matter how hard he tried, no matter the level of self-sacrifice, Blake never got a break and he totally deserved better. He was such a great guy, seeing him getting knocked down again and again was just sad. I couldn’t keep reading it anymore.
        It took an absolutely, mind-bending, crazy and *insane* amount of self-sacrifice but Taylor ultimately got her peace in the end. A chance to heal and just live her life, reconnect with her dad etc. I read the wiki of what happened to him in the end and from what I understand, Blake didn’t get that. If I had found out otherwise, I would’ve gone back and finished it.

        1. Blake got an ending he could be satisfied with. I might consider it less than he was owed, but he was able to achieve his dreams.

    3. Wait, What!? I think you and I have differing ideas of what defeat and failure look like. Or maybe we’re just reading different stories? So far this has been a very upbeat tale. If anything, I thought things were going pretty well for our protagonists so far. It’s true I am looking forward to getting back to hollow-point and seeing how well Prancer’s doing and expecting things to get messy there, but whilst it’s nice to see old familiar faces, they’re not really the ones that’ve caught my interest this go around.

      You cannot have a character rise to a challenge if you give them no hurdles. You cannot have a story about perseverance and success without the spectre of failure. I’m sorry for you that you never got through pact. There’s so much there you’re missing.

      ~Teian

      1. Upbeat tale? Things have been *pretty* heartbreaking lately. Of course, things were like that in Worm too. I don’t want this story to be a duplicate of Worm. I know it won’t be. However, Worm had its moments every few chapters where you just wanna jump up and shout “Yes! Go Taylor! Go Undersiders!! You kick that ass!!!” There were incredibly satisfying moments of victory as breathers in between scary moments and crushing moments (like beating Coil. Regardless of the shit with Echidna that happened afterwards, remembering Tt gloating over Coil will always be satisfying AF.) I’m not seeing that here. HOWEVER I am willing to admit that it might just seem that way to me because I’m caught up with this Wildbow story now. I’m forced to wait unlike before, when I was just able to binge-read all the way to the end of Worm. I have to wait for several days between these chapters–and thus, am forced to contemplate how much it must suck for various characters to be putting themselves back together after all this trauma (ex. how awful and terrified Victoria must have felt after Amy fixed her and left her there with that body, reeling from the trauma of the past 2 years. or ex. how shitty it must be for the people in the Megalopolis to have rebuilt their lives and sense of security–only for that fragile safety to be taken away via portal widening devices. See what I mean? All you have do to is sympathize with any character to be like “wow this shit sucks for everyone and knowing WB, everything is gonna get a lot worse.” Except for Teacher. No use in sympathizing with that jackass.)

        But yeah. Maybe its too soon to judge but for me, it feels like its not because the wait for each chapter feels so long. Seriously the wait kills me.

        1. I think part of it is you get caught up in the narrator’s world view. Think of it like an outside observer looking at a series of pvp encounters with Wildbow running a roleplaying game.

          Victoria vs Villain-Tachi at the community center. Go! Victoria pulls the win. Sure, outside forces, (i.e. civie sniper and Patrol Block response,) steals her thunder, Victoria feels down, but at the core, she succeeded in thwarting the villains.

          Vicki and Sveta vs the two Ambush Villains, Go! Victory!

          Team Therapy Vs. Hollow Point, Go! Victory, Advanced guard get out clean!

          Combined Forces Vs The Fallen, Go! The fallen are broken, some ring leaders are caught an the remainder retreats in disarray!

          Team Therapy Vs Yet more Fallen! Go! Victory! This portal is saved!

          Sure, the world is falling apart. I mean, you can’t have post apocalyptic superheroics with the occasional apocalypse. I think Victoria my be a tad depressed, and I think it comes across well in the story and narration, but in general this is an uplifting tale of traumatized young parahumans dealing with their and doing their part to help make things better whilst the world falls even more apart.

          Yes, it may be heart wrenching at times to hear more details about Vickie’s troubles, but the greater the trauma, the greater the heroics when the cape puts their issues aside to summon the wretch to save some looter from getting run over. Or Ashley willing to let someone else have her place.

          If you don’t find that sort of ‘Vs Self’ story uplifting, then… I do not know how to continue conversing with you on this subject because I simple cannot relate.

          ~Teian

          1. You said everything I was trying to say, with fewer words, and in greater detail. I would tip my hat to you, if I wore hats.

    4. He should throw in some small things that go well, like having them stop a bunch of nonsubsistence looters with no trouble and no injuries.

    5. I can see where people are coming from when they say that the tone is frequently bleak, but the idea that it’s hopeless or that the characters don’t win… that, I can’t agree with. The characters don’t have as many clear cut victories as Taylor did, for sure, but I don’t think there’s a lot that I would call a clear-cut defeat in here, either.
      To explain: as I remember, the major instances that you could point to as win-loss thus far are: the community center, (maybe) the broken trigger event, a few scuffles with the Hollow Point Crew, and the fight with the Fallen, which I would divide into two sections, the siege and the cleanup. The community center did end with Fume Hood injured, the hero group she was going to join breaking up, and Vicky losing her job, so overall, it could be considered a defeat. However, the villains were prevented from kidnapping Fume Hood like they had planned, so it wasn’t a complete and unmitigated defeat. Moreover, it freed Vicky to join up with Team Therapy, where she was able to help them quite a bit. I would argue this is the actual pattern (such as it is) the story has followed thus far: overwhelming opposition or unexpected circumstances prevent a complete and total victory, but the heroes accomplish enough and find enough to improve on that there are still seeds of hope.
      The broken trigger doesn’t really follow this pattern; it’s more akin to a natural disaster than an actual battle, so there’s not really a clear-cut line between victory and defeat, just a question of how much damage was caused versus how much could have been. Likewise, the Hollow Point scuffles didn’t really have much in the way of outright wins, but they were really just intended to ruffle feathers and harass the team enough that, long-term, an opportunity to strike might present itself. Advance Guard was something of a spanner in the works with regard to this, but considering that they had to get their tails pulled out of the fire, one could argue that this would potentially just speed up the process of forcing the villains out; a group of well-known professionals having trouble with a neighborhood could have been taken as a sign that the neighborhood in question needed more resources and heroic attention devoted to it than it had had thus far. It was a setback for Team Therapy, definitely, but I think if not for things kicking into gear with the Fallen, it would have been an ultimately beneficial turn of events.
      That brings us to the Fallen fight: the siege was chaotic, the heroes and Hollow Point crew were surprised and nearly overwhelmed several times, but here’s the thing: by the end, the Mathers Clan was no longer an effective fighting force. Their leadership was gone, their followers had all been either killed or evacuated to a place where they could hopefully be deprogrammed, and, for more personal victories, Vicky started working with the Wretch and Rain killed Snag during the battle by weaponizing the flaws in his power. You want a win? That, right there, is a win. The kid who was completely out of his league, and was frequently criticized for whining about how useless he is, killed a significantly stronger opponent by turning a weakness into a strength.
      Now, yes, the portals were definitely a defeat for the heroes, but considering that most of the remaining Mathers were rounded up in the process, and the rest were either captured, killed, or scattered across the multiverse in the aftermath (I assume, since we’re now in something of a ‘winding down and developing the characters’ point in the story), it was also something of a Pyrrhic victory for the villains.
      Basically, my point is this: this story has plenty of things to inspire hope. Not many full on, break-out-the-champagne victories, sure, but not nearly as many utter and abject defeats as you imply. They do have wins; they’re just small ones amidst the chaos and confusion of a world that’s trying to rebuild itself, with quite a few people who are only interested in their own little slice of that world. Maybe they don’t achieve all of their objectives with the same frequency Taylor did, but here’s the thing: Taylor wasn’t interesting because of how often she won. If anything, her win ratio was the least interesting thing about her. She was interesting because of the emotions and morals that drove her to win, the creativity that allowed her to win, and the brutal, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring ways she won. These characters are, if anything, more broken than Taylor, they don’t have her creativity, and their morals prevent them from reaching the same levels of brutality; and yet, they have made progress. Sure, the group broke up, but remember: that was warned of going in. They still have the relationships they’ve built with each other, they still have their identities as heroes, and of the two who are going to jail, Rain won’t be content and at peace until he’s been punished for his time with the Fallen, and Ashley pretty clearly stated that if she makes it through, she’ll be much more in control of his powers. Sure, prison won’t be great, but this, like much of the above, still contains elements of hope.

      One last somewhat disconnected thought, to cap off my little rant: at the end of Worm, Taylor looked back at everything she’d done, and said, “None of that was worth it.” From the way the story is going, even when things inevitably get much, much worse, I think Team Therapy will be able to look back at everything they will have done by the time Ward ends, and say, “All of that was worth it.”

      1. “She was interesting because of the emotions and morals that drove her to win, the creativity that allowed her to win, and the brutal, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring ways she won.”
        Yeah you’re right about Taylor’s win ratio. Idk, maybe its Victoria’s constant dwelling on the negative that makes things seem so bleak right now. Don’t get me wrong, I do *not* want the tone of Victoria’s POV to change. It’s perfectly natural and realistic for someone with her amount of fucked up trauma to dwell on the negative. And I wouldn’t have it any other way because WB’s style of keeping things *realistic* is one of things I love about his writing the most. I’d like Team Therapy to have more to celebrate about. Well not ‘celebrate’ maybe…but honestly no success they’ve had so far could make up for what’s happened with the portals. There were good people in the Wardens HQ like Jessica who were loved and no one even knows what happened to them. That mix of uncertainty, fear and grief isn’t the worst of it though–this city was the center of humanity’s effort to put itself back together. Now people’s fragile hopes have dissipated in the face of fear. People in the Megalopolis are scared but even worse they’re *vulnerable*
        We don’t know how many of the Wardens are missing/gone but there’s no way the remaining heroes can effectively guard these giant-ass portals now. When the interdimensional war goes down, there won’t be a way to protect all those people. Not even taking down the Mathers can make up for that. Maybe it just seems more foreboding to me because as another commenter has said in a past chapter, the rule of WB is It Gets Worse. With Worm, the stakes kept building until it led to the end of the world. Now? It’s only 7.2 but we already have the thing with the portals…how worse will it be later?

        I guess what I’m saying is that if WB is gonna break our hearts in the most creative ways (and I don’t doubt he will), can he at least punctuate it with more of the comic relief we saw today? That was great and I’d love more of it. Orrr maybe a Team Therapy-Undersiders team up? Or both? That’d be so epic.
        Maybe I’m looking at it with a more negative perspective now that I know how far the rule of WB goes in general. I’m glad Wildbow has learned from Pact to slow the pacing down. I hope there will be some more small but definitive wins in between the major losses. That pattern worked so well with Worm and Pact was seriously depressing without it. From what I’ve read so far, Ward needs it. This isn’t meant to come off as being a hater or being negative–its meant to be constructive criticism. I’m liking Ward a lot overall but I still think my point stands.

        1. I think the interdimensional war is actually cancelled now. When the portals expanded, their destinations shifted, apparently randomly. Any Cheit-bound portals impacted no longer provide an attack route.

          The bad news is that half the import routes are gone and a lot of critical infastructure needs replacing.

          1. The portals may have shifted to random destinations but if any lead to hostile populations or a hostile environment (like the infectious mold that consumes everything on an alternate Earth’s Europe or the Women in Blue…or something else entirely), the City’s population is left totally vulnerable. This attack has broken the leadership of the Wardens–or at least the momentum they’d been gathering, the weight and influence they’d gathered to project an image of confident, capable protectors. Also if Cheit has portals leading anywhere else, they may still be able to reach the city. Also if the portal to Bet has only widened and the destination hasn’t changed, that’s *really* bad. The myriad of threats on Bet are real, including the machine army. And even if Cheit is satisfied and won’t be making any attacks, whoever designed the portals (*cough cough Teacher*) can attack the City and its capes with total advantage. Whats left of the Wardens would be scrambling to mount a defense, from what I can see. Whether or not all the portals have been shifted to random destinations, the City is still left wide open.

    6. I caught up to the story at Torch 7.1 and it didn’t seem that bleak to me. There were a lot of dire threats to the team from Vicky needing work, Chris and Kenzie wanting to dive into fights, Kenzie potentially having a MUCH darker side than we have seen, Tt as an antagonist, Rain’s cluster, the violent parts of Hollow Point, Ashley possibly flipping out and killing bystanders or teammates, short- and long-term mindfuckery by the Mathers clan, mass portal bombings, Vicky losing her cool if someone figured out her aura, and things happening to Erin.

      Yet by the time I caught up to the story, most of that was largely handled and we were taking a breather. It seems like everyone has done relatively well so far.

      1. I don’t think the main characters need more wins. I think they need a goal.

        One of the things the last chapter really illustrated for me is that Victoria is currently trapped at an emotional crossroads: always brooding on her wrongs, but never willing to move toward either revenge or forgiveness. She’s stuck, because she has no concrete thing she can attain to assuage her suffering.

        It’s the same with the rest of Team Therapy. They don’t seem to want to actually do anything in particular. They just want to be heroes for the sake of being heroes. There’s nobody they want to stop or defeat. Nobody they want to help or protect except in the most vague and general fashion. The only exception is Rain, but he just wants to survive assassination so he can be a hero. Not to accomplish anything specific, but only as a nebulous end in itself.

        So far, the only consistent goal on display has been ‘saving’ Cedar Point. But no real plan to actually do that has ever been mooted. No real risks have ever been run to attempt it. Prancer and his gang are pathetic opponents and the town itself means nothing to any of our heroes. I thought enmity with Tattletale might have transformed into a goal, but that ended up subverted and left behind because of the Fallen situation. But the Fallen were finished off in short order, and even for Rain became a secondary concern compared to the cluster who, again, just need to be passively survived rather than actively pursued with any urgency.

        Victoria is personally rudderless because there’s nothing she can do to resolve her own demons. It doesn’t help that her team is just as rudderless when it comes to being superheroes, and, for my part, it’s led to me disliking them as a group. Heroing as a job without a specific goal would be interesting if they were part of the Wardens, and actually had responsibilities, but as an independent team with no real mission they just come off as selfish and clueless. The B team with no stake in anything.

        In Worm, Taylor always had a goal she was actively working toward. Either as a hunted criminal, or as a hero fighting to prevent the end of the world. Team Therapy, in contrast, just live in their comfortable apartments and beat up villains a little bit for fun when they can bother with the commute. I don’t dislike them as individuals, but as a group they are, frankly, boring. I think it might be this total lack of purpose and agency which leads to people finding the story depressing, not just the shortage of champagne corks popping.

        1. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now I think you’ve hit the key issue. Wildbow does go a bit far with the “villains act, heroes react” trope. Our current protagonists are not being actively pursued by the police or the Wardens or the S9 or end-of-the-world prophecies, they’re not trying to take anything over, they’re not beset by literal physical demons and a mechanically causative kharma debt… I haven’t read Twig, so I won’t comment there.

          I *have* actually been waiting for the team to have a real, unifying goal, now that you point it out. Hopefully soon they do.

          I would be especially impressed if Wildbow gave them any (heroic) goals with less external pressure. I want to see what kind of trouble they can get into instead of what monsters might chase them down.

          1. It might be easier to give some of them a concrete goal now. The City is in need of protecting or will be soon probably. Also there are probably temporary spots open among the various hero teams because the clash with the Fallen and the portal incident meant a bunch of casualties. Victoria would probably be accepted by one of the teams at this point.

    7. Hard disagree on the “touching base with characters from Worm.” The new cast is dramatically better than the old one, and while it makes sense to hear some about what Tattletale is up to, that’s only because she’s a fairly major player in the setting. It would be awful if characters from Worm started to make regular appearances, and I respect wildbow a lot for not taking the easy route of giving a lot of fans the Worm 2.0 fanservice they seem to desire.

  10. Chris continues to be awesome.

    And Ashley continues to do a really bad job of pretending at knowledge/never admitting to ignorance. Unless I misinterpreted the whole “light + resin = fire hazard” exchange, Chris was the only one joking there. It’s a character flaw that Ashley has revealed over and over, and seems to hint at how much insecurity she’s carrying around. In my mind the entire dramatic femme fatale shtick is looking more and more like a front that’s paper thin to anyone who gets to know her on more than a superficial level. And if it is a front that she’s maintaining rather than a comfortable expression of her true self (which admittedly may not even exist, since shard clone), it’s kinda tragic that nobody is likely to work up the nerve/heart to tell her how painfully obvious it is. IMO it’s analogous to your office supervisor running around with a terrible combover and never being told the truth because nobody wants to be the one to break it to him.

    Also, Tristan’s glossing over of whatever the Moonsong fiasco was was really sketchy. His explanation seemed like a lot of really generic “sorry but not sorry” stuff stuck together and tossed out as a smokescreen. It’s possible that Moonshadow is just nuts I guess, but I’m leaning towards Tristan actually having done something really wrong. Mostly because he seems way too well-adjusted to have just hit hard times and fallen into the position he’s now in.

    1. Looking at how Moonsong and Byron interacted in Glow-Worm over the internet, I think they might have been friendly… More than friendly, in fact. I think Moonsong was dating/thinking about dating half of Capricorn, as far as their Case Seventy stuff made it possible. Then Tristan went off the deep end, calling a hit on his own team, wrecking the junior division of Reach, and getting arrested by his own team. Moonsong, probably- or she at least witnessed.

      She blames Tristan for wrecking a relationship that almost certainly wouldn’t have worked out anyway.

      1. Also there’s another problem. You can’t punish Tristan without punishing Byron, even if Byron is compleatly innocent. The only way that your really could would be if Byron was sufficiently uncaring about his brother he just never switches back. And despite whatever issues they have, Byron is no where near that state.

    2. Considering that he ended up arrested, I think we can take it as a given that Moonsong has at least something of a point.

    3. Um, yeah, of course he did something wrong. We know he tried or did have one of his teammates assassinated. The question is whether he’s that bad now, and I don’t think Moonsong’s right about *that*.

      1. Either I missed a big part of the story, or we’re interpreting the Glow-Worm hitman-hiring thing way differently. I thought the hitman he was talking to got disturbed when Capricorn transmitted the picture of the target because it was a picture of Capricorn himself.

        Did I read that wrong, or are you referring to something else entirely?

        1. That Glow-worm chapter happened after Tristan’s fall from Reach, since Moonsong already hates him at that point.

        2. When they met her, Moonsong said that he hired an assassin or something like that. Byron said that she was kinda exaggerating but…well the exaggeration *is* based on something.

  11. That apartment is surprisingly huge. Not sure how healthy it would be for Victoria to be rattling around in there all alone. Must be expensive, too, and getting more so since there’s still power, which means the neighborhood didn’t get cut off by the portal-expansion.

    I wonder how Ashley afforded it? Maybe the Wardens were making sure she couldn’t claim lack of finances as an excuse for returning to villainy. Still, it makes me think the non-government of Earth Gimel needs to enact better zoning laws. One person shouldn’t be allowed to own redundant rooms when millions are homeless right next door.

    1. I am really confused by how Ashley has that much money. The pictures and the picture frames and the mirror and the table and the chairs and the appliances were fancy? Then there’s the bed — was that made in Gimel, why, or was it transported from Bet without damaging the silk? Then there’s the bookshelves, where she apparently has enough money to commission someone to spend a long time building and burning and painting and coating. . . does she also have books for them. I don’t know.

      It’s just a lot. One or two or three things, and the rest crates and boxes would make sense to me. This, I’m thinking or hoping that there’s more to learn about Ashley’s life.

      1. She’s had two years to collect it all. And personally, I would not be surprised if she’s used some of her income to hire somebody to gather stuff from her old base, before she joined the Nine. The PRT knew where she was, sure (and paid for her utilities, to keep her out of trouble); they probably looked around at it all and took what they thought might be crime-related, and left the rest for the warehouse owner to deal with.

        But she’s also always been quite a stylish person. Not arty like Sveta, or meticulous like Kenzie, but with her free time I would not be surprised if she went looking at all the furniture stores, antique warehouses, bespoke looters, and whatever else is available. Or maybe even making some of it herself, or helping out to make it. With her hands, how much control does she have over her blasts? Could she maybe ‘burn’ a design into the wood? If not, and she found an artistic carpenter she liked, she could always help out by saving time in cutting down hardwood by annihilating the bottom of a tree. Or most of the bottom, to better control how it fell.

        1. Yeah, I think with two years and no better hobby she could have found places to buy/scavenge everything she wanted.

  12. I really, really hope Ashley will remain part of the story, and that she’ll get her own interlude at one point.

  13. Given the… everything… I’m kinda worried about whether people have been keeping an eye on Kenzie properly since the portals opened. Especially given that everyone was much impressed by her unplanned excursion into attack drones.

      1. I think the point is with everyone focused on the recent catastrophe, no one is keeping an eye on Kenzie. And someone should be because she might slip back into some of her old habits. We don’t really know how well she is taking the team breakup.

      2. Not much; it’s more that she requires supervision to make sure she isn’t pulling 24-hour days back-to-back in a bid to impress people. Especially because she was just taught that people praise her when she manages to incapacitate a major villain by crashing a drone into her and is thus likely to go out of her specialty and obsessively work on a taser drone.

        It’s also possible she’d set to work on creating a portal-manipulation installation, because I imagine the remaining Wardens have put out a bulletin for any avaliable Tinkers to find a way to shrink the things. According to Houndstooth, she has a bad habit of plowing tons of work and materials into trying things she can’t really manage in a practical timeframe. Which seems a particular risk with something she knows would please everyone if she pulled it off.

  14. Ashley is Bae.

    Like, honestly, I would kill for her apartment. Maybe once she gets out she could look into interior design as a trade?

    Think about it: she gets to show off her style, prove her superiority to inferior designers, and earn a living from non-crime.

      1. Ok, maybe she’d go for the ‘interior redesigner’ route then. Crush everything the original designer had in mind, unwrap beauteous flowers from their tame attempts – after abducting them so they’re witness to the entire endeavour, naturally.

  15. I’ve been catching up on Ward. I’d stopped in to re-read Worm, because if enjoyed it tremendously. Was pleasantly surprised to discover the sequel, which I’ve also been enjoying a great deal.

    This chapter… it was excellent. Moving in a way that very little prose can move me. Staci’s exchange with Rain actually had me tearing up. I’m hoping he gets his redemption. He deserves, perhaps more than any other member of the “therapy team.”

    Keep up the excellent work. I’m excited to see where this goes.

  16. I’m assuming Ashley’s comment about her usual tinker not being available is referring to the fact that Bonesaw was in the middle of the portal intersection.

    …I really hope she’s not dead.

    1. Bonesaw has way too much potential and investment as a character to be dead. And knowing WB, he’ll come up with some fate more complicated and scarier than death for Bonesaw, Yamada and everyone else who disappeared. Some sort of fate that they have to escape from, although it won’t be without a cost.

    2. Bonesaw’s been dead for a long time now.

      But Riley can probably deal with whatever she’s facing over there… unless it’s a parallel dimension where Taylor turned full-on psycho murderous after triggering.
      Then she’s kinda boned.

      1. Jack slash turned in his time bubble a reminder that earth bet kept the harbinger of the apocalypse safe in her grasp. and now these new random portals had delivered Bonesaw, who he noted was calling herself Riley, back to him. he may not be able to leave the bubble but he could communicate. Scion had proven that.

        He started to speak but a woman stepped in front of Riley and gave her a comforting pat, then coolly and calmly, she pulled up a chair from the rubble, flipped open a notepad and brandished a pencil and for the first time Jack was genuinely afraid.

        “J-J-J Jessica Yamada….” was all he could say.

  17. I liked this chapter enough to want to write a bit of fanfic, but it got too long, so I posted it on FanFiction.net.

    I also wrote them an e-mail to request that Ward receive its own category, as the Worm category doesn’t have many of our characters.

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