She could see the group of kids at their usual hangout spot. It was her habit to go out in the late evening, when the rest of the town was asleep, and to keep out of the way the rest of the time, but her cupboards had been bare and she’d felt her sanity fraying even more around the edges.
She held a spike of twisted, condensed metal, which was hooked through the straps of bags. The length of the spike rested across her shoulders. It was heavy and painful, but it beat destroying the stuff she’d grabbed.
She left the bags by the corner of a building, and she approached the group of kids. Some of the younger teenagers stood up and backed away. The oldest of them didn’t budge. What was he called? Fappy?
“Heya, Damsel,” Fappy said.
“Corrupting the youngest generation?” she asked.
“That’s my nephew, Connor, he’s only six years younger than me, though,” Fappy said. “And that’s his stepsister Holly. They’re staying with my parents because of family stuff. Connor, Holly, this is Damsel of Distress. Our local supervillain.”
At least they looked scared of her.
“I’m moving away to find work,” Fappy said. “Retail stuff in a camera store. Holly is going to get my room.”
“Work, huh?” Ashley asked.
“My parents lost patience with me and gave me thirty days to move out,” Fappy said, to her. “I guess I’m taking Stan’s cue.”
“What did Stan do?”
“Oh, you don’t know? I guess we haven’t seen you around.”
“I went to Mirelles, another town. I caught something. I was thinking about going to Brockton Bay, after Leviathan, decided to rest instead.”
“Aw, that sucks,” Fappy said. “You okay now?”
“Yeah. I’m tough,” she said.
She wasn’t, and she hadn’t really ‘caught’ anything. A mundane scratch on her leg had become red and inflamed, and a use of her power hadn’t scoured away whatever was going on. In a fit of frantic energy, she had taken one of the scraps of matter that had been left after a use of her power and cut into the scratch. She had wanted to open it up enough that she could try to get her power inside and clear away the infection, but it hadn’t worked. The infection had persisted and the leg wound had refused to heal.
Somewhere in the weeks of sweating it out and not being able to go out, the PRT had started looking for her. She’d had to scare them off when she could barely stand. Even now, grabbing food to fill her kitchen, she wasn’t at her best.
“Well,” Fappy said, “You know Stan, right?”
“He got Amber pregnant. I don’t think you’ve met her? No. Stan did the stand up thing and is getting his life together. He’s got a job washing sheets and stuff in the hospital. Which is great because he’s close to Amber. She had to go in for a pregnancy related hip thing, and she’s not leaving until she has the kid so her leg doesn’t come off. I don’t know how that works. Am I boring you, talking about this stuff?”
She shook her head.
“The rest of us are getting around to it too, mostly. We’re eighteen, nineteen, it’s about time we figure stuff out.”
“Well,” Ashley said. She was a bit lost for words. The stoner kids had been a fixture here for most of her life. “Good for you.”
“It’s not all great. Pete, you know Pete?”
She shook her head.
“He was there for the bank. He’s been hanging out with Popcap since Stan took off. They hopped on a bus to go down and join some messed up gang, talking about endless parties. Stuff’s been pretty messed up since Leviathan hit.”
“It is. Sorry about your friend,” she said. Popcap was the most notorious meth dealer in the area. She didn’t like him and he didn’t like her, and Pete spending time with the guy didn’t bode well for Pete.
Fappy shrugged. He looked at his two relatives. “Connor, Holly, don’t ever, ever spend time with Popcap or Pete. Not even if they offer to buy you drinks or give you anything.”
“You said something about a bank?” Connor asked.
“Oh man. That. That was ages ago. We tried to rob a bank with Damsel of Distress. That did not go well.”
“You cracked under the pressure,” Ashley said.
“I guess. We tried, right?”
“Mm,” she made a noncommittal sound.
“You guys were legendary at school,” one of the other guys said.
“We had so much detention.”
“Detention, for robbing a bank?” Connor asked.
“Because he talked about it at school,” the other guy said. “Dumbass. He had to go to court, but they ducked it. School wasn’t as nice.”
“Don’t follow my example. You don’t want to risk it, you two,” Fappy said.
A blue sedan with a tattered flag mounted on one of the windows passed down the road about a block away. It slowed, and then honked the horn.
“Oh shit!” Holly said.
The car honked again. It was an angry honk.
“Go,” Fappy said, and the two younger teenagers ran off. Then, to Damsel, he said, “My mom. She’s cool about most things, you know, she lets us cut school, but talking to you might push it.”
“I’ll go,” Ashley said.
“Actually, I, uh,” Fappy said. He pointed. “You mind?”
His intention was to walk with her. They walked in the direction of where she’d stowed the bags. Just the two of them.
“So, I know you disappear now and then. Pete used to always look you up and try to see what you were doing. Hometown cape pride, you know?”
“You keep coming back here.”
She didn’t immediately respond. Familiar faces and places mattered in a way she couldn’t put to words, even if some of those places closed down or faces left, like the stoners were doing. More practical was the fact that here, at least, she knew where to go. Food, clothing, places she could head to if the PRT started acting like it knew where she was.
She wasn’t about to admit that, though. The stoner kids were feckless and useless, but they looked up to her.
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
“It’s home, right?”
She shrugged. It was home, she just wished it wasn’t.
“Right. What I’m wondering is, you going to be around? I’m thinking about my nephew and his stepsis.”
“I don’t know. No plans right now.”
“Can you make sure Connor and Holly are left alone? I don’t want them getting caught up in anything too shady, and Connor’s dad’s one of those guys who’ll take anything. Connor’s got the DNA for that stuff, and Pete or Popcap might try when they get back.”
“I’m not in a position to see him or tell him what to do. If he wants to do it, he’s going to do it when I’m not in town.”
“Fuck,” Fappy said. “It’s fucked up, you know? The guys that grow up seeing the worst side of that stuff still end up doing it.”
“It’s the way it is,” she said.
“I guess. And I guess, um, hmm,” he didn’t seem to be able to find the words.
“I won’t take them out to rob any banks,” she said. Seeing Fappy’s surprised expression, she said, “I noticed the subtext, when you said you wanted them left alone.”
“I don’t even know what subtext is,” he said. He smiled. “You and Stan were always the ones with brains.”
“It’s fine. I don’t rob banks anymore,” she said.
“You’ve been quiet, the last long while.”
That, too, was hard to respond to. It had been weeks dealing with being sick, no human contact except the voices on the television and radio, and communicating was hard.
“Good luck, doing whatever you end up doing,” she said.
“You too,” he said.
She bent down to pick up her hook and bags, pausing to clench her right hand. She’d broken it after killing the giant four years prior, and it hadn’t healed quite right, despite her best efforts.
She grabbed the hook with her other hand, and her power kicked out, almost pushing it from her grasp. It missed the bags but it damaged the corner of the wall. Nothing more serious than what might happen if a car bumped into the siding. That was fine.
“Hey,” Fappy called out. “Damsel?”
She straightened, holding just the hook without the bags.
“I might never see you again. It’s bugging me. Should we have done anything different?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Fappy pulled off his hat and scratched at his hair. “Should we have invited you to hang out or had a cigarette with you? When Stan had the room setup in the garage, we watched videos. Should we have had you over? Would that have been weird?”
Having been sick, her defenses weren’t what they were supposed to be. The questions were hard to hear.
“It would have been weird,” she said. “The only thing you should have done differently was not fuck up the bank job.”
Fappy snorted and smiled. “Yeah. Sorry.”
She put the hook through the straps of the bags, then lifted it, shrugging her shoulders to make it comfortable.
She didn’t know Fappy’s real name. She wondered if he had stopped using it, and if he had, when?
The town wasn’t a thriving one, and there wasn’t much traffic at ten o’clock at night. She made her way down the street. She was cold. Another case of her defenses being down. She hadn’t grabbed a lot of blankets, sheets, or towels, and now she regretted it.
There were streets that were okay, with houses in decent condition, but most were struggling. Many had peeling paint, or siding that had come partially free in a bit of bad weather and never been fixed. She walked past a car that had been left there for so long that the windshield was opaque with the effects of weather and bird shit.
Wind blew, and some junk mail from a recycling bin at the corner of the road danced across the road. There was a paper bag on the top of a dusty car, however, that didn’t budge.
Ashley investigated – a poke with her hook showed that there were things inside, which helped keep the bag upright. A drink of something blue, and a plastic bag.
She looked around. Not a soul in sight. A few places had lights on, and she saw one man that sat at his computer. He hadn’t seen her and wasn’t watching her.
She moved the bags she was carrying to her hand, and then adjusted the hook, positioning it carefully before impaling the bag and the box of baked goods.
She hefted it, and carried things the rest of the way to her apartment.
The radio and television were on as she entered. She walked around the hole in the floor- she had dropped one of the living room chairs into it to ensure she didn’t fall in. Her bags went to the kitchen counter, which was missing a segment.
The largest bag was full of clothes that had been dropped off at the back of the thrift shop- she would take what she could wear and then take the bags back. Wouldn’t do to have the place close down. Other stuff she’d claimed from the pharmacy, with an eye to medication and personal needs. She spiked the pharmacy stuff, then tossed it through the hole in the bathroom wall, so it sailed over the tub and to the base of the sink.
The last thing was food, also from the pharmacy, which was convenient because it tended to have the staples. Peanut butter, tuna, bread, canned veg. Everything went onto the counter, because the cupboards were a ruin and the fridge was something she tried to avoid damaging, because there were perishables like milk inside.
Once she had her bags sorted out, she investigated the paper bag, tipping it out.
The blue drink was, according to the label, a ‘Legendberry Electrolyte Sports Drink’. There was a red drink below it. The plastic bag that had been put in the paper bag was stuff from the drug store. Pills for fever, lozenges, stuff for indigestion.
At the bottom of the paper bag was a box of eclaires. The contents had been thrown around the box by her manhandling, the white cream smearing everything.
She left it there, walking over to the television. Her routine had been thrown off by the early excursion, but the time was right.
Changing the channel was difficult, but she managed it, switching the television across thirty channels of static to the studying channel.
At this time, it was repeats of the homework help that was on at three in the afternoon and on. People ages ten to eighteen could call in to ask questions. Later, it would be the taped university courses. Most of that went over her head, but she tried to watch all of the courses all the way through, with exceptions for when the courses were really, really dull or incomprehensible.
The sound of the television and the radio overlapped, but the radio was positioned on the floor. A gentle kick sent it skidding into the next room.
She blasted off the top of the Legendberry drink and took a swig. She winced, coughing, and put it down.
She grabbed an eclair, spearing it with her hook and then eating it off of the spike.
There was a part of her that wished Edict had given it to her in person. She understood why she hadn’t- Ashley had been in a bad place when she’d run into them two months ago.
Still… getting sick enough that she had been worried for her own life had given her pause.
She wasn’t even sure what she would say or do, had Edict turned up. To say ‘you win’? No. To ask questions? No.
If nothing else, she could question Edict’s taste, sensibilities, parentage and mental state, for putting this Legendberry drink in the same bag with eclairs.
She left the eclairs alone, and focused on finishing the drink, wincing as she did so.
It was a gift. It was supposed to help. It wouldn’t be right to not finish it.
The sound of sirens made her head turn, the bottle still at her mouth.
Not coming for her.
She finished chugging the bottle, then gave the plastic its due punishment for existing by annihilating it with her power.
She would have to eat something before having her eclairs, or the aftertaste would ruin them.
More sirens. That meant something had happened. If something had happened- Edict or Licit would be there. Maybe both.
What would she say or do? Why did that matter?
She found herself pacing, and in the midway point between feeling just how weak she was after her spell of illness and the sound of the next siren, she found herself moving toward the door.
She would see what was going on. This was her territory, technically, so it was important. She would handle things, maybe talk to the pair, and she would tell Edict off for the combination of Legendberry and eclairs.
She grabbed her mask, recently fixed up, and put it on.
She stalked her way through the streets, avoiding the people who were stepping outside to see what was going on.
Fire trucks, ambulances, and police. She could hear the differences in the patterns and sounds of the sirens. For the first ten minutes, she was able to hear things and head toward the endpoint. Here and there, an emergency vehicle would go down her street or a nearby street.
After that, there was nothing. Whatever the emergency, there were no more sirens or easy indicators.
She wondered how the heroes did it, to get to scenes on time.
She explored, trying to find it, looking for any clues, and found nothing. Her legs were tired, lacking stamina after her long period of illness, and she’d already gone for a walk earlier in the evening. She took her time going back.
The headlights of a passing van illuminated her, and unlike the others, they didn’t stop illuminating her. She stared through the light, shielding her eyes with her hand, and felt the pang and the click where that hand hadn’t healed right.
When it didn’t let up, she picked up her pace.
The van pulled into reverse, then drove away.
She made her way back, and by the last block, her weariness had been driven home. Her calves were like stones, and every step was an effort.
Maybe a bath, to relax her legs. It was important to find ways to treat herself. It was a good day, to have a treat to go back to. A bad day, to know that the stoners were leaving and the replacements would be so young and untouchable. A good day, to be healthier again. A bad day, to have this interruption to her homework advice show.
She reached her street, and she saw a van that might have been the same one she’d seen earlier. Adrenaline helped her to push through the pain in her legs.
Nobody inside, with a lot of general garbage on the seats and floor.
If she had been able to drive, she told herself, her car would be immaculate. Cars were expensive, and to have something nice and not take care of it?
She was tempted to destroy the thing.
She reached the side of the building and let herself inside.
There was the partially eaten eclair. She could have that before starting dinner.
The radio, still faint in the other room, went quiet.
She grabbed the twist of condensed metal with the hook-shaped bend at the end.
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
A man’s voice.
Ashley walked around to see who was standing in her bedroom.
She recognized the man. The beard, the hair that was greasy and pulled back away from his face. The collared shirt that was only tucked in on the one side, the tuck apparently intended to hide the bloodstain on the corner of the shirt, failing because it had come partially untucked.
He had a tool belt on, but the belt only had knives in it.
“It’s been a crazy few weeks,” he said.
She considered her options. She wasn’t well enough to fight.
She would have to be subtle, then. If she could draw him in, get close enough that she could blast him before he could draw a knife-
She threw the hook back in the direction of the kitchen. It wouldn’t matter anyway.
“I’m… honored,” she said.
“Are you?” he asked.
“You’re among the strongest, aren’t you? There aren’t a lot who are as active as you for as long as you.”
She wasn’t used to flattering. It felt off, coming out of her mouth, and from his smirk, she was left worrying that it was obvious to him.
“We have a high turnover,” he said.
“You’re royalty among parahumans.”
He chuckled. “My predecessor was called King, believe it or not. Don’t parents tell their children to behave and to clean by saying, ‘what if the Queen of England came to visit’? Our unannounced visit could be like that, couldn’t it?”
Our. He’d said ‘we’ earlier too.
Sure enough, there was another. Bonesaw ducked under Jack’s arm to enter her hallway and approach the living room.
Ashley remained very still as she watched Bonesaw. The girl walked over to the kitchen, passing Ashley.
She considered her options. To blast Bonesaw out of existence.
She would die, doing that, and she didn’t want to die.
Bonesaw stood on her tiptoes for a moment before seeing the box of eclairs amid the other food. She grabbed it, then collapsed into the armchair that had been pushed into the hole in the floor. Her feet were on the floor above her and her face almost pointed up to the ceiling.
“You should ask before taking, Bonesaw,” Jack said. “If all goes well, you want to have a good working relationship.”
“Can I, please?” Bonesaw asked.
“Yes,” Ashley said. “Go ahead. Leave me one.”
“Oh, of course.” Bonesaw had to work to get out of the chair and reach the counter. She set the eclair down.
Working relationship, Jack had said.
“Someone who puts this many holes in walls has to be angry,” Jack said. “Are you angry?”
Ashley shook her head. She was, but years had dulled it. She wasn’t about to admit to weakness, either way.
“It’s no way to live,” Jack said. He touched the edge of the hole in the wall that led into the bathroom.
“You said working relationship.”
“I did. Interested?”
“I’ve heard stories. If I said yes, then… it could be a monkey’s paw wish, couldn’t it?”
“Go on,” Jack said.
“You would say you want to work with me. I would say yes, and then Bonesaw could then turn me into a gun made of meat. A living tool, working with you every time you pull the trigger. Technically there is a working relationship.”
“A bit forced,” Jack said.
“The only real critic for your interpretation would be a gun made of meat.”
Jack smiled. “We’re our own critics. It’s a fact when you’re an artist or a… very violent, long-term performance artist. We put the effort in, even if the one member of the audience isn’t in a place to tell the world.”
“Mm!” Bonesaw made a sound. She held up a finger, while she finished chewing. “Mm. Sorry. You know, I’ve only done that sort of thing once, making someone into something like a gun.”
Was it a mistake to give her ideas?
“I like that you thought of that,” Bonesaw said. “You came up with something I haven’t done much. Creative!”
“The theater matters,” Ashley said. “Sometimes it’s all we have.”
“No,” Jack said. “Oh no, I don’t agree at all. We are so, so much more than that. You realize that once you’ve seen a good number of people lose next to everything, theater included. There’s something else that boils to the surface, once you’ve applied enough pressure.”
“Do you have an audience?” Bonesaw asked.
It was so hard to track all of this, the back and forth, the dialogue, and the subject-matter changes.
She focused on her end-goal. To get Jack to let own his guard. To blast him and then either get away or get Bonesaw too.
“I had one. Small. But I’m not as active as I once was.”
“If you joined us, the entire civilized world would pay attention to you,” Jack said.
She thought about agreeing. The end-goal remained the focus. Get close, destroy him.
But even in this scenario… she couldn’t.
“I don’t join. I don’t serve under anyone. I’m the one who leads, or I walk alone.”
“If you joined with the intention of taking my position as leader, you wouldn’t be the first, fifth, or even tenth,” Jack said.
Ashley shook her head. “No.”
“A lot of people tell me no,” Jack said. “It’s usually repeated over and over again, followed by a death rattle.”
Bonesaw snorted. She was eating yet another of Ashley’s eclairs.
Ashley consoled herself by focusing on how Bonesaw could die.
The thought crossed her mind. If she did this- if she found a way to get this kill, she would be celebrated. Wasn’t there a cash payout for anyone who killed these people? No questions asked?
“No,” Ashley said. “If you want your performance…”
“Performance art. The message.”
“Give me an order,” she said. “A task. I’ll do it, or I’ll try to do it. In exchange, you leave me alone. I don’t join, you get your murder and mayhem. I could be your distraction.”
“Hi, Siberian!” Bonesaw said.
Ashley turned to look. The front door. The Siberian was there. No costume, no clothes, no theater, words, or even posture, not in this moment. Just the woman and an imposing presence.
“I’d offer you one of these eclairs, but I know you prefer lady fingers,” Bonesaw said. She tittered.
“Any trouble?” Jack asked.
The Siberian shook her head.
“Then we have a little while,” he said. He looked at the Siberian. “We’ll talk details later, after the others catch up.”
“I thought she didn’t talk,” Ashley said.
“If you want mayhem, I’ll give you mayhem. It’s something I’m good at. If you want violence, I can give you violence,” Ashley said. “I’ve taken a boy’s arms and legs and I watched him bleed out. Name a target and I can do that. I’ve killed.”
“I don’t want mayhem,” Jack said. “I don’t want violence. I don’t want killing.”
“Oh, shoot!” Bonesaw said. “We’ve reaaaaaaally been messing up, then.”
“I want to change people,” Jack said. “I want to show what’s beneath the surface when things are taken away. We see it in the public when they’re scared or outraged. We see it in the individual when we take away everything they have.”
Ashley’s eyes narrowed.
“You don’t have much at all,” Jack said, he looked at Ashley’s apartment. “What lies beneath must be so close to boiling up when there’s so… so very little surface.”
Ashley had a hard time responding. She was tempted to do something suicidal and she only barely held herself back. “You’re not convincing me, Jack.”
“What would we have to offer you, for you to agree to give up that very little you have? I would be interested in seeing the inversion.”
Ashley thought back to earlier, when she’d considered talking to Edict and Licit.
“Her hand is injured,” Bonesaw said. “I could fix your hand.”
“I doubt it,” Ashley said. Her power crackled as she moved her fingers.
“Wonky powers? Not to worry, I think I can fix that. As thanks for the eclairs.”
Ashley was given pause.
“An audience, a fix, and again, I must remark on how the defining feature of your decor is the holes in the wall. There’s an anger to that.”
“I’m not angry,” Ashley said.
“Not angry at all? Living like this, when you clearly have so much pride? There’s nobody you find time to spend hating or resenting, every day? We would give you resolution for that.”
She thought of Accord. Of Boston.
“Someone,” Jack said. He smiled, walking closer. “Multiple someones?”
“I made my offer,” she said.
“I’m refusing,” Jack said. “My counteroffer: I’ll give you everything you want, with the exception of this one thing you cling to. This… construction of rules and limits, that you will not bend the knee to anyone.”
“You can’t give me everything I want. I want the world,” Ashley said. “I want territory of my own that I rule, and once I have it, I’ll expand it. I will want more.”
“Believe it or not,” Jack said. “I want the world too. I expect to have it in two year’s time, and when I do, you can take it from me.”
“He’s not lying,” Bonesaw said. “It’s supposed to be a prophecy.”
“They’re trying to kill me as if it’s true,” Jack said. He smiled.
“Bam,” Bonesaw said. “Clear path for you. You want the world and here’s a nice, obvious way to take it. It won’t be easy, but hey! Woohoo!”
Ashley shook her head slowly.
The goal. She needed to keep it in mind.
Her emotions were getting away from her.
“You don’t have many options,” Jack said.
“I don’t know,” she said, even though the answer was closer to a ‘no’. If she could convince them she could be swayed… to gradually change her mind…
Her heart pounded.
“Here,” Bonesaw said. “I have an idea. Because you gave me permission to have the treats, I’ll fix your arms. You can try it out, and you can see how it feels. This is super easy.”
“Maybe,” she said, to continue her narrative of being convinced.
“It’s really, really easy,” Bonesaw said. “I have most of what we’d need, since I did work on my own hands recently.”
Bonesaw approached. Ashley hesitated, backing away a bit.
“Come on. This way,” Bonesaw said. She approached the kitchen counter, while Ashley remained where she was.
Bonesaw picked up the twist of metal with the hook. “This is neat.”
“Leftovers from my power.”
“That’s great, that’s something I can use for the infrastructure! Here, come, come. Put your hands down on the counter. I’ll show you. It’s so simple it’s elegant!”
The Siberian moved, approaching. Ashley wheeled around.
“The Siberian lives by the principle of taking everything she wants, with no regard for civilization’s niceties,” Jack said. “Bonesaw pursues her art as inspiration demands. They are nobility as much as I am, with long track records. The entire point is to have whatever you desire. If at any point you see something you want or don’t want, you say the word.”
“Come on,” Bonesaw said. She gave Ashley a push. She reached into her bag and pulled out a metal tube. “This is the first thing. I’ll show you how this works. We can channel your power. Just put your hands on the counter there.”
There was an imminent threat, with the Siberian so near. What was her route. Jack was too far away to blast.
To hit Bonesaw and use the recoil from that to throw herself at Jack?
Would the Siberian intercept her, tackling her in the air? The woman was supposed to be fast.
She let Bonesaw move her arm, putting it down on the table. She would cooperate until there was an opening.
A heavy impact at her arm made her legs buckle, sharp pain shooting up to her shoulder and neck. A cleaver. Bonesaw had brought down a cleaver on her forearm. It had sunken into the bone.
Ashley reached around with her other hand, and didn’t make it the full distance. Jack moved his hand, and the skin of Ashley’s arm split.
A razor blade gleamed in the dimly lit living room. Jack had been holding it between two fingers.
Bonesaw hauled the cleaver out, and Ashley dropped to her knees from the pain. The cleaver came down again, and cut the rest of the way through the bone.
She’d hesitated, and it had cost her. When dealing with people like this, like Accord, she couldn’t afford any weakness, and yet the weakness was built-in.
Jack drew and swung a cleaver of his own.
Ashley was aware of Bonesaw saying ‘thank you’, and of the fact that there were words that followed that statement. She didn’t register them.
Her consciousness slipped away, in shock, the lingering exhaustion of her recent ailment, and the long exhaustion of the past several years.
She’d hesitated. She’d gone too long between the start and the end of this encounter without considering the task she needed to accomplish. She’d wanted what Jack was selling to her, and now she would have it.
Too much was still vague.
There had been a time when there were the bad days and the days she dreaded the bad days.
Then… just bad days.
Ashley stared at her mangled hands as she sat in the car. Her fingers were blades, long enough that she could stand up and have her fingertips touch the ground. Her power was wholly under her control and yet she still couldn’t reach out to touch anything.
Jack, as far as she could tell, was keeping to his promise. He’d told her that if she had something she wanted or didn’t want, she only had to ask.
That they’d taken away her ability to speak was the monkey’s paw part of it. Jack had made a comment about her tendency to rant and rave, and he’d said that had to go, with all the other parts of her act.
In exchange, though it wasn’t an exchange she’d asked for, they’d let her communicate their destination. She climbed out of the car.
Her emotions flailed through her like taut steel cables that had been cut, whipping out in every direction, but nothing changed.
The building was nice.
“After you,” Jack told her.
She moved her hand, her fingers flexing. The components locked up before she could position to blast Jack.
“You wanted this,” he said.
Her claws flexed as she blasted.
Perfect control. She could even manage the recoil.
She took the door in entirety, then stepped into the building.
She saw artwork, likely expensive, and she demolished it with a slash of her claws.
There was a kind of catharsis in this. Jack, perhaps, would get what he wanted, at this rate.
The other Nine moved through the house, checking rooms, getting ahead. Damsel only walked in a measured pace.
There were capes defending the area. Accord’s people that he whored out to other teams.
She kicked at the door that one held behind, denying her cover, and stabbed her in the shoulder. She walked forward, her steps measured, and the woman backed away, trying to keep the blades from penetrating deeper.
When the woman retreated through the doorway and stopped because a railing above a staircase stopped her, Damsel blasted her, focusing the recoil by controlling the strength of the blast, pushing the woman out and over the railing.
There was a large muscular man with a mask ducking low beside the door, using the stairs to be especially low profile. As she saw him, he lunged.
She slashed him with the power dancing around the blades. He tumbled down the stairs.
A laboratory. Blasto worked within.
He was in Accord’s house, with a proper lab. Had he been working with Accord, even back in her first proper visit to Boston?
The anger made her almost nauseous.
Bonesaw came skipping down the stairs. winking at Ashley as she took the stairs two at a time.
“I know you!” Bonesaw proclaimed.
“I know you too, Bonesaw” Blasto said.
“It’s not mine.”
“Man, it’s… this is nice stuff. Being constantly on the move, you miss out on stuff like this.”
“My old lab wasn’t this good,” he said. Then he turned to look at Ashley.
The words chilled her.
“Damsel of Distress, with some modifications by yours truly. Damsel for short. Better at controlling her power now.”
“Hi Damsel,” Blasto said.
Damsel looked at him, and she tried to speak, to comment. The sounds were strangled.
He didn’t remember her. She’d killed his giant and- what? Had someone else claimed credit? Was one of her crowning achievements a forgettable moment for another?
She was a nonentity. Even here, Bonesaw was the focus.
To be in the tank, gel-like fluid flowing into her nose and mouth. Drugged, paralyzed, her body was slow to listen to the instructions her brain tried to convey, to hold her breath, to fight this. Her power had already been locked out. It had never been hers, but now it wasn’t hers at all. The switch was in Bonesaw’s hands.
The fluid reached her lungs and she didn’t drown, but she couldn’t breathe either. Her heart kept beating, the drug kept increasing its hold on her.
Floating in the tank, she remembered things that hadn’t occurred in the one hour this version of herself had been awake.
Then the fluid began to heat up.
Chaos, incoherence, death and destruction.
There were other things.
The horizon glowed gold. Jack’s end of the world was coming to pass.
She had surrendered when Riley had. The surrender was because a switch had been flicked, but that was the external control. Internally, even though every memory in her head was an unpleasant one, she was relieved. She was glad to stop.
The relief had been short lived.
She had died in Blasto’s lab. A hero she didn’t even know had cut her in half.
She had metaphorically died when her core identity had been taken from her. Her hands, her voice. The theater had been all she’d had and she’d lost that.
She had died in Bonesaw’s lab. Over and over again, she had died. Many times, she had been boiled alive. Her head had been cut open, the brain poked at while she was awake.
Seven times, she had died, since leaving the lab.
Now she reached out, and bladed fingers closed around bladed fingers. They watched the world end.
She turned to her companion.
She saw her expression, her hair long, pupils absent in eyes surrounded by heavy and roughly applied decoration. It was startling to see, and her water bottle slipped from stiff fingers.
“What did you do to your hair?” the other Ashley asked.
“I felt the need for a change,” Ashley responded.
Her counterpart reached up.
“Hands down,” the Patrol guard said.
“It’s fine,” Ashley said. “She won’t hurt me.”
Bladed fingers settled on either side of her face, enough pressure applied that a strong wind might have been enough to push the threshold and see blood drawn.
It was reassuring to see the only other person left in existence that understood, that she couldn’t hurt with her power, should a freak accident happen. It was terrifying.
Her other self had the long hair, had wanted to keep the bladed fingers. The girl wore a long black dress and Ashley wore clothes that, while predominantly black, were more fit for the tribunal.
Riley had given them both the same options. Ashley didn’t know what had led to her other self responding a fraction before she did. Little decisions and situations cascaded. They’d been together at first. Her other self had carried on with their old ways.
She had a voice, the claw-hands gave her the ability to master her power, with no misfires. She’d lost control all the same.
Ashley had seen the video where her other self had been arrested. Every road led to death or ruin, it seemed. She’d known she needed to find another way.
She’d made a decision, then. Finally, finally, she had put herself at the mercy of others. That had led to the diagnosis.
Now she was here and… somehow she wasn’t upset.
“Come in,” her other self said. “I can’t believe you did that to your hair.”
“It’s so much lighter,” Ashley said.
She stepped into the apartment. The device at her ankle beeped.
Supposedly, even if she used her power to blast it, the charge would take off her foot. The same would happen if she tried to run.
She turned to look at her keepers, the men from the patrol. The goofy boy in uniform that wanted to impress Victoria.
Past them was the complex. With so much of the world empty, their wardens had decided to build a small contained facility in the middle of nowhere, with no civilization for a long, long way in every direction. Powers helped to close the gaps.
“Good luck,” Jester said.
“Take care, Jester,” she said.
She watched them walk away before shutting the door. Her hand was stiff as she pushed the door shut.
She carried her box through the apartment to the kitchen.
“We have so much catching up to do,” her other self said. “Tea?”
“Oh, you have tea. That’s good.”
“Sit. Put your things down. You do know we can share clothes, you didn’t have to bring your own.”
Ashley sat, setting the box on the table. She could hear the television. It had been left on in the background.
She hadn’t even had a television at her own apartment.
“I brought some favorites. You can wear them too, if you don’t cut them with those fingers of yours.”
“Criticize me when you can move your hands properly,” her other self said. Long bladed fingers plucked a teapot from the top of the cabinet. “I don’t use my teapot much. I put the teabags in a mug.”
“I did the same thing.”
“I take it you lost your trial?”
“The pre-trial proceedings,” Ashley said. “Lose is the wrong word. They sent me here because we get along, and because space is limited. Too many parahumans were arrested recently. One of them should be joining this complex.”
“Ah, you have a friend.”
“I have a lot of friends,” Ashley said. “I’ve had… a lot of good days, with bad days I can manage because I know more good days are coming.”
The other Ashley made an amused sound.
“I’ve wondered,” Ashley said. “Did the scientists reach out to you too?”
“They tried. I wouldn’t cooperate with them.”
“Then… you got what I was doing just now. Is that only because you come from the same place I do?”
“You want to know if we share anything.”
Her other self ignored the question at first, but it didn’t feel like an insult. Ashley knew what it was to digest, to consider.
“I have memories that sharpen,” her other self said. “A small few are memories from the files.”
“The files,” Ashley said. “Edict and Licit.”
“Bonesaw implanted us with memories, using a framework she got from the books. The ‘inciting incident’ for our powers. The paperwork surrounding our trips to other cities.”
“The gaps filled in. Some things, it reached for other available, familiar sources.”
“It’s vague,” her other self said. “But I didn’t dig too hard.”
Hardly worth being imprisoned, but interesting.
“Do you have a recollection of… the fields?” her other self asked, as she prepared the tea. She had no need to ask Ashley’s preferences. Her back was to Ashley. “A memory that doesn’t belong to anyone- not any person. A thing.”
Ashley met her other self’s eyes. The questions that she was being asked were the same questions she had planned to ask. She nodded, and she studied her other self’s face. She couldn’t tell if she was relieved or not to have the answer.
She took the tea that was given to her, being careful with her uncooperative hands and the hot drink. “A great plain of red-black crystal, one facet cracking and then mending in the span of a few seconds? The creaking sound and the dull static? It’s a recollection that isn’t exclusive to us.”