Miss Militia stood straight, one hand behind her back, the other extended forward, like she was going to shake their hands. They couldn’t though, because we were all arranged in a loose circle that put the nearest members of Shin’s government about four long strides from Miss Militia’s position on the floor.
“Miss Militia. Warden. If I may?”
Her words were followed by an echo, the translators speaking in muted tones to respective groups. Only two groups had translators, it seemed.
“Luis, Founders. I think you might,” one of the men with braided ties answered, his English without even an accent. “I’ll wait for my colleagues to reply.”
I recognized Luis. His skin was black, his clothes fine, and his expression a constant kind of warm that might have been politician fake.
Many sat at chairs with tables built into them made me think of student’s desks in a high school. Difference was that cloth draped from the arm that held the table up and surrounded the legs like a skirt, and the makeup of chair and desk both were ornate, almost throne-like. At the foot of maybe four or five of the thrones, and there were maybe fifteen in total, I could see young men, fourteen or fifteen, sitting on cushions or mats, writing constantly.
I hadn’t expected the gap in culture to be something so oppressive.
I was put in mind of attending a mosque service, having little idea of the process, and trying to not embarrass myself or disturb the regular attendees. The difference was that barely anything was happening, nothing specific was expected of me, and yet we were so much further from the familiar.
Except for Luis, who seemed uncannily ordinary. I could remember seeing him back when we’d first met Goddess, holding her umbrella.
And underlying it all was Miss Militia’s warning. That we might need to use our powers. Guards and soldiers in various colors were arranged around the room, and a pretty good number were arranged right behind us, weapons put away, but still a lot of people with guns and short spears.
The others seemed to come to their consensus. Luis said something in another language, and then smiled. “You may.”
Miss Militia moved her hand, holding it so both hands were clasped behind her. “I come bearing reassurances. For their role in stopping the Blue Empress, you afforded Amelia Claire Lavere and Chris Elman some privileges and assurances. Today I’ve brought the other members of that group that played a role in stopping her, they played a lesser role, yes, but they ask for nothing but goodwill. We have a Natalie Matteson, unpowered, to speak for them.”
“Saying they played a role may be overstating it,” Chris said. His voice was surprisingly deep. A man’s voice, and I’d even suspect it was deeper than an average-
“Don’t make this harder,” Amy rebuked him, while interrupting my observation.
How could I have missed the sound of her voice and find it so deeply unsettling at the same time?
The translators repeated even those lines. A short statement, like a rock thrown into a pond in a cave, and then the resounding, distorted echo. A response, another series of voices filling the room. My heart was beating with a speed that surprised me.
Luis conferred with others in the other language before saying, “Would Natalie Matteson be willing to step into another room? My colleagues feel it would allow her to share her truth, and we could see how the stories line up.”
Natalie, nervous, looked to Miss Militia for input, then said, “If necessary.”
One of the people who had been translating and one of the people from the boxy-robed group stepped away.
I liked Natalie. In the paranoia of the moment and the tension of this scene, I had to wonder how much I trusted her interpretation of events.
“Not all of my colleagues agree that the Laveres and Elman should have received any favors,” Luis said.
“They don’t ask for much. Goodwill.”
“Will is easy, good is free, yet goodwill can be the hardest thing to give,” he said.
“Winter climate affords bridges,” Miss Milita said.
“Is it winter? Ignore the weather.”
“It’s chilly in here,” she told him.
Luis laughed. After the back and forth, it was the only sound without its ‘echo’ of translation.
Fuck me. They were speaking English and I wasn’t sure I understood what they were saying. Others from Shin seemed to. A few smiles.
“Yosef, Lone Sands. I like you, Militia,” one of the men in flowing clothes said. A woman I presumed was his wife was dressed in patching colors, her clothes wrapped around her. He did have an accent.
“I like you too, Yosef. I would also like assurances of my own to start,” Miss Militia said.
There was a pause. A distortion in the echo of translators speaking.
Something wrong? I tensed.
“You confused the translators,” Luis said. “I like this, I would like that, but… hard connection to draw while maintaining the small poetry. Let me-”
He said a single word.
With that, the translation finished uninterrupted. I didn’t feel more relieved. It created a sensation like they had more power, because they controlled the language.
Miss Militia was as unflinching as she ever was.
“What assurances?” Yosef asked.
“I would like to know why governments have changed from this morning. The Coalition is gone.”
“They were made to abstain. Just in case,” Luis said. “We’re deciding what to do about you, about them-”
He indicated us. Breakthrough.
“And about them.”
My mom, dad, Amy, Chris, Marquis, and Marquis’s underling.
What to do? My thoughts were caught between wondering what they even could do and what they were capable of. Did they think they could mass-execute us, or were they coming in from another angle?
“Can we make an appeal?”
“Wouldn’t an appeal eat it’s own tail?”
“What’s the tail?”
“Some would say you’re too dangerous to even talk to. Some of you can change minds with a word, or kill with a whistle from wet lips.”
“You have teeth, but I would get within arm’s reach of you without worrying about my throat.”
“Don’t be deceptive, it’s not like you,” Luis said, and his tone had cooled. “Every last one of you have bigger teeth.”
“I know you, Luis. I know Yosef, and I know the rest of you who haven’t yet joined this conversation. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have threats of your own.”
“Right now we’re supplying enough food to feed two million of your people and we’ll continue doing so through the winter. Amy Dallon pledged assistance and cooperation to increase that amount to five million, possibly to ten. That’s food. Shelter. Clothing. Chemicals. Industry. All deals end now. With her, with you. You get nothing and millions may die. I’m sorry.”
My own surprise at the statement was redoubled when I saw movement in the periphery of my vision, looked, and saw it was Amy hanging her head.
Chris said something to Amy. From what I could catch, it was an ‘I told you so’.
Vista might have looked agitated, because Miss Militia put a hand out.
“We negotiate from that point forward,” Miss Militia said.
“Can we? Do we?” Luis asked.
“No and we don’t,” Yosef said.
“Yes we do,” Miss Militia said.
My breath was hard to regulate as I went from considering the implications of even just Amy’s apparent deal falling through, which I knew people had been planning around, went to considering outright cancellation of any deal whatsoever, and then realized this was just maneuvering.
Well, ‘just’. It was a lot of weight to be throwing around. Threatening to scrap the deal as a show of power and an indication of what was at stake. Attacking us directly wasn’t the only tool in their toolbox.
Miss Militia found her footing. Her appeal was as emotional as I’d ever heard her be. “You know me, you like me, you know I’ve never wronged you. These young people deserve your goodwill. They did right by you, I believe you were at least partially in their thoughts when they took the actions they did.”
“We were debating about them earlier, among ourselves. If I may?” Luis asked. He made a beckoning gesture. “We’ll talk to them, and we’ll see if a revisit of our deal is a discussion worth having.”
“Antares?” Miss Militia started reaching back for my shoulder.
“For now, we would rather talk to Swansong. She made a dramatic gesture and got our attention.”
They planned this. They knew they’d do this before we stepped into this room.
I met Ashley’s eyes and I tried to read if there was something black still residing there.
Please be good. Please be your best self.
Miss Militia made a small motion with her hand, for Swansong to approach. At the same time, she held up her other hand to tell us to stay.
“If you would step back, Militia?” Yosef asked.
“I would like to stay by her side and counsel her and anyone else. She doesn’t know the small customs.”
“We’ll forgive any small breaches.”
“In your minds maybe, but not in your hearts. This is best for everyone.”
“I agree,” Luis said.
“Conceded. Stay,” Yosef added.
What I was getting now was that this was a formalized debate, in a sense. The ‘floor’ was a subtle thing, with everyone gathered in a circle and then people stepping forward as they had permission to engage. Luis had had to ask, but Yosef hadn’t. Because he was powerful, or because he’d stated something everyone could agree with.
Which left me to assume that taking stances everyone could agree with would be important, or… you’d get challenged. Maybe even ejected. It also left me to wonder if it was possible to step even closer to the middle. Was there a progression, a series of levels of authority? Did other movements matter?
Ashley stepped up, holding her hands much like Miss Milita did, clasped behind her back. Her chin was more raised. “Thank you.”
“We start by introducing ourselves, before any statements,” Miss Militia said. “Name first.”
“Swansong,” Ashley said. “Ashley Stillons. Breakthrough.”
“I’m Luis, that’s the name the Blue Empress gave me,” Luis said. “My true name is Amil. I was young when I worked for her as a servant, I made it a goal to learn her tongue from her, and when she tired of my presence, from her subordinate powers, who she tried to keep near. Now I’m someone who speaks for those who were most affected.”
“Custom,” Miss Militia’s voice was quiet, joining the murmur of translators as she advised Ashley, “Is if you overshare, you invite others to do the same.”
“You did. You gave your full name. It may be rude not to engage in the back-and-forth, but it also tends to turn debates into something self-aggrandizing or about gathering the information to tear others down.”
Oh great. It had to be Ashley who was front and center for that particular lesson.
“Perfect,” Ashley said. “That’s fine.”
“Mirror him, match what’s being talked about. If he shares about his work you talk about yours. If he talks about war stories, you talk about yours. Questions are too pointed and rude unless you have a good relationship. Then you expand and invite them to mirror or compare themselves to you, or you wind down the personal side of the conversation.”
“Wind down how?” I asked, my voice quiet.
“Compliments are a good way of winding down the thread of discussion and getting back on topic,” Miss Militia said, to all of us, then to Ashley, “I suggest complimenting, it’ll help ease tensions.”
Ashley looked a bit annoyed, but she addressed Luis, “I don’t speak for anyone but myself, though I once considered myself one of the leaders for my team. I still do, in a way, but only for certain things that need my skillset. I respect the work ethic and the approach you talk about, the planning.”
“It wasn’t easy. I think if I did not have the scars I have now, the other people in this room wouldn’t trust me,” Luis said. “My family was… ravaged. There were people with powers who were free to be their worst selves and one of them chose my siblings as a target. Now she does not speak.”
“If you saw the video of us talking to Nieves, you know I was ravaged myself,” she said. “They took my voice, too.”
“My parents grieve constantly.”
“My parents-” Ashley paused. She’d mirrored and realized the trap late. “I killed them. It was an accident.”
“With your power?” Luis asked.
Miss Militia had said a question was supposed to be pointed, incisive. Was that an end to civility? The back-and-forth just a way to maneuver the other person into a point where they could be attacked?
“Yes. With my power.”
“Powers are dangerous. Unpredictable.”
“They can be,” Ashley said. She floundered. I could see tension in her neck and shoulders as she stood there, effectively skewered after having been invited to share something personal. Was that a trap? If she hadn’t shared enough, would they paint her as deceptive?
I wanted to fault Miss Militia for throwing us in the deep end of this pool, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t expected this to be this, and I got that there wasn’t a great way to fill a bunch of kids in on what looked to be a very subtle and complex form of debate. There were probably a lot of sub-rules and points of decorum. She’d committed us to their custom by advising us, at least to a small degree, but she had to think that doing the alternative would hurt more.
“Yosef was a soldier,” Luis said. “he saw a lot of that ugliness.”
“I earned some prestige,” the other diplomat said. “We don’t see much war, we’ve seen its price, but when she arrived, some of us fought back. She beheaded us again and again, until we had no leadership to speak of. We thought it was a victory if it took thirty of us to kill one of their kind. I killed one, a girl younger than her-”
He indicated Kenzie.
“-but with the losses we incurred, it was not a victorious day. It was only a personal victory and a release for me to put my shoe-heel to her head until she died, after all I had lost.”
Sveta put her hands to her mouth.
“The poor child,” Miss Militia said. “She was enraptured by the Blue Empress.”
“She was what she was,” Yosef said, to Miss Militia. To Ashley, he said, “That is why I stand here with the station I have, talking to you. I killed one and I played a part in killing another.”
Ashley answered, “I stand where I do now not because of what I did, but because I put distance between that self of mine. I tried to gather a small army of thugs beneath me and claim a share of a city for myself.”
“That would be your Slaughterhouse, then,” Yosef said, and I was ninety percent sure he knew it wasn’t as he jumped to his conclusion.
“No,” Ashley said.
“A violent word, Slaughterhouse,” Yosef said.
So this was the rebuke, if someone tried to be slippery or dodge a topic and got called on it. I wondered about the extent to which it mattered. Was there a point system? Were their cultural attitudes the sort to call out this sort of thing?
The statement was an invitation, a question without being a question, demanding elaboration.
“They were a band of killers. If the Blue Empress’s worst were monsters, then I’m sure they were similar to the Slaughterhouse.”
“A roving band of killers,” Miss Militia said. “They suffered losses in the city I was protecting and went recruiting to replace their own. The prospective recruits who didn’t cooperate were made to cooperate. Swansong included.”
“Thank you for the clarification,” Luis said.
It almost sounded like that was another rebuke, not a pleasantry.
“I was thrown into battle against one of Miss Militia’s colleagues. He killed me. I was brought back from death, thrown into more danger. The hardest head could be softened by that much dying.”
Chris spoke up, “You say that, but there’s another you out there who got harder, not softer. You reveled in those days you spent with the Slaughterhouse, and she still does.”
“What are you doing?” Ashley asked him.
He sounded like some blend of irreverent and resentful as he made his ‘comments’. It jarred with how everything else seemed to be an ongoing dance. I could see tension and betrayal across my team. Kenzie smiled. Even Vista looked bothered.
“You reveled,” Luis said.
“Not quite that.”
“It’s good,” Luis said. He smiled. “We’re always hungry to get insights about how your kind think and operate. We study you voraciously, even now that we aren’t being ordered to, we compile records, we send ambassadors to talk to your experts and we pay them. But a simple, brief explanation helps. You reveled.”
“A simple brief explanation from him is going to be misleading.”
“So we can’t trust them. You’re here to warn us, not to reassure?”
Ashley clenched one of her hands.
This is a charade. A dangerous charade with the lives of millions who were counting on food and shelter may not get that.
“Why do your kind want things like kingdoms, island chains, or pieces of cities?” Yosef asked.
“Do you know how we get powers?” Ashley asked.
“We know. As well as you do, I think.”
Right. Goddess had mentioned they’d studied powers at her behest, with labs that rivaled Bet’s own, just with a hell of a lot more focus and motivation, and possibly a few more eureka moments.
…Possibly a little less massaging of data or focus on what was more palatable.
“We come from places of powerlessness. Hold someone down at the floor of a lake, and they fight to come up for air, but the fight doesn’t stop there. We put distance between ourselves and the water.”
Luis smiled. “She told you we like our proverbs.”
“We do like them. You were powerless once and now you want power. You need it, a dare say?”
“I dare say it depends on the person,” Ashley said, defensive.
“Dare say,” Luis said, and he winked at Ashley. “The little prizes you learn when you pick up a tongue.”
“Will you chatter or will you step back, Luis?” Yosef asked.
“I’ll make an offer, let her answer, then gauge if others are willing to sign the deal,” Luis said. He was lively, shifting his footing, his eyes bright. “Swansong, we do not like things being hidden from us and we feel Chris Elman and Amy Dallon Lavere hid things from us. We would punish them. Moderate them. Do you like them?”
“One betrayed me, one betrayed my friend, but a truce could be made.”
Not really helping to smooth things over, I thought. But I wasn’t sure being dishonest would have been better. Being diplomatic and choosing words more carefully would help.
“That might be ideal,” Luis said. “We could give you a share of what we’ve agreed to give them. Islands, people if those people are willing to live under you, and some people do want that security. There is a servant class that is cloned, smart enough to obey orders, too stunted to have an identity or personality beyond the surface level. We don’t know what to do with them. We would give you some, Chris Elman would feel their absence, and you could barter with him for what else you needed.”
Chris could be heard chuckling. “Assholes.”
The epithet was translated in a selection of languages from beside or behind every other group, including the guards behind us. Luis could speak our language, but people in his entourage couldn’t. The word was spoken, brief, and the tenor of things changed slightly.
Him being here and giving so little of a shit in a formal setting wasn’t making things better.
And because I looked his way, I could see Amy’s face, pale enough the freckles stood out. I was reminded of Presley on the train, looking at me in my peripheral vision. Except this time the reason for my skin crawling was real.
“If I could-” Miss Militia started.
“Miss Militia,” Luis interrupted, with unusual gravity. “This is an offer between me and her. We don’t need custom.”
“She needs counsel.”
“Your counsel would slap me in the face. We would thank you for bringing the guests here and we would escort you out so we could talk to our guests.”
“There’s no need,” Miss Militia said. I saw the weapon at her hip flash green-black, as if it almost changed forms.
“This feels too generous,” Ashley said, her head turning.
“We believe in making debts right. As Miss Militia said at the outset. She asked for goodwill but this would be goodwill and solving a problem in one fell stroke. It would also itch at my curiosity, would this satisfy the part of you that went to a city and collected thugs to take a part of it?”
“I think so. But I’d miss my team.”
“It would be yours to share, or for one of you to take with the agreement of the others,” Luis said.
It’s too biased an offer. There’s a catch or a trap here.
“You saved our world, you get something. Good acts are rewarded.”
“And we sign deals of cooperation that keep us out of your way? Thank you, it’s a kind offer, but no.”
“You should take the offer, Ashley,” Chris said.
“No,” Ashley said, more hostile now.
Luis spread his arms. “That’s fine. We’ll figure something else out. Thank you, Ashley Stillons, Swansong.”
Was that an official dismissal? We announced ourselves with our names and we were asked to leave with the same, like a parent rebuking a child with their full name?
Either way, Ashley backed off. Kenzie put an arm around Ashley’s waist.
“You’re maneuvering aggressively, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Miss Militia said.
“These are aggressive times,” Yosef said. “We thought we had an ally we could work with, and now we hear she’s unreliable. She did something in the past and she’s done it again.”
“If I may-” Amy started.
“You may not,” Luis said.
Again, that light in the eyes, the intensity, like someone riding a high.
Luis was supposedly on our side, but… he’d been close to Goddess, acting as a bodyguard or accompaniment, there’d been a hint that he had powers, by the way he’d held himself, and now he was aggressively maneuvering, as Miss Militia had put it.
“You chose to speak to Swansong,” Miss Militia said. “I would suggest you speak to the others?”
“No need,” Yosef said. “Amy Dallon Lavere made her attempt at explaining herself to us before you arrived. She failed. We spoke to Swansong because she had the potential to be the worst of you.”
Ashley rankled visibly at that.
“We will speak to you because you’re the best of them,” Luis added.
“Then tell me, we were talking trade, you wanted to ask some questions of Breakthrough and get some perspective before moving forward.”
“We did. They have our goodwill.”
“Then can we talk about trade?”
“We can. I’ll start with the term you’ll find most objectionable. Whatever we agree on, the people we send to you with supplies, materials, or anything else will stay in Gimel.”
“Stay. As residents?”
“As residents. It should be only a team of five or ten per shipment. We only have so many that can comfortably speak your language. You get far more in the way of housing than you’d see occupied. More in food than they could ever eat.”
Chris spoke, his voice low. “They want to send you people who’ll keep an eye on parahumans, keep them in their sights-”
He mimed picking up and holding a gun.
“That’s insane,” Miss Militia said.
“Parahumans unchecked is insane,” Yosef replied. “We desire a measure of security. If you’re good and just, you have nothing to fear.”
“This is why the Coalition is gone?” Miss Militia asked.
Luis answered, “It is. They felt they had no room to speak here, so they abstained at our request, in exchange for some room on a trade deal we’re working on. Internal, nothing to do with you.”
“If I may,” Miss Militia said. “This is more formal and more serious than I expected. Could I excuse my guests and speak with you in private? I want to bring up things you have shared with me in private.”
There was some discussion, much of it in a language that wasn’t translated back to us.
Miss Militia turned around, and she smiled. I hadn’t seen her face in some time, not since my stint in the Wards. She looked about as stressed now as she had then. But she looked more tired now.
I didn’t miss her gaze slipping from me to Sveta, and then to the guards behind us.
“They may take a recess and rejoin us if they desire,” Luis said.
“Go,” Miss Militia told us. “Be careful.”
Again, that flicker of a glance at the guards.
Guards escorted us from the room. What we’d seen was preliminary, a setting of the stakes, a testing of the guests by challenging a volatile member and making an offer, probably a trap. And then the real terms. What they wanted.
I left that scene behind, as Miss Militia stood alone against five nations. This was where she had been, and what she’d been working on.
The guards that followed us into the adjacent room blocked my view of her.
Be careful, she’d said.
She’d said it in a way that made me think trouble was imminent.
I didn’t want to do this. To have this conversation. The room we entered was like a greenhouse patio, with tables and chairs set against the wall. Snow was piled against the glass. It was warm. I could see Miss Militia if I looked past the guard and through the window into the meeting space. As the guard moved, though, my vision obscured.
Tristan was keeping an eye on the window too. He looked at me, then back to the window.
Yeah. We were on the same page.
I so didn’t want to do this.
Amy sat on a table. My mom sat on a chair beside her, my dad beside her. Marquis was a distance away, closer to Chris.
A good fifteen feet separated us from them. A gulf.
“Hi Chris,” Rain said.
“Hi,” was the deep-voiced answer.
“Missed you, believe it or not.”
“I didn’t miss you. Sorry.”
I couldn’t ignore Amy’s face looking at me from the sidelines. Silent, staring. The hands tattooed with my metaphorical blood.
“You put on some weight,” Kenzie said, still smiling.
“Puberty and changer powers, you know. It’s a thing,” Chris answered.
Changer. He still pretended.
“Yeah,” I said. She’d moved when I talked, like she was stirred out of a daze. I avoided looking.
“Same for Case Fifty-Threes. The mutations tend to get worse,” Sveta said.
“Yeah, but your new body isn’t from that, is it? Otherwise Weld would be in big trouble.”
Sveta looked away at the mention of Weld.
“You stepped up your game, huh?” Chris asked. “Better body.”
“Yeah,” Sveta said. She smiled. “I’m pretty happy with it.”
“It’s okay. You could’ve gone with a supermodel body and you went with that.”
“Fuck you,” Sveta said. “You’re better than that, Chris.”
“Am I?” he asked. “Why would you think that? Name one thing I’ve done that’s ‘better’.”
“You were our friend.”
“Sorry, but that doesn’t count for anything. I used you, that’s all. No hard feelings.”
“Some hard feelings,” Tristan said.
“We need to instill you with some manners,” Marquis said.
“How long have you tried?” Chris asked.
“If I try for just a short while longer, I may strike on a success.”
“Ever the optimist,” Amy said, her voice pitched funny. Nervous.
Tristan didn’t take his eyes off the window. I looked. Miss Militia was standing in the center of the room now. I wished I knew the context. Natalie had rejoined her, but looked so intimidated I wasn’t sure what she could add. I worried, by the look on her face, that she had detracted more than she added. This wasn’t her world, it wasn’t her fight, and we’d pulled her into it.
Guards stared me down as I looked past them. I didn’t flinch, turning back to Breakthrough. The others.
This warm space was crowded despite the unoccupied swathe of patio between the two factions. The guards were arranged in two rows of five by the door, hands on their weapons.
Yosef had talked so casually about killing a parahuman child. Would he do something? I had my aura. I could hit the glass above us and bring snow and glass down on their heads. I wasn’t sure it was enough.
A face loomed in my peripheral vision. I was worried I was going to lose it if I didn’t distract myself.
“Mom. Are you okay?”
“Better,” was her response.
“I sent you messages.”
“I got them,” she said.
“I read them to her,” my dad said. “We couldn’t reply. Nothing nefarious, just… difficult.”
In looking at him, I glanced at Amy. It was a punch in the gut.
I hated having feelings that had nowhere to go, and with no air in this hot box of a room, with everything on the line, things were worse.
“Are you going to fully recover?” I asked.
“Yes,” my mom said. “Mark and Amy are looking after me. We’re moving slowly, but we will get there. We’re being treated well.”
“You’re moving slowly because dear daughter fucked up and now you’re both scared.”
“What did you do, Amy?” Sveta asked.
“It’s being handled.”
“Leave it,” Rain said. “It’s not worth it. Even if it’s not handled, there’s nothing we can do.”
“It’s eating me alive to imagine what happened and I can only imagine what it’s like for Victoria. The unknown is worse.”
“And it’s all we get. Accept the things we can’t change,” Rain said.
“It’s handled,” Amy said, repeating words that would echo in my head for weeks now.
I couldn’t. I could have swung a punch if there was someone in range. I almost punched the glass. That would have been dramatic. Instead, I turned, and I saw Sveta. Ashley stood beside her.
I couldn’t breathe, so I started simpler. I couldn’t not have a heartbeat, and the heart gave my lungs oxygen. I couldn’t not be feeling the humid warmth in the air of this room, see the blue hue of snow piled up against the glass, with parts left snow-free for sun to shine through. I couldn’t not hear the muffled echo of translators speaking in their crisp, foreign tongues.
I wanted to say I couldn’t not stand up straight, stay centered with my own sense of balance, but the reality was that I could see a world where I toppled, bowled over by the sheer unpleasantness of all of this.
Nobody was talking. There was so much to say, and there was only silence and tension. Bitterness.
I reached out for the exterior window, touching glass that had snow on the far side. I traced a finger along and drew in the moisture. A circle. I blotted out the interior. The cold, moisture, and the touch helped ground me.
I’d wanted to come because I had to face my demons, like Sveta had faced hers. Like Ashley had done when she threw down the gauntlet for Gary Nieves.
In my desire to be anywhere else I looked at the window. No escalation, no changes.
I wanted to see, to hear, to-
Instinct told me to look at Kenzie.
Her head bobbed slightly like she was listening to music. But it wasn’t music. I could time the motions to the cadence and rhythm of speech in the other room.
I put my hand on her head to stop the bobbing. The motion made my injury twinge. Her hair pressed close to the scalp by a hairband, left open and hanging free at the back of her head. She wore a hairpin as part of the hairband, that was a ‘club’ from the deck of cards. I wanted to ask why. I didn’t want to try to speak and fail.
Kenzie moved her head, my hand still atop it, and leaned against my side.
With the way the discussion was going in the other room, I wasn’t sure we’d be invited in to talk trade deals or testify on my family’s behalf. I was worried.
I was avoiding breathing more often than I breathed, holding my breath like I was trying to minimize exposure to poison gas.
Or pathogens. The thought lurched into my mind and made me ten different kinds of scared, my mouth drying up, my hand moving involuntarily, streaking against the glass, collecting moisture and cold in the webbing between index finger and thumb. My other hand rested on Kenzie’s head, still, moved suddenly, and made her look up.
She shook her head and smiled.
I leaned my head forward to rest forehead against glass. Sveta moved, putting herself between me and Kenzie and my family, her back to that same glass.
Tristan watched the other room, arms folded, and in doing so he faced down the guards. Rain was caught between watching them and watching Chris. Ashley was more focused on Carol, my dad, and Marquis, with Amy a distant fourth.
I’d wanted to face my demon and I’d put myself in a glass cell with it.
“You don’t have to move, I’ll go back to where I was standing.”
“I’m stiff, that’s all.”
Marquis’s statement. My mother’s response.
With some unsure movements, a shuffling footstep or two, she crossed the distance. Sveta looked back at me to double check, and I pulled my head away from the coolness of the window, wiped the moisture from my forehead, and nodded.
Sveta let my mom past, taking Kenzie with her.
Tristan watched. Kenzie listened in.
My mom stood beside me.
The guards to my right.
My mom pulled me into a hug. I let her, answered it. I squeezed her tight. I hadn’t hugged her since- had it been the barbecue?
Disturbing, somehow. All of this was.
We broke the hug. My mom touched the window for balance.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I really am. It was bad strategy, it was unkind when you were going out of your way to help- my power is-”
“Amy told me. Her interpretation.”
The words I’d had died.
She turned away, looking out past the glass at the storm-swept landscape of foreign buildings. Towers extending up from one of a building’s four faces. Another squat building had no third and fourth floor, a stone figure curled up within, holding the fifth floor up.
My mom drew a circle in the window, then drew her own icon within it, using a long fingernail for the details.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again.
“Me too,” she said. She drew another symbol. Fingerprints formed the sizing templates for individual segments of my dad’s grenade shape, and she used her nail to create corners.
She was apologizing for-?
“She’s not well,” my mom said, quiet, wiping away the image, where it wasn’t perfect. She breathed on it to restore some life to the canvas.
In the background, Rain was talking to Chris again.
The words rocked me, stole away all rational and ordered thought. My mom ignored the impact of it, continuing to draw on the window.
I looked. I fixed my gaze on Amy, and I studied, pulling from memories of four years ago. Memories of two years ago, when she’d come to Victoria the Wretch, stole away all emotions, false and otherwise, and made her offers. Gave me her warnings.
She looked back, locking eyes with me.
The discomfort of me being present, her own shame, and the awkwardness of being between my dad and Marquis with Chris and Rain’s chatter in the background set aside… I couldn’t see it.
I one hundred percent believed it, but I couldn’t see it. I looked away.
A part of me desperately wanted to. That part of me wanted to see the illness, see a sign that would warn me, and in equal measure it would condemn me for not seeing it back then.
A part of me wanted this, wanted to not see, because it absolved past me to some degree.
“What tea?” Ashley asked. Part of an ongoing conversation I’d tuned out.
“Believe it or not, I’m not much of a snob,” Marquis answered her. “At this point I’ll drink what I can find.”
“You’ve lost standing in my eyes, Marquis.”
“Deservedly so. In my defense, the world did end, and I’m a long way from home.”
“Yes. Even so.”
Kenzie wasn’t acting alarmed. Tristan still watched, still kept his back to Chris, his arms folded.
The guards remained hostile. The people in the other room were still arguing that their anti-parahuman soldiers should get freedom to act, or they’d cut off support we desperately needed.
All of this, the talk with Nieves, a pretext, I was guessing. An excuse.
I felt like I was dealing with frying pans and fires. A suffocating room, the fate of millions, tensions between old friends. My mom and my guilt there.
I turned my eyes back to my mom’s work. Letters.
‘We need help’, she’d written. She started on the next word. A vertical line-
A guard moved from his spot. Casually, my mom wiped the message away. She met my eyes for a moment, then focused her gaze intently on the snowstorm outside.