“I can explain it all, if you’re interested.”
I looked in the direction the group had gone. I had enough bound up emotions that I wasn’t sure I trusted myself. Vista, at least, had found her way to my side. Backup of a sort.
“Yeah,” I said. “An explanation would be really good right now.”
“Okay. You’re a fucky sort of monster, Antares, alright?”
I blinked a few times in rapid succession. Brought from wonderings and distractions to harsh reality in a second.
“You can’t just say something like that,” Vista said.
“I’ll explain. You can be any one kind of fucky monster in my example, right? There are monsters you want to fuck up, there are monsters you want to fuck with, there are monsters you want to fuck, because of course, and there are monsters you want to cockblock.”
“First of all,” Vista said. “Yes, yes, what, and maybe. Second of all, you suck at explanations, Solarstare.”
“I’m great at explanations,” Solarstare said. “To start with, you have to get your audience’s attention, no matter how distracted they clearly are.”
“You did a pretty good job of that,” I said.
“You also fucked up your credibility pretty hard,” Vista said.
“Then you earn it back,” Solarstare said. She did a good job of living up to her name, unblinking, her eyes pools of luminescent liquid that streamed continually from notches in the center of the lower eyelids. The helmet she wore hugged her cheekbones and cheeks, channeling the liquid along the mask’s line and down to the bodysuit she wore with its inlaid ornamentation. The design of the suit collected the liquid into a glowing emblem at her front. It made her very intense. Three narrow triangles of glowing luminescence marked the perimeter of each eye, like cartoon eyelashes, one above, one at a diagonal at the outer edge, and one pointing out from the corner of her eye to her temples.
“Look, whatever course I’d want to take when I deal with hypothetical fucky monster Antares, there’re a few things I want, right? I want protection, and I want to get there before anyone else, or else I’m dealing with sloppy seconds, and sloppy gets people killed while seconds just… disappoints everyone.”
“Whether you’re fucking up, fucking with, fucking, or-”
“Or cockblocking,” Solarstare said.
I actively resisted looking in the direction of the conference room where the group had gone with Jessica.
“What monsters are you fucking, Solarstare, and do I need to worry?” Vista asked.
“I’m being optimistic, but I think we want to fuck half of them,” Solarstare said.
“So what you’re saying is I need to worry.”
“Half of them are good guys or people who will work with good guys,” Solarstare said.
“Maybe, uh, start with our working definition of monster?”
“Yeah,” Vista said. “Because that’s not the monsters I know.”
Solarstare’s eyes widened as she smiled, because she was clearly engaged. Liquid flowed out in greater quantity, to the point it overwhelmed what the channels in the helmet could take, and some found its way to the furrow beside the nostril, and onto her upper lip and lips. She wiped at it, leaving a faintly glowing smear. “Good, bad, or ugly, you’ve got the ones who’ve settled in. They’ve found a rut and they’ve settled into it so hard that they’ve started to twist up. Like someone who jacks off five times a day, same hand, same habit, and their arm-”
“Okayyy,” Vista said.
“Or jills off. Equal opportunity metaphor.”
“That’s not what I was taking issue with. You’re going to make our guest here think we’re all huffing construction insulation or something out here. You said you’d explain what the Bunker is but you just launched into one big fucking metaphor.”
“Everything’s a fucking metaphor.”
“Okayyyy. I’m definitely seeing you in a new light, Solar. Kind of. Sort of. I saw how you were when we were all stationed at High Hill Bravo-”
Solarstare shushed Vista, who tried to bring up names, which just made Solarstare shush her more noisily. A good five or ten seconds were spent as they made noises at each other.
It was good to see Vista so animated. It put a smile on my face despite-
I glanced in the direction of the conference room. I could see the vague shapes of the group, identify one as Kenzie, because it was up out of its chair, moving around, gesticulating wildly.
The smile fell from my face.
“Look,” Solarstare said, reaching out to touch me, then pulling that hand away to wipe at another dribble that escaped because she’d moved forward as quickly as she had. “You only ever lift one way, lift a lot, neglect certain things, you get warped and you don’t hold up as well. Whatever kind of cape you are-”
I rattled a few off, to contribute, and because I wanted to be distracted, “Hero, mercenary, villain, corporate, sponsored, brand, clandestine, ideologue, scumbag-”
“Any kind, yeah,” Solarstare said, smiling. “You get too into this, you lose your ordinary life by accident or by a hundred small steps, and it all becomes distorted. Without enough other things going on, you don’t have the ability to keep everything straight, so you end up becoming something fucky. Something that gets fucked up, fucked with, fucked, or frustrated.”
I blinked a few times.
Vista gave me a long look.
“Yeah,” I said. “Or all of the above.”
“And this is getting a little heavy,” Vista said.
“It is heavy,” Solarstare said. “The Bunker needs to be sturdy because it’s all so heavy. We’ve got two portals right now. City center and city east. By next week we’ll have four. A week after that we’ll have seven, they think. Six of those will be places in the city we can instantly mobilize to. Wham, bam, fuck you ma’am. Seventh portal will be our proper prison world we should only be able to get to through the Bunker. Which means if you want to get in or break someone out, you have to go through the Bunker, which we’re loading to the brim with security.”
I nodded. “Which is protection for safe fucking up, fucking with, fucking-”
“Which I still have questions about, Solar,” Vista cut in.
“Cockblocking,” Solarstare said.
“She had a teammate called Clockblocker,” I said, throwing a thumb in Vista’s way.
Solarstare laughed. It looked almost like her back teeth glowed, like the fluids from her eyes leeched into the back of her mouth by some channel or osmosis.
“My teammate for a very short time too. I like ‘frustrated’ better. Plus it alliterates.”
“Got it,” Solarstare said. “Yeah. Getting there first means no sloppy seconds, and doing it safely means we don’t get fucked.”
“Good explanation,” I said. I knew most of it, not the numbers for portals, or the timeline, but most of it. Maybe the definition of ‘monster’ was something that took me back to uncomfortable memories, and that negative matched or outweighed the gain of the little tidbits I’d picked up, but it served to distract, and she’d clearly been intending to do that.
“Which is my chance to ask, um, what monsters have you been fucking?” Vista asked. “Do I need to worry, Solar?”
“Come on, Vista, it’s an analogy, take five seconds to look past the big bad swear word.”
“If you can use one word for five hundred different situations or contexts, you need to give us a bit more to go on.”
“To fuck them is to deal with them, interact, back and forth. Sometimes you gotta suck ’em off to keep em happy and sometimes you gotta demand your quid-pro-quo. Favor for a favor. And sometimes it’s down to a hate-fuck, which-”
“Okayyy,” Vista said. “You’re embarrassing me in front of my friend now.”
“Don’t act like you’re a prude, Vista. Do I need to talk about what you got up to at High Hill Bravo?”
“I didn’t get up to a damn thing,” Vista said, flushing slightly, “and my friend’s visiting, I only have so long before I’m called to work, and I might not get another chance to talk to her for a bit, depending on how I’m deployed.”
“Maybe she’d like to hear stories,” Solarstare teased. She raised her eyebrows my way.
“I want to talk to her about secret ID stuff, civilian stuff,” Vista said.
“I’m pulling that card,” Vista said.
Solarstare winked at me, and in the time we’d had our conversation, it was the first time she’d blinked or even closed an eye. The wink came with a flash and a sudden surge of brightly glowing liquid. She sauntered, rather than just walk off.
Vista was still a little pink in the wake of Solarstare’s departure.
“She’s fun,” I said.
“You know what the sad thing is?” Vista asked, quiet. “She is. But she used to be this really quiet, reserved girl who always read books while everyone else hung out. She was arrogant, looked down on people, acting like she was thirty and not eighteen. She snitched a few times, when some capes were drinking, and even the supervisors were like… fuck off, Solarstare. Let them be. You know?”
“She got punted into a wall during a fight. TBI.”
Traumatic brain injury.
“The entire time they were taking her to the hospital, she was screaming, flailing, using her powers, fighting every step of the way. Swelling inside the skull went down and she was normal-ish, except she’d lost the ability to read, speak, listen to music, or understand even slightly abstract pictures. Over the past six months she’s been working her way back to normal.”
“But she’s different?”
“Completely different personality. Less filters, but also more open, more empathetic, more outgoing. And she kind of needs to be watched to make sure she doesn’t go overboard with drinking or sex or anything else. So that’s, uh, part of why she’s the way she is.”
“I wonder how much of it has to do with the near death experience. A bit of a wake-up-call about what she nearly missed out on.”
“I don’t know,” Vista said. “It’s scary though. Bam, personality change.”
“You guys really seem to be living the life. Crystal’s been in Warden-orbit for a bit now, but she didn’t mention the drinking and sex and… a lot going on at this High Hill Bravo?”
“Ugh, I was worried Solar would give that impression.”
I raised my eyebrows, then remembered that my mask covered my upper face. I took it off and laid it on the table beside me. We were in the ‘branding’ corner of the bunker. Jessica and my team were in the opposite corner, having a private conversation or group session.
Leaving me to wonder, to stew, and admittedly, to hurt.
“It kind of is a…” Vista started. “I don’t even know the term. Co-ed summer camp, frat house, sorority, high school, mission deployment. A lot of people aged sixteen to twenty-five with not enough supervision, just thrown in together with bunk beds and sleeping bags, in sometimes really lonely circumstances.”
“Sure,” I said. “Gravitate together?”
“Yeah,” Vista said. “Connect.”
“Did you…?” I asked. Got a shrug in response. “And here I thought you didn’t have any luck in all the time I was gone.”
“So I had a boyfriend in high school. Tyler. He asked out Missy Byron and we dated for like, seven weeks. He wasn’t the cutest or the best or the most well-rounded individual, but he was kind and he was a gentleman, so I figured ‘good enough’. Is that shitty to say?”
“I dunno,” I said.
“Sometimes high school boys are like men, but brand new or the rougher edges aren’t quite sanded off, but they’re still men, you know? Young men. And sometimes they’re… half formed. And Tyler was half-formed. Needing a few more pieces before he was a complete person. But he was a first kiss and a chance to make a lot of stupid mistakes where I was selfish or dramatic or needed to figure out how to talk to people.”
“Sure,” I said. It was a pretty different experience from my own. I was ninety-five percent sure that when Vista thought of a ‘young man’ she was thinking of Gallant.
“And we messed around but we didn’t mess around. Then somewhere along the line we mutually ghosted one another, I guess. And from there I had a Wards summer camp thing, and it was kind of like High Hill Bravo except we kind of had to be way more careful about it. We knew we were only there for three weeks, and we wasted a week before I had the courage to approach him, so there wasn’t any time for being polite. Got a lot of things out of the way.”
“I get you.”
“And after that, Gold Morning and mourning… there are people who find comfort in other people’s arms and I’m not one of those people.”
I nodded, vigorously.
“And then High Hill Bravo. Kind of. But that was kind of because there’s nothing to do except ‘hurry up and wait’, it was so far from home, and all the other stuff I talked about. But never someone I was into. Just kind of reminding myself I’m not… broken, I guess? After losing everything.”
“Not broken,” I said. I nodded, then nodded more vigorously. “Yeah. Yeah.”
“You?” she asked. “I kind of know the answer, but I don’t want to just talk about me.”
“Me? And boys? Gallant.”
“Would you, given a chance?”
I drew in a deep breath.
“Yeah. But I don’t know what that chance would look like. Would I want a fling, no stakes, yet somehow also have allll of the baggage I bring into it? I don’t know how that works. A serious relationship?”
“You asked that one more like you were asking me instead of asking a rhetorical question.”
“I don’t know what it would look like. I’ve got enough going on. It’d be so unfair in so many ways. I mean, baggage aside, I feel like most relationships would pale compared to Dean.”
She nodded. “Don’t blame you. It always comes back to him with us, huh?”
I thought of Dean, imagined him here. What would he say?
I nodded. “It’s why we got to talking in the first place, kind of. Um. There was something he told me once, privately. And it feels weird to just talk about it now, like I’m somehow betraying his confidence…”
“You don’t have to.”
“No, it’s just…” I trailed off. Just what? “…He told me once that every single person he cared about in his life let him down. His mom took things he told her in confidence about a friend and used those things against that friend’s mom for some advantage in her social circle or some bullshit. His dad just casually said that if he wanted to move out of Brockton Bay and pursue a bigger cape life outside of the city instead of taking a hand in the family business, he’d be essentially disowned. Teachers, aunts, uncles, people he counted on, they all let him down.”
“Except you?” Vista asked.
I made a bit of a face. “He told me that during a fight. Accusing me of being the most recent one. But venting a lot of stuff he needed to vent. I made it up to him, fixed what I’d been doing wrong, and he later told me I was the only person who didn’t let him down, so… I think I did okay.”
“Good,” Vista said, in a serious, profound way, not like there was an ‘or else’, but like it really was ‘good’.
“Except I let him die,” I said.
“No, Victoria,” Vista said. “No, no, no.”
“I’m kind of getting what he meant, you know? Feeling let down. Like I can’t get close to anyone I’m supposed to rely on without it turning out to be a trap or vulnerability. My mom, my dad…”
I glanced at the conference room.
Jessica had been here to attend to regular work, to do the psych profile on Colt, and for whatever other roles she had with the Wardens. And we’d chanced on each other. Now the team got to talk to her, and-
Vista drew closer and gave me a one-armed hug.
“What can I do?” she asked.
I wanted to have an answer, because I suspected Vista was being genuine. She had that stripe of heroism in her that I really respected. There were people who needed to be dragged into goodness, who were good except for, or who were good because. And that except for could be a vice or a bad thing they’d once done. The because could be a justification, a motivation. People who were heroes except they’d killed a person, who were heroes except for the fact they did drugs. Who were heroes because it was the fastest, safest way to make money. Many risked falling from the path, getting dragged down, or finding themselves in water so muddy that ‘heroism’ wasn’t much more than a label. And then there were the genuine heroes, who could go through hell, be given any temptation, and they would always gravitate toward a baseline of doing what was lawful, right, and moral.
I wasn’t about to lay claim to being genuine, but I was pretty sure Vista could. And part and parcel of that was that if I asked her for something as a friend and colleague, then she would go out of her way to do it. Even while hurt and mending.
As Vista broke the hug, I turned my back to the conference room, leaning against a table piled with rolled up concept sketches. The nice thing about these offworld installations was that they often had an amazing view. This place, as gray as it was, was up there. What had come up here as a rough equivalent to tall grass had matted, grown in dense, and curled into itself until it looked like lichen. The snowfall hadn’t really done anything to wipe it out or flatten, it, only gave it a look like it had been doused in powdered sugar.
“Any biokinetics or bio tinkers in the prison right now?” I asked.
Vista turned my way. I could see her eyes and eyebrows vaguely through the textured glass of her visor. Eyebrows up, the eye closest to me wide.
“No,” she said. “Why?”
I shook my head.
“Doesn’t seem like something you’d ask.”
This wasn’t easy.
“For Sveta. Just… considering options.”
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s…”
“Not an easy thing to bring up,” I said.
“I want a good outcome for her.”
“Even though she’s kind of playing a role in cutting you out, right now? Not to poke at the wound, but…”
You really suck at changing topics and distracting, I thought. But I’d raised the line of conversation and of course she’d have questions.
“If she came out of that conference room, and they said they wanted me off the team, and that she was a major voice arguing for it, I’d still want good things for her.”
“They’re not going to do that, Vicky.”
“I’m just saying, worst case scenario-”
“I don’t think that scenario’s happening.”
“Let me finish?” I asked. I poked her.
“I love her like family. She’s been there for me, and no matter what happens I want to do right by her. Part of that is keeping an eye out for answers.”
“She’s doing so well, though,” Vista said.
“Maybe,” I said. “I’d like to do something.”
Vista nodded. Looking down at the table in front of her, she turned a piece of art around and smoothed out the paper where the edges rolled in.
“Orchard,” she said.
“They’ve been active for a long time. They were in Boston. Not big, but they’ve earned enough to buy their way out of trouble. Good lawyers, staying off the radar, moving around a lot. And they manipulate biology. They’re about as scummy as they get, Victoria.”
“Okay,” I said. “They sound vaguely familiar. I’ll look them up, see if I have any notes.”
“You do. You gave the Wardens access to all your files, and we pulled those files for the mission where they’re bringing them in later this week. Or they hope to. If you really want to do this, then I can ask for our people to keep them in custody.”
“It’s worth asking, at least. I’ll see what strings I can pull, if they can really do anything.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the conference room. I could make out Sveta’s silhouette, because the blinds reached the floor and Sveta was wearing a dress that hid the tendrils that reached down to the floor.
“You’re really spooked about this. I get it if you’re left out and I know how much that hurts, really, but that’s not it is it?”
I chewed on my lip rather than say anything. I nodded.
“I don’t really get it, but I’m sorry,” Vista said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’m also really sorry for whoever gets this costume,” Vista said. She slid paper across the table. I looked down, and I laughed. It looked like something the Super Magic Dream Parade would wear. Taffeta puff sleeves, puffy collar, and puffy shorts. The drawing had the person’s hair in a small afro as well. There were some variations playing off of different color schemes and design touches for different example powers. There was a male and female variant, as well. If it were one image I would have called it an exercise or a bit of artistic exploration, but this looked like a complete workup.
“How? Why? Do I need to worry about the people I’m working with?” Vista asked, her expression somewhere between horror and amusement.
“Probably. But I think having something like this would be strategic,” I said. “Hold this over someone’s head, get them to behave. Or set their expectations really low, first.”
“I’m going to feel so bad if I run into the person who got this costume, knowing I laughed,” Vista said.
“They’ll need all the support they can get.”
“Oh man,” Vista said. “Are there any other treasures in here?”
There weren’t, but looking through the art provided enough idle amusement. I was careful to put everything back where we found it.
“They’re leaving the room,” Vista observed.
I didn’t look.
“You know, before you go talk to any of them, I want to say they’re pretty decent overall, I think. And I know and I trust Jessica.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Agreed and agreed. Which is I guess why I’m so bothered. I’m putting my finger on it now. That thing I was saying before, you know, Gallant saying everyone had let him down?”
“Yeah. And you being stupid and blaming yourself over that.”
“I let him down, that one last time. I don’t know how easily I can let go of that. And what gets me here is… maybe it’s not just him? What if I’ve let everyone down?”
“Haven’t I? Because all those guys got hurt. I let my mom down when I W- when I was careless. I let my dad down by how I acted in the aftermath of it. I let Sveta down by letting her lose her body and it was- it was really good for her to have it.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“What if I’m not being hard enough on myself, and she tears into me, and-”
“You can’t know, Vicky, unless you go talk to her.”
Sveta broke away from the group. It was her who beckoned me.
Jessica waited by the conference room door.
“You’re a good person, she’s a good person. I think your team is mostly good people, but I don’t know them that well. Trust.”
“Thank you, Vista, for keeping me company.”
“Thanks for letting me vent. Come talk to me after, if you want.”
“Sure. I’ll let you know how it goes. Do me a favor and don’t mention Orchard to Sveta?”
“Sure. I figured I shouldn’t.”
I picked up my eyeless mask, put my hand on her shoulder, then made my way across the floor. Construction workers and Warden staff were abundant enough I had to weave through, which made just getting to the conference room hard enough.
Sveta passed me, bumping shoulders with me, and headed over in Vista’s direction. Weld, it seemed, was preoccupied elsewhere.
“Hi,” Jessica said. She retreated into the room.
I shut the door behind me.
Jessica was more tan than the last time I’d seen her. She might have had more lines in her face. She wore a sweater with a folded collar and slacks, with suede boots that matched the sweater. A lot of attention had gone into her appearance, as if she’d broken from her rhythm to such a degree that she’d overcompensated on coming back, even three weeks later.
“I think I’m caught up on events,” she said. “I had to ask them to take turns so one voice wouldn’t dominate the room.”
“You’ve worked hard,” she said. “I can’t necessarily agree with the direction of that work, but I think we’ve always had our disagreement over the balance of priorities. The balance of civilian against powers, with each of us pushing for one or the other.”
Why did you block my phone?
“I dunno,” I said. “I don’t think I push for powers that hard. I just think… a lot of the time, the happiest, healthiest cape day-to-days are the ones where they blend together seamlessly. Sous-vide with a laser sear. The little, casual acceptances of power into life.”
“You pushed hard here, didn’t you?” Jessica asked.
“With the group. Nevermind. I’m getting ahead of myself,” Jessica said.
Where are you going that that’s getting ahead of yourself?
“Sure,” I said.
“I exchanged words with Dr. Darnall. He says you haven’t been going to physio.”
Is this caring about me or is it accusatory? Is it your next step in getting to the real subject of this conversation?
“I did. I went. I got the exercises and the game plan and I’ve been keeping up with it. Every morning.”
“Regimes need to change. Things need to be monitored, Victoria.”
Doesn’t answer my question about whether this is caring or accusatory.
“They were. And they are. I’ve seen family and teammates get hurt, I read up on what to do when Patrol members got injured when I was in the Patrol.”
“That’s no substitute for medical attention, Victoria.”
It’s not, but I’d like it if it counted for more when I did pick up certain skills or knowledge. Or when I put in effort.
“It’s enough. I know what to watch out for, the differences between kinds of pain. I just…”
She didn’t cut in or fill the silence that followed.
“…Kind of hate hospitals,” I said. The bitterness of the sentiment and the bitterness of the feelings I was holding back made it a paradoxically weaker statement overall, like my voice had almost broken as I admitted it.
“If that’s how you’re taking care of yourself, walking that risky line where you’re half-blind and taking on enough responsibility that you’re running the risk of hurting yourself, are you really taking care of the others?”
What? This was the first thing she’d said that really hurt, that felt like it wasn’t possible to fit into the mold of a normal conversation with Jessica Yamada.
Why do I feel like there’s nothing that I could say that would change the tone of this conversation? Like my points aren’t being directly addressed?
“I’m damn well trying,” I said. “You asked me for help. You seemed okay with the coaching thing. You put me in close proximity to a dangerous biology-altering threat of global proportions without cluing me in.”
“He wasn’t a threat, Victoria. He needed more sessions but he was on his road to normalcy, striking his balance, learning the necessary skills.”
“He’s not the cataclysmic threat I was told to watch out for then?”
“He’s-” she started.
She wasn’t good at being evasive, or at thinking on the back foot.
Don’t shut me out. I don’t fucking deserve this.
“You’re not going to tell me.”
I waited. I didn’t respond, as much as there were fifty things I wanted to say. I let the silence hang, as she’d done to me many times before.
“No,” she said.
Fine. I’d say the first of those fifty things. “You want to accuse me of not caring for them? I sacrificed to help those guys. I gave up a literal pound of flesh, at least-!”
I pushed up my sleeve to show the scars I’d been through physio to rehabilitate. The scarred notch in my tricep.
“-For them! Because people wanted to kill them, because people wanted to kidnap or co-opt them, because they’d been taken to pieces. I gave my all, and your complaint is I’m not doing a perfect job of it? I’m paying too much attention to the cape side of things? That’s not a fight you win, when agents are involved. You don’t get wins, you find a working balance where you minimize the damage and you maximize the gains!”
“That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is pushing and diving into this reality to the point you end up in the hospital isn’t self-care. And-”
“And pushing them and letting them get hurt isn’t caring?”
Hesitation. “That’s not what I’m getting at.”
“You’re getting at something,” I said. “Except you’re not. You’ve frozen me out, you blocked my number, my emails bounce back, you have a meeting with my group without me, and when I finally get to talk to you, you’re not listening. You’re ready with a follow-up, like- like you’re strategizing your way through the conversation, picking and choosing what you’re able to get away with saying, and you’re so focused on that that you don’t hear me.”
“It’s not strategizing. I’m trying to be diplomatic.”
“Same thing,” I said. “What was diplomatic about blocking my number? Leaving me out of that catch-up meeting?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
I hit the table.
“Don’t bully me, Victoria. Don’t throw your power around.”
“I hit a table. No forcefield strength, or there wouldn’t be a table anymore.”
“Don’t bully me, with physical violence or with your power, or I walk out of this room. Same rule as the hospital. At this stage, it would permanently affect our relationship.”
“At this stage, doing nothing would permanently affect our relationship,” I said.
“There are two possible realities here, Victoria. Two,” she said. She was trying to be stern, but she wasn’t good at it. She didn’t maintain eye contact. The hand she raised to gesture with, two fingers extended, wasn’t rock steady.
“I shouldn’t even be telling you this. But the possibilities are that you’re in the right here, something’s wrong on my end, and I need you to be patient and trust me while I work my way through it. The meeting with Breakthrough was me trying to gracefully do that without hurting anyone.”
“And the other?”
“That right this moment, you know full well why I’m wary. And I need to talk to Breakthrough to figure out what’s going on.”
“You think I’m up to something.”
“I have ample evidence to suggest you’re up to something,” Jessica said. And with that, she did meet my eyes with some conviction.
“If I was, would I have cooperated this far? Would I have let you talk to them without trying to worm my way in?”
“It’s a point in your favor that you didn’t,” Jessica said. “But it’s far from a guarantee. I have to protect my patients.”
I walked along the table in the center of the room.
I saw how, as I moved left, Jessica moved a fraction to her right. Keeping more of the table between us.
“Evidence?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why not? I’m accused of something horrible, apparently, but I can’t see what it is? Is it a witness?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“It’s been three weeks, this is apparently enough to change your opinion of me entirely. If it’s that effective or that cut and dry, what’s going to change if you show me or if you wait another…”
I floundered. Jessica was silent.
“Week? Another three weeks? Two months? Is this going to change, or…”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Can you give me a foothold here? Some person I can talk to that’s neutral, or some timeframe? So I don’t have this hanging over my head forever?”
“I’m not looking to interfere in anything yet. I’m not going to break up your team by fiat or by leveraging the Wardens. I won’t use those things to make you leave them. I just want to look into this.”
“Possibly indefinitely. And that ‘yet’ might become a ‘now’? When? When someone else gets hurt? I’m thinking back to what you said earlier in the conversation, me being reckless? Can you give me something?”
I used my aura. I kept it within the room. A pulse, a thrum.
She remained where she was, stock still, head bent.
Then she turned toward the door. She took two steps, gave me a sideways glance, and stopped.
I was ten feet from the door, and she didn’t want to get that close to me.
“Step away from the door, please,” she said.
I took a step back and away, my expression stern, angry.
“When you traded files with Dragon, she had a bot sweep your computer. An automatic thing she does. She found your diary-”
“-Let me finish,” she said, and her voice was tense. “She found the diary, with her bot flagging certain lines to bring to her attention. She thought portions were concerning. Nothing criminal, but suggestive of a certain attitude toward Breakthrough that’s exploitative and unhealthy. The entries go back to before our first meeting in the Patrol headquarters in Stratford. I was told the minute I asked after your collective welfare.”
“No,” I said.
“It sounds like you, Victoria. It reads like you. It has details that fit you, that I strongly doubt others would know. It refers to your forcefield as ‘the Wretch’. It refers to details about your parents and family, your sister included. So far, by our checks, the calendar of events line up. I haven’t brought it up with the team, out of concern of outright devastating them, and on the off chance you are innocent, then I would ask you to keep Kenzie out of it. Reading that would disturb her.”
“What the hell is it?” I asked.
She didn’t answer my question. Again, just moving on to what she felt like she could and couldn’t say, finding the determination to say the things that were hardest to say. She went on, “…I did prod and ask questions as much as I could. My doubts were not eased. I have not found any holes in the story.”
“I have one. I wouldn’t write about my sister, I don’t even think about my sister if I can help it,” I said. The thoughts of Amy and this feeling of betrayal weren’t making it easy to think straight.
“I told you what you wanted to know, would you please step to the other end of the room?”
That- she’d told me because she still felt threatened? She was bartering?
I stumbled back to the point of the room that was furthest from her.
She was watching me, studying every expression and movement.
I saw worry crease her forehead, drawing her eyebrows together. Or doubt.
What could I even say?
She stopped at the door, while it was still closed.
“As you have have surmised, Chris was my biggest concern,” she said.
“Right now you are. If this is a clever setup, then I hope you understand.”
Again, I nodded.
“Whether you’re acting right now or you return home to read what was supposedly planted on your computer, you’ll know either way. Yes, Sveta is a lingering concern of mine.”
I nodded, too choked up to speak, too bewildered by this to even consider the ramifications of that.
She paused at the door, visibly composed herself, and then stepped out of the conference room.
It took me a hell of a lot longer to compose myself. I leaned over the end of the table, hands resting on it for balance. I considered all of the avenues, and found too many dead ends.
I didn’t even have a diary. I hated diaries. But saying that wouldn’t have proved a damn thing.
I gathered myself together, fixed my hair and adjusted my costume.
I rejoined the team. Sveta was talking to Vista.
“All good?” Tristan asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Why’d she keep you out of our meeting?” Rain asked.
I didn’t have a ready answer.
“Family stuff,” I said in the end, lamely. Not even a good answer to the question. Then, to change the topic, I asked Kenzie, “Who’s picking you up later?”
“Imp,” Kenzie said.
“Any chance you could make it Tattletale instead? Or I could tag along for the longer trip, and see Tattletale wherever she’s set up. We could talk costumes.”
“I can ask! Probably. She does want to talk to you about drop-offs, pickups, team sharing, and boundaries and…”
Kenzie went on, but I was still reeling in my way.
But a conversation with Tattletale was a good starting point. If someone was playing a subtle game to fuck with us and attack us at our core -which was really the only interpretation of this that made any sense at all- then this wouldn’t end here and it was possible there was more subtle work going on in the background.
In scenarios like that, the target stumbling onto the spider’s web was the time for the spider to pounce.
Tattletale would be either my biggest ally or a prime suspect.