She saw her own expression in the mirror, her hair freshly cut, pupils absent in white eyes with modest amounts of mascara and shadow around them. Something in the image startled her, and the pill slipped between her stubborn fingers, falling into the sink with the running water. She watched the little white pill circle precariously around the spiral of the drain, never slipping down.
Years of lessons taught her to be still and not to act on reflex, that it would be futile and make things worse. Before, the wrong movement of her hands would make her power flicker to life, and then there would be no pill, no sink, no adjoining section of wall. It had been the case for so long that it had been ingrained into her, a new instinct that pressed on past death and resurrection.
Now it was pointless for different reasons. Her hands wouldn’t listen to her.
From one set of shackles to another, with more waiting to overlap and compound the current set. It was frustrating and frustration was dangerous. The wrong thing threatened to push her over the edge; she could hear a song that she remembered from back in the day, someone could say the wrong thing, or a thought could cross her mind, and her mood would careen away from her. Like a car losing its brakes while parked on a hill, it would gain momentum and either end in a crash or a collision with others. Failure, harm, or death would result.
She watched the pill swirl and dance in the tumult of water, and she did what she could to keep focused. She touched base by reaching for the reassuring. She was going to be locked up and this precarious her was going to be someone else’s problem. Partially. Reassuring.
She could kill everyone here if she wanted. Reassuring. She didn’t want to, but it was an option of last resort.
The others were going to be here. Kenzie would be here early, because she was always early. Reassuring.
My hair looks good, she thought. She used the fingers of her more functional left hand to adjust it at the brow. Reassuring.
It helped to center her. All of those things helped.
All of those things terrified her, in very different ways. It was enough that she took what scraps she could from it and turned her mind away, her eyes focusing on the little white pill that still circled the drain, defying the plunge. She wanted to see it somehow survive despite odds. She wanted to see it fall at the same time, to see if she could spot what finally doomed it.
“Hey,” a man said, behind her.
Ashley stared at the pill, watching it circle, dipping, rising. Would it disintegrate before it fell?
“Don’t make me draw my weapon.”
Ashley turned away from the sink. The man in the patrol uniform stood in the doorway of the women’s restroom, one hand on the pistol at his hip, the other at his belt, thumb reaching up to scratch at his belly. He was twenty-five or so, brutish. He was big with a combination of height, fat, and muscle that would have intimidated her if she didn’t already know how little ‘big’ mattered.
“I can’t let you have that.”
She had to check to see what the man was referring to. The bottle of pills with the prescription? No. The glass bottle with the wire that flipped around to lock the rubber cork in the neck. The outside had black rubber bands around it, making it easier to grip and hold.
“That’s a weapon, if you had a mind to use it as one.”
Ashley was nettled. She gave the officer her best cold smile. “I’m a weapon, if I wanted to be one.”
“No,” Ashley replied, holding the smile.
He took the hand off his weapon to point, as if he somehow believed it was more threatening. “Lose the bottle.”
Ashley backhanded the bottle, sending it off the edge of the sink, into a plastic bucket with a toilet brush that lay beneath. It rattled violently within its new confines, threatening to tip the bucket over.
“That wasn’t necessary,” the officer said. A woman standing in the hallway behind him said something, and he held up a finger, saying something back that Ashley didn’t care to hear.
I don’t like people who try to throw their weight around, Ashley thought. It wasn’t the wrong piece of music, the wrong phrase, and it wasn’t a thought crossing her mind, but it was a similar sort of thing.
It was as if an invisible hand was flipping a coin. Heads, good to go. Statement made.
Tails, she would say something like what she had intended, except it would be wrong in a way that only seemed clear to her in the aftermath. There would be another invisible coin flip after that, to see if she could stop herself there.
The invisible coin flipped over through the air, as her head moved and agitation made the movement stiff, her neck and jaw tense.
The pill in the sink was gone. She’d missed its descent. The pills were supposed to help with these things, with the flipping of coins, but it was only a negative thing now, altering the coin’s trajectory in a bad way.
She heard Kenzie out in the hallway, talking someone’s ear off, and she smiled.
The coin settled. The officer finished his statement to the woman who wanted into the bathroom. The tap shuddered as she forced the lever down, stopping the water. Her jaw was so tense that it clicked as she worked it open into a yawn-like movement. She raised the bottle of prescription pills to her mouth and tipped it back.
“Hey!” the officer at the door barked the word.
She lowered the jar, turning back his way. She’d caught one pill between her lips and held it there. The remainder settled back in the bottle.
“No games,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Hurry it up.”
She nodded, her tongue catching the pill. She worked saliva into her mouth and then swallowed it dry. Easier than using her hands. She replaced the cap and dropped the pills into a pocket.
“I’ll need a bottle of water,” she said, running the back of one hand along the front of her dress. “That’s fine, isn’t it? I would have to be very creative to kill someone with a plastic bottle.”
“You’re acting like you think this is funny? You can do without. Come on. Out.”
She made her way out of the washroom. The officer in charge of her made sure that people gave her a very wide berth, fifteen feet of clearance. She clasped her hands in front of her as she walked. Back straight, she entered the hallway.
Kenzie was sitting on a bench by the wall, next to the lawyer that had been assigned to Ashley. Ashley hadn’t bothered to learn the man’s name. The other members of the team weren’t present.
The conversation between the lawyer and Kenzie stopped as they saw Ashley.
“Ash!” Kenzie greeted her. “I still love the hair. I love the dress, too, you went with black? You didn’t take Victoria up on her offer to wear something of hers?”
“Hm. It seems it’s easier to handle moments like this when I’m my usual self.” The statement could have served as a response to both the question about the dress and the statement about her hair.
“You look awesome, don’t worry,” Kenzie said. “And I think you’ll do great. I have a good feeling.”
She said it without a smile on her face, eyes large and wide with sincerity. Ashley reached out to put her hand on Kenzie’s head. Stiff as it was, more like a doll’s hand than like her own, only the fingertips and heel of the hand touched.
“Hey,” the officer said. He stood a distance away. “No contact.”
“Hey yourself,” Kenzie said. “It’s fine and we’re fine. There’s no rules and I’ve seen a bunch of people have their turns here and none of them had to wait anywhere.”
The officer frowned. “Prisoner Stillons, move. That’s enough socializing, and we should wait somewhere away from any people.”
“I-” Ashley’s lawyer started. He glanced at Ashley. “I would like a moment with my client and her character witness.”
The officer drew in a breath, puffing up.
Big men could be so small.
“Please,” the lawyer said.
The officer turned his back, walking to the other side of the hallway. He was probably still close enough to overhear if he had a mind to.
Kenzie put her hand on Ashley’s, which was still on her head. The weight and pressure of Kenzie’s hand helped Ashley’s to go flat.
Ashley looked at the lawyer, and he broke eye contact.
She didn’t look away as she spoke, “Kenz. Help me out with something?”
“Whatever you need,” Kenzie said, her head moving under Ashley’s hand as she looked up.
“Can you get me a bottle of water from the vending machine?”
“Dry mouth?” Kenzie asked, hopping up.
“I’ll have it later. I want something for while I’m in court.”
“No problem,” Kenzie said, eyes lighting up. She turned to go.
“Here,” the lawyer said, change jingling in his pocket as he fished it out. Kenzie was already three paces away, and had to reverse course to get the change, then reverse course again.
“Get yourself a treat,” the man said.
Kenzie didn’t turn around, but bounced mid-stride instead.
Ashley took a seat on the bench.
“Any questions before we go in?” her lawyer asked. “We’ve got… five minutes. We can cover whatever you need.”
“Did she say something or give you something?”
The lawyer looked shocked, and he didn’t give an immediate answer.
“Show me. Tell me.”
“I don’t know.”
“Now. There isn’t much time before she gets back.”
The man reached beside him, and he pulled out a tablet computer. The video was already up, having been the last thing viewed.
The view was slanted, like the ones that had been projected onto the walls of their apartment headquarters. Beast of Burden, Damsel, Nailbiter, Love Lost…
The scene with all the same characters, at the edge of the Fallen compound.
When the events diverged, even though she expected them to, Beast of Burden pressing the attack, being more aggressive, the blast happening midway through an assault, she found herself doubting her own experiences first, logic and expectations settling in a moment later.
It didn’t help that she’d been off when the event had happened. Reality was so ephemeral.
“Delete it. It’s not the events as they happened.”
“She said you’d say that. That you want to go to prison for some reason, but it’s not in your best interests.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. “But I might need to, and it might be in my best interests. We’ll see. Delete it, or I’m going to take that tablet from you and then you won’t have a tablet anymore. And don’t let her show the copy she has on her computer.”
“I’ll delete it.”
Ashley let her head go back until it rested against the wall.
Kenzie was audible before she was visible. She returned with Victoria walking beside her, both of the girls carrying something from the vending machine in each free hand. Victoria had dressed up more than she had for Rain’s event, more care given to her hair, which was left unbraided, a top with a band of lace that covered the breasts, black pants without any side pockets, and nice boots- the same boots Victoria wore with her costume, the gold bits left off.
Who would I have been, if I’d never had powers? If I was born into a different situation? Would I have resembled Victoria?
“There was a situation with traffic, a staged event stalled all traffic across the city for a half hour,” Victoria said. “The others are on their way, but they’re going to have to duck in when things are already in session.”
“Thank you for letting me know,” Ashley said. She took the bottle that Kenzie offered her.
“I loosened the cap,” Kenzie said.
The door opened.
“Armstrong is coming, but he has other obligations he couldn’t avoid. He’ll show up around or after the recess partway through. The court knows.”
The brute in uniform approached, looking smug. Ashley clenched stiff fingers around the plastic water bottle, and plastic crackled.
Ashley’s hands gripped her upper arms.
There were no good days, anymore. There were the bad days, and there were the days she dreaded the bad days.
This was a bad day.
“Bitch. Making me look stupid in front of my friends!?”
His fist went out. He grabbed Ashley’s mother by the hair, and she quailed, hands curling up at her chest.
“Come on! Say it again. Aren’t you brave enough now that we’re alone? Say it!”
“Please,” Ashley’s mother said. “I’m sorry.”
“Come on!” he shouted the words in Ashley’s mom’s ear, twisting hair in his hands. Ashley’s own hands twisted around her upper arms, gripping.
“Okay, okay,” Ashley’s mother said. “Will, let’s- we’ll put Ashley to bed, okay? She doesn’t need to be here, she’s scared. Then, we can talk, okay? We can talk about anything you want. I’ll say anything you want.”
“Anything you want, anything you want! Okay! Okay!” Ashley’s dad mocked, still so loud that Ashley winced with every utterance. It had to be worse for her mom- his mouth was almost pressed against her ear.
“Please,” her mom said.
“Please. You can’t even sound normal. You sit there and act like you’re smart. You sat there as they laughed at me, smiling that stupid fucking constipated cow smile of yours!”
Her dad pushed her mom, and she fell against the bookshelf. There were more papers and folders on the shelf than books, and everything went flying into the air.
“Stop,” Ashley said, quiet.
“I’ve got to go into work tomorrow, you know that? You know they’re going to bring it up.”
Ashley’s mother stood, swayed, then went straight to Ashley. Her dad’s back was turned.
She ushered Ashley toward the back door, and with the way she shielded Ashley with her body, Ashley could only feel what was coming, not see.
More violence. More hits. More things knocked over, in the dining room now. Ashley made a noise of the sort that little kids made. She was thirteen- she wasn’t supposed to make that kind of sound.
“Shut up,” her dad said, pointing at her. “Don’t move. You need to know this too. Respect matters.”
He kicked her mom, once, twice, again.
“Over the name of a fucking book,” he said.
He aimed a fourth kick for the face. He didn’t usually hit the face.
“Stop,” Ashley said, without realizing she was saying it.
“You can be quiet,” he said. He kicked again. “You don’t get a say until you bring something to this household. I go to work, I earn, I do most things around this house because this twit-”
Kick. Ashley flinched as her mom did.
“-is too incompetent to do any of it properly.”
The kicks kept coming, and Ashley felt a feeling of horror creep over her.
Ashley looked, then scrambled off to the side. She reached the fireplace in the living room where things had been scattered everywhere, and grabbed the first handle she could. It was the shovel, for the ashes. She pushed it aside, heard her dad coming, and grabbed the poker, an L-shaped bit of metal with a spike on the end.
She spun around, holding it up and ready. She set her jaw, trying to sound tough and sounding anything but. “Stop it.”
He approached, stopping just out of reach of the poker. “Don’t be stupid.”
He took a step forward, and she was reactive enough that she swung. But he’d faked her out, stopping mid-motion. She tried to swing back the other way, but it was too slow, too late. She hit him, but it didn’t do anything.
Then he had his hands on the poker. He tore it out of her hands.
His hands gripped her by the hair. She fought, scratching, kicking, pulling away until it felt like her hair would tear free of her scalp. She did everything and it felt like doing nothing at all. She punched, and he caught her hand, squeezing her fist inside his hand until her knees buckled.
He was taller, all the people on his side of the family were. He was stronger.
Ashley had nothing.
He moved her head into position and then let go of her hand to strike her across the face. She made another little-kid sound as she fell against the couch and she hated it, she hated that she wanted to curl up into a ball and make only those sounds. She hated that it wouldn’t do anything either way.
He bent down and picked up the poker. She watched, trying to swallow and find the breath to speak.
“First time I’ve had to lay a hand on you, Ash,” he said, and he sounded so sad. “You pissed me off, scratching me like this.”
She clenched her teeth. She tried to stand and she wobbled.
“You pissed me off!”
Again, with the painful shout. She dropped back down to the ground.
“Are you going to smarten up, make this a one-time thing?” he asked. “Answer me! Don’t go mute on me like she does.”
“I don’t know,” she said. Her head hurt where he’d pulled at her hair. Her mom wasn’t moving much, and seeing that hurt more.
“That’s not an answer, Ash,” he said. “Come on. If I’m going to hit someone with this, is it going to be you, or is it going to be her?”
The poker smacked against his palm.
She hadn’t made things better.
“Come on!” he shouted.
She squeezed her eyes shut, and everything went cold.
She opened her eyes, and they opened beyond the edges of her eyes and they kept going.
She saw emptiness, desolation, destruction, a… bowl of cereal floating in milk, without any milk. The ‘cereal’ was shapes she couldn’t wrap her head around, because they seemed to go on forever.
She could pull back, and she realized she was thinking on too small a scale.
She was thinking like a person and to wrap her head around this, she needed to look down on something far larger.
A sphere, cracked like an egg and cracking further, all in slow motion, with energy glowing through the cracks. Her awareness loomed above it all.
As slow as it had been, the moment she realized it was a planet, time caught up and everything moved in fast motion. The planet became dust and debris and there was nothing left behind.
She closed her eyes until they fit inside her eye sockets again. All went away, except for- for that energy that she’d seen and felt.
Ashley could almost hold it in her hands.
She raised her head and she faced him much as she had with the poker. He had the weapon now, and he approached. He said something and she didn’t hear anything at all.
He shouted something and, before she could register it, she lashed out, hand going out, the energy releasing from her arms, traveling down to her hands.
The hand he’d crushed spasmed as the energy ran through every damaged part, until she thought her hand might come apart in pieces. The darkness escaped, loud and chaotic, and with the pain in her hand, some went wide, striking the fireplace. The force of it knocked her off her feet, into the table beside the couch.
But enough struck him. It caught her father’s lower chest, his pelvis, his legs, the floor, the hand that held the poker and the poker. It twisted away everything that it touched, and flecks of her father were scattered across the living room and into the dining room. Bits of her dad splattered her mother. Bits splattered herself.
His upper body fell. His jaw moved, but the eyes didn’t.
She stared over at him.
She felt so cold inside. None of it seemed real. Meaty bits of her dad were flowing out of his chest cavity. Floorboards had been ripped up and splintered and lots of the bloody bits were sloughing off into the holes.
Bloody bits were sloughing off of her. She wiped at one with her hand, and something snapped across her hand, pinky to thumb. The energy slapped her across the head, loud and blinding.
Hair whipped around and settled. A white lock lay across her face, and she didn’t dare touch it in case it happened again.
“Ashley,” her mother said. “Don’t look. Please. Don’t look, just come to me, okay honey?”
Ashley felt like she was going to pee herself. She had a moment where she felt horribly off balance, like she couldn’t stand straight. In the following moments, she had to convince herself she was sprawled against the table by the couch. Not even standing.
“I’m hurt, honey. Help me, and we’ll help you.”
Ashley started to move. She felt tension in her arms with every movement of her hands, like rubber bands being drawn tight. She stopped.
“Ashlet,” her mother said. Something she’d called Ashley when Ashley had been little.
With renewed effort, Ashley worked her way to a standing position. She felt the pain in the side of her face, her hand, her scalp. She moved as best as she could without moving her hands a lot, balling them up into fists. Her forearm rested against the arm of the couch.
She had to navigate the long way around as she circled the hole in the floor and the pieces of dad.
She nearly slipped on a bloody smear, and then the feeling of that underfoot made everything feel very real. Her knees went out under her, and she fell to the ground. Tension danced across her hands and through her arms as her hands pressed against the ground.
“It’s okay,” her mother said.
Ashley nodded, mute. She was grateful for those two and a half words.
“Come here,” her mother said. “Look at you.”
Ashley crawled to get nearer. Her mother’s face was barely recognizable, but the expression on it was very much her mom.
“How special is that?” her mother said, touching Ashley’s hair where it was white.
“Mom,” Ashley said. She sounded like a little kid again and she didn’t even care, now.
“Shhh, Ashlet. It’s okay. Okay?”
Her dad’s mockery from earlier rang in her ears, so vivid she had to check to see that he was there.
Seeing the mess was- it wasn’t better than seeing him looming behind her would have been.
“Shhh,” her mom said. “You’re going to get a phone, okay? We’re going to call for help.”
Ashley shook her head.
“We’re going to call me an ambulance, okay, because I don’t think I can stand up. My leg hurts. Then we’re going to call the police, and we’re going to explain-”
“No,” Ashley said. “No!”
“It’s okay, Ashlet. This is not your fault. We’ll explain and we’ll get everything figured out.”
“No,” Ashley said, plaintive. “Cops only mean trouble. They’re out to get you. Dad says.”
“Ashlet, Ashley, shhh. It’s okay,” her mother said, reaching for Ashley’s hands.
Her mom’s fingers worked their way into Ashley’s palms. One of her fingers moved, and she felt the snapping. The flood of twisting nothingness came out with enough force that Ashley was flung backward. She landed in an awkward position, her hurt hand under her, and her power came out again, brushing against her body like a breeze and tearing up the floor under her.
Minutes passed where she was afraid to move, afraid to look. A car passed on the road outside. Then there was silence.
One breath after another, she used elbows and forearms to work her way up the part of the floor that had broken under her. She kept her back to the dining room.
The only noises in the house was of broken things breaking down more, and the noises she made herself.
Her room was in the back corner of the house. It felt like it wasn’t really her room, everything a fake replica of things she’d owned. Carefully, slowly, and insistently, she gathered the things she’d need. Clothes for warm and cold weather. An extra set of shoes. Socks. Personal things. Everything went into her school bag.
Here and there, darkness crackled around and through her fingers. Sometimes it danced back to her elbow. Other times it gathered in shapes in front of her fingers, inches away or arcing out to ten feet away. Here and there, parts of her room were grazed and destroyed. It only made it feel more false.
She went to the bathroom. Soap, acne cream, tampon, toothbrush, hairbr-
Her power ripped out as her hand closed around the hairbrush. It cut into the medicine cabinet, the wall, and into part of her bedroom. It annihilated a segment of pipe that ran through the wall, and it tore into wiring. Water flowed out and electricity flashed and the two made for a scary combination.
The electricity wasn’t visibly going for long, but she wasn’t sure.
She wasn’t sure about anything. Everything was scary. Some of the collected toiletries had fallen into the basin of the sink. She didn’t dare go after it. She would find another way to get a toothbrush and soap.
She went back to her room. Her bag. Favorite clothes. Essentials.
As she brought the strap around her shoulder, the power flickered. The strap broke.
She stared down at it, where it lay on the ground, her heart pounding.
She tried again, putting the one remaining strap over her shoulder. She couldn’t go out the front door. That was dangerous. People would see her.
Ashley could smell smoke as she passed through the house. Into the back room. Past the dining room, where the remains of the dining room table had been cast away.
Past what was left of mom, and into the grass behind the house. She didn’t dare try shoes, so she ran barefoot.
The further she got from the house, the less light there was to go by.
The room was dark, as she opened her eyes.
“How are you doing?” Jessica asked.
Ashley’s mouth was dry. She reached for her water bottle, initially moving her hands in a careful way, then realizing she didn’t have to.
She drank before answering. Jessica stood and attended to the light switch and the blinds.
“Do you want more water?”
Jessica took the water bottle and went to the sink in the corner of the office. “Is the thirst because of what you experienced in the dream? Stress?”
“Of course. It’s only been a short while, so we’ll give it time.”
Jessica returned with the bottle. Ashley drank more, then put the bottle aside.
“I’m… out of order,” Ashley answered the question from earlier. “Right now, everything feels incoherent and it’s hard to get it sorted in my head. Memory and present day. What came when and what’s…”
She trailed off. She felt tired and she didn’t like feeling and acting tired in front of someone.
Jessica didn’t finish the sentence or prod her. She took her time, instead, to sit up, to fix her hair, and to compose her thoughts.
“What came when and what’s mine and what isn’t mine,” Ashley said.
“This was an experiment. Some people with powers report success, some struggle with it. It’s unique to the individual and the powers, and does not reflect on you. I thought it was worth a try.”
Jessica went on. “This is not my field of expertise, and if you wanted to pursue it further, I would recommend we turn to someone else as a resource. If you weren’t comfortable doing anything further, that would be wholly understandable. Disorientation doesn’t sound positive.”
“It felt more real than this room, here.”
“Parahumans have unusual relationships with things like drugs, legitimate or otherwise, which we talked about before starting you on your regimen-”
“And they also have unusual reactions to dreams and things like dreams. In this case, walking you through a near-sleep state where your mind can wander, it’s possible you’re tapping into the kind of thing others have experienced.”
“Who are these others?”
“I can’t name names, of course, but in scientific literature, there are people with powers who don’t sleep, ever, but they dream while awake, because the mind still wants to sort things out. That sorting is important. People with perception powers sometimes need to dream to refresh themselves and get what they see separated from what their power sees. Occasionally tinkers sometimes need to tap into dreams to get inspiration. Virtually every parahuman reports dreams that are different than what they experienced before their triggers, if they can remember their dreams at all. Dreams are often reported as clearer, more exciting, having meanings, or, commonly, having a strong emphasis on memories.”
Ashley leaned back. “This is something people know about?”
“In some circles, yes. It’s hotly contested and it isn’t made easier by the pseudoscience and just how complicated and different parahumans can be.”
“Complicated,” Ashley said. “That’s the kindest way I can think of phrasing it.”
Jessica smiled before going on, “Dreams are something the unpowered use to sort out the unconscious mind, and we believe it’s a space and a tool that the powered use, sometimes, to sort out the unconscious end of powers. I personally wonder if the emphasis on life and memory are a way for people with both a parahuman and civilian identity to sort out the identity they’re neglecting.”
“I’ve talked to too many imbeciles over the years. Why does the world have to end before I can find anyone who makes any sense?”
“If that’s a compliment, then I’m flattered. I could tell you that the PRT wanted to bring you on board for a long time, and had you accepted, you might have found more discussions like this. Answers, company, things like your hands.”
‘Your’ hands, Ashley thought. They weren’t her hands.
“I do want to point out, however, you need to be careful of that wording, bringing up the end of the world. It’s only been a year, Ashley, and people are still hurting.”
“It’s awfully hard to ignore that it happened.”
“People are going to try,” Jessica said. “And it’s okay that they’re trying and finding ways to deal with it, however flimsy those reasons might seem on the surface. People would lose their minds if they took it at face value.”
“Because they’re weak.”
“Let’s not get caught up in retreads of things we discussed our first and second sessions,” Jessica said.
Ashley shrugged. “Fair.”
“Going back to the topic of this approach, you can decide if you want to explore this, in part or in full, even choosing key things to focus on, saving it for a rainy day when you’re not up for a regular session.”
Ashley looked at the pad of paper beside Jessica. Jessica turned it around to make it easier to read.
Shorthand, but it was the scene. The house, dad, her mother, running away. Ashley looked away.
“I want to keep doing it. It clarifies things,” Ashley said.
“You do? Okay. I’ll look deeper into this, do reading myself or see if I can find someone who specializes in it. I can’t make promises in either area.”
“Please,” Ashley said. The word sounded alien, uncomfortably echoing memories that were too sharp in her head.
“Is there anything particular you want to focus on, moving forward? You talked about clarity.”
Ashley reached beneath long hair to rub at her neck. “That. I also want to dig out the moments I was proud of. The successes.”
“That’s a good direction to take. Happy memories?”
“Not happy, no. Not unhappy. When Riley put me together, she chose a time and place to go back to.”
“She did, yes.”
Ashley stood, pacing. Jessica was faintly wary, sitting back for a wider view of Ashley’s field of movement as Ashley moved in front of, then behind the couch.
“Articulate what you’re thinking,” Jessica said. “We can outline the goals you want to set and if it’s constructive, we can pursue those goals.”
“Not me, as I was when I died, but me when I was at my best. Too much of it’s lost in the fog for something that’s supposed to be my starting point.”
Ashley held her tongue on the rest of it. There was more to it, but if she told Jessica, then Jessica wouldn’t help.
Edict knocked on glass, and gave a small wave to Shandra, who sat at the reception desk, nose in paperwork. Shandra smiled and waved back, before mouthing words. Complaining about the lack of coffee or donuts. It was her turn.
Edict walked backward, tapping her wrist where her watch would normally be.
She walked past men and women, aged twenty-five to sixty. People glanced at her, some smiled. There were some who liked to joke or poke fun, but she might have looked serious, because they were quiet today. She really hoped they weren’t being quiet because they knew what was happening.
It was uncomfortable, being in costume in a place like this, where just about everyone else was a mundane government employee. She’d argued for toning down her costume when everything had been under revision, but the PRT had balked at just how much she’d aimed to tone it down. They’d struck an uneasy compromise, with her wearing a costume with a hooded jacket, a visor, and a top with her icon on it, a stylized exclamation point. The same icon marked the shoulders and back of her jacket.
This wasn’t a place that welcomed capes, but she was still here every morning. It was the routine, but none of it felt routine. Edict dropped off Shiloh at daycare, changed to her costume, then headed to the town hall, with treats and coffee to share with Shandra every second day. Half the time, Licit would be around. The other half of the time, he would already be out, doing his thing so he could take more of the afternoon off. They’d get their marching orders, usually they would trade with one another to favor the kinds of jobs they each preferred, and then they’d go their separate ways.
No time this morning. She walked at a brisk pace, double checking her phone. No new replies. One-handed, she typed out a message to the neighbor’s daughter. In case of trouble, the girl could pick up Shiloh on the way home from school and babysit after.
In the worst case scenario, she’d tap her aunt for an overnight babysit. She winced at the idea, and the thought of the questions that might invite. One day, her aunt would put two and two together.
Licit was standing in the hallway outside the office. The city had twenty-five thousand people and three capes. The PRT had a presence, but that presence could be summed up with two of the three capes in the city having the winged shield of the PRT on their sleeves, alongside their own icons, a similar icon on the glass of the door, and a lone employee in a one-desk office that worked to coordinate with them. Aaron.
Licit pressed a finger to his lips as Edict drew closer.
Edict drew her phone from her belt, and she texted him.
Edict: What is it?
The reply came back.
Licit: Boston on the phone.
Not too surprising. Boston had been cracking down on things. A lot of arrests. They’d anticipated a call with a request to go into the city and help with any of the tougher jobs.
Aaron wasn’t acting like this was that. He sounded stressed.
Licit typed more.
Licit: Shit is going down. Outsiders, itinerants, new players, old players. Blasto & Rotten, Orchard, some mastermind asshole, that militant villain group. Almost everyone.
Edict’s eyebrows went up over her visor.
Licit paused, frowning. He checked on Aaron, then led Edict a distance away.
“You checked on our local troublemaker last night?” he whispered.
“Last thing,” Edict said. “I put in a suggestion, we could do another wrong-address grocery delivery. Make sure she has something to eat, get her in a better mood. She’s been restless.”
“I saw that note, yeah,” Licit said. He paused.
“We gotta get her somewhere better. Armstrong was making noises about wanting to make overtures again. Seeing if she’s receptive.”
“Armstrong is way too fucking busy with Boston turning itself upside down right now. Whatever they were doing backfired hard.”
“Shit. I really don’t want to get pulled into Boston to relieve their capes. What do I do with my kid?”
“You’ll figure it out. Reason I asked about Damsel is it’d be real nice to know where she is if and when we have to leave town.”
“I patrolled last night, trying to do the polyphasic sleep schedule, she wasn’t at home. I couldn’t find her.”
“Shit. Who would even tell her, though?”
The office door opened. Aaron emerged.
“We’re going to Boston?” Licit asked.
“Afraid so,” Aaron said. “Edict, what was the last time you saw Damsel?”
“Last night, nine thirty, ten? It’s in my notes.”
“That’s the last sighting,” Aaron said. “Someone of her likeness was seen on a bus. It means the station wasn’t paying attention. We don’t know for sure.”
“Who would tell her?” Edict asked, again.
“I spotted Kidney Stan, Fappy and the rest of that group not all that far from her neighborhood,” Licit said. “I grilled them, didn’t get anything.”
“Are those the meth-heads or the stoner teens?” Aaron asked.
Licit was all business as he explained. He’d always been better at the cape stuff, the mission. “These are the stoners. The only meth-head around here that has a fun name is scared shitless of Damsel. Kidney Stan and Fappy are the same idiot kids who thought they could hire themselves out to our local villain as henchmen. They realized they bit off more than they could chew when she tried to rob a bank- you were there for that.”
“I was,” Aaron said. “I was more focused on the bank and the coordination with Boston than I was on the inciting factors.”
“We told them to steer clear, because they’re enablers,” Edict added. “They might have told her.”
“It’s looking more and more like she found out somehow,” Aaron said. “Edict, figure out your babysitting. The office will cover the cost, so pick someone you’re comfortable with.”
“Licit, you’ll have a chaperone for the next bit.”
“But get yourselves to Boston. Get in touch with the PRT team there, and keep an eye out for our local would-be warlord. Whatever she gets up to over there, it’s not going to help things.”