I could see Darnall from the far side of the space, past stairs, railings, gym equipment, and benches. He extended a hand in a wave, and I did the same.
He tended to always have two looks to him, like one minute he was the archetypical ‘movie dad’ in every way my dad hadn’t been, soft around the edges, bit of a belly, awkward, out of shape and with hair that was either short and noticeably imperfect or buzzed short enough that it couldn’t be that imperfect. The kind of movie dad who wore a fairy costume and who was trying so hard to play magical princess tea party with his daughter that his forehead was marked with lines from the effort and focus, tutu on and tiny teacup in hand.
Then the next minute, generally at the end to a session, at the prelude to a session, or in the complex game of chess surrounding a session, he took on the look of the villain of the B-tier family movie who revealed those perplexing little behaviors we’d seen in evidence throughout the film had a greater meaning, who got a super calculating, penetrating look in their eye, which sufficed to make them seem dangerous despite the otherwise unassuming appearance.
I might have been overthinking it.
“You with me?”
I refocused my efforts on Ethan. He was leaning forward against a punching bag. One of his eyes was permanently half-closed, his straight black hair that was normally a mop was damp enough with sweat to be pushed back and stay back. Athletic tee and loose workout pants were stuck to muscular arms, torso, and legs by the same measure.
Dr. Darnall ambush incoming, I warned myself, before giving Ethan ninety percent of my focus.
“I’m with you, sorry. Saw a face I recognized.”
“Need a face to refocus?” Anne Lynn asked. She had her plastic bag of stress helpers. “I have a kitty, you like cats, right? You picked a cat, first session.”
“Kitties don’t inspire aggression,” Ethan said.
“You should meet my cats,” Anne Lynn said. “My neighbors probably think I’m deranged, the way I yell at them.”
She giggled and Ethan smiled. He still leaned against the punching bag.
“I picked a lion, just so you know. Then the bird.”
“I give those ones names too. Stupid motorcycle roaring at six in the morning. Birds singing at six in the morning.”
“Mouthfuls,” I noted.
“There’s a theme here,” Ethan added.
“I don’t need more,” I told my physiotherapist. She pouted. “Thanks though.”
“Give me a broken three into a two-one,” Ethan told me.
I had to shift my footing to be ready, which I reminded myself was a problem. I should have been faster.
“Don’t think about it, just do it.”
I sprung forward. Leap, kick aimed at what would be my opponent’s chest. I stopped, using flight to drop to the ground, then sprung forward, flight-augmented to cover more distance, using the heel of my hand to strike, followed by my elbow. I could feel the pull at my tricep.
“Woo!” Anne Lynn cheered. “That’s something you don’t see every day.”
The area with the punching bags and some of the more active exercise equipment was partially segregated from the rest of the space, with windows with warped glass obscuring a lot of what went on, which was one of the factors that framed my distant observation of Darnall as skewed. The rationale, Anne Lynn had explained to me, was that some of the patients had reasons to be shy of violence. They were working on ensuring they had two spaces but things were still fucky after the portals had expanded and consumed a chunk of downtown.
Anne Lynn watched from the sidelines, sitting on exercise mats that had been stacked up high enough to act as a counter. Petite, had as much energy and optimism as an overflowing soda float had bubbles, always smiling, and I somehow couldn’t resent her her optimism. I couldn’t resent her for enjoying this little diversion.
“Two-three, two-one,” Ethan said, then while I was pulling back to launch into that, said, “Nevermind.”
“Try to cut down on how long it takes you to act. I’ve seen you fight, I know you can do this instinctively, but I want you to do it instinctively while fighting better. Give me a two-one, again.”
“No. Stop. Instinct.”
“Instinct keeps you alive.”
“Just- let me think on this. Let me do my thing.”
I’d been through enough sparring lessons in my life. With my mom, with my dad, with uncle Neil. My training sessions with Aunt Sarah had been more about flight and formation, or about problem solving. I’d run through a set series of movies for a video. I’d done a series of physical sparring tests when interviewing for the Wards program.
That was without getting into regular gym classes, regular training with the basketball team, track and field, after school activities my mom had had me do, clubs, and summer camps.
I’d been down this road a hundred times with a half-dozen different instructors or sets of expectations. People with something performance-level they wanted out of me that would try to teach, trick, bludgeon, or otherwise ingrain into me.
Every time I told myself I could be better there were common things I tracked, analyzed, and focused on improving.
Mental state. Footing. Breathing.
“Okay,” I said.
Flight got me moving without needing to adjust my footing. Hand-strike, favoring the heel. I hit the bag.
“-three,” he said, at the same time the impact happened, switching it up.
I pushed away using the heel-strike, used flight to put just a bit more extra distance between myself and the bag, turned my head slightly, then launched forward again. My footing had been good as I landed, good as I launched forward, and flight just added to the velocity as I planted a heavy kick square in the center of the bag.
“Oof,” Ethan said. “I thought you’d stopped or backed off and wasn’t quite ready for you.”
“There’s a bit of that, isn’t there?” I asked. I smiled.
“Decent foundation,” he said “One-two?”
I hit the bag. Heel strike into elbow strike. A kick of flight sped up the rotation and close of distance. I winced a bit as pain shot through my tricep.
“See that?” Ethan asked Anne Lynn.
“It looks off, like I’m watching an animated fight and they missed something.”
“I meant your patient,” Ethan said, sounding amused. “She winced. Something hurt.”
“Tattler,” I mumbled.
“What hurt?” Anne Lynn asked.
I approached her, indicating my tricep, which still had the gouge and sucked-in indent in it.
“That seems to be a recurring thing,” she said. She had to sort out her own papers, setting them aside so she could get to my notebook, which I had handed her earlier. “And you’re a fun patient because you take extensive notes.”
Her legs kicked as she paged through.
“On your way to becoming a favorite,” Ethan told me, smiling.
“Long way to go,” Anne Lynn said, in a tone that was a stark contrast to her usual bubbly demeanor.
“Ooh, that’s interesting,” Ethan said.
“Shh,” I told him.
“Want to keep going, or-”
“No,” Anne Lynn said.
“-Or not.” He hopped up onto the stack of exercise mats, sitting with enough force that Anne Lynn popped up for a second.
He leaned back against the wall, but because the stack of folded exercise mats was so broad, it made for a very slouching backward lean, more like he was on a large couch than anything. It exposed his abdomen, flat, and no body hair, which was a bit of a mental disconnect for me. My exposure to boys’ bellies -one boy who had a near-identical body type- had me expecting at least a bit. It made me look twice to verify.
The disconnect was a bit of a switch-flip, the mental stumble seeing me going up and over mental walls I’d erected, the ‘over’ coinciding with a ‘woo’ thrill in my own belly.
What followed was a series of thoughts as I tried to navigate disorganized thoughts I really hadn’t explored enough in recent months or years. What about- no, spooky territory. Half-formed mental image banished. What if- no, felt like I was wading into ‘crutch’ territory, because it was almost identical to a Dean memory, just with someone else playing the part. Mentally banish every person in this facility except for him, lean over and lick or kiss every bead of sweat off his abdomen, his chest, reach down to his pants-
No. Thoughts dogged me from places I really didn’t want to go. Thoughts that had been bubbling up since Engel had hit me as hard as-
Didn’t want to think about it. Also sweat was ick and if I knew him better and loved him I’d roll with the more general bodily fluid things, like kissing away tears in a tender moment- which got me right back to thinking about something that I’d done with Dean. And now I was rationalizing my way out of this precarious state of mind and what if- no, that was bad porno. Or- no, that was back to dark places.
In the midst of thoughts I found one that stuck- him and I sweaty from individual workouts, taking a shower, made sense. Shower together, that was easy, safe, clean, sexy without requiring any specific act. Once that was confirmed, I had the mental picture and it was something that wouldn’t crumble or throw up any flags if my brain twitched the wrong way. In that scene, I could reach down, and- there weren’t any ‘no’ flags thrown up in my way.
Satisfying, both to navigate the labyrinth and find my way to safe ground, and satisfying to dwell in that scene where I had reached down and satisfied him, heard his breathing change, felt him move in reaction. Powerful and nice and…
I shifted my footing.
He lay slumped there, eyes momentarily closed. He’d pulled down his shirt, not because he’d noticed my glance, and now his hands were folded over his belly button.
Anne Lynn paged through my notebook.
My thoughts had been going a mile a minute. Not that much time had passed. My thoughts were still going a mile a minute, painting a slow-moving scene I didn’t want to let go of, because it had been so hard to get to. Getting here meant getting past walls that were in place for very good reasons, and it then meant navigating the labyrinth of red flags and dark places.
And now I was here and I wanted to keep going, somehow. I knew Ethan. I knew he was interested, and he knew me and that I had issues navigating issues.
I knew that if I asked him to his face -ridiculous notion but still-, if I wrote him a note or sent him a text -less ridiculous notion-, saying I wanted to take him to the nearest unoccupied shower, strip his clothes off, that I wanted and needed to take the lead and for him to do what I said, he would say yes.
Nevermind that I had no idea how or where that shower existed, nevermind that I didn’t want to get kicked out. I could, and that added a deep-inside me jolt of real that brought a whole new life to the imagined scene.
I shifted my footing again.
“Ethan!” the voice was loud enough that I jumped. A woman peered from around the edge of the wall that separated the punching bags from the rest of the rehab center.
“What?” he asked, in a slow, easygoing way that did not line up with how high strung I felt. His eyes remained closed. I felt irrationally annoyed at him.
“Can I borrow you?” the woman asked.
He sat up, hopped down from the stack. “She works with some older patients, so I’ll probably have my hands full. See you later, Antares?”
See you, Anelace, I thought. “Yeah.”
He extended a fist as he walked by. I tapped it with my fist, then translated to the elbow, using flight and mock-striking him with it, as he’d been drilling me.
He seemed to like it, a smile on his face.
“Perfect,” he said. “Be nice to her, Anne Lynn.”
“Only if she’s nice to me,” my physiotherapist said. She’d closed my notebook and was using it as a flat surface to write things down.
“I’m nice to you,” I told her. “You like my notes.”
“Extensive notes are a long, long way from actually attending. I just read pages of notes complaining about pain that I would have been helping you with if you, my patient, had been coming in regularly. But you don’t. Too busy saving the world and accumulating more injuries.”
I rubbed the notch at the back and side of my arm, my finger finding the groove.
“You’re better than the vast majority of my patients when it comes to doing the homework, but if you keep going down this road, you’re going to put off visits more and more until you’re not coming in at all. And then a few months after that you’re going to find that an exercise that was benefiting you months ago is hurting you.”
“I’ve made notes. I’m going to assume you’re going to keep doing this, so I’ve modified and marked your homework to highlight things that are essential now and harmful later.”
“And after that?”
“Come see me,” she said. “But don’t continue past a certain point for this one, this one, or… hm, just those two.”
“Thank you for showing me your fighting, and for showing me another side of Ethan.”
I nodded, looking through the window of warped glass for Ethan among the older patients in the expansive rehab area. I didn’t see him.
“He good?” I asked.
“Good? What are you asking, Victoria?” Anne Lynn asked me.
“He’s helpful? No drama? Friendly?”
“He’s great,” she said. “One of our best volunteers. He started out… very similar to you, I think. But he graduated, and he liked the atmosphere enough to keep attending.”
Teaching some martial arts, and- I could see him now, supporting an old woman who was walking with the assistance of rails.
“Snap him up,” she prodded me. “I have a boyfriend so I’m not going to, but I know a few others here would.”
“I’m way, way off from snapping,” I told her.
I heard a throat clear behind me. I saw a glimpse of Anne Lynn’s expression as I turned, then saw Dr. Darnall, occupying the same spot by the wall that the other physiotherapist had when shouting out to Anelace.
“Homework,” Anne Lynn told me. She handed me the paper with the neat handwriting. “Your notebook, and…”
She held out the tattered baggie with stress balls inside.
“I have one. I have two, technically, but-”
“I’d end up giving it away.”
“Then do that. I need to get rid of some older ones so I can buy newer ones.”
I conceded, reaching over and into the bag.
I reached deep. I pulled out two, holding them over the bag – an old woman with horn-rimmed glasses, and a fish with eyes that bulged out when squeezed.
I took the fish, giving it an experimental squeeze.
“I’ll see you in three days,” she told me.
“Got it,” I replied.
Dr. Darnall was giving me his ‘I was a villain all along’ look. Calculating, focused, confident.
“You’ve been communicating with my physiotherapist,” I noted. “She recognized you and you knew my appointment end-time.”
“Only about essential details and schedule. I wanted to check in with you. I know you canceled for what I’m sure are good reasons, but you’ve been missing appointments with her and you’ve been missing appointments with me.”
“She told you about the missed appointments?”
“No,” Dr. Darnall said. “But I’d like to think I know you at this point. I want five, ten minutes of your time at most- no, that would be lying. I want two hours of your time once a week. I will settle for five to ten minutes, acknowledging you have a lot on your plate.”
“I’ve talked to people who had appointments with me minutes after their shifts ended, who smelled so bad that my office would stink for a day. I can handle it, Victoria.”
“Who smells that bad? Are you Barfbat’s therapist?”
“I worked with firefighters. Certain times of year, full gear, heavy exercise, it was rough. I can understand if it’s a question of comfort, but don’t worry about my comfort.”
“It is, kind of,” I said. “My comfort. Can I rinse off and meet you?”
“Sure. Should I wait in the hall?”
I jogged over to one of the other physio sessions in progress, avoiding using my flight because I didn’t have the benefit of the separating wall and blurry window to hide what I was doing from the rest of the people in the area. I set the fish down on top of a folded coat and bag.
Sveta was doing crunches, arms out straight and pressed together like she was diving. Her therapist was a guy who looked a bit like a black Dr. Darnall, slightly pear shaped and short haired, with a perpetually concerned expression. As she did each crunch, he would move his hand. She would move her extended arms to touch her fingertips to his.
She’d painted her arms with what looked like markers, bold, straight lines, layered colors that created a blur effect, a bird on one upper arm, a sea serpent winding around one forearm. Sweat had mottled the images somewhat.
“Time to go?” she gasped out, sounding hopeful.
“I’m going to have a word with Dr. Darnall. Five minute rinse-off and dress, five to ten minutes with him. Fifteen minutes?”
She dropped back to lie flat, and stopped, moving the weight to one side. She huffed for breaths, chest and stomach rising and falling. I could see spots on her clothes where marker and sweat had bled in at a touch. Spots where there was paint.
Ten fingers, ten toes. Two arms, two legs. She still wore her wig, because she liked having the longer hair, but there was a scalp beneath. The stomach that heaved was complete now. Three procedures over four days, after two days of deliberation.
She saw me looking and smiled, teeth white. Her skin wasn’t so close to the tone of her teeth, but remained pale. She’d elected to keep the Cauldron mark on her cheek, but she’d covered it up.
“Happy in your suffering?” I asked.
She nodded, still smiling, still struggling to get her breath.
“You’re out of shape.”
“I’ve never been in shape.”
I wanted to talk to her forever, to revel in this moment of happy and enjoy the company of my friend with zero reservations. Instead, I thought of Dr. Darnall and the unplanned five minute appointment. “I should go see the good doctor. You good to wait?”
“We can figure out something to do for another fifteen minutes,” her physio said.
“I’m getting good marks,” Sveta said. “Is it necessary?”
“It’s necessary,” he told her.
I abandoned Sveta to her happy hell.
I put stuff away, got my towel, got my conditioner, and then made my way to the showers, which were thankfully unoccupied. I had a coin with a hole in it that I’d run a rubber band through, strapping it to the bottle. I flipped it around to its other side to help me keep track of which days were shampoo and which were conditioner only.
I took more time than I should have, rinsing off and cooling off. A part of me had expected to run into Bluestocking, but I was guessing she had her hands full over Earth N and the ever-present faction wars, this time involving Semiramis and Little Midas.
I did my best to fall into thinking about the politics of it all because it was difficult to shake my head of the other thoughts; thoughts that I’d inadvertently groped for and now found hard to let go of. I was familiar with the pattern, of fighting with my brain to put away a line of thought I didn’t want anymore, but I was used to it being the darkest memories, so vivid they were real. This was just the fact I really needed some kind of release on other fronts.
Makeup, just enough that people wouldn’t think I was ill because of a sudden shift in my appearance. Concealer covered a bruise at my neck and a cut near my ear that I’d glued shut.
I put on a striped long sleeved top that was cropped wide at the waist, just where it met the line of the black jeans I hiked up into place, belting in with a pale belt decorated with a thin chain. The base of the shirt was wide, but the pants hugged me enough that it didn’t have any unfortunate effects.
I pulled on and zipped up my boots, put my clothes and towel away, got my hairbrush out of my bag, and gathered up the black coat that was part of my Antares costume now, doubling as something to wear outside if I needed it.
Coat and bag under one arm, hairbrush in my other hand, I ran it through a few times, then kept it with me as I stepped out of the locker room and up the stairs into the hallway. The little set of stairs and the fact the hallway was raised did a lot to mitigate the lingering smell of sweat and public showers. Windows looked down at the physio space, and Darnall was standing a few feet away from a family that were cheering on their person.
A teenager from that family looked at me and did a double take.
I was more recognizable now, apparently.
“This isn’t how I usually am,” Dr. Darnall said, as I settled into place at his side, my head at an angle while I continued to run the brush through my hair.
“You’re one of three capes on my caseload now. It’s a fight every step of the way. To make time, to get through to the tough stuff… not to generalize.”
“Of course not.”
“I only have three data points, but I’m starting to come around to what you said in one of our first sessions. It doesn’t get any easier when you sprinkle some alien space dust on it.”
“I’m agreeing with you just a little bit,” he told me. “You need to attend my sessions with regularity if you’re going to sway me.”
“How are you managing?”
I had to think before I answered. “Frustrated.”
“Breakthrough was told thank you for the useful information about Teacher and everything that asshole is doing, but they wanted to handle it alone. So they tried and they failed. Teacher drops some more data, more reputations get ruined, so far focusing on Warden-peripheral groups. The anti-parahuman groups are finding a new sort of strength, and we have capes actually hiding in the Bunker because they’re worried Teacher will go after them or track them. Not that it helps.”
“So I hear. Dragon is doing what she can to keep people updated, and that sounds more or less like what was passed on to me.”
“Sveta had her procedures, and that was a big distraction, but she’s done for now. She’s having to work her way back from some coping mechanisms, hesitation in movement, and train her coordination. That’s it. I don’t have that as a distraction anymore.”
He nodded. He’d asked for five minutes of my time, but now that he had it, he was standing there, staring out the window, not responding.
I looked out the window too, still brushing my hair. Sveta was on a treadmill now. Three people were, all moving at different speeds, each with their physiotherapists, coaches, or family members.
“Is there an angle here?” I asked, after a few too many seconds had passed.
“A few,” he said.
“I’m open to hearing it.”
“In our first meeting, I laid ground rules, set expectations. I wanted and want to work with you, to set goals and work toward goals, and to help you make progress. I asked for your patience. You missed two sessions in a row, which suggests impatience and doesn’t let me see where you are to make progress.”
I squinted at the window, trying to judge how my damp hair was. I stopped brushing. “My physiotherapist said the same thing.”
“That’s an extension of my point. That you stopped coming in to see me around the time you saw Ms. Yamada. You’ve been pulling away from physio. You are engaged in cape activity. I may not be the most experienced person with capes, but I’ve worked with cops who threw themselves into their work when life got hard. Into their other life.”
“Yeah. Probably,” I said. “It applies. Not going to argue that comparison.”
“Meet me halfway?” he asked. “I can’t help if you don’t work with me, or if I can’t see what you’re doing.”
I shuffled my stuff around, putting the brush in my bag and digging out my notebook. I flipped through. “Did my homework.”
“Not quite as meaningful with therapy as with physio,” Dr. Darnall told me. “But that’s good.”
‘Homework’ in this case consisted of his little ‘draw your mood’ exercise, and answering from a selection of questions. Pick a color to characterize yesterday. Pick a word to characterize how you feel now. If the next twenty four hours looked like a person, what would that person look like?
I liked the person one.
And then numbers. Silly, stupid measures without a yardstick to measure them.
I looked over as Dr. Darnall read. Each ‘day’ was me getting up, then drawing out a circle using the base of the glass of water I kept by my bed. Inside and around that circle, I’d draw to characterize my current state. Below, I’d answer the abstract questions.
In the bottom right, I had my numbers, each with their heading. Mood. Health. Mind. Friends. Family. I hated the 1-10 scale because it was so subjective, and a ten from weeks ago wasn’t a ten today. Instead, I used a plus and minus system, except when a day called for a very specific number.
After that was my notes for physio, my notes for the day, and commentary. Then a new page, a new circle and list of questions and answers, and a new set of numbers.
The page he started on, past a few cursory glances at the preceding ones, was the day after we’d found out about Teacher’s plot. The morning I’d told Sveta to do her thing.
I’d borrowed Sveta’s paint. I’d filled in the circle black.
To characterize the coming day and days, I’d described the days as a person who was bloody from fingertip to elbow, tattered, and looming over me.
Blood because of the imminent surgeries. Because Teacher. And because that had been the day I’d had to pass under the shadow of my sister. Thanks to those tattoos of hers, thanks to that fucking selfish symbology that was supposed to represent me with suns and my face in silhouette, thanks most of all to the color red that stained her arms from finger to elbow and whoever knew how much else, she was that bloody, looming spectre.
But I’d had to.
He read my explanations, ran a finger across the numbers. No pluses, obviously, not so much use for minuses. It had been a day that had caught me off guard enough that there was no saying my mood or my connection to my friends was a minus one or a minus five. Instead a 1, -2, 4, 3, 2. Low numbers.
On the next page. Another circle. Black, but with lines radiating out, shaky, to represent anxiety.
Another, but I’d left the brush on the page, letting the black soak in, bleeding out over text. I’d been so anxious I hadn’t had it in me to sit down and write anything meaningful. I’d gone straight to my physio, then left.
On the third day, a black circle, but with sliver-like gaps. I’d drawn eyes in the gaps. I’d elaborated around, in what I’d intended as rays of the sun.
On the fourth, the same idea, but the eyes were larger, and there was less black. I realized now that I’d invoked the Wretch, with so many eyes, and with the ‘rays’ radiating out having frayed ends, like wavy, reaching arms, fingers extended out.
He paged through the progression, the gradual relaxation. To today. A day where there were no more procedures. Just appointments, plans for lunch, and plans to go catch up with the Wardens. I’d kept up the use of the black paint, but used it to draw the circle, fat and bold and brutish, crushing brush against paper, tracing it around the base of my water cup. Then I’d drawn lighter things and feelings within.
“Walls?” Darnall asked, touching the thick border.
“This doesn’t make up for you skipping visits, but it’s good to know how you were doing and how you are doing,” he said. “There was another thing I wanted to say, again, I’m touching back on what I said before. Goals. Making goals, meeting goals.”
“Doesn’t feel like I’m meeting goals while being kept out of this Teacher bullcrap while the other teams are struggling to get in.”
“When we had our first session you floundered a bit, or- not floundered. Flailed. But you told me a few things that came from the heart and sounded genuine enough that I think they hold true on your best days and your worst days. You wanted to save them. People you cared about, that were put into your charge.”
I focused on Sveta, who was walking across the floor. She looked up, saw me, and squeezed her fish, its eyes bulging out.
Then she disappeared into the locker room to have her shower and get changed.
“I have to admit, I thought it would be a good dramatic moment if she was there when I said this next bit, but… she looks like the weight of a world is off her shoulders, doesn’t she?”
I folded my arms, leaning against the window. I gave him my best stern look. “I think if you keep on talking like that, I’m going to get misty-eyed.”
“Is that so bad? You say you’re frustrated but… let it out? If you’re at the verge of being well and truly emotional for positive reasons, or with people you care about, then do.”
I thought about my earlier feelings about Anelace. Ethan. I didn’t want to date him. I didn’t even like him as more than an acquaintance, let alone a romance of any kind. But he hit the right marks for a fling, a test run. I could imagine him being cool. Awkwardly up-front and blunt, but cool.
“This might be a cape thing, because I’m worried if I do let it out then I might go overboard and hurt someone.”
“First of all, I have to say, if the emotions are positive, can they really hurt someone?”
I thought about letting four years of pent up needs out on a poor bastard like Anelace. I thought too about how, about a year ago, I’d tried handling it as a solo venture, and got so caught up in the darkness in my own head that I hadn’t been able to breathe. I’d thought I could manage just like I almost felt like I could manage now, and I’d ended up in tears instead.
Stupid, and it was the kind of stupid that I really didn’t want a spectator for, even if Anelace was cool.
For now, just… I’d call it a win and a plus in one column or another that I’d been able to privately harbor a nice, healthy fantasy.
And that was without getting into the topic of Sveta. I thought about breaking down into happy tears now, and maybe being unable to get control, walls, and balances all together before something critical happened, and that leading in an indirect way to me being too violent with a cape who didn’t deserve it.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Well, I’ll just say that I don’t think worrying about opening the floodgates is necessarily a cape thing. But- but!”
He’d seen me being ready to protest.
“But,” he went on. “I’ll concede it might make things harder. Do what you have to do.”
“But, you need to make me a concession in exchange.”
“What?” I asked, guarded.
“Recognizing a win and a major goal being completed is another thing on the list of stuff you gotta do. You helped her. This is where it’d be dramatic if she was still down there so I can indicate her and you can look at her and be moved. Drama and presentation are big cape things, right? I’ve got that down right?”
“Absolutely,” I said. I laughed and it came out small and hiccup-ish. I shook my head. “Fuck. No, she’s not there for your fancy dramatic moment that you’re visualizing, but she’s over in the locker room, sore as hell and probably redrawing the shapes and placements for the tattoos she’s already imagining getting for her fancy new body. I think she’s happy and knowing that’s happening where I can’t see it is better.”
“Count your wins as wins.”
“I’m really fucking worried,” I said, and my voice was a hush. “That this doesn’t end happy, despite my efforts.”
“So am I,” he said. “But all you can do is be there. If tragedy’s in store, being close will let you help more. If there’s only more joy, then you lose nothing.”
Sveta emerged from the locker room, looked around, and saw us. She wore a dress that was a riot of color, black leggings, and her patchwork, ankle-length coat. She was shorter than me, the top of her head coming up to my nose.
And she was smiling.
He handed me back my notebook. “Appointment in two days.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
He gave me a look.
“Thank you for this,” I told him. “This talk.”
He left as Sveta approached. There was a moment where it was just me, leaning against the window that overlooked the physio space.
Sveta hugged me, and I hugged her back.
“I’m discovering new muscles through the pain they’re giving me,” she said. “Verdict is pretty good.”
“Good,” I said.
“I might be too sore to walk. Carry me?”
“My arms are too sore. I think you’re going to have to limp along on your own. But you can lean on me.”
“I’d do that even if I could walk perfectly,” she said, turning the hug into a half-hug. Her hand and part of her leg beneath her dress broke apart into a morass of tape-like bands that, after a few false starts, picked up my bag and coat, passing them to my hand.
It was a wet kind of winter day, rain coming down and forming near-immediate ice that broke at the slightest provocation, so many of our hoods were up, our coats fastened up to the highest points.
It was a strange mix, because we were all at different stages in our costume. I had my coat, which was one costume element, Sveta had nothing. Ashley had her costume, but it was covered up by a coat that wasn’t part of the design or aesthetic, she carried an umbrella, and beneath the shadow of that umbrella, white eyes rimmed with black smoked with the effect of Kenzie’s projection lenses.
Tristan was wearing his bodysuit beneath clothing and coat, but wasn’t wearing his armor, Rain had his mask on but was otherwise civilian…
Short of a designated safe zone where we could pull stuff on, there really wasn’t a good way to organize, orchestrate, and be costumed at the exact right place and exact right time.
“How was physio?” Tristan asked.
“Wonderful,” Sveta said.
“My therapist and physiotherapist are coordinating to chew me out on skipping appointments,” I said. “But I talked to Darnall, and it was a good talk. How are you guys doing?”
The response wasn’t immediate or easy. A few glances were exchanged.
“Pretty shitty,” Tristan said. “Sorry to be a downer.”
Sveta nodded. “I get it. I get… facing the fact we might not win this.”
“You know me. I’m the kind of guy who likes to win, so I’m not going to call it quits just yet.”
“Yeah,” Sveta said, giving him an uneasy smile, like she was really trying, but it was hard.
“What about you guys?” I addressed the quieter contingent.
“I miss Kenzie,” Ashley said. “I woke up late and she was already gone on a job. You two were gone. The morning felt empty. Let’s just have our meetings and hear how much worse it all is.”
“There could be good news,” Sveta said.
Ashley turned Sveta’s way, and reached up to lightly pinch Sveta’s cheeks.
“You decided not to use Rain’s blood as part of your body. That’s fine. Sensible.”
“I like you, Rain, but we don’t know how inbred your family is.”
“Wow, woah,” Tristan cut in. “Ashley, what the hell?”
“It’s okay,” Rain butted in. “It’s okay.”
Ashley still had one of Sveta’s cheeks in a light pinch. “You decided not to use my DNA as part of your new body. That’s fine, I’m not holding a grudge, but it shows a grave error in judgment and critical thinking, and if you think what the Wardens have to say today is going to be better than yesterday, then that grave lack of critical thinking may be chronic.”
“Ashley, what the hell?” I asked.
“It’s okay,” Rain said.
“It’s really not, kind of?” Sveta piped in.
“It’s okay,” Rain said.
“I’m going inside where it’s dry,” Ashley said, before turning and walking away.
Leaving us standing in the freezing rain.
“Did I actually offend her?” Sveta asked. “She said it was fine, but now it isn’t.”
“It’s not that,” Rain said. “She went off on someone on public transportation.”
“Went off,” I said, repeating the words. “People-had-phones-out went off?”
“No,” Rain said. He paused. “Maybe. Someone mentioned that people might start targeting her because she’s ex-Slaughterhouse. She’s not dealing with it.”
“I don’t think any of us are,” Tristan said.
“Maybe we go inside and they say, hey, we won,” Sveta suggested. “Crisis over.”
“Want to bet?” Tristan asked. “I will bet you any amount of money.”
“I don’t want to bet, Tristan.”
Tristan shook his head, getting visibly angry. “Byron, you take over.”
Then he blurred.
“Maybe I don’t feel like taking over,” Byron said. But he didn’t change back. He turned his face skyward, letting freezing rain patter against his skin. “Should we go inside?”
We did. Into the Warden’s headquarters. We said our hellos to the receptionist, and joined Ashley where she was pacing by the stairs.
Up the stairs to the password hallway. Rain handled it.
And into the Bunker. The weather wasn’t as bad, though the snowfall was heavier. Sheet metal formed a peaked cover over the path to the Warden’s headquarters.
I exhaled. “How are you guys really?”
“Not so bad,” Byron said, smiling. “But play-acting that we’re down and defeated is kind of bleeding into reality.”
“And you scared the shit out of that guy on the train,” Rain told Ashley.
“He deserved it.”
“Maybe, but we don’t want to make enemies.”
Ashley smiled, “I can deal.”
I made a face, but I didn’t say anything.
Ashley added, “I’m sorry for the comments. There really are no hard feelings, Sveta. My brain comes with zig-zagging chemicals and I would understand if you didn’t want to risk that.”
“That wasn’t why.”
“It’s fine. I’m not bothered-”
“-and I’m sorry for the inbred comment, Rain.”
“It’s all right. I don’t love my family enough to care if it’s insulted, and I don’t think it’s likely. It was funny.”
“You were sounding like you enjoyed yourself,” I commented.
“I was. But I felt bad. Both of those can be true.”
“Tristan and I play-acted a fight this morning,” Byron said. “Started out, uh, getting good things off our chest. Might’ve cut a little too close to the bone a few times by the end. We’ll have to negotiate rules before we do it again.”
“It’s good though,” I said “Frustrations are mounting, we’re at our limit, and Teacher’s won. Our worst traits rise to the surface. We play that up, create a narrative. Do what we can to look like we’re broken so they don’t have a reason to break us.”
“It’s easy for the act to become reality,” Rain said. “Especially when we’re playing the role at any time we’re not here.”
I nodded. He wasn’t wrong.
“Just gotta keep the peace and keep up the act until we’re sure we have enough points of access. Then-”
“A heist,” Sveta said.
“Not really a heist,” Byron said.
“I know. But heists are cool.”
Ashley put an arm around Sveta’s shoulders. “They are. But I would characterize this as a raid.”
“I was thinking surgical strike,” I said.
“Is it really a surgical strike if it’s large numbers, large scale and high on the collateral damage?” Byron asked. “It’s a raid. We’re raiding Teacher.”
The Bunker was now in view. People were gathered around outside, letting snow fall on them while they talked, and others were inside. Construction was ongoing, and would be up until the meeting started, at which point they’d all be told to quit it.
I watched the faces within, tracked the people, and I couldn’t help but imagine that much like my group had tested boundaries and found the willful backslide into bad behavior to be an easy and comfortable slide, there was more chaos and more energy in the mix. All from a little bit of acting, a few pre-plotted incidents.
“Whatever it is, I hope we do it soon.”