I flew, Chicken Little remanded back to the care of Tattletale with the shortest possible explanation. If she was so smart, she could figure me out.
In the first minute of flight, I’d told Rain to enforce the communications blackout for anything short of ambulances needing to be called. That had been ten minutes ago. I wasn’t even sure if I trusted ambulances, or Rain’s call.
Then… silence. Music seemed like a distraction, so I got the rush of wind past the Wretch instead. I got the replays of conversations from earlier, with Big Picture and Ratcatcher included. I felt like I’d betrayed Sveta in a way by trying to give Big Picture the benefit of a doubt, and I felt like I’d betrayed myself because I hadn’t succeeded in finding any ground I could stand on where I could make sense of his actions. I prided myself on being a scholar, but people couldn’t be studied without becoming comfortable with a lot of gray areas, definitions, and unknowns, and I wasn’t that good at that.
What was my saying? Do what was right, do what was legal, do what I could do without regrets? ‘Right’ was where it went out the window because it felt wrong. It was disturbing, being in that studio, but not in a way where I could say rights, as in human rights, had been explicitly and intentionally violated. Fine, then default to law. Was it legal? It walked a line because ‘law’ included a right for victims to stand up to wrongdoers, and Case Fifty-Threes couldn’t. The courts had never been the kindest to parahumans. They couldn’t sue and they couldn’t step in or ask for rights or for their art not to be displayed when he took art he’d told them was for himself only or for a select audience and made it part of a gallery showing. He seemed to revel in that space between art and pornography, a space where it was also technically legal but pretty damn questionable beyond the technical.
Putting me smack dab in the ‘regret’ column.
On that same topic, I regretted not being just a little more protected against the cold. My mind was on the coat I’d picked up and put down while at the Wardens’ ‘bunker’. Cold got to me even though I had the Wretch up, a creeping loss of warmth inside me as the environment eroded at my stores of energy.
I was cold and there was nothing I could do.
My friend was hurting and there was nothing I could do.
In the distance, I could see the shape of the Dauntless Titan. ‘Kronos’. Where portals riddled the city, taller than some buildings, slices of another sky against our sky, the titan was pure white, unmoving, with only a periodic distortion around it. The Simurgh came and went, and when she came, the light seemed just a little darker in the area around her roosting point.
He existed in Shin, and Shin was concerned. He existed in Bet. He existed in Earth N, in the corner world ‘Q’, and other scattered realities. We had every reason to believe he existed in every variant of our world, standing there, ignoring every stimulus, including one of the most evil creatures I knew of.
On a rooftop below me, I saw people burning something in an improvised stove. I flew close, passing through the smoke and warm air, and saw it was construction material.
Lineups around a block, mid-afternoon. In the summer and fall it had been to buy the latest line of clothes or tech, when options were so few and far between. We’d peaked over the fall where a bunch of new options landed, and then… this. A paradigm shift that came with the colder weather. I was willing to bet the line was for food. To stock up and prepare.
There were streets where people shuffled forward on foot, the sidewalks so clogged that people were forced to go the speed of the slowest person. Some people walked in the road.
We weren’t at the hard part yet, but the bite of last winter had been bad enough that people had learned to conserve, prepare, and wait.
But this was going to be different, I was pretty sure. Last winter had been something we’d collectively endured, with the mindset that we could get through the difficult patches, and if we could make it through then things would be okay. This winter, the titan loomed on the horizon and the portals shattered the sky. This winter, we had someone to blame. Mayor Jeanne Wynn. Citrine. I was sure she was trying, and I was sure it wouldn’t be quite enough to satisfy.
Blame was a hell of a thing.
Fuck, I wished I could fly faster, to get to Sveta and Weld in a workable span of time.
Fuck, was I cold.
Fuck this character assassination bullshit, fuck the people who had done it.
I could find my way across the city by the flavor of the buildings. How densely they were packed together, the style of them. I had a sense of which materials had come from where, with a lot of the prefab building segments having come from Cheit, a lot of crude materials from Shin, and outright raw materials from Earth N, with processing and industry set up within arm’s reach of the destinations for the end-products they made.
I saw my destination, at a point where the neighborhoods ceased to be places I’d flown over fifty times and became familiar. I felt the same hollow feeling from earlier, recognizing the stores, restaurants, and the peninsula that was Hollow Point, just over the water from our headquarters.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I saw felt off. Rain on the ground, leaning against Tristan and Byron’s car. Tristan out of costume on the fire escape stairs, and Ashley standing in the doorway.
I floated close, because Victoria catch-up was an interruption that stood to make it harder to grasp the immediate situation and its demands.
“Please leave,” Sveta said. Her voice was tense, breaking slightly. “Give us a bit.”
“You’re not getting anywhere. It’s my headquarters too. Take a break and wait for Victoria or make a decision.”
“Victoria can’t do anything about this,” Sveta said.
“Then who do I call?”
“Ashley, Swansong, I- I said nobody. Jessica’s not even doing therapy anymore. She’s not caught up. It would be too much to ask.”
“You’re not listening to me! You can’t fix this. This isn’t the sort of thing you fix,” Sveta said. Her voice broke at the end of the statement.
“Isn’t that a decision on its own?” Weld said, distant, barely audible.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Sveta said. “I’m saying it’s not her business. That’s all.”
“My headquarters, m-” Ashley said.
“You’ve said that,” Sveta said, bitter, annoyed.
“-My friend,” Ashley said. She took advantage of the pause that followed. “My, hm, cousin?”
“Cousin?” Sveta asked. It was like the statement had shaken her from her train of thought.
“We’re all Armstrong’s, in our way. Should I call him?”
Armstrong. The PRT director who had de-facto adopted Weld, who had supported Ashley from a distance when she was Damsel of Distress, living in a small town. Who had accepted Sveta with open arms and, I wasn’t even sure Sveta knew, provided a good chunk of the cash for Sveta’s now-destroyed prosthetic body.
“I didn’t even think about Armstrong,” Sveta said. I could hear the pain in her voice. “Can you just leave, Ashley? Please? Tristan, I’m guessing you’re in earshot. Can you-”
I flew in, touching Ashley’s shoulder. She backed out of the way of the door.
Inside, it was cold, the door had been open for at least a few minutes.
Sveta’s cheeks had been marred, both by tears that weren’t clear but were shot-through with black, and because makeup that had been used to give her a more normal skin tone had been wiped away. Her tattoo on her cheek was plainly visible.
The headquarters space was a good forty feet across. We’d picked it for its spaciousness. A good thirty feet separated Sveta, who stood at the end nearest Chris’s old corner, near the washroom and the tiny kitchen counter. Weld stood near Kenzie’s console at the ‘head’ of the apartment.
I started forward, saw Sveta move in reaction, and hesitated. I could see her telling me to leave, or telling me not to approach. The former would fit with what she’d said to Ashley. The latter would suggest she didn’t trust herself.
But there was no resistance, no defensiveness. Without a word spoken, despite the fact she no longer had her unsteady prosthetic body, she teetered slightly my way. I closed the distance and I hugged her. She hugged me back tightly enough that nails that had been sculpted into her Precipice-made hands bit into my back.
I didn’t want this to be one-sided, and I didn’t have either side, yet. Only Rain’s statement. I wasn’t sure I’d trust anything coming through the phone or any technological medium, anyway.
I turned, and Sveta moved with me. I looked at Weld, and saw how unhappy he was.
“You okay?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Why are they out there and you guys in here?”
“Weld came, we talked, things- we fought. We were going to leave but we ended up fighting more. People were staring,” Sveta said. “We came back.”
And the others left, to give privacy, except for Ashley, who got impatient or didn’t want to let things continue?
“What happened?” I asked.
“Everything was fine,” Weld told me, his voice low. “As fine as it gets. Sveta was showing off how she can use a phone. Which is great. She saw pictures of me with a teammate.”
“A woman,” Sveta said.
“A teammate,” Weld said.
“Can I?” I asked. I stopped myself. “I’m not just asking if I can see. I’m asking- can I mediate? Can I help?”
“We said things,” Sveta said, every inch of her face indicating hurt. “Things we’ve been holding in for a long time, maybe. I don’t think you can help that.”
Weld averted his gaze when I looked at him.
He hadn’t waited the full six weeks.
“Can I see the pictures?” I asked.
Weld drew his phone from his pocket. He tossed it. I had to break the hug with Sveta to be sure I caught it.
The images were still up. Weld with a girl with black hair, and a skintight suit that… well, there were suits that looked like they were were painted on and it looked like the woman had pointed to one of those and said ‘tighter’. Every muscle and rib stood out with the black gloss of the costume. Something hybridizing fins with blades ran along strategic points, tapering down, so cameltoe and nips weren’t quite as obvious, and served to make her look fairly dangerous.
One selfie of her and Weld, with slivers of two other capes on either side to suggest they were sitting on a bench on a plane, helicopter, or truck. Her head was tilted to rest on Weld’s shoulder, and the selfie was supposed to be focused on the fin-blade at her arm, which was absorbed by Weld. The caption was a simple ‘stuck to him’. I used ‘supposed to be’ to refer to the focus, because she had an easy, infectious smile that suggested nothing untoward.
That was just going by smile, though.
“You have to scroll. Nighttime photos,” Sveta said. Her voice was as empty as I’d felt earlier, after reading the diary.
I scrolled. Past photos of this twenty-something woman gardening, more gardening, a faintly unhinged photo of her showing off a cut on her face, post-fight. Her hanging out with capes. Her unmasked face was kept out of photos. Nothing betrayed her secret identity or location.
Then the nighttime photos. Twenty, twenty five pictures of her at what I took to be a wind-down from a Wardens operation, a bunch of capes, Patrol officers and military-types drinking and lounging in an apartment where one wall and part of the ceiling were glass, giving it an open-air feel. A good eighteen of those pictures, she was within arm’s reach of Weld. In four of them she was touching him. For balance, possibly. Together, but never quite in a way that suggested they were together. They could have been friends, but if I’d seen it I wouldn’t have assumed they were friends.
I tapped the photo. I saw the name above her face. Slician. I’d heard of her, but hadn’t ever seen the face to put it to the name.
“Is there context?” I asked.
Weld didn’t volunteer an answer.
“Not exactly,” Sveta said. “I asked about her, and you know, I may be dumb-”
“You really aren’t,” Weld said, before I could.
“I’m- I don’t know how to put it, then,” Sveta said, quiet. “Because I feel so fucking ignorant. I feel like I never get it. I lost a childhood of memories, and then I spent the next few years killing anyone I might have interacted with, I- I spent the years after that in a hospital, and the time after that with a team that it turned out I never really knew or understood. When was I supposed to ever learn all of these things that everyone else seems to get? You know?”
“You do okay,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I do know my boyfriend. I do know when something’s wrong. I’d like to think I’m good at knowing when he needs space or when he needs someone to talk to.”
“You are,” Weld said. He looked pained. “Better than Armstrong, better than any teammate, friend, or girlfriend I’ve had.”
Sveta continued, not to Weld but to me, like she was making an appeal, “I try to look after him. I try to nag him if he needs nagging, usually if he’s not trying hard enough to push his boundaries and starts falling into a rut.”
I looked at Weld, saw him nodding to himself.
“I know when he’s lying or hiding something,” Sveta finished.
Weld’s nods to himself stopped. His eyes remained fixed on the floor.
“Did you cheat?” I asked, my voice hard enough that he looked up.
“No,” Sveta said. “He didn’t. But he toed the line. And I knew there was a reason he seemed happier lately. I asked and he was honest. He’s always been honest with me. Not always upfront, but…”
“Yeah,” Weld said.
What did you say, Weld?
I couldn’t ask, because I could see the consequence of that statement. Fresh hurt on Sveta’s face. I could see the agitation of her tendrils beneath her wig, and her hand went up to hold it steady. Her dress stirred, moving like there was a wind, when the door had shut minutes ago.
“Was there something I was supposed to do differently?” Sveta asked. “Was I unfair? Did I ask too much? I’m sorry, if I got it wrong.”
“No,” Weld said.
“I thought we got along. We have common interests, common goals. You have your hobbies and I have mine, we- I wasn’t oppressive? I- didn’t get too in your face or ask too much?”
“No,” Weld said. “You keep asking that. We’re going in circles.”
“Because,” Sveta said. She stopped. Her hand was at my arm and she squeezed. “Because if it was that, then it’s something I’m working on, that I can fix. My sessions with Rain’s power- I’m getting better. I’m more independent than I’ve ever been.”
“It’s great,” Weld said, glum, not making eye contact again.
“Can you give me more than a few words at a time? Can you yell at me again?”
“I didn’t yell.”
“Be angry, then. Hit me with more stuff about me trying to push cooking on you or conflicts of interest between your team and Breakthrough, or… anything?”
“Those things don’t matter. They’re bullshit I threw back at you because you were shouting at me and people were looking.”
The fight that had extended outside.
“I don’t want them to be bullshit. Because… Victoria, you took University classes at the hospital. There was this term, in this one language class. It’s not what’s said, it’s…”
I could see where this was going. I couldn’t see a way of stopping it. Or there was a way, but using it now would be taking a side, and that would irrevocably harm my relationship with Sveta, and it wouldn’t help anything.
“Textual silence,” the words left my lips.
“Textual silence. A journalist writes an article and brings up five bullet points, but it’s a seven bullet point issue. They left those things out for a reason. That tells a story of its own. Did I get that right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Ignorant old me can get something right,” Sveta said, bitter.
“You’re not-” I started.
She pulled her arm away from my hand. I stopped talking.
“We’ve ruled everything else out. It’s because of my body,” she said.
“No,” Weld said.
Tears that were more black than clear now ran down her cheeks. She wiped at them.
“He’s better at lying than he was years ago,” Sveta said, to me. Her voice was the kind of hollow that was bubble-fragile, the kind of too-steady normal found on the cusp of being unable to speak at all. “It’s… really shitty.”
Her voice tremored at the ‘shitty’.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s stop here, take a break. There’s other factors in play.”
She didn’t stop. “We’re freaks of nature, orphans, amnesiacs, we lost everything and the difference between us is he’s really good looking, he gets to pass, he gets people like Slician. He gets to kiss actresses on television, and fans crushing on him. I don’t- I don’t get anything.”
I reached out for Sveta’s arm, and tugged her into a hug. Her body twisted so she could latch onto me, without the usual stumble or shuffle of feet. She hugged me tight.
My arms wrapped around cloth and that cloth wrapped around tendrils that were trying and failing to hold the shape of a human torso.
“You’re getting so much better-” Weld started.
I felt Sveta tense, and I pulled a hand away to motion for him to stop.
There wasn’t any salvaging this.
“He gets Armstrong,” Sveta said, more to me now. “The apartment is more his than mine. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go tonight. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that.”
“We’ll figure something out. You can stay with Ashley and me.”
“The Case Fifty-Threes hate us, you know. Actual want-us-to-die hate,” Sveta whispered. “I don’t get that. I don’t have that community. But Weld… he was famous once, he’s popular. More of them hate me than him. How is that fair?”
“It’s not,” I told her, “But you’re not alone, okay? We’ve got your back, here. Hug. Come on.”
She started to accept, then stopped. “I’m out of tears and I’m crying bile. It’s stinging my eyes. If I get it on your clothes it’ll stink.”
“Don’t care,” I said. “Come on.”
Her face hit my shoulder, forehead hitting the bone.
“You said there were other factors in play,” Weld said. “Your team said there was something fishy going on. Communications blackout.”
“There is. Um. Shit,” I said. I didn’t want to let Sveta go, but I didn’t want to see Weld leave without the situation being resolved. Especially with what Tattletale was theorizing about dual-pronged attacks. “There’s a possibility this was planned, to mess with you.”
“Planned?” Sveta asked, not raising her head from my shoulder.
“There was something on my computer,” I said. “It looked like it was written by me, but it wasn’t me. Dragon saw it, she passed it on to Jessica Yamada.”
“What kind of something?” Weld asked.
“Very subtle, but enough to break Jessica’s trust in me, and to break the team’s trust in me. Tattletale and I found other possible leads. The fact we were looking might be why this happened, because they wanted to throw us off the scent. But I’d have to know more to know.”
“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you’re talking about. I got a friend invite from Slician,” Sveta said. “I already turned off my phone’s access to the network. It was there, waiting, I just don’t see my phone enough to catch it. I only just got hands that can press buttons on screen without a stylus.”
“The way these guys operate, it’s possible the invite was fake, but in a way that has plausible deniability, where even Slician thinks she could have done it by mistake, or when drunk. It’s possible the images were altered.”
“Altered?” Weld asked.
“I can talk to you about this after,” I told him. Sveta felt barely under control under my hands.
“No,” Sveta said. “Altered?”
“Shrinking the distance, props. Taking people out of the picture, or altering the people in the background. Stuff that stands up to scrutiny.”
“I don’t remember her putting her head on my shoulder, but-”
On a level, I could see why that simple little thing in particular hurt. Because Sveta, prosthetic body or no, control or no, had always had a claim to that. Even after leaving the hospital, she’d had her head and his shoulder to lean on.
“-but I don’t- I don’t know. I don’t feel much, so I don’t want to rule anything out. Half of me wants to say you’re paranoid. Half of me hopes…”
He didn’t finish the sentence, faltering.
Sveta turned. “Hopes what? Does this change anything? The- that you want to leave me because I’m a monster?”
“That’s not it,” Weld said.
“Then what is?” Sveta asked. “Tell me you’ve changed and tell me how and okay, that’s going to break my heart, but okay. I can get over that. Tell me I did something wrong, something unfixable. I can get over that. Tell me I depended too much on you and you see me as a little sister more than a girlfriend. That you don’t see yourself ever getting over that and seeing me as a girlfriend again? I can… I can accept that.”
I looked away, blinking tears of my own out of my eyes.
The implication in Sveta’s statements was that these options were good because she could come to terms with them, the flip side being… she couldn’t accept or come to terms with the reality.
“If we know something else is at play, we can avoid playing into their hands, we step back, act like things are normal,” Weld said.
“We don’t know if this is something else,” Sveta said. “And apparently we’ve been acting like things are normal for a month, because you haven’t been hanging out with Slician for no reason. What you want, Weld, is to not be the bad guy. And it’s great you get these mystery villains to blame, but… it doesn’t change the reality.”
“It changes the context.”
“No it doesn’t,” Sveta said. “Not the context that matters. You don’t want to be the bad guy, but the only way you get that is if everyone agrees it’s fine to dump your girlfriend because she’s a monster, because she’s disabled-”
“I don’t want to dump you.”
“What do you want!?” Sveta asked, raising her voice.
“Stop,” I said. “I’m interrupting. I’m being intrusive and butting in because this doesn’t look like it’s going to end or stop otherwise.”
They stopped. Sveta didn’t breathe, but with my hand on her back I could feel the pulse of fluids through the organs behind her head, near where her shoulders were.
Weld was statue still, only his face betrayed any emotion.
“Okay?” I asked, trying to gather my thoughts.
“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said, jumping right back into it. “Fuck it. I’m the freak, you’re the guy with a heart of literal gold, Weld. You’re not the bad guy, Weld, you’ve been so good to me. I’m the one with the problems and I heaped them onto your plate. You want absolution? You got it. You tried and it’s okay. I’ve got my own shit to deal with and I need to get that done on my own. So you don’t need to tell me it’s not a breakup and we’re somehow going to stay together, because I know when you’re lying. I know you that well.”
“You’re not a freak, and that’s not it,” Weld said.
I hated to interrupt again, but I doubted there was anything to be gained from letting this continue, besides bitterness.
“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.
They stopped, looking at me.
“It’s not a set of magic words,” Sveta said. “You can’t just say them and expect us to just comply.”
“That’s kind of what they are. I argued for them before, on the phone with Rain. I’m pushing them now. We’re not getting anywhere, and I don’t like how this started or why it’s happening. Protocols.”
Sveta shook her head, but she didn’t speak again.
“Okay,” Weld said. “What next?”
“Do you have work?”
“Yeah. Later this afternoon, until ten, might go as long as midnight.”
“Go work. Talk to the bosses, let them know. It’s their call. They should communicate to other teams, verify the rules are in place. If this is a thing then it’s a thing that’s going to hit other people. Go. We’ll go to your apartment, get Sveta’s things, and be gone before you’re back. I’ll do what I can to look into this thing when I’m free, but I’ll prioritize Sveta for right now. Yes?”
I looked at Sveta.
I looked at Weld.
He hesitated, then nodded.
“You focus on the threat at hand,” I told Weld. “Think about who to tell, and be aware that if they are onto us, things are going to get messy. This is where we see how strong our teams and their human resources are.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Time matters. Don’t trust digital communication. They’re playing a subtle game.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I’m not entirely sure you haven’t lost it.”
“That’s the subtlety of it,” I said. “And speaking of subtlety, I’m kind of trying to politely nudge you here to, uh, make your exit. Let us deal.”
“Got it,” he said. “Thanks.”
He headed to the door, floorboards creaking beneath him.
“Sorry,” Sveta said, to his back.
The fire escape creaked precariously as he stepped onto it.
“You have a guest,” he said.
Then he was gone.
“Why did I say sorry?” Sveta asked. “So stupid. I didn’t want to say sorry. I went that entire conversation and two arguments without saying sorry, because I didn’t want to apologize. I didn’t do anything I wanted to apologize for.”
“It’s okay. Brain misfires happen.”
“It was my one goal. The one thing I knew I could hang on to and I just threw it away. And then he says ‘me too’? What the hell does he think I should apologize for?”
Her tendrils ruffled beneath her dress. Some spilled out to grasp at sections of the floor. I avoided moving, ready to use my forcefield if I had to, but I didn’t want to step away from her side.
“I think I need a control session with Rain,” she said.
“I think a session with Rain right now would be a terrible idea. Not when you’re off balance. I’d veto.”
“You can’t veto,” she told me, and her eye contact was damn close to being a glare.
“Can and will. As a friend.”
She was still ready, riling for a fight, upset and with no place to vent it. It was reaching the tendrils, but those tendrils weren’t reaching anything or anyone.
The anger faltered, and I saw the hurt creep across her face, the black moisture in her eyes, that she blinked into tears that ran down her cheeks as soon as they appeared.
“It burns,” she said. “I’m going to go wash my face. Then I’ll go to the apartment.”
“No,” she said. “No. You’ve got to figure this out, and I… if I can’t use Rain for more control then I want to go to my place, my room, and lock the door, and just… lose all control. Alone.”
“No,” she said. “Yes. But I’ve got to figure out how I’m going forward and I can’t keep leaning on people. I’ve got to pull my own weight.”
“After a day as shitty as this one, there isn’t a rational, sane soul out there who would blame you for turning to friends or wanting company.”
“Then I guess I’m not rational or sane,” she replied. She forced a smile, “Kidding. Half kidding. And washing my face.”
“Okay,” I said.
I walked over to the window to see who the ‘guest’ was. Tattletale, who had stepped out of the car, while Snuff remained in the driver’s seat. No tiny Chicken Little head peering out the window in the backseat, and no birdcage.
The bathroom door shut.
“You were listening?”
“Ashley was trying to listen at the door and you were here, so I thought it might be okay. Nobody told me not to listen.”
“Communications blackout, Kenz,” I said, turning toward the computer. “You were told to turn everything off and step away. This stuff is messy.”
“It’s my own private line and channel. And I checked everything once I heard why. I think they can’t get in.”
“The diary isn’t real?” Kenzie asked.
I stared out the window, watching the group and Weld talk to Tattletale. She pointed at me mid-sentence.
I digested the ramifications of Kenzie’s question. Fucking what? When? How bad was this?
Was it possible to be offended she read my diary when the diary wasn’t real?
“No, Kenzie. It’s not real.”
“Did you read it?”
“A few weeks back. I was making sure I had everything I needed for the move, I backed up everyone’s stuff in case some tinker thing I didn’t pay enough attention to or let fall between my desk and the wall went kablooie and took everyone’s computers out with it. I realized I had it when I did a search for something and it popped up, read a bit before realizing.”
“You read ‘a bit’?”
“I read most of it. I got lonely while with my new team, even though I’m only technically not a member of Breakthrough anymore. I missed you guys, I wondered what I missed so I read more. It’s really not real?”
“No, Kenz. I didn’t type a word of it.”
“Okay. That’s too bad.”
“Why- Kenzie, why is it bad?”
“Because… I didn’t feel so lonely while I could read it, and… that’s all fake. I feel really weird about that.”
“That’s not how I think, Kenzie. It’s not- definitely not how I think about you. I care about more than what you can do with your tinkering.”
“I kind of thought that’s how adults think and do things. Not fun, but it made a lot of sense, after I thought about it for a while.”
Oh fuck. Fucking shit. How ingrained was this in her now?
“No,” I told her. “How long have you been reading this and thinking about this?”
“A couple of weeks.”
“Fuck, Kenz. No. That’s not me, and it’s not okay to think that way. To treat people as chess pieces.”
“Okay, but, if it was you, it’d be okay. You had my back when it counted and you have it now. You could do or say whatever and I’d be okay with it, I think. Unless you actually went and hurt Ashley or anyone else. Then we’d have to talk seriously about it.”
Talk about it. Something told me she was entirely serious, that she would be open to being convinced. No, no, no. How the hell was I supposed to deprogram her when she wasn’t even around half the time?
“Did you listen in when I talked to Chicken Little earlier?”
“He asked me not to,” she said. “So I didn’t. Also, Sveta’s getting out of the bathroom now. Take care of her, give her a hug and lots of love for me, okay?”
She didn’t wait for a response. Effectively a hangup. The computers and monitors went dark, the light on the speaker going out.
What the hell?
The handle clicked, and Sveta stepped out of the washroom, face and hair wet, streaks of tears and ruined makeup gone. She’d toweled herself dry and applied fresh makeup, covering her scar, but it wasn’t an elaborate, full-face, nor was it the coloring that made her more flesh tone than actual white.
Weld was leaving. The others were talking.
“Feel any better?” I asked.
“My eyes don’t sting. My face is clean. I feel less of a mess. And… not at all.”
“It physically hurts,” she said. “But I don’t want to complain or angst.”
“You’re allowed,” I said.
“And I’m choosing not to use that allowance, so there,” she said. Her voice a little harder and a little more accented than it was on an ordinary day, but otherwise normal-ish.
She was trying so damn hard, and I had no idea how to help her with it.
“Tattletale,” Sveta said, joining me at the window. Her voice was level, her composure intact. “How is she, after being carved up and being back in one piece?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “If it’s messing her up any, I don’t think I’ve noticed much.”
“No problems with the mission? It’s going okay? You’re going to find these people who apparently went after Weld and my relationship?”
“It’s going… not great. Turning up leads, but this has been ugly so far. Very plausible deniability. One of the people we interviewed was a photographer, you should know.”
“It’d come across like a betrayal, I think, if I didn’t mention it. L.J.M.”
Sveta made a face.
Past the window, in the parking lot, Tattletale was standing by her vehicle. She beckoned. She wanted me down there.
“Thank you for telling me,” Sveta said, her expression hard.
“He was about as creepy as you’d imagine.”
“I know. I’ve seen videos and read interviews. You really should go if she’s asking for you. Don’t let me hold you back.”
I didn’t want to leave her. “Come outside?”
I opened the door to let us outside, and flew down rather than take the stairs. Sveta hopped over the railing, and landed on a morass of tendrils, which were ninety-nine percent covered by her long dress.
We walked past the others. Tristan gave Sveta a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Rain ducked his head.
“Resolved?” Ashley asked.
“Good. Anything you need,” Ashley said.
“She needs a place, at least for a short while.”
“Then she takes my bedroom,” Ashley said. “I’ll take the couch.”
“Just like that,” Sveta said.
“The two of us were half-adopted by Armstrong. Basically family.”
“Okay,” was all Sveta had to say. “I, um, I’m going to see what Tattletale’s saying.”
“Yeah,” Ashley said.
Tristan was quiet throughout, which was odd because on a lot of levels he was closest to Sveta. They were a similar wavelength, but they’d found kinship through mutual like of Weld. At the moment, that was iffy.
I could see a point in coming weeks where he helped her on a deeper level, because he could help her process and work her way through details. He’d even be good at it, with unusually good background in the subject due to the attention he’d paid Weld.
And Rain would help her with her hands and in a peripheral way. They talked sometimes during the control practice under the umbrella of Rain’s power.
All of that was secondary. Tattletale was chewing on what looked like a tiny plastic trident from a late lunch, leaning against her ride.
“Be nice,” I said.
“Sucks,” Tattletale told Sveta.
“That’s reaching for ‘nice’,” I told her.
“It does suck,” Sveta said. “And if you want to test the limits of my newfound control over my body, I think you’re on the right track, reminding me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Always glad to help with testing or being a convenient target for bitterness,” Tattletale said, glancing my way at the end of the statement. “Antares, you disappeared on me, and you turned off your phone. You told me something cryptic in a hurry, like a riddle I was supposed to solve. I went down the wrong rabbit hole, tried to find your cousin before I realized.”
“Someone important, with the word choice, I thought it was family. Doesn’t matter. What matter is this is a distraction. I need to know if I can keep you in the loop or if I should carry on investigating this on my own.”
“After you just said you went down the wrong rabbit hole, I’m not filled with confidence,” Sveta said.
“Down girl. Down,” Tattletale told her.
“You might have to handle the next parts on your own,” I answered. “I spent most of that last meeting stewing in how sketchy that guy was, and I wasn’t much use. Besides, I’ve got to look after a friend.”
“No you don’t,” Sveta said.
“At least to see you home safe.”
“You don’t,” Sveta said.
Tattletale jumped in, saying, “She says you don’t, and I wouldn’t mind a little firepower. I want to ask people questions but they aren’t entirely friendly people.”
“People who are pulling strings behind the scenes. Little Midas, maybe the mayor, people in that vein, who play games and who haven’t been getting directly involved. This is where my years of playing the dastardly mastermind comes in useful. I know these guys.”
“Why are you wanting to talk to them?”
“Because Big Picture had connections and one of the things those connections wanted was for him to get into Foresight. I think that’s the double prong. If it isn’t, talking to those connections of his will show us the second prong. But talking to them requires having more than Snuff at my back, and anyone else I’d trust is busy watching the kids.”
I thought of Kenzie. That aborted conversation.
“You go,” Sveta said.
I shook my head. “No, that’s-”
“You go, and I’ll come with,” Sveta said.