Rain and I worked together to remove Sveta’s rigging. One attachment to her suit served as a mounting for two arms; she had the larger arm with the feminine hand on the end, and another ‘arm’ with an elbow joint that had the fragment of mask, like a small shield that could pull close to the face or move away.
There was a single second of danger where her tendrils were capable of reaching out into the world, but Sveta was concentrating and the situation was calm. The metal of her suit’s arm and chest pulled together, and she stood straighter.
The weight of it, as odd as it was, wasn’t a concern to her. The balance issue, however, was apparently a hassle.
The headquarters felt dark, even with all of the lights on and monitors glowing. It might have had to do with the weather outside and the late hour, and it might have had to do with the fact that I was bracing myself to deliver hard news.
I’d ridden with the others in an effort to stay connected and keep a thumb on the pulse of the group. Going from a dark car with only the light of headlights on the road ahead of us to our headquarters, where the light felt insufficient left me feeling like I was underwater and the surface was a ways off. The world beyond the headquarters and car gave me an ominous vibe.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I have another good tinkering day,” Rain said. “I can try taking notes, if you have immediate feedback.”
“It works like this,” Sveta said. “If I had to bring up any issues…”
She didn’t finish the sentence, and as Rain took off his mask and raised his eyebrows, motioning for her to continue, she remained quiet.
“Why are you trailing off?” Rain asked. “I want to know.”
“Sorry. I’m already asking for a lot and saying ‘no’ to ideas. It’s stronger but it doesn’t feel as strong as I’d expect a hand of this size to feel, but I’m not sure if I’m using it at its full strength so that might be bad feedback. When I use my regular body, I’m pretty strong if I want to be, but I end up holding back because I don’t want to break it. I might be doing the same thing here.”
“We can’t know until you test its limits and break it,” Rain said.
“Except I can’t do that while I’m in the field. If I screw something up I have a hundred pounds of dead weight to drag around.”
“Can you do it here?”
I could see the hesitation on Sveta’s face as she turned around, looking at the hand that was planted on the floor, the arm extending up, and over, to where the ‘shoulder’ now rested on a table.
“I get it,” I told her. “My mom sent me to clinics for testing my powers. It’s kind of rare that you ever get to get an exact reading on your power’s strength. Especially when it’s durability.”
“Yeah,” Sveta told me.
“Except one of those things is Victoria talking about her flesh and blood body,” Rain said. “And- I’m suddenly realizing I sound like an insensitive asshole.”
Sveta swatted his shoulder. “You’re fine.”
“The arm can be fixed more easily, is what I wanted to say,” he said.
“I dunno,” she said.
“You’re used to holding back,” I observed.
I could see the realization cross her face. The connecting of two dots. I could relate it to a lot of moments where I’d missed something that seemed objectively obvious.
We weren’t always obvious.
“That’s true,” she finally said.
“I could try putting together a gauge,” Rain said. “Something like a visual indicator or audio indicator that measures what you’re putting in, with a max limit if you get to the point that metal starts bending or snapping.”
“That might work.”
“What else?” Rain asked.
“Well, um, this is a really obvious one, but I’d love it if it was more complete.”
I left them to the discussion. I stopped by the table by my whiteboard and collected my bag and some spare clothes.
In the bathroom, I stripped down and rinsed off, aware of the blood that came away from my hair and skin; I hadn’t been aware it was there. Not mine. There was smoke, there was sweat, and there was grime. My skin was still bruised from my fight with the arena man two days ago, and as much as adrenaline pushed pain into the background, the pain came back. I ached.
All of that was secondary to the problem of figuring out how to deliver the bad news.
I’d been focused enough on the present and the future that I hadn’t been paying as many visits to memory lane. I felt unwelcome nostalgia welling now as I pulled on a t-shirt, faced myself in the mirror, and took on the rituals necessary to arm myself. Damp hair fixed and sorted, combed out and braided. Teeth brushed, some makeup to take the shine out of my skin, to minimize the dark circles under my eyes, and some tinted chapstick because the cold weather would shred my lips if I let it.
Some of the nostalgia lay in how I was doing up my makeup at a late hour. The Victoria that had been Glory Girl had done that, knowing that in another few hours she would be taking it all off and going to bed.
That Victoria had, just as I was doing, found injuries she hadn’t been aware of while going through the routine. Hiding injuries had been important to cultivate the illusion of complete and total invulnerability.
The Victoria of the present put a bandaid on a cut, between jaw and ear. If I had cause to go out in costume anytime soon, I’d remove the bandage and cover the injury up.
There was another side to the nostalgia. Darker. After being turned from Wretch to a Victoria made of stray animals, of rats and dogs, I’d stumbled through the days. My skin hadn’t felt like my own, and it hadn’t really been my own. The layers I put over that skin were in my control, and even the most basic of makeup could be the outer layer that worked with the inner turmoil and found reconciliation with the skin and meat in between.
It calmed me, to have something I’d chosen at a store and pull that on over my t-shirt. In tonight’s case, it was black jeans, and then a sweater, light gray and ribbed, with white laces at the ‘v’ of the collar, pulled through gold-ringed eyelets. Whatever the crisis, whatever anxieties plagued me, it was important to me that I be able to tell myself that my appearance wasn’t cause for further anxiety. It had been critical back in those dazed and lost days when I’d been recovering, post-Gold Morning, but it had always been a thing for me.
I could have called it a casualty of growing up with my mom, but even Aunt Sarah, as nice as she was, had made remarks to me as a child when I hadn’t dressed for an occasion, or when I’d tried and failed to dye my hair, or when I’d been ten pounds overweight. Couched, hinting, even being nice about it, or not saying it to my face, but remarking on it to my mom or dad with me overhearing by chance. My dad, my uncles, my teachers, my friends… everyone had at one point made remarks that reminded me it was a thing I was supposed to pay attention to.
Even Dean. I’d thought he was safe, that he got me because he sensed my emotions in a limited way, and that he’d figured out things most others hadn’t because he’d seen the hurt or embarrassment from the sidelines. Then he’d said something, I couldn’t even remember what it was now, and I’d gone off on him – I’d even stopped talking to him for two weeks, over a comment that would have probably passed without mention had he said it to a friend. Had I been asked then, I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on why. Poor Dean definitely wouldn’t have.
Easier to be bulletproof. To figure things out and take care of it. To make it as much a part of my routine as making sure I had my phone in my right pocket, keys in the little sub-pocket at my left, and wallet in the front pouch of my bag.
Tonight, the anxieties I was wrestling with had little to do with the Wretch.
I could hear noise outside. I set my jaw, looked at myself in the mirror, and felt that pang of dark nostalgia once more as I forced my eyes away from the reflection, aware of how things weren’t as they should be.
I left the bathroom, collecting my things on the way. Sveta sat at Rain’s table, while Rain was at the window by the door.
“They’re back from the hospital,” he reported.
I took a look for myself. There was a taxi below, and Ashley, Kenzie, Natalie, and Tristan were getting out. Kenzie shuffled more than she walked. I snatched up my gloves and hat, skipping my coat to be quicker, and stepped outside into the bluster of early winter.
The taxi pulled away as I reached the bottom of the fire escape.
“Hi Kenzie,” I said. “Hey Natalie, it’s been a while.”
“I’ve missed a lot,” Natalie admitted. “A little bit on purpose.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “You read the emails?”
“I did. That’s completely different from being here, participating.”
“Nah,” Tristan said. “It’s not like we needed the legal know-how, exactly. We haven’t been arresting as much as we’ve been controlling the damage. Most jails aren’t taking new people.”
“That’s only part of my job, isn’t it?” Natalie asked.
“I guess so,” Tristan said.
“How’s the neck?” I asked him.
“I popped stitches, is all. No arterial bleed.”
“It looked like an arterial bleed.”
“Doctors said it was probably bleeding for a minute before I realized.”
“Glad you’re okay,” I told him.
He smiled, before heading to the fire escape.
Kenzie and Natalie walked to the fire escape as well, Natalie supporting Kenzie. I offered a hand, but because the fire escape was only wide enough for two people, I flew at the side, my hand at Kenzie’s armpit to stabilize and support.
“How are you?” I asked Ashley, looking back.
“I’ve been bored out of my skull. How has it been, living with our roommate without me there?”
“Surreal. Fine. We’ve been ignoring each other, except I brought food home a couple of times, and she brings me tea.”
“Perfect,” Ashley said.
“Speaking of,” I said. “Are you hungry? I know-”
“Yes,” Tristan cut in, from the top of the fire escape.
“-it’s late, but I figured you might be eager for something better than hospital food.”
“Yes,” he said, again.
“I could eat,” Ashley said.
“You two want to come with? There’s something I want to bring up. Natalie, your input would be appreciated too. That second role of yours you mentioned.”
“I was going to stick with Kenzie and make sure she’s okay. I don’t know if I’m still a de-facto guardian, because things are so hairy and she’s at the children’s place now, but nobody’s told me to stop.”
“You should go,” Kenzie told her. “Catch up with the others. You need a break from me, and I’m going to sit down and spend fifteen minutes getting caught up on my tech and all the data that’s rolled in while I’ve been gone. I won’t be doing anything.”
“I don’t want you bending over or crawling under the desk,” Natalie warned.
“I won’t. I’ll make Rain do it.”
“Be nice to Rain,” Tristan said, sounding like a stern mom.
“I am! He enjoys helping as much as I do.”
Tristan put a hand on the back of Kenzie’s head, steering her inside. She had two feathers stuck through the single ponytail at the back of her head. No hairpin, either.
I grabbed my coat, and we got ourselves sorted, with the others changing or organizing their things while I made sure I took down all orders on paper. Ashley was in for our walk, even though she still hadn’t fully mended.
S.P.I.N.E. A plan for going about this. I was pulling from lessons imparted by my family again. This particular lesson had been from Uncle Neil, and my heart was heavy with the memory of how he’d died, and how it tied into the acronym.
‘S’ stood for schedule, setting the context for the discussion. It was what I’d spent the most time wrestling with over the past few days. How to approach this. All at once? One at a time? What was the best venue for it? Schedule mattered the most because I could do everything else right and screw up here, and group dynamics, interruptions, or the tone of things could spoil it all.
“How was your vacation with your boy?” Tristan asked. He was asking Natalie.
“He’s not ‘my boy’. It was nice.”
“Did you tour the sights?” Tristan asked. “I guess there aren’t many sights, with the city being new.”
“We hung out. We drank, we completed a one thousand piece puzzle.”
“I hope you did more than that,” Ashley remarked.
“I don’t think I’m going to talk about that, thank you.”
“It sure sounds to me like he’s your boy,” Tristan said.
“Victoriaaa,” Natalie said.
“Yeahhh?” I asked, drawing my voice out in the same way.
“Did you ask me along just so you could throw me to the wolves?”
“I’m not a wolf,” Tristan said.
“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Ashley said.
“Goat, not sheep, and it’s not clothing.”
“Keep deluding yourself. I’m happy to admit to being a wolf. I’m under no illusions.”
The streets were empty, the snow coming down in drifts as the wind blew it from the rooftops. A dense sheet or collection here, then another there.
“You said you wanted me here for the other part of my job,” Natalie said, cutting in while there was still room in the back and forth between Ashley and Tristan. “Is it Kenzie?”
“I was assuming it was,” Ashley said. “Except you brought Tristan, and he doesn’t connect to Kenzie.”
“I chime in for leadership decisions and things,” Tristan replied. He looked annoyed. “Kenzie and I don’t not get along.”
“But you haven’t figured her out,” Ashley said.
“It’s not Kenzie,” I said, before things got any further. “Not exactly.”
I had their full attention now.
We still walked, but they were quiet, all of them watching me. Ashley had a reddish tint to her nose and cheekbones, her only headwear was a pair of earmuffs. Tristan was better bundled up, while Natalie was best prepared, wearing her puffy jacket that was primarily for function.
“Kenzie,” I said. “If you’re listening in, I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop. I’m going to talk with these guys and if everything’s good, I’ll talk to the rest of you about it now.”
There was a pause where nobody spoke.
“It’s worrying that you have to do that,” Natalie said.
“What’s going on?” Tristan asked.
“I got the files from Dragon. I got some other information too.”
“And it impacts the team,” Tristan said. “Kenzie in particular?”
“Yeah, the team,” I said. “We talked about this before, back when we were all shopping, but I should go back to it. What do you know about Chris?”
“Chris,” Tristan said, with a bit of surprise.
P. Following the scheduling, ‘S’, was perception. See where others were at, restate the known, and get them in the right frame of mind to think and talk about it. Forgetting ‘P’ was to risk dropping something on someone right away.
“Nothing we didn’t cover in the shopping trip,” Ashley said. “He wants to be close to powerful people. He’s secretive to a fault. His power is destroying him. Kenzie defends him fiercely.”
“I don’t know much,” Natalie said. “I tried to give him some of the same kind of support and help we’ve been trying to give to Kenzie and he refused it.”
“He’s an asshole, but he was our asshole,” Tristan said. “Then he wasn’t, and it’s getting to me that we don’t know why. Did you figure out why?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I figured out why. I think you guys need to know, and I guess the question is how you want to know. I can dish it all out here, or I can tell you enough that you can give some input on how we approach the others.”
Tristan asking like he had helped to shortcut things. I didn’t have to figure out how to approach ‘I’ in the acronym. Invitation. Asking if they want the information, empowering them to handle the situation.
“This is serious?” Natalie asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “This fills in a lot of the blanks, and it’s not pretty.”
“Tell us,” Ashley said.
Okay. I took a deep breath. My breath fogged as I exhaled.
“The file was Ms. Yamada’s. She wrote about Chris. A message for colleagues, in case she couldn’t carry on her duties. For Chris Elman, the very first line was a statement. Chris lies.”
“No surprise there,” Tristan said.
“I barely talked to him and I’m not exactly shocked,” Natalie said.
No response from Ashley.
In the S.P.I.N.E. acronym, the ‘N’ was for ‘necessary information’. The meat of things. Uncle Neil had told me to stick to the facts, to be blunt.
I wasn’t as blunt as I could’ve been, but I was still blunt.
“He’s not a changer,” I said. “And he didn’t trigger after Gold Morning. He has a long history.”
“How long?” Tristan asked.
“It goes back a decade,” I said.
“He’s thirteen,” Tristan stated, voice firm, like he could say it with enough authority to make it so. Then, in a one-eighty in every respect, he said, “He’s not thirteen.”
“If he’s not a changer then that thing about him being experimented on…”
Tristan trailed off. Natalie picked up where he left off. “…I never heard about him being experimented on.”
“It was the story,” Ashley said, and there was no positivity or humor visible on her face or in her body language. “A sob story that ensured we wouldn’t push too hard or ask too many questions.”
“He lied about everything,” Tristan spoke the realization aloud.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Something happened. But it may have been self-inflicted, in a way. I could get into the nitty-gritty of it, what we know, who he was, and the dots we can connect between the two of those, but I want to leave it up to you guys.”
“Who was he?” Ashley asked.
“Lab Rat,” I said.
“Oh no,” Natalie said.
“That’s a reason to be secretive if I’ve ever heard one,” Ashley said.
I looked at Tristan. He was frowning, not looking at any of us.
“If you need a refresher on who Lab Rat is, I could go over the bullet points,” I said.
“Fucking asshole,” Tristan said. He clenched his fist, shaking his head.
“Don’t pop your stitches again,” I warned him.
Tristan shook his head, then winced, reaching up to touch the bandage at the side of his neck. “Let me think on this. Bring me out when you have food and things have settled.”
“You’re not going to immediately unsettle things, are you?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said.
He switched, blurring with his eyes flashing. The blue of the eyes faded, and Tristan became Byron.
Byron’s eyes turned down, looking at the ground as he walked.
“Is he dangerous?” Natalie asked.
“Can’t say anything for sure,” I told her. “But he disemboweled a tyrant and as far as we can tell, he’s taking over a portion of her world. If we go by past history, and if we assume nothing’s changed, he’s dangerous.”
“Everyone’s supposed to get a second chance,” Ashley said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But if it was offered and he didn’t take it, if he decided to hide and operate in secret, does he really get that benefit?”
“I’d say it depends,” Byron said, barely audible.
“Yeah,” I said.
The last letter in ‘S.P.I.N.E.’ was E. Empathize. Leave room for others to feel, to process.
We weren’t far from the dingy little restaurant, which had a rotund Japanese-style ogre at the side of the sign, a cow tucked under one arm, beside the stylized letters stating simply, ‘BEEF BOWL’.
Nobody went in, not right away. I’d taken two days to wrap my head around it, to equip myself with information, and decide on how to go about approaching the others. I could stand in the cold for five, ten, or twenty minutes while they digested the facts. I was prepared to answer their questions, if they had any.
“This isn’t easy,” I said, to give them an excuse to express any feelings they were holding back.
They didn’t have questions, and they didn’t want to express whatever it was they were so clearly feeling. Ashley had gone cold, distant. Natalie was thinking. There was only a single quiet comment from Byron.
“This is going to do a number on the others.”
He wasn’t wrong. Uncle Neil had taught me about the S.P.I.N.E. acronym because as heroes, we were often on the front line for tragedy. It was a tool for delivering the worst kind of news, and for preparing people to grieve.
The Chris we knew was gone.
The chatter as we got back to the hideout was happy. I put the paper bag down on the table by the door.
“Victoria! Hey!” Kenzie greeted me. She’d shucked off all of the outdoor clothing and was sitting in her chair, everything illuminated. She wore a new sweatshirt that was at least two sizes too big for her, purple, over a blue shirt with a monster on the front. Her skirt came down past her knees and she wore leggings beneath. She’d put on slippers rather than shoes. She’d also, I noted, put on her hairpin, and tucked the two feathers into it so they swept along the side of her head.
“Hey, good news! Is everyone back?”
I cracked the door open to poke my head out and check. “Yeah. They’ll be here in a second.”
“I got intel,” she said, her eyes glittering. “I can’t name my source, and the intel comes with stipulations.”
I looked at the feathers in her hair. “What stipulations?”
Sveta answered me. “We can’t use the information against the Undersiders, and we need to be discreet.”
“Is that so?” I asked. I heard the others at the fire escape and opened the door.
“And I agreed to certain special favors,” Kenzie said.
“Don’t say it like that,” Rain told her. “They want to see your tech.”
“Kind of like how the speedrunners showed Rain’s cluster their tech, except not evil and-”
“And not like that situation at all, really,” he finished.
“I’m showing off my tech, and people are interested,” Kenzie said, legs kicking.
“He sent the information without even bargaining first,” Sveta said. “The pictures and the requests. It shows a lot of faith in you.”
“Or he’s an idiot,” Ashley said.
Kenzie spun her chair around, glaring.
“Let’s hope it’s the former,” Ashley said.
“It is the former,” Kenzie replied, trying to sound dangerous.
The others came inside and the door mercifully shut. Space heaters were buzzing throughout the open space, producing the faint smell of burned dust.
Byron changed out, allowing Tristan free. I saw Tristan’s expression, the seriousness, and what simmered beneath the surface.
“Do you want to see?” Kenzie asked. “I was counting the seconds until you guys got back.”
“She wasn’t,” Rain clarified. “But she is excited. You guys were gone for longer than usual. What were you talking about?”
“Heavy stuff,” Tristan said. He tore open the brown paper bag, taking a bowl of ginger beef and some chopsticks. “I’m so glad we have food if we’re going to discuss this. I skipped dinner and I’m running on empty.”
“You have me worried now,” Sveta said.
I got other things out. I passed Sveta a bowl, then put Kenzie’s request on the table next to her. Some peanut chicken, a small tray of salad with dressing in packets, and far too many fortune cookies. She reached for a fortune cookie, and I grabbed her hand, moving it to the salad.
“Is this what you’ve been stewing on?” Sveta asked me.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“How bad, on a scale of one to ten?” Rain asked.
“What’s a ten?” Tristan asked. He was already eating.
“Gold Morning,” Rain said, dead serious.
“Seven, then,” I said.
“I would have called the Goddess situation a seven, with what happened to the prison,” Rain said. He was entirely serious now.
I’d wanted to handle this better. I returned to the acronym.
“Where do you guys stand on the subject of Chris?” I asked.
“Oh,” Rain said. He looked a little crestfallen at the name. “That’s ominous.”
“Is he okay?” Kenzie asked.
“I don’t know. We don’t have any updates on what he’s doing right now, or how he is, but we do have information about him.”
“I always had a bad feeling,” Sveta said. “It started as a small discomfort when he was in the group. I could sympathize, turning into a monster, not having control, but… it was always a bad feeling and the little things only added to it, never really making that feeling less intense.”
“I really don’t want to spoil a reuniting of the team with us dumping on Chris,” Kenzie said.
“I’m not,” Sveta said.
“You really kinda are,” Kenzie said. “And I understand why, he left and that sucks. It’s easier to deal with if you get angry instead of sad.”
“Kenzie,” Sveta said, and her voice was lower, “I understand that you want to respect Chris and his feelings-”
“And you should want to too!”
“-But please respect me and don’t minimize my feelings to protect his.”
“He’s not here to defend himself, so if I’m being forced to take a side then I’m going to take his. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Sveta said. “I’m sorry too.”
Ashley approached her, sitting on the desk beside Kenzie’s keyboard, a bowl and chopsticks in hand. She didn’t look like she was having an easy time with the chopsticks.
“We’re not dumping,” I said. “At least, that’s not the intent. I respect that Sveta’s instincts were to be uncomfortable around Chris.”
“I don’t like the word instincts,” Sveta said.
“Fair. Feelings?” I offered.
“Feelings,” Sveta said.
“And I don’t want to condemn him either,” I said. “But what I’ve found out looks pretty bad. It’s up to you guys if you want to tackle this in one way or another. We could raise the subject tomorrow.”
“I won’t sleep all night if I’m busy imagining the worst outcomes,” Rain said.
“I want to know,” Kenzie said, looking stubborn.
“I’m not sure you do,” Ashley told her.
I looked at Sveta.
“You told the others?” Sveta asked.
“A little less loaded. Easier to bring up,” I replied.
“I’m trusting you on this. I’m going to be pretty stung if you didn’t have good reasons.”
“What is it?” she asked.
That brought us to the ‘I’ of the S.P.I.N.E., this time around.
“He lied to us,” Tristan said.
My breath caught in my throat. “Hold up.”
“What did he lie about?” Kenzie asked.
“Everything except his first name, apparently,” Tristan said. “Everything.”
“Tristan,” I said. “Hold up, okay? Stop.”
He looked like he was going to say something, then stopped. He put the bowl down hard, chopsticks laid on top. Only about half was eaten.
“Sure,” he said.
“Everything?” Rain asked.
I opened my mouth to try to formulate a reply, then closed it and nodded instead. No way to sum it up.
“Why?” Sveta asked.
“Because he wanted to keep it a secret that he’s a villain with a lot of enemies.”
“A lot?” Kenzie asked.
“He was in the Birdcage,” Ashley said.
“What did he do?” Sveta asked. “What was so bad that he couldn’t use his old identity, when Bonesaw was walking around free?”
“Semi-free,” Ashley said.
“My point stands. Valkyrie used to be a dangerous villain,” Sveta said. She looked at me, and the statement that didn’t follow was telling.
“My sister, too. She was dangerous,” I said.
“What did he do?” Sveta asked.
“Can I ask that we gloss over that? We can get into the details tomorrow, after we’ve absorbed the basic info tonight.”
“You know where he is right now, don’t you? How pressing this is? He’s on an island in Earth Shin, near their equivalent of New Zealand, with other parahumans and people. I’m really sorry to bring this up, but your sister and her dad, they’re on an island nearby, they’re having all parahumans come to them. They’re negotiating with governments. That’s a lot of people potentially under his thumb. If he’s dangerous-”
“He’s Chris,” Kenzie said. She looked to me for her validation, which broke my heart a little. The smile on her face broke it a bit more; she wore an expression which would read to others like she thought this whole thing was a joke.
“Except he isn’t,” Rain said. “He has a history? Who is he?”
“He’s Lab Rat,” I said.
I could see everything go out of Sveta, as she heard that. I saw Kenzie’s eyes widen just a bit- she recognized the name.
Rain, by contrast, seemed baffled.
“He’s a tinker?” Kenzie asked. She laughed, a smile creeping across her face. “That’s hilarious.”
“Who the hell is Lab Rat?” Rain asked. “Keep in mind, I spent half my life in places without radio and television. He went to the Birdcage, so it sounds bad, he’s a tinker, so that’s a lot of options for bad, but that’s all I’ve got.”
“He made mutagenic serums. The transformations,” Sveta said. “He was dosing himself? Or did his power change?”
“Dosing himself. The medicine he kept with him.”
Kenzie banged the table. “I feel so dumb!”
“Easy,” Ashley told her.
“I didn’t even think! He asked me not to record him changing and I didn’t because I knew he’d be naked at one part of it, and I’m absolutely not allowed to take those kinds of pictures, accidentally or on purpose.”
“Easy,” Ashley said, again. “Count to ten.”
“That’s your thing, not mine.”
“He experimented on a lot of people,” Sveta said. “He turned them into monsters. Freaks. You’ve seen the kind of transformations he can manage, except- the ones we saw were uglier.”
She met my eyes as she said it.
“You’ve seen them?” Natalie asked.
“At the hospital,” Sveta said. “The asylum. Parahumans who can’t control their powers and victims of parahuman powers get sent there to be taken care of.”
“You’ve talked about it,” Tristan said, uncharacteristically gentle.
“I was there for a month and a half, so I could talk to a therapist every day without worrying about rotations or anything,” Kenzie added. “I didn’t really see many others.”
“We’ve all- most of us have seen or been the victims of powers,” Sveta said. “I’m one. There were a few Case Fifty-Threes there. Um. People who lost their minds, one way or another, or who were already struggling with something and who had powers that made it worse. People who were hurt by tinker experiments, in ways that conventional medicine couldn’t help.”
“Bad situations,” I supplied.
“In the few years that Lab Rat was active, for every one person who went to the Asylum for one reason or another, there was a Lab Rat victim. He tested his serums on people and not every single one changed all the way back.”
“Did anyone ever ask him why?” Kenzie asked.
“Kenzie,” Sveta said, her voice hard. “Don’t.”
“I’m just saying! Maybe there was a really important reason, or maybe he couldn’t help it.”
“Kenzie,” I said, before Sveta could get riled up and say something regrettable. “This is a no-fly zone.”
She giggled in a nervous, bewildered way, “What does that even mean?”
“I hear what you’re saying, but… we can’t extend the benefit of a doubt. Not about this. Not until we have a reason to.”
“If we have to have a reason it’s not the benefit of a doubt,” Kenzie replied.
“It’s too close to home,” I said. I tried to keep my voice level. “For me, for Sveta. You can’t make apologies for his actions until we have more information, not when some of us here are unable to forgive people who did the exact same thing to us.”
“But you guys-” Kenzie started. Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, and Kenzie slumped back into her seat. She pulled her feet up onto her seat and hugged her knees. “Okay.”
“Did they get better?” Rain asked.
I was already shaking my head when Sveta said, “No. You know how his Screaming Anxiety form kept screaming? There was a woman like that. Her mind didn’t exit that state, and she roared out cuss words nonstop. All day, every day, without ever sleeping. She had surges of strength that meant she couldn’t be in a regular hospital. There was a man who boiled alive. The bubbles would swell-”
“I don’t- I don’t need details,” Rain said.
“They were still there when I arrived at the Asylum, along with a few others that had survived,” Sveta said. There was a hard edge to her voice, like she could’ve been angry or burst into tears in the same breath. “When Victoria did. They were probably still there on Gold Morning.”
“He was my friend,” Rain said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I know he was younger, or-”
“He wasn’t younger,” I said. “Twice your age.”
“Ah,” Rain said, and he huffed out the word like it had hit him straight in the solar plexus.
“It doesn’t matter any to me,” Kenzie said, stubborn. “It doesn’t change anything. In fact, I kind of feel validated, because it fits everything in super neat with my seating chart-”
“It should matter,” Ashley said. “And let’s just let the others talk a moment, no commentary. Please?”
“I didn’t have many friends, when I first came to group therapy,” Rain said. “I didn’t even know Erin properly then, everyone at the compound had turned on me.”
“He gave you games and comics,” Tristan said.
Rain nodded. “And we talked online, whenever I was online. He helped me research clusters and find details on Love Lost, Cradle, and Snag. And he’s a complete and utter monster?”
“Apparently,” Sveta said.
“We can’t know one hundred percent,” I said. “He’s apparently an experiment. Not a clone, but a malleable housing for the DNA signature for the agent to hook into, I’d have to reread the notes.”
“Ashley was a clone and she turned out okay,” Kenzie said. “Better than her former self.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“The malleable house stuff,” Rain said. “That was why he was falling apart? He was trying to fix something by creating permanent changes?”
“He lied about that too?”
“He was apparently doing the exact opposite of what he was saying. Trying to weaken the ‘Chris’ in him to make the changes stick longer. Intentionally creating changes to break down his old self.”
Rain rose to his feet, and in the same motion, pushed on the table in front of him, sending scrap, food, and his tools to the ground. The table followed a second later, everything crashing in a sharp, deafening noise, with a short yelp from Natalie.
Natalie, who had been watching from the sidelines.
The bowl rolled around on the floor for a second, the only sound. The sound wound down as it lost momentum.
Where the sound faded, I heard another. Kenzie’s nervous giggling.
“Please don’t,” Rain said.
“I can’t help it.”
“Come,” Ashley said. She winced as she picked Kenzie up out of the chair. “Slippers off. We’re going for a walk. You and me.”
The giggling stopped and started in the minute or so it took for Ashley to get Kenzie to the door and make her put her boots on. I helped, getting the coat, hat and gloves, with Swansong’s stuff in my other arm.
Rather than put those things on, Ashley just opened the door, stepping out onto the fire escape without winter clothes. I handed everything over, and she shut the door. They’d get dressed for the outdoors outdoors.
The door closing mercifully shut out the sound of the nervous giggling.
Rain stood with his eyes up toward the ceiling, fingers knit together behind his head, forearms pressed against his ears.
“I fucked this up,” I said.
“I don’t think there was a good way to do it.”
“I was considering one-on-one, once I’d briefed people I thought were safe,” I said. “I was seventy-five percent on Ashley, I thought that if she did have an outburst, it would be okay so long as she was away from Kenzie. She surprised me.”
“She once said her default for every person she meets is to be disappointed in them,” Tristan said. “There’s never any surprises if they live up to that disappointment.”
Rain was only just now relaxing, lowering his arms. He looked down at the table he’d overturned. “I’ll clean up. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll get it,” Natalie said. “Please. It’ll help if I can do something.”
“If you bring the stuff, I’ll help,” Rain said. “I told myself a long time ago I didn’t want anyone cleaning up for me. It’s a rule.”
“Okay,” Natalie said. She was on the other end of the room, so I barely heard her.
“If you’d done Kenzie last, she would have gotten curious and found out, and she would have been hurt,” Sveta told me. “If you told her first, we would have realized something was wrong, and I would have had a pretty hard time knowing I was last on your list of people to tell.”
“Is it okay that I told you after-” I started.
I stopped because she was already nodding.
Off to the side, Tristan had pulled Rain into a hug. I looked away. Rain was kneeling by the mess, separating things from the ginger beef and rice. I would’ve helped, but I had the instinct that he wanted space.
Sveta- her arms were folded, her head bowed. Her expression as angry as I’d seen it, as she looked at nothing in particular.
I’d known Sveta would take it hard. Rain had caught me by surprise. Kenzie had too, in a way. I’d prepared myself for the mindset that the others would want to grieve, and I hadn’t anticipated the abject denial, even though it was one of the classic stages of grief.
I didn’t trust myself to approach any of them, so I turned toward the screen that Kenzie had left live.
The images were there on the monitor. Bulletin boards with notecards stuck to them. Not so different from what we had in our hideout.
I pretty quickly realized what they were.
Scary notes. They had some starting points on the people who’d attacked us, notes on the portal, and some theorizing on the greater threats in play.
Almost casually, figures like the Bogeyman were name-dropped and discarded. Amy and Chris were a footnote.
Fucking dangerous information for us to so casually have, and dangerous information to be sending out.