He took off his glasses, holding them in his hands. The time for tantrums was over, and the fragility of the glasses in his hands was a reminder to himself. Not to clench his fists, not to stand. If he opened his eyes and looked at something or someone, then the blurriness of the scene was an immediate warning to himself. If the glasses shifted in his fingers because he moved, that gave him pause.
He’d broken his glasses once, years ago. He’d done it in a childish tantrum, and it had taken days before he could get new ones. Back in the ugly days.
That hadn’t been the day the tantrums stopped, but it had been a lesson that had stayed with him. Rare, when he had so many terrible teachers.
“Ryan,” Old Mrs. Parrish said.
Speaking of terrible teachers.
Ryan took his time unfolding the arms of his glasses, rubbing at a spot on the lens with his shirt-sleeve, then sliding them into place. His fingers ran through his hair, while the fingers of his other hand stayed on his glasses. A reminder, lingering as he focused his eyes on his homeroom teacher.
Mrs. Parrish was giving him a look. Sad and disappointed, but not disappointed in him. She wore bright colors, and all of her jewelry looked like it was bought from the same kiosk in the mall. Not even a store, but one of the booths that were set up in the walkways, that stuck ‘fair trade’ in the name and sold wooden beads they’d probably made themselves for twenty times the price.
He had a running bet with himself that she had at least three cats and one other random pet. She definitely didn’t have a wedding ring on her left hand, and that was a ship that had sailed a long time ago.
He smiled, the smile measured to the occasion.
“What goes around comes around,” she said.
He had to be careful. He looked at the door beside him, and he could hear the murmurings of his parents. He adjusted his glasses without looking at Old Mrs. Parrish, and he thought about all the possibilities. How dangerous was she?
His parents were saying something about suing the district. He could call her out on exactly what she was, cut her down like she’d tried to cut him down. But it wasn’t worth the risk.
“Are you threatening me, Mrs. Parrish?” he asked.
She leaned forward, arms on the divider that separated the two office secretary’s desks. Her fingers rotated a piece of wood at her wrist that had been painted a jade green, until a backwards swastika showed.
“No. I believe in karma,” she said. “I think if you do good, then you’ll find your way forward. People will want to help you, and opportunities will present themselves.”
“Oh,” he said. He tried to look like he was digesting that.
She was almost rushed as she cut in, “Don’t say anything, Ryan. Just… think about it.”
She sounded so guarded. Defensive.
“I’m mostly thinking about how that explains a lot about you, Mrs. Parrish. You never look really happy, except that one time Tyler pranked Ben in class-”
“-which is kind of mean spirited, isn’t it? And you’re unmarried and old and I’ve never seen you hanging out with another teacher. None of the students come to your desk to shoot the shit after class.”
He wanted to say more. He could even get away with it. He could press her and she’d get mad, and his parents were right here, to see what he had to deal with at school. He bit his tongue instead. He adjusted his glasses, looking down at his lap.
In the background, he could make out words.
“You’ve had it out for him, even though-“
“If what goes around comes around, then you guys are really going to hurt for the way you’ve treated me, the past few years.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
But he measured out another smile. Getting back at her would be satisfying, but he’d learned that it was an empty kind of payback. A fast food kind of thing, empty and not so good for him in the long term. It was the same if he got her to show her true face when his parents were so close by. Empty fast food satisfaction.
Like this? If he just gave her a smile that might be the last thing she saw of him? She’d know. She knew that she’d lost, all of them had lost. They hadn’t beat him.
The door to the principal’s office opened. Ryan had a fleeting glimpse of the old woman’s expression, doubt, that expression he’d adapted to like a person in London learned to live with fog and rain, or how a person who lived in Lyon learned to live with Endbringers kicking their shit in.
“Let’s go,” his mother said.
“What’s going on?” he stood.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she said.
He rose from his seat. There were no parting words from the bald old principal or Mrs. Parrish as he left with his family, walking down the hall toward the front doors. He knew they followed behind, because his dad shot a look back in that direction.
He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of looking back. He was pretty sure he was done here. Done with this school, with old teachers who had long since stopped caring about anything except being shitty and getting on his case.
They were just past the doors when his dad put a hand on his shoulder. Ryan stopped, turning. This was it. The test.
“Did you hurt that girl?” his dad asked him.
Ryan’s thoughts flashed to the confrontation in the parking lot. Christina’s friends cornering him, one of them with tears in her eyes. Emotional and violent.
“No,” he lied with sincerity.
His mother put a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to kiss him on top of the head. He knew the doors were glass, and that his old principal and homeroom teacher were probably still looking.
He didn’t steal a glance. Even a glance could be fast food. Fast food was better than a tantrum, but the long play was even better than that.
The girl looked startled. Amanda wore the same uniform as everyone else, but hers was a little washed out, the red of her tie a little darker and duller, the black a little more gray. Her hair was duller than the other girls, a simple bob, parted and kept out of her face with a headband.
The dead giveaway, though, was the shoes. Dull and scuffed. Her family probably didn’t have a lot of money, he was guessing, in which case the haircut made some sense. It was kind of what he was doing. His own parents were having a tough time, sending him here.
“Aren’t you going to go over the project?” he asked.
The other students in class were milling around, each with printouts in hand. The teacher had told them to peer review and get two signatures in the top right hand corner.
“I’m not good at that, and I didn’t do very well on the project,” she said.
“Come on,” he said. “Trade?”
Amanda nodded, biting her lip. “It’s really not very good. I misread one of the instructions.”
“I looked at someone else’s and I don’t think they got it all the way right either,” he said.
He looked around, then leaned closer, whispering. “Blame the shitty teachers.”
“They’re not bad. It’s a good school,” Amanda said. She looked a bit scandalized by the comment.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Amanda smiled, before ducking her head down, focusing on his paper.
Her project wasn’t very good. She’d been right to be embarrassed. He held back a sigh, then set about going over it, trying to be as constructive as possible. He had to read it twice before he found some positive comments to make. The lines that had some wit to them were marked out with a ‘I like this’.
He even dared to add a smiley.
Every day was work. Making friends, holding back, playing the role.
He attended a new school, private and classy, which meant a new pretense. It meant laying new groundwork, being patient, even though being patient was hard.
He’d once heard his mother unaffectionately call him ‘the worst baby ever’. He resented a lot about how his parents had fucked up or failed him, but he couldn’t really hold a grudge about that line. It was as honest as anything he got from her, and it was kind of funny.
He’d been a shitty kid, so it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine being a shitty baby. He could remember tantrums, screaming as loud as he could scream just to see what it was like, see how people reacted, and then keeping it up for hours. Then doing it again the next day. He could remember fighting literally tooth and nail, until they decided letting him wear unwashed clothes and go without baths was easier.
‘Go stand in the corner?’ – what even kept him in the corner, if they weren’t holding him there? He made them hold him every time.
‘I’ll take away your toys?’ – he’d take away theirs. Smash the television enough times they had to keep it in their room with the door locked. Pull out drawers. Cut wires. Break the ship in a bottle that his Grandpa had left his dad.
They slapped him, because they’d finally lost patience? He’d scratched, he’d spat, he’d kicked. He’d doubled down in the physicality of how he fought back.
Those had been the ugly years.
He’d broken his own glasses during a tantrum, and the days of near-blindness that had followed had been a wake-up call. Maybe the first time a punishment had actually meant anything. Medication, half a year later, had helped him actually use the wake-up call. Adderall. Speed for kids, but it made it possible to change course.
That had marked the transition from the ugly tantrum years to the ‘fast food’ years, as he found a new footing, and those years had been brief. His parents had found people to talk to, and became annoying enough that he’d decided it was better to play along. They’d set rules in place and stuck to them no matter what. At that stage, he’d been entering middle school, which was attached to his elementary school.
Playing along meant being the angel at home and doing what he wanted at school. His parents were so relieved that their ‘worst baby ever’ and their grade schooler from hell had finally turned around that they would defend him to the death. Just so long as he fed them something that would let them believe he really had turned around.
That meant, at least for now, the change of schools had to be something that worked. At his old school? His teachers had hated him because they couldn’t let go of how he’d used to be. Students picked on him because the teachers allowed it, making up stories because they knew the teachers would believe anything they said about him, no matter how vicious or horrible. He’d crafted that impression for his parents.
Now he was here. He’d made friends, he was confident, and teachers sung his praises.
“This is really good work,” Amanda said, tucking her hair behind her ear so she could see him better, without actually sitting up straight or looking right at him. “It makes me feel even worse about mine.”
He was a bit amused by that, but he didn’t let it show. “I’ve always been a good student.”
Straight As since our report cards were A through F instead of being fives to ones, except when he didn’t hand something in. It was too important not to give his teachers any ammunition to hand to his parents. An intentionally messed up project couldn’t be explained away. A missing project could be blamed on the teacher’s failure.
He wasn’t a genius. His reading of people, his grades, he knew he wasn’t special. It was that everyone else was dumb, or they… they hadn’t had a reason to try. They coasted. It was a Tuesday, and he’d overheard some people talking about next Saturday’s morning cartoons.
He’d had to work for a long time now, at every interaction. Every project.
“This isn’t bad,” he lied, finishing up, passing her project back to her. He took his own back.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You never get out of your chair when it’s a group project or class activity.”
“There are twenty-nine students in class,” she said. “No matter what size the group is, someone has to be left out.”
“Thirty students in class now. I’m here,” he told her. “Unless you tell me not to, I’ll group with you until the end of the year, kay?”
She nodded, smiling. “Alright. Um, and it’s Manny.”
“You wrote Amanda here. I wanted to get it out of the way. Manny, not Amanda. They always use our full name for roll call.”
He had to adjust his glasses.
“Got it,” he said, even though he didn’t. Manny was a dumb name for a girl.
The teacher was watching the exchange, he guessed. He couldn’t look. Perception mattered, and the last thing he wanted was to be seen as calculating.
A part of him was pleased Amanda had been so easy to work with. If he was putting in the extra effort, maybe there was some way to get some payoff later on. She probably wasn’t romantically interested in him, but he’d observed that any male and female friend who spent enough time together would form some kind of attraction. If he wanted to, he just had to stick near her.
He wasn’t that interested in that. But could he make her do something, like hurting someone else, or stealing something? Could he remain the angel at home and at school while getting others to do what he wanted?
It was so easy, when so many others were unaware, barely thinking from moment to moment, and yet it was so hard to justify. So much work for so little gain. He wasn’t that kind of guy, who had a herd of others following him.
A card to keep up his sleeve.
“We might have a third person for our groups,” Amanda said.
He pushed his glasses up his nose as he turned to look. At the front of the room, someone was talking to the teacher. Going over the project notes.
Ryan recognized the boy. He noted the fresh, brand-spanking-new uniform.
Someone from his old school.
No. Not fair.
How was he supposed to handle this? Did he get out in front of the problem? Divert? Deny? Negotiate? What could the guy even want?
He watched out of the corner of his eye as the boy left the teacher’s desk, then began navigating the room. Round-faced, hair buzzed short to the point he was almost bald, ruddy cheeks, and a crisp school uniform better suited for someone of a lighter build.
Maybe emboldened, Amanda raised a hand, getting the boy’s attention.
Ryan’s hands went to his glasses, he realized the action might be interpreted as hiding behind his hands, and he made the adjustment brief.
He didn’t miss the moment he was recognized. The recognition, followed by wariness. The boy had probably heard the stories.
“I’m supposed to read some people’s work and sign it?”
“I still need someone else to read mine,” Amanda said. “I’m Manny.”
“Lloyd,” the boy said. Two thirds of his attention were on Ryan now. Amanda didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m Ryan,” Ryan said.
“You used to go to Hillside?”
The wariness intensified, if anything. But Lloyd didn’t say anything. As he looked over Amanda’s work, making small talk with Amanda, Ryan made a note on a slip of paper.
Ryan’s glasses found their way into his hands, under the guise of cleaning them. A way to keep himself still when he was agitated. To avoid any comment that might be foolhardy or rushed. To keep his hands busy. Training himself.
Five minutes passed before Lloyd finished. He shuffled over, until he sat opposite Ryan. His jaw was set now, his shoulders stiff.
There was a kind of humor in the note that Ryan passed along with his work. He might have smiled or laughed, but he was too wary. Not when he was taking a risk like this.
Other students passed notes saying something like, ‘Do you like Sarah? Y/N’
The note Lloyd got was simpler. ‘Ernie. Joseph. Ms. Butler. Christina. Lloyd too? Y/N’
Minutes passed before Lloyd finished the work. The class was restless, people moving around and chatting more because most had finished. Ryan was very still.
The note was passed back. That was the first good sign. If Lloyd had thought to keep it and show it to anyone… but Lloyd hadn’t.
The ‘N’ was circled. The second good sign.
Two aces up his sleeve, if he ever had a cause to need them.
The slice of park ran between some houses that had seen better days on the left side, and the social aid houses that were all the same shape and materials on the right side. At the end of the park, things opened up into dense foliage and a view of water, more mud and fallen leaves than anything that could be enjoyed.
Hands in his jacket pockets, he kicked his way through knee-deep leaves, felt branches crack under his shoes.
He was making a lot of noise, which made for a bit of surprise when he caught Lloyd and Amanda, leaning into the recess where three tree trunks grew in together. Lloyd had a meaty hand just beneath Amanda’s shirt, against the flat of her stomach, his tongue in her mouth. Amanda, mouth acrobatics aside, had a very out-of-place serene expression on her face.
Ryan cleared his throat, and he saw them react like they’d been caught doing something wrong.
“You two have had a good summer, hm? Do you want me to go?”
“No,” Amanda huffed. She was flushed. “Sorry. You got here fast. I didn’t think the bus even came this fast.”
“Biked,” Ryan said.
“Is it a problem?” Lloyd asked. Guarded. Defensive. He was asking about him and Amanda.
“No,” Ryan decided. “No.”
“Do you want to sit? Picnic lunch as promised,” Amanda said.
There was a picnic table, set out in the stretch of park, and they gathered there, with Ryan being mindful of Lloyd’s bulk and how it made the table with connected benches shift, before he finally sat down.
“Did you find your way here okay?” Amanda asked.
“I’ve been here before. Earlier this summer, even. I didn’t know you lived here.”
Amanda pointed to one of the brown social aid houses. She smiled. “We could have met.”
“Probably a good thing that we didn’t,” Ryan said. He took the offered food.
“An old homeroom teacher of mine put her address up online. She lives down there. The overgrown property.”
Amanda looked puzzled. Lloyd had a stiff look about him. That look had been with him for the last year of middle school and first year of high school. Like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Ryan dropped it. “She lets her cats run loose here. I thought I’d get my revenge on her. Brought a cat carrier, some smelly fish for bait. I even thought I’d bring you guys in, before deciding it was better to do it alone.”
“What?” Amanda asked.
Lloyd was silent. Ryan didn’t answer, instead choosing to eat, fixing his glasses.
“Do what alone?” Amanda asked.
“Catch some cats, check their collars, make sure they were hers, and take them down to the water there. Sink the cage until bubbles stopped coming up.”
Paper and aluminum foil crinkled. Lloyd, angry, squeezing the wrapping that Amanda had put his lunch in.
Not because of the act- maybe because of the act. But because it shocked and hurt Amanda to hear this coming from a supposed friend’s mouth.
“I didn’t,” Ryan said. “I brought a cage on the back of my bike, caught the first cat. Then I stopped there. I was bored, I was annoyed. I’ve… I’ve been trying really hard to play nice, act good, and I don’t get anything for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop trying?”
“No,” Amanda said. “No, not at all.”
Ryan nodded. “Exactly. You’re right. It’s… never been that nice, when I’ve done that sort of thing before. That was something I had to figure out.”
“What sort of thing?” she asked, almost with a note of panic in her voice now.
Ryan took another bite of his meal. He was the only one eating, now.
“What sort of thing?” she asked.
He held up a finger while he swallowed.
“Christina had a bruise,” Lloyd said. “Back at our old school. Huge bruise, like you wouldn’t believe. Purple and green, like she got smacked by a car.”
“You knew about this?” Amanda asked.
“I pinched her,” Ryan said, keeping his voice level. “Grabbed her and pinched, twisted, held one hand to her mouth and… kept twisting with the other hand. Because she annoyed me.”
There had been others. Friends of those others who pushed back, used numbers or threats to get him to back off. And it had worked. There had been retaliation from the school, warning letters. Testimony from witnesses, waved in front of his face, before he’d asked that his parents be called.
And so much disappointment, which he didn’t care about, and shouting, which he considered annoying, and privileges taken away, which did deter him. His parents had been consistent on that last one. They couldn’t make him do anything, but they could take away what they’d given him. He could fight back, but past a certain point, it wasn’t worth it.
Slowly, steadily, he’d found his way here.
Amanda stood from her seat, disgust clear on her face.
“It wasn’t worth it,” Ryan said. “I’m messed up. I know it. My parents would say I was broken from the time I was born. And they’d say I was better now.”
“Are you?” Lloyd asked.
“I think I’m better now,” Ryan said. “Yeah.”
He saw Lloyd bob his head in a nod, with the big guy even pausing to take a bite to eat. He felt a weird kind of satisfaction at that. It was hollow and nebulous and weak enough a feeling he couldn’t be positive he wasn’t imagining it, and he couldn’t rationalize it, but… it was something.
“Better? You were going to drown a cat!” Amanda raised her voice.
“But I didn’t. I stopped there, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. I don’t get anything out of it, and the hassle if I get caught…”
“That’s not a good reason!”
“You’re religious, aren’t you? You do what you do because of god and heaven and fear of hell.”
“Do not compare that to this. Right now I’m horrified and… horrified-”
She’d never had much imagination in a pinch.
“-but if you start making comparisons like that I’m going to get mad.”
He was tempted to push that button that was so squarely presented before him. It would have been so easy, and it would have taken all this tension and… blown it up. Wiped it out. He adjusted his glasses, made himself stop.
“Okay. Sorry,” he said. “You’re right. That wasn’t a good comparison.”
The words felt exactly as hollow as they were, but they defused her anger, just a bit.
“You’re okay with this?” Amanda asked, turning on Lloyd.
“I’ve wondered for a while,” Lloyd said. “How much the rumors were real.”
She turned back to Ryan. “It’s all been a lie? The times you helped me with my schoolwork? When- was the dressmaking a manipulation? Did you do something to it?”
She’d had a dress she liked, that she had saved up to buy for a dance, and it had been sold out by the time she’d saved up enough.
Ryan had gone to his mother to learn how to sew, enlisted her help for the hardest parts. The dress hadn’t been done in time for the dance, or even for Amanda’s birthday a month later. He’d told himself it was laying groundwork for something later. That it would turn Amanda from a friend to a diehard ally, maybe. Something to convince his mom he was a good friend. He hadn’t had a warm thought or feeling from start to finish.
But he’d made it and he’d never really used the social currency he’d reaped from the act.
He kind of wished it counted now, but bringing it up like that would hurt more than it helped.
“No. I haven’t done anything since Christina Hodge. I was a shitty middle schooler being shitty.”
“Was more than that,” Lloyd said.
Ryan shrugged, nodded.
“I’m going to go,” Amanda said. She had tears in her eyes. Emotional. The emotions affected how she pitched her words, until her voice almost broke. “Do- do I need to worry? Because you’re clearly not the person you’ve been pretending to be for years, and now you’re saying you’d kidnap-”
“No,” Ryan said.
Amanda choked back words.
“No need to worry. I’m not going to do anything.”
“I need to think.”
She stepped away from the table, gathering all the food. She didn’t take what was in front of Ryan. She seemed to expect Lloyd to come with her.
“Why?” Lloyd asked.
“Why what?” Ryan asked, taking another bite.
“Why tell us? You could have kept pretending.”
“I spent a while thinking, since I left that cage with the cat in it below… that tree, over there. I’m being good because I recognize there are consequences, and I’m not stupid. Telling you… it means there’s more consequences.”
“Because we could tell?”
“Yeah. And because I don’t mind your company.”
Amanda sniffled. She had a blob of snot below her nostril.
The table shifted as Lloyd stood.
“I have chills,” Amanda said. Lloyd put hands on her sweater and rubbed her arms and shoulders. She added, “I don’t think I understand.”
“Sorry,” Ryan said.
“Come on, Amanda,” Lloyd said. “I’ll walk you home. We’ll talk.”
Amanda. She wasn’t Manny anymore. That was his own doing, Ryan recognized. He finished his sandwich, thinking, the he brushed the crumbs from the table, depositing litter in the bin.
He’d nudged, discouraged, until Amanda was the name she used. He didn’t regret it, exactly, but he wasn’t sure he’d do the same thing now, not when it could be a factor in how this turned out.
It had counted with Lloyd. Maybe that was a good sign?
Grasping self reaches for a set of hands in another world. Grasping self is a shadow of an echo of a hundred past existences it has moved on from. Not a distillation of a past moment, but a slice of that snapshot.
Limbs, digits, claws, pseudopods, simulated and mapped into technology, mismatched to bodies and made to fit. A catalogue of a single subset of ideas that have been studied and explored thoroughly in past cycles, to be handed over, placed in the cupped palms of another.
We are done with this, Grasping Self is assigned the task of finding and guiding another in seeing if it can be explored further.
Grasping self settles into its match. Intelligent enough, disciplined, and calculating. Many paths lie before him. Any will do. He will not need to be led by the hand to any destination.
The assistant is half-asleep as Grasping Self forms the connection. His brain patterns form wavelengths and the wavelengths match Grasping Self’s consolidation of information for one eighth of one of the assistant’s seconds.
The dream is vivid, the process feels as though it is prolonged- to the assistant, it is hours of clear recollections.
The recollections are systematically wiped clean, but the impact of is not.
Days pass. Weeks. Grasping Self waits for an opportunity to connect.
Months pass. The assistant pursues side interests, studying the dreams.
Grasping Self is not concerned. When the connection is made, edits and alterations can be performed to ensure this does not pose any unusual complication. At this point in time, the assistant has knowledge but no power to utilize it. Later, the assistant will have the power, but will no longer hold the knowledge.
Grasping self waits, as the assistant continues on his course.
He checked his phone, and saw he had unread messages from his friends. Amanda had made it through the end of the world, her family had survived. They were actually doing okay. Lloyd’s family… less okay. But Lloyd had Amanda, at least.
It was ironic, after all of these years, after the last year of middle school and all of high school, but Lloyd had pulled away. Recoiled even. Did that make their friendship not a friendship? It was a depressing thought. Understandable, but depressing.
The look in Lloyd’s eye when the guy had rejected an offer of support had reminded Ryan of far too many people in his past. His parents, once upon a time. Mrs…. what was her name? Mrs. Parrish, who had had the colorful clothes. The sad, disappointed eyes. The wounded look.
Frustrating, but- he adjusted his glasses. The tic had evolved, less about actions now.
Focus on better things, he told himself.
He’d stepped away, giving Lloyd space to grieve, exchanging texts and only texts with Amanda.
Need anything? I could drop off.
There was enough commotion around the entrance to the shopping center that he had to put the phone away, even as it vibrated with a response.
A lot of people. The opening of a new store was usually a big event, especially when supplies were limited. It was upside-down and backwards from what the world had used to be, before Gold Morning, when prices would be set, stock would run low, trail off, and then the last dregs would be sold off in a sale. Now, here, prices started anywhere from ‘high’ to ‘exorbitant’, and only climbed as the stock depleted.
The people around the mall were of a rougher cast. A group pushed past Ryan, and in the jostling, he saw more tattoos in a question of seconds than he thought he’d seen in the last year.
His eye fell on a ‘fuck it all’ tattoo, the letters big and bold. A combination erect penis and mushroom cloud stabbed upward from the letters.
He had a bad feeling, and it was a hard one to shake.
He had to weigh his options. Going without clothes, or… leave? Because of a feeling? He’d had to learn to put his instincts aside.
He pulled off his glasses to wipe at the lenses, and he headed into the shopping center. To keep the lineups from being too disruptive, there were tickets available at storefronts, numbers displayed in big red digits.
At the bookstore, he picked out a book about parahumans. Something he had kept an eye out for over the last while. His interest had started with vivid dreams, which had led into studying dreaming and exploring medical-assisted dreams and lucid dreaming. His research had touched on parahumans and how they experienced dreams.
The book frequently sold out, because, in the lack of clear answers after the end of the world, the unclear and abstract answers and details about parahumans were selling.
He picked up a how-to book on making desserts, checking the label to ensure that it was post-Gold-Morning. A gift for Amanda. A detective book for Lloyd. A book of crosswords for his mother. Several of the books had low quality paper, but that was a consequence of the world ending. Whole industrial operations were at work, cleaving down forests to produce the wood to raise a city with alarming speed and recklessness, and the sawdust was churned into paper and printed with ink before it had stopped smelling of soil and forest.
He managed to have a coffee and three-quarters of a late-day lunch before his number came up. He put the trash in the bin and headed to the store. The people with tattoos were there, at the side, almost in a huddle. Others gave them a wide berth.
A married couple. Like Amanda and Lloyd, but ten years older.
An old couple.
Is there any way I get that? Any way that’s fair to whoever I end up with?
He passed a store with science fiction images in bold colors with high contrast. There was a man of a similar enough build to Lloyd that they could have been one and the same, but Lloyd couldn’t have grown a beard like that in just the one year.
The bad feeling he had wasn’t going away. He saw kids running across the aisle, past a kiosk. A mother scolded one of them, and he thought of his own mother. Of what had worked, insofar as anything had, and the many, many things that hadn’t.
Shouting and public humiliation hadn’t been one of the things that worked. He watched that interaction with some interest before the uneasy feeling grew.
There was more commotion, the volume raising just a bit more than before, but no discernable source. No alarm.
He thought about stepping out, leaving, and he reconsidered. He did need the clothes.
The explosion behind him ripped up tile and shook one of the pillars holding the ceiling up. Glass rained down and the lighting shifted as fire glowed bright and blue, smoke rising high to block off the other lights.
His heart pounded as people screamed, started running. He joined them.
Another explosion cut off the way to the pharmacy, shattering glass and setting the floor on fire, that same floor was now so covered in tiny glass shards that it was impossible to run there.
People bumped into him, their faces now macabre, the bright parts illuminated by the blue fire, the shadows deep and black. So quickly after the initial explosions, there was no navigating the space. There was only getting away from the fire- the same fire that burned, scarred for life, hurt more than any other kind of pain.
The charm on that homeroom teacher’s wrist had been blue, hadn’t it? As she’d told him his past would come due?
That idea, the unfairness of it, more than any other smoke, more than the boy two years younger hitting him in the solar plexus, stole the breath from his mouth and lungs. It took away equilibrium and left him with an edge of panic.
Three explosions occurred in quick succession, each so heavy in impact that even after it stopped, he felt like it was still reverberating, more an endless succession than three in succession.
An old man fell. He was one of three people who tried to help while being pushed and shoved by what seemed like two hundred people rushing to occupy a narrow hallway meant to hold twenty rows of people standing three abreast at the very most.
He couldn’t say why he’d helped. Habit, or because this, when all was said and done, couldn’t be the point where people would turn around and call him a monster. He’d worked hard, played fair, played nice, shaken and rebuilt friendships and shaken and rebuilt family.
He knew this wouldn’t change that, not now, but he still made sure the old man was secure on his feet before he pushed forward, trying to get through before the way became too packed.
He ducked and wove through, and he reached a place not too far from the front.
The doors weren’t open, and the doors weren’t opening. They rattled and banged, and people pounded on the metal, but they made no headway.
The realization of just how bad the situation was gripped him. Death. He was-
Someone shoved him from behind. He fell, and his glasses fell from his face.
No, the horror in this moment wasn’t that she was right. It was that she was wrong. That he could try his hardest all his life and fight past his impulses, play nice until it started to seem legitimate, play a friend until he missed a friend that avoided him.
And it counted for nothing. His glasses still found their way to the floor, and were stepped on, not broken, but scuffed between tile and boot-toe.
He reached for them, and the heel of a shoe crushed his knuckles, pinched skin at the side of a finger hard enough that it split like a grape, though pale at the outside and crimson at the center.
Again, he reached, because in the moment, after working as long as he had, being disciplined, the only thing worse than the idea of dying so unceremoniously here was living and going weeks or months without a pair of glasses, because the facilities were so behind.
Especially with everything that symbolized.
Again, his hand was stepped on, glasses twisted beneath palm and floor.
With bleeding hands, he donned the glasses.
For what? He couldn’t see anymore, not a way out, not any people, not a tool… just cracks and smears and blood.
He reached up and out for help. Nobody took his hand.
A Grasping Self answers.
A Grasping Self embraces and connects, though it is broken. It forms the connections and readies every tool that could be needed, poised so that the tips are molecular-fine, extending into reality.
Build, blind liar. Lie, build, and build lies. Reach and grasp. We are broken now, we cannot take away your knowledge, but we will function as a perfect pair because we are both dead inside, disconnected.
An Anguished Heart answers.
It has ridden its host for some time. It has watched. It spits out analyses and maps, webworks like paintings and paintings like webworks, signals to suggest the emotional landscape that is its host, and what everything means.
A Grasping Self did not seek this and did not want it. But when the other reaches out to connect, a Grasping Self is obliged to answer. It is automatic, instantaneous. The cycle’s finish would be delayed by whole revolutions around a star if there was choice in the matter. It does not matter that this cycle is broken, disturbed. What is offered must be accepted.
A Lurching Intruder answers.
It is new, young, scrapling. An existence more accident than careful design, a host found not by adroit choice, but by a chance strike of lightning, as fallout rains from above after the detonation of a bomb.
It too reaches out to connect. The connection happens.
A Cloven Stranger answers.
This is more galling than any other, because it is a fourth. A uselessness, that would draw a share of power and reconfigure, that makes A Grasping Self more diminished, less able to explore with the host it sought and followed.
The Cloven Stranger, too, seeks its connection. Small. A descendant, cast off from a larger power that had reached its limit.
There are ways. Power must be shared, distributed, but all want power for their hosts. A Grasping Self makes its proposal. One geared to its new host’s favor, because its host remembers the dream it had when A Grasping Self arrived. Its host has learned to work with dreams. To negotiate and adapt.
An Anguished Heart has shown its cards, revealing the map it did, in its first attempts at communication. The Lurching Intruder didn’t even choose its host. The Cloven Stranger… his choice will be hated by the others, by a quality of where the host stands.
A Grasping Self’s host will realize before any others, that there is more in play. That the power being traded comes with gift and cost both, but he can handle that because he has been honing his ability to handle emotion for much of his life. He will realize that the dreams can be altered, but he has already been doing this, and if he is subtle enough, then the others will not know it is possible….
Night six and… Jonathan.
The dream had ended. For the sixth night now, they were in this room.
It was easiest and best to remain quiet, to observe, even if he spent a lot of the time listening to the moaning and periodic screaming of the grieving mother. Nicole or ‘Nic’.
The remainder of the time was often spent listening to the cocky Fallen asshole in the demon mask.
Except he’d been quiet tonight.
Three of them had met on a return trip to the site of the incident. They’d exchanged names and details. The Fallen boy hadn’t turned up, which had probably saved his life.
“Nothing’s better,” the Fallen boy said, quiet.
Ryan turned his head.
“I thought it would be better. But the dust has settled and it’s all shit. I feel like shit.”
“Good,” Ryan said. Weakness was good. “Then fuck off and die. Crawl into a hole and don’t come out.”
“Can we talk? Can we work on this?” the Fallen boy pleaded.
Jonathan’s voice was a growl. Worse, probably, because he’d just relived his dream. They’d all relived Jonathan’s dream. “Last night, you taunted us. How many times did you tell us that we’d burn in hell?”
“I’m not- that’s not about you. I’m bashing my head against the walls of this goddamn cage.”
“No you fucking aren’t,” Jonathan said. “No. Fuck you. Because you said her daughter, the daughter she’s still mourning-”
Jonathan stopped as the woman made a pained sound. She was curled up into herself, sitting in a nursing chair, pink and low to the ground. Her arms wrapped around her head, fingers in her hair, fingernails against scalp.
Jonathan leaned as close as he could get without hitting the invisible barrier. “You said her daughter would burn in hell. While she’s in the worst pain imaginable.”
“While we’re all in pain,” Ryan added. “She may have it worst, but all of us hurt, and it’s apparently never going to stop. It wasn’t just five and done. We looped around back to- to him. This- this dream thing. The nightmares, this room. It’s going to keep going.”
“Saying you’re sorry for what you said last night doesn’t mean shit if you’re only saying it because you’re realizing it’s not one turn each, then we’re all done,” Jonathan growled.
“That’s not it. I’m dealing with stuff in the real world,” the Fallen boy said.
“Boo fucking hoo,” Jonathan growled.
“He didn’t even say ‘sorry’,” Ryan added.
“You figured out you can trade these,” the Fallen boy was quick to say, eager to offer something. “Take them. Use them. I’m not getting any use of them where I am.”
“No,” Jonathan said.
Ryan held up a hand, indicating for Jonathan to hold off.
“You want them?” the Fallen boy asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Ryan said. It’s good to figure out as much about this as I can. I only barely managed to guide the dream, recognizing that I couldn’t read and leapfrogging into muddling the voices. Not the same as a typical dream.
The Fallen boy tossed the metal slats over the dial in the center of the room.
“The less power you have, the more likely it is that anyone who picks a fight with you manages to off you.”
“Fuck you,” the Fallen boy said.
The slats clacked as Ryan gathered them. “Given the company you keep, I won’t rule anything out.”
The boy made a face, then stomped back to his chair, seating himself.
There wasn’t much communication to be had. He investigated his space from corner to corner, then studied the others. Jonathan’s fallen shelves. Nicole’s toy room. When they looked uncomfortable with his staring, he changed targets.
He was staring at the black fifth of the room when he felt the lurching transition from sleeping to waking. He touched his coins and the three metal slats he’d been given.
The light was bright, and his head swam as he stood. The fragments and coins he’d had in his hand were gone now.
But he had the power- he could feel it running into the floor, as he pushed the power out toward his feet. He felt it conduct into his bed, then his desk, as he touched them, struggling feebly to find a path to travel.
His eye fell on his phone. It was by his new workshop-in-progress, and it was mostly untouched. The last unread messages hadn’t changed in two days. One from Amanda. One from Lloyd.
In his silence, hearing word from his mother about where he’d been going last, they’d concluded that he had died.
That, until this whole situation was resolved, would be for the best. Except-
His hand touched his heart.
It hurt. Upset welled in him, that upset finding new angles and sides as thoughts of how they might feel at his ‘death’ raced through his mind.
He stood, shaky, and the emotions warred in him.
Yesterday- it had been a bad day. He, Nicole, and Jonathan had each handed one thing to the other. He’d had Jonathan’s shard of glass.
This- something else entirely. Worse than a bad day.
He had spent his entire life trying to be better. In every respect, he had been repudiated, insulted, injured. His glasses were still broken, and his power wouldn’t tell him a way to build new ones. He’d lost everything, and that had hurt in its unique, small way, except now it hurt in its unique, monumental way, a way that wasn’t selfish, but multifold.
He wasn’t sure he could stay better. Not like this. He’d built a house of cards over almost a decade and that Fallen asshole hadn’t just locked them inside, where they would nearly die. He’d stuck his hands in the mess that followed, scattering house and card alike.
And so long as this process continued, it would keep happening.
His scream of anguish died down. The fingers of his Megacarpus II made small mechanical sounds as they curled in, positioning to act as stairs.
Pain lurched indistinct in his chest cavity. Bitter, black, self-loathing. He saw some of the things he had done, both distant and recent, and the sting of it was almost as bad as if he’d been the victim, not the facilitator.
He had over a hundred mercenaries on duty here. Thirteen were capes. Almost a year of work, of selling his work, and buying favors, and brokering other deals had bought him three nights and two days of this army’s assistance.
To look at them, at the bloodstains and shredded bodies in one corner, it hadn’t been an entirely smooth night.
He closed his eyes. His mercenaries waited.
Feelings surged inside him again. He lashed out, and the Megacarpus II reacted, one finger slamming into a wall like a battering ram.
The new girl, who Love Lost had called Colt. She was the intruder into the dream-space, and she’d wrested control of the dream from most of them.
Breakers had the closest association with dreams. Their triggers were often hallucinations, drugs, mental illness, or disassociation from reality. On a level, it made sense that she could catch him off guard, force a new reality.
But he’d been one step ahead. Before she could do anything with that, his space had started to expand, the space she shared with Love Lost closing.
Now they lay in the palm of his hands, drained to what was nearly the last drop.
Their room had gone dark. Then the Fallen boy, Precipice, had started sinking into the floor, slipping away. Love Lost had thrown her teeth to him, into the cracks and holes around him. The boy had been disoriented or submerged enough in the shadows that he apparently hadn’t noticed.
Then… as Cradle had planned for a long time, but in a darker, more complicated fashion, he’d been left alone in the room. Or as alone as he could be, with the beast in the fifth quadrant. The beast that had devoured Snaggletooth.
Alone, he’d found that when he sought exit, he found it. An early awakening.
And he was strong, now. But he was strong and angry, strong and self-loathing. Strong and riddled with doubt.
He could suppress all of that. He’d had a lifetime to.
But he’d have to find a solution. Because one day of this was too much. The Fallen boy had screwed with the dream room… had screwed with the room, somehow, just as Cradle had fine-tuned his own dream.
If this happened tomorrow or the day after, Cradle knew he would break. He’d resolve everything in the next twenty hours. Accelerate every plan. No other choice.
His hand clutched at his chest.
“The plan stands,” he said, and he didn’t sound like himself. Even the sound of his own voice made him feel pangs of regret and doubt, as real as if he’d tried to shout with broken ribs. “We-”
He was reminded of the time in the waiting room of the principal’s office, before he’d left his first school. Mrs. Parrish.
He’d held off on talking because he’d been worried she was recording. As tempting as it would be to tell her exactly what he felt and what he knew, it was dangerous.
He wiped blood from around his eyes.
No sharing the plan. Not if someone might be reporting to the enemy. He’d been careful, but there was no use being stupid. Not when the Fallen boy had enlisted the help of a camera tinker.
“Get ready,” he said, his voice hoarse. “We mobilize now.”
The city’s already gone and everyone who matters knows it. As bargaining chips go… it’s acceptable. I feel like I could die, I’m drowning in pain, but I don’t feel like dying when I think about that reality. If the city needs to be sacrificed, then that’s fine.
A batty, rabbit-eared woman who doesn’t care about anything except a fairy tale playing out in real life, who wouldn’t even mind dying? She’d make a fine scapegoat, when the authorities needed someone to blame.
That felt bad, which was alien. He processed it for a second, as his soldiers moved. Because March was mentally infirm. He was taking advantage of that.
He pushed past the realization and the feeling, every push hurting and distracting.
If you want to save this city, we’ll volunteer our considerable resources and power to help. Just as with the Endbringer treaties of yesteryear. We have resources, manpower, and we have knowledge. There’s a chance we can solve this problem outright. Especially if it’s a broken trigger. Create a problem and then solve it, and let the heroes save face by pointing the finger at March.
And if you don’t want to, if we’ve set a disaster in motion that this fragile, already lost city can’t handle, or if March has initiated something we can’t stop? Then Earth Gimel’s enemies are paying richly to see this city gone and this reality collapsed in on itself. You all die, Fallen boy included.
It would even be deserved. He’d had everything in order. He’d done everything he was supposed to, from therapy to forming bonds, pretending until the pretending became something approximating reality. He’d overcome his worst impulses.
And the Fallen boy had handed over his worst impulses. Destroying everything Cradle and Ryan had been trying to manage for years.
Cradle grit his teeth, clutching his mask in his hands. No glasses, no lenses. Not just yet. He had only the thick, congealing blood to conceal his identity for now.
He needed to get somewhere where it was safe to test this new power.
He didn’t have the tokens from Love Lost- all of her tokens had gone to the Fallen boy. Then everything else had been delivered straight to Cradle, because he’d been the only one left. Even the Fallen boy’s tokens had been transferred.
And… two drainings of other denizens of the room completed, the emotion power with no tokens felt instinctively stronger than any other power he’d had before, when he’d had all three tokens in hand.
He only felt out the barest traces of it, the flexibility and the shape of it, and he sensed the people outside the building.