I flew down and at an angle, to try to break away, and I felt the near-miss, a rush of air that made my hood flap and my hair fly out in disarray.
That rush was cause for me to change direction. Evasive maneuvers.
Driving required an expanded awareness of the world. It was a mode that I presumed could be switched on, and it was a mode that I’d never really mastered. I’d read that the reason cell phones were so bad for driving was that they pulled the driver out of that mode, into the five by three inch world of the glowing screen.
Flying was another mode-shift, especially when it came to aerial encounters. To be aware of the above, the below, left, right, forward, back. Flying typically saw a person flying with their body parallel to the ground, because the ground was worth paying attention to, and because the shape of a human body meant either the ground or sky were faced. To fly facing forward with the body upright meant flying against the air resistance.
I was too slow to flip over and look up. I felt contact on my back, pressing against the bag I wore. My breastplate was in two pieces in the bag, and I felt one piece slide against the other, catching me in one shoulderblade.
Then the pressure, the steady push downward. If I were a plane, it would have been forcing me into a nosedive.
I flipped around, grabbed Crystal’s ankle, and used the rotation of my body with a yank of my arm to fling her off. She created a forcefield to ‘land’ on, her back, hands and feet pressing against it, then launched herself at me, breaking the field in the process of the launch.
Experience told me that she’d go for something she could grab, and I hauled my knees in toward my chest to pull my ankles out of the way of her grip. She passed close behind me, while I somersaulted once in the air.
The weight of my bag meant I had to be careful about getting back to a proper flying posture.
“You’re playing rough today,” I called out.
“I’ve always had to play rough to make a dent,” she said. “Did that change somehow?”
“Somehow,” I said. “Catch my bag?”
She held out her hands. I let my bag slide down my arm and caught the strap, then slung it at her. She caught it.
“Oof. That’s heavy. Somehow? Bullet in the arm somehow?”
I tried to use my fingers to get my hair sorted out, but it was caught in clothing and tangled around my costume top, hood, and neck.
No, Crystal, not bullet in the arm somehow.
“Yeah,” was all I said. I flipped upside down, using gravity to help get my hair to a better position, leaving me to just pluck at it where it had looped around things and let it fall ‘up’.
“Remember when my mom would make us do the flying in formation thing? You, me, Eric, sometimes her?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that was my mom’s idea.”
“Really? Damn it, Aunt Carol.”
“It made flying so boring,” I said. “Maintain course, fly in parallel, people on the ground might be taking pictures.”
“We had to match speed to Eric, and he was the slowest. Flying can be so boring even when you don’t have to do that stuff.”
I didn’t feel that way at all. I’d had issues with flying before, when a panicky feeling would start to set in and the nearest real thing was four hundred feet below me, but flying was totally amazing.
I flipped back around the other way, my hand up at my hair to help guide it. Crystal was flying in a lazy circle around me while I floated in place. “Having to fly to match Eric was worse for you than it was for me.”
“Little brothers are a pain,” she said. She smiled, but it was a little melancholy.
“I meant because you’re fast.”
“But you can do that, see? You just did this thing, you can turn upside-down and right-side up without getting dizzy.”
“I get dizzy.”
“But you can do that,” she said. “I have to be careful about any serious flipping, or I’ll be green around the gills for five minutes.”
“I’ll remember that for next time,” I teased.
“Ha ha. Don’t, or I’ll hurl and I’ll ruin someone’s day down there on the ground.”
“Over water then.”
“Never? Come on, you stepped on me.”
“Surfed! I used you as a surfboard.”
“Yeah, that’s so much better.”
“It kind of is. Besides, no dirt on these feet.”
I fixed my hair and adjusted my outfit. It was my costume, minus the metal bits, which wound up being somewhat dark, but the white trim, my belt, and the bag helped to break it up.
I reached for my bag, and she handed it over.
“You mentioned you didn’t have long before we had to go in separate directions,” Crystal said.
I pulled out my phone. The map was the first thing that came up.
“I overshot,” I said. “I have to fly back the way we came.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help with the move.”
I shook my head. “Duties. I get it. I don’t have much anyway, and I can call dad.”
“It might be a little while before we cross paths. Stuff’s going on.”
“I wish I could tell you more.”
“If you changed your mind and wanted to stay, you’d have my place all to yourself.”
“It’s your place,” I said. “It’s you. I need a place for me. I need to do something for me.”
“That sounds good,” she said.
“Though it is technically someone else’s place.”
“Take care of yourself until I get back,” she said. She flew a quarter-circle around me, as if flitting around and fretting were the same thing. “I worry.”
“I worry about you,” I said. “This classified mission to places unmentioned.”
“It’s not classified, I’m just… not supposed to talk about it. Because of orders.”
“They haven’t used that word.”
“Be safe,” I said.
She gave me a hug, coming in from the side so as not to jostle or bump the sling.
We parted, and I flew backward, watching as she flew away, until she was just a speck in the distance.
I put my phone away. Now that I wasn’t being bullied mid-flight by my big cousin, I was free to keep an eye on where I was going. The portal slashing through Norfair was one thing – I termed it a ‘slash’ because it was thinner than some of the others. There were more clouds in the sky on the far side. I flew over it, giving it a wide berth to be safe.
Past the portal, the endless sea of city was harder to navigate. I looked for landmarks. The financial buildings with the shopping center we’d been in yesterday was a new one for me. Kenzie’s area was a bit to the north of it. Norwalk.
I kept an eye out for and found the Norfair community center. I knew the location, and the yellow tarps that were still around the damaged portions of the building were very visible from the air, especially given its relative proximity to the water. It had been one thing I’d kept an eye on on my prior flights across the Megalopolis.
The Norfair community center was the middle ground between Norwalk and Fairfield. Play structures of painted wood and bars were a good clue I was in the right place. The building from above resembled what I’d seen with a check online.
I landed a few blocks away and walked the rest of the way.
Kids were out and playing, many wearing hooded sweatshirts or jackets. A handful of adults were out, spread out to see more of the play area.
I approached the fence. Kids saw me, and an adult took notice. An older woman, with gray hair and clothes of the super comfortable, easy sort that fit a barely mobile ninety year old, rather than what I presumed was a seventy year old.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m here about Chris Elman.”
She pointed, “Talk to her. She knows him.”
I walked along the fence until I reached a woman who was handling some of the five to eleven year olds at the edge of the sandbox. They looked like a pretty vicious bunch.
She was of Middle-eastern descent, with makeup I might have deemed ‘evening’ makeup for going to a club if I’d worn it – very distinct eyeliner, eyeshadow, and bold lipstick that would have stood out in dim lighting. She made it work. Her clothes were nice- a red dress with a leaf pattern at the hem, on the folded collar with the decorative edge, and her sleeves.
At a glance, she seemed to be the youngest adult in the yard.
“Yes?” she asked. However young she was, by the stern tone alone I could imagine she was the one I would have wanted to cross least if I were ten years younger.
“I’m looking for a kid I volunteer with. Chris Elman?”
Her expression changed. She pointed at one of the kids. “Skye, don’t be a brat. Play on your own for a bit.”
That order given, she approached the chain-link fence.
“He lives here, right?”
“You don’t sound sure.” She was roughly my age and it was the kind of voice that made me think ‘mama bear’.
“He’s… kind of the kind of kid who doesn’t leave you feeling very sure about anything,” I said.
She paused, then smiled. “Yes. He is.”
“I tried to call him, but there wasn’t a response. I know some of the cell towers have been down, so I thought I’d check in.”
“We’ve had outages. Not as bad as some areas. That could be it, but you could have waited and tried again, instead of coming from…?”
“Bridgeport, for now. I kind of wanted to-” I hesitated. “-make sure everything was okay.”
“It’s hard to say anything that wouldn’t be construed as a breach of his trust,” she said. “I’m one of the few adults he seems to be willing to tolerate.”
Maybe because you’re pretty, I thought. Then I thought again. Chris seemed like the type to prefer a hard-nosed adult he could predict and rely on over the friendly sort. Maybe it was both. “It’s a sensitive boundary, apparently. I don’t want either of us to cross it. Also, behind you.”
One of the girls was holding a boy down and spitting repeatedly in his face. Both kids seemed to be seven or so.
“Skye!” the woman barked the word, and the kids froze, eyes going wide, with only the culprit ignoring the order, continuing to spit. She strode over, hauled the little girl off, and pulled her away by one arm. The little girl fought as well as she was able, not giving an inch.
All fight. This stern teacher didn’t slow her down or make her hesitate a second. The yard monitor wrapped the child’s own arms around the child’s stomach, forming an ‘x’, like a straightjacket without the jacket, and knelt, hugging her to secure her in that position. The kid kicked and threw her weight around.
I had instincts that made me want to hop over the fence and help. Still, outing myself as a cape at Chris’ home would do more harm than any good I could do here.
“Sorry,” the woman said.
“Not a problem,” I said.
The little girl gradually stopped kicking, as she didn’t get much of a response. I waited.
“I can send somebody to get Chris, if you like. He should be in his room, if he didn’t go for a walk.”
“Chris?” Skye asked.
“Yes,” the woman said. “Why don’t you go, Skye? You’ll burn off some energy if you run.”
Skye looked between us. “I don’t want to.”
“Well, you have to, now. Spitting isn’t allowed, this can be your time out. You know where his room is?”
“Everyone knows,” the girl said. She was still breathing hard from the struggle.
“Great. Katie? Go with Skye. Hold her hand tight. Tell Chris his friend is here.”
One of the older girls approached, an eleven-year old. Skye was released from the hold, and, after hesitating, took Katie’s hand.
“Scoot!” the yard monitor said, and she might as well have cracked a whip, because the kids picked up the pace.
I watched them go into the building. The yard monitor wiped away most of the dirt that the kneeling and kicking had deposited onto her knees and upper shins.
“They’ll be a minute. He’s on the top floor and he’s probably in bed.”
“Got it,” I said. “I’m Victoria, by the way.”
“Val. We can talk until he arrives.”
“Sure,” I said. I frowned slightly as I tried to think of how to phrase it.
“Worries, questions, or warnings?” she asked.
“Well, it’s telling that the kids are scared of him, and of the three possible topics you just mentioned, worries were one and warnings were another.”
Val smiled. “He’s unique.”
“That’s- yeah. He’s okay? He’s managing?”
“I only know what I see when he’s here, and he’s mostly here to sleep. He spends some of his time, ahem, volunteering,” Val said. Her sharply penciled eyebrow went up.
So she knew about the cape stuff.
“A lot of time is spent on ‘walks’,” she added.
“You’ve brought that up twice. The walks.”
“We talk about it, among the staff. It’s been more of an issue lately, and it’s on my mind. We would call his therapist, but-”
I saw her expression change.
I shook my head.
She nodded. The fence bent slightly with her weight as she leaned back against it, her back to me while she watched the children.
“I liked her,” Val said.
“She was terrific. I’m kind of holding out hope, but it’s a horrible mess either way,” I replied. My voice was a bit hollow as I tried to keep from letting any emotion into it. “I dunno. Why is it a big deal?”
“He turned up last night at two-thirty in the morning. That was the latest he’s ever come in. We took away privileges, but if we take away one thing he finds other things to do. We’re divided on whether to be stricter about curfew or to let him be. I’m one of the only people who gets along with him in some form, which means they keep asking me for my input. I never know what to say.”
“That’s a tough spot to be in.”
“Was he volunteering?”
“I don’t want to say anything he wouldn’t want me to say,” I said.
“Okay. Fair. I didn’t get the impression he was volunteering. Should we stop the walks? Let me know if you’re not comfortable saying.”
I wondered if he was going out to change. “Given his situation, he might need it. It’s hard to say- it would depend on how he’s doing here.”
Her head turned, and she looked at me with one eye. “How do you think he’s doing?”
“The kids are scared of him, apparently.”
“He’s odd. He celebrates being odd.”
It seemed like a tepid response, a half-answer. “Is that it? Or is there more?”
“A number of the other teachers and the admin are scared of him,” she admitted. “I am, sometimes.”
“Because when you see him with any regularity, you notice changes day to day. He’s had two roommates, and one asked to be moved to another room. The second was made of sterner stuff, but he gave up after sharing a room with Chris over the late winter and spring.”
“Chris can be tough to get along with,” I said.
“He was scared,” Val said. “He wasn’t and isn’t comfortable being in the same room as Chris. He’s been uneasy even when Chris wasn’t present and it has been that way for two months.”
“And now he’s in a room with two beds and no roommate?”
“We’ve had lengthy debates about that too. We decided it was best to leave him be and let him have his room, at least for now.”
We watched the kids playing for a little bit. Things were calmer with the spitter on her errand. The boy had wiped his face and was now carrying on making a dirt pile like nothing had happened.
“There was something else. We had a theft issue,” Val said.
“If this was explicitly Chris, I wouldn’t be comfortable telling you,” she said. “We had several thefts. Chris was cleared of wrongdoing for the biggest one. Some of the children said they had seen him out for a walk at the time it happened. Chris’ former roommate was one of them.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m not sure I follow, then. He was under suspicion?”
“He was the first many of us thought of. Some-” she said, and she paused. She met my eyes and continued talking at a lower volume, “-feel that he is clever enough to get away with it, and they don’t want to clear him of suspicion so easily.”
“A theft of what?” I asked.
“Things from the nurse’s office.”
I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, knowing what little I did about Chris. If it were anything else, I could feel upset about it, but if it was stuff he was trying to keep on hand for his own benefit…
Damn it, Chris.
“Mm hmm,” Val made a noise, as if my silence had confirmed something. “He leaves you unsure about things.”
Not unsure in the way she might have been picturing. I was pretty sure he was the culprit. When it came to blaming him, though… yeah, unsure was a good word.
“You mentioned that you get along with him,” I said.
“As much as anyone does, which isn’t a lot.”
“Some others actually get along with him in a normal-ish way, I think,” I said. Rain, specifically. Tristan and Byron, in a way. Ashley, in a way. Kenzie, in a love-hate, reaching kind of way. I hadn’t known him to connect with Sveta.
“Do you?” she asked.
I hesitated, then said, “No.”
“I wish I could give you advice,” she said. “I don’t think I can without betraying his trust. There are some things I’ve picked up on that I’ve only ever mentioned to his therapist.”
“No need,” I said. “I’m trying to find my footing and figure out where things stand before I push or do anything substantial. Not just with Chris. This has already been pretty helpful, I think.”
“We have three hundred children here, with some in a partial or daycare-like capacity. I don’t see him much, I don’t want you to get me wrong. He’s only here to sleep, play games or get things. Others take up our attention.”
“It’s understandable. It sounds like you’re doing the best you can. The roommate thing is a bit of a worry, though.”
“And this theft he was cleared of.”
“Yes,” she said. “With three hundred children here, I have seen a number of types. Angry children-”
“Skye,” I said.
“The desperate, the scared,” she said. “I can’t give him a type. He’s uncanny. I wish you could solve this riddle for me.”
Uncanny was a really good word, capturing what I’d noticed about Chris when I’d first seen him in Yamada’s group therapy session. Uncanny in every way.
“I wish I could solve this riddle for me,” I said. “But when it comes to the volunteer work, he’s helping. He’s doing good. That’s something, isn’t it?”
She gave me a curious look. “Yeah. Can I pass that along to the staff?”
The front door of the building slammed. Chris stood just beyond the doors, looking for me, finally spotting me.
Oh, he looked pissed.
“I don’t know if it helps with the riddle,” she said. “But out of all the desperate, and all of the scared, I’ve never had a kid who was so desperate for something, where I couldn’t figure out what they really wanted.”
“I might have ideas,” I said.
“It’s not the obvious answer. It’s not his health. That’s the weirder thing.”
I shifted my stance, leaning against the fence, in my best attempt to get a good look at her face.
Chris was stalking toward us, his bag in his hand. Other kids stared.
“I’ve never had a child to look after who had so many reasons to be scared, who wasn’t.”
“You don’t think he’s scared?” I murmured.
“I used to. It was camouflaged desperation I saw.”
The talk of feelings and emotions and the tie-in to Chris as a cape made me wonder what that form would look like. Camouflaged desperation.
Nothing camouflaged at the moment. Chris marched his way toward us. He had to dodge around two playing kids who got in his way. Other kids got out of his way, seemingly by dint of his reputation alone.
“He really is doing good?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “In his grouchy, surly way.”
Chris caught up to us. He huffed. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“You didn’t answer your phone.”
“My battery died. Email is a thing.”
“Internet dropped for this area,” I said.
“You came without being invited. Not fucking okay!”
“Language,” Val said. “Keep it clean with the littles around.”
“I hate that word. Littles.”
“I won’t use it if you stop being bad.”
“You say that like I’m a dog and I crapped in the house. ‘Bad’. I’m trying to explain why this isn’t cool. It’s about respect and boundaries.”
“I’m trying to respect your boundaries,” I said.
“You came here. From another area entirely. Without telling me first.”
“No phone, no internet. There is, as far as I know, no telegraph or established way of transmitting smoke signals,” I said.
“You wanted an excuse to snoop,” he said, “Because you can talk about relationship pillars and trust and respect and caring and boning-”
“Chris,” Val said.
“Or whatever, and you don’t live up to your own freaking hype, Vic! You want me to show respect and you show me none if you freaking surprise me like this.”
“Something came up. I came to let you know.”
“Don’t lie to me!” he said. If he were any angrier, he might have a vein standing out on his forehead. “You wanted to snoop! You quizzed Val! You came to my place and you poked your nose in where it doesn’t belong!”
There were times he seemed so adult, and there were times he seemed so young. This was the latter.
“Victoria told me you were doing a good job with volunteering-”
“Why tell Val anything!?” Chris asked, voice raised. “It’s none of your business.”
“She also,” Val said, staying calm, her voice quieter, “Said your breaking curfew shouldn’t be a big deal. I can tell the other teachers that.”
“I don’t give a shit! She shouldn’t say anything and you shouldn’t have brought it up!”
“Language,” Val said. “Break the rules and I’ll go into your room and take the save cards for your consoles. If you really push it I won’t give them back.”
“I need those.”
“I need you to calm down and be a good example for the little ones.”
I saw as Chris worked to suppress the anger. Seemingly only now becoming aware that the other kids existed, he looked around before identifying one. “You.”
“That’s Sam, Chris. His room is two doors from yours.”
“Whatever. How long were they talking before I got here?”
“Um,” a boy of about twelve gave the answer. Sam. “A while?”
“A while,” Chris said, locking eyes with me. “Yeah, that’s great.”
“Everyone’s getting together this afternoon,” I said. “If we waited for the internet to come back or for you to turn your phone on, you might have missed it. If you don’t like it, keep your phone charged.”
“Okay. I’m going out, Val,” Chris said. He stormed past her and toward the gates. “Don’t go in my room.”
“You don’t get to set rules, Chris,” Val said.
“Don’t,” he said, giving her the evil eye. “I’ll do my own laundry for now.”
Then he walked away. It seemed like he expected me to have to follow.
“It was nice talking to you, Victoria,” Val said. “Maybe we could meet for a friendly coffee sometime.”
Chis wheeled around, ready to jump right into the fray with more incensed words.
Val put her hands up in mock surrender.
It didn’t necessarily help me, but I could almost see why she’d done that. The push, the pull, letting Chris know she could fight back.
I matched Chris’ pace, which wasn’t hard. His legs were shorter than mine.
The area was a little spartan, the buildings either the quickly put together sort, of the type that had been most common just after Gold Morning, or the big brick edifices with zero personality.
“What did you talk about?”
“General things. She hinted that she knows about the cape stuff.”
“Yeah, all the staff do. It’s a pain.”
“She needed help telling what was you being a troublemaker and what was you being a cape. I honestly wasn’t sure. I said I figured it was more the second one.”
“It’s not your job and it’s not your place,” he said. “You don’t need to check on me.”
“I need to check up on everyone, at least a little,” I said. “I was too slow with Rain and Ashley. I worry about you, I’m concerned about Sveta, Byron’s going through a tough time, and Kenzie-”
“You’re skipping Tristan?”
“I’m trying not to skip anyone,” I said.
“You need to focus on people other than me. Figure out your priorities. I’m stable. I’m dealing with my shit myself, I haven’t asked for help, and I’m doing my share. Compare that to Kenzie, the living personification of a cry for help, in so many ways.”
“I’m having dinner with Kenzie’s family tonight, her place isn’t far from the G-N portal.”
“Good luck,” he said. “Have fun. Come back from that and tell me again how I’m a priority on your watch list.”
“That is not what I said,” I told him. “I’m trying to keep an eye out for everyone, because that’s what Jessica would have wanted.”
“Yeah, well, what I want is for people to leave me the fuck be. I’m sticking to the rules-”
“Mostly,” I said.
I could see his expression change, his shoulders rising like steam was building up inside him and it was all he could do to keep it contained.
“Chris,” I said. “I didn’t go beyond the gates. Neither she nor I shared anything that you would have wanted kept in confidence.”
“I want everything kept in confidence,” he said. Steam still building.
“It doesn’t work that way. I’ve heard from multiple people now that people are scared of you and you’re bending rules. That warrants someone asking a few mild questions to figure out if everything’s handled.”
“You literally make people afraid of you with your power,” Chris’s words could only be described as a resentful growl. “Does that warrant someone asking some questions or making sure you’re handled?”
“Or did your sister handle you when she tightened-”
I grabbed him by the shoulder, hard, stopping him from walking.
“-the screws?” he finished, locking his eyes to mine.
Cold anger, resentment. A twist of something that might have been triumph in his eyes.
“You don’t go there,” I whispered.
“You don’t come here!” he said, and a fleck of spit left his mouth as he shouted, to land somewhere on my top. “I have to fucking balance everything. I lose my heart or I lose my body. I’ve gone to the fucking bathroom in the morning and there was blood and meat in the bowl when I was done, and there’s two people I can trust to handle the clog or leave me alone so I can handle it. She was one of them. You can’t fuck with that!”
“You did! You said stuff and you might have changed her mind about stuff and I can’t know how to balance it if I don’t know what was said! She changes my sheets when there’s fluids on the bed that aren’t blood, semen, piss or shit, no questions asked, because Jessica said it’s under control. Now Jessica isn’t here and you’re putting ideas in her head and she might change her mind about things!”
“What the hell is going on, Chris, that you’re dealing with stuff like that? Powers don’t usually tear you up like that.”
I saw a flicker of something in his expression, between the outrage and the reckless madness I’d seen as he talked about fluids and Jessica.
Not his powers?
“None of your business!”
“Is it not your powers?” I asked. “Someone else’s? Someone did this to you?”
“None of your business and fuck you!”
“Have you shared about this with the others?”
“No! Of course not! Because I don’t fucking want any fucking people fucking with me!”
“Chris,” I said. “We can’t help you if you don’t share. I know power stuff, I studied it, I saw a lot of it at the Asylum.”
“Read my lips,” he said, panting as he said it. Now he had the vein in his forehead. “I. Don’t. Want. Help. Not from you. I want to be left alone and I’m willing to do the hero thing because it works for me. I’m fine.”
I’m fine, he said.
He stared me down and there was no waver in his eyes, no sign of anything in his face or posture besides repressed outrage.
“Are you fine because you’re striking that balance, emotionally?” I asked. “With the forms?”
“If I want help,” he said. “If my body starts going screwy and there’s no way to salvage it, I’ll go down to the seven-seven building, near where the Wardens headquarters used to be.”
I shook my head. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s housing the Wardens used. Odds are pretty good it’s where your sister’s living.”
My heart sank to roughly where my knees were, but the place it had been wasn’t left intact. It was cold and empty and sick and painful all at once.
My heart didn’t feel like it was beating right, and my breathing wasn’t right either.
I let go of his shoulder.
I hadn’t wanted to know where she was.
“I’ll go to her for help before I go to you. I’d go to Bonesaw, if she was still around.”
I shook my head, walking away.
He raised his voice. “You want to push me!? I’ll push back!”
I stopped in my tracks.
“That kind of pushing gets you killed,” I said. “Or worse.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got a handle on ‘worse’,” he said. “I have for a while. Dying? Meh.”
The ‘meh’ was both dismissive and an epithet at the same time.
“Fine,” I said. “You want this? Go for it.”
“That’s all I ever asked for.”
“But where I draw the line is scaring or hurting others. Make nice. Don’t give people a reason to ask questions.”
“Yeah, whatev,” he said.
“And don’t give the other members of the team a reason to grieve. I don’t want to see Kenzie or Sveta crying over you.”
“I like how you say ‘other’. I’m off your grieving list?” Chris asked.
“Keep mentioning my sister and you’ll get there.”
Man. I could have slapped him.
“Train station’s this way,” he said.
“Walk fast. G-N portal. The meeting with Lord of Loss is at two.”
I left him to hike it. I flew.
For his benefit, really.
I landed where the others had assembled. There was a blown-up image of Tempera and two capes I didn’t recognize printed on the wall of the station.
When we’d passed out the word that the other stations were potentially being targeted, G-N had been one of the stations that had been saved. I was heartened to see just who had managed it.
I needed a bit of heartening.
It was good to see the other members of the group happy. Sveta was smiling, and Kenzie was bouncing around while talking to Tristan.
“Chris is on his way. He caught the twelve-thirty train, it’ll be thirty minutes,” I said.
“Awesome,” Tristan said. “Listen, because this just came up, and it’s a good opportunity-”
“We were talking back hair,” Kenzie said.
“Yeah,” Tristan said.
“I think if I liked anyone I could like someone with back hair,” Kenzie said.
“No, Kenzie, that’s not okay,” Sveta said.
“But you said you could be okay with it.”
“I said I feel obligated to say I’d be okay with it because my boyfriend has back forks. And back wires. He keeps it tidy but it is a place he sometimes has to position loose material.”
“I feel obligated because some of my favorite people in the world had back hair,” Kenzie said.
“Again, please, not okay,” Sveta said.
“Because back hair means older, and that’s skeevy.”
“Didn’t the boy Tristan liked have back hair at fourteen? Fourteen isn’t old. Well, it is to me, but that’s because it’s-”
“I did not like Jhett Marion!” Tristan said. “Please. Let me get a word in edgewise. I can see where Byron got it wrong, but I liked Tyler Redmond. He was a senior, he was tall, he had long hair, and he was good at art. He had a lower back tattoo and no back hair. I’m not down for that.”
“I’m not down for that,” I said. “Wax, shave, deal with it somehow.”
“Thank you,” Tristan said. “I value and appreciate your sanity.”
“I’m not changing my answer,” Kenzie said.
Kenzie and Tristan bickered. Sveta approached me, leaning into my good arm. “You okay?”
I shook my head. I murmured my answer. “Spat with Chris.”
She nodded. No commentary.
“Can we get some fresh air?” I asked. “Wait on the other side of the portal? At least until Chris’ train arrives?”
“I can keep an eye out,” Kenzie said, holding up her phone. “Oh! We need to talk about dinner. I hope this doesn’t run late and we don’t get a mob of assassins or zombies coming after us, because my mom’s making this pasta dish- is pasta okay?”
“Pasta’s great,” I said. “Keeping an eye out is great. Just-”
I motioned toward the station and the portal within.
We made our way through. There wasn’t much traffic, but there was a lot of security. Patrol block was out in force, checking our ID twice. I had to hand over my bag. Kenzie unloaded all of her trinkets and things, which ended up taking a few minutes.
The pressure of the city and of accumulated stresses were weighing on me. It was hard to breathe.
When we finally got through, it got easier. It was a question of walking down a hallway, past a blurry area, and up a half-flight of stairs, passing through doors.
Earth N. Fresh air, trees, birds, fields. There wasn’t much civilization at all, beyond the standard buildings that surrounded portals in foreign worlds. Supplies, basic needs, a small hospital, administration. Not even a small town.