There were no big television cameras to capture us, no news crews with their own setups. Just the people with laptops hooked into masses of wires that seemed to weigh more than the laptops themselves, those wires threading their way beneath seats to the big screens at the back. But there were people with phones out.
The thought crossed my mind that we could have Kenzie intercept anything too crippling. It was a fleeting thought, and one that sat uncomfortably in my head after it had fleeted.
“You don’t sound surprised,” Gary Nieves said. Rain’s statement had thrown us all for a loop, and whatever else he was, slimy fearmonger, a scarier kind of politician than even Citrine, a stubborn asshole, he was used to this battlefield, under the withering stares of uncountable eyes, where every word mattered.
I could see Rain hesitate.
My own thought was on how to handle the link to Citrine. And it wasn’t an easy route to take, because I wasn’t at peace with the choice to work with her.
“It sucks,” Rain said. He reached up to touch his hair or his face and he seemed to realize, belatedly, that he still wore his mask. Rather than stumble, he jumped into his next statement as if invigorated. “All of this is scary, and what you describe doesn’t sound good, but I’m- we’re living it. It’s scary to think about capes taking over worlds, but I’ve seen it. I saw the woman who used to rule Earth Shin take steps to reclaim her throne, and I.”
He stopped there for just a bit longer than a fraction of a second.
“We saw her die,” Tristan filled in. “She tried to take over, but the Wardens were watching her, her enemies were watching her, and when she made an attempt she was killed. Imprisonment and trial would have been nice, if I’m being honest, but… no choice.”
She was throwing buildings around.
“And now others step in to fill the void. Her sister.”
My sister. Amy.
It was tough to hear, but I had kind of anticipated that line of attack. I felt irrationally pissed off, which was a lot because I had a right to be pissed that he was picking at my scabs.
“We don’t talk,” I told him.
“Shouldn’t you? Putting aside the fact that you’re family, you grew up together, you seem to be implying you’ve taken on the responsibility of watching and handling the dangerous ones before they get too far.”
“Not my team. All heroes. Even some of the villains.”
“How good a job can you do if you live with one for most of your life and you can’t even see that she’s deranged enough to dismantle human beings and put them back together wrong?”
“How good of a job can any of you capes do policing any of the others? You’ve missed some pretty big stuff. Even among your families.”
“I can’t speak for my teammates or the other heroes,” Tristan said, “But there are others watching what’s going on in Shin. The last I heard, they were keeping parahumans contained to one area and letting the rest of that world get back into its own rhythm.”
“But what I can say,” Tristan added, with more vigor, bullying his way through, “sorry to interrupt, but I wasn’t done. What I can say is that people are watching out, and I think we’re doing okay.”
“To go back to the topic of her sister-”
“Why?” Swansong asked. She was incensed enough to make me worry. “To poke at old wounds?”
“Easy,” I said. “It’s my wound and I’m not getting heated here.”
“Your sister, Antares, who is supposedly being watched, apparently just did to someone else what she did to you four years ago, when she put you in the hospital. She was sick then, she’s sick now, and no, I don’t think anyone’s watching closely enough.”
Ashley took a step forward before I could even process that mental image. I did a full one-eighty degree turn, my hand going out to almost punch her collarbone more than I put my hand out to stop her. The heel of my hand rested against bone, while my eyes dropped down, my expression tense. I was sure I was giving the crowd a good show- I turned away a bit and let my hair fall down into the way to hide my expression.
“Stop,” I said, my voice a whisper.
“I’m sure people are looking after the situation,” Tristan said. “We might not catch everything, but we don’t want any of the bad stuff any more than you do. We watch because we have to. Like Precipice says, this stuff you’re bringing up can be scary, our own lives are on the line when we go out there to stop despots and monsters, and we can’t afford not to keep an eye on the dangerous ones.”
His voice was confident, steady. I focused on it.
Misinformation, I told myself, and I willed it to be true. Misinformation that Amy had done something anything like what she’d done to me. A teacher plot, aimed at making this worse.
I had a feeling in my throat like I wanted to groan or to throw up. I swallowed it, doing my best to logic it away with the mantra of misinformation.
Gary was saying, “Yet our current mayor, tell me, should I call her Jeanne or Citrine?”
“Call her whatever you want,” Tristan stated. Which- shit. Sounded combative.
“Call her Jeanne Wynn, I think,” I told Gary. I couldn’t afford to let the others stumble through this, with their own worst traits being highlighted. I couldn’t let myself sink into my own worst mires of thought. That was what Teacher wanted. More confident, I turned his way and said, “The amnesty where we said ‘your past crimes don’t matter unless you commit more’ came into effect as a combination of deals we had to make to get people on our side to stop the end of the world-”
“The world ended,” Gary said.
“To stop it from being worse. So people struck deals, and to some degree, all of this was a wake-up call for an awful lot of… awful people, and there was a lot of room for second chances.”
“We’re still talking about Jeanne Wynn?”
I had more vigor as I talked. Citrine was a safe subject. Not an easy one, but a safe one. “I’m talking about a lot of people. Mayor Wynn’s power doesn’t change how she leads. It doesn’t influence her decisions. Am I happy about it? No. She was a member of one of the groups that had a stranglehold over my hometown. But they kept the peace, and that’s better than some. If she wants to be a regular mayor, use her experience with capes to make decisions in a city where cape stuff is pretty major? I think I can make peace with that.”
“If she’s lying about who she really is then can we trust her in anything else?”
“I think to make that decision for yourself, you need to look at how she’s done. Again, I’m not dancing with joy given past history, but I’m personally giving her her second chance, and objectively speaking, I think she’s doing a good job.”
“It’s the face she shows us. She was second in command of a crime syndicate, until the leader died, at which point she assumed control. Protection rackets, pressuring politicians, sheltering and hiding villains on the run from law enforcement, kidnapping, ransom. She has murdered people. You’ll jump in here to talk about amnesty, I’m sure-”
He let the statement hang, pausing to give me room to do just that. I didn’t take the bait.
Be calm. Process. Think about the fact that he’s a vehicle for Teacher’s weaponized information and misinformation.
“-But we didn’t get a say in that. No vote or referendum was held, none of the unpowered were counseled that I’m aware of. We weren’t asked if we wanted to make this deal-”
“You’d rather Scion have killed every last one of us, unpowered and powered alike?” Ashley asked. “It took every last bit of strength we had, including the assistance we had to barter for, you insipid dolt.”
“Easy,” I said, even as my heart rate tripled. Damn it.
“I’ll let your outburst pass without comment,” Gary said. “Even if we accepted the amnesty, we have to limit it to not punishing people for crimes committed on Earth Bet. That’s it. It doesn’t mean we can’t look at what she’s doing as a politician and wonder just what it is she’s doing behind the scenes, knowing how she’s operated in the past. Is she making threats? Is she using her power to hold people hostage? Is she killing people who get in her way?”
“Is she?” Tristan asked.
“It would explain a lot of things,” Gary said.
“Can you clarify what those things are?” Tristan pressed.
“How easy it was for her. How people never seemed to be in her way for very long. How she always seemed to have funds.”
I could have imagined a less seasoned politician stumbling when pressed for details. It was a thing my mom had done when I was a kid that I’d picked up and done myself until friends in early high school told me to quit it. ‘Name one instance’. It worked great to shut down arguments until someone answered and you were quibbling over whether the instance counted. My mom had been surgical with when it was applied, picking instances where she knew it would frustrate any arguments. Tristan wasn’t surgical.
I jumped in with, “Jeanne Wynn was a candidate because she invested heavily into things on this side of the portal. She planned, and that’s why she’s so well set up.”
“With illicit money.”
“I don’t like it either, but in retrospect? A lot of the important buildings and infrastructure we’re using now are because she thought the world might end, and she planned around it, investing. She was right, and we’re all better off for her planning. I’d rather she did what she did than us not have the community centers, power, trade deals, concrete, prefab building parts, and food that we have.”
“If she knew about the end of the world then why didn’t she stop it?” Gary asked.
“Do you really think she knew about Scion and didn’t stop it?” Tristan asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “At this point you just sound like a sore loser. Things were bad with the Endbringers and other incidents. People everywhere were thinking about their options, prepping for disaster. She was just smart about it.”
Thank you, Tristan.
I knew what answer I might’ve given if I were Gary. I would have said yes, yes, she could have known and she could have been calculating enough to hold her tongue. I knew enough details that I didn’t think it was the truth, but it would have been a decisive attack on her character. Thing was, Tristan was good at speaking. He had a forceful and combative approach that didn’t come across in his tone, but made people listen, gave him momentum, and let him drop questions any opponent would be happy to answer, and even drop in casual insults like ‘sore loser’ and then string it all together in a way that made it hard to combat. Gary couldn’t answer the question with an attack on her character without being the sore loser, couldn’t answer the sore loser comment without sounding like he didn’t have an answer, and the audience came away with what Tristan wanted.
Funny thing was, I was realizing that Gary had all the answers, he was ready, he’d probably gone through a hundred mental recitations of this debate or similar debates since getting the material he’d shown from the slides. He’d already shown himself to be quick in answering the tough, accurate questions. But when Tristan came at him with his own unique approach and a less stellar argument, Gary seemed a little flat footed. Rain had done something similar, but without the raw presentation.
“You’re devoting a lot of effort to defending her,” Gary said.
“Because you’re devoting a lot of effort to attacking her,” Tristan said.
I followed up. Bring things back to center. Rain established our thesis, whether I love it or not. “Precipice said this all sucks. He’s right. The world ended, things aren’t great. This cape stuff? People taking over worlds? You’re right to be upset and angry. He’s right in agreeing to that. I don’t think you’re right that every world is taken. Not Shin, probably. Mayor Wynn has given us no indication she’s using powers to rule us. She was elected.”
“Somehow. And she did get there using her advantages. As you said, money that came from caped villainy.”
“Sure,” I said. “Probably. But as much as I don’t like her or her role in what happened to my hometown, I do think she wants the same thing we all want. She wants us to get through this winter. She wants us to thrive. My team? We want the city to thrive. The best of us are getting bloody, injured, and traumatized fighting the worst of us.”
“The best of us,” Gary answered, his voice taking on a different tone. “Do you really think you’re better than us?”
“The best capes, fighting the worst capes,” I told him. To balance my answer, I added, “I can’t think of any non-capes I really dislike, let alone qualify as the ‘worst’, and I can think of a lot I love.”
“And here I hoped I was getting a refreshing bit of honesty from you all,” Gary said. “Too bad. It’s interesting, though. The ‘best’.”
Fuck me, he was really seizing on that.
“I think the sorts of people who have fought Endbringers a dozen times, dedicating their lives to helping others, they deserve the title of ‘hero’, or of ‘best’, just as much as any soldier who fights for our country, Bet or Gimel,” I told Gary. I took a page from Tristan’s book. “The therapists who kept them sane through it, Patrol leaders, lawyers, I know them and I consider them among the ‘best’ too.”
“PRT directors who keep an eye out for those who need help,” Ashley said.
“Friends,” Rain said, barely audible, certainly not audible to Gary.
“The people you’ve listed off are all cape-related,” Gary said.
“It’s the life I’ve lived,” I answered. “I was a cape from the beginning.”
“And it consumes everything,” Gary said. He stared at me, his eyes level, not even wavering. “I’m here because I don’t want it to consume us.”
His arm swept out to incorporate the crowd.
Rain had his thesis. This was Gary’s.
Rain shifted position, like he was about to speak, and then stopped. Maybe nervousness.
I tried to fill in for him. “We don’t want it either, and believe me, we’ve seen and survived some of the worst of what’s out there.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gary said.
“I’ve pulled an actual human baby out of my throat after someone tried to implant it in there. I’ve seen people cut into fist-sized cubes and have to live through it. Some of my teammates got similar treatment.”
Rain touched my arm, and I thought at first it was support or solidarity. Then I felt the fingers of the small arm that gripped me down by the elbow tighten.
“I grew up with the bad, all-consuming stuff too,” Rain said. “The isolated scary stuff is bad, but there’s good stuff too. Good people. People who are trying to help and fighting on the exact same side, for the same things you’re fighting for. I don’t think that’s ridiculous.”
Right, we’re not trying to scare them. That’s why he stopped me.
“I said you’re being ridiculous because you talk about surviving the worst when you represent it,” Gary said.
What the fuck, Gary?
“I’ve researched the various teams. I know who you are, though it took some reminding. You had an attempted murder charge for apparent fratricide while they were trying to figure out how to charge killing someone you share a body with. You were Fallen and were directly complicit in the mall fire that killed over a dozen people-”
Each statement was punctuated by a shift in the tone of things, reactions from the room. I could hear his voice echoing, a half-second late, as the speakers outside carried it to the crowd beyond.
“-Your own mother just went to Earth Shin for medical care because you struck her so hard you took part of her head off and damaged her spine.”
I dropped my eyes to the ground. Gary apparently knew the fucking particulars better than I did. Fuck.
I wanted to retort but the mental picture took my breath away. I’d left the hospital wanting to keep anyone from ever having the same kind of fate I had, and then I’d hurt my mom that badly.
And they’d taken her to Amy. Who had allegedly done something.
I didn’t want to connect those dots.
“And you were Slaughterhouse Nine,” Gary finished. His capstone.
“So stupid,” Ashley told him.
I reached out, my hand on her shoulder. She looked at me, and her eyes- white from corner to corner, black wisps of smoke curling out from the edges of the eyelids, exaggerating black eyelashes. Her eyes were empty, blank.
“We should go,” I said.
She batted my hand away from her shoulder.
“Stupid, small man,” Ashley said. She took steps forward, and I flew a bit to keep more or less in front of her. I was ready to tackle her to the ground. My wariness and tension seemed to be reason enough for Gary to back up.
I spared a glance, and saw Sveta was pushing past the crowd that was standing around the rows and columns of chairs. Ashley took advantage of that glance to step around me. I didn’t spare another look for Rain and Tristan.
“You have all of these facts but you. Know. So. Little,” she told him, making each of the last three words its own punctuated statement unto itself, accusatory, hissed, and pejorative, in that order.
People were standing from their seats, backing up.
“Swansong,” I said, my voice stern. I used my aura, the radius just wide enough to catch her and none of the audience. She snapped her head around. “No.”
“Ashley,” I said, shifting my tone. I spoke to her more as a friend, “Please.”
I noticed blue motes. Not many, but some. Byron was using his power, keeping it ready. A blast of water, in case she lunged for Gary? I hoped it wouldn’t come to that, because it implied I wouldn’t be in a position to tackle her out of the air.
She reached out in my direction, and it wasn’t a warning or a threat of a blast aimed at annihilating me. Just- a hand extended, relaxed.
I grabbed it, and I felt her shift her grip, her fingers interlacing with mine. She half-turned, reached for the wrist of the hand I held, and undid something before twisting it, partially using my grip to help the twist. When she pulled her hand free of mine, the movement was ginger, gentle, and careful to keep everything from elbow to fingertip pointing up. It required my cooperation, to let go of her fingers, and I gave it.
Her fingers were stiff in their movements and slow as she touched her other wrist. She didn’t keep her left hand upright, and instead let her arm swing down. The swinging motion coupled with the hand being unattached saw it sliding out, flying in Gary’s general direction. Pale and slender, each nail was done up in black and white polish.
It hit the ground like a lead weight, landing halfway between herself and Gary. Fingers twitched as they curled up like the legs of a dead spider. Nail polish splintered off.
Her other arm didn’t swing down, but simply lowered. I saw the hand slide free, striking the ground near her foot. The pipe that extended out from the bottom end of the wrist stuck up for a moment, before it toppled and hit the ground with a sharper sound.
“They took my hands,” Ashley said, staring at Gary, extending her arms partially up and out. The stumps were capped with metal discs with circular holes in the center for the hands to slide into, slick with blood and lubricating oil in equal measure. “They held me at knifepoint when they made me join. They took my hands, they took my ability to speak, and they made me act like one of them. I wasn’t an angel before, but the fact they had to make me says I wasn’t really Slaughterhouse Nine.”
I relaxed, dropping the six inches to the ground. With that, the tension of others in the room began to dwindle. One or two people sat. Others remained standing but didn’t look ready to bolt.
“Wherever you’re getting your information, you’re not getting the full picture,” Ashley said. “You’re attacking us for things that are far more complicated and unpleasant for us than you’re aware. I hope so, in any event. Because if you aren’t ignorant, you’re malignant.”
I bent down, picking up he hand by Ashley’s foot. When I looked up, Gary was bending down to pick up her other hands.
Rain’s voice was low and quiet, “Be gentle with it. I know she dropped it to make a point or something, but if you actively tamper with it it or touch the sensors near the metal bone, it might muck with the settings.”
“I’m not a brute,” Gary said. He weighed it in his hand, and he seemed surprised at how heavy it was. “I’m not the bad guy here.”
I wondered if the implication was ‘but you are’.
“My brother isn’t a villain either,” Byron said. Right, they’d changed to have water available. The motes were gone. “He was a scared teenager and I’ve forgiven him for what he did to me. I feel like that’s where things should end.”
“From my experience with law, there’s a reason victims can’t rescind charges. It’s up to the prosecution, because you need that objective observation and involvement.”
“Victims can testify, though,” Byron said. “If there’s a jury, victims can make their statements. If he’s on trial, this is my statement.”
“You’re not on trial,” Gary said.
“Aren’t we?” Rain asked. “Aren’t we always? We’re being judged and condemned every damn day we’re out there. I was damned for being powerless before I got my powers and damned for being broken after I got them. Family judges us, friends judge us, and it’s usually harsh judgments. You’re being judged and assessed by your audience, Mr. Nieves. They’re always doing it. That’s just how people work.”
“I don’t think you capes are on trial nearly enough, considering the damage you can do.”
“I agree,” Rain said. “It took too long for the Fallen to be stopped. I saw a lot of people get hurt. I’d have liked to see more justice, during that period of time.”
The conversation and its tone had shifted. We’d moved forward, around Ashley, and Gary had stepped forward to pick up the hand. There was an audience, but our tone and our volume was more conversational now.
I spoke up, matching my tone to the conversation, despite my anger and anxiety. “I want to get to a place where there is more justice, where the courts are equipped and able to act against parahumans that cross the line.”
“Even if those parahumans smash their own mothers’ heads into a wall?”
“Even,” I said. I didn’t flinch. I stared him down instead. “It was a miscommunication, me not telling her enough about my power, maybe a bit on her, for not letting me be in a position to tell her. That sounds a lot shittier to say than I think it was.”
“It’s complicated,” Rain said. His old catchphrase.
Ashley wasn’t asking for her hand back, and she wasn’t lifting her arm up to indicate for Gary to give the hand back. I felt like it would be forcing the issue to take the hand I held in my own, cold and otherwise human, like the chunks of the Navigators had been, and give it to her.
She wanted him to offer, and he wanted… I wasn’t sure.
“I’ve seen so many people die,” Gary said. “If we don’t take a harder line now, then I’m going to see more die.”
“A lot of us were there, face to face against Scion,” Byron said. “We saw deaths firsthand. We were there for outright warfare against the Fallen. Dozens died. I don’t want to one-up you, sir, but I think we’ve seen more die than you have, and it doesn’t hurt any less.”
Byron shifted back to Tristan. Gary looked wary about the blurs, as every small difference in detail between the two brothers was bridged by a brush-stroke smear of shadow, before consolidating in the new form.
“I think we want everything you want,” Rain said. “But we can’t be debating you or defending ourselves against allegations while we work toward that end result.”
“Vastly, painfully simplified allegations,” Tristan said.
“Well, if you wanted to derail my speech and the promotion of Mrs. Darleet’s book, I think you succeeded.”
“No,” I said, and my voice was harder. “Swansong just laid herself bare, showed you her disability. You’re holding the evidence in your hand as we speak.”
“You used me for ammunition,” Ashley said. “I get to say something back. Isn’t that how a trial goes? If I don’t get to, it’s something else entirely, and you might as well have the common decency and the feeble trace of courage to follow through and either hang me or burn me at the stake. Let me go out in a dramatic way, but don’t you dare misrepresent me.”
“I’m not going to lynch you. You’re being ridiculous. We’re asking questions.”
Ashley answered, “Without us here to answer them. When we do answer them, we’re accused of derailing. The difference between us, Gary, is that you have a kind of power here, and you haven’t even tried to be just, kind, or fair. But in my experience with Breakthrough, I’ve seen that no matter how rocky the road gets, and it’s rocky right now, it feels like we’re losing or we’ve lost… we still try.”
Gary still held Ashley’s hand, and he seemed lost in thought for a minute. No retort, no response.
Then he looked at the base of the hand, where what Rain had called the ‘pole’ stuck out, to be threaded into the hole in the stump and root in the forearm, he looked at Ashley’s arm, and he seemed to realize how weird it was that he was holding a girl’s dismembered hand. He extended his hand, holding the hand by the wrist.
Ashley put her arm out, hole pointed at him, and he had to turn the hand ninety degrees to stick the pole out and put it into the hole. There was a faint sound like something sliding into a sheath, Ashley pushed out to help the final connection pop, then twisted her arm around to rotate the hand before something caught.
“Thank you,” she said. She flexed her hand, forming a fist, then moving the fingers. She turned to Rain. “Feels wrong.”
“You threw your hand down like someone throws down a gauntlet in a duel. It’s going to screw up the fine tuning.”
“Guys,” Tristan said.
“You might have really hurt relations with Shin or Cheit,” I said. “I don’t know what happens to the mayor, but if this leads to her being ejected or removed, I think it hurts all of us.”
“We can disagree on that.”
“We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, if you need help with something else, if you have questions or if you want to meet us halfway? You can contact us. I think there are better ways to use the listening ears you have. If you get tired of tearing things down with no plan to build them back up, I have ideas about how you could educate and inform people, or broaden what we have in the way of the Patrol, that lets people have more involvement.”
“Something else,” he said. “In other words, you think I need help with what I said about the mayor, Cheit, or Shin, but you won’t give it.”
I thought about it. That had kind of been my intended implication. There were so many toes to step on. Territory I didn’t want to get into. Like my sister.
“If it does turn out that that’s the case, reach out. We’ll see what we can do.”
Mr. Nieves didn’t nod or shake his head. He turned to the table where the two and a half pounds of laptop and twenty pounds of cabling were, motioning for them to wrap things up. I heard the blip of the speakers being disconnected as wires were undone.
And that somehow felt like the end of the conversation. I backed away, Ashley turned. I spotted Sveta in the crowd, looking relieved.
That was it.
“Want a book?” Mrs. Darleet asked, as we went to go. When everyone had backed up, she’d stepped away from her podium and into the edges of the crowd. Now she was back at it.
“Read it,” Ashley said. “I was talking to my team about it earlier.”
“That’s great,” the woman said.
Probably a publicity stunt, or a chance to make us look bad when we refused, or pure irony. I didn’t have a read on her. But whatever. I held out my hand, took the book, thanking her. People would interpret our taking the book however they wanted.
The crowd got out of our way.
We left it behind, and I hoped that even if we hadn’t defused it all, we’d at least raised questions or broken their stride. I hoped the video wouldn’t look as bad as I worried it would.
“He played dirty,” Tristan said. “Bringing up the shit he did.”
“Swansong called him small. He kind of is. He’s using the only tools he has to try to effect change. I remember what it was like, being unpowered in a powered family, how little it felt like anything I did mattered.”
“Pretty generous of you,” Tristan said.
Sveta exited the building, making her way through the crowd and crossing the street.
“I dunno,” I said.
Sveta joined us.
“I think you’re going too easy on him, offering help, bending the knee,” Ashley said.
Rain answered her, “We’re on the same side. We want the same things. It’s a… minor difference, I guess, but an important one.”
“A distinction,” I supplied the word.
“What distinction?” Ashley asked.
“He’s anti-parahuman, except, my experience says he wouldn’t call himself that. He’d say something like ‘I’m aware of how dangerous parahumans are’ and he’d have some stats to back it up. Thing is? So are we. We’re very aware of the threat posed. We’re more aware. The dif- distinction is that he’s focused on the overall threat. We’re focused on specific threats, the worst of them.”
Ashley stared int the silvery-white lenses of Rain’s mask.
“It’d be nice to work together or whatever when it comes to dealing with the worst capes. Focus energies,” I said.
“Exactly,” Rain said. “There’s overlap, common interest. We all want certain capes that are abusing their powers, abusing the system, and abusing others gone. Maybe we can loop Gary into that. Get him on board.”
“It’s not that easy to change someone’s mind,” Ashley said.
“I know it’s not, believe me. I’ve dealt with my share of bigots. But I think there’s a chance,” Rain said.
“It’s not simple,” I agreed. I still had anxiety and dark thoughts pushing in at the edges from what had been brought up. I wanted to move, to act, to go punch bad guys, just to keep that stuff at the edges from creeping in enough to matter. Move fast enough and that kind of thinking would have to cling on for dear life.
“It’s complicated,” Rain said. “It’s the kind of complicated I’ve been wrestling with from the beginning.”
“Speaking of complicated,” I said. “Ashley. You’re…”
“You’re backsliding,” Tristan said. “That was bad.”
“I thought I made a good point.”
“We’re all backsliding, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I know you,” Sveta jumped in, joining the conversation. “You were on the edge. You could have blasted him.”
“I could blast anyone. I could blast you, right here and right now. But I don’t because I don’t want to. I didn’t blast him because he’s a goblin of a man without even a single testicular smudge’s worth of manliness, who attacks people behind their backs. He’s not worth it. Does he redeem himself somewhat by giving me my hand back and listening to us a little? A tad.”
“You thought about blasting him and you held back,” Sveta said.
“I held back,” Ashley said.
“We need to discuss this. This pattern of behavior isn’t good,” I said.
“A pattern where I hold back?”
“A pattern where you need to hold back,” Sveta said.
“This is me. This is who I am.”
What was? I felt like I’d gotten to know her, that she’d let her guard down, dropped aspects of the self-imposed image she’d built up around herself, and become more comfortable. I’d liked the Ashley I’d gotten to know. Now… I wasn’t even sure about any of it.
People who broke down tended to reveal raw and vulnerable parts of themselves, and I’d thought that in the past events where Ashley’s facade had cracked, I’d seen glimmers of the Ashley who cared deeply about Kenzie and who could care deeply about others. The Swansong. Now I felt like the Swansong facade was cracking under the strain of keeping up the act here and it was revealing a Damsel beneath.
White with black beneath the surface or black with white beneath the surface, just endless beneath-the-surfaces. Always with a few limited constants.
There had been vulnerability here, though. Showing the missing hands in front of watching eyes. Declaring she wasn’t Slaughterhouse. Still, there was something I’d call darkness.
“Do you need to hang back? Take a break while we look after other stuff?”
“No,” Ashley said, sounding offended.
I was frustrated, and with how Ashley tended to ramp up when she got agitated, and the way my own frustration seemed to mirror that right now, I backed off, letting Sveta take over.
My phone was ringing anyway. I pulled it out and I checked the screen, and then I went very still.
“What’s wrong?” It’d been Rain who noticed. “Teacher attack?”
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
“Someone caught some of what Gary was saying when he named names. It got out to Earth Shin. They want to meet.”
I didn’t want to do this. I was happier telling myself Gary had been wrong than I was putting myself in a position to know one way or the other. Knowing that she did what he’d alleged, or that she didn’t and that I had to wrestle with the word ‘innocent’ linked to her name.
“Family they?” Sveta asked.