“Here,” Kenzie said. She held out her hand, and I took the little gift.
I turned it over in my hands, as Kenzie skipped over to Sveta, to pass Sveta something similar. A hair-clip. Mine was sun-shaped. Sveta’s was a sea-shell spiral. The others were walking and talking, as we all headed into the mall.
“I thought since you guys are sort of recognizable, you might want to keep things subtle. Yours isn’t very fancy, but it should change up your look a bit, like we did for the others. Sveta, you should take one of these packs. I gave one to Rain, and I’m carrying one for the Ashleys.”
“We’ll go to the bathroom so you can change serptish- surveillish-”
“Surreptitiously?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’ll give you something, or I’ll give it to Victoria, and you can stay close to Victoria.”
“Okay,” Sveta said, leaning on me
“You aren’t overworking yourself?” I asked.
“Only a tiny bit. These are easy, it’s tech I already had. The issue was getting somewhere I could work on it in peace, now that I’m at the institution. I ended up going to the headquarters.”
“Alone?” Sveta asked.
“Yeah. Turns out I can do what Chris did, leave and nobody asks questions. Part of it is that they think I’m a good student and I’m obedient so it’s okay.”
“Yeah, that’s… not Chris,” I said.
“No, I know. He was creepy-scary when he wanted to be. I’m creepily good-nice. Same thing in the end. It just feels kind of lonely, you know? Bathroom’s this way.”
“I can see it being lonely, yeah,” I said.
“I’m really missing him. That’s part of it. The other part is realizing that there’s so much you can get away with because most adults are so busy trying to live their lives and deal with a group of kids that one kid doesn’t matter. I think I’d be happier if I couldn’t get to my workshop at all because they were paying a lot of attention to me.”
“I can see that,” I said.
“It would be more happiness for a very short time,” Swansong said. “Then it might feel hollow. I’m glad that your work means we can spend time together like this.”
Kenzie nodded, excited and sudden. “Right!?”
Silent, I pushed the door to the unisex bathroom open, holding it for the others. Rain, Byron, and Erin hung back in the mall’s concourse while the rest of us went in.
There were people inside, a husband and wife with a baby that they were wholly focused on, taking up three sinks between them. I hung back until they were gone, as the Ashleys headed to the sinks furthest from the door, standing side by side as they peered at their reflections.
I hoped that Damsel wouldn’t be a bad influence on Swansong.
The parents left and most of the stalls were left empty. Only one stall to watch for, and we could situate ourselves where we weren’t overheard.
“There’s a dial built into it, you might have to tilt it to see,” Kenzie instructed. “That controls the scope of it. I would have liked to have two dials, because you can do an awful lot of exploration with two dials. Double-tap the surface to turn it on. Oh, let me help you!”
Kenzie helped Sveta with the hair clip. I took the moment to figure out my sun-shaped device. The dial required my fingernail to adjust. I double-tapped it to turn it on, and my world was swallowed up by a faint checkerboard haze, a transparent screen falling into place around my head and hands, where skin and hair were visible. The haze snapped out of existence as the device seemed to figure out where my eyes were, creating eyehole-shaped gaps in the screen, while instead creating greater-than and less-than blurs of shadow to frame my eyes.
A moment later, the checkerboard and the shapes were gone. My skin tone changed along my hands, my fingernails now artificially painted. In the mirror, I could see hair with darker roots and brighter highlights, twisty as if every lock or length had been wound tightly around a pencil or pen, not treated with heat, but guided in shape all the same. The eyes that looked back at me seemed more open.
“I went through online videos and for each pin I picked out fifty people who looked similar enough to each of the people I’d be giving pins to, then averaged it out. When the average was too close to you guys, I pushed it out away from the norm.”
It was so close to being me, to the point that I could believe someone could get a witness description of me and think this face fit the bill, and it was wholly not me at the same time. I changed my expression in the mirror, seeing how the face moved. Moving the hand with the pin one way and moving my face another created a brief visual distortion, like what happened when trying to take a panoramic picture that included something moving.
Reminiscent of things, enough that it got my heart rate going.
“And- yeah, Victoria, you don’t want to do that. It helps if you actually wear the hair clip, duh. You shouldn’t run into problems if you do. And Sveta, I put together two options, but I’m not sure how well option two will work. I didn’t have you with me to try it and test it, so I had to guess, based on things. Let’s try smooth.”
“Smooth?” Sveta asked.
“I made this one a necklace. Here. Bend down and I’ll put it on.”
Sveta bent down, leaning hard into the sink for balance as she did. As Kenzie fiddled, Sveta looked up at me, her eyes searching my face.
Sveta did, moving her whole hand to tap, instead of moving fingers as someone else might.
As had happened to me, the white-black checkerboard pattern overlaid her, loose and hovering over her skin. It slowly moved to the appropriate surfaces, and then settled. The change was minor, but it was because Sveta was bundled up in a huge coat. Her face had more skin tone, the features less different from her usual face than my current face was from mine. Her hands looked normal. She stared down at them.
“Maybe take that off, so we can be sure,” Kenzie said, poking at Sveta’s coat.
When Sveta nodded, I helped her out of the coat, folding it over my arm. The necklace took a second to adapt, the checkerboard wrapping around her arms and hands.
When the checkerboard map was settled, it became skin. Flesh, from shoulder to fingertip, tattooed heavily down the arms in a design similar to the forest green backgrounds with orange animals that Sveta had painted onto her arms. Unlike the paint, however, they’d faded out as any year-old tattoo might.
“Can you move your hands around? I’m wondering if the smoothing works.”
Sveta turned her hands over, looking at the palms. She didn’t move her hands.
“Svettaaaaa,” Kenzie said. She gave Sveta a bit of a push. “Come on! I want to know if this worked.”
“Oh. Okay. What did you want?”
“Move your hands. Do stuff.”
Sveta did. The movements of her hands didn’t have the mechanical quality.
“I did that for Ashley Black, and I thought I’d do it for you too. I just wanted to see- I’m going to take your hands…”
Kenzie reached out, grabbed Sveta’s hands, and them moved them around. There was a clear disconnection between where Kenzie’s hands were and the slow, almost dream-like way that the images of Sveta’s hands moved.
“Yeah. I worried about that. It’d look weird if you picked something up or if someone moved the map around. Next time! Here, let me change it. Bend down.”
Sveta obeyed. Again, she looked up at me, while Kenzie used her fingernails to turn the tiny dial at the underside of the clip.
“I have other tattoo maps loaded into my phone, if you’re interested. Um, just off the top of my head, lotus flowers, pink and green, and um, watercolor birds and branches… skulls and roses? Do you feel like a badass? Or I can get rid of the tattoos.”
“It’s skulls and roses or nothing, as I see it,” Ashley Black said, from the other sink.
“This is good,” Sveta said, and her voice was small.
I looked over my shoulder at the Ashleys, raising an eyebrow.
“I know this is a super minor project that probably doesn’t matter much at all, but I was still worried about how it would turn out, because a lot of what I do is I get really good images, but then when I do stuff like projections, I’m trying to find use-sensitive ways of printing those images. It’s like those super old fashioned cameras that would spit out a photo as soon as you took it, but I’m spitting all over you. I had to find videos with a really good coverage of certain body parts, so what I ended up doing was setting up cameras to scan for those and-”
“Kenz,” our Ashley said, interrupting. The interruption might have been rude, but the reality was that Kenzie kind of mandated them when she got going, because she pressed on and she left no gaps.
“If you get caught up in this, we’ll spend the entire shopping trip in here, fiddling with your tech.”
“Oh! Oh, shoot, I imagined this taking twenty seconds in my head. How long has it been?”
“Not twenty seconds,” our Ashley replied. “Come on. Let’s leave them to it. I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing with my costume.”
“Let Sveta and I hit one or two stores,” I said. “We’ll loop over and catch up with you? If there’s anything you want a Victoria opinion on, have them hold it at the counter and we’ll go back.”
“Do they do that?”
“That is a thing they should be willing to do, yes,” I said. Not much retail experience.
“You can tell me how I’m supposed to wear a costume with a dress built in, when the temperature is below freezing.”
“I can try,” I said. I glanced at Sveta, who was now staring into the mirror. “You might have to wear leggings.”
She made a face, then looked at Kenzie.
“I can do a thing, don’t worry,” Kenzie said. “I’m going to have to invest in better battery packs though. Speaking of-”
She fished in her bag, then came out with a satchel. It was barely bigger than a fanny pack, but it looked like it had a double-size brick in it.
“Wear, or have Victoria carry it and stay close. It’ll keep things charged, so you don’t burn out at an awkward time.”
“I’ll carry it.” I reached out and took it. It had to weigh twenty pounds.
“Bye, Kenz,” I said.
The door banged closed.
Sveta and I stood at our individual sinks, looking in the mirrors.
I wasn’t Victoria Dallon. I’d been Victoria Dallon of that Dallon family since I’d been born. Famous enough to be recognized even when visiting Boston or Portland, not famous enough to be a true celebrity outside of my hometown. At school and during events, even in my sports, I’d always been the daughter of superheroes. Things had eased up after Victoria Dallon had ‘died’, but even after, in hospitals and in the Patrol, I’d still had the looks, the remarks.
In a way I’d liked it, I’d embraced it, but…
I wore a mask to be a civilian, and I felt the lifting of a burden I hadn’t realized was there.
The door opened, and a middle-aged guy entered the bathroom. He didn’t spare us a glance as he hurried to his stall. No double-check of a look for Sveta.
What I was experiencing couldn’t be a tenth of what Sveta might be feeling.
She dragged her fingers along the length of her arm, and there was a slight distortion- slight enough that I might have explained it away as skin stretching on contact. I saw her turn her arm around, examining elbow, then craning her head around to try to get a better look at the shape of her shoulder.
In the midst of it, she seemed to get a glimpse of me, and I could see that moment where the spell broke, she didn’t recognize the person standing next to her, and then realization set in.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s perfectly okay.”
“I’ve got you holding everything. My coat, the bag with- was it a battery? Let me take some of that.”
“Here. Take the coat.”
She nodded. When she took the coat, it was to hug the mass of damp polyester against her front, both arms wrapped around it. One of her hands pulled away, the wrist still holding the cloth in place, and her eyes fell on the moving fingers. Without the ‘smooth’ setting, they moved like her prosthetic fingers did- a subtle difference.
“Super minor project that doesn’t matter much, she said?”
She bit her lip, nodding.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got a glimmer of that same feeling. And I think we should take that feeling and run with it.”
“You and I are two completely different, unrelated people, with none of the baggage and history, none of the current worries, and all of the great taste.”
“I’m not sure I have taste.”
“I think you do,” I said. I reached out for her arm, and my finger touched the hard surface, while appearing to depress the skin that was being projected there. The tattoo was there, with bold outlines and flat colors. “You’re an artist. Come on. First stop is winter stuff.”
She let me lead her out of the bathroom and into the mall concourse. Kenzie and the Ashleys were already gone, but Rain and Erin were at a kiosk where books and movie DVDs were set up on revolving stands, each of them with some candy and a drink. Rain seemed oblivious to us as we passed them, but Erin managed to get it after double take, before shooting us a thumbs up. Rain said something to Byron, who was deeper inside the kiosk.
“You don’t get cold, right?” I asked.
“Not as much. I kind of get brain freeze, but I have to be pretty cold for that.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. Once I get it, I have to warm up the rest of the way to get rid of it. But no, cold doesn’t usually bother me much.”
“That lets us be more flexible, then. Thrift store?”
“I was thinking I’d be willing to buy a nice coat if I’m going to be wearing it outside the next few months.”
“We’ll keep that in mind as an option, but, as sad as it is, a lot of people sold their extra things when money was tight, and the thrift stores are currently a gold mine.”
“You seem to gravitate toward the hippie, bohemian, surfer style? Flowy, cascading, loose, long, printed or patterned?”
“I guess? I had to pick a few things that I liked, after I got a body, I rushed my choices because I was shopping with Weld and I didn’t want to keep him forever, so I just went with stuff, half of it was stuff he liked. Then when I get new clothes, I get clothes that fit with what I already have.”
“But do you like it?”
“I do. I’m just worried I’m letting something that happened almost by accident become my style, and I don’t know better.”
“I’m sure there are lots of pieces of art where someone’s been painting, they make a mistake and in the process of adapting to it, they find something better.”
“We’ll dig around. Try new things, see what works.”
The collection of coats was eclectic. I found bomber jackets, including ones with pads at the elbows- definite no from Sveta. There were jackets covered in patches.
“I kind of like that, except it’s someone else’s patches and story, and I don’t like the jacket style.”
“And it’s a jacket, not a coat, which you could get away with, theoretically-”
“Except it’d draw attention if I did.”
We broke apart, each of us searching different racks. I pulled out a long coat, with a material like suede, with shaggy fur around the collar, down the front, and around the end of the sleeves, seams standing out in relief.
There was a coat that would run ramrod straight from armpit to knee, with a tidy, neat folded collar in what might have been described as preppy if the rest of the coat wasn’t so un-preppy, and a bold blue curlicue along the hem and down one sleeve. The fabric was blue that faded to an almost acid-wash blue-green toward the parts the curlicues were. There was something grunge and something fantastical about it.
Sveta hadn’t picked anything out.
“Not enthused?” I asked.
“I’m not finding anything. And you’ve already found two things?”
I showed her.
“Really, really good. I could see buying either of those and being happy. How did you even find it? I’m sorry, but there wasn’t anything like that over here.”
“I’m betting there was something, maybe you second guessed it, or you were looking for something specific, and your eye passed over it because it wasn’t what you were looking for.”
I passed her the two coats I’d found, and I went to the rack she’d been browsing. Women’s coats, sorted by size.
It wasn’t as good of a series of racks, but the sunk-cost fallacy kicked in, and I found myself pressing on.
“Number three,” I said. I pulled out a wool coat, cut like a trench coat, but with even more flare at the bottom. The coat was predominantly gray, but was defined by an arrangement of quilted patchwork, the dense wool coming in overlapping squares and rectangles of different, bold blues and greens, with an isolated yellow-green gradient taking up a sixth of the coat starting at one shoulder.
“It’s pretty out there.”
“It is,” I admitted. “It’s also very you.”
“I like it the most, I think,” she said. She reached out, dragging fingers down the front of it. Prosthetic fingers, I had to remind myself- it was less a test of the softness of the fabric and more of a… I couldn’t be sure. “I don’t know. Would you wear it?”
“No,” I said.
“But I’m me,” I said. “I know what I like. I think you wouldn’t feel at home in your clothes if you borrowed my wardrobe for a day. This suits you, I think. Try it on?”
She tried on each of the coats in turn. I could see the indecision, but prodding wasn’t too successful in getting her to open up.
It didn’t help that she was as distracted as she was with the appearance of her arms and face.
“We’ll put it on hold, try another store, see what the high-end options look like,” I said.
That got me a nod, a small smile that I couldn’t read.
“Sweaters and scarves?” I asked.
The nod was more enthusiastic, this time.
“If I’m bossing you around, you can tell me to quit it.”
“I like you bossing me around,” she said. “I’m happy, even if I can’t seem to pick anything.”
“Good,” I said. “You hunt over here, I hunt over there?”
The hunt was easier when it came to sweaters. Looser so they would be easier to pull on, or layered, often long in the body, to the point that they reached the hips or qualified as dresses. She found an electric blue turtleneck she liked. Scarves allowed for more color and patterns.
The more clothes we found, the more I could see the reticence break. She was smiling, less caught up in the distraction of her hands and arms, and more focused on the hunt for clothes.
The winter coat somehow remained as a sticking point.
I tried on a couple of sweaters of my own while she changed in the next booth over.
“Ah,” I heard her.
“Not a problem. I’m not sure there’s a word for this kind of disappointment and relief.”
I finished pulling off my sweater, meeting strange eyes in the mirror as I pushed the changing room door open, and visited Sveta in the next booth.
She was topless, sweater and the shirt beneath pulled free. The projected skin that draped over her arms, shoulders, neck, and collarbone extended down to the area that would be her cleavage. It stopped there, with a ‘v’ shaped wedge of flesh that terminated between two undefined metal breasts.
“On a level, I’m really relieved that Kenzie didn’t give me any details here-” she said, gesturing at that area. “That would be ten kinds of concerning and weird.”
“Agreed. Based on what she said, she could have left her computer to run and collect information.”
“A part of me hoped, you know?” Sveta asked, almost plaintive. “and that part of me is really disappointed. It’s even more disappointed because there’s no way I could ask. Because it’s creepy, concerning, and weird to ask an eleven year old to search through videos to make a complete body.
She stuck a leg out, hiking up her skirt. The projection ended mid-thigh.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go talk where we won’t be overheard.”
She nodded, gathering her things to get fully dressed again. We went to the cash, and Sveta bought next to everything we had picked out, the coats excepted.
Burdened with bags, we headed to the front door. The snow was keeping most people indoors, but in the space between the two sets of doors, it was warm and quiet. The air circulation was a steady thrum.
“Can I talk to you, without the thing?” Sveta asked. “Talking about personal stuff to a stranger’s face feels weird.”
I reached up, found the pin, and double-tapped it.
Taking off the mask.
Sveta, bags in one hand, kept one hand at her shirt collar, prosthetic fingers near the projected collarbone. She didn’t switch to her old self.
“Feeling incomplete?” I asked.
“My boyfriend is coming home as soon as things wrap up at the front lines. Crystal should be too.”
“Yeah. It sounds like it wrapped up, but they’re doing cleanup, which is ominous.”
“Ominous, yeah. But they’re coming back and… I like him, I love him. I want to make him happy, and whether it’s cooking or, um, other things, I can’t seem to ever make it happen. He doesn’t taste because everything’s muted. He only really likes music, but I can’t sing. I can’t do the other things because I don’t have a body.”
“There are things you can do for him that aren’t sensory.”
“I try, but there’s something about making food for someone I love and seeing them go for seconds that would make me feel like I have something to give. And I want to give myself to him and have him go for seconds for that, too.”
“Does he feel?”
“Dulled feelings. But even if I got past that, Vicky, I don’t know guys. I can use my tendrils and squeeze hard enough to bite into the metal and deform it, but I don’t think he’d like that.”
“I wouldn’t do that. Not without communicating a lot beforehand, and during. Probably after.”
“He’s a red-blooded guy, Vicky. He likes women. With the relationship he and I have now, I feel like his kid sister sometimes.”
“I don’t think you’re his kid sister, Sveta.”
“Aren’t I, though? We’re close but we don’t do anything. I’m half mad scientist and half clown when it comes to the kitchen stuff, because I’m trying to find something that works for him, but I’m not getting any wins there. He does have to help me with some things, even though I’ve gotten more independent.”
“There’s more to it than that, though,” I said. I suspected it was futile, because Sveta was letting something out that she’d bottled for a while.
“He’s coming back and I’ve seen how he gets after he has the hard missions. Tired, but not in a way that he lets me see, and he hinted that this was a bad one. What if he comes back and he has to do his part to take care of kid sister Sveta, and what if he says he’s too tired for that? He’s given me so many good days, and I’m not sure I’ve ever given him one.”
“Not the vacation trip, hunting for your homeland?”
“That was for me, though.”
“He seemed pleased as punch to see us reuniting at the group meeting.”
“Again, that’s me. If I could just- if I could make something and have it taste good or new or interesting to him, then that would be happiness originating from him, his thing. A breakthrough for him. If I had a full body that I could show him, that looked right, if nothing else, maybe that could be nice for him. There’s supposed to be equity and I don’t think I’m holding up my end.”
“Not equity. What you want is balance.”
“No. Equity, to me, feels like a transaction. One for me? One for you. I give you something, you owe me something? With balance, it’s about… I hate matching and folding socks. He hates cleaning the bathroom. So I’ll always do the bathroom and he’ll always have the socks folded.”
“Okay. But even there, what am I giving him?”
“It could be that it’s really, really important for him to have a friendly, loving face to come back to. I- I kind of feel like I’m betraying Dean by saying this, but I think one thing he taught me was that guys tend to be more disconnected than girls. Girls more often have support networks, or they can use the network they have more than guys can use their networks. Guys like Dean or Weld? I’m not sure they ever really have a shoulder to cry on. I mean literally cry. Except sometimes a girl they’re close with.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Only a couple of times… still feels like a betrayal, confessing that. Which is maybe the problem or mindset that feeds into why they can so rarely do it.”
“We could change the topic.”
“No, it’s just that maybe that’s what Weld needs. Love, trust, caring, sharing, and that intimacy that isn’t only about mashing stuff together. It can be about being someone’s shoulder.”
“And the other stuff?”
“You can only keep trying with the cooking. I don’t know if I have any advice to give when it comes to bedroom stuff-”
“What advice would you give me if I had a real body, like this?”
“Communicate, set expectations, communicate. The first time will be embarrassingly bad. If it’s the right person, then that doesn’t matter.”
“Yeah. I think he’s the right person.”
“Sveta,” I said. I reached out and touched her arm. My fingertips hit hard surface before they hit the skin that was projected. I gave her arm a slight waggle. “We have a bit of cash flow. We have contacts. We’re in a position that matters. I wouldn’t rule out options. You could pursue other options like Capricorn is.”
“In group, Tristan talked about how he’s lost hope. I don’t know if he’s pursuing any more. We chase these bright lights that our powers give us, but in reality, Scion was just the glowy ball on the forehead of an angler fish- so much bigger and more vicious than he appeared to be, and he was strong, before. The problems we’re dealing with are the same. Two people stuck in one body. One person stuck in a monstrous body. A bunch of powers being shared around and tossed together. They aren’t small or insignificant, really. But they’re nothing compared to the massive, powerful engines that are behind them. They’re decoys, the pinkie toes of giants.”
Outside, the snow was blowing harder. There wasn’t much traffic.
I built on her statement. No use denying it. “There were people who had good glimpses and who remembered them, after Gold Morning. Mountain sized, island sized. Maybe continent-spanning.”
“And they’re like computers. They’re limited but they aren’t stupid.”
I shook my head. “Not stupid, but not genius either. It’s a specific kind of intelligence and focus. They make mistakes or miscalculate. There are capes who do nothing wrong who get screwed over by their power-”
“Ashley. Me. Chris, maybe.”
“And capes who, if the agent had more sense, wouldn’t have been allowed to operate like they did. Khepri. Though Khepri was a special case.”
“You know the story about Khepri?”
“I heard from Amy,” I said.
In the instant, still feeling the glow from seeing Sveta enjoy shopping earlier, and even feeling okay as I tried to talk a friend through a tough relationship snarl, I’d let Amy’s name slip without the snarl of negative thoughts that usually accompanied it.
They did follow after, though they didn’t take root. I gathered my thoughts again. “They are intimidating enemies, but they aren’t perfect. If you want this, and I think you do, then maybe it’s worth going down that road.”
“Beating our powers? The agents?”
“Yeah,” I said, and my voice was quiet. An older man came in through the one door, entering the mall. The warm air rushed out, the higher pressure in between the sets of double doors serving to force the cold air out. When the old man was gone, the other set of doors closed behind him, I continued, “Yeah. I’m getting tired of being out of control. I’m tired of being surprised. I’m tired of the betrayals, big and little, from family and teammates.”
Sveta nodded emphatically, her expression serious, lips pressed together into a line.
“Not just being out of control, but being controlled. I just- no way can I tolerate that. Not Valefor, not Amy, not Mama Mathers, not Kingdom Come, in your case, not Goddess. Before the prison attack brought things to a standstill, we were building something. Based on some of the emails I’ve skimmed, we can mostly pick up where we left off.”
“You could talk to the team about this,” Sveta said. “You’re bringing it up with me, first. Like you did with your forcefield.”
“To gauge. How far do you want to go with this? It’s weird, but I know what the others want by now. You… I get the impression that you could find one or two key things or key answers and you could be truly happy. You have the second coolest boyfriend ever, you’re beautiful, you’re artistic, you’re compassionate, and you could hold your own in any team.”
“You might be overselling me.”
“But if someone could wave a magic wand and grant you one wish… you’d be okay, wouldn’t you? You could settle down and be happy?”
“One thing? There are things on the side I care about. Um, beyond my own issue, I care about the Case Fifty-Threes. I kind of want to find out where I came from.”
“But if you had a magic wand with one wish, those are things you could still handle, right? You could donate to charities or support an organization. You could travel on your own, once things settled down.”
“I might have too much of the hero bug in me to stop altogether,” Sveta said. She leaned into me, her head resting on my shoulder.
“Good to know, then,” I said. “The reason I ask, and the reason I’m asking you first, is I wanted to know how far you’d be willing to go?”
“In what way?” she asked.
I tried to articulate it, and then settled for shaking my head.
“That’s not an answer.”
“We left Monokeros in that alternate Earth. We put her in a hole she could get out of, and… she’s in a prison without people or exits. She’ll finish off the food there and then she’ll have to hunt or forage. It’s a stopgap, until we have another alternative. Except Tristan lied and said she was dead. He lied and said she was dead, knowing full well that if he was called out on the lie or discovered for it, we’d lose the funding, files, and other things Mortari had promised us for our cooperation.”
“Do we do that again? With more people? Keeping in mind that it’s a world where we don’t have a place to send them, and building that kind of a place is so intensive a project that it might be years before we’re there.”
“We didn’t start at the shallow end and work our way forward,” Sveta said. “Gimel went straight to the deep end.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “And some of the worst bad guys ended up leaving for Shin. But there are a lot of others here. We have resources, we have contacts. How hard do we go after them? How hard do we go after answers? Between the cases, the systems like Rain’s cluster or the Lady in Blue co-opting her cluster, all of that and the broken triggers… we might have to start paying attention to the elephant in the room.”
“Do I have to answer right away?” Sveta asked.
“No, absolutely not,” I said. “But in a short while we’ll be back at the hero stuff. I want to have a game plan.”
“You had other things you wanted too. No secrets, no lies.”
“If we shift or narrow our focus, we might not be able to afford either.”
Sveta nodded. I saw her eyes search my face.
I raised my eyebrows.
“I’ll think about it. I might talk things over with Weld, if that’s okay.”
“Thank you for talking this out with me,” she said. “I still have, like, a hundred awkward questions about boys. I know you’re not an expert-”
“I had a long-term relationship. I’ve earned my stripes.”
“Okay, but one guy, and he was easy mode because he could read your emotions.”
“That’s hard mode, Sveta. In a lot of ways, it’s hard mode. Capes don’t get easy mode.”
“Pick on me for inexperience after you’ve asked me a question I can’t answer,” I said. “Until then, let me have this bit of pride.”
“Okay,” Sveta said, smiling a little. “You hold onto that pride. It’s mostly deserved.”
“Mostly?” I asked, smiling.
She reached up, hesitant with the motions of her arm. She tapped a metal finger twice against the hairclip I wore by my temple.
“While that girl who just left the room holds onto her pride, you, strange person, promised me that you’d find me a coat, or that we’d go back to get one of the other ones.”
“I did,” I said. “It might not be a good idea to split me into too many personalities. I’ve already got enough going on.”
“Maybe,” Sveta said. But she took my wrist and she gave me a tug. I didn’t fight, instead catching her at my right side with my arm around her back. Supporting her and half-hugging her at the same time.
Back into the mall, toward a nicer store. I could one hundred percent get why Sveta had wanted to shop in a place like this, to get something that lasted, and that had that extra degree of craftsmanship. Part of the reason I’d had her go to the thrift store with me first, though, had been to get her in the mindset of thinking about possibilities, so she would pick something fitting to her style, even here where things were more in line with one another.
The coat she and I ended up agreeing on as most suited for her wasn’t one I would have worn myself. It was a heavy coat, but worn more like a poncho, top-heavy and Cashmere. A good base to work off of, worn with a nice scarf or nice boots.
“I believe my coworker told you before, our apologies, but we do not allow children in this store.”
I turned around. The Ashleys and Kenzie were on their way in.
“This child is the best behaved child you’ve ever met,” our Ashley said. “I’m a customer, you need customers. Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the manager said.
“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “If you take my bag and take my hair clip, you can talk with Ashley, and I’ll go find Erin and the boys.”
“Hang close enough for us to watch out for you,” our Ashley said. She was keeping an eye on Damsel, who was browsing dresses.
“Got it,” Kenzie said, bouncing on the spot before heading to the front of the store, hands clasped behind her back.
“We stopped in here earlier, I found some things I liked. Do you want to give a final verdict?” our Ashley asked me.
“Sure,” I said. We passed by a shelf with thermal clothing, and I grabbed a good few packs of it. For wearing under the costume. Ostensibly my reason for being here.
There was a jacket, too, that was form-fitting and sleek enough that I was pretty sure I could wear it under my costume.
Ashley’s selection of dresses were more for events than for casual wear, but they were good. A halter cocktail dress with an angry flare of white feathers at the collar, a slimmer dress that almost completely covered one leg, while leaving the other bare. All in whites, or white with black or gray decorative elements.
“It’s an aggressively crisp, put-together look. Are you willing and able to dress the rest of yourself up to match?”
“Then go for it.”
“No condemnations? No calls for more color?”
“Nah,” I said. “I know what you’re capable of.”
“That I could take your head clean off your shoulders if needed?”
“More like I know you can live up to a style this severe.”
“Um,” Sveta said. “Sorry to jump in.”
“We forgot about your coat. Do you want to buy it?”
“I thought about it, and I think I’m going to go to the other store for the patchwork one.”
“Don’t be smug,” she said. “I’m taking Kenz.”
She took her battery pack too. Leaving me with the Ashleys and their battery pack, just heavy enough to be obnoxious.
I gathered up the dresses we’d liked, and took them to the counter. The Ashleys were holograms, so they couldn’t carry, and one of my hands was burned.
“Only reason I’m going to condemn someone for what they’re wearing is if it’s offensive or if it’s clear they could do better. The first gets the hero in me acting up-”
“Terrible, terrible,” Damsel said.
“-and the second is going to make the inner coach in me antsy. Nothing quite so infuriating as being witness to someone doing something just slightly wrong or a lot wrong, regularly.”
“I feel that way about almost everyone, doing anything,” Ashley said.
I looked back over my shoulder, toward the store where Sveta and Kenzie had gone. I could see them at the counter, the dress draped over the end of it.
“They’re good. I like them,” Ashley said.
“Is she okay?” I asked. “Kenzie?”
“No,” Ashley said. “She’s almost as bad as when I first met her. Better in some ways, but in others…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. I wondered if she was expecting her twin to finish it.
“We’ll keep an eye out,” I promised.
Sveta and Kenzie emerged, Sveta now wearing the jacket. She flickered slightly as Kenzie bolted ahead to where the Ashleys and I were.
“Rain went to the food court,” Kenzie said.
“Are you surveilling Rain?” Sveta asked, mock stern.
“No. I saw him walk that way,” Kenzie said. “No, I’m kidding. Yes, he has my tech on him and I’m keeping an eye on that tech, so I know kind of where he is. But I’m keeping an eye on my tech, not on him, specifically.”
Ashley gave me a sideways look.
“I saw that, Ashley Swan. Don’t do that.”
I put my hand on Kenzie’s head, wobbling it left and right before pulling her closer, so my hand was on her far shoulder, her other shoulder against my side. Sveta was on the other side of me, looking as pleased as punch with her coat, her other coat and bags held under her other arm.
Erin, Byron, and Rain were gathered in the empty food court. Some of the stalls were only just now opening or re-opening.
More distracting was the lingering decorations and setup from an event that might have happened a day ago. It looked like this spot had been a gathering place for one of the big anti-parahuman groups. They hadn’t properly discarded of their signs or messaging, with much of it left stacked or leaning against a wall in the corner, along with some black trash bags.
“Jesus,” Byron said, as we drew closer. He added some Spanish words I didn’t know. “That’s a lot of stuff.”
“Because they’re doing it right,” Erin said. She sat on a table, her feet on the stool next to the one Rain was seated on. He looked a little worn out.
“I got a few t-shirts, some other shirts, some socks and underwear, and a pair of jeans, and I thought that was a lot,” Byron said.
“Did you get costume related- nevermind. You don’t need thermal underwear.”
“Not really. Got a pack for Tristan.”
“And Rain?” I asked.
“We got stuff for Rain,” Erin said. “We would have got more, but we decided to take a break.”
“Turns out malls make me pretty ridiculously anxious,” Rain said. “Stupid.”
“We all have our hangups,” Byron said.
As a group, we got ourselves sorted across two sets of tables. Bags were deposited in the middle section.
“Are we keeping this light and fun, or do we talk about more serious things?” Sveta asked.
I kept my mouth shut. I was up for either, but I didn’t want to steer things too much.
“Hard to keep it light with that hanging over our heads,” Byron said, indicating the anti-parahuman signage.
“Well, to be fair, they’re right,” Rain said. “Parahumans suck. We do crummy things. There are scary ones out there.”
“We could talk business now, then go back to fun, if you guys think you can do that,” Sveta suggested, almost hopeful.
“Are we eating?” Kenzie asked.
“I’m eating right now,” Damsel said, sitting at the furthest seat away, in our cluster of two tables. “Tea and sandwiches.”
“If you’re hungry, we can eat,” I said.
“I’m going to go get a taco or a wrap,” Kenzie said, heading to the place apparently dubbed ‘Hell Taco’.
“Business it is,” Byron said. “I’ll swap out to Trist, as he has more to say. If nobody’s looking?”
The change was subtle, as Tristan was wearing a black coat, same as Byron. Tristan punched Rain lightly in one shoulder, and Rain gave him a half-hearted smile in response.
“While the munchkin is getting her food, is there anything we need to talk about, that isn’t for her ears?” Tristan asked.
“That’s the first place your mind goes?” I asked.
“I thought I’d bring it up. Kenzie’s away for a few minutes. Is there anything we need to work out?”
“Chris is gone, she’s bummed and not at her best, so we watch out for her and we watch her,” I said.
“Succinctly put,” Tristan said. “Are you swinging by the institution at some point to check on her?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Are we going to talk about Chris?” Ashley asked.
“Hard to do until we have more information,” I said.
“Okay,” Ashley said. “You’re going to have files, right? From Mortari.”
“Not on Chris, I don’t think. But yes.”
“Alright,” Ashley said. “Then do we warn people? Have we informed the institution that was looking after him that they may need to change things around?”
“If he’s in Shin, he’s in Shin,” I said. “And there’s not much use warning people, except for the Wardens, and they already know.”
“It doesn’t feel good enough,” Ashley said.
“You’re bothered by this,” Rain observed.
“Yes. And I’m bothered in a way I don’t want to pass on to Kenzie. I’m glad to be talking about this now. This is serious, and it’s related to us.”
“It’s a kid running off because Victoria’s sister is his best bet to get healthy. He’s no more a concern than any of the many, many prisoners that were here that just got dumped on that world,” Tristan said. “Except he’s young and stubborn, and he’s kind of our responsibility, as you said.”
“You think this?” Ashley asked. She leaned back. “This is… group consensus?”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Shave off the serial numbers, and that’s essentially my take. It’s serious, don’t get me wrong, but… there’s a lot of serious going on. Why?”
“Your sister is powerful,” she said. “I’m sorry to bring this up, but it’s important.”
“She is,” I said.
“Do you think she’s going to do something to his power?” Tristan asked.
“No,” Ashley said, clearly annoyed.
“Go easy, Tristan,” Sveta said.
“No,” Ashley said, again, louder. All eyes went to her. “What I think, and I’m saying this as someone who pays attention to power, authority, and leadership, I was listening as they talked at the end, before they left. Amy made her announcement, remember?”
There were some nods around the table. Rain murmured something to Erin, clarifying.
“Do you remember at the end?” Ashley asked. “She turned to him, and she asked him, ‘Was that alright?’ or something like that.”
“Something like that,” Tristan said.
I felt uncomfortable in a way that didn’t necessarily have to do with Amy’s involvement.
“I would stake my reputation on this,” our Ashley said. The other Ashley was nodding slightly, as if already acknowledging or corroborating. “The tone, the timing? She asked him because she is subordinate.”