Torch – Interlude 7.x

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This could be fixed.  This wasn’t as bad as it could have gone.

What was she supposed to say?

It made her heart hurt.  It bothered her, because they were stupid and shortsighted and it threatened to ruin everything.

That, and what they’d done to the food.

She had to calm down.  Being upset only made things worse.  She was angry, even pissed, but as that feeling faded, a door between her and her stupid-ass idiot parents, it left her with an ugly, all-too-familiar feeling in her middle.  That didn’t help either.

“Kenzie,” Victoria said, behind her.

Kenzie turned around.  Victoria hung back, near the door of the workshop.  Kenzie stood in the middle of everything.

This could be fixed.

“What’s going on?” Victoria asked.  She made her voice so gentle, so caring, that it made all the anger and hurt from elsewhere feel worse.

“I can explain.”

“Okay.  Before you do, I have to ask… are you okay?” Victoria asked.

Kenzie smiled and nodded.

Victoria was a threat.  Not an enemy threat, but a problem and a danger.  If she talked to others, said the wrong things, then everything could blow up out of control.

“Are they okay?” Victoria asked.  She put a hand on the doorknob, opening the door a crack.

Mom and dad were still at the table.  Kenzie saw only a glimpse of them, and her phone burned a hole in her pocket, promising a clearer, more immediate view of them.  She was so used to checking, and she had to work to convince herself there wasn’t a need right now.

They weren’t important now that the damage had been done.

She needed to fix the Victoria problem her parents had made, first.

“They’re okay?” Victoria asked, again.

“That’s a really easy question with a hard answer,” Kenzie said.

Victoria didn’t move.

“They’re not going to get hurt or anything, they’re okay like that,” Kenzie elaborated.  Her heart was racing.  “But um, if I was going to start explaining, I’d start by saying they’re not okay.  There was this time, um, I was talking to Jessica and I said they’re bad people.  It’s not that they do bad things, because, duh, they do… it’s more that they’re bad at being people.  I said that to Mrs. Yamada once and she liked it.”

“Bad at being people how?”

“Stuff’s missing, I guess.  Like it is with me, but different stuff.  Um-”

Kenzie’s instinct was to reach for something.  This could be fixed, but fixing couldn’t happen on its own.  Left on their own, things broke down and one problem became a hundred million problems.

Fixing needed tools.  She had lots of tools.  It was enough that considering the possibilities made her thoughts a mess.  What camera?  What perspective or images?  What data?  What combination came together and made everything mostly okay again?

“I’m on your side,” Victoria said.  The statement interrupted Kenzie’s thoughts.

“I know,” Kenzie said.  “I wouldn’t have invited you over if you weren’t.”

“Would it help to step away?  Go for a walk, maybe?”

Kenzie shook her head.  Her workshop was hers.  Her tools were close by, and it made her feel more secure.

Tools.

Kenzie jammed her hand into her pocket.   Victoria stepped away from the door, toward more open space, like she did any time she wanted to be able to use her wonky forcefield.

She was spooked and weirded out, which was totally, one-hundred percent okay.  Kenzie knew as well as anyone that her parents could be spooky and that the whole thing could be weird.

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “Nothing bad.  It’s cards.”

“Cards?”

Kenzie drew the case from her pocket.  It had held a chepa sewing kit once, but it was the perfect size to hold three of the memory cards with a foam backing.

“You had that earlier today.”

“Yup,” Kenzie said.  She held it out, giving Victoria her best reassuring smile.  “Here.”

Victoria took the clear case with the three long cards within.  “For the diary?”

Kenzie nodded.

“There’s no paint on these.”

“That’s because I know how it all goes,” Kenzie said.

Pencil scratched on paper.  Her headphones were on with music playing and the tiny television on the corner of her desk had a show on that was probably meant for older kids.  There was violence and fighting, so she tried to not pay attention to it.

Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…” the music on her headphones pumped, the tune happy and poppy.  The girls in her class had been talking about it.  She liked most things so she used that sort of thing to decide what she listened to, on the off chance she could talk to them about it.

It was good.  Normally she would have sang along to it, but she was distracted.

There was safety in numbers.  The pencil scratched on paper, finishing another long division problem.  She moved on to the next, because as long as she was doing this, she wasn’t being a pain, and she could mostly ignore the feeling in her belly.

She could smell dinner.

It was harder to not be a pain and stay out of the way when she had to go to the dinner table.

Pencil to paper, tongue pressed between her lips.  The seven didn’t go into the one, but it went into the fourteen… she counted, eyes going to the ceiling.  Her head bobbed with the sound of the music, even though she wasn’t paying attention to the words.

Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen.  The seven went into fourteen twice.

The door to her room opened.  Dad leaned in and said something, and she hurried to pull her headphones down, hands wrapped around them, with fingers covering the parts where the sound came out.

Dad looked annoyed.

“Dinner is in a few minutes,” he said.

She nodded.

“You’re doing homework?”

She nodded again.

He stepped into the room, and she looked down, sliding the book across her desk.

“Division.  Do I need to check your work?”

She shook her head.

“Speak up, Kanzi.  You have a voice.  Use it.”

“No.  I did today’s homework already.  I was doing some work from later in the book.”

“Wash your hands and get ready for dinner.”

She nodded.

He went back toward the kitchen, and his movement was marked by a waft of cigarette smoke, pungent.  It smelled better than dinner.

More bad feelings squirmed through her belly.

She tore the notebook paper out of the pad, then popped open her binder, slotting it in at the end.  It was easier to stay in her room and be quiet, and better still if she was doing homework, because it was hard for anyone to complain about her doing her homework.  There wasn’t enough work to do to fill whole afternoons after school and before bed, so she’d started to work ahead.  A lot of it was dull or confusing, but after a while, she’d started to make a game of it.  It was her hope that she could finish the entire third grade math textbook before Christmas.

Binder closed.  Books put away in her bag for school tomorrow.  She turned her music and television off, then turned off the light in her room.

The bathroom was empty, the coast clear.  She closed and locked the door, then got one of the metal wicker baskets from the shelf, moving the hand towels inside to the edge of the counter before putting the basket down upside-down on the bathroom floor.  It worked like a stepping stool, giving her the height she needed to reach the taps, which was harder to do since the new counter and sink mom and dad had put in.

Sleeves pushed up, hands thoroughly washed and dried, sleeves rolled down.  Towels went back in the basket, which was dusted off before it went back on the shelf.

Then, because she was looking for reasons to delay sitting down to dinner, she gave the bathroom what mom called a once-over.  She saw the glint of drops of water on the counter, hurried over to the basket to get one of the hand towels, and dabbed them up before folding the towel back up and putting it in the basket.

Her nose wrinkled as she walked down the hall, past the kitchen, and through the corner of the living room to the dining room.  She made sure nobody saw.

The table was one that could seat six, mom had been proud of that when she picked it.  It was old and gleaming and nice, but there were only three of them for the very big table.  Her dad had  chair at one end, her mom had a chair at the other, and she had a chair in the middle, each of them off to either side, where she had to turn her head to see them.  She took her seat, fingers clutching the end of her skirt, toying with the pleat.

“Creamy Parmesan Chicken Gratin,” her mom announced, as she set down the plate.

Despite her best efforts, Kanzi couldn’t keep her nose from scrunching up as she gave the dish her best dubious look.  It looked like vomit with a crust on top.

It smelled like vomit with a crust on top.

She stared down at it while mom set down the plates for dad and then herself, before returning to the kitchen to get something.

“Eat,” dad said.

She got her knife and fork and held each clenched in one fist, waiting until her mom returned.

“Eat while it’s hot,” her mom said, before sitting down.  She began to pour drinks, while Kanzi set to working on her dinner.

It was like when nachos were overcooked in the microwave, and the cheese boiled and got super hard.  The difference was that she still wanted the nachos when they were overdone.  The dinner knife refused to cut the hard crust.  Pressing down on the hard portion made the runny goop in the middle ooze out onto the plate right in front of her chin, and the smell was worse.

Her dad was having trouble cutting up the food too.  She opened her mouth to say something, and between the smell and the feeling that had been worming through her belly for the past hour, a barfy feeling surged up.  She stopped herself before it became actual leaving-the-mouth barf.

“Hurk,” she couldn’t stop herself from making the sound.

Her mom’s chair scraped on the floor.  Kanzi’s shoulders drew forward her head down, while she tried to breathe as little as possible.

“I worked really hard on dinner,” her mom said.  One hand rested on the back of Kanzi’s chair, the other on the table by her plate.

“Just eat, Kanzi,” her dad said.  “You don’t have to eat it all, but eat.”

“I would like her to eat it all,” her mother said.  “I slaved away in the kitchen for hours, with the expectation that my daughter would appreciate my work.”

“Alright, Irene.”

Kanzi gripped her utensils.  She made a renewed effort to cut her food.  Her knife slipped and scraped against the plate, producing a screech.  She was startled enough that she dropped the utensils.  The knife clattered to the plate, while her fork fell, clattering to the floor.

“There’s no gratitude.”

“I’m sorry,” Kanzi told her mom.

“We give you everything.  Nice clothes, nice food, a hairstylist, a nice big house, and there’s no appreciation.”

She looked to her dad for help.

“Listen to your mom.  We need you to try harder when it comes to these things.”

She moved her chair back, so she could go down and get her fork off the ground.  Her mom reversed the course, pushing the chair in, hard.

“Where are you going?  What did your dad just say, Kanzi?”

She froze.

“He told you you need to try and your first thought was to get up from the table?”

She’d wanted to get her fork.  That was all.

She was cornered.  There was nothing she could say or do when mom got like this.  She could only try to listen.

“Eat the dinner I made for you,” her mom said, and her tone was dangerous.

She didn’t have a fork to eat with.  She couldn’t cut it, and she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to eat it if she did cut it.

She-

Her mom’s hand found the back of her neck.  Her face was pushed down onto the plate, into the creamy chicken whatever.

“We said we wouldn’t discipline her physically, Irene.”

Her grip tightened at the back of Kanzi’s neck.  “What do you want me to do, Julien?  It wasn’t a cheap or easy dinner to put together.”

“I know,” he said.

Kanzi’s shoulders drew further together, and she huffed out a breath, the breath forming a briefly-lived trough in the runny cream at the bottom of the plate.

My mother never cooked for me,” mom said.  “I had an au pair.  I would have loved- loved- for my mom to put in that effort!”

With the second utterance of ‘loved’, her hand moved, moving Kanzi’s face with it.  The movement brought face against the raised lip of the plate, making the far end of the plate come up.  Food moved.

“Ungrateful.”

Another movement, face sliding against slick plate, another push against the lip at the edge of the plate, bringing the other end up.

This time, though, it came down sharply, striking the table.  It cracked, and Kanzi felt a shock of pain at one side of her face.

Her mom released her.

“I can’t.  I just can’t!  I can’t!” her mother proclaimed.

“It’s fine.  Plates can be replaced.  If she doesn’t want to eat it hot she can eat it cold.”

“I didn’t work hard at it with the idea it would be eaten cold, Julien!  What’s the point of introducing our daughter to a variety of cuisines if she’s going to throw it back in our faces like this?”

Kanzi’s face hurt.  She pulled her face away from the broken plate, and looked down in bewilderment, because the dish had changed.  It wasn’t just the fact that the plate had broken and the placemat below was visible.  The dish had been a beige-yellow-brown before and now there was a shock of crimson running through it.

“Oh my god, Julien,” her mother said.  “She’s bleeding all over the table.”

Kanzi flinched as her dad’s chair scraped.  Her mom flopped down into her chair while her dad approached.  With a brusque movement, he turned her face up so he could see.  With her napkin, he wiped away what she figured was the worst of the vomit-food.  The napkin was crimson when he pulled it away, which made her heart leap in her chest.

She’d never bled before.  She’d been grabbed hard enough that she’d had bruises, but mostly it had been shouting.

“Take care of it,” her mom said.

“Just seeing how deep the cut is.”

Kanzi’s mother started trying to cut the food on her own plate.  She gave up, throwing knife and fork down with enough force that they traveled a third of the way down the table.  “If you’re going to do that, don’t do it at the dinner table.”

“Press your hand down there,” he said, moving her hand into place.  Kanzi did, and felt the sting of pain at her cheekbone.

His hand was firm, grabbing Kanzi by the arm, taking her into the living room, down the hallway, and into the bathroom.

“I don’t know, Julien,” her mother said, from the hallway.  “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”

“I don’t know about you,” he said, voice pitched to be heard, “But her antics and this mess has caused me to thoroughly lose my appetite.”

“Yes,” Kanzi’s mother said.

“Let’s step away.  I’ll take you to Screwball, we’ll have burgers and shake, like way back when.”

Kanzi’s eyes widened.  Screwball was a place with the best burgers.  They had ice cream floats that were Kanzi’s favorite thing.

“And you’ll stay,” he said, his voice quiet, just for Kanzi, and stern.

She felt a kind of outrage well in her chest at that.  Stay?

“You’ll only agitate her if you’re there, and you really, really could have done better tonight.”

The outrage faded to about half of what it had been, mixed with confused, choked guilt.

“Keep that there,” he said, pressing a wad of white bandage down to the part that hurt.  “Hold it until the bleeding stops.  Then I want you to clean up and put yourself to bed.”

She didn’t dare reply.  Her heart was pounding, the bright crimson of blood she kept seeing in places startled her in a way that stabbed right to the middle of her heart, and tonight felt like one of those nights where there was nothing she could do that was right.

She only nodded.

Julien huffed out a sigh, going back to the hallway.

Kanzi remained where she was, seated on the lid of the toilet, a bandage pressed to her cheekbone.  Still, inoffensive, quiet, up until the door slammed.

If they came back to mess, they might get mad.

One hand pressed to the bandage, she started to clean up.  The smell of dinner still made her want to hurl, as she cleaned up the plate and began to clear the table, so she grabbed one of the towels from by the oven, holding it so it pressed against the bandage and covered her nose and mouth, keeping the smell from being so strong.

It was slow, with one hand keeping the bandage and towel in place, but she cleared the table.  All the food went together, and she put it in tupperware, before putting the tupperware in the fridge.  She cleaned up the pots and bowls as best as she could with everything stuck on.

The sound of a car outside made her stop, frozen in worry.

Not them.  She carried on.  Everything put away, but the sink was hard to clean things.  She took things to the bathroom, so she could use the bath and shower spray on really hot.  It worked, even though it meant a lot of trips.

Everything she washed went on the drying rack.  More things went away, as best as she could figure.  She’d had to do this before, though it hadn’t been quite this messy or even a hundred millionth as smelly.

On one of her trips, she stopped, and she stared down at the trail of dots on the floor.  She checked, and saw that even with the towel and bandage pressed down, the blood had run down her arm to her elbow, dripping off the point.  There was some on her clothes.

The blood was scary- almost worse to have to face than the dinner.

She made herself fix it.  Wet towels from the basket in the bathroom.  The blood didn’t get soaked up so much as it streaked, and more kept dripping down.  She used a new towel to stop it.

It was a feeling like drowning.  First being cornered, now drowning.

She cleaned everything up as best as she could, her heart pounding, head swimming, and then went to her room to get herself ready for bed.

She changed into the pyjamas with the ducks, brushed her hair twenty times on each side with the brush, and retreated to bed, every light off, covers pulled tight around her.

The house was quiet.  The only sounds were inexplicable creaks and grunts from the house itself, a drip of water from one of the sinks.

Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding.  Her face wouldn’t stop hurting, even as she pressed the towel hard against it.

Sleep wasn’t a possibility.  Her normal bedtime was nine, and it was only eight, according to the clock on the wall.  She watched the hands of the clock.

When the clock was close to nine, she heard another car.  She tensed.

This car pulled into the driveway.  It was them.

Her heartbeat raced.  She pulled tight at the covers, paralyzed, and closed her eyes.  If she pretended to be asleep-

Her mother’s voice was faint.  Something about the mess on the floors.

The volume rose, as if one thing after another was being found, each making things worse.  Each made her draw tighter and tighter into herself.

“The towels!” her mother’s voice wasn’t that far way.  The bathroom was only a few steps from Kanzi’s bedroom door.

The door opened, and her dad was there, and as she squinted, pretending that her eyes were closed, he didn’t even look normal.  His face was cold and scary as he marched toward her.

He grabbed her by the arm, hard enough it would bruise, and hauled her out of bed, out of the bed that was sleepless but warm and safe, into the hallway, the noise, and madness.

Kenzie looked between the still scene and Victoria.

“That’s them,” she said.  “I might have gotten some details wrong.”

“I’m so sorry you had to deal with that,” Victoria said.

“Isn’t it funny?” Kenzie asked.  She smiled.  “We’re supposed to get powers when stuff like that happens, but I couldn’t even get that right.”

“You did nothing wrong.  You didn’t deserve any of that,” Victoria said.

Kenzie shook her head.  “I guess not.  Not all of it.”

“Do the others know about this?  You’ve told Mrs. Yamada?”

Kenzie drew in a breath, then sighed.  “Yes and no.”

“What’s yes and what’s no?”

“They know what my parents were like.  They haven’t seen these diary dioramas, you’re the first.  But I’ve told them the stories.  Ashley started being nice to me, after I did.  I did tell them that things are better now, because I have powers and my parents are scared.  Which I guess is true.”

“I feel like you’re telling people a lot of things that are only technically true.”

“Real truths are hard if they’re all-the-time truths,” Kenzie said.  “Sometimes it’s nice to pretend things are better than they are, you know?”

“Yeah.  I know.”

Kenzie hesitated, then she reached up to her hairpin, with the hearts.  “I haven’t shown anyone this except Mrs. Yamada, and a few others who had to see because of circumstances.”

She double-tapped the hairpin.  There was a faint tingle as things shifted.  The projection at her face dropped away.

Victoria approached, bending down.  “Kenzie-”

Kenzie shrugged.

“-Really truly, I hope you don’t mind my saying it, but the scar is barely visible.”

The projection was down.  The hairpins had one job, to cast a projection on one area of Kenzie’s face.  Her hand moved up to her cheekbone, and found the groove.  It was about an inch long.

“I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t shown me,” Victoria said.

“I notice,” Kenzie said.

“Okay.  You do what you have to do, but I want you to know I don’t think that’s bad at all.”

Kenzie fidgeted, messing with the remote control.

“Before, when the power was cut off to your devices, you told me there wasn’t anything.”

“I looked over my shoulder so you only saw half my face.  I didn’t want you to see it and think differently of me.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“I know that now.  I didn’t know for sure then.”

“Okay,” Victoria said.  She paused.  “What happened between then and now, with your parents?  Can I ask?”

“A lot happened,” Kenzie said.  “Can I show you?  It’s a lot extra.”

“You can show me.”

Kenzie fidgeted with the remote, before switching the diary diorama to the next scene over.

School.

The boys kept talking to each other, looking her way and laughing.

Twice now, they’d sent someone over to talk to her and ask her questions.  The first time, she’d ignored it.  The second, she’d given a fake answer, but the fake answer only seemed to egg them on.

Lunch was almost over, and she wasn’t sure what to do.  So many other kids acted like school sucked, oh, school was awful.  Even the television shows acted that way.  But it wasn’t.  School was nice.

Except when the boys were bothering her.

Oh, no.  Janesha was talking to the boys now, and where Janesha went, other girls followed.

It sucked because Janesha was super stylish with new clothes every week, and Emily was really, really pretty with super black skin- not just brown, but so black it looked unreal.  She mixed it up with electric blue braces, and her mom let her wear makeup, and she always looked freaking amazing, even though her clothes weren’t all that.

Kanzi would have liked to be their friends, but instead they were hanging over there with the boys, looking over at her every once in a while and laughing.

She was really tired, her face still hurt when she touched it, her arm hurt where her dad had grabbed her, and she was hungry because neither her mom or her dad had made her breakfast before sending her to school.  They were still mad at her.

She wanted it all to be over with and she didn’t want it to be over, because once the school day was over she had to go back home.

It was Emily’s little sister that the group sent over.

“Kenzie, right?” the little girl asked.  She was barely out of kindergarten, and she had beads in bright primary colors worked into her hair at regular intervals.

Kenzie nodded.  “And you’re Lizzie?”

“Liz.  Um.  What happened to your face?”

Kanzi forced a smile onto her face.  “A bear.”

The little girl looked skeptical.  “A bear?”

“My mom and dad told me to go put the garbage out, and I did, and there was a bear on the street, going through trash cans.  Bam, slash, it got me.  I ran and went inside.”

“You told Leon it was an axe murderer.”

“Because I didn’t think he’d believe me about the bear.”

“There aren’t any bears in the city, though.”

“Exactly,” Kenzie said.

The little girl looked confused.  She turned to go report to the others.

“Liz,” Kanzi said.  “I really like your hair.”

Liz gave her a weird look.

“You and your sister are always super stylish and cool.  I wanted to let you know that.”

“You’re weird.”

Liz had been walking, but now she ran back to the others.

Today sucked.  It really, really sucked.

The teacher called for everyone to go in for afternoon classes before Liz made it back to the group.  Kenzie joined the crowd that was re-entering the building.

Liz reached the others, and there was a pause.

Then laughs.  There were a lot of things Kanzi couldn’t seem to figure out, like making friends, or how to deal with her mom, or even why saying something nice could lead to her being called weird, but she got this, at least.  She could tell the difference between people laughing at her, instead of with her.

Her hand went up to her cheekbone, covering the rectangle of bandage there, and she ducked her head down, walking along the wall so nobody was walking to her left.

She’d gone the entire morning without any teachers noticing, but her behavior as she made her way into the classroom had Mrs. Johnson notice.  Before she could duck into the classroom, a finger tapped her on the head a few times, before pointing.

She waited in the hall.

“Everyone settle down!  I’ll be with you in a moment!” Mrs. Johnson ordered.

The door shut.

“Kanzi, honey,” Mrs. Johnson said.  “What happened to your face?”

It was the fourth time she’d been asked.  She tried to find the words, like the jokes she’d told the other kids.  She tried to find the white lies she’d had to come up with when she’d had the bruises or when she’d been super tired and cranky, or when she’d had homework she hadn’t done despite being a super good student, because she hadn’t had the chance at home.

It didn’t even have to be a convincing lie.  She could tell the teacher anything, even the bear story, and because the teachers didn’t care  enough to press her, they had other kids to look after.  They’d accept it and go on with their day.  Then she could go on with her day, and things would keep on being normal.

Even the axe murderer story would work.

She could probably even make up an even sillier story.  A silly animal, like an elephant.  And a funny weapon, like a… lawn dart.  She could tell Mrs. Johnson and laugh, and Mrs. Johnson would roll her eyes and take her back into class with a smile on her face.

All words failed Kanzi, and she broke into tears instead.

The chair was too big for her, and the blanket was scratchy.  It was the wooly sort that could be used to scrub dishes, warm but not nice.  Someone had given her their jacket, earlier, a shiny badge on the front breast, and it bunched up in an awkward way behind her.  She would have sat forward to try and rearrange it or fix it, but then the blanket on her lap might have fallen to the ground.

She’d talked about a lot of things, sometimes telling the same story over and over again, until she’d gotten annoyed with how forgetful they pretended to be.  Then she’d gotten to the point where she had started to doze off, and they’d left her alone.  The problem was, she’d started to doze but she hadn’t made it all the way there.  Now she was just tired and half-asleep without really being able to be full asleep.

Adults milled around her, and every time someone showed up, she was nervous it would be one of her parents, and that she would be in trouble.

When the superhero showed up, she thought it was a dream, because she was half asleep and it was a man with wings built into his blue and red costume, connecting wrist to ankle.  He had a weird cape thing, too, and a mask with a headband built in.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” she responded.

“Can I sit?” he asked.

She nodded with a fierce sharpness.

He took the seat next to her.  She shifted position, grimaced, and he seemed to notice.  He helped with the bump at the small of her back, and then he took the blanket, refolding it, draping it across her lap in a way so most of it wasn’t on the ground.

“Snack?” he offered.  He produced an assortment that were probably from the vending machine.

She touched and then took the bag of chocolate covered pretzels.

“I’m Aerobat,” he said.

“I’m Kanzi.”  She opened the bag.

“You know, superheroes like me go out in costume every night.  A big part of what we do is try to help people in trouble.  So as part of that, we’ll visit police stations like this or we’ll go to hospitals.”

“I’m not that important,” she said.

“You never know,” he replied.  “Can I try one?”

She held the bag out for him.  He took a chocolate covered pretzel.

“Mm, that’s good,” he said.

She took one herself, tried it, and nodded.  “Very good.  Thank you.”

“Part of what we do when we reach out to people who need help is we try to let them know that if they ever need help, they can call us.  Especially if it’s because of powers or weirdness.”

He had a resealable baggie.  Inside, there was a business card with a propeller icon, like the one on Aerobat’s chest, there was a sheet of stickers, temporary tattoos, a white pen with a logo on it, and a trading card.

She held it against her chest with both hands.

“The other thing we try to do,” he said, “Is we ask people if there’s anything we can do to help.  Is there anything you need, Kanzi?”

She had to think about it.

“Could I have a hug?” she asked.

“Oh, kid,” Aerobat said.  “I would really love to give you one, but there’s a whole thing going on elsewhere, and we’re being told to limit physical contact until it blows over.”

“Okay.”

He hesitated before venturing, “What do you say I hold your hand, instead?”

She nodded again.

His hand was huge and warm.  There was a bit of gravel in the fabric somehow, but he didn’t seem to notice.  It dug into her finger a bit, but she didn’t want to point it out, in case the guy let go and left.

A little while passed before a woman approached.  She was white, short, and not especially thin.

“Hi, Mrs. Yaris.”

“Hi, Aerobat.”

“June’s a friend,” Aerobat said.  “It’s her job to make sure you’re safe and happy.  You and a lot of other kids.  She’s gotten good at it.”

“I wish,” Mrs. Yaris said.  Her tone softened as she looked at Kanzi.  “I manage.”

“I don’t really get it,” Kanzi said.

“What do you think happens next?”

Kanzi shrugged.  “The police had a lot of questions for me.  I think my parents are going to get a ticket, like when my dad speeds, then I’ll go back.”

“Part of what I do, Kanzi, is I make sure that the young people assigned to me are comfortable and safe.  When we don’t know for sure if the situation is a good one, we temporarily assign people to homes.”

Kanzi digested that.

“What do you think?” Aerobat asked.

“Please,” Kanzi said, barely audible.

“Her teachers sing her praises, she hasn’t been in any trouble, and her grades are stellar.”

Mrs. Yaris was doing most of the talking.  Kanzi hid behind the woman, looking up at the men.

One was bearded, thick black hair in a topknot.  His chest was barrel-shaped, with the hooded t-shirt he wore straining across it.  A tattoo, black ink on black skin, was only barely visible.  Letters.  She only saw ‘wall’ at the end.

The other man was skinny, with a button-up shirt done up all the way.  He had a receding hairline, a line of beard going from lower lip to chin, and lips that didn’t quite meet, just a bit of teeth showing when his expression was normal.

“Kanzi,” Mrs. Yaris said.  “This is Keith and Antonio.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Kanzi said.

“Go on in.  Make yourself at home,” Mrs. Yaris said.  “Keith, Antonio, you have my number.  It’s emergencies only, or else my phone would be ringing off the hook.”

“We have your number, we have the number for child services, the hospital, if we need it, we should have everything,” the big guy said.

“I know this wasn’t quite the timeframe you were hoping for.”

“I’ll manage,” the skinny guy said.  “Thank you for everything.”

Kanzi was wide eyed as the adults carried the bags.  There were three big black garbage bags with her stuff inside.  Clothes, old school stuff, projects, and art she liked.  She had her toothbrush and all the other bathroom stuff.

The house was smaller than hers, but it was nice enough.  The outside walls were plastic and the plastic had been bent back in one place, and the garden was a bit messy, but there weren’t any super-major issues.

On the fridge was a grid that looked kind of like a Calendar, but there were three rows of about ten spaces.  A pocket on the bottom had a bunch of laminated symbols and faces inside.

She picked out one.  It was an angry face, like the sort that sometimes appeared on phones, red faced with flame rising around it.

“That,” the big guy said, “Is our mood tracker.  It’s to help us figure out how the others are doing.  I can reach in and I can take… let me find it.  Here we are.  Excited.  And I put it by my name up top.”

The big guy was Keith, then.

The other guy was talking to Mrs. Yaris.

Kanzi fished around in the pocket.  She found one with ‘z’s floating around its head.

Tired.  She was tired, after everything.

“Perfect,” Keith said.  “Maybe we’ll do something easy and simple tonight, and if you’re tired you can go rest.  That way you being tired won’t be so much of a problem.  See how it works?”

Kanzi nodded.

“Anything you need, you can talk to us, okay?  Antonio is busy with a project for work, so he’ll have days he has to focus on that, but outside of those times, we’re here to help you.”

“Okay,” she said.  “What do I do, then?”

“You… do your best at school, and you’ll help out here and there around the house.  We have a chore wheel, by the mood chart here, see?  Every day we’ll turn it one notch clockwise, and everyone has a new different chore by their name.”

“Goodbye, Keith!” Mrs. Yaris called out.

“Goodbye!” Keith boomed out the reply.  He was loud in a way only big people could be, and he smiled as he lowered his hand from the wave.

Antonio returned.  “Do you want to see your room?”

She nodded.

It was a room.  The garbage bags went onto the end of the bed, and aside from them, there wasn’t much at all.

“We were thinking,” Keith said.  “Sometime today or in the next few days, we could go shopping.  You can buy whatever decorations you want for your room, even paint, and we’ll make this space yours.”

“I’d like something for the fridge and living room too,” Antonio said.

“Ooh, good idea,” Keith said.  He looked like some of the boys in class when they were excited over a favorite game, but he was being really nice about things.

“I might not be here for long,” she said.  “If my parents get out of trouble, I might go straight back to them.  Maybe you shouldn’t buy me things.”

“It’s worth it,” Keith said.  “Anything that helps, anything you need, just let us know.”

She could tell.  Mrs. Yaris had told them something.

It wouldn’t be that her parents were getting out of trouble anytime soon.  If it was, she wouldn’t be put here like this and these two men wouldn’t be talking about things so far in the future.

It would be a while before she saw her parents again?  If she saw her parents again?

A light, fluttery feeling settled in her chest, and she almost didn’t recognize it.  She wasn’t sure there would be a smiley sticker in the pouch to represent it.

A careful, uneasy relief.

She was worried, fidgeting.

The shopping bags were unloaded.  She’d carried a big one.  Keith was the chef, but Antonio had managed the shopping list.  He was bossy but Keith seemed to like it so that was okay.  He wasn’t nearly as bossy with her and that was one hundred percent okay with her.

Cheeses and vegetables and fruits and meats.

“Do you want to help?” Keith asked her.

“Okay.”

“Here, take this, put it in that cabinet over there.”

She did.  Onions, in the lower cabinet by the fridge.

“Give this to Anton-”

Meat, taken to Anton.  Anton put some in the fridge and some in the freezer.

She wrung her hands together.

“Did your hands get sticky?”

She shook her head.

“Can you put this cereal in that cabinet over there?” Keith asked.  “Excellent.  We’re getting this done lightning fast.”

She resumed wringing her hands.  She fetched a few more things, and then came face to face with Keith, who was kneeling on the floor.

“Antonio,” Keith said.  “Can you hand me the mood tracker?”

Antonio pulled the thing from the fridge; grid and pouch and all.

“The day before yesterday, you seemed upset.  Then we went out to eat, and everything was good, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“The day after, we had spaghetti, and you were quiet.  We watched a movie, which you seemed to like.”

“I did.”

“And today, it feels similar.  You’re quiet and you’re bothered.”

She shrugged.

“You don’t have to say what, but maybe if you dug around in this pouch, you could find a good face to represent the feeling you’re dealing with right now.”

She hesitated.  Then she dug.  She found the face- one of the ones she had almost convinced herself she wouldn’t ever use.  It was an ordinary face, coffee brown, with a blue tint around the top that faded away by the halfway point.  Sweat drops, eyes open wide with no pupils, and two tiny hands at the sides pulling at the cheeks.

She saw the looks on their faces, and she regretted her choice.  Concern and something bigger.  Something that made them pull away.

“Thank you for letting us know,” Keith said.  “It’s usually around dinner, huh?”

She shrugged.  “Usually.  Dinner was always a big thing.”

“Well, we can’t eat out all the time, you know,” Keith said.

“I know.  My mom always suspected people of spitting in her food, if she didn’t make it herself or see it being made.”

“I don’t think that happens very often,” Keith said.  “I wouldn’t worry about it.  But this stresses you out big time, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What if,” Keith said, “You decide dinner?”

“Isn’t that more stress, having to make choices?” Antonio asked.

“We’ll have something that is almost always delicious, that we can’t do wrong,” Keith said.  “We have the ingredients for cast iron pizza, right?”

“We do,” Antonio said.

“We have pepperoni, we have peppers, we have mushrooms, ham, chicken, pickles, and everything under the sun,” Keith said.  “What do you say, Kanzi?  You can decide what we put on the pizza, we’ll make it as crispy or as soft as you want, you tell us what to do and we’ll do it.”

She smiled.  “You bought chocolate sprinkles and chocolate sauce.”

“I think we could try that,” Keith said.

“I think we should eat something healthy,” Antonio said.

Keith stood, crossing over to the fridge where Antonio was.  He wrapped his big arms around the skinny man’s body.  “One tiny pizza, with chocolate sprinkles, chocolate sauce… marshmallows?”

“Yes,” Kanzi said, very seriously.  “Definitely.”

“As a treat, for after the pizzas with healthier ingredients,” Keith said, his face an inch from Antonio’s.

“Deal,” Antonio said.

Keith gave Antonio a kiss.  Kanzi smiled.

“Let’s get everything put away, and then we’ll start experimenting,” Keith said.  “Can you put the mood chart back up on the fridge, and then I’ll give you the dairy to give to Antonio so he can put it in the fridge.”

She nodded.

The chart went back up on the fridge, and the spaces were empty, because the magnets hadn’t been holding them up.

She saw Keith looking at her out of the corner of her eye, and reached into the pouch to pick a smiling face.

She didn’t feel a hundred percent of the way back to smiling, but she kept that picture of a smile, putting it on the chart.

Keith tried to hide it from her, but she saw the clenched fist, the happy little fist-pump, before Antonio gave him a hug and blocked her view.

A gentle shaking stirred her from her sleep.  Her eyes popped open.

“Oh hey,” Antonio said.  He stood over her bed.  Her bedspread had the space opera pattern they’d picked out while shopping two months into her stay.  A lava lamp in the corner was casting out illuminated shadows across the room.

Keith slept in her bed, the book he’d been reading before dozing off dangling from the one finger that was wedged in between pages.  Kanzi had dozed off after Keith, and now lay in bed, her head on his arm.

“I wanted to wake up my husband, so I could bring him to bed.  He sleeps like a log, doesn’t he?”

Kanzi nodded.  She smiled.

“I woke you up before I woke him, I’m sorry,” Antonio said.

“It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t been around quite as much,” Antonio said.  “I got promoted a year ago and I’m still trying to get up to speed with my peers.”

“I don’t mind.  I’m figuring out a lot of things too.”

“Neither of us have any experience being parents.  Keith at least has some experience babysitting.  I hope we’re doing okay.”

“You’re doing perfect,” she said.

“I don’t think we are, but I’m really happy you think so.  If you need anything at all, I hope you’ll tell us.  We want to do right by you.”

How could she even tell him?  Just the fact that he said that was so super duper important.

“I need something,” she said.  “Two somethings.”

“What somethings?”

“I don’t want to be Kanzi.  I’m so tired of people getting it wrong.”

“That’s… a really complicated thing, actually,” he said.  “There are rules.  Things as simple as you getting a haircut get really complicated when we have to check a lot of the time.”

“Because I’m not yours.”

“Because-” he started.  “I don’t know.  But it’s eleven at night and I’ve been up since five.  We could discuss that another time.”

“Okay,” she said.

“I’ll ask in the meantime, make sure it’s okay.  What’s the other thing?”

“Can you not take him away?  Please?”

Keith slept in a slumped over way, his ass on the bed, his feet on the ground, his back and head against the headboard and pillows.  His arm had a faint mark where her face had smushed up against it.  Antonio reached over to touch Keith’s face.

“Please,” she said.  “Please please please?”

“I’ll compromise with you.  Fifteen minutes.  I’ll come back and I’ll take him to bed.  If he sleeps like this, he’ll have a bad back in the morning, and then he won’t be able to do anything with you.”

She nodded.  “Okay.”

“Deal?”

“Deal.”

Antonio reached over to give her a pat on the head.

He left, dimming the lights on the way out, so the lava lamp was the only light source, and left the door ajar.

She’d never felt so relaxed and safe as she did right this moment, but the fact she felt so okay worried her.  An inexplicable, terrible fear welled up inside her, worse than the ‘dread’ smiley that only ever went up on the fridge as a joke, when it was Antonio’s turn to cook.

The more she loved these moments, the more afraid she was of losing these moments.  The love was uneasy, tentative, like a baby horse taking its wobbly first steps, gradually getting better at it.  The fear was a feeling like someone had a big fat crayon inside her, scribbling madly, defying the lines the color was supposed to go inside, except it wasn’t color.  Just… black.

She let her head rest against Keith’s arm.

Victoria paced.

“He doesn’t have a face,” Victoria remarked.

The still image of Keith lounging against the bed, the children’s book precariously at one fingertip, was incomplete, the face left unrendered.  Everything else was as realistic as anything, from backhair to cuticles to pores.  The face was an artist’s palette, a mixture of colors in vague patches, not the artist’s canvas.

“No,” Kenzie said.

“Why?”

“Because,” Kenzie said.  “He asked me not to.”

“We’re the worst foster parents.”

Kenzie mouthed the word ‘no!’, silent, her eyebrows drawing together in anger.

They liked to sit on the swing near the barbecue.  If she situated herself right in her room, then she could eavesdrop.  It was nice, a lot of the time, because it meant she could hear them being goofy with each other, or if they were stressed out about money she could avoid asking for things.

“We’re terrible,” Antonio agreed.  “You in particular.”

Kenzie, upstairs, shook her head.

“I admit it.  I’m far, far worse than you.  You at least had the decency to be a workaholic.”

“I’m not a workaholic, Keith.”

There were murmurs, then laughter between the two.

Concerned, Kenzie sat by her window, knees drawn up to her chest, remaining silent.

“I’m too fond of that girl.  She’s wickedly smart, determined, everyone remarks about how she’s as cute as a button, and she reads for fun.  If I could get you pregnant-”

“You’re trying your hardest.”

“-Ha ha.  I’m serious.  I’d want a kid like her.  I’d be the embarrassingly proud dad if my kid was half as great as she is.  I am psyched to wake up every day and spend time with you two.  I want to do that more.”

“Keith, you can’t.”

“We can talk to people about options.  They haven’t mentioned the bio parents much, but they were incarcerated, and it seems like some bad stuff went down.  We could figure out what the requirements might be, make sure we’ve crossed our ‘Q’s and dotted our ‘i’s, right?  We’d be the absolute worst foster parents if we took the first foster child to pass through our doors and then half a year later, started asking about adopting them.”

“The absolute, unequivocal worst.”

Kenzie’s eyes were wide.

She had no idea what she was supposed to do with this feeling, but she knew she had to do something.

“Ahem,” she said.

The teenagers continued talking.  Her attention was on the one at the end of the bench who was alone and silent.

“Ahhhehehm.”

“What?” the teenager asked.  He turned his head and gave her a once over.  “Go fuck yourself.”

“Remember when the grade nines spent time with the grade threes, and the grade fours were with the grade tens, and so on?”

He turned his head her way and gave her a deeply aggrieved look.

“The buddy you were assigned told me that you’re really good with computers.”

“I’m okay.  Why?”

“I need help with my phone.”

“Fuck off,” he said.

“I’ll do anything,” she said.

He looked at her.  “You’re too young to be useful to anyone.”

“I’ll give you my lunch money.”

“How much?” he asked.

She fished in her pocket, counting change.

“That’s not going to do it,” he said.

“I get a dollar and twenty five cents every weekday except pizza day Wednesdays, where I get two dollars and fifty cents.  I can give you some money every day until we’re square.”

“Twenty bucks, and it can’t take any longer than this lunch period to do.”

She nodded fiercely.

“Come on.  Library,” he said.

They left the schoolyard and entered the school building, hanging a right until they were in the library.  The library was one big room, and it had windows that overlooked the very spot where they’d just had their conversation.

He plunked himself down in front of the computer.  “Phone?”

She handed over her phone.

“Unlock it.”

She did.

“And what do you need done?” he asked.

“I need it so I can search the web.”

She watched as he clicked the icon.  The internet browser didn’t turn up internet, but instead it was a page with a talking car, suggesting some safe, pre-vetted search terms.

“You got helicoptered,” the guy said.

“I don’t know what that means.”

“They’ve got a program running on your phone.  Controls the internet, messaging, contact lists, it also transmits your location, so they know where you are at every second.”

“Okay, that’s fine, but I want to be able to search the web and look for stuff.”

“You’re a little young for porn.”

“Eww.  No, no interest, thank you mister.  Not that.”

He turned his head to look at the clock.  “I can give you a fix.  It’s going to require that you change your background.”

“I like my background.”

“Look,” he said.  “Here’s my fast, quick, and dirty solution.  We change the background to blue and gray.  We install a web browser obscure enough that these programs don’t know to control what you see… and downloads are also blocked.”

“Yep,” she said.

“File transfers usually aren’t,” he said.  “Let’s try downloading onto the school computer… then using my cable, we move one file…”

It took a minute.

“There.  You have a browser now.  Do they check your phone?”

“All the time.  They pay a lot of attention to what I watch, what I listen to, what I’m searching for online…”

“That’s horrifying,” the teenager said.

“It’s great, because they care.”

“If they check, we have to be careful.  What we do here is make it so the circles behind every icon are dark gray.  Then with our freshly web surfing program, we click, hold… and we get options.  We give it a custom icon, the space invader pixel monster, and we change the color to dark gray.”

She watched as the icon changed from a folder online to an old game sprite.  The sprite became invisible against the background provided.

“Click that space and the web browser will pop up,” he said.

She bounced on the spot, before giving him a hug.

“Okay, fuck off.  And give me my money.”

She forked over the money for the day.

She had the access she’d wanted.  A world of information now at her fingertips.  She went straight to the bathroom, taking a seat on the toilet, so she had some privacy.

The typing was laborious, especially since she knew she didn’t have much time.  Just a couple of days ago, she’d overheard about them possibly taking her for keeps.  She needed to lock it in, somehow.  It felt wrong that she wasn’t doing anything on her end, while they were doing something so monumental.

She entered her first search term.

how do i show somoene i love them

She looked it over, fixed the typo, and then submitted.

She read, studied as hard as she had ever studied math or sciences.  When she wasn’t in class learning or doing, her phone was out.  There were too many roads to go down, key phrases, like ‘making relationships last’.

Kenzie’s foot scuffed the floor of her workshop.

“Oh, Kenzie,” Victoria said.

Yep, she got it.

“In my defense, I was nine, and I was really, really oblivious,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “I wanted to do my part and make something really awesome happen, so the coolest, most awesome person in the world might adopt me.”

“It was going to happen either way, if it was going to happen.”

“So I’ve been told.”

There was a long pause.  Neither was eager to press the button or move the diorama over to the next scene.

Victoria checked on the dining room.  Neither had moved.  Kenzie was tempted to resume surveillance, but still, it didn’t matter.

Surveillance was like the safety in numbers, from way back in the day.  A thing to dive into, so real life didn’t seem so real or important.

“If I’d color coded these, the next scenes, set of you can probably guess, would be pink.”

Victoria nodded.

“I’m going to skip it.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“I definitely don’t mind.”

Kenzie hit the button twice.  The image flickered, holding the first for only a fraction of an eyeblink.

Then the aftermath.  Kenzie winced.

So embarrassing.

“Jesus.  Jesus!”

Kenzie backed away, eyes wide.  Her eyes went wider as she saw Antonio enter the room from the adjunct bathroom.  Her fingers clutched her nightie.

“Are you okay?” Antonio asked her.

“Yes,” she said, but she looked at Keith, saw him freaking out, and backed up a little more.

“Keith, you’re scaring her.”

“I’m a more than a little scared myself!  She woke me up and I thought it was you.

“Baby,” Antonio said.  “Sit down on the bed.  Deep breaths, okay?  She’s the priority, remember?  If you get freaked, she’s going to be freaked.”

She was freaked.  Definitely freaked.  Everything had turned sideways and she wasn’t one hundred percent sure on why.

Keith sat back down on the bed.

“I’m going to take her back to bed.  We’re going to have a chat while you catch your breath.  Okay?”

Keith nodded.

“Come on, Kenz,” Antonio said.  “Let’s get you put back to bed.”

She was shaking as he took her hand.  She let him lead her down the hall to her room, glancing back to see Keith with his head hanging, eyes wide and alarmed.

“Oh boy,” Antonio said.

“Oh boy is right,” Kenzie said, her voice about as small as she felt.  “I didn’t know- I don’t know how this happened.”

“A lot of people, they go to this because it happened to them.”

“It didn’t happen to me.”

“Then where on earth did you get this idea from?”

She was back in her room.  Her phone was over there.  She could point it out, explain it, but-

“Kids talking at school.”

“Oh Kenzie, hon.  There’s no need.  Personal space is personal space, and that’s just for him and me, because we’re married, understand?”

She nodded, firm.  Her heart was still pounding, and she had a sick feeling in her middle.

“I think- and I’ll ask Keith, but I think it would help everyone if we talked to an expert on these things.  What do you think?  Can’t hurt, right?”

She shook her head.  “Can’t hurt.”

“I think I’ll look into that first thing tomorrow, then.  Can I give you a hug?”

She nodded.  A hug was the best thing in the world when she felt as horrible inside as she did now.  It almost made the horribleness melt away.

He kissed her on the forehead.  “Scoot down.  I’ll tuck you in.”

She scooted.  He tucked her in.

She didn’t sleep.

“My favorite person ever wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” Kenzie said.  Her legs kicked where they dangled from her chair.  Her toes scuffed the ground.  “The next appointment Anton -that was his nickname in the house- that he could get, it was a week from the incident.”

“What happened?” Victoria asked.  “It didn’t help?”

“They weren’t talking in the usual spots where I might be able to eavesdrop, and for the first time since I got there, Keith was going to work instead of working from home.  It meant they were talking on the phone, everyone was more distant, and there was this big meeting with a therapist and child services to talk about things, coming at me like a big train.”

Kenzie flicked through scenes.  Diorama images of her with the phone.  Her with the baby monitor that Keith and Anton had kept in case they ended up fostering a baby.

“I just wanted to know what was going on.  So I downloaded the same app they used to lock down my phone and watch my browsing.  I put it on their phone and I hid that application like the teenager from school hid the icon on mine.  I didn’t control his browsing, but I did make it so I could watch their texts.”

She’d set herself as parent, and consequently, the helicopter app let her monitor where Keith was.

She opened the door as he pulled into the driveway.  He seemed startled to see her there so suddenly.

“Hey, Kenz,” he said.

There wasn’t the same heart in the words that there had been in the early days.  No hug at the door.

A hand on the shoulder, instead.

She’d read the most recent messages.  She knew what weighed on his heart.

This is the kind of thing where if it goes wrong, we can’t ever foster or adopt.

It’s not going to go wrong.  We’ll explain.

Anton, I’m really worried.

This is the kind of thing where we need to be upfront with services for her sake and to cover our asses.  Honesty is the best policy.

They wouldn’t ever adopt her, they wouldn’t adopt anyone.  They were some of the best people and parents she’d known and they’d lose the ability to ever be parents.  Because of her.

She’d considered running away, but she worried that would make things worse.

Cornered.  Trapped.  Drowning.

Everything was off.  Things at school were off, because she was trying to put on a veneer of normal when she felt anything but, practicing being ordinary and casual so she would be ready today, and people thought it felt forced, which only made her feel the need to practice more.  It was a feedback loop that had led to her being called creepy.

She wanted to scream and throw things and she wanted to curl up into a ball and eat her feet and keep eating until she was nothing.

“I brought snacks,” Keith said.  “I don’t know if that’s appropriate, given what we’re doing.”

“I don’t know either,” she said.

“All you have to do,” he said, “Is you tell the truth.  I’m not going to ask you to say or do anything more.  Yeah?”

She nodded.

He smiled.  He reached over and mussed up her hair.  She tried to fix it.

“Help me get the snacks out?”

She hurried to get the bowls for the chips and the chocolate covered peanuts.

Antonio showed up a few minutes later, and decided a smaller number of snacks would be more fitting for the occasion.  Too much, he opined, was a party, and this wasn’t a party occasion.

The child services workers arrived, with the therapist in tow.

“I’ll talk to her alone?  Then we’ll trade off?” the man said, looking at Mrs. Yaris and the other woman.

Kenzie tossed the remote up into the air, and then caught it.

She looked at the still image.  Herself and the therapist.  She’d found a picture of the therapist in a book and used it to render a composite, which helped make things accurate.

“What happened?” Victoria asked.

“I studied,” Kenzie said.  “Keith and Anton were looking up resources and I read all the resources, best as I could, to try to figure out what I needed to say to fix things.”

“They thought you were coached.”

“Yup.  They thought I was coached, and they decided to separate us temporarily.  New house, new foster parents.  That’s the point where I had to take a bad situation and make it a hundred times worse.”

“Kenzie…”

“That’s my thing!  That’s me.  Anyone else, they like someone and then they have this stopper inside them.  They think, oh, they love this person, they love them a lot, so they’ll do this thing and that thing and give them this gift and bam, that’s enough.  Bam.  But that’s not me.  When I love people it overflows and it makes a heck of a mess.   I don’t know where to stop things, and when things start slipping away, I reach out harder.”

She hit the button.

“Kenzie, there are ten, twelve reasons you shouldn’t be here right now.  You can’t keep doing things like this.”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Kenzie,” he said.  He knelt down in front of her.  He put his hands on her shoulders like he was trying to minimize contact, only palms touching fingers and thumb splayed out.  “I would love to see you.  The best chance at getting back to normal is to take a break, stick to our routines, and avoid making waves.”

His coworkers were looking.  She swallowed hard.

“You’re supposed to be in school.”

“There was an assembly.”

“And you’re not supposed to be here, and it just raises questions.”

She reached, grasping for some kind of answer or way to try to fix things.

“Kenzie,” he said.  “At the bookstore two days ago.  Was that you?”

Her mouth opened, then closed.

“No,” she lied, under her breath.

“How in the world did you know to find me there?”

“Luck,” she said, her mouth dry.

“How did you know I was here, and not working from home?”

She shook her head, mouthing a word that, if she’d been asked, she couldn’t have said what it was.

She saw the look in his eyes.  Wariness.  Fear.

It wasn’t a new look.  It had been there from the time she’d entered his room, and it had gotten worse every time she’d opened a door, knowing he was there.  The statements she’d tried, to make it sound like they were on the same wavelength.  Over and over they’d had the opposite effect.

“Andrea,” Keith said.  “What do you have on your plate?”

“Nothing big.”

Kenzie’s teeth chattered.

“Could I get you to do me a massive favor?  I need Kenzie dropped off at school.”

“I think I can do that.”

“I’ll get you the address.”

She watched him leave the room, and she saw the look in his eyes.  He was gone.  She might see him again or talk to him again, she could get every detail, read every instant message, see every webpage he visited, but he would never be her dad again.

Every point of light in the room flared, a kaleidoscope, a lens flare across her field of vision.  Even the edges of the desks where the sunlight drew highlights on glossy black finish became impossibly bright.

The images sorted, and she saw world turned upside-down, with land instead of sky and vice versa.  The land looked like food coloring did when dropped into water, but it was solid and stable.

The parts of the world closest to her were inhabited, marked with messes of glass and machinery that stuck to surfaces and walls.  The institution, the infrastructure, the weight of the army- all, when she zoomed far enough back, were part of a singular monolith of a gravity that sucked all energy from her, leaving her gasping.

“You alright?” Andrea asked.

Kenzie shook her head.

“Come on, baby,” Andrea said.  “Let’s get you where you belong.”

“Home?” she asked.  “Or- my foster home?”

Andrea looked back at Keith, and Keith nodded.

The elevator was distracting.  The gold watch on Andrea’s wrist- it had a crystal display.  Energy, light, lenses, geometry- everything had a meaning and that meaning was like the safety in numbers.

She wanted to ask a thousand things about Keith and Antonio and she bit her tongue instead.  Something was wrong.  She’d been broken to begin with and something had outright cracked.

Andrea dropped her off at the new foster house, and Kenzie hurried inside without a word.

She almost hyperventilated, as she went straight to her room.

Her phone.  She pulled it out, slammed the door behind her, and went to her bed.

In the background, she could hear Andrea talking to her foster mom.

She found her bag, and she dug the card out of her bag.  only one temporary tattoo left, and a business card with a number on it.

She called, head bowed, phone pressed to her ear so hard it hurt.

“This is Aerobat.”

“This is… you held my hand.  You gave me your card.  Please help me.”

Before I use this power to do something I regret even more.

“I didn’t want to do something I regretted,” Kenzie echoed the line of thought from the memory, that seemed so vivid as she stared at the diorama.  “Which, you know, I did do.  I got lonely or scared, and I tried to get in touch.  I scared them more, which is why no faces.  They don’t want me simulating them or using them in pictures.  I figure it’s the least I could do.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“The funny thing is, you know, I’m mostly better.  I’ve been working on things.  I have a hard time with boundaries but I can learn some good basic rules to stick to and I stick to them really hard.  I’m figuring out the team, I love you guys, I’m kicking ass, I’ve got some great projects on the go.”

It would just make her start crying like a baby, and she needed to get Victoria on her side, make sure that the wrong things weren’t said and that things didn’t get out of control with the group.

If she could just explain her side, Victoria would see, and then things could go back to normal.

Just like going to see Keith at work had been a way to just show him he cared, to reconnect, and then have things be like they’d used to be.

Or how saying just the right things to the therapist would make that whole incident go away.

Kenzie smiled.

“Is that the end of the slides?”

Kenzie clicked, even though she didn’t want to see.  She smiled at the scene.

It was Keith and Antonio.  Antonio had given her a gift.  A bag with pink on it, because he hated that she, like so many other foster kids, were packing her things up in black garbage bags.

A goodbye, before she left for San Diego.

“They-” she started.  Her voice cracked.  “Um.  They have two kids now.  A boy and a girl, nine and thirteen.  Foster kids that they adopted.  They made it through Gold Morning.  They’re out there somewhere, and I don’t look too hard.”

“Oh, Kenz.”

Kenzie’s legs kicked.  She smiled at Victoria.

Victoria froze, staring.

Had she slipped?  Kenzie tried to think if she’d said or done the wrong thing.

“Kenzie-” Victoria said.  “Kenz, that’s got to be the worst thing in the world.”

“There are lots of horrible things in the world,” Kenzie said.  She looked down, smiling.  “It’s not my favorite thing, though.”

“Then why are you smiling when you’re talking about something so upsetting?”

Kenzie started to answer, then stopped.  Too easy to be flippant.

She needed Victoria on her side.  That meant being honest.

“I always smile when I’m upset or bothered,” Kenzie answered.  She swallowed hard.  “That’s just how I am.  It’s easier than crying, it doesn’t bother people as much.”

“What do you do when you’re happy?”

“I don’t smile, I guess,” Kenzie said.

Victoria seemed momentarily lost for words.  She was, no doubt, recalling a hundred past events.

“But!” Kenzie bounced a bit in on her stool.  “But I have my parents back!  And I know you’re going to say stuff.  I get it.  It’s weird.  They’re a little messed up.”

“It’s a lot messed up.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “Yes, but –but– I have this entirely under control.”

“I have a hard time believing that.”

“I’ve had it under control for over a year now.  I went looking for family and I found them.  They pretended at first that they didn’t know who I was, but the people in charge of the gates had some good ways to quickly check stuff.”

“Powers?”

“Something like that.  I was more focused on other stuff, like the family reunion.  Anyway, I came to live with them, they had to take care of me because I’m their daughter, and they were pissed.  When they’re pissed, they do stupid, stupid things, and I got those stupid things on camera.”

“You subjected yourself to abuse to get blackmail material?  Please tell me nobody else knew about this and condoned it.”

“Nobody else knew about this and condoned it.  Mostly they just think my parents are scared.  They did their thing and told my parents to be good or else, but they don’t know about the video footage I got.  I originally planned to get two week’s worth, but I didn’t have the guts.  I ended up making it five days of footage of them, and I’ve gotten more since.”

Victoria leaned checked that the parents were still at the table, then spoke in a low voice, “You know police aren’t really able to prosecute much, right?”

“They’d prosecute some of this stuff.”

Victoria drew in a deep breath.

Kenzie cut in.  “I know what you’re going to say!  Really truly, it’s not that bad.  I showed them the recordings and I told them they could go to jail or they could live with me and follow my very fair, very sane rules.  They can quit at any time.  If I die and it looks suspicious, the recordings get released and their lives are over.”

“Kenzie,” Victoria said, and now she sounded horrified.  “You can’t do that.”

“But isn’t rehabilitation the main thing we’re trying to do?  Isn’t that the whole freaking point?  This is better than prison, because it’s targeted.  They’re like a dog that was spoiled rotten and doesn’t know how to be loyal or good, and a dog that was kicked and beaten a lot, that’s learning to be nice to people again.  They love each other too, and I think that matters.”

“Kenzie-”

“They’re mostly there!  They are.  They just hate my guts.  They hope I’m going to die.  They’re way more rehabilitated than they would be if they were anywhere else, and if the badness in them seeps out aimed at me every once in  while, and they try to give me a mild case of lead poisoning, I’m okay with that.”

“No,” Victoria said.  “No, no, and fucking- fuck no.”

“It’s what we do!  We put ourselves on the line and we fix the bad guys!”

No,” Victoria said.  “The moment you get a concussion, you’re going to be vulnerable to them trying something.  Or whatever.  It’s- there’s no way this is healthy for you.  Living like this, watching over your shoulder, you’re going to utterly destroy yourself.”

Kenzie swallowed, and then she said, “I’m doing okay so far.”

Victoria shook her head.  “You can’t live like this.  You can’t live that close to people that ugly, and not be affected by it.  It’ll eat you alive.  We’ve got to get you out of this house.”

Kenzie looked down, then looked back toward the door, where her family was on the other side.

“Then I don’t know what to do,” she said.  “Help?”

“Absolutely,” Victoria said.  “I’m going to call some people.  You- call Ashley.  She’s one of your favorite people, right, and she gets this?  She figured stuff out or she had guesses.”

“She got a lot of it.”

“We’ll figure this out,” Victoria said.  “And I’m not going anywhere.”

Kenzie nodded, her expression solemn.

“Can I give you a hug, or-”

More than anything, Kenzie wanted one, even a one-armed hug.

But Victoria was a friend and the rules were that she didn’t hug friends.  That threatened to cross boundaries.

“No,” Kenzie said.  And she wished with all her might that Victoria would hug her anyway, because that wouldn’t break the rules if Kenzie wasn’t the one doing it.  It would make things feel so much better.

There was no hug.  Victoria listened when she said no.

Victoria got out her phone.  Kenzie got hers, checking on her parents on her way to dialing the number.  Ashley.

Ashley picked up on the other end, “How bad was it?”

A goofy grin crept across Kenzie’s face, that she couldn’t wipe away or get rid of, for what felt like minutes.

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226 thoughts on “Torch – Interlude 7.x”

  1. Well Jesus Fucking Christ.

    Yep, dinner was poisoned. Presumably arsenic or one of the other traditional poisons for making it look like natural causes if no one checks too hard.

    1. This is also a pretty clear indication of how badly social services have been allowed to slide post-apocalypse, if even the parts the others knew about were tolerated. Considering that she got separated from her parents when they were incarcerated for severely injuring her, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the modern era would let her go back to them without serious and regular monitoring, much less make them the main backstop for ensuring she’s eating, sleeping, etc. Though it’s possible this is at least part of what Yamada was being cagey about, if she was worried Kenzie might be in danger but not definitively enough to push it into mandatory reporting territory. She was considering breaching professional ethics and losing her license over something, even with the risk her other patients would go without proper treatment. Which means something pretty damn serious when one of them has a history of considering murdering all of humanity to turn into a god and could plausibly actually do that.

      1. Nah. To be honest, that seems like pretty standard social services to me (at least US social services).

        My own personal experience with social services involved my dad, who had abused my mother, turning his abuse on me after my mother divorced him (he got 50/50 custody). Sometimes after he was abusive I’d call up my mother, so I could cry and seek comfort from her. My mother recorded some of these calls (which were, to put it mildly, utterly nightmarish for any person with a heart to listen to). She brought the recordings to the court and quite bluntly asked that my dad’s custody be restricted to supervised visitation hours only.

        However the social worker in charge of the case listened to the recordings and decided (because many of the abusive incidents were triggered by me refusing to agree with my dad about how much he hated my mom and I told my mom this over the phone) that the problem wasn’t that my dad was abusive. No, the problem was that my dad was resentful over my mom’s perceived greater importance in my life, because my mom had full decision making powers even if they shared split custody.

        So instead of restricting my dad’s custody, she gave him split decision making to pacify him. Oh and told my mom to stop recording any such calls or talks on pain of contempt of court (which is later turned out was not a thing she was allowed to decide, but *shrug*, my mom didn’t know that at the time). My dad immediately, of course, began using the split decision making powers to wage a nightmare campaign against my mom, dragging her through the mud and forcing concessions over things like deciding that me and my sister should go to the dentist, or the doctor, or go to after-school programs, and just generally holding our health and happiness hostage against her. When my mom brought this to the social worker’s attention, she threatened my mother with restricting *her* custody if she ‘tried to attack her ex-husband again’.

        An experience of a girl I knew in high school was even worse. Her father was abusive to her, but never escalated to physical abuse with her. To her two developmentally disabled younger brothers though, he was *very* physically abusive, whenever their disabilities frustrated him. Eventually her mother divorced him, and got custody of the children.

        However their social worker decided that it was ‘very important for children to have a relationship with their biological father’ and mandated unsupervised visitation hours *whether the children wanted to go or not*. Understandably, the girl’s younger brothers freaked the fuck out every time they had to go meet their father, and the girl wasn’t much happier about the situation. So eventually the girl contacted her social worker and told her point blank about her brothers’ terror and meltdowns, and demanded they get optional or at least supervised visitation.

        The social worker declared that the girl must be sabotaging the brothers’ opinions of their father because of her own resentful feelings, and mandated that she and her brothers’ have separate unsupervised visitation hours. Her brothers had difficulty speaking when they got emotionally worked up, so she couldn’t be positive, but she was pretty sure her father resumed physically abusing them once he was alone with them, without her around. The social worker did not believe her when told this.

        I’m well aware that not all social service workers are like this. But some *are*. In the society we live in right now. (At least here in the US). So the idea that an individual social worker in this world could decide that Kenzie would be well off with her biological parents, regardless of past crimes? Not even remotely surprising to me, nor an indication of any slip in social service standards. If Wildbow announced that Kenzie’s story was directly based off of a real-world story (with cell-phone recordings for parent control/blackmail instead of tinkertech) I’d believe him. Social services is a safety net for children, but it is a net with a *lot* of holes in it.

        1. Valkyrie; during Golden Morning she indicated that she was planning on becoming a replacement Eden, and she might well be able to become an Entity or equivalent if she can go around and collect every shard. And while humanity beat Scion, a lot of the key participants in that died and Valkyrie ended up with a big slice of the strongest. If she killed Goddess and deployed her and Eidolon together with Doormaker or that cape that lets her duplicate her deployed Einherjar, she’d be basically unstoppable at this point, except possibly by Tohu setting her as one mask and Eidolon and Goddess as the other two.

          Probably even by Contessa; she said Path To Victory didn’t work on Eidolon or the Endbringers, and if it’s true Goddess was a Caldron creation it presumably doesn’t work on her either. It can apparently still very effectively extrapolate from what Contessa knows about them, but she couldn’t persuade Eidolon in a way that made him stay persuaded.

          1. I don’t think Goddess was a Cauldron creation. She was a cluster trigger and I don’t think Cauldron created those. If I remember correctly, it WAS said that Cauldron relocated her to the world she ended up ruling.

            None of which means that her power set doesn’t block Path to Victory somehow or other.

    2. Huh? You think Kenzie was wrong about it being lead poisoning?

      Lead poisoning makes a lot more sense. It would build up slowly, so it would not be a case of Kenzie suddenly dying while a hero was over for dinner.

      1. Oh, I missed that she said lead.

        Mind, Arsenic poisoning has been a favored murder method for quite some time because its symptoms closely resemble various fatal diseases, and even with modern medical testing medical examiners and doctors won’t tend to test for it unless there’s specific reason to suspect foul play.

        1. That wouldn’t work. Even leaving out that Ashley would immediately suspect the parents, we have the fact that Victoria was right there. If the parents mysteriously disposed of the food before it could be tested, Victoria would be suspicious. And if they did not dispose of the food, then it could easily be tested. If not chemically, it could be fed to an animal.

          1. Also, consider that Kenzie is two steps removed from Amy (who Victoria probably wouldn’t ask for help) and Riley (who Ashley probably would ask for help). There is a very good chance that here death would be extremely well-investigated.

          2. Arsenic does not need to be quick acting. It can slowly accumulate in the body if consumed regularly. Much like lead, really. And while Victoria would indeed have a voice, I doubt anyone not on the team would listen to Ashley.

        2. Having been poisoned with arsenic, it’s, yeah… also, it takes more than one time unless you dump in a whole shitload. Having controlling relatives with nursing degrees is, troublesome. Whenever you start getting ill you don’t know if you’re getting ill because you caught the flu, or because someone’s poisoning your food.

          1. Thanks. Yeah, my grandmother wasn’t trying to kill me, just make me sick enough so I wouldn’t participate in activities she’d told me not to… because obviously they were bad because her divinations told her so.

      2. I thought perhaps she was being facetious and/or metaphorical when she said that. “Lead poisoning” is a euphemism for shooting someone, so she might use it as a way to use hyperbole to refer to their attempts without going into too many painful details and make a little “joke” out of it to deflect the seriousness.

    1. The occasions that stick out are those in which Kenzie verbalized a serious disagreement with someone, e.g. the “I will fight you, Ashley!” stuff. She was always smiling for that, which was incongruous, and a clue that she is actually an anti-smiler about everything.

      1. I caught the anti smile early (very similar to a close acquaintance, smiling because the truth is actually so very much worse); it was always a jarring contrast to the seriousness of the situations Kenz found her selves embroiled in.

        What a heartbreaking chapter.. And all too real. *slowclap* well written WB.

      2. I’m honestly suspicious she might have borderline personality disorder, which, paired with her powers, is a very frightening possibility. The upside is, she’s aware things are not, quite right in her mind, that’s not some magic bullet that makes everything alright, however… it is an important step, though, and it’s incredibly sad to read this. Who was it in Worm who was gay and had a husband named Kieth? Was it Legend?

          1. Just ran to the wiki to confirm. Apparently, he has an adopted son named Keith, but his husband is Arthur.

          2. Oh, ok, thanks for clearing that up for me. I should probably check the wiki before musing about things I would seem to not remember quite correctly.

    1. That’s okay. I was hoping her foster parents were killed. And not nearly put on the sex offender registry because of her.

  2. Oh god. Oh dear god.

    Kenzie is a huge mess and hot damn no kid should have ever had to deal with or gone through any of that. And it’s left her so incredibly fucked up.
    But that ending… I know now that Kenzie smiles when she’s upset but I also can’t shake the feeling that Victiria just got played in some way.

    1. Yes. Vicky got played. The question is does she know she was played and is she going to go and try to roll with it and help Kenzie as best she can, or has she been fully played?

      The irony is Kenzie’s great at gathering information, but due to her formative years she’s shit at communication.

      Also Wildbow does Wildbow consider schools a pit of suffering and bad decisions?

      1. What part was Victoria getting played? This is from Kenzie’s perspective and she explicitly says she’s being honest. It doesn’t appear that Kenzie was hoping to be adopted by Victoria. It doesn’t appear that Kenzie hid her own misdeeds, she admits to the premeditated blackmail-baiting.

        1. Kenzie reassured her that there was nothing to worry about again and again, and she set up this visit that would knowingly bring Victoria into the middle of it. She almost certainly didn’t plan to share this much, since oversharing is part of her symptoms, but on the other hand, she knows that about herself, and she knows approximately how Victoria’s heroism and family trauma intersect. (Given her proclivity toward surveillance and research, she probably knows a LOT about what happened.) She probably hoped her parents wouldn’t be bold enough to make an attempt in front of company, but she knew there was a strong possibility the truth would wind up coming out.

          I wouldn’t call it malice aforethought or anything, and she’s doing an admirable job of holding back compared to previous behavior patterns, but she definitely had ulterior motives in getting Victoria to come to dinner. That’s partly a result of having a skewed outlook (“this is fine”), partly a result of not being honest with herself, but also partly deliberate. I think “played” is a bit strong, but she did knowingly drop Victoria into this mess. In all, though, I think it was a good move. She didn’t try to seduce her, she actually asked for help (in a super roundabout way, but she got there,) and she hasn’t done anything terribly criminal in the process. (I don’t think you could really prosecute her for blackmailing her parents into not abusing her and attempting to kill her.)

          1. While this strikes me as reasonably likely, I also kinda wonder if Kenzie only reacted like that at dinner because of this part:

            “I’m safe, you’re safe. My parents are safe, and they are my parents, just to make that clear. I have pictures of them holding me while I’m a baby. I don’t have any runaway tinkerings, there won’t be any captives in the basement, nobody’s going to die or get maimed. There’s nothing ‘vital’. Can we just go?”

            As I’ve been noting, Kenzie doesn’t seem to be willing to tell people she likes things that are outright untrue (at least not when they’re meant to be believed). We wouldn’t describe the situation at her house as “safe”, but she seems to think her surveillance system provides adequate safety. So it makes me wonder if dinner was her lashing out along the lines of her reacting to Ashley criticizing Houndstooth, because her parents tried to make her break a promise.

          2. I suppose my best description of my opinion of Kenzie’s truthfulness towards people she knows is that she talks to them like she’s a practitioner from Pact. The words she says are true or at least she considers them to be true, but you have to pay close attention to exactly what those words are and what she doesn’t specifically say.

            So for instance, I believe she’s in bed by eleven every night, but she might not get any more sleep than Miss Militia.

          3. Judging from Kenzie’s reaction to her parents trying to poison her, I think that she was convinced that her parents would be good. The sentence, “She needed to fix the Victoria problem her parents had made, first,” doesn’t give the impression that everything’s going to plan. More likely, I think that Kenzie invited Victoria over because she didn’t think that things would go wrong, and it would be a good way to be closer to one of her favorite people without crossing boundaries. It’s a safe way to do things, compared to how poorly she’s handled liking people in the past. This entire chapter is her trying to fix everything and make it right, so this isn’t a repeat of Keith and Antonio.

      2. Considering his less than brilliant school life and parially basing Taylor’s experiences on his own. Im inclined to think. Yes.

      3. > Also Wildbow does Wildbow consider schools a pit of suffering and bad decisions?

        Well, that just means he was paying attention during school.

      4. Welcome to being a parahuman. Literally every power ever was designed to go to the person for whom it and it’s attendant agent’s influence would be the ideal balance between most destabilizing or disruptive and sufficiently sustainable for data-gathering purposes. Active parahumans are like oil well fires. They’re intended to be horrible infernos that only go out once everything fueling them has been utterly consumed .

        Also, that last lube was horrifyingly reminiscent of Riley’s interlude. And Amy’s. Not a pleasant parallel, to be sure.

    2. We’re seeing it from Kenzie’s perspective, so I’m pretty sure the videos were legit and everything Kenzie said was… the ordinary level of true. Meaning she’s minimizing things, putting the best face on everything, and leaving out important details to make everything look better, but not telling direct falsehoods. So Victoria is reacting to a reasonably-accurate portrayal of the situation and probably filling in the strategic omissions.

      However, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if Kenzie invited Victoria to dinner in the hopes that her parents would do something drastic, Victoria would learn of it, and would set in motion a chain of events that hopefully end with Sveta and Weld adopting her. Since we know she wants that and it would be consistent with her general social issues to arrange something elaborate rather than just go to Victoria. Then panic about having maybe gone overboard with her response.

      1. Kenzie was legitimately mad that they did make an attempt.

        I don’t think she really planned on Victoria breaking this up.

    3. Victoria only got played in the sense that she didn’t freak out, decide that what’s best for Kenzie would be to treat her like Houndstooth said, and pull out of her life. Losing Victoria and possibly Breakthrough was Kenzie’s main fear, and this chapter was damage control. Her ideal outcome was that everything would go back to normal — she could keep trying to reform her parents while continuing to hang out with Breakthrough. Victoria put her foot down on the parental reformation, but Kenzie did manage to avoid flubbing things and driving Victoria away. Which is how this kind of encounter used to go.

  3. Holy shit this chapter.

    You made me cry at work, you monster, you.

    I guess she gets to live with Victoria at Ashley’s place then? Finally a good reason for Victoria to finalize her move.

    (Also, apparently she was Privacy Is Overrated even before gaining powers, her powers just made it easier to do? Guess whose agent is probably singing their host praises to high heaven)

      1. Seriously? Chris would never want that, no matter what. He’s _all_ about privacy whereas Kenzie has to force herself to respect even people’s basic boundaries. Somehow, I think Chris preferred not having a room mate. When he needs alone time, he can get it easily. When people push Kenzie away, she just gets more clingy or starts watching them via her tech or both–which Chris would absolutely _hate_

          1. He’s a shapeshifter with trust issues and a mysterious disease!
            She’s a light-manipulating child genius with no sense of personal boundaries!
            Together they fight crime!

    1. Yeah. Wibblybobble has said that Shards will target people who are already predisposed to the kind of behavior they’re looking to push for. It makes it easier for them to get what they want.

  4. Well Kenzie is fucked up. Also when you are a kid and want to show someone you love them, make a mug in art class. Don’t surf the web. Even if you don’t get a worst case scenario, those flowers are going to be expensive.

    Also her birth parents are shit.

  5. Ooh. Props to the people who called “Kenzie let herself get abused to obtain blackmail material.”

    I totally understand how Kenzie feels about people. People are weird as hell and they get weirder if you try to say nice things. It’s a good thing I was never abused because I doubt it would have turned into some kind of superhero story for me.

    I don’t totally disagree with Kenzie’s approach to her parents, either. You can’t always be safe in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that’s in the middle of a stalled alien invasion. If she keeps her parents around, they also function as an income source and I suppose as human shields. It’s like being a supervillain with unreliable henchmen: You’re not safe around them, but sometimes you need the manpower, so you take precautions.

  6. I couldn’t stop reading. We all went from attacking Kenzie to hoping bonesaw finds her parents. This is some sad shit.
    FYI: I love Ashley’s one line .

    1. One of the most striking parts of this was how the first card transitioned from “yeah I remember nights like that” to “Oh my god” and then kept going. My mom would give us lectures on how she’d worked hard to make food for us if we were refusing to eat it, but if we really didn’t want it we’d get cereal or something. Not physically forced to eat it, or struck. And if we’d somehow gotten our faces cut open, the only place they’d drive within the next hour would have been the emergency room.

      1. If I didn’t want to eat what was made… I had a couple of hungry brothers and some farmhands who would. I’d just have to make do with what I could do myself once I got to a certain age. Also there was a period after my father’s death where mom kinda wasn’t able to cook full meals as much.

    2. some people actually called this you know
      although I’d assumed her parents never actually went to prison over this shit and it was handled unofficially somehow because HOW THE FUCK DID SHE END UP GOING BACK TO THEM

      1. Kenzie getting them back was the part that was handled unofficially.

        Also. did we ever find out what her trigger event was?

        1. Keith calling Andrea to take her back to school/home rather than doing it himself. We don’t get the trigger vision but she clearly acquires Tinker-vision at that exact moment.

          1. I read that as Kenzie’s best effort at actually reconstructing the trigger vision (kaleidoscopes are a big focus in a lot of them).
            That would probably be really good for powers research, but she’ll never give them that video because it’s litterally her worst memory ever, worse than her own mom jamming her face so hard into her plate it shatters and cuts her (and probably others at that level).

          2. I don’t think so; for one thing the trigger visions consistently show at least one Entity in a clearly distinctive manner, and the suppression in the natural course of things is pretty much absolute, so if she retained any it’d probably be fairly complete. Plus she seems to still have at least some of the perception shift during the elevator ride down, well after the trigger vision would have ended. I’m pretty sure it’s her reacting to the shock of the new Tinker perception, given how it’s focused on all the artificial stuff in the room, and the stumbling is partially that and partially the momentary blackout during the trigger vision.

      2. HOW THE FUCK DID SHE END UP GOING BACK TO THEM

        Because she’s Kenzie, that’s how. She was desperate after screwing up with every other family and group she’d been with, so after Gold Morning she tracked down the two people she knew she could force to take care of her in spite of her issues. And between the amnesty, the chaos and lack of records after Gold Morning, and maybe a little good old fashioned manipulation, society let her have them. Plus, if she screws up with these two and they end up in prison, well, no harm done.

        Beside her need for at least a semblance of belonging, I also think that as she came to learn about her own issues, she developed some sympathy for her parents. She understands that they’re broken, so she wants to try to help them just as others have helped her; pay it forward. She might also feel a certain amount of duty to do this, as it’s common for people to view problems with their family members as their own responsibility.

        It wasn’t a healthy situation, but for a while it was the best she could hope for. It gave her stability, purpose, and an illusion of normality during a time when a lot of people lacked all of the above. Beats joining the Fallen, at least.

  7. There might be a germ of truth here, somewhere, but this ain’t the big reveal on Kenzie. When that comes it will be worse, somehow. It might involve her trigger event? Somehow I got the impression that her attempted seduction of Keith did not lead directly to that, although it certainly piqued her interest in surveillance…

    Victoria would be in a difficult position if Kenzie ever had to use the recordings she has of Irene and Julien, because Victoria is reminded on a regular basis of how easily Kenzie can fabricate video of any sort. Victoria might believe the blackmail stuff is genuine, but her reasons for believing it would be quite different than a court’s reasons. Ashley wouldn’t use Kenzie’s video to help herself.

    1. I was fairly certain her trigger was when Keith asked Andrea to take her home, unless you mean a further development of that, sorry.

    2. I’m pretty sure we did in fact see her trigger event; it happened right as Keith was making the call to have her picked up. She is suddenly overwhelmed by a new perspective centered on machinery and electronics. The trigger vision is missing because it’s a video reconstruction from memory and that memory is suppressed.

    3. >this ain’t the big reveal on Kenzie. When that comes it will be worse, somehow. It might involve her trigger event? Somehow I got the impression that her attempted seduction of Keith did not lead directly to that

      Her trigger event was already covered in this chapter, when she visited Keith and he asked Andrea to take her back to school:

      >She watched him leave the room, and she saw the look in his eyes. He was gone. She might see him again or talk to him again, she could get every detail, read every instant message, see every webpage he visited, but he would never be her dad again.

      >Every point of light in the room flared, a kaleidoscope, a lens flare across her field of vision. Even the edges of the desks where the sunlight drew highlights on glossy black finish became impossibly bright.

      >The images sorted, and she saw world turned upside-down, with land instead of sky and vice versa. The land looked like food coloring did when dropped into water, but it was solid and stable.

      >The parts of the world closest to her were inhabited, marked with messes of glass and machinery that stuck to surfaces and walls. The institution, the infrastructure, the weight of the army- all, when she zoomed far enough back, were part of a singular monolith of a gravity that sucked all energy from her, leaving her gasping.

      >“You alright?” Andrea asked.

      >Kenzie shook her head.

  8. Ashley wouldn’t use the videos because she was *trying* to go to jail and meet up with her clone + keep Rain company + be someone else’s problem.

    The trigger event was in the office, not during the seduction.

    Victoria’s distrust is a useful drama element in and of itself. It’s classic “dramatic irony.” We’ve seen Kenzie’s perspective so we know she decided to be honest, but when we get Victoria’s viewpoint there will be doubts.

    Wildbow similarly used dramatic irony to good effect with the other character interludes. We knew about the Fallen early, we know about Slashly, we know about the two Cauldrons, etc. Now we also know that every time Victoria doubts Kenzie’s version of these events, that Kenzie did her best to be honest.

    1. I think when the kid you’re asking explanations from gives you her entire life story, including her scar, her trigger event, and other stuff she’s only ever shown to her trusted therapist, you’re kind of past the “but is she hiding something from me?” point.

      1. “you’re kind of past the “but is she hiding something from me?” point.”

        Only you’re not, though. Have you read Mistborn? There’s always a deeper secret 😉

  9. “I’ve seen some fucked up things in my time, but that about takes the fucked-up cookie.”–Jesse Custer* (Reverend)

    *No relation to George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876).
    “He was the dumb one liked getting his as kicked.”–JC

  10. So I was right about the control Kenzie has over them but wrong about it being malicious and not ENTIRELY deserved. Vic, please, for the love of god, get that poor girl out of this house!

  11. I thought the way Kenzie’s senses went all wonky after her realization that she’d never have a parent-child relationship with Keith again was her actual trigger event. Granted, compared to the kind of physical trauma and life-or-death situations of other on-page trigger events, Kenzie’s being an epiphany of her worst fear becoming reality when the actual physical trauma failed to make her trigger is quite subtle. Granted, that epiphany also included some of her realizing that her efforts to fix things only make things worse.

    But yeah, Irene is a piece of work as well, though I get more the impression that Kenzie’s bio father simply didn’t know how to stand up to his wife and did more to enable the abuse rather than being a willing participant.

    1. This situation is eerily similar to my own, with the mother who loses her temper and the father who acts like it’s perfectly normal and the kid deserved it
      and no I don’t think “he was not the one who smashed her face” is any kind of excuse there
      he is -exactly as bad-

    2. I speculate that her family trauma didn’t cause her to trigger was because it was “normal” to her. Until she was rescued from them, she’d never experienced a reality that told her childhood should be much different.

      I was in my mid thirties before I finally realized that my childhood was not normal.

  12. Oh man. This chapter. It hurts the heart. I had to stop midway through and take a walk before I came back and finished it.

    One thing I will note, those scenes were not first person memories. Those scenes were constructed by Kenzie. They were made with a purpose. And she had them in her pocket ready to play as soon as the events requiring them unfolded. So we can’t totally trust them or rely on them the way we usually trust first person perspective.

    1. I think what we got were first-person memories. They were clearly told from Kenzie’s perspective, and included details that wouldn’t have been present in a visual reproduction, like the smell of her mom’s cooking, or the flash of understanding into the nature of vast, monolithic optical systems.

      Victoria shouldn’t necessarily believe them, but I think they were the real thing.

      1. Kenzie herself explains that these are reconstructed from her memories, and she claims they’re as accurate as she can make them. There are seemingly good reasons to trust her and to be skeptical, IMO, but unless I misread, they are in no way “the real thing”

  13. The thing I don’t get is why Ashley said they weren’t her real parents. Did she lie to the therapy group before? Say that this was a different Earth version of her parents? Or is she lying to Victoria now?

        1. “They’re not your real parents. Real parents show care and love. Your foster parents were more of your parents than Irene and Martin.”

    1. Like, honestly? Kenzie could probably do worse than manufacture her own robot parents.

      Even if they go all Skynet destroy-all-humans it would be a step up.

  14. In an attempt to focus on less tragic parts of this sorrow-laden chapter, why was Kenzie so averse to Irene’s food at the beginning? Victoria seemed to think her cooking smelled great and Kenzie agreed (aside from the poisoning attempt), so what changed?

    1. It was apparently some fancy foreign dish. Speaking from experience, kids can hate those and no amount of culinary skill in making it will change their minds. Aside from how everyone has their own personal preferences, kids tend to prefer simpler dishes and sweeter ones.

    2. She might have gotten better at cooking over the years, or Kenzie might have exaggerated the memory a bit.

      Or fabricated it outright.

      Maybe that hairpin is used to hide a scar, and maybe it’s used to generate one where none exist.

      1. Kenzie was not replicating the smell, that’s her memory. Her diary entries are dioramas, not the kind of detailed recollection we got. That was her own actual memory. Whether Irene got better at cooking with time, that dish was not child appropriate, or Kenzie had very specific food picking issues (I’m still saying she might be autistic, on top of the trauma playing havoc in her head, and that can lead to A LOT of food pickiness), I believe the narration here. I think that’s the -reason- the POV switched over to Kenzie from Victoria, just so the audience could be confident this was the truth.

        1. Considering both parents had trouble cutting the grating with their cutlery… we can safely infer Irene got a lot better at cooking pasta.
          Not that it takes that much practice, so that’s another hint towards her priorities back then.

          1. Kenzie actually makes an explicit comment about how her Mom used to be a terrible cook, but got better at it, in the last chapter.

        2. Honestly, between the parents trying to feed her something last chapter and the constant mentions of a sensation in Kenzie’s stomach in that flashback, I spent the majority of that scene thinking they had been regularly drugging her food or something… ;>_>

      2. An interesting bit about that particular memory is that it may have been poorly cooked (as indicated by hard-to-cut chicken). I think this dish was particularly horrible, because it was a Parmesan recipe. The smell of Parmesan cheese is almost identical to vomit. So, if someone has smelled vomit before, but not tasted Parmesan… they’re first smells of that cheese are going to remind them first of vomit. That’s what makes this poorly-cooked dish so bad. Even done well, she may have still been repulsed by the smell.

    3. Baked Parmesan smells like vomit because of the acids in it – combine that with any sort of fussiness and the right lens to look at food and it is NOT a pretty dish.

    4. Kenzie said she needs a lot of pratice to get good at something, so maybe she wasn’t as good then. The fact that the dad ends up bringing them to a fast-food kind of goes in that direction.

        1. 1. How can I have fond childhood memories of mom’s homemade cooking if you make baked vomit. Up your game, Irene.

  15. I like how Victoria did not back down a single inch on this. Antares saw something that needed to be fixed and did so decisively and while gathering as much information as possible.

    Glory Girl would have just charged through a wall, mid-projection movie, and beaten Kenzie’s parents half to death.

    1. Glory Girl’s method is definitely satisfying in the short-term. But Antares is the greater hero for a reason.

  16. This chapter twisted my heart into a corkscrew, and I kind want to scream something. I really wish it had been robots instead.

    That said, I have a lot of respect for Kenzie, considering what she could be, and what she is making an active attempt not to be.

    Her dad appears to be simply an enabler, yeah?

    1. there’s ‘simple’ and then there’s ‘seeing a child get her face smashed into the table and reacting by blaming her for it’
      there’s a point where it’s exactly as bad, and this point has absolutely been crossed

      1. One might say this situation has a gender reversal from the more commonly described abuse narrative, but it’s not rare for an “enabler” to protect a victim by distracting the abuser.

        1. If he was protecting her he would have given her some fucking food
          she did not end up eating either in the evening or in the morning because -neither- of them gave her any breakfast
          he was not protecting her he was just marginally more aware that screaming and hitting is undignified

          1. And that cuts on the face are a lot more likely to get questions asked. He still grabbed her on the arm hard enough to bruise it. Which is a lot less likely to be noticed. And look what happens? People do notice it and ask questions, and because Kenzie can’t make up stories, they get caught on it.

            Actually Kenzie was also socially isolated at school. No mention of any friends. Which if she’d had anyone she felt she could trust, she’d probably have gone to and asked how to show love, rather than the internet.

    2. I’d speculate that him telling her to clean up, and expecting it to go ok, implies he doesn’t really understand what a child is. Also I got the strong impression he bruised her on purpose too.

      1. I dont think he wanted to leave a visible bruise but he definitely wanted to hurt her as ‘punishment’ for leaving a mess
        I don’t really understand what kind of thought process leads to blaming someone for making a mess with their -blood- :\

        1. I don’t understand it either, but I know it’s the same process that considers avoiding his massively narcissistic wife complaining at him to be more important than his daughter avoiding malnutrition and literally scarring physical abuse.

          I don’t personally consider Julian to be as bad as Irene, but they’re both at the point that I don’t feel the least bit sorry for them being turned into prisoners in their own house. They’re both so far into bad that we’ve reached the Comparing Mussolini to Hitler point.

  17. I’m jumping on the Autistic bus for Kenzie. Mine isn’t as strong, but a lot of that, the childhood interactions? I was going ‘Oh, yeah. That looks like autism to me.’ Though mostly what I did was be a train whilst everyone else was playing football. I was weird, but… I didn’t particularly want to fit in, I guess. And my village primary school was quite a bit smaller; only about twenty students in my year.

    Also, who the heck calls their daughter ‘Janesha’? I mean, seriously. It’s a worse name than ‘Dogwhistle the Magnificent’.

    1. Janesha sounds like a pretty name to me, just not British, yeah?
      And I agree with the autistic bus. Autistic + a lot of trauma heaped on top = our sweet issue pie. Jesus Christ, and her team’s attitude 😡

      1. What’s wrong with Emily? Fatima? Imogen? Or just plain Jane (well, maybe not; Plain Jane is a bully’s dream, or can be)? Even Wendy, and that was invented purely so J. M. Barrie had a girl’s name that rhymed with ‘friendy’.

        There’s plenty of nice names out there without mashing part of one name into part of another. Pick Jane or Vanessa, not mix them into Janesha.

        1. Names like “Janesha” are common specifically in predominately African-American communities in the U.S. This is also the reason for the name “Kanzi”.

          1. I’m aware it’s common in America. But I still really don’t like it, and I’m not fully sure why. I don’t have the problem with Kanzi. Even if I googled Kanzi and got a Wikipedia page about a bonobo subject of language experiments.

  18. Well in one chapter I went from identifying with Kenzie the least of all the main characters to identifying with her the most. That was … a sudden shift.

    Seriously this whole chapter was just: “Oh. She’s *me*.” Not exactly me, not with exactly the same circumstances, and we ended up with very different expressions of what we went through, but … close. Honestly I think the biggest difference between us is that she consciously recognized she couldn’t intuit how to connect with people earlier than I did and took more direct action to that realization than I did (to disastrous results on her part). And the second biggest difference is that I learned how to go cold in response to this stuff and she didn’t.

    But … fuck. Yeah I really get her now. I can see myself doing almost *exactly* this in her shoes.

    Wildbow this was an amazing chapter. Thank you so much for it.

    1. I don’t feel close to her, but yeah, I can definitely empathize with the looking back and thinking “Why the hell did I do this?”, and the intense shame that goes with it.

  19. My thought on that is one of the conditions Kenzie put on her parents was that they learn to be better parents, they take her places and drop her off, and mom had to learn to be a decent cook. Notice how neither of her parents ate the meal either.

    1. They refused to eat it, because they poisoned her dish and she mixed it right into theirs. No way they were going to do that. She caught them and called them out. Poor girl. When she was telling V to just let it play out, I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. I’m glad V pushed it, because someone needs to protect this child.

  20. “Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…” the music on her headphones pumped, the tune happy and poppy.
    This line is SO disturbing. That’s the same song Cherish was listening to when she was introduced in Interlude 11g in Worm. I get the feeling that whenever this song plays in WormVerse, some fucked up emotional abuse bullshit of some sort is about to go down. The thing is, it’s fitting for Cherish and Kenzie both, but in entirely different ways.
    Holy fucking hell, poor Kenzie… She got dealt a poor hand in life and she made it worse by trying to fix it and being too smart and resourceful for her own good. :/

  21. Typo thread:

    “If I’d color coded these, the next scenes, set of you can probably guess, would be pink.”

    She found her bag, and she dug the card out of her bag. only one temporary tattoo left, and a business card with a number on it.
    -Only

    1. “held a chepa sewing kit”
      “Her dad had chair at one end,”
      “every once in while,”

      “movement brought face against the raised lip”
      +her ?

      “a heck of a mess. I don’t know”
      Extra space.

      “going to see Keith at work had been a way to just show him he cared, to reconnect,”
      > show him she cared ?
      > show him he mattered ?

      “Victoria leaned checked that the parents were still”
      (Summer already noticed that one, but… better put them all in one thread.)

  22. Bit of a tangent, but her trigger event mentions the weight of an ‘army’ in a world of glass and steel. I’m sure it’s most likely some Entity shenanigans that I’m missing, but is it possible that this could be in any way related to the Machine Army?

    1. This was my thought exactly- what if the Machine Army wasn’t made by some parahuman, but is instead an artificial Entity, working to grow and consume everything in all versions of this planet so that it can eventually blast off and spread through all of space and time?

      What if Kenzie got her shard from this artificial Entity?

  23. Jesus Christ, Jessica Yamada needs to be found and brought back to help this poor child, who I’ve now adopted.

    And I thought being Rain was suffering…

    1. Yeah. What worries me is that I’m afraid that when we find out what Chris’ deal is, we’ll be nostalgically remembering this chapter as the time when things were good.

      1. “Rachel Lindt?”
        “Yes.”
        “This girl’s parents are complete arseholes.”
        “Fuck em up then. But why well me?”
        “We want you to adopt her.”
        “Why me.”
        “Because everyone else is either scared of her or has royally fucked it up.”

        Rachel Lindt frowned, then thought of the families she knew. she’d been abandoned, Regent and Grue’s had been dysfunctional as hell. Tattletale’s had tried to use her for profit. she also knew that Damsels of distress had a bad childhood too. Then there was that Golem kid who had been ditched by his own Nazi parents and told them where to shove their ideology by choosing a Jewish monster as his cape name. …And the less about the mess New Wave had made of their own family (and by extension, Marquis for losing to them), the better.

        “Fucking hell,” said Bitch. “I’m the best chance she’s got.”

  24. First time commenting here. Started reading back on the Scarab arc back in Worm. This chapter really hit close. It was so uncomfortable to read. The scene with her parents got me very close to tears. When I started on that segment and it played through so exactly like my ex girlfriend’s past, it shocked me to the core because I wasn’t expecting to read something like this today. She went through the exact same sort of abuse and… You describe it well. God, this bought back a lot of memories. I desperately hope that girl is still okay. Jesus.

  25. Lunchtime, dinnertime… not very different, are they ? Poor kid.

    Anyway, the current Ashley-Kenzie dynamic now feels a lot more healthy, sane and safe.

  26. Ahem, I would just like to say, I googled “How to I make someone happy/show them I love them”. Now admittidly safesearch was on (and for gods sakes you pimpley teenage asshole Kenzie was 6 or 7 she shouldn’t be looking for porn, and you sure as hell shouldn’t think she is), but I sure as heck didn’t get anything that resembled what Kenzie is implied to have done! At the very least you’d think she’d get ads for jewlery or flowers before that. Clearly this was the Smurf’s insidious work, manipulating her search engine resualts. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    1. Also she probably searched waaay too long, too far, and definitely removed safesearch to find the real best ways to show someone you love them, because going way past anything reasonable is pretty much how she used to do everything.

    2. We don’t know how advanced search engine tech is in mid-00’s Worm. She might’ve been using, I dunno, AltaVista or some nonsense.

  27. I can’t believe I didn’t realize this before, but Kenzie almost certainly knows what Victoria’s forcefield looks like and why. That’s kind of concerning.

    1. That Kenzie associated moving to the center of the garage with possibly needing the forcefield with Vic feeling unsafe reinforces both how hyperaware K is of her teammates and also the very thing margin by which Vic is holding her shit together.

  28. That was heart wrenching.

    Yes, Yamada really should be found.

    On a semi lighter note, Antonio and his partner are just adorable and am happy to know that they survived.
    Hope Kenz can talk to them in the future, preferably in a unfucked circumstance.?

    1. I’m sorry to say that after what is implied to have happened there’s no way short of a continuity reboot for them to not have an akward conversation.

  29. Sooo…. at the risk of sounding like a complete dipshit….
    I actually think Julian could have been a reasonable parent, if he wasn’t somehow pychically attached to Irene.
    I’m not saying anything he did or played along with was okay…. but he gives the impression of sort of…. grew up in the gutters, found himself this rich perfect princess, and will do anything to stick by her side…. sort of “The world is hard, and THIS is THE person I will be loyal to”.
    And like… if he had been paired with someone else he might have been okay (although still weird and distant).

    Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I almost take his “Will Kenzie be in danger” as genuine concern.

    …. not that any of that fixes the situation in any way.

    In some sense, he reminds me of Colin (Armsmaster/Defiant/whatever). The same detachment/apathy/whatever, and the only difference is that Colin ended up attached to a paragon of all that is good and nice in the world, and Julian is well…. here.

    1. I’m in the camp that feels Martin’s interest in the dangers of the cape lifestyle are 100% attributable to the hope that she will die in a way that can’t be blamed on him or his wife.

    2. Julian’s an irredeemable piece of shit that watched a small child get physically assaulted by his narcissist wife and not only felt no remorse or empathy, actively blamed the child for it happening.

      He reminds me of my step mom, who’d laugh off any of the beatings my brother or I caught for similar reasons to Kenzie’s experience as being not only fine, but deserved. I only hate her ever so slightly less than my dad because I didn’t have to put up with her for as long. Fuck the lawyer that got my dad split custody with a rusty poker too while we’re venting.

      Making excuses for people like this is, if I’m feeling charitable, just a sign that you were lucky enough in life to have two good parents.

      1. Yup.
        My mom and dad had a similar dynamic, not to -quite- this point thankfully but also with mom being the actually actively abusive dipshit and dad making excuses for her and blaming me for ‘provoking her’.
        I can also relate to the “oh but it’s all better now! as long as I’m super vigilant to not provoke things into getting worse again” feeling 😡 but anyway my point is
        things Kenzie’s dad has done:
        – said she doesn’t have to eat all of it (bulldozed over by Irene, but positive)
        – checked her cut and gave her a bandage (sorta positive but NOT REMOTELY ENOUGH holy shit this level of neglect counts as abusive in and of itself, it just looks better when contrasted against Irene who would have just let Kenzie bleed out and probably hurt her worse)
        – invited his wife to eat out but without Kenzie, who was left in the house without any actually edible food (again, abusive levels of neglect right there)
        – scolded Kenzie for ‘not making enough effort’ even though she didn’t actually do -anything- wrong (SHE WAS TRYING TO PICK UP HER FUCKING FORK WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK)
        – dragged Kenzie out of bed when she was already asleep with enough force to leave a bruise (physical abuse in and of itself)
        – sent her to school without breakfast

        that’s things he has ACTIVELY DONE
        now let’s look at things he DIDN’T DO
        – told Irene her cooking is awful (YES THIS FUCKING COUNTS WHY WOULD HE LET HIS CHILD BE FED GARBAGE SLUDGE NO CONFLICT AVERSION IN THE WORLD IS WORTH THIS)
        – told Irene to get her hands off Kenzie (again there’s conflict aversion and then there’s watching a kid get her face smashed into her plate like it’s a normal thing)
        – actually bandaged Kenzie’s cut enough for it to stop bleeding, or better yet, got her to the hospital (see above: abusive levels of neglect even if he was a single parent and she just fell or something)
        – comforted Kenzie who was scared and hurt (again, abusive levels of emotional neglect on its own)
        – cleaned up after dinner before taking his wife out
        – got Kenzie some actual food to eat in the evening, either before or after their outing (yes, it would be clearly unsafe for Kenzie to be taken with them, but then again, in public Irene couldn’t behave like this, and either way, he could have given her food at home)
        – gave Kenzie some actual food in the morning before sending her to school (DEFINITELY abuse in and of itself)

        Julien Martin is an abusive piece of shit, and saying he’s better than Irene is like comparing a serial killer who killed 100 people to one who killed only 10 and saying the latter is ten times better and basically a good person compared to the former

        1. Also just to add on to that, Julien clearly didn’t like his wife’s food either and didn’t want to eat it, but he *let Kenzie set off his wife instead* so she’d take the heat and he and his wife could go out to eat.

        2. The thing about “neglect” is that the person doing the neglecting has to be unaware that their inaction his harmful. Unfortunately, there is nothing about Julien’s behavior that indicates he was neglecting her during these events. He was abusing her, too. The thing that she was neglected was Love. It’s the one thing they didn’t know how to give and were blind to it. Everything else was straight up abuse.

    3. JFC. Julien is more than just an enabler of his wife being an abusive bitch, he also is _psychologically_ abusive towards Kenzie. Anyone remotely decent parent would know that Kenzie didn’t do anything wrong at that dinner table. After he took her upstairs to patch up her cheek, he rubs it in her face that they’re going to her favorite restaurant without her. The fact that he feels the need to do this shows that he feels there’s a need to punish her. Its pretty obvious that she didn’t do anything warranting punishment and even if she did, that’s NOT an okay way to punish your child. We saw how she felt in response to him rubbing her nose in it–she felt a mixture of anger and upset. That was his intended goal. As if she hadn’t suffered enough at the dinner table. Any adult worth even a *fraction* of the title of decent parent would be like “well, she’s had her face smashed in. I think she’s had enough negative experiences for one day. Certainly enough punishment, considering she didn’t DO anything wrong…” Even at his worst, Colin still wanted to be a hero. When he was at his worst, he painted heroes and villains in black&white categories, thinking that any villain’s life would be worth the death of Leviathan. Yes, he became egotistical enough to think he can do it and greedy enough for the glory. He thought he had the right to take lives. But even then if he saw a woman he cared for tormenting a child, whether it was their child or not, he would’ve been able to see it was wrong. His sense of right and wrong wasn’t so broken that he would just enable it, much less add to it with psychological abuse.

    4. No. Even the way he told Kenzie to “use her voice” at the beginning and the way she responded and reacted to him? The way he so casually disregarded her pain and discomfort when telling her to put pressure on the wound? He would have been a monstrous parent even on his own.

      Parenting is about more than not attacking your child. It’s about providing love, active support, secure attachment, and emotional involvement with your child. Anything less is doing harm. Raising children is, in a way, kind of like growing plants. Sure you can hurt them with outright physical damage. But negligence and improper care will fuck them up just as surely and easily. And Julian showed *none* of that capacity. At no point did we see him even consider Kenzie’s well being in any of his actions or her reactions.

      Also he grabbed her hard enough to bruise her all on his own. So yeah. Fuck Julian too.

    5. okay… welll…. Yeah, it looks like I pissed a bunch of people off… and rightly so. I apologise if I came across as callous, and in no way wanted to minimise how awful Julian is. I guess the point I was aiming for was that I think that the danger he poses is a danger IN THIS CONTEXT, and that I could IMAGINE so other context where he was less… like this. Irene, not so much.
      This is not a judgement on what either of them is done. This is not to say that what he has done is okay.

      If we are going to run with the serial killer analog that Liliet mentioned, lets ask the question: Who is more evil, Jack slash or Marque? If we are throwing numbers around, then yes, actually I DO believe that someone who kills 100 is worse than someone who kills 10. I especially think someone who kills 100 is worse if they are going to keep doing it no matter the context.
      ….
      Okay, but that’s stupid, and overly defensive.
      I said something controversial, and by the sounds of it rather stupid, I got shouted down, fair enough.

  30. Kenzie’s father is at least as much of a problem as her mother. The mother is apparently the primary abuser, but he is an enabler and based upon his actions imediately after K was injured( mother and father leave the house to eat leaving K to treat her injury, without a replacement meal, and then being angry enough to grab her with enough force to leave significant bruising, he’s an active abuser as well.

  31. After half a year, I finally caught up on Ward. I must say, it was refreshing and great to have a backlog to blaze through.

    And Wow, was that some amazing arcs. And it ended here right on a bombshell. And Victoria thought her family is fucked up, it seems Kenzie has her topped. I shouldn’t have expected any less from wildbow.

    On an unrelated note, who else thinks Nilbog is still out there and being thrown througha portal was the push he needed to become the Goblin King again? Not as a villain, but this time as an ally of humanity.

  32. I’m now thumbing my nose at everyone who’s been saying Kenzie was evil and scary.

    Also, warning, bad language follows:

    Fuck Kenzie’s parents. Fuck them so much. They deserve any hell Kenzie has put them through, and they deserve to be sent back in time and given to the S9 as playthings. Back before Bonesaw had her epiphany and decided to try and reform.

    I’ve loved Kenzie’s character from the start, and I only love her even more now. I identify with her rather strongly, to be honest.

    I hate that she didn’t get to stay with Keith and Antonio. She absolutely deserved to get adopted and get to live happily ever after there.

    Even knowing 100% of that story, I would adopt her. Actually, *especially* knowing 100% of that story, because I can totally see myself doing everything she did, in the same situation.

    1. Also… I know I’m gonna take flak for this, but… I kind of hate Keith a little.

      Like, intellectually, I get his reactions, but… I can’t entirely forgive him for them.

      And I really have trouble forgiving Kenzie’s former teammates for still being bitter at her actions. I mean, I felt some of their reactions were unreasonable even at the time, but with all this extra context… I find it really difficult to think much of them. Kenzie’s situation is so fucked up, ,and it’s really not her fault in any way, especially given she owns her issues and seems to be making really good faith attempts to get better, and frankly she shouldn’t even be having to at her age…

      Gah. Still having trouble not hating Keith. This chapter is literally keeping me up at night with rage and turmoil and sadness.

      1. TBH, he probably was very close to the brink of getting declared a sex offender and child abuser and ineligible for adoption or fostering ever. He had to be distant with Kenzie to not cross the line into that.

        Kenzie’s teammates though? Y E P

        1. Keith was touched by Kenzie. Then because Keith was the adult and Kenzie was 8 and gave a unchildlike prepared statement, Keith would be justifiable worried that he would be declared a sex offender. On top of all the emotional shit Keith must be going though after unwanted contact with his 8 year old foster child. That would be at best make their relationship weird. Sure, you can’t blame Kenzie but Keith is also in a sympathetic situation.

          1. “I’m now thumbing my nose at everyone who’s been saying Kenzie was evil and scary.”
            She’s still scary, but that’s because she’s got the potential to unintentionally destroy lives. I don’t blame Kieth at all because there really wasn’t any good way to resolve it. I do blame Kenzie’s piece of shit birth parents, and her social isolation at school. A Kenzie who’s got a better grasp on how you show someone you love them, or can just ask a friend “Hey, what do you do when you want to show your parents you love them?” and gets Kieth and Antonio a nice boquet of flowers she picked herself instead of something that if it were described anymore would probably get this story flagged.

            I really, really hope Kenzie can lean how to properly interact with people, because as it stands right now she could easily slip into having to change her cape name to Destroyer of Lives.

      2. I understand the hate for Keith. He’s a good person, but he fell short. Kenzie needed a parent who could love her (not that way!) despite her differences from someone’s idea of a “normal” child. Keith was not that parent. A parent who had unconditional love would have said basically what Anton said, but then instead of going cold for a week while waiting for an appointment with a therapist, would have told Kenzie that it’s OK for her to make mistakes because she’s a kid and her foster parents love her anyway. Also let’s please never make this particular mistake again.

        Part of “unconditional love” is to value the child’s needs above one’s own needs. Sure, Keith wanted a picture-perfect family with two dads and two kids, and he needed to stay in the good graces of CPS to get that. However, he didn’t have a right to that vision. An 8yo does have a right to parents who will love her even when she’s weird. Keith promised he was that parent, but he wasn’t. I think the CPS thing was kind of an excuse anyway. Kenzie is very good at secrets; if they hadn’t reported the incident she certainly wouldn’t have. Many parents have been in similar situations and written the whole episode off as “kids are weird”. That Keith couldn’t do that, points to some unresolved issues of his own. Which doesn’t make him a horrible person. It just means that being a foster or adoptive parent is difficult.

        1. I really like your comment. I don’t think that Keith really understood what he signed up for, in his dream of becoming a parent through fostering/adopting.

          My older cousin and her husband have 5 children of their own. They somehow decided that they had more love the share and they started fostering infants. It did take attention away from their own children, and that has had it’s costs. Anyway, a couple of the foster kids (like 6y/o) had some real serious issues regarding sexual abuse and trauma. When one little girl was playing with my cousin and said “Tickle me, mommy. No, tickle me down there.” Because that’s what one of the other foster kids had done to her, my cousin didn’t know what to do. They tried a little bit, but were ultimately unequipped to help. So, they sent the other child back.

          Sending the child back had ramifications though. Their second child, a late teen at the time, was so pissed at them for sending her back. She knew this little girl needed help and was so angry that her parents sent her away once they realized her issues were greater than what they could have imagined. It’s very lose/lose.

        2. Thank you for this comment. You’re saying what I’ve been trying to say, better than I could because this chapter made me angry. Like, “Holy shit I have the urge to put my fist through the wall in real life angry at make-believe people!” type angry.

          I can’t bring myself to forgive Keith, for exactly the reasons you’re stating. He was in love with the idea of being a parent, but not in love (And I mean that in the pure parental sense that every parent is “in love” with their child) with Kenzie, and she so deserved to have a parent who was. I’m angry at Keith specifically, because Antonio seemed to have such a more reasonable and loving response to her actions.

          Yeah, Keith was suddenly looking at maybe having serious consequences for something that wasn’t his fault, but I feel like a real parent, someone who had truly, truly committed to being THAT child’s parent, would have taken the risk and fought to keep her, no matter what. If they’d had other kids to think about already, that would be different, I could understand that, but they didn’t. They had HER, and they let that go. And I can’t be OK with that. I get it, I can sort of understand, but I don’t truly sympathize.

          And I mean, having to hold her at a distance once the social workers had decided to investigate? Yeah, fair. And he tried to explain that part to her. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a shitty situation that any parent in those circumstances would find themselves in, having to tell their kid who wants nothing more than to just be with them again and can’t understand why they can’t, that… They can’t.

          But then there was this:

          “She watched him leave the room, and she saw the look in his eyes. He was gone. She might see him again or talk to him again, she could get every detail, read every instant message, see every webpage he visited, but he would never be her dad again.”

          And that? That I can’t forgive him for. You can’t tell a kid you’re going to be their parent and back out. Certainly not a kid who’d been through what Kenzie had been through. You can’t promise to be their hero and tell them you’re going to rescue them and that everything is going to be fine now, and then say it’s too hard.

          I know people do it every day, but I will never be OK with it.

    2. Kenzie is still scary. She’s still not handling anything like how a sane person would, being a very smart preteen with emotional problems and surveillance-based superpowers, and she’s been living a paranoid nightmare of an existence because of it. Kenzie has trapped herself with two people who really should be put back in jail for attempted poisonings in order to “rehabilitate” them into good parents even while they try to kill her. That is a situation she’s decided on and is enforcing. Kenzie is a victim and she’s more than a little damaged, but that doesn’t make her safe or reasonable. She’s smart and funny and is honestly trying to be better than she was and totally the pup I’d pick from the baby pound, but it’d be to help her be better and not because her actions aren’t wrong.

      1. I never said they weren’t wrong, just that they’re not really her fault. She’s 8 years old for what happened with her and Keith and Antonio. EIGHT. All the things she does, wrong though they might be, are abso-fucking-lutely understandable for a child in her position.

        She seems to be somewhere on the Autism spectrum (Or at least, I as a person with ASD absolutely recognize and identify with much of her monologue) and is coming out of an abusive environment. Eavesdropping to try and get some information about the future to attempt to gain some measure of control of a life in which she’s had none is just typical and understandable.

        Her assumption that things will go bad because she’s happy is very very normal for an abused child. So feeling like she has to take steps to make sure that the adoption they’re talking about goes through is, again, understandable. And then the severity of their reactions throwing her into a panic, worrying and trying too hard to fix what she’s done, again, understandable.

        And here’s where the system utterly fails her, taking her away from Antonio and Keith, and she reacts *exactly* the way you would expect a child missing her beloved parents to, by seeking them out even though she’s been told not to.

        And stalking? I mean… Any parent knows *all* kids that age are stalkers of their parents. They follow you around and won’t leave you alone long enough to go to the bathroom. She was just a gifted kid applying skills beyond those of the typical 8 year old to the task with the bugging of their phones. This is a *completely* typical gifted child issue, the kid having knowledge and skills beyond their years without the understanding of the social conventions and cultural limits that would normally constrain such behavior in an older child. And of course that gets turned up to 11 in a gifted child on the autism spectrum.

        I have trouble truly empathizing with Keith on this. I probably *should* empathize with him more, but I just don’t.

        All Kenzie needed, especially before her trigger, was for someone to discuss things with her honestly, but the system wouldn’t allow it, and Keith and Antonio weren’t devoted to her enough to risk themselves to accomplish it. Which is understandable, I guess, but I can’t really forgive them for it, because I identify too strongly with Kenzie’s perspective, of being that abused kid just wanting someone to love her.

        And whatever happened after that with the PRT and such was obviously just an echo of that, more attempts to secure a parental figure. It seems to me that the whole issue would be solved if someone came along who was sufficiently devoted to her, but no one is willing to be that parent she needs.

        1. The whole situation with Keith was poisoned the instant she “showed him her love”, unfortunately. Adoption was off the table entirely after that incident.

          Adoption from what I understand is a difficult process even at the best of times. Proceedings have been halted by much less.

          1. Adoption is a commitment that this relationship is more important than anything else in the world. That includes bureaucratic rules and therapists. Someone who could make that commitment would have said, “Kenzie you made a mistake but that’s OK because you are my daughter and I love you no matter what.” A parent who believed that wouldn’t need to report this bad thing that his daughter did. Keith decided that he needed kids, but not this particular kid. That kind of sucked, for Kenzie.

        2. In my social work classes, we were discussing how often the autism diagnosis gets tossed around. SO often, its ridiculous. Just because she doesn’t understand social norms and social boundaries, just because she doesn’t grasp the concept of privacy, does NOT mean she has autism. No, everything she’s exhibited points to Borderline Personality Disorder. The clinginess, the anxiety and need for control regarding her relationships with others. Her not understanding why her killing Mama Mathers would’ve been a bad thing or why Rain & Ashley needed and wanted imprisonment indicates her black-and-white thinking. In terms of social functioning, there are *some* similarities b/w BPD and autism. But that’s it. Similarities. One can point out similar behaviors between a person with severe depression and a person with Bipolar Disorder. One can point out similar symptoms between a kid with ADHD and kid with ODD. It’s possible that there can be overlapping symptoms. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If someone on the spectrum sees similarities between Kenzie’s behavior/ way of thinking then that makes sense–trouble developing social skills is something that *some* people on the spectrum as well as some with BPD of trouble with. But it does _not_ indicate Kenzie is autistic. One of her main issues is that the more she tries to pull people towards her, to solidify those relationships, the more she’s likely to screw up those relationships and push people away because she doesn’t understand boundaries. Sadly, that’s how many people with BPD describe their experience. As usual, in the Wormverse, adding the parahuman element ends up magnifying existing problems tenfold–leading to an *exceptionally* tragic story like Kenzie’s.

          1. Kenzie can be both autistic and BPD, can’t she? She’s not a real kid whose life can be screwed up by a wrong diagnosis, she’s a fictional character. She COULD be autistic. Give us freedom to relate to her, please.
            (Also, the ‘say nice things because it makes sense that it would be a good social thing to do and just feels right what do you MEAN weird’ part is so super relatable to me like holy shit)

          2. That’s nice about your social work classes and all, but as I stated I *have* ASD, and I grew up with a parent with BPD (Yeah, it was loads of fun), and Kenzie reads much more as someone on the spectrum than someone with BPD to me.

            She doesn’t just have boundary issues, she has trouble understanding other humans in general–illustrated by the scene at school, among other things.

          3. As some others have said, it could be both, but based on my limited reviewing of the subject, having both is a rather, hazardous situation. I, too, would read it as primarily Borderline… I’m not a doctor, and though there’s the fact that I’ve had both some good BPD friends and good friends on the spectrum, it certainly doesn’t qualify me for much of one to make a diagnosis (and me being bipolar, armchair expert opinions in the family have led to some rather disasterous misunderstandings, it took some 20 years before any of them actually looked up any info on how it works… you can’t just expect people to put forth the effort %100 of the time, no matter how much they think they love you).

    3. Well, she IS scary. And several of the things she’s been doing ARE wrong, if you subscribe to such concepts as “right to privacy” and “due process”. Having a sound reason for being a broken person doesn’t really change the fact that it’s creepy when she pulls out her camera tech to fabricate evidence to get a friend out of a murder sentence, or to watch some strangers have sex because she was spying on the location because they were villains, or just to casually be aware of everything going on around her like some tinker version of Skitter. She’s terrifying, and no amount of parental abuse is going to change that.

      At least not for the better.

      1. Powers ARE creepy. Also, if you subscribe to ‘due process’, Victoria as Glory Girl was scarier. Remember that little bit of horrible?

        Yeah, Kenzie is scary. She doesn’t have boundaries in what information she acquires. She does, however, have boundaries in what she -does- with that information, and that’s quite a solid barrier. Kenzie TRIES, Kenzie is a good person, and that’s going to have to be good enough.

    4. This. Yes, this.

      But remember, on the other hand, we are only getting Kenzie’s perspective on this thing.

      Capes often look upon the world through an astigmatic skew.

      And I’m not quite sure the dates lines up.

      Didn’t she Trigger at eight? Hasn’t that been independently confirmed?

      We may not be getting the whole story.

  33. So, I guess that puts to bed the idea that maybe Kenzie is the one that’s crazy and the parents are just trying to medicate her. It’s actually as bad as it seemed.
    That said, this does raise something interesting. It’d previously been believed that all the ‘no boundaries’ stuff Kenzie did in her past was solely down to her triggering, but the foster parent situation suggests that at least part of it has a different reason, namely ‘she’s a naive, abused kid trying to make things better’. Which I suspect just makes it all the more depressing.

    1. It is interesting to consider how much of Kenzie is original Kanzi and how much is the shard. She’s in the risk group for being subsumed by her powers, triggered at young age and so on, but at the same time she was doing this surveillance-countersurveillance shit on her phone before she even got powers. I think it’s likely that that’s all her, and her powers oriented towards cameras just because that’s what she needed for what she was already doing. In a more violent environment, she might have built devastating laser weapons instead. Or solar-powered robots or something. The light seems pretty integral to her tinker vision, and the concept of large machine installations is there, but I’m guessing the surveillance is her own thing.

      1. Kenzie’s technology does not run on light. The flash gun and holographic displays, sure, but not the actual cameras. A light based camera cannot see into the past, nor into somebody’s skull, nor into whatever pocket universe Capricorn uses. Light also has nothing to do with how that one camera was able to phase through Ashley’s eyeball. Kenzie is always talking about how her technology is based on space, not time. That’s the key. Her cameras aren’t based on light any more than they’re based on time. They’re based on a higher dimensional understanding of space.

        So, if she’d had different needs, I don’t think she’d be building lasers. I think she’d be building portal-guns, teleporters, phase-swords, warp-drives, artificial-gravity, shrink-rays, or something like that.

        Incidentally, I think I’ve figured out why her tech likes to be housed in clunky boxes and such. It’s her need for stability and family. Large tech emplacements tie you down to one spot, and they often require a team of support and/or defense personnel.

    2. We don’t really have precedent for powers changing personality, do we? Sure, there’s Riley, but in her case Jack’s the obvious immediate culprit. Powers influence a person’s abilities and situation in a way that indirectly sculpts who they are, but they don’t just fucking overwrite personality unless you’re unlucky enough to be personally Noelle.

      So yeah, it was obvious to me at least for a while that Kenzie’s shit is due to her home situation, particularly with team members reacting to her parents with quiet horror.

      1. We do. Riley came to her realization about being a slave to her powers because she was trying to program the S9k clones, and the first batch got their personalities overwritten by the shards. The version 1 clones of Damsel and Mannequin took their egomania and paranoia way too far.

        People have even noticed it in-setting. That’s why those people were studying Ashley, to see how her shard is affecting her.

      2. It’s fairly well established that the shards drive their hosts into conflict, and Rachel’s swapped the parts of her brain governing social interaction over to canine. So a significant personality alteration hardly seems out of the question.

        I also suspect Accord might be a case with Kenzie in the same boat. We don’t see Accord before he gets his powers, but between the intensity of his obsession and how tightly it matches his power, I tend to suspect it was at least amplified by his power. He might have had OCD before, but probably not to the point of declaring people who barge in on meetings with urgent news must die. How much was from his power tampering with his brain in general and how much was from expanded awareness feeding a preexisting condition is in question.

        Likewise, Kenzie clearly had issues with interactions and an inclination towards survellience before, but I expect having her power chattering away in the back of her mind, feeding her a dead world’s survellience technology, has intensified it over and above any outright rewiring.

  34. I honestly thought there was no way the reality could be worse than what people had speculated. I was so wrong.

    I felt physically sick during the dinner scene. The times with her foster parents were so nice, but with the dread that it would all go wrong.

    Sveta and Weld need to adopt Kenzie, or hell anyone really.

  35. Jeez I feel for Kenzie, that sounds horrible to have to experience. While I don’t think we can say for sure that they have anti-cape sentiments, Kenzie did explicitly say they laced the food with poison, so that’s something horrifying in itself. Why can’t people be good parents?

  36. I, personally, am lazy, but I’m hoping someone more industrious will go through and analyze the Kanzi/Kenzie alternation in this chapter. It’s not as simple as ‘Kanzi before the name change, Kenzi after’ — it switches back and forth within a single scene, sometimes:

    “Kenzie, right?” the little girl asked. She was barely out of kindergarten, and she had beads in bright primary colors worked into her hair at regular intervals.

    Kenzie nodded. “And you’re Lizzie?”

    “Liz. Um. What happened to your face?”

    Kanzi forced a smile onto her face. “A bear.”

    The little girl looked skeptical. “A bear?”

    “My mom and dad told me to go put the garbage out, and I did, and there was a bear on the street, going through trash cans. Bam, slash, it got me. I ran and went inside.”

    “You told Leon it was an axe murderer.”

    “Because I didn’t think he’d believe me about the bear.”

    “There aren’t any bears in the city, though.”

    “Exactly,” Kenzie said.

    The little girl looked confused. She turned to go report to the others.

    “Liz,” Kanzi said. “I really like your hair.”

    1. At a guess, Kenzie is the persona and Kanzi is the real girl inside it, but… I dunno, it deserves more thought than I’ve given it.

      1. I think it’s just that it was written Kanzi, read as Kenzie, or at least closer to Kenzie than Kanzi. Hence being tired of people getting it wrong.

  37. Some people are blaming the foster parents for taking her to therapy after her unfortunate mistake, but I feel like that’s unfair.
    From my reading it doesn’t seem like they are blaming her. It seems like they want to help her. They had no reason to think that her response in therapy would sound coached and some reason to think she may have been sexually abused by her parents, in which case therapy to help her cope would make sense. They went in not knowing how to deal with a very awkward situation and tried the best they could. A thing that is important for caregivers to know is that when they don’t know how to move forward they SHOULD reach out for help from outside sources to make sure the child is okay. Nobody can be a complete support system especially when the person being supported has as much baggage as Kenzie.
    I doubt they even had a choice about keeping her, after making the misguided, but well intentioned, visit to the therapist. The foster system certainly isn’t perfect, but if some foster parents had a flag brought up about potential abuse of a child and then we’re immediately trying to adopt that child that would seem shady.
    I wish everything had worked out, but other than Keith going cold, which is understandable when you’re trying to figure out if you did something wrong to cause the event to happen, a thing I’m sure he was doing while he was in shock, I don’t really feel like any of their behaviors should have been different than what they were.

    1. Yeah, Kenzie did say the reason she was taken away was because they thought she was coached. Still, more communication with Keith and Antonio had a lot of potential to at least mitigate the problem

      1. I beginning to realize that the most destructive thought Kenzie can have is “I can fix this.” She should have talked things over with her Keith and Antonio. If she had, they’d have realized that her research was going to screw everything up. The situation might have been salvaged. But Kenzie’s birth parents sabotaged that before she ever met her foster parents.

        It’s all over scenes before and after the dinner. Kenzie has been trained to do virtually everything for her own care. She’s expected to stay out of sight and just take care of things herself. She knew that bringing up the bathroom sink being too high was an invitation to abuse. She couldn’t even ask for a stepping stool, so she figured out how to improvise one without disturbing the perfect appearance of the bathroom. She does her best to clean up after the dinner debacle and no one has to tell her. She knows that the it will be worse if she doesn’t.

        So when she wants to make sure the therapist comes to the right conclusion, she doesn’t talk to Keith and Antonio, she does the research work herself…and sounds like she’s been coached.

        I’m actually sympathetic to Keith’s position. He desperately wants to be a parent, but it has become obvious that the system will never let him keep Kenzie. Once he actually accepts that, he has to not initiate contact with her and end encounters immediately. It might even be better for Kenzie so that she doesn’t get false hopes that will hurt even worse when they’re dashed. Once Kenzie went into that therapist meeting, her trigger event was virtually inevitable. It was just a matter of when that final realization hit her.

  38. Reading Grey’s torture scene in Worm and Rain’s aftermath after his torture: rough but okay
    Reading Kenzie’s abuse and her desperate attempts to be loved: literally heartbreaking and hard to stomach

  39. Wildbow, I am a very big fan of your works, though I’m not one to comment really. However, I feel like on this chapter you have really outdone yourself, especially when considering the meta-narrative surrounding this story.

    It’s no secret you put your character’s through the absolute wringer, and as a response, we as the audience are constantly expecting some new and terrifying ability or use of one to be the next big whammy that throws us for a loop.

    In fact, many people expected that to be the case with Kenzie. There are a number of people who were correct to some degree, but many others believed the twist would be robot parents or some kind of simulated projection. It’s mind-blowing and honestly, more than a little uncomfortable, that the real twists in this story? The things that make us take on entirely new perceptions of characters? The things that completely shatter all our expectations?

    They have absolutely nothing to do with superhuman powers.

    Instead, they are about the horrors and turmoil of simply being a human being in the terrible circumstances that many unfortunately find themselves in in the real world.

    It’s absolutely amazing how well you portray that so often and still manage to make all of us sit back in shock as we read your stories. The fact that you can make us realize that some of the worst stuff imaginable already exists today in the form of how some people treat other people is astonishing.

    I don’t know if that’s exactly how others felt, but that’s just what I thought while reading this chapter. The contrast to people’s expectations against the true story is stunning.

    I tip my hat to you, Wildbow. Keep up the amazing work!

  40. I’ll admit I was fairly strongly on the robot parents side. Mostly because the cueing that K gave off was indicative of poor/dammaged attachment issues, and extreme need for connection. This is not a pattern you would see in someone with a remotely healthy family environment. So I figured the superficialy normal family was a fake. In that I was right, but I failed to anticipate exactly how messed up her family environment was.

    I think her foster parents are not deserving of the disdain they are getting.

    First, she shows signs of possible prior sexual abuse and/or significant emotional disturbance. So they do the right thing – they try to get professional help( this type of issue is not likely to be something that will be addressed within the family). This leads to accusations from the therapist of possible coaching and possible abuse– if anyone goofed it was the therapist they saw, but even there that’s a hard call with Occam’s razor leading them toward an incorrect conclusion as highly sophisticated 8yr olds are quite rare. Once the therapist makes that miscall, the separation is just a matter of time.

  41. Something is still off. Ashley was very specific “Those are not your parents” not “They don’t deserve to be called parents”. Also, given Ashley’s affinity for Kenzie and her own backstory, I can’t see her letting Kenzie stay with potentially homicidal parents. Either Ashley has some mistaken assumptions or Kenzie is still hiding something.

  42. I like how an adoption by a gay family is presented here: not as a plot point but rather as a thing which just is that way (because why not). I’m not familiar with actual state of affairs regarding this in Canada; is gay marriage and adoption really such a non-issue there?

    Also, I kinda don’t get the lines about “We’d be the absolute worst foster parents if we took the first foster child to pass through our doors and then half a year later, started asking about adopting them”. Why worst? I don’t see anything wrong with it. Or are they just joking with each other about it?

    Besides that…just wow. After all that foreshadowing I expected something wrong, but my expectations were more about some power-related fuckery. Not something like this, horrible in its mundanity.

  43. It really says something that -Night and Fog- were better at pretending to be functional humans than Kenzie’s parents.

    Also, I think this may be the first time Wildbow’s -ever- written a government backed organization actually doing their job in a reasonable and competent manner. Good job CPS.

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