“You’ve been doing this for years,” Tattletale said. “Uh huh. Yeah, no, I’m not going to say I don’t have some sympathy for you.”
She moved her head to one side.
“Be better, then. Be smarter. Be more mature. If he’s being a dildo then you do have Mrs. Bishop as your nuclear option.”
Tattletale looked at me in the rear-view mirror of the car.
My eyes dropped. The Old Man was draped across the back seat, braced by Sveta. Bruises crept along his arm and the side of his face, and my gloved fingers held a wad of sterile cotton swabbing Tattletale had had in the glove compartment against the wound. He’d been knocked out as part of the fall, and he stayed that way for seven minutes before stirring awake. Tattletale had looked in his eyes, then drugged him with another of the drugs in the glove compartment. Something to ease the pain and make it easier for him to sleep. My leg kept his head stable, while my other leg was a spot for my mask to rest on. Black with gold tracery, it stared at me, accusatory. Or maybe it was accusing of everything it looked at.
“She was his teacher,” she said. “He pulled every string he could and twisted the other Heartbroken’s arm to keep it a secret from me. Everyone in his class wrote in a big letter to her. We’re going to miss you, you’re my favorite teacher, yadda yadda. And he wrote a poem. You can use it if they start in again on our junior team and you absolutely need to. No, it wasn’t an indecent poem, it was heartfelt. He’s still embarrassed by it.”
“What the fuck?” Sveta asked, from her seat behind Tattletale.
Tattletale waved her off.
“The other nuclear option is she cried when she read it. You can use that detail if he gets too upset after you bring it up.”
A response from Imp. A question.
“If I have to, and they have a way of making you have to.”
More from Imp.
“Fine,” Tattletale said, still talking into her phone. “But- let me talk. Let me- fine, I’m a cunt, just-”
I nodded at that last bit, dramatically and closed-mouthed, Sveta joining in, until Tattletale glanced in the rear-view mirror, saw us nodding in unison, and flipped us the bird.
“If you want to have any authority, then it comes down to fear and love, and I think you know this, Imp, but most of them are either fearless or react to fear in screwed up ways, and they all have some fucked up background when it comes to love. So maybe, you know, you’re not going to have any pretty options. You were the one telling me that some of them are getting to be adults and some of them are barely any younger than you. If you want to convince them that you’re the one in charge, then you need to bring your A-game.”
There was a pause as Imp talked. I could hear only notes of her voice through the phone, pieces of words, but not words themselves.
All against the backdrop of the barely audible car engine, the hum of tires against road -Tattletale liked nice cars, and the interior of this one was quiet-, I could hear the Old Man’s breathing punctuated by small, unconscious noises of pain.
Tattletale answered, sounding exasperated, “If that’s the angle you want, then that’s fine, except being their ally means paying attention. ‘Aunt Rachel’ has been giving you an easy time of it by keeping two or three with her at Casa de Bitch, and you’ve gotten lazy. But- Imp, you wanted this. If you want to be their peer then sometimes that means manipulating them for their own benefits. Imp- Imp.”
Her position was one where I couldn’t see her eyes through the mirror, but her head moved in a way that made me think she was eye-rolling so hard that her eyes were dragging her head with them.
“Imp. If you have to be a little cunty, as you so eloquently phrased it-”
Imp said something.
“Latin, I’m sure. If you have to be a Latin cunt-”
Imp said something else.
“Your effort’s wasted, because I didn’t even bat an eyelash at you knowing the word for it. If you have to be a jerkass to get through the next few hours, then you do that. But I’m going to warn you, if you don’t set boundaries, if you don’t keep the older Heartbroken from stomping all over what Chicken Little, Darlene, Candy and Lookout are trying to build, those four kids will never forgive you. They-”
A momentary pause, an interruption.
“-Yeah, ‘fuck’. Those four kids will love you but they won’t forgive you. They’ll wonder for the next forever about what could have been and when they’re nursing hurt feelings and resentment in their hearts, a little piece of that resentment and hurt will forever and always be ‘why didn’t Imp back us up’?”
There was a long pause. I didn’t hear any of Imp’s voice in there.
Tattletale went on, “If that triple-pronged dildo Samuel wants to stomp all over their feelings, mayyybe let him know you can stomp all over his. Make him buckle and the others will follow. If they’re really into it, you might need to get Chastity to back off, because she’s another mini-leader in that troupe. She always gets giddy when we order pizza and grumpy when it’s not the teenager with the scooter, and as far as I know she doesn’t even realize why. Mention it. That’ll get her to stop.”
Imp said something. I heard a long, drawn out sound that might’ve been a groan or a strangled scream.
“Together-together?” Tattletale asked.
“That’s fascinating. You could ask those two if they want dessert, and if one said yes, the other would skip dessert out of sheer spite. And they’re together on this?”
Another short response.
“Mostly together. That’s still something.”
Imp said something more.
“Easy. Drop a comment like how similar they are to one another sometimes. You- well say it and be careful, Imp. Obviously. So it’s Samuel, Juliette and Roman, you’ve got everyone else handled? How’s Flor? And she’s not being sly so you let your guard down? Huh, good for her. Okay. And Lookout?”
I frowned at Tattletale, as her eyes locked onto mine in the mirror.
“Good. Then it’s just the three older ones. Go handle that. Yeah, good luck. Bye,” Tattletale said. She didn’t hang up.
“Um,” Sveta said.
Tattletale held up a finger. After a pause, she said, “Don’t listen in on my phone calls, Lookout.”
She hit the button on the phone, then laid it across her knee.
“She was listening?” I asked.
I kind of understood, though.
“Nothing hinky either,” Tattletale said. “I told you it was fine.”
“Maybe you’re fine if you’re the one calling, but why is she picking up the phone?”
“She didn’t. I called a nonexistent number and your tinker patched me through. Blame her for keeping an eye on the airwaves.”
I ran my hand along my forehead, fingers brushing through hair to fix it where the hood had flattened it down.
I wasn’t really sure how to answer her.
“The whole gang is settled in at the kids’ H.Q., and it seems the older Heartbroken are jealous of our quartet of ten, eleven, and twelve year olds. They’re picking apart ideas, ganging up, pressing buttons, and being their worst selves. I give it three weeks before they start wanting to copy the chicken quartet.”
“Triple-pronged dildo,” I recalled.
“That would be Imp’s contribution to the conversation. Referring to Samuel. He’s a little gentleman and a much-needed level head, but he has his moments where he isn’t level and he becomes unmanageable, fake, stiff, and more than a little weird.”
“Imp’s contribution, as far as I can tell, is mythology and three-way dildos,” Sveta said.
“Triple-pronged. I’m fairly certain that’s three going one way. If you have questions about the mechanics of that, I’m sure Imp could explain it.”
“I’m fine,” Sveta answered. “I’ve dealt with more disturbing ideas than that. Like how you were talking about emotionally manipulating that teenage boy in your care.”
“Hold on,” I cut in. “No.”
“In Imp’s care,” Tattletale said. “And I wouldn’t throw stones about emotional manipulation, honey.”
“Woah,” I said. “Stop that right away, both of you.”
To their credit, they listened.
I checked my watch. Tattletale had estimated forty-five minutes as the outer range of our time limit, and that had been sixteen minutes ago.
Twenty-nine minutes. At most.
I could feel how much the two of them wanted to get back into it. Sveta hadn’t entirely abandoned the angry look at any point, and her position over the Old Man wasn’t helping, being so close to this degree of hurt.
“Brooms,” I said, to change the topic, and to refocus on important things.
“I was wondering when you’d ask.”
Tattletale sounded so damn pleased with herself.
“The Custodian,” Sveta said. “She was there before, a watchdog and builder, the person who kept the prisoners in their cells. If people have brooms, that means she’s not there anymore.”
“Do you have to steal my thunder?” Tattletale asked.
“If you pause to act smug when we’re in a rush, I’m going to hurry things along.”
“Well I’m not positive you’re right,” Tattletale said.
“Are you saying that because you’re sure or because you don’t want me to be the one with the answers?”
“Now who’s wasting time? It’s possible she’s gone, but it’s also possible it means she’s taking breaks, going on errands, or it means Teacher might be anticipating having to replace her.”
“You grinned like the cat with the canary when you heard it,” I pointed out.
“Yes. But getting into why has to wait until we can be more sure we aren’t being observed. What happened back there, that was another push.”
“Push? The way you said that tells me you aren’t thinking of Midas pushing this guy down the stairs,” I said. I looked down at the Old Man.
“It was another nudge, to drive in a wedge, to screw things up. Subtle and deniable.”
“Bluntforce was. The guy with the knob obsession.”
Nubby, the guy who’d had the spiked armor, except all the spikes were rounded off. “They sent him a message and…?”
“And knew with pressure that Midas, who was only barely on our side, would feel the need to reclaim his authority. Because Midas knows how fragile his hold is, and Midas has always been one of the voices advocating for violence. If it weren’t for that push from Bluntforce, our man of gold would have played along.”
“You’re sure about this?” I asked.
“Pretty sure. The parts I’m not sure about are the parts that you’d probably consider minor. They’re on our trail, nipping at our heels. Just in case you were wondering.”
“This is going to be a thing when we get to Engel and her group?”
“If it is, that’s fine. As I see it, the goal has shifted. We know seventy-five percent of what’s up. We have a pretty good idea about who, when, where, how much and how broad, we can guess about the how and why. Right now, we’re looking for two things.”
“A way to stop it, deny him what he wants,” I said.
“Well, in a manner of speaking. I would say we need to find a chink in the armor. That’s one thing. The other thing we want is standing. Authority.”
“This isn’t because you lost a lot of yours when you lost New Brockton?” Sveta asked. “Or because of what Midas said about you having lost it all? Because I can’t help but notice the first thing you did after hearing that-”
“Sveta,” I said.
“-was talk to your team. Sorry. I’m done.”
“You see what I have to put up with, Snuff?”
“No comment. I don’t want to get in the middle of this.”
“I’m paying you.”
“That you are.”
Tattletale turned around. Sveta moved her head closer to mine to make the face to face interaction easier.
“You’re kind of right,” Tattletale told Sveta. “Him mentioning that got me thinking about the team and about where we stand. But I don’t think it’s wrong to think about leverage and reputation. The more we know, the more power we have when the diarrhea hits the fan. It means they’re more likely to listen to us, instead of telling us to fuck off and then fumbling around for a week to figure out what we already know.”
“I don’t disagree,” I said. “We might have seventy-five percent of the answers, as you put it, but having eighty percent is better.”
“And,” Tattletale said, actually enthused, “Anything they do to fuck with us, like Bluntforce back there, it gives us more information than them not doing anything at all.”
“Really,” Sveta said.
“You know, you remind me of someone,” Tattletale told her. “My old teammate, Grue.”
“Really,” I said. “That is not the first, second, all the way through to the twenty-fifth name I would have thought of.”
“I feel like I’m being insulted,” Sveta said.
“No, no. This new you?” Tattletale asked. “Coming into your own.”
“We should focus,” I said.
“Sure,” Tattletale answered, shrugging. “Will this new Tress be joining us for the meeting with Engel, Egg, and Scraping?”
“Did they respond?”
“Yeah,” Tattletale said. “At Miss Treat’s. Do you know it?”
“It has reputations. It’s actually a hangout spot for Parian, when she can make the trip, and if certain people she’d prefer to avoid weren’t there. You didn’t answer my question.”
“You asked a few.”
“Are you coming in?”
Sveta bit her lip, glancing out the window, then down at the Old Man.
“You know them better than I do,” Tattletale said.
“Is it neutral territory?” Sveta asked.
“Because that’d be too easy,” Sveta muttered.
“Is this the villain bar? Swansong mentioned one,” I said.
“It’s not,” Tattletale said. “But there’s overlap in clientele. This is more rogues and weirdos, but that last bit might be me being judgmental.”
“You? Never,” Sveta said.
“Be snarky after you decide whether you come in,” Tattletale said.
“What about him? Aren’t we taking him to a hospital?”
“No,” Tattletale said. “If we took him to a hospital they’d separate him from us, and he wouldn’t survive that. I don’t trust back-alley doctors, so we’re going with the next best thing. Miss Treat’s.”
I looked at my watch. Twenty one minutes left.
“There’s nothing we can do about it, Antares,” Tattletale told me. “It’s going to happen. It’s just a question of where we are when it does happen.”
“I could message Dragon.”
“Might hurt more than it helps.”
I looked out the window. I could see the portals.
“Do you mean hurt us, or hurt everything?”
“Hurt us,” Tattletale told me. “Puts us in focus, might get you a thank-you but when they’re assigning blame the jerks in charge are going to like you for it. It’s better to sit back, let shit go down, and then come at them with a folder or a phone full of answers and an ‘I told you so’.”
“If I message them, it’ll help them work it out?”
“Possibly. In small fractions. It’s not like they know what they’re up against even more than we do. Maybe they call and get more hands on deck.”
“…I’ll message her.”
Tattletale nodded for what might have been ten seconds before saying, “Okay.”
It was three minutes of driving through roundabouts and one-way streets before we got to Miss Treat’s. A quaint, English-style tea shop. The overhang over the door was snow-dusted with icicles hanging from the plastic ‘lace’. Just inside, it looked to be warm, with doilies on the tables. A mom and her younger daughter were drinking tea, and the little girl had a big pastry on her plate.
Sveta emerged from the car, holding the Old Man steady. I could see how nervous she was, even without the telltale agitation of her body.
“I think I have to. It’s safest if I carry him, I think.”
I nodded, even though I suspected she’d needed an excuse.
We passed through the doors.
“Jesus,” I said, turning to the young server who stood just by the door. “You scared me.”
“Sorry about that,” she said. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, except for an apron with lace at the edges and a name tag. “I, uh-”
She’d noticed the Old Man, who Sveta held.
“I’m supposed to ask if you’ve been here before, but-”
“My friend has,” Tattletale said. “Can we talk to the owner?”
“He’s out. His daughter is in though.”
“Can she give medical care?”
“I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if- um.”
“I’m a friend of Parian. I know she comes now and then. She has fans here.”
“I know the name, but- I’ll really have to check.”
“Please,” I said. I still had my mask off and hood down. I smiled. She returned the expression.
She fled into the back, leaving us standing there.
A display case had overly cutesy cakes, and a few mascot characters were positioned around the shop, characters with the softest fuzz around the edges, proportioned so their heads were about fifty percent of their body mass, eyes small and spaced apart. Mischievous frog, sad puppy, friendly mouse. All wore old-fashioned clothing.
I positioned myself so that the little nine or ten year old girl who was at the window eating her pastry wouldn’t see the insensate, bloody Old Man that Sveta carried. She was looking though, and Sveta looked back, meeting her eyes.
The little girl, tea-cup in one hand, offered a little wave.
Sveta waved back.
“You can come back,” the employee said.
The back of the place was a mirror of the front, if perhaps a little cozier, for lack of a better word. Gingham was replaced with leather, pink with black, and pastel with wrought iron. The mascots were still present, but more… lively, I supposed. The mouse from before was encased in leather, zippers done up, the mischievous frog was bent over the top of one bench holding end of her dress up and out of the way while a bird held a paddle, and the sad puppy that had been around before was wearing dresses, smiling.
It said a lot about how striking the tone shift was, that it was the first thing that caught my eye, considering clientele. There was a severe woman in a leather dress with a laptop, typing away, and a very bewildered, uncomfortable dad sitting with a teenager who had hair dyed the colors of a sunset. It made me think of my own dad, who I hadn’t really talked to since maiming my mom.
The two case fifty-threes were sitting in a booth, joined by the guy I was pretty sure was ‘Scraping’. I had only a glimpse of them, of hair that glowed, skin like eggshell, and bloody bandages, before the employee and her boss joined us.
It was a little shocking, tearing my eyes away from that group, and feeling the fleeting sensation like I’d just laid down like a dog lying in a sunbeam, and been forced to get up.
Was there an emotion manipulator in that grouping?
“What happened?” the boss asked. She was done up in high fashion, with dramatic makeup.
“He was outed as a cape, he got pushed down the stairs. We can’t take him to the hospital because people might want to hurt him. Can you check him over?”
“Parian would vouch for you?”
“Yes. She might have mentioned me, but it would have been to gripe about me as a person while respecting me as a colleague. I don’t futz around with stuff like this, I wouldn’t want to ruin her reputation.”
“I can call her?”
“No. You’ll find she won’t pick up. But that’s because something bigger is going on.”
I saw the doubt on the boss’s face.
“It’s true,” I said.
She looked me over. “You’re one of the heroes. I’ve seen you.”
“Okay, take him through here. Lay him down. That’s good.”
Sveta followed the instructions.
“I like your costume,” the boss told me, before turning her attention to her employee, giving orders about getting a medical kit.
Yay. Small wins. She liked my costume.
A small win, small feeling, that met its match as we turned our attention to the trio in the booth. My attention was split between them and Sveta.
“You got control,” Egg said, by way of greeting.
“I did,” Sveta answered.
Egg was younger than Tristan or Rain, older than Kenzie. His skin was like eggshell, brown, his eyes molded into the shell down to the eyelash, but with no separation between lid and eyeball. It broke when he moved, with membrane beneath the shell holding it mostly together, and the regular breaking that came with blinking led to a crumb-trail at his cheekbones. Where a part was still for a moment, the cracks closed up, only to break again when that part moved. Here and there, blood mixed in with white vitreous and thick yellow yolk weeped out of the biggest cracks. His clothing was normal, a sweater and slim jeans, but it looked as though he were wearing a plastic layer beneath. His head was hairless and smooth on each side, with a shock of yolk-yellow hair on top, the same kind of liquid-thick as corn silk.
“Greetings, Sveta,” Engel greeted her, and I had to blink, because the sound of her voice affected my vision. She had an accent, but I couldn’t get my head around the look of her voice to even begin to figure it out. “Antares and Tattletale, yes?
“Yes,” I said, making myself recover. Tattletale was distracted, caught between paying attention to us and watching proceedings with the Old Man. She was listing off the medication she had provided in the car, and pointing out he had a liver problem he took pills for.
Engel was… it was hard to frame it, even. Her hair glowed like a light shone from within every strand, and her skin was textured with a pattern that only showed where the light caught the edges of her face, but that was the smallest part of it. When my eye moved over the lines of her face, I could taste sunshine at the back of my tongue, and feel a faint, pleasing vibrating song through my bones, like I was sitting in a massage chair that got to the core of me and played music through it. The sensations were full-body and varied, but always pleasing.
Her clothing was easier to focus on, of a similar style to Sveta’s casual wear, but a little bit lighter and fluffier, with more white and more of the kind of fabric I detested, that made tops see-through, forcing multiple layers to keep bras from being visible. They were all over the place, too.
“It’s been a little while,” Engel said.
“It has,” Sveta replied.
“Are you alright? You don’t seem well.”
“It has been a rough day,” Sveta said, her voice controlled, even a little bit tense.
“Good,” Egg said.
“Be kind,” Engel told him, striking him with the back of her hand. It produced a sickening crunch, caving in one corner of his chest.
“Go easy on him,” Scraping said.
“Sorry,” Engel said. “You are so fragile today, Egg. Have you been eating?”
“Not now,” Egg said, his full attention fixed on Sveta.
“You must eat to be healthy. We’ve talk about this.”
“Leave him be, Eng,” Scraping said.
It was such a strange little group, because it did look like they were fairly close, but they were even more different from one another than Sveta, Tattletale and I.
Where Engel was an assault of pleasures to all the wrong senses, Scraping was visceral. Maybe seventy-five percent of his flesh had been flayed, seemingly stretched out, then reattached in folds and arrangements. It looked as though he’d had an artist do it, because the way flesh came together made me think of the overlapping petals of a rose. Here, however, the flayed flesh was used to create accents. Pockets and slivers of crimson against a backdrop of white with inflamed pink edges.
Where he wasn’t flayed, his flesh was badly damaged, like it had been sandpapered or he’d been dangled out of a car and held against the road while the car raced along. He had an Asian cast to his features, and with how he was built and how square his face was, I was guessing he was Chinese. His hair was styled medium-long and straight, his high-quality clothes were chosen to fit the style he wore his flayed skin, black and pinstriped with the ‘ruffles’ of flesh serving in much the same way one might wear a ruffled shirt. Bandages wrapped a part around his neck that I was guessing had been freshly done.
The conversation was so stiff. My eye found a clock above the door, and I noted our dwindling time. Maybe best to push things forward.
“We talked to Semiramis,” I told the trio.
“We have mixed feelings about Semiramis,” Engel said.
I had to wince at the sound of her voice. Damn it, this was uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to derail the conversation.
“Understandable,” I said. I tried to meet her eyes, and then flinched away.
It reminded me of being- of being around Amy, when I’d been altered to be in love with her.
“You do not have to look at me if it’s hard,” she told me. “I won’t be offended.”
I looked away, nodding. “It’s not because you’re a case fifty-three, it’s because-”
“Of my power. Yes,” she said. She’d lowered her voice, which helped. “Often it is people who have been through things who have trouble with me.”
“Tactless,” Scraping said. “Let’s not bring that up.”
“Of course,” Engel said.
“I would have warned you if I’d realized it was this intense,” Sveta said. “We talked online. Almost every day, for a while.”
“We did. I’ve missed those talks,” Engel said. “I love your arms.”
I could see Sveta’s expression easing up. The anger that had been there earlier, even the darkness in her eyes that had followed from Weld, they softened. Until she looked like my friend again, instead of this angry, hurt person.
“I had a whole body,” Sveta said. “It got trashed in a fight.”
“I’m so sorry, honey.”
More easing up of the tension. Sveta smiled a little, welcoming the sympathy.
“Until she betrayed us,” Egg added.
It was a comment that chilled the otherwise warm exchange, and brought the darkness back to Sveta’s eyes. I could have hit the kid over it.
Engel, for her part, laid a hand against Egg’s arm, almost a warning, or an urging to hold back.
Conversation didn’t pick up where it had stopped, so I tried to look for another way to move things along.
“Can we talk about something more pressing?” I asked. “We have limited time.”
Fifteen or so minutes before our enemy makes a move and we have to figure out how to respond.
“What do you need?” Engel asked.
“It seems like an investigation we’re conducting has led to what looks like a certain villain, Teacher, picking up where Cauldron left off,” I said, measuring out my words.
Egg clenched one fist, his hand audibly breaking, with a severe enough crack forming that fluids leaked out. He cupped it in one hand and leaned forward, elbows on the table, and used a bright yellow tongue to lick up the blood and other fluids before they reached his sleeve.
“They aren’t Cauldron,” Engel said. “They aren’t making case fifty-threes.”
“Yet,” Tattletale said, joining the conversation. “That we know of.”
“We talked to Semiramis. She said you two exchanged notes,” I said.
“Did she also say that she was working with L.J.M.?” Egg asked.
“We talked to him too,” I said. “Tattletale and I did. I walked away with a less than great impression, pretty much confirmed Sveta’s take on him, as far as I’m concerned.”
“You’re friends, then?”
“From the hospital,” I said.
“The asylum,” Sveta clarified.
Egg’s displeasure seemed to shift. No longer solely reserved for Sveta. I was the enemy now too. Not because of the hospital, as far as I could tell, but from my association with Sveta.
“Were you the girl who looked after her? The one with the multiple heads, multiple limbs, a-”
“No,” I said. I hadn’t meant to deny it so much as I wanted to indicate for her to stop.
Sveta clarified, stepping in for me, saying yes, but in doing so, talked over Engel for a moment. Engel raised her voice, which raised the intensity of the sensations – touch, smell, taste, and shifts in my vision, that made the world pulse with added life and detail, contrasts and textures, like the world was a masterwork painting.
Fuck. Between the sound of her voice running through me and the visceral mental images, it knocked the wind out of me and put me right back in that room. The right words and images could make me think of the hospital room and bring the memories up, but one thing I’d been so grateful of was the fact that the emotional ‘adjustments’ that my fucking sister had made were a distant memory, disconnected from the me in the now. Given how feelings tended to attach to things, removing the feelings might have involved excising the attachments.
In effect, where everything else was so vivid, the fact I’d been sick with infatuation was something I remembered had happened, but didn’t really re-experience.
Until this woman with a voice that tasted and felt like biting into brownies fresh from the oven started talking, as a pretty fucking close tactile-and-taste approximation to the contentment of being in love and being with the person you loved. Which wasn’t- not the hospital room, but scenes before it. Before my mom had pounded on the door.
Sveta touched my arm, jarring me from the thoughts.
“You’re here,” she whispered. “Cafe. Feel my hand. Meet my eyes-”
Vivid memories sat in my mind’s eye until I met Sveta’s eyes and forced what I was registering in the forefront of my brain to align what I saw with my eyes.
“There’s a clock above the door-”
I shook my head. I was aware that in the background, Scraping was chiding Engel on tact again. Tattletale said something.
“Clocks are no good,” I murmured. “Used to always watch the clock.”
“Smell the baked goods, the tea. Think about today, what you did. We sent off the prisoners. You went to drop Lookout off. Saw Tattletale. Remember the errands you ran with her.”
I nodded, going through the steps as she mentioned them, forcing recollections into my mind’s eye, squaring away what I needed to be feeling in the now and pushing the other feelings into the edges and the gaps of my brain.
Drawing in a deep breath, I put my hand over hers, squeezing, exhaling as I said a quiet, “Thank you. I’m okay.”
I wasn’t positive I was, but still.
“-You realized where you were?” Tattletale asked. A question I’d missed the start of, aimed at Engel.
“After,” Engel said. “Egg had to clue me in. I want to say I’m sorry, Antares.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I was so very worried about my online friend, back then. Then she had you and she was so happy to have company. It wasn’t for long, I know-”
“It might be good to drop the subject,” Scraping said.
Engel nodded. “It meant a lot. I am so exceedingly glad to finally meet you.”
“Likewise,” I said.
“How can we help?” Engel asked.
“We should have discussed more about whether we would,” Egg said.
“Cauldron, whatever shape it takes, is an enemy,” Engel told him.
“Like you said before, we don’t know if this is Cauldron,” Egg replied.
It was interesting, seeing the interplay between him, her, and Scraping. He came off like the moody kid brother, her as the wiser, warmer older sister, and Scraping… was the referee? He reined in, chided, warned, and otherwise stayed out of it.
“We talk to them, then we find out,” Engel’s voice was firm.
“Was there a discreet entrance?” Tattletale asked. “You said you didn’t even realize it was Cauldron, which means a big door-shaped hole in reality didn’t lead you in.”
“We went on the water, and under a bridge. I thought at first it was a camouflage bubble. Something to hide the building from planes and spies. Now I think… maybe portal, hidden.”
“I remembered discussions about strategy, approach, how the Irregulars would get in,” Egg said. “It was the sluice, at the base of the facility.”
“Did you dock?” Sveta asked.
“No. We took the boat inside.”
“Then it wasn’t the sluice. The sluice had enough water coming down that it was violent, and a boat would get pulled in,” Sveta said. “Still water?”
Engel nodded. “Mostly. Some trickling flow.”
Egg looked pretty pissed at being wrong about his contribution here. I wasn’t sure Sveta cared at this point.
Sveta was focused on her mental map of the place. “Um. What was it? That would have been the reservoir. Which makes a few different degrees of sense,” she mused aloud. To Tattletale and I, she said, “We had to figure out how we’d attack a facility like Cauldron’s. They didn’t have as many employees as it sounds like Teacher has, and they had less as the years went on, but they did have some. Those employees had regular portals they’d use, in out of the way spots, with simple signals they’d use to ask for them to open.”
“Teacher doesn’t,” Tattletale said. “Teacher has portals. They’re tinker operated and clumsy, they take time to set up and time to take down, and they require power, which isn’t always the easiest thing to obtain. Easier over time, don’t get me wrong, but I would imagine that’s a bottleneck for him. His portals being what they are, if we can find them or figure out how to find them, that could help.”
“If he’s listening now, he could dismantle them,” I said.
“He could,” Tattletale said, and then she grinned. “And he will. But now he needs to devote time and energy to dealing with us, which is risky, or time and energy to dismantling that, which is another kind of messy. Repositioning portals means informing anyone coming in and out about the changes of location, and that’s something we can catch or track. What else?”
She’d asked Sveta.
“Did the lights flicker?”
“Yeah,” Engel said. “They went out at one point, which was when I saw some of the things and labels on shelves.”
“Books with letters and numbers on the cover? Labels taking up half the page?”
“No. Manton’s texts. It rang bells.”
“That might have been their power testing area. It’s where they gave customers vials, when they weren’t sure of the results. Gave all of us vials.”
“There’s no us,” Egg said, under his breath.
“Shh,” Tattletale shushed him, like she didn’t even know she was doing it. “Power testing area?”
“In big, reinforced spaces, like aircraft hangars,” Sveta said.
Engel nodded with some energy, agreeing.
“They’d be in a hallway with… there’d be labs, kind of, but people described them as looking more like they had gym equipment and MRI machines in them, except they weren’t either. They would have been on the left side if the hangar spaces were on your right.”
“There were rooms to the left but they were empty,” Engel said.
Egg was looking more and more disgruntled.
“This is fascinating,” Tattletale said. “You said people described them. Who?”
“Old customers of Cauldron we tracked down. We wanted to know exactly where we were going and what we were doing,” Sveta explained.
“If they moved the equipment they moved it somewhere.”
“Egg and I talked about it, even took notes,” Engel said. She reached into her pocket for her phone. Edges of the phone had distorted to have an oil-slick shimmer where her hand touched it most often. “We thought about trying to find some of the others, who were interested in the Irregulars but who never made it, or who could not be part of the attack.”
“But you didn’t,” Tattletale said.
“They might have interfered or got in the way, like they did with the artist L.J.M. and your deal with Semiramis. Keeping you isolated. They didn’t come after you because Egg’s memory is imperfect,” Tattletale said. “He got details wrong and that threw off the scent. Now… with Sveta helping to connect the dots for you, they may be more onto you.”
“You led them to us?” Egg asked. He turned to Sveta. “On purpose?”
“No,” Sveta said. I saw the pain cross her face at the accusation. “No.”
Scraping looked rather upset, where he’d been the calm one before. He put a hand on Engel’s shoulder.
“They were going to come after you whatever happened,” Tattletale said. “But not while it was going to raise more questions and problems than it put anything to rest. Engel is too well liked and Scraping has a family that would ask questions. It’s a good thing that we’re approaching you now and forcing their hands instead of them showing up in the middle of the night.”
Engel wrung her hands.
“I didn’t want this,” Sveta said.
“Don’t,” Egg told her.
“You said you didn’t want what happened before either, but we’re playing through it in fast forward now. You told me you were sorry once, but ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean shit if-” Egg stopped. He’d made a fierce enough expression and talked violently enough that it had cracked his chin open. He wiped at the mess and left a streak of red across the line of his jaw. That hand held his jaw together as he finished, “-doesn’t mean shit if you don’t learn from it, change anything, or make amends.”
“I’m helping people.”
“Like you were when you were with us. Except you’re repeating the exact same old mistakes, and you want to waltz into our lives, earn our trust, and fuck us over again, exactly as before.”
“That’s not what I wanted.”
“I know what you wanted. You wanted happy, pretty illusions. You wanted to be with us and you wanted to be with Weld and you didn’t want to do the hard thing and take action.”
“That’s not fair,” I said. “No, fuck that.”
“Fuck you,” Egg retorted. “Don’t talk like you know.”
“I’ll talk like I know her. It was the end of the world, everyone was panicking, and you’re condemning my friend for not making a decision you agreed with in the midst of the worst days in human history.”
“You. Don’t. Know,” Egg said.
“It’s not worth it,” Sveta told me.
“You’re not worth it,” Egg told her. “You-”
“She’s one of the best people I know,” I interrupted him. “And this is about something more than your grievances against my friend, okay? Things are at stake.”
I looked at the clock as I said it.
Only a few minutes until the deadline.
“Doesn’t matter anymore.”
It had been Tattletale who said it.
“The time. No need to watch the clock. They aren’t acting on us right now because they’re preoccupied. They pulled the trigger. Bullet has left the gun, and now we find out who or what takes the shot. How is our Old Man?”
“He’ll live. He’s concussed. Do you know the treatment for a concussion?”
“Yeah,” Tattletale answered. “Sveta? Still feeling under control?”
Sveta bobbed her head in a nod. She walked away from the argument to pick up the Old Man, who was conscious enough to recognize what was going on.
“You should come,” Tattletale said. “If they make a move against you guys it’ll be soon, after they’ve done what they’re doing, sometime while we’re reacting or reeling from their big move.”
“What Tattletale was saying before about you being too visible and connected to easily and quietly deal with isn’t going to count for much if everything else is chaotic,” I pointed out.
“Where would we be going?” Engel asked.
“The old portal in New York City,” Tattletale said. “Where the Wardens Headquarters used to be.”
“You sure?” I asked. “That’s a long trip.”
“Has to be. Trust me,” Tattletale said.
She met my eyes for a long moment.
I didn’t trust Tattletale as far as I could throw her, whether I used my power or not. She knew that. She knew I’d know she knew that.
Was that supposed to be a signal?
We’re being watched, and they’re going to start taking action. If we assume they’re tracking everything we say, then stating one plan and following another makes a ton of sense.
“We should go now,” Tattletale said. “You two should come. You too, Scraping, if you want to chaperone these two.”
“Do you have a car?”
“I do, yes.”
Once the trio got moving, they wasted no time. Engel slapped down some money on the counter on her way past it. Tattletale paid the tea shop’s owner.
The only slow process was easing the Old Man into the back of Tattletale’s car. He was hurt and just conscious enough to be moving, writhing over that hurt. Sveta was gentle, while Snuff, Tattletale and I watched out for trouble.
“I loved you,” Engel said, behind Sveta.
Sveta straightened, turning around.
“I love all of my brothers and sisters, but I loved you in particular.”
Present tense, then past tense.
“I will always cherish my memories of the company you provided me in darker days. You helped me find optimism and a brighter outlook in lonely days. Without that girl from the hospital, I would not be out and about today, chasing my dreams.”
“We could still talk.”
I saw the pain in Sveta’s face. No response came to her lips.
“Why the hell not? You’re being asinine about this whole thing,” I told Engel.
“I am grieving my friend Sveta,” Engel said. “It is easier to move on without reminders.”
“I’m still here.”
“You are,” Engel said, and her voice was accented more as she said it, still warm and an eerie, discomfiting kaleidoscope of pleasant sensations. “But she isn’t. And I will forever miss her.”
“Will you work with us on this thing?” Sveta asked, bitter.
“I will endure,” Engel answered.
“Oh fuc-” I started, before Sveta took hold of my arm.
“You’ll continue being a moron over this whole thing, you mean,” Tattletale said, from the far side of the car. “Getting caught up in the ‘hate the tentacle girl for going against the hive mind’ thing.”
“No hate,” Engel said. “Only disappointment.”
“Can we just-” Sveta started, stopping for no explicit reason. “Get in the car?”
Tattletale hesitated, and Sveta reached a tendril inside, around the passenger seat, and tugged Tattletale partway in. Tattletale climbed in the rest of the way.
Even though I climbed into my seat normally, my hand ready to close the door, Sveta was quicker than I was, seizing the handle and tugging the door shut. Sealing us off from the other group.
“Start us up. I want the radio,” Tattletale said. “And keep an eye on those guys.”
“Will do,” Snuff said.
The radio was on a second later, along with the blast of heat from the car’s vents. Snuff pulled out partway and stopped, waiting for the other car.
“I’ll leave my seatbelt off, so I can fly out and help them if I need to,” I said. A surprise attack now wouldn’t be much of a surprise, given how Teacher was operating.
The radio was going, but it wasn’t the convenient movie or television thing where things started at a convenient time. That was if this was the sort of thing that came up in the news, and if Tattletale was right. For now, the noise on the radio was about politics. Druck striking a deal for the construction workers.
“I’m sorry,” I told Sveta.
“They still say nice things about Weld now and then on the message boards and sites. Never anything nice about me,” she murmured. “They barely consider me alive, apparently.”
“They’re idiots,” I said.
“They’re idiots who used to call me a sister and Weld a brother.”
I reached out, into the tangle of tendrils between head and blouse, and hooked my fingers into them. They wrapped around my hand and forearm, while her head turned my way.
I was in the midst of tugging her closer, into something approximating a hug, when I felt a pang at my finger, then at another.
Sveta visibly concentrated, worked at relaxing, and let my withdraw my hand.
I flexed my hand. My finger had been bent to a painful point, but not broken.
“No need for,” I said. “Offer for a hug still stands.”
“I want to,” she said. “I can’t. Not right now.”
Only the background noise of radio and the sound of the vehicle followed the statement. I watched over one shoulder to make sure the car following was okay. Saw Engel’s silhouette through the tinted windshield, and found myself kind of detesting her.
I put my eyeless mask on and my hood up, and I told myself it was so I could better fly through the cold wind when and if I had to fly to rescue them.
Tattletale began to adjust the radio’s volume, raising it.
A newscaster announced. “Breaking tonight, you’ll want to secure your data. Officials are scrambling as we speak to get encryption servers back up and running after an apparent error in the code has broken password security for a majority of online accounts. Some experts are cautioning that you will want to change your password as soon as possible, but others are saying this may not be enough. Even deleted data or images uploaded to social media-”
“Here we are,” Tattletale said. She reached back, her phone dangling from her fingers.
My email, and she was signed into my account.
I checked my phone. I hadn’t been notified, and it hadn’t requested permission to sign in.
The radio kept going.
“Any password will get you into any account, if you know what their username or email is,” Tattletale said. “Browser history, files mirrored from desktop, email, social media… it’s all out there now.”
I glanced back at the other group. They drove carefully after. Egg was talking a lot.
On Tattletale’s phone, I dug through the files on my account.
I found the diary, mirrored onto an online account from desktop.
“It won’t be long now before people start looking and finding the planted stuff. Secret identities and any nudes you took will be the least of it,” Tattletale said.
“No nudes,” I told her.
“Small mercies,” she answered.
I thought of Presley, Natalie, and of Jester. In part because I knew how devastated Presley would be, and how bothered Ashley would be that her biggest fan might get the wrong impression. Natalie… I could see her reading the diary, believing it, and never trusting us again.
Jester was… just a friend. One I’d hate to see go.
It gutted me, thinking about it on that level, like someone had shivved me, dragged the blade across my midsection, and left me with a horrible, hollow pain there.
“It’ll feel very organic to the public, that they find the bad stuff. It’ll lead to bigger problems.”
“Can you just-” I started.
“Can I what?”
“Trust us to connect the dots and realize how bad this is?” I asked.
“Okay. You want me to shut up.”
On a level, I wasn’t surprised. It was fully within his power to do something like this, to release it en masse. I hadn’t expected this specific angle, but… it made sense. That, in the weirdest way, didn’t even touch me, didn’t elicit the smallest emotional reaction. It was only the specific cases that, even thinking about them for the second time, hit me hard with the impact of it.
Maybe I’d been too disconnected from the public for too long, if I was this unbothered.
Maybe it was a strange shape or kind shock.
Snuff picked up speed, until there was a reckless edge to the driving. I sat with my right hand on Sveta’s Rain-made right hand, my body twisted around so I could watch her out of the corner of my eye while keeping a closer eye on the car that followed.
“I’ll contact our teams,” Tattletale said.
“Thanks,” I answered.
My attention was split, but none of the subjects of that attention were any easier than the others. Sveta, who I wanted to hug or help somehow. The group behind, who I wanted to slap across their faces. The hurt Old Man, who lay with his feet near me, this time.
I didn’t know what to do. It was possible a door had permanently closed here.
Sveta, somehow, was more pressing, but I wasn’t sure what to do about that, either.
“Take Dorsey,” Tattletale instructed Snuff, as she brought her phone to her ear.
Dorsey, I knew, was a route that would let us make a last minute diversion to the Bunker. We were going there, I was willing to bet. Dragon. Jessica. Colt. Love Lost. Cradle.
We, I hoped, could talk about things there that we couldn’t talk about in the open. I could grill Engel on details. We could make plans, gather notes on Teacher’s base of operations, things Tattletale had picked up. I really hoped it was the case that we could talk there, because if it wasn’t, then we really had no options.
A general plan, a set of options. It didn’t make me feel better, but it helped suspend me in a place where I wasn’t sinking into feeling worse and worse.
Not until I let myself. Made myself.
Except for noting it was something about to happen, I didn’t devote a thought to any of the broader, bigger subjects, or imminent subjects of meetings. Earlier, Sveta had brought me back to reality by touching on details around me, and now I abandoned that reality. I turned to thoughts of the hospital room, darkness, and some mixture of stray animals and vermin transmuted into pale, reaching flesh. I remembered watching the clock endlessly until I could hear the tick of it, and the pain I held in my chest mirrored that heart I’d been given that had been made to be broken.
For the course of this journey, there was nothing I could do to change what Teacher was doing. I found myself mired in other thoughts, so dark they could be called black.
Teacher’s move here was to drive a permanent wedge between parahuman and human. With distorted, false, and misleading evidence, they would see us as monsters. Not immediately, but soon.
Thinking of Engel’s comments, Sveta’s perspective, and the me that had dwelt in that hospital room for nearly two years, I didn’t shy away this time from black, panic inducing memories, from the idea of breaking promises I’d made to myself to stay sane, or the notion of indulging in those monsters.
If we had to deal with monsters, real and fake, then I’d fucking find a way to deal.