Breaking – 14.1

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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.”

“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.”

I started-

“No.  Stop.  Instinct.”

“Instinct sucks.”

“Instinct keeps you alive.”

“Just- let me think on this.  Let me do my thing.”

“Okay.”

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.

“One-”

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.

Woo.

“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.”

“Okay.”

“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.”

“Got it.”

“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-”

“Take one.”

“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.

“Reach deep.”

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’m sweaty.”

“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?”

“Please.”

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.”

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.

Fuck.

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.

“Ambush therapy?”

“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 smiled.

“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.”

“Uh huh.”

“How are you managing?”

I had to think before I answered.  “Frustrated.”

“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.

“Maybe.”

“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.

Just…

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

I nodded.

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.

“Ow?”

“You decided not to use Rain’s blood as part of your body.  That’s fine.  Sensible.”

“Hey.”

“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-”

She’s 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.”

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104 thoughts on “Breaking – 14.1”

  1. So happy for Sveta feeling ok with her human body after years of being hopeless that she’ll be ever normal again.
    After the police story that the last arc was (good arc), now we’ll have an arc filled with action and battles (another promising good arc). I’m very much excited to red.
    How much this raid will last depends of a single factor: No Teachered Contessa – victory for our heroes, but with plenty of efforts and maybe sacrifices.
    Teachered Contessa- not only the raid but the whole story will be over already. What is left to do for us is to bow to our Lord and Savior Teacher.

    1. And to think that Taylor warned Contessa about giving too much power to bullies. Just think about it – how many bullies bigger than Teacher can you name at this point?

      Though perhaps Contessa did understand how Taylor’s lesson applies when it comes to Teacher, and he has already been “Contessaed” (a.k.a. PtVed), and just doesn’t know it yet?

      1. Of course it probably is too good to be true, especially since there may be elements involved that mess with Contessa’s precognition, like trigger events (remember that Teacher has a set of old Cauldron vials), Simurgh, and complex power interactions (mentioned to give thinkers headaches in context of time effects and portals in Brockton Bay).

        In fact I suspect that a big part of the reason why precogs, including powerful ones like Dinah and Contessa seem to be behaving strangely (Dinah) or find themselves in situations we would never expect them to end up in (Contessa) may have something to do with complex power interactions surrounding Brockton Bay, time effects, portals, Kronos Titan, Simurgh, structurally flawed triggers and whatever else “the biggest threat” is about. All of those elements put together sound like they may be complicated enough to be a problem even to very powerful precogs if you ask me.

        1. Maybe even someone (like Ziz or Teacher for example) decided to provoke some of the above problems just to make precogs effectively weaker or even powerless?

        2. Perhaps Solarstare’s personality change could also be explained at least in part by the fact that she has been exposed to a “complex power interaction”. Similarly Tattletale’s headache she had at the end of chapter 13.8, and possibly in several other situations was caused bu the fact that her power was trying to process something too complicated for it.

          We should probably pay close attention to situations when thinkers get unexplained, unexpected headaches or start behaving erratically. It may let us know when something complicated powers-wise is taking place.

          1. Paradoxically Tattletale may be getting away with mere headaches while real precogs seem to be much more affected because her power is much more limited – it works only with data closely connected to what Tattletale can perceive herself and doesn’t try to form any precise long-term predictions. As such her shard be much more difficult to overwhelm.

            A few more thoughts about strong precogs. Doesn’t it seem like the two most powerful known parahuman precogs have their specialties inverted? Eden specialized in long-term, big picture planning, while Scion was more into tactical, short-term side of things. Why then Dinah’s precognition seems far more Eden-like than Contessa’s? The fact that Dinah’s and Fortuna’s precognition seem to have opposite specialities to what we would expect may come from the fact that those shards decided to learn how to cover their deficiencies during this cycle. They are supposed to learn through their connections to their hosts, and it would probably make little sense to try to improve upon what they already excel in, especially since as strong precog shards they needed to be seriously limited not to be a threat to be a threat to the entities.

            By the way, I know that many people (including myself) suspect that Contessa’s shard may be originally Abaddon’s but what if it isn’t? The end of Eden’s memories in Fortuna’s interlude could be interpreted in a way that Eden discarded Abaddon’s precognition shard and substituted it with her own, which caused her to recognize that she is about to die, and right after she crashed that shard went to Fortuna.

            If we assume this interpretation, that interlude doesn’t tell us where Abaddon’s precognition shard went, but we obviously have a perfect candidate – Simurgh. This in turn would mean that Eidolon (who supposedly took a vial with a “foreign agent” that is suspected to come from Abandon) may be working with other Abaddon’s shards. Maybe all of Eidolon’s powers come from Abaddon? Maybe all Endbringers are based on Abaddon’s shards, and were created or “summoned” by Eidolon, because Eidolon’s shard works as something akin to the hub of Abaddon’s shards?

            Finally, here’s a hypothetical way to kill Simurgh. Assuming that her pretercognition can be overwhelmed just like any other thinker shards by exposing it to a too complicated problem (like a complex powers interaction), maybe causing such problem (likely on an even larger scale than something you would need to disable Contessa’s and Dinah’s shards, because Simurgh’s shard probably isn’t as limited as the other two – Abaddon’s shards generally seem to break usual limits) and ensuring that Simurgh is in the middle of it is a way to make her vulnerable to attack? Remember that from Dr. Mother’s interlude we know that Simurgh pretercognition seems to be her only sense – she is completely blind to what’s “here and now”. Take that one power from her, and she may be completely unable to defend herself.

            Maybe Simurgh took an unnecessary risk by coming to Kronos? It sounds like exactly a place where something too big for her pretercognition to handle may happen. On the other hand – perhaps she came precisely because she hopes to prevent something like that from happening, because it could potentially be used to harm her?

          2. Another reason for why Dinah’s and Contessa’s specialities seem to be opposite compared to what we would expect from the entities they came from could be that the entities planned to keep their best precognition abilities to themselves. We know that Scion had his version of Path to Victory (which seems like what should be his best precognition ability), meaning that Dinah’s shard would be no better than his second best. This rises a question – what happened to Eden’s best precognition. Perhaps it was lost or crippled in collision with Abaddon? Perhaps it was lost when she crashed? Perhaps it is still somewhere in her body? I think the answer may be somewhere in Fortuna’s interlude, but it depends on how we interpret this sentence from there:

            In the doing, it alters one of the third entity’s powers, replacing its own ability to find the optimal future.

            It could be even that Contessa has Abaddon’s precognition shard after all, and Ziz (as well as all other Endbringers) is based on one of the “clumps of shards” Eden lost during her final approach to Earth. If they remained “clumped” it would explain why Endbringers each have multiple different powers. It doesn’t seem impossible that some shard capable of precognition ended up in a clump that later manifested as Simurgh.

            If shards in those clumps were not correctly modified before they detached from Eden, or just ended up sharing resources more efficiently between them than not clumped shards did, it could be possible that even if Simurgh’s precognition shard wasn’t that good to begin with, ended up being one of the most powerful ones, likely effectively just as strong or stronger than Dinah’s and Contessa’s, because, unlike Simurgh’s shard, the later two were properly restrained by entities in preparation to give them to parahuman hosts and/or detached from other shards (i. e. not “clumped”) – in case of Dinah’s shard by design, in case of Contessa’s shard as a result of Eden’s impact on the ground.

  2. Not gonna lie, I got a little misty eyed at Sveta being able to control her power, and that doesn’t happen to me often. Well done WildBow, you’ve made I think my favourite character ever, and done it so well that I’m hugely invested in her in a way that I’m not usually invested in characters.

    I look forward to what the future has in store, please be gentle with my emotions. Or don’t, you’re great at writing dark body horror stuff so if you have that in store for Sveta I’m all aboard to curl up in my bed and cry for a few hours.

    1. Is it a bad sign that I thought she was pretty funny?

      And no, by the sound if it they were just acting in order to throw Teacher off the scent.

        1. Yeah, she isn’t doing great, but she apologized afterwards about the stuff she said. Marked improvement even if on some level she meant it.

      1. I love how Rain can’t even say that he isn’t inbred, just that he PROBABLY isn’t inbred. Wasn’t he going to be married to his cousin at one point?

        Hehe. As always, poor, poor Rain.

      2. I kind of don’t get it. To throw Teacher off the scent, they are acting hurt and upset? That would be appropriate for a minor prank, but for a villain plot – I feel it being too insignificant to even bother with.

        1. As far as we know the entire point of Teacher’s plan was to disrupt the cohesion between teams and larger units by causing a host of trust issues, so they’re acting out like they are having those issues to throw Teacher off the scent of the counterattack they’re planning. I think.

          Ashley probably just took advantage of the whole play-acting to get a couple of real jabs in, or she’s more stressed out than she’s letting on about the people recognizing and threatening her in the train. Or both. With her it really could be both.

          1. I think it is pretty likely that at least some of Ashleys jabs were supposed to be real enough to her even if they were masked as a bit of theatrics. Remember that she knows perfectly well that she isn’t very stable emotionally and needs to vent.

            It is probably the same for quite a few other capes. For example I suspect that Lisa keeps getting under people’s skins in part because she knows that that between her power and her personality she can end up doing something she would really regret later if she doesn’t let steam off a few dozen times a day by annoying people the way she does.

  3. SOMEONE GET THIS WOMAN SOME WATER STAT!

    All joking aside (especially the Heist reference) I love the draw my day-mood wildbow. Brings back nostalgic memories, though in my case it was wrote a short-story about the mood.

    And of course, Ashley fake cutting down others was hilariously dark

  4. I was worried for a hot minute there. But glad to see the whole crew back on deck. Well…most of the crew…

  5. Antares quoted that she wanted to lick the sweat off of Anelace and other bodily fluids.

    She also wanted a shower that she didn’t know where it existed.

    Shower. Golden Shower.

    Wildbow is hinting towards her urophilia. Finally. Some actual fucking character development on something we all need to know. You did it again, WomansBras. You know how to keep the majority of your fans invested.

    1. Come on, you know Teacher would have planted that stuff somewhere to discredit her further if it was any close to her real tastes.

    2. Antares quoted that she wanted to lick the sweat off of Anelace and other bodily fluids.

      No, she specifically said that she thinks sweat is “ick.” She was flailing around for something she could engage with, and the fantasy about licking his sweat was one of the misfires.

      1. Thinking about it logically? Yes, she does consider it ick. In the moment? It’s her true desire.

        Not everybody wants to admit their kinks, even to themselves.

    3. See, what I took out of this chapter is that Dean cried during sex. This is fair, I would also cry if I realised my girlfriend had a urine fetish.

    4. Even before opening the comments, I *knew* there would be another sad attempt to force this wanna-be-a-meme here. Guess I’m developing clairvoyance…

      1. It’s not a wanna-be-a-meme. It’s a joke that spun out of control. There’s too much investment in this now. This is my life. Do you think I want to be commenting about a fictional character’s potentiality for water sports? No. I’ve got a final paper due soon. I have a life. But I already started building the mountain out of the molehill. It’s too late to stop now. Send help.

  6. Sveta is going to be intriguingly disappointed in tattoing her new body if it turns out that she preserved her Brute rating and needles can’t penetrate her.

    Gonna have to stick with markers then. Butt also: she redrew stuff on her prosthetic body all the time. Will she truly be able to settle for one design? Get tattoed head to toe?

    Also also, yummy Anelace fantasies. I’ll be in my bunk.

    Also³, I’m with Sveta on this one. Totally a heist.

    1. I feel like she wouldn’t go with tattoos, because they’re too permanent. Hard to change them from day to day.

      Unless… maybe if she learns to rearrange her flesh-tentacles to make different patterns after inking them? Not sure how the setup works, there.

      Heh, flesh tentacles.

      1. I also don’t feel like she would go with tattoos, but not as much because they are permanent (though Sveta certainly does seem to like to work on the artwork she puts on her arms). The reasons I see for her to not go for tattoos are that she probably couldn’t do them herself (as she can do her body paint), and because what tattooed arms mean to Victoria (assuming that Sveta is aware of how much they remind Vicky of Amy).

          1. I think she’s got quite some time before she’ll have that much fine control but you might be right!

    2. Totally with you on the Anelace fantasy thing. Gave me some tingles, which I don’t normally get from ‘Bow’s writing.

      Also still SO, SO happy for Sveta!

    3. > Also³, I’m with Sveta on this one. Totally a heist.

      Sveta probably doesn’t want to call it a raid, because the name brings back bad memories. What Irregulars did in Cauldron could easily be called a ‘raid’ (we’ve been doing it ourselves all the time, and I was surprised to find out that the word has never been used in this context in the entire last arc at least), but I doubt that anyone would call that attack a ‘heist’.

      1. And it could be even more of a heist for Sveta in particular if one of the goals of this attack was to get Cauldron files on C53s pasts (assuming they still exist and are stored there of course). I bet that at least team Breakthrough will be keeping their eyes open for them, and likely even ask Number Man how they looked like and where they were kept last time he was there.

        By the way Harbingers, especially the original one seem to be perfect candidates for people taking part in the planned attack. If not on the front lines, then at least in the way Tattletale did for Weaver’s group that infiltrated the compound back in Worm.

        1. Now that I think about it, wasn’t it the case that ‘C’ symbols C53s were branded with each contained an individual identifier of the C53 in question? Assuming that the C53 files containing details of their past exist, I think it is safe to assume that they contain those identifiers, meaning it should be easy to match each file to a person who still has an intact mark. Could Sveta regain respect and possibly even sympathy and friendship of at least some of the other C53s if she managed to get those files and give each C53 who asks a copy of their individual file?

        2. On the topic of non-hero participants in the attack on Cauldron, I think that other than the Harbingers the Undersiders (or at least Tattletale and Imp), and most if not all of the Faultline’s crew would probably also be very interested in either coming or at least manning the comms.

  7. Wait, what?! Do we finally have two characters with the same first name in this story (Anelace and Assault)? On top of it it looks like the woman Victoria saw during her therapy without a mask on was indeed Bluestocking, meaning that her mask isn’t doing a perfect job when it comes to hiding her identity. What’s next – people connecting cape identities with civilian identities based sound of voice, speech patterns or body language? The closest thing to this that has ever happened before was when pretty much everyone who saw Defiant knew that he was the same person as Armsmaster, except Colin apparently never really intended to hide this fact. And we’ve just had an entire arc almost without capes physically beating up each other (a good thing by the way, especially after the whole Love Lost-Cradle-March series of arcs and their almost unrelenting violence, especially near the end). That’s breaking the unwritten rules of this story! I guess now we know the meaning of the arc title.

    At least Victoria seems to be as fashion sensitive as always, even if at the same time she is going light on makeup (and this is a meaningful change for her! Remember that she treated makeup as the “outer layer” of her body – one she had complete control over she didn’t feel she had over the rest of it).

    1. >Wait, what?! Do we finally have two characters with the same first name in this story (Anelace and Assault)?

      Well, we already had Alan Barnes (Emma’s dad) and Alan Gramme (Mannequin) back in Worm.

      1. Right, I forgot about them. I’m sure we could find more if we looked carefully, but you’ve got to admit that it looks like a very rare situation in Parahumans series. On one hand it makes perfect sense, because it makes it much easier for the reader to understand who the author is writing about at the moment. On the other hand it always bugged me a bit that unlike in real life there seemed to be no such thing as common first names in the parahumans setting.

          1. The only Kurts in the story I can think of are Number Man and his clones. Do you have someone besides them in mind?

    2. And before I forget, Sveta’s choices about the blood vials make perfect sense to me, which has nothing to do with Ashley’s interpretation – Rain and Ashley are great friends, but it is people like Victoria and Armstrong that Sveta considers her family. Jessica probably understood that, and this is why she didn’t give Sveta her blood. It would be difficult to be a therapist for a family member after all…

      1. I like the subtle implication that Ashley considers her blood to just be inherently better than the others.

        1. I wouldn’t call it very subtle… At least Ashley was half-joking, though it clearly hurt her feelings that Sveta did not use her blood.

      1. That’s four pairs of names. Still much less than I think should happen with so many people, but at least looks like I was wrong to suggest that Wildbow does everything he can to avoid such situations. Still it seems that two people with the same name seem to conveniently meet in a situation when they or people around them would use those first names only if they are clones of the same person (with an obvious exception of original Number Man meeting Number Boys, but even then everyone seems to do their best to avoid using Kurt – to the point where the boys actually gave themselves individual numbers to avoid confusion).

        1. At least with Ashleys the situation isn’t as simple, though Swansong’s name and primary color was conveniently decided upon before those two met in prison. The only case when clones remained difficult to distinguish from each other from reader’s point of view was during parts of Worm related to S9000 and for a short time during Citrine’s interlude.

        2. Another thing to remember is this is a superhero story. Not everyone we meet and are introduced to is going to go by their birth name. Most of the time people are going to be called by their cape name, which is involved in branding and is therefore usually as unique as possible. For all we know, Snuff’s civilian name is Dean, and he shares that civilian name with Sprite, Shortcut, and half of Knot.

          1. Still even considered that the number of shared names among people whose first names we know seems low to me. Maybe it is just a cultural bias. In Poland nobody is surprized when three or four kids happen to share a first name in a class of thirty students, even if the name in question is not Anna (by far the most common first name in Poland). Poland is one of the most ethnically and linguistically uniform countries in EU however. Plus with the number of catholics here most children are named after some of the more popular saints, and the reminder usually gets traditional Polish names that stayed in use from pre-christian times. Neither pool of names is all that big. I imagine that in US even the most common names may be not nearly as common as some names often used in Poland.

          2. Yep. In the US and Canada you get fad names, where certain names get particularly popular for a while, but that’s more like having several “Jennifer”s in the same grade, rather than the same classroom. I still find it strange to be reminded that there are a lot of places where its normal to have several classmates with the same name, and none named something like Falcon or Sunset.

          3. Happens in Poland too of course. Just wasn’t sure how strong the effect is in more multicultural places like US or Canada for example, or such fad names stay popular. Moreover the thing I said about Anna has little to do with current trends. It was something I remember reading about a few years ago, and if I remember correctly it was based on data about most of the Polish population regardless of age (either a fairly recent census or a list of Polish citizens, I can’t remember exactly at the moment).

            The names currently given to newborns in Poland may be completely different, but as I wanted to draw the analogy between them and the names of characters in the Parahumans series (who represent a wide rannge of ages after all, even if most of them are between about ten and fourty-something years old), it was probably a better data set to use. In that light I probably shouldn’t have used a class as an example, but maybe something like a firm employing around 30 people in various ages instead? I think that at least in Poland most such firms would still have a fair number of people with the same first names, as some names tend to stay popular in Poland for decades or even centuries.

  8. Typo thread.

    > He hopped up onto the stack of exercise mats, sitting with enough force that Anne Lynn popped up for a second.
    > 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.
    > I hated the 1-10 scale because it was so subjective, and a ten from weeks ago wasn’t a ten today.
    > “Ashley, what the hell?”

    There are too many spaces before these sentences.

    > 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.

    Sounds a bit clumsy. Maybe rephrase it to avoid repeating ‘thoughts’, unless the “clumsy repetition” was intentional, which I guess could be in this context?

    > In that scene, I could reach down, and- there weren’t any ‘no’ flags thrown up in my way.

    There are two spaces between ‘scene,’ and ‘I’ in the chapter text.

    > A woman peered from around the edge of the wall that separated the punching bags from the rest of the rehab center.

    There are two spaces between ‘bags’ and ‘from’ in the chapter text.

    > The weather wasn’t as bad, though the snowfall was heavier.

    Maybe not the best way to put it. The way I understood it was not snowing at all in the city. It was raining instead.

    > “It’s good though,” I said

    There is no dot at the end of this sentence.

    1. Petite, had > Petite, she had
      series of movies > series of moves
      something performance-level (should this be “some”)
      close of distance > closing of distance
      “Ethan!” the > “Ethan!” The
      bags from > bags from (extra space)
      belting in > belting it
      aesthetic, she (suggest making a new sentence here)

    1. Ok, that is three pairs like that already. Still doesn’t seem like much, especially if you consider that as far as I remember we didn’t know Lab Rat’s first name back in Worm, and sadly there is a good chance we will never see Kid Win in Ward or any future Parahumans book, except in a flashback scene, or as a short mention by a person who knew him, and even then quite possibly only as “Kid Win”, not “Chris”.

      1. Victoria has already had a reminiscence about three of the old BB Ward team (I think) playing video games together, where she refers to him as Chris. I think the others were Dennis (Clockblocker) and Dean (Gallant).

  9. Nice to see Sveta didn’t lose her recent Rain-practiced fine power coordination with her new anatomy. Would have been a dark cloud to get her body but revert to full instant kill squeezing tentacles.
    Since her power correctly adapted to her new shape, does this mean the shard found a hub to connect to so it could properly update ? Maybe something specific to Mr. Bough’s power, or Titan-Dauntless ?

    And also, what if Victoria asked Mr. Bough for a procedure as well ? Would something trivial anatomy-wise (like fixing her bullet scar) enable her shard to update her forcefield to her current body ?
    She’s probably very far from trying that, but damn if I’m not curious about it.

    1. Remember that Victoria’s shard is apparently very new and small. It is entirely possible that Sveta’s shard could make grater adjustments than Victoria’s without being able to use other shard’s resources simply because it is more mature.

      I’m not saying that Sveta’s shard didn’t get something from other shards, but at the same time I don’t think there is any reason to assume that she did at this point.

      As for Victoria asking for healing from Mr. Bough I don’t see it happening any time soon. Not just because it is probably not a good idea to ask a known villain to help with something so small, but also because at least at this point Victoria is convinced that she will never let any biokinetic or bio-tinker do anything with her body again.

    2. > And also, what if Victoria asked Mr. Bough for a procedure as well ?

      And what should Mr. Bough expect in return? He’s still a criminal about to be exiled, and he’s already getting a reasonable relaxation of his sentence for helping Sveta. More work would require more compensation which would be already unreasonable, such as skipping the exile altogether and keeping him as a doctor for C53s.

  10. I felt like Vicky might be the only one who isn’t acting how bad she feels. I hope the “Breaking” won’t be about her…

  11. I’ve just thought about two possible reasons why Bonesaw and Nilbog might have stayed in whatever world old Wardens HQ ended up in that have nothing to do with unwillingness to became de-facto prisoners again.

    One is that it may be impossible or impractical to evacuate ALL of the people who ended up in that world, and considering that environments of some Earths may be hostile to humans because of biological hazards having a powerful bio-tinker and biokinetic could be necessary for the people to survive there. The other one is that Bonesaw and Nilbog may be working on some sort of biological weapon to counter “the biggest threat”.

    1. One more possibility that contains elements of the two I’ve mentioned above is that Bonesaw and Nilbog could be working on that Earth’s biosphere to make it suitable for a much larger population in case Gimel needs to be evacuated. This way there would be a place to evacuate to that is hopefully outside of reach of powers like Chiet.

  12. It makes me a bit sad that Amy’s tattoos are seen by Victoria as selfish symbology of her on Amy’s body. I get where she is coming from and dont blame her, but I still remember how those tattoos were a way for Amy to cope with her own thrauma over what she had done, and that it was a really thoughtful act on Marquis’s part that helped him to bond with his daughter, so I cant help but to be sad about it.

    1. Yeah, Victoria hating Amy’s tattoos actually hit me harder than anything else in the chapter. You’re right that we can’t blame Victoria for it, but after seeing Amy’s thoughts when it happened and knowing why she did it makes it actually painful seeing Victoria so far off base.

      1. What did you expect? Victoria has a rather skewed imagine of Amy at the moment, and it is not like Amy had a chance to explain the meaning behind the tattoos or the reason she got them in the first place.

    1. Endbringers appear to be made out of some type of a crystalline material.

      Ziz might simply appreciate hanging around a new family member. She had her own losses, after all.

      (wb, endbringer-pov interlude when?)

      1. At this rate, we’ll probably get a Simurgh PoV chapter, and IRL serial murder rates will steadily rise for the next decade after.

        Nobody will know why, but we’ll all know why.

      2. We got one in Worm, didn’t we?

        Sure, it would be nice to know what the Endbringers are doing now, but as long as “nothing much” is a plausible answer…I’m fine with not knowing.

        1. You mean interlude in arc 28? Despite featuring Simurgh it was written from Dr. Mother’s point of view, who managed to use Clairvoyant together with a couple of Teacher’s students to spy on key people in multiple worlds, including Simurgh. Dr. Mother even noted near the end of that interlude that in her opinion she could read Simurgh “better than she should be able to”.

  13. Here is a thought – since capes who go through Labyrinth-Scrub portals tend to loose their powers (though probably not all of them do – remember that Sveta had no problems going through portals, but apparently lost her ability to move for a while when Dauntless second-triggered), could they provide other trump effects that have nothing to do with just feeding power into nearby power-related disasters – like the “structurally flawed” triggers? Perhaps they could be used as shelters against some sort of power effects?

    Another question is – why do portals seem to block some powers, but not others? Perhaps they only block powers that work by emitting some sort of energy into environment (because they immediately suck that energy in), but don’t affect powers that do no such thing? Maybe it could explain why they seem to stall Victoria’s flight, Cradle’s powers he might have tried to use in Gimel-N portal (I guess his mover power and his shaker power at least), Overseer’s “self-multiplication” (assuming that this is the effect that needs to be sustained by constantly emitting some form of energy from whatever source of that energy is – either each of her copies or whatever “center” or “source” of those copies remains when she is in her usual “diffuse” state), while still allowing Sveta to move, because presumably her power doesn’t work as much by pumping her body with energy needed to puppet it, as by providing Sveta with ability to control a body which has all tissues and biochemistry needed to move, but would normally be unable to be controlled by a human mind? In other words perhaps as far as an ability to just move around goes Sveta’s shard simply provides her with a thinker power needed to control her body (though of course does it in such way that it keeps plenty of control to itself)?

    At the same time maybe Sveta’s power still does put some energy that could be intercepted by a portal into her body, but only to shape it? In other words maybe Sveta regeneration wouldn’t work inside of a portal, while at the same time her power would be completely unable to resist any bio-tinker and biokinetic manipulations of her body (assuming they would even work inside of a portal, which I guess could be different from power to power, maybe with with bio-tinkering being generally a bit more likely to work than biokinetic powers).

    1. Another possibility is that the portals interact with powers quite literally like high-capacitance capacitors – they are great at storing a charge/power if it comes as a steady flow (analogous to a DC), while at the same time almost don’t interact with rapidly changing flows (analogous to a high-frequency AC) in which case some powers would be blocked completely, and any energy released by them absorbed by the portals, some would work just fine, and wouldn’t interact with the portals almost at all, and some (analogous to not-so-high-frequency AC) would be weakened to some degree and potentially have the energy released by them only partially intercepted by the portals.

      1. The partial interception of energy by a portal could even be independent to some degree from its power-weakening effect. Imagine for example that you put something like an high-frequency, high capacity AC source on one side of the capacitor, but oscillating around potential other than 0 when compared to ground (like real-life electric grids often do), and ground the other side. There would be an AC between the capacitor and the ground, but at the same time the capacitor would get a permanent if slightly oscillating change coming from the difference between the potential of the ground and the average potential of the connected AC source.

        1. Of course it should go without saying, but don’t go to the nearest elections store to buy a capacitor and try to re-create the thought experiment I’ve just described unless you really know what you are doing. Neither electric grids nor most capacitors are designed and built with experiments like this in mind. The results could be ugly if you try – from a broken capacitor all the way to a capacitor explosion, fire and/or electrocution, and possibly a few other nasty things I haven’t thought about.

    2. Well, let’s remember Khepri’s control working through portals and Mantellum’s cloaking being blocked by them. I don’t see any pattern here.

  14. “No. Stop. Instinct.”
    “Instinct sucks.”
    “Instinct keeps you alive.”
    “Just- let me think on this. Let me do my thing.”
    “Okay.”

    Dude, you are talking to the wrong lady for this advice.

    Concealer covered a bruise at my neck and a cut near my ear that I’d glued shut.
    Speaking as a guy, I’m sure there are perfectly legitimate uses for concealer, but it still seems…weird that there’s a kind of makeup designed for hiding bruises and whatnot.

    “I’m really fucking worried,” I said, and my voice was a hush. “That this doesn’t end happy, despite my efforts.”
    Glad we’re on the same page, Vic. Shame it’s this page…

    I love that we get these chapters that just ease us into the daily life of our heroes.

    1. I don’t see what’s weird about it. Hiding things is half the point of makeup. Circles under the eyes, zits, birthmarks, rosacea, etc. If people are going to go out of their way to hide something as innocent as a zit, they’re definitely going to try hiding the bruise from when they accidentally shut the door on their face.

        1. Yes, accidentally. I’ve also accidentally opened a door into my face, and I’ve mistaken closed glass doors for open glass doors. Basically what I’m saying is doors are dangerous and embarrassing to operate while distracted.

          1. I totally agree, and add: Here in the UK, signposts are put up in the worst possible places if you aren’t paying full attention to where you’re going and the signs themselves should all be raised about six inches so I can’t bump my head on them.

  15. Okay, everything’s going pretty well for Sveta and Victoria all things considered. Given this IS a wildbow story, I see one of three things happening:
    1. Weld is killed or horribly injured in the raid causing Sveta to spiral out of control requiring Victoria to bring her back.
    2. Sveta is killed or horribly injured in the raid causing Victoria to spiral out of control requiring Jessica and the group to bring her back.
    3. Someone ELSE we care about gets killed or horribly injured in the raid causing the audience to spiral out of control requiring Wilbow to bring us back.
    Rains probably safe though since we’ve all become accustomed to his suffering.
    Also it’s only a heist if they’re stealing something. If they’re attacking, then it’s a raid.

  16. I’ve been thinking for a while about how the city from Ward doesn’t look like “a city with depth” the beginnings of which we saw in that scene in Taneral e.1, during which Valkyrie was officially introduced as a member of Wards. That scene happened six months after Gold Morning, and during it we saw Bet’s New York being rebuilt, it was mentioned that

    Here, in this city, one could travel to one area and make a turn into another world. There, they would find the fledgling beginnings of an expansion, sprawling from that central point.

    The way it sounded then there have been plans to build the entire city across worlds. It has been almost two years since then. What happened to those plans? Bet was obviously mostly abandoned because of the ongoing ecological disaster and the threats like the machine army or wandering Nilbog’s creatures, but what about other words? Why when the city has over 50 million inhabitants we heard no mentions about city districts outside of Gimel? Why everything we saw roughly in the sphere of influence of the city was the prison, corners like N, which were mostly controlled by villains? Why there haven’t even been mentions of actual active, populated city districts outside of Gimel that were under control of the city? Why the state is called Gimel.US, as if it had no ambitions to really spread outside Gimel for anything more than things like some agricultural, fishing, mining or lumber industries? Has it ever been explained in Ward? Was it something that happened only because it turned out to be too difficult to do because villains had too much influence outside Gimel? Because it was impossible to sustain and control such off-world districts due to logistical or communications problems for example? Was it something that Citrine’s government decided not to pursue for some reason (like a warning that it would be impossible for a single government to control put somewhere in Accord’s notes, and the fact that the government likely wants to keep such control for some reason)? Is it something that the government of the city is even planning to pursue in the future?

    Why what was supposed to be a “city with depth” ended up being as little more than just another “broad” city mostly contained in one world, only with little more tham some small outposts in adjacent worlds?

    1. Also why the traffic in the city and especially around the portals looks the way it does? On one hand probably relatively few people in the city own private cars (which is reasonable considering that those probably aren’t a priority, and most people probably use public transportation to commute), but the traffic jams seem to already form in some places around the city except near tha portals. The way I remember it the only portals we saw that had something even close to a heavy traffic around them were the ones that were used to evacuate people from Bet.

      On the other hand why, even with public transportation there seemed to be no serious increase in traffic after the portals explosion? One would think that it should happen with exploded portals forcing detours and likely also cutting railroads and possibly also main roads used by both the public transit system and by private car owners. Or is it something that actually happened, but Victoria with her ability to fly, and the fact that she actually started to use it more not long before the “portals explosion” has failed to notice?

      1. Or perhaps it is not so much that Victoria tends to fly over traffic as the fact that she keeps mostly nocturnal lifestyle typical for capes? But even then shouldn’t there be plenty of activity around the city at all hours? With how quickly the city needs to expand just to keep up with demand for housing alone one would expect that many people would work night shifts which should translate to a fair amount of traffic at all times.

  17. Here’s what Imp told about Teacher in the last interlude of Worm, and Bitch’s response:

    “You know how Tats said he’s like the gatekeeper? He’s like an asshole, standing in the middle of the elevator doors so they won’t shut. You can kick him in the balls, but then you’ve got to deal with his friends, you’re dealing with being the jerkass that kicked someone in the balls and you’re maybe dealing with the big bad motherfucking dude that just came up in the elevator, who wasn’t coming out because there was someone in the way. Someone you removed from the way by kicking him in the balls.”
    […]
    “Can we kick him down the elevator shaft before the big guy comes up?” Rachel asked.

    What I’m afraid of is that everyone will learn that the answer to Rachel’s question is “no” when it will already be too late.

    Having said that I wonder if the Undersiders and D&D have already made joint petition to introduce a change in the building code that requires to have a parahuman-proof cell at the bottom of every elevator shaft built in the city. This way if Undersiders somehow happen to literally do to Teacher what Imp suggested they should figuratively do, they will also end up doing what Dragon and Defiant promised they will do to Teacher in Saint’s interlude.

    1. More seriously, what do you think are the chances that various elements of the extended Teacher’s organization will go to war both with each other and the rest of the world when he is gone? As bad as Teacher is, he may be the only person at the moment who can actually be in a position to prevent various enemies of the city (from warlords on corner worlds to powers like Chiet) from actually attacking or otherwise directly acting against it.

      1. I think there are more chances that his organization either dissolves or someone takes over than it gets split into parts hostile to each other. And as for the war with the rest of the world, he’s already at it, it’s just some people (like Cheit) still think that they are his allies. So his method of preventing the city from attacks would likely involve selling it out to its enemies or taking it over while being (temporarily) allied with its enemies. Either way I don’t think that inhabitants of the city would appreciate his protection. And as for the big bad motherfucking dude – well of course we will hear from him at some point later. But I think it will be someone Teacher didn’t even know that he was in his way, let alone intended to stand there. I’d bet on Sleeper.

        1. Remember that the big bad motherfucking dude was a metaphor Imp came up with to explain Rachel Tattletale’s words about “dynamics to pay attention to, group interactions, politics, there are unwritten rules, and the nuances of what happens if and when we’re viewed as the aggressors when we violate the truce.” The way I see it the organization may initially fall apart, but soon after that some of its elements may start subjugating the others and forming power blocks capable of threatening the city. In other words various teapot emperors will not suddenly get a bright idea to charge a city alone as soon as they learn of Teacher’s defeat. They will do it united under a single banner, or as members of at most a few competing power blocks. Weather it will be Chiet, Litttle Midas’, Bluestocking’s, Prancer’s or some other banner remains to be seen. I wouldn’t even exclude a possibility of someone like Marquis or Chris trying to somehow act against the city in such situation…

          1. And let’s not forget that there are currently people with Teacher who could form their a power block around them – like the Fallen, Ingenue, or possibly even an Overseer or (possibly mastered) Contessa. Some of his former associates – like the Order, Lung or even Megacluster, Dinah’s anti-parahumans or even the machine army or Damsel could decide to act with Teacher out of the picture. Not necessarily because all of them worked with him. Some (I’m looking at you Ashley Black) could simply decide that with him out of the picture the situation is chaotic enough for them to make their moves.

  18. The first time that Brian had sex with Taylor, she let him cover the both of them in his darkness so he was the only one that could see and have control.

    I find it interesting (but not surprising) that Victoria’s shower fantasy with Anelace shares that same aspect of control.

    And we knew that Victoria’s main trauma was almost ever-present, but…

    “… 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.”

    … the fact that It doesn’t let her masturbate… clarifies her reticence to dating a little bit more?

    On a different note…

    “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.”

    This exchange stuck with me and i can’t figure out “why” or how to put it in words.

    Maybe…

    A metaphor for solidarity?

    “I’m too damaged to carry you, but you can lean on me”?

    Anyway…

    “I like you, Rain, but we don’t know how inbred your family is.”

    This was easier to figure out.

    It was like a guilty “XDDD”.

  19. What’s Sveta’s new cape name going to be? Garotte doesn’t seem to match her new body. Maybe something ribbon-based to reflect her new “tape-like bands”?

    1. She hasn’t gone by ‘Garrote’ for a long time, and she didn’t like the name when she did use it. It wasn’t a name she chose, but rather a name picked for her by the authorities that had to find a way to capture and contain her. I think she’s going to remain ‘Tress’, since that name she did pick and it’s not got as many bad memories for her as ‘Garrote’ does.

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