Ashley and her group walked slowly through the house. She had the lead, J right behind her with bags in each hand, and the others followed as a loose group.
It was already furnished. Plush white carpets, black leather furniture, artwork already on the walls. The placemats on the table had lace at the edges. The corners of each room had a little statue, a piece of furniture, or a plant. Lilies.
J put the bags on the bench in the hallway, while Ashley continued into the house.
“Will it serve?” J asked.
Would it serve? It was nicer than the hotel, and she had honestly thought the hotel was as nice as things got. Mansions on TV were like the hotel rooms, just writ large, but this… she could do without the paintings, they were too bright and colorful, she would want to change things around, but…
Angel whistled. She’d smeared eyeshadow around her eyes and tied her hair back. The girl wore a black tank top over a gray tee, loose black exercise pants, and black sneakers. Her handwraps were black.
Others in the group had trended that way, picking up the style on their own without Ashley needing to say anything. Bar was back, and even though it didn’t fit his character, he’d started wearing black eyeliner. That he was sleeping with Angel had probably played a role in that.
She wondered if J had suggested it to them.
“We could have wicked parties here,” one of Bar’s brothers said.
“No,” Ashley said. “Not here. If this serves as my headquarters, it’s a place that will demand respect. I’ve seen how you cretins get when you party.”
Someone in the group snorted. She turned her head to look, saw the others glancing at O’Brien, and gave O’Brien a sharp look.
“Yes ma’am. Entirely right,” the boy said.
“Downstairs, maybe, or in the backyard,” she conceded.
“It’s a good backyard for parties,” J said. “Have a look.”
Ashley walked to the window, looking down. There was a small pool, with a garden and places to sit all around the pool. The second smaller pool off in the corner might have been a hot tub.
J approached. He stood beside her, looking down. The others collapsed onto the couches and chairs, or ran downstairs.
“Four jobs. One was- not a success, not a failure,” she said. “I didn’t make this much money.”
“You did. We made out like bandits when we raided the pit. You can afford first and last month’s rent. Not much else, but you can earn enough to keep paying for this place.”
“Not much else is a problem,” she said.
Angel had reached the pool below them. She pulled her shoe off and stuck her foot in, before kicking water at Bar.
“What do you want to spend money on?” J asked.
“Things. Clothes. Status. I need to look the part. We need money to make money.”
“Based on what I’ve seen and the work I’ve done,” he said. “I think this matters more than you’re implying.”
Oh, it mattered.
J’s brother was a marketing guy, working with DJs and new bands to craft an image and generate hype. J had helped out enough to learn things, and he’d done a few small events on his own.
“Other things matter more. I have enemies to deal with.”
“I get it,” J said. “Looking like a contender, hiring more people.”
“But look at our guys. They see this and it says something to them. They’re down for it. Your headquarters is as much a part of your status as the dresses you wear. Same for a musician.”
She wanted it. She wanted it so badly it made her chest hurt.
“Money opens doors. I can’t tie up my funds. The Clockwork Dogs are too dangerous,” she said. “I can’t throw all of you at them and expect it to be fine. We’ll need the money to hire mercenaries. ”
“You attacked Blastgerm when we thought he had twenty capes. Why the doubt now?”
She didn’t immediately reply.
She wasn’t in the zone, not laser focused, confident, and dangerous all at once. The past few days had been too many steps into unfamiliar territory. The last job hadn’t been a definitive win. Her underlings had grumbled, but they’d seemed to accept it as a fact of life. She had a harder time convincing herself of the same.
It was there, if she reached for it. The focus, the energy. Over the past day, she had gone back and forth, almost tapped into it, then shied away. She’d teetered on the brink.
Something told her that she could indulge herself, and it might even help rectify things in that department.
It would hurt other things, but it would help there. The thrill, that excitement and joie de vivre.
“You’re the boss. You make the final call,” J said, breaking the silence.
“Not now,” she said. “I want to do this right. We have other priorities.”
“Alright. I respect that,” J said.
“You’d better,” she answered him.
He smiled, and then he chuckled as he looked. Down in the pool area, below the window, both Angel and Bar had stripped down to their underwear and jumped in the water.
There was a side of her that wanted to snap at them, but Angel had done fine so far. If Angel was happy, Ashley could be happy for her. She had seen enough people of her age group while growing up and watching television to know that sometimes they acted this way.
Ashley had decided not to hire the older ex-cons like Marrow’s group, not to hire the more race-focused gangs, and opted for the young people. She’d known she would get less experience, more impulsiveness, and this kind of goofiness. She’d calculated it, and she would accept it.
“Knock,” she said.
J knocked on the window. Angel had Bar in a headlock under the water, so it was only her that looked up.
“They should get ready to go. We won’t stay long.”
J beckoned for them to come in. Angel nodded, freeing Bar. Bar, in turn, plunged Angel into the water. The squeal was audible through the second floor window.
“Nick,” Ashley said, “Tell Bar and Angel to go around the side to the front of the house and wait for us there.”
Nick was silent as he got off the couch to obey. One of his friends went with.
“They won’t hold the house for long,” J said.
“How did you even manage this?”
“Friend of someone my brother knows. I mean, not to boast, but this is what I’m good at.”
“Boast. Own your strength.”
“I can drive, I do okay in a fight, nothing special. I’m… kiiinda street wise?”
“What you are is a complete and utter failure at boasting,” Ashley said. Someone in the room sniggered.
“But I know this,” J said.
He walked over to the bench where he had left the bags. He began pulling things out. Women’s clothes, all black. Boxes.
“The things you showed me online,” she said.
Ashley remained still as he held one black dress against her front. Strapless, there were black feathers at the far left and far right of the upper portion, so they swept back off each shoulder.
“Yes,” she said.
He held up another. Lacy, partially transparent, with patches that were opaque, strategically placed for modesty.
“I didn’t think so. I kind of hoped, though,” he said.
“Save your hope for things with a better chance of happening,” she said.
He stepped around behind her, placing a classy feather boa around her neck. All of the other boas she’d seen like this had been Halloween things, joke things. This was glossy, elegant.
“Maybe,” she said. She turned to the others, seeing that Nick had returned. “Everyone should get ready to go. We have things to do tonight.”
“It would need to match with more of an ensemble,” he said.
“It would, yes.” She remained still as he held out another dress. Simpler. Too simple. There was nothing to it. “And no.”
“Can we save it?” J asked. “I think it could work with other pieces. It’s a good base.”
“If you insist,” she said.
“What do you think about this jacket, then?” J asked.
She waited as he pulled it out and shook it to get it unfolded. The jacket was the sort that stopped partway down her back. The sleeves were narrow, and the collar was heavily decorated with bits of plastic.
She liked it, and there was no way she could wear it. Putting her arms through the sleeves would be tricky.
“No,” she said.
“Anyone else want it?” J asked. “I don’t think it would fit Angel, but… hm. Would your girlfriend want it, Nick?”
“Nah,” Nick said.
“I’ll take it,” O’Brien said.
J threw it to the boy. It was a woman’s jacket, but O’Brien didn’t seem to care. He wore jeans and tops that were too tight, and he wore them with confidence. He’d also been one of the first to wear the eye makeup, decorating one eye more than the other. What had they called it? Clockwork Orange style. She’d made a mental note to see it.
It would annoy her, because she liked the jacket, and he would be the one wearing it, but… she liked him well enough. She liked his confidence, even if he was weird.
She was doing that a lot, over the past few days. Giving these guys leeway, slack. Tolerating things she wouldn’t have two weeks ago, just because she liked them.
It worried her, the idea that she was compromising something, or showing a weakness that someone would see.
“I also got two pairs of shoes,” J said. “If you want to sit on the bench, I can get a pair out for you to try on, while we wait for A and B.”
“Geez, J,” Nick said.
J looked over at Nick. “What?”
“It’s weird,” Nick said.
“It’s convenient,” Ashley said, voice sharp. “Having him as an assistant leaves me free to focus on other things.”
“Right,” Nick said. “Got it.”
“Good,” she said. “Help J pick this stuff up. We’re going.”
“Yes, boss,” Nick said.
The front door was still ajar. She flicked it open with a sideways motion of her foot. She was just through the door when she heard it. She only caught the one word.
“Bitch.” A word said with an anger she had long been acquainted with.
She turned, her eyes going wide. Her hand moved and her power crackled.
It was J who dropped a bag, lunging forward, to put himself between her and the others.
“It’s okay!” J said, “Please!”
“It was aimed at me,” he said. “They said I’m your bitch. Its fine!”
She calmed down slightly at that, but her heart was racing, and the anger didn’t so much dissipate as it unraveled, the threads of it going everywhere, reaching and grasping.
“That’s not fine,” she said.
“I am, kind of. I don’t mind it. It’s whatever.”
“I mind it,” she said.
The group looked scared. She liked the fear. It made more sense than anything, and it was more familiar ground than the unsteady new territory of the past several days.
Much as she’d identified O’Brien when he’d snorted earlier, and when he’d cracked the joke in the car on the way here, seeing where people looked and who looked most guilty, she could identify the culprit as one of Bar’s friends.
He wasn’t a small guy, and he looked like he might wet himself.
It helped her to calm down more. She waited, staring, as she tried to find the words. Nobody spoke before she did. There was a long, hanging moment where her thoughts didn’t seem to progress, and she couldn’t formulate the sentence in her head.
Had she been more focused, it might have been easier.
“Many of you are teenagers,” she said. “But this isn’t your high school. I pay you to work under me, to fight for me, and sometimes you’ll bleed for me. The person standing next to you could be the person who saves you from bleeding one drop too many. Show each other some fucking respect.”
That earned her nods and noises of acknowledgement. As she locked eyes with the culprit, he nodded faster than others.
She turned and walked away.
A short set of stairs led down to the front of the house. Her group’s cars were parked out in front. Bar and Angel stood by Bar’s car. Both were dressed, but still soaking wet.
“Everything okay?” Bar asked.
“Mm hmm,” Ashley responded. She took stock of the pair. Angel was still visibly dripping, trying to keep a straight face. “Did you enjoy yourselves?”
“Yeah,” Bar said.
Angel’s straight face slipped. Ashley bent down, bringing her face closer, and Angel had to fight harder to keep her composure.
Finally, Angel failed to hold herself together, and started giggling.
Ashley smiled, turning to the group that was still making their way down the stairs. J was at the very rear, locking the house. “Someone go back inside. Steal a few towels.”
Angel’s giggles intensified.
“I guess I can pay them back for the towels,” J said.
“Please,” Ashley said.
Angel slugged the heroine. Fist to face. She backed off, shaking her hand. It wasn’t because the heroine was tough, it seemed. Only because delivering a punch that solid hurt.
The woman backed off, hand reaching up to her hand and mouth.
It was chaos and the chaos was something Damsel could well and truly embrace. It was simple and it was easy.
Well, not easy. Four capes against her and her crew.
“Hey, kid,” the big guy of the group said. “You want to try that with me?”
“No way,” Angel responded.
“Rhetorical question,” the big guy replied. “You just punched my wife.”
“She shot my boyfriend with a laser, so fuck you!”
He advanced on Angel, shoulders alternating back and forth as he walked. There was a lightness to his step that suggested super strength. Angel’s head was constantly in motion as she retreated, checking where the clothing racks and shelving units were and weaving between them without really slowing down. There was a lightness to her step, too, but it was more of the sort of lightness that came with a boxer’s training.
The woman Angel punched looked up, peering over her hand, and a forcefield materialized in the middle of the storefront. Angel continued retreating, and her back and head smacked into the wall that had appeared.
“Big guy,” Damsel said. “Don’t pick on a girl half your age and a third your mass.”
The man turned her way. It was weird to see a cape without a mask. He was older, thirty-five or forty, and his blond hair was styled, slicked into position with something that hadn’t faltered in the heat of this skirmish.
“What do you think I should do then?”
“Given the prospect of having to deal with me? Surrender,” she said, with a smile.
“You’re proposing I stop picking on her, half my age and a third my weight, and I pick on you, half my age and, what, a quarter of my weight?”
“I’m proposing you surrender,” she said. She flicked her hand out to the side, and her power activated, crackling at her right.
“I’m tough to hurt,” he said.
“Do you really want to test it?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Why the hell not?”
She spared a momentary glance toward Angel, who ran off to the side, parallel with the forcefield. The others were already vacating. They had some stuff, but the looting of the registers and the safe in the manager’s office had been interrupted.
A forcefield appeared at knee-level, an obstacle.
She had some experience with that, having dealt with Licit. She had experience with constantly fighting to catch and maintain her balance, as external factors worked on her.
She stumbled, and when it looked like she wasn’t going to catch her balance, she used her power, blasting herself in the opposite direction.
Another forcefield had materialized in front of where she’d been about to stumble, positioned to make her landing an uncomfortable one. The blast that she fired tore the forcefield to shreds. She stumbled back into a shelf near the registers, loaded with impulse buy items, including a ridiculous number and variety of protein bars.
She hurled herself forward.
“Neil!” the forcefield woman shouted, her voice nasal with her hand still at her nose. “Get back!”
Damsel blasted. The big guy was already getting out of the way, throwing himself into the ground in a roll. He collided with another shelf, and energy arced out, connecting with the metal shelves.
“That went through my field like it was nothing,” the woman said. “You can’t take that hit.”
Damsel smiled, as the man’s expression went cold. She walked a few steps, then blasted the long forcefield that had cut their battlefield in half. The forcefield bent, distorted, and a good two thirds of it dissolved into nothing. Like plastic crinkling at the touch of fire.
In the background, Angel used the opening to get to the other side of the store and make a break in the direction the others had run.
He twisted his hand around, and the shelf snapped over, the thicker midsection of the shelf slapping into the palm of his hands, fingers gripping it.
He hurled it, and it wasn’t just that he was strong enough to treat it like it weighed nothing- he used his power to thrust it out. Damsel aimed to shoot it out of the air, but with the speed it flew, it connected with her hand a moment before the power annihilated it. Flecks of shelf struck Damsel’s face and shoulders.
Her hand stung where the shelf had hit it. She shook it at her side, and each shake made her power activate, spitting out bursts and licks of space-warping darkness.
The woman shot her with a laser. The same kind that had burned Bar. Damsel stumbled, felt the burn a second later, and then she blasted, hurling herself up, away. Her foot touched on the top of one of the short, shoulder-height shelves, and then she used her power to rocket in their direction.
The woman flew, and the man jumped back. The directions they moved made it hard to pursue both- and it seemed instinctual.
They knew how to fight as a team, and they didn’t even have the sense to avoid using their civilian names?
She went after the big electric guy, who was busy trying to duck through the aisle between the cashier’s stations. He couldn’t fly, for one thing, so he was easier to catch, and he was momentarily slower as he tried to avoid demolishing too much of the store’s property.
She stayed low to the ground as she bolted for him, and it paid off as the first laser raked past her, hitting one of the cash stations.
The second laser, though, it hit her. A glancing hit, but the beam was continuous, not a single shot. It traced an uneven course along the side of her body, cutting her dress and burning her stomach, and in her haste to get out of the way, she fell.
She screamed her rage. A blast of her power sent her rocketing forward, at the big one. A forcefield appeared in front of her, and she shot it- with the effect that it wasn’t a planned shot, and it twisted her shoulder. It also moved her away from the guy she wanted to hit.
A flicker of light to her left drew her attention.
Another one of the heroes. This guy had been outside. He had red-blond hair and a beard, and his costume had black sleeves and legs, with a star at the front. Two glowing spheres hung over his head, and another hung at elbow height on either side of him.
The first of the spheres kicked off, lunging in her direction. They weren’t fast, as cape-generated firepower went.
She lunged toward it, and saw the man’s expression change. Surprise. He didn’t usually have people go toward his ominous light orbs.
Damsel shot the orb as it drew closer, and her power tore it to shreds. She closed the distance, and as she ran she could feel the big guy making his approach. The woman would be getting in position to shoot or use a forcefield to block her movement.
The second orb was drawing close. She raised a hand to shoot it, and it detonated an instant before her power could make contact.
Annihilation met energy. Her power didn’t simply erase things in its path, however. It grew, it shrunk, it bent, twisted, stopped, and accelerated. As the detonated energy surged into her power, some of it was magnified, and that same energy escaped the mangling that was supposed to immediately follow.
The effect was that the explosion ripped out inconsistently in every direction. Shelves were knocked over, clothes were scattered, floor and ceiling came to pieces. The sound of it made her temporarily deaf, leaving her ears to absorb and echo the last thing she’d heard- a whipcrack noise coupled with a buzzing that made her teeth hurt. The echo leveled out into a high pitched whine.
She picked herself up. The man with the beard was slower to do the same, and that gave her the opportunity to escape the venue. Past the hole in the wall, out to the city at night.
The city was brighter than it should have been. It wasn’t that her senses were rattled, but that there was another of the damned heroes out here. More energy orbs. These ones clung to the road, rolling and folding into themselves.
A young lady walked through the loose minefield she’d created. Black haired, she had a flower symbol in black on her chest, petals stretching up from a bar or hilt.
One of the orbs erupted. It became a column, a wall, an unfolding wave of rippling energy that danced along the road in an unpreditable path. Damsel only narrowly evaded it.
There were more lights behind her. The man with the beard.
She couldn’t look at every threat at once. Every time she blinked, the bright lights lingered in dots and trails in her vision. The lights the bearded man made weren’t so distinct from the ones the woman made, when they were dormant. It made it hard to focus, and her focus wasn’t all there.
Another of the ones on the ground erupted. It unfolded in a different way, pillars of light that raced in four different directions. Easier to avoid, but they were coordinating their timing. He’d lobbed one of his lights at her. It wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t so slow she could outrun it, and with her vision already struggling amid so much brightness, it was hard to use depth perception to get a sense of how fast it was traveling.
She blasted it, stumbling back, and light at one corner of her field of vision suggested another of the orbs the flower woman had made was exploding.
“Hold off on the explosions until we know what happened in the store!” a woman shouted. The laser woman. The sound of her voice was rounded off at the edges, as if Damsel was hearing her from just beneath the surface of water.
“Roger,” the man with the beard said.
They were all here now.
Damsel turned to leave, and saw another. A woman with an orange symbol at her breast and a glowing energy weapon clasped in both hands. The energy formed a wedge shape toward the top, almost but not quite an axe.
Damsel slowed down, wary.
“Brandish!” the laser woman shouted. “She’s dangerous! Her power goes right through forcefields!”
Brandish didn’t flinch. “We’re all dangerous, aren’t we?”
Her voice wasn’t of sufficient volume to be heard by her companions. Only by Damsel.
“Yeah,” Damsel said.
“You’re done. Your underlings are scattered, they abandoned their car. You get nothing today.”
“Maybe,” Damsel said.
“This isn’t ambiguous,” Brandish said. “You’re done. You had your fun, now we’re bringing you in.”
Damsel looked back at the other heroes. They were drawing in closer.
“You said I get nothing today. I thought I’d get something this time.”
“Damsel of Distress,” Brandish said. “This thing? You and I talking, trying to find something profound to say? Mutual therapy during the pause in the battlefield? We’re not going to do that.”
“Thinking aloud,” Damsel said.
“That’s how it always is. Sorry, but I had my fill of talking about my problems a long, long time ago, and I’m not going to talk about or shoulder yours.”
Damsel nodded. The laser burns hurt like a motherfucker, and her shoulder was throbbing.
She could go after Brandish. One person to get past.
But that weapon had reach. She couldn’t blast it like she’d blasted the orbs, without hitting her opponent.
“Some people want to talk to you. You’re not necessarily in trouble.”
Damsel snorted. “We’re all in trouble, aren’t we? We’re all dangerous and we’re all in trouble. Just… sometimes more obvious.”
Brandish didn’t respond.
A car was coming down the road. Traffic must have been cut off for the area to have so few cars and people around. Still, this old sedan had slipped that perimeter. Not J’s car. Not Bar’s.
“Go around!” the big guy shouted. “Situation in progress, there’s danger!”
The car started its halting, three-point turn..
Was it the distraction she needed?
Brandish wasn’t taking her eyes off of Damsel. It meant Damsel couldn’t run past. Running to the sides didn’t give her any immediate escape routes, and it would see laser fire, exploding energy flowers and slow moving energy balls hurtling her way.
But, by the flip side of that same coin, it meant that when an object was cast out the window, Brandish was the last person to react. Her focus was on Ashley.
Damsel twisted her head around, eyes shut, her arm going up to her ear to shield it.
At the same time she turned away, she ran toward.
Not a flashbang, but a flash. The light was blinding.
Damsel hurried toward the car. Not her underlings, exactly, but they were hers. The mercenaries she’d bought with the money she hadn’t spent on the house. People with equipment, some training, some background.
But in the midst of the light, a shadow loomed. Brandish hurried her way, weapon held high.
To an extent, it made sense. A person who manipulated fire often had protections from fire. This woman created weapons out of light- and she’d bounced back faster than some.
Damsel was left with a moment to decide.
Her power lanced out, twisting, reaching, pointed at the woman with the weapon who threatened to take everything from her. Aimed with the intent-
No, not the intent.
But the willingness to kill.
The woman reacted. She condensed down into a sphere, and the dark, rending energy lanced out, swiping and grasping through the air.
Damsel couldn’t be sure if it grazed the orb or just barely missed it, but by chance more than anything else, the lunges and surges of Damsel’s power missed their target.
Brandish didn’t give further chase. Ashley reached the car, glancing back at the other blinded heroes, the scene with the money she hadn’t been able to claim.
It had been the right decision after all.
The energy and restlessness she’d missed was back. It had been with her as she stepped off the bus. It had helped propel her forward as she made her initial moves in Boston.
This was closer to the feeling she had on the bus, but it was a darker feeling.
It was an unfamiliar feeling.
It had been a long, long time since anything but her fingers or her power had run through her hair. One or the other was usually sufficient to deal with tangles and keep it neat.
When she had been little, her mother had counted the brush strokes out loud, but there were no words. and there were more than fifty brush strokes.
Her hair was moved aside, and a warm hand touched her shoulder. It might have been moisturizer that was rubbed into her skin. There were no childhood memories to touch on for that. This would be a first.
There was a rhythm to this, like there had been for the brush. Almost a minute of rubbing, avoiding the burns, giving attention to knots. There would be a pause, and there would be a soft sound as he rubbed his hands together. She surmised it was so the moisturizer wouldn’t be cold or cool on application.
Everything careful, everything measured out. It would be so easy for this same situation to feel like the inverse of what it was. Her in his power.
As he walked around in front of her, applying moisturizer to her collarbone, his gaze was averted. Even that was careful and measured out. His expression betrayed a few moments of indecision, hesitation that anyone would have in a scenario like this, but that indecision didn’t interfere with his ministrations.
It had, before. She couldn’t even remember how that conversation had gone. He had handled some of her requests for food, and that had led to him ordering an outfit, bringing it up online and getting her confirmation before having it delivered. Talk of the outfit had led to mention of her hair.
It was clean, her power cleaned it more thoroughly than anything. But it wasn’t- anything. He had offered to buy and apply the conditioner. He had washed her hair like her mother’s hairdresser had used to.
When he said something, or if he hesitated to long, she had walked way or started doing it herself. It had happened twice. Now he seemed to have figured it out.
No words. If he was going to do something, he would do it in a way that showed respect and no hesitation.
Her injuries were disinfected, cream applied, bandages taped on. She moved her arm to test that the tape wouldn’t pull, then nodded. The burn at her side required that her towel be adjusted to reveal just the side of her stomach and her hip, which he did, and she pinned it at the side of her body like that until he was done.
He applied her makeup, with attention to redness and scrapes from past skirmishes. She kept her eyes closed while he applied makeup around her eyes, then to her lashes.
Her eyes were open as the lipstick kissed her lips. It moved slowly, pulling at the surface of the lip. He was ever so careful to avoid a mistake there.
His face was very close to hers for this part.
When he was done with her makeup, he went to the table where her dress was laid out. He brought it down to the ground, and she stepped into it. He raised it, his head turned away, and she let the towel fall before the zipper was raised, pulling the dress tight around her midsection and her chest. Not corset tight, but tight. He attended to the straps at the neck, and he first buckled on and then adjusted the layers of cloth that went over her one shoulder, covering the bandaged wound.
He brought the shoes, and held them out for her to put her feet into, and she did, and he attended to the straps that secured them to her feet. He remained kneeling for a few seconds longer than necessary as she turned away from him, taking a few steps to make sure that the fit was right, and that the shoes wouldn’t be uncomfortable. The dress swished against her legs.
He stood, and turned to go clean up the makeup and other bottles. The first aid stuff and the packaging needed discarding, this time. It was much as he had before, though each time they found themselves in this situation, things were a little more involved, with more steps and things being done.
She raised one foot, and she touched the toe of her shoe to his hip. She pushed it to the side and back., turning him so his rear end was against the table with the things on it, and he faced her, her toes still touching the side of his pelvis.
For all that he pretended to know things about marketing and connections, for his maturity and his way of doing things as he assisted her, he was very much a young guy. His like for her was as clear as day.
She dropped her foot to the ground, studying him.
This was weird. He was weird.
So was she.
She studied him until his fondness for her was less… outstanding. When her eyes went up to his face, she saw a smile. He was amused.
She’d been distracted. She had things to do.
Armored and administered to by her squire, she left the hotel room, with him a step behind. The assistance her assistant provided her was abnormal, perhaps, but… she felt more human than she had in a long, long time.
She had hands again- they just weren’t her own.
She rubbed her fingertips up and down the skirt portion of her dress, testing the sensations.
The hands weren’t new, but there were still times they didn’t feel like hers. Especially when her appointments with Riley concluded.
Hands removed, cleaned, tested, tweaked, and given back. It never felt exactly the same as it had beforehand, and with the way her appointments were scheduled, they ran together, one after another, leaving her annoyed with one adjustment as the next set of people started on the next.
She sat and waited for the men and women in lab coats, with their Wardens’ ID badges around their necks, and she tried to discern just what it was that made her hands not feel quite right.
Here and there, people walked by. The area was large, and the testing equipment sat without much room to navigate between one piece and the next.
It was Jessica who approached her first, rather than any of the parahuman sciences people.
“They want to do something different today,” Jessica said. “Digging into one of the weird edge cases.”
“Should I worry?”
“The other way around, maybe,” Jessica said. “I told them they should be more concerned, and that we shouldn’t surprise you. I’m here to break the news and ask permission.”
“Edict. Do you harbor any strong feelings?”
“Some feelings, but not strong ones. Nothing that should matter.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Ashley said, with sincerity so grave it could have been mocking, even though it wasn’t.
“Do you want me to stay?” Jessica asked. “I can referee.”
“You have things to do, I’m sure.”
“Then I will see you in… one hour and twenty-three minutes.”
“I look forward to it,” Ashley said.
Then Jessica was gone, and Ashley was alone again. People walked past her and they avoided looking her way. She was a nonentity, periodically touching things or touching finger to finger with hands that weren’t real.
“Ashley, thank you for coming in again,” a scientist said. He appeared out of nowhere, clipboard in hand, and he said the words so automatically that they didn’t have any meaning at all. “Have you started on any new medicine?”
“I have not, but I would refer you to my personal doctor for a more accurate answer,” she said.
She didn’t miss the slight changes in expression that went with that. They were scared of Riley.
“Did you log your dreams in your diary?” he asked.
“I did. Same as always.”
Her bag was beside her on the doctor’s bench, and the diary was on top. Writing was a chore, but she was supposed to do it and filling out the diary meant she could do both things at once.
“Alright. That’s good. Your therapist told you that we’re bringing someone in, I hope.”
“Yes. It’s fine.”
“I’ll be back shortly, then.”
It was bizarre that she was in a room with so many electronic devices, with special cameras and scanners, testing machines, exercise machines and everything else they might need to study a given, and yet she was only here to sit on a doctor’s bench. The only tool or recording device that was being used here was the diary.
She saw Edict approach. The woman wore the same costume now that she had three years prior.
“Long time no see,” Edict said. “You don’t mind my coming in?”
The rest of the scientists that Ashley saw with any regularity were now arriving. A few unfamiliar faces stood off to the side, with one of the senior scientists whispering to them. It didn’t look like a secret from her so much as an attempt to catch them up. Too efficient, too measured, and too great in quantity to be deception.
“Are you well?” Ashley asked.
“As well as anyone is these days,” Edict said. “People in my area had a hard time with winter. I did too.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ashley said. “I was more fortunate than some. I was close to resources.”
“I’m glad,” Edict said. “We’re here about dreams, was it?”
“No,” a scientist said, at the same time Ashley answered, “Not dreams.”
“Dreams came up,” Edict said.
“They’re related, and I track mine, but this is memory,” Ashley said.
“You’ve seen things relevant to me?”
Ashley looked at the various scientists. “Yes. I remember things relevant to you.”
“We were hoping to confirm and verify.”
“Okay,” Edict said.
“Your son’s name,” Ashley said. She reached out for her diary, and a scientist handed it to her. She found her pen and wrote the name out.
The grip on the pen was hard to maintain, the movements stiff.
It was a good thing the word was short: Shiloh.
It was better to write it than to say it out loud, because Edict wore a costume, and her identity deserved preserving. Ashley showed Edict.
“I can confirm. You know my little boy’s name. That bothers me, if I’m honest.”
Ashley nodded. “I know that you had a routine with the woman who worked the reception in Stafford. Shandra.”
She could have gone on, she was even tempted to, to outline all the things she knew and easily get them confirmed. She bit her tongue.
“I can confirm,” Edict said.
“I know you had your neighbor as the go-to babysitter for your son, when work intruded. She was a high school student, and would pick up your son on her way back.”
“Confirm,” Edict said. Her forehead creased with a worry line.
“For overnight stays, you’d use your aunt. You didn’t like doing it because she didn’t know or approve about your cape life.”
“Confirm. How do you know this? What’s going on?”
“I have memories that aren’t mine,” Ashley said. “The memories are as clear as any of my own. I know a lot of things, but I’m trying to think of things that only you would know, so they can confirm.”
“Yeah, well, you’re thinking of good ones,” Edict said. “I’m not comfortable with this. I’m concerned, actually.”
“I mean no harm, now,” Ashley said, but scientists were already talking over her, asking Edict things. Shouting the statement would defeat the point.
“Has anyone reported anything like this to you?” one scientist asked.
“Edict. On a scale of one to ten, how likely would you say it is that your power, used on any person, could establish a permanent link to that someone?”
“I don’t know,” Edict said. “Two. But I do know that I’m very, very tired of my power having hidden facets to it. I can’t rule anything out.”
“Ashley, on a scale of one to ten, with your extensive background being on the recipient side of Edict’s power, how likely would you say it is that a connection or link was established when she used her power on you?”
“One. I don’t think it’s likely.”
“It upsets me,” Edict said. “My memories are mine.”
“They are,” Ashley responded. “I’m not especially happy about it either.”
“On that note,” one scientist asked. “Do you feel any less like yourself, Ashley?”
“Yes,” Ashley said. She thought about leaving it at that, but these people were the same ones who had agreed to pay her for her time and her trouble. “But this memory being in the mix and Edict’s power don’t have anything to do with that. Maybe this an avenue to pursue, on why this memory bleed happened, but I haven’t had the opportunity to be one hundred percent me for a long, long, long time.”