Breaking from their ranks to some degree, a handful of the soldiers found positions where they leaned against walls or sat on tables. The one who had interrupted my mother in the middle of writing her plea for help was the one I was most mindful of, because he was being so very mindful of his gun.
Mindful in the sense that there was a kind of forced casualness that he wasn’t selling. He put his cloth-wrapped gun down, and when Kenzie moved closer to him to poke at one of Rain’s little arms, his hand was too quick to reach for the weapon again.
Help, I thought. My mother stared out the window, and if she was tense, it was hard to tell because she had a natural rigidity to her posture.
There was only quiet chatter, careful conversational forays into that dangerous space between Breakthrough and Shin’s parahumans. So often, there was a measured reaching out, a safe topic broached, and the conversation would continue until Chris said something or someone said something a little too biting. Marquis wishing he had a cup of tea leading in its way to Ashley rebuking him for not being discerning enough. Then silence.
A minute where Marquis only talked to Spruce, who was back in the far corner. Where Golem approached Rain. Vista had her visor off, and hopped up onto a table to sit on it, close enough to Ashley that when they had a murmured exchange of words, she could reach up and stick her finger into the black smoke eyeliner that was projected around Ashley’s eyes. Ashley didn’t flinch.
A minute where I had to try to get my shit together. My mom had written about needing help. Miss Militia had suggested we might need to use our powers and she was on her own out there. The guards with guns weren’t staying in their lane, moving themselves and their guns around, necessitating that little bit of extra attention.
And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t wrap my head around all of it. Any of it.
I saw movement, saw a face in the corner of my vision that served to backhand the warning bells in my brain before I’d even fully processed seeing it. Then I did finish processing, pieced together that it was Marquis, and I saw how similar he was to Amy. In hair type and even the way the hair fell across their shoulders, in face shape, and the cast of eye and nose.
He looked so casually confident, wearing a red velvet jacket and a black silk ascot that ninety nine percent of men would not have been able to pull off. He had a cane topped with a cat skull that looked like it was mostly bone, with inlay only for decoration.
She- I glanced. She was wearing a red blouse under a black cardigan, and she wore a brooch that seemed like it was meant to mimic her tattoos in style, like stained glass in gold bands with panes of red. Worn over the heart, vaguely heart-shaped. Ankle-length black skirt with red trim.
One thing at a time, then. For now it was peaceful. My team had other bases covered.
I’d wanted to face my demons, I’d locked myself in this cage with them. I studied her clothes and remembered the person I’d grown up with, I looked for the mannerisms-
She isn’t well
-that could give me any clue.
Looking at her was like staring into the sun, but it elicited thoughts of something noxious instead, not something bright.
Ankle-length because she’d never liked short skirts or pants that hugged the leg. Self conscious about the shape of her legs, despite the fact that they’d been fine. Even now, past the end of the world, little things held true.
To stare into the sun was to do permanent damage to the retina. To face her down was something more guttural, a feeling at the hollow of the collarbone, an ugly feeling that made me worry there would be a similar kind of permanent damage.
I wanted to expel it, somehow, exorcise it. To vomit, to say something foul.
To say the simplest thing ever, from the part of me nearest to the center. I’d grown up telling my parents I loved them. I’d said I’d loved Amy and I was more certain I had than I was that I’d loved my parents. We loved family just because. I’d once loved Amy as a sister for reasons that went beyond just because. Because she’d had my back and I’d had hers, and because we’d both been fuller, richer people in each other’s company.
But nothing quite mirrored the feeling I was wrestling with now more than my third time with Dean. Because I had loved him. After our first and second times together, nervous and still figuring ourselves and each other out, our third time together had been comfortable, heated, intense, and the love I’d had for him had been something I could experience with every sense, something that could brim the fuck over.
Making love as a word had made sense to me, because we’d done it, in all senses of the word, and then we had that love, we’d cuddled after and basked in each other, we’d been comfortable with each other in a profound way.
And I could remember Amy’s comments back then, when I’d told her about it, when I’d tried to encourage her to date Dean’s friend. How many high school relationships really lasted? It was worth trying. I couldn’t imagine a world where I wasn’t better off having experienced this. How many times had we broken up and gotten back together, she’d asked. Three. Didn’t that make me worry, she’d asked? No.
His parents didn’t love each other and might not have even loved him, and my parents were Mark and Carol fucking Dallon, we were parahumans, and none of that mess was easy. When he’d been given the unique ability to resolve conflicts by laser-punching people with emotion and reading their feelings, I’d been handed the conflict resolution ability of breaking people. Neither of us had been able to use our innate, shockingly powerful capabilities on each other. Of course we’d bounced off each other. But love drew us back in. Each time, a couple of the romantic illusions were shaken off, and romantic realities replaced them. We’d had to learn to communicate, to figure each other out.
That one night with Dean had redefined things for me. Something I’d carry with me always when it came to putting ideas to the word ‘love’.
And, because it was the elephant, the abomination in the room, I would think of years spent pining. A love I knew and had known was fake and manufactured that had stayed with me for two years, threatening to wash away and taint every other kind of love.
Now, the mirror to that. In an uncomfortable, vaguely alien world, surrounded by coldness and restrained tension, staring across a gap and feeling emotion somewhere between disgust, outrage, and betrayal roiling inside of me, I could genuinely say I hated her.
I looked away, out the window, and there was nothing there. Only snowdrifts, glass opaque with the snow that rested against it, and vague shapes of buildings. Maybe there would be more of a view when the wind died down.
I looked at my teammates instead, and they were doing their duty, holding their own, being good, keeping an eye or an ear out. Vista was helping Tristan keep an eye out, her hands folded over the top of a chair leg that jutted up beside her, chin resting on hands. She was more worried for Miss Militia than anyone, I suspected.
Tristan, Vista and Kenzie were making sure Miss Militia was safe. If something happened, we could spring into action.
But looking at my team meant they looked back, and I wasn’t sure I wanted them to see my expression or read something into it. For this moment I held it together. If Sveta or Ashley tried to be nice and help me then that’d jeopardize that stability.
And if I wasn’t looking in Amy’s direction, wasn’t looking out the window, wasn’t looking at my team- I looked at the guards.
A few of them looked at me with that same hate I’d so recently found so painfully clarified. They reminded themselves of their guns. I was left to wonder if they’d be any more ashamed than Yosef if they ended up gunning us down.
I couldn’t stare them down without worrying about provoking violence, much as I couldn’t look at my team without worrying about provoking kindness.
Nowhere for my eyes to sit. Across a few fleeting seconds, I was as far from stability as I could hope for, panic setting in because I couldn’t even stare at the floor without looking weak, and there were people here I couldn’t let myself look weak in front of.
I looked back to Amy. Back where I started. Back to this girl I hated.
She didn’t even know. No emotion reading power, no awareness. In the here and now, she said something joking to Marquis, who was moving his head in funny ways. The tone of that joking statement was one I recognized from childhood, from adolescence. I could probably think of a dozen specific statements she’d made in that exact same tone.
I hated her more because she smiled, joked, and maybe forgot I was in the room.
Marquis moved his head, and she moved her head, sitting up to try to see what he was seeing. It meant she looked in my direction, looked at me, and the partial smile she’d maintained as part of her joke or interaction with Marquis fell away. Their heads were turned to similar angles, shadows fell across their faces in similar ways.
“Do you need something, Marquis?” my mother asked, in what I processed as her ‘you’re in deep shit’ tone from my childhood.
“A haircut,” Chris said.
“If you’re going to be a pain, Chris, try to be actually funny,” Tristan said.
“Or, you know, consider what’s on the line,” Sveta said. “You’re not making any friends, you’re not getting any advantages by acting this way.”
Marquis ignored it all, tilting his head another way, peering at or past the soldiers. I didn’t look at Amy beside him, who didn’t match his movements, instead continuing to stare.
Marquis looked at my mother, and my mother looked away. He got around to answering her statement, “I was wondering how they were doing in there. I’d come over, but… I won’t intrude.”
Intrude. This greenhouse patio we were situated on was exactly the wrong shape for discussion, resolution, or for opposed elements to be crammed inside without difficulties. The hall where the discussion, debate, the whatever had been, it had been open and spacious, allowing five representatives and their retinues, and us, a guest, to all gather with a comfortable amount of space between us, the guards arranged around the perimeter.
This was not that. My inability to even find a place to rest my gaze was an extension of the way this was laid out. This was a space that was too long, where tables and chairs against one wall became a barricade that ate into the space that could be occupied, something that demanded effort or maneuvering in order to clear a space to sit on. Once situated at that edge, it was hard to be next to others, to huddle, to turn to face the person beside you without looking through a nest of chair and table legs.
And it wasn’t our space, so we couldn’t exactly rearrange anything or everything. It was impossible to create a space for actual discussion in here, where we weren’t talking past people.
It made me think of parties, of people gathered in hallways, so conversations happened in the exact same places where people were needing to walk by, voices raised to be heard, noisy, chaotic-
Except we were quieter than not. We weren’t moving around. This space would have been comfortable if everyone present was on good terms, but we weren’t.
“They’re fine,” Tristan was the one to volunteer the answer. “Miss Militia’s addressing the room.”
“From where?” I asked. “Center of the room, still?”
“Yeah,” Tristan said.
“What does it mean, exactly?” I asked. “Her being in the middle. I noticed position mattering.”
But not too much. I had to watch Miss Militia, keep an eye on the kid with the gun. I was supposed to watch Breakthrough but holy shit was I not up to doing that right now, and when I had, it had barely mattered with the people I’d wanted it to matter with. I’d cross that bridge later.
It was Marquis who answered, “In the textbooks they hand out for young men and women on academic tracks to become politicians or innovators -scientists-, they say a good discussion starts at the edges, with agreed upon facts, and it migrates toward the center as a dance, often a duet or a solo venture. Ideally, you want to get there without someone else stepping in and forcing you to step away from center.”
“She went there and she’s staying there,” Tristan said, without turning around.
“I can make educated guesses, but before making one, I should tell you that dance once had firm rules, but as with many things so deeply rooted in a culture, qualifying and quantifying everything is next to impossible.”
“He doesn’t know,” my mother said. She turned toward Marquis. “If you don’t know, admit it. Don’t give us misleading or incomplete information and leave us to struggle with it. This is precarious enough as it is.”
“I know enough, dear Brandish. I would say it’s similar to a filibuster, but with an expectation of ask and answer, to suggest you can hold your position with reason despite an onslaught of criticism or condemnation.”
I looked again through the window at Miss Militia. Natalie stood at the position at the circle’s edge, hands clasped behind her back, eyes visibly wide even from a great distance.
“Whatever it is, we’re in a precarious position,” my dad said. “A lot of good, innocent lives hang in the balance here. It’s frustrating.”
“I’d say what she’s doing is closer to defending a PHD,” my mom said. “Against a biased room. I suspect Shin has already decided their conclusion. It’s smart for Miss Militia to take this stance, because it forces them to justify theirs. She’s been here for a long time, mediating when she wasn’t elsewhere killing monsters or handling crises, she’s figured out how to play this game.”
“Agreed on every count,” Marquis said.
My mom gave him a dark look.
“Mom,” I said, in part to pull her away from any interaction with Marquis that would end in bone spears and laser axes. I kept my voice casual. “Should we talk war stories?”
“I’m sure yours are better than mine,” she said. I saw her eyebrows draw closer together. “Why?”
“You were drawing on the window. It got me thinking.”
I saw her nod, not her usual nod, and I saw her smile a bit. I was pretty sure she got my meaning.
But the smile changed. She reached up and touched my hair at the back of my head, smoothing it down with her hand. “Battle stories could be misinterpreted by our hosts. They’re very fond of metaphors and proverbs, and might draw the wrong conclusions.”
“Of course,” I said. My attempt to have my mom give me some idea of what they needed help with wouldn’t work.
“I’m sure you’re eager to share some with me,” she said. “We shouldn’t part ways without catching up.”
“Absolutely,” I said. I met her serious look with one of my own. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“More or less okay,” she said.
I gave her a one-armed hug, and leaned in closer, wanting to exchange a whispered or muttered word, anything to shed more light on what she’d tried to communicate to me.
The guard with the gun was close enough I couldn’t be sure about getting away with it.
At the same time, though, my mom had her arm at my shoulder. Her finger tapped.
Then again: tap tap tap.
And again: a thump with three fingers striking the ornamentation at the shoulder of my coat at once. A tap. Another thump, a tap.
I wasn’t perfect on my Morse code, but I knew common letters in the alphabet. E was one tap. S was three. The last- P? No. Didn’t make sense. Y? X? No. C.
If they were trapped, we might be too. It raised questions about who, if it was Amy included, or just my parents.
“You know what’s shitty?” Vista asked, in the background. Another track of conversation, overlapping our own.
“I could name a thousand things,” Chris said.
“It’s shitty that Miss Militia is doing this, she’s giving her all, and how many people are really going to know about it? I think it’s the worst move the Wardens have made so far. We don’t want to scare people, but we don’t tell them about the Endbringer-level badness we’re dealing with. We don’t tell them enough about how food supplies might get cut off.”
“It would lead to panic,” Flashbang said.
“As is, it leads to resentment,” Vista said. “We’re helping but they don’t see that. They just see…”
“People with a whole lot of power and organization camped out in their backyards,” Rain said.
“Yes. Exactly. Thank you, Precipice.”
“In our case,” Chris said, “we made the compelling offer of ‘let us live in your backyard or others are going to do the same’. We got them on a good day.”
Amy looked uncomfortable, one arm rubbing the other.
“We made compelling arguments,” Marquis said. “A Mrs. Jeanne Wynn helped. It seems the honeymoon period has worn off.”
“It reminds me of Brockton Bay,” Vista said. “Trying to keep the peace, putting in all of the effort, and getting all of the flack. Clockblocker always- he resented it. I thought I was okay with it, but the more I look back the less it sits easy.”
“We’re putting in effort too,” Amy said.
“Are you saving the world every other week?” Vista asked.
“Easy,” Golem said.
“Yeah, sorry. Nevermind,” Vista said.
Amy shook her head.”We’ve taken one hundred and fifty dangerous parahumans who, believe me, could have gone to the Birdcage, and we rehabilitated them. Addictions removed, impulses tweaked, emotional balances adjusted.”
My father nodded. He didn’t look like he glowed with pride, but he seemed to accept it, agree with it.
“I wouldn’t call that rehabilitation,” Ashley said.
“What else is it? I saw enough of how Bonesaw adjusted biology to work with powers that I’ve been able to fix things for parahumans where that’s a problem. How much harm does that stop?”
The feelings I’d found and clarified were a refuge. I could look at her, hold on to those feelings, and I could kind of deal.
Was it easier, if I thought of the sister I’d grown up with as dead, if I grieved her to some measure while negotiating with myself to decide just when and where she died, replaced by this person?
I knew she was still alive. I knew she was complicated. I knew she probably had a hundred excuses or mitigating factors that went into what she’d done to me and the decisions surrounding it.
But it was sure as fuck not my duty to do anything except what was good for everyone, and do what I needed to do to stay sane.
“Do they know what you did, that Gary Nieves mentioned?” I asked.
Sveta drew closer to me. I kept an eye out for the ear-tug.
My ex-sister opened her mouth, then closed it.
“They?” Marquis asked, in her place.
“They know as of earlier today,” Marquis said.
“Can- can I hear it from her?” I asked.
“Does it make a difference?” he asked.
Amy reached out, touching his arm, and he moved aside at her bidding.
“Shin knows?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“We need to know, too. What happened when you repeated old mistakes.”
I saw her shake her head a bit, turn to look away-
“You don’t get the option of not answering,” I said.
She stopped where she was. She looked at me, wider-eyed.
“We’re technically a sovereign nation,” Chris said. “We have lots of options.”
“Shut up, Chris,” I said, without looking away from my ex-sister.
“Shut up,” Amy’s voice was faint. “Not now.”
Chris slouched back in his chair, long arms draped over the arms, long hair in his eyes.
I pressed, “You have to tell us. If nothing else, you tell me, because you have zero right to keep anything like this from me.”
Again, that look on her face.
Marquis answered, “You wanted us to keep our distance, fine, we went to another world. I went with her, to keep an eye on things. Now you want to be informed about every happenstance?”
“If I’m asking? Yes,” I said. “And you’re not part of this, Marquis. Please stand down.”
“I’m her father. I’m the only family member she ever had who has at least consistently tried to support her through the good and the bad. I’m not about to stop now.”
No ear tug from Sveta. Should I have picked someone who wasn’t as close to the Amy fiasco to monitor me?
I looked to Vista, and Vista was silent, no signals, ear tug or otherwise.
“By intervening and interjecting you are making things less good, Marquis,” I said. “I want the facts from her. That’s our best road to a positive place.”
“Aren’t facts better from a more objective source?” Marquis asked. “I may be the best you get.”
“I don’t know or trust you,” I said. I was mindful that guards might be listening. “You’ve been level and fair in most things to do with Earth N, I don’t have any grudges, but right now you’re not winning points with me, and if I get answers I want to hear them from the mouth of that person. I grew up with them, and if a lie comes from that mouth, at least, I’ll know it.”
Hate was a harbor, a refuge. I could take conflicting feelings and bury them in it. I wasn’t sure I cared if she died. I might have been relieved, even. Hate was dangerously close to love in how passionate it was, but never in my love for her or for Dean or for any teammate or other family member had I ever driven forward, gone on the attack, accused. Not on this level. Even in my arguments with my mom, it had been debates and arguments from reason prior to Gold Morning and me shutting down after.
New ground was safer.
Amy made Marquis stand down again.
“I do have it handled,” Amy said. “I want to stress that.”
“I want to judge that for myself,” I said. “Tell me.”
I saw her do something I’d seen too many times in our childhood, in our early teen years. I thought of it as clinging. Finding an argument or idea and constantly going back to it. She’d convinced herself she had it handled, and she’d go back to that over and over, even after it ceased making sense.
I had zero doubt she’d done it in rationalizing things as she did them to me. Zero doubt they played into her spiral down.
She would say it again. That she had it handled.
“You don’t get to keep silent if I ask,” I said, with emphasis on the ‘I’.
“I checked over all of the prisoners from the prison on your Earth and the leftover parahuman warlords from here. Put things in place, mental checks, emotional controls, whatever they needed. Chris handled information gathering, interviews, collected a handful he thought would be useful to keep around as…”
“Lieutenants?” I asked.
I saw Chris shrug.
“I don’t know,” Amy said. “I wanted to focus on good things, peace, giving you the distance you wanted. So long as he wasn’t hurting innocents and let me keep one eye on what he was doing, I didn’t mind. Same checks and balances for him.”
“And nobody checking and balancing you?” I asked.
“That’s not fair,” she said.
“Isn’t it? This is important. This is billions of lives important. That’s what you took on here. And if they’re hearing from outside sources that you’re unchecked and imbalanced then that impacts everything. Like Vista said, we get dragged in to put out your fires.”
“I have it handled.”
There it was.
“What is it?” I asked. “You don’t get to not tell me. Out with it.”
She hated hearing that, which was why I kept going back to it, to hammer in at that idea she was clinging to as a safety. If I didn’t penetrate that safe ground she could go back to it endlessly.
With each repetition, I could see the emotional pain reach her face, her hands. Tattooed hands, with two fingers left untatooed, replacements for what she’d apparently lost in her fight against the Slaughterhouse Nine.
I wondered if there was a meaning there. She’d tattooed blood onto her hands, either consciously or not, but that little addition was like a ‘but not here, not with this excuse’.
I looked again to Sveta, to Vista, to Ashley, to Tristan.
Nobody was telling me to back down.
She explained, “After I was done with the capes I started on other people. Victims of capes. People like, um, like the people at the Parahuman Asylum. There’s a facility in your Earth’s Europe. Not really like the Asylum, more like a big farm, where they do their best to get everyone set up to contribute to society and give them therapy, medical care, and anything else they need. For some it’s just somewhere warm and clean with animals to cuddle.”
“Please tell me that you didn’t do what you did because of me, or for me.”
Amy didn’t answer. She couldn’t meet my hard stare.
My dad spoke up, “When someone regrets their actions to the extent that I think Amy regrets hers, I think everything they do ends up being affected or colored by it.”
“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I said.
“I helped a lot of people,” Amy said, still not meeting my eyes.
It seemed to take difficulty to get through it and explain it. Fucking good.
“But you hurt someone. Who?” I asked.
“A young teenager with control issues,” Amy said. “I did too much in one week, I was adapting to new roles and trying to handle interpersonal stuff with people who had been loyal to Bianca, who knew I’d been an… acquaintance of hers. I didn’t listen to the little voice in the back of my head that said I shouldn’t do delicate work, and I made a mistake.”
“What mistake?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“I’m fixing it.”
It was Chris who spoke up, “You know when you’re drawing, and-”
“I want to hear it from her.”
“-it’s very detailed work, and you sneeze mid-drawing, and draw a big zig-zag across the picture?”
“I want to hear it from her,” I said, again.
“It’s that,” Chris said, “Except it was someone’s mind and power.”
I might never forgive him for denying me the ability to make her admit it.
“What’s the damage?” I asked, my neck stiff from tension.
Amy answered, eyes downcast. “Altered personality, memories not connecting. She came over with a friend and he said she was different after. There was a gap and the passenger wedged itself in there.”
“When the passenger butts in, it saves over your work, and the the undo button on the metaphysical keyboard stops working,” Chris said.
“She,” I said. “At least tell me it’s not some blonde girl-”
I saw the way both of my parents looked at Amy, how Amy seemed confused for one second, then processed what I’d said.
Holy shit. I’d guessed right.
I’d have been lying if I said I didn’t feel some justice in seeing the pain in Amy’s face.
“-that you’re not being that redundant while you’re repeating old mistakes.”
Unnecessary. Maybe the only thing I’d regret saying so far. Words just to cause her more pain.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with anything,” Amy said it in a hollow way, with no energy or emotion backing the words.
And I really hadn’t wanted to be right, to have any character trait to put on this victim – not yet.
“Suddenly I’m really glad I didn’t ask her to look after my battle scars,” Vista said.
“That’s not-” Amy started. Her expression changed. Wounded. “I thought we got along, Vista.”
“A long time ago,” Vista said.
“You guys are making this out to be like I haven’t changed, like it’s a repeat incident, and it’s not,” Amy said, and her voice was firmer, almost angry. “I’m handling this, okay? It was one mistake-”
“That erased a person’s personality?” I asked.
“One mistake, and I have a support structure in place. I’m not spiraling out. I recognized when it started to affect my work, I stopped, took a break, stepped back, got centered again. It’s why progress with mom is slow.”
The word ‘mom’ sounded so alien from her mouth.
“It’s affecting your other work?” I asked.
“It was. So I stopped,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world, like she was explaining things to someone who wasn’t listening.
“Affected it how?”
“Slip-ups like minor personality erasures, or-”
“No. Things in my subconscious crept in, or I got placements wrong, or I… colored outside the lines a bit. But I recognized the pattern, I stepped back, recovered, and fixed the superficial errors.”
She’s not well, my mother had said.
Every time Amy elaborated on her supposedly simple ‘it’s handled’, on ‘minor slip ups’, or just about anything about this, she added new details, raised new questions, painted a fuller and scarier picture. One where I wasn’t sure she was being entirely forthright, especially when I stood in this long greenhouse, staring down its length at my ex-sister, and that image was a picture framed by my mom on my right, my dad sitting at the aisle to the left, Marquis and Chris near Amy.
None of those people looked like they felt it was ‘handled’.
I looked away from that scene. I didn’t want to get carried away.
No ear-pull from Sveta. She just looked horrified.
I wasn’t horrified, I decided. I realized I had a pressure on my chest like someone was sitting on it, but it wasn’t horror. A person didn’t feel horror if a steamroller was left to inch forward while unwitting people sat in its path, and they later heard those people had died.
Amy was looking at her dad, who’d said something quiet. She nodded, unsmiling.
I spoke, which cut Marquis off, “When you say it’s handled, tell me, Amy, well first, start by looking me in the eyes.”
She looked up, locking her eyes to my hard stare.
“Tell me, while looking me in the eye, that you can fix her. No slip-ups, no minor ‘coloring outside the line’ casualties, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”
“I’m pretty sure I can,” she said, her eyes meeting mine, but even from a distance, I could see them moving by fractions, her gaze moving from one of my eyes to the other.
Even now, I could be reasonably certain when she was telling the truth. I could tell when she was confident and not confident, and I knew the patterns she could fall into, at least when she got into arguments.
“I believe you,” I said. Amy smiled and I looked away.
“I’m happy we were able to talk,” Amy said, a haunting voice from the far end of the greenhouse patio. I didn’t look at her, instead staring out at the storm beyond.
“We’re not okay, Amy. We’ll probably never be okay.”
“I’m still glad we could talk. Open lines of communication.”
I continued to look away, to ignore her, because the alternative was that I’d open my line of communication, and tell her exactly how I felt, and I was pretty sure the only people who needed that were me and her alone. For everyone else, it would spell disaster.
“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.
I folded my arms, shifting my footing, as I leaned back against the window. I exhaled slowly, trying to control my breathing. “Yeah.”
No. I knew my ex-sister too well. I knew how she would want something so badly she would believe it was so, and she would lie to herself. She’d then tell that lie to others. Promises to mom and dad about maintaining after school activities in addition to the hero stuff, training, visits to the hospital, and grades. Three straight semesters across ninth grade and the start of tenth grade, she’d steadily declined, had maintained the illusion, until they’d forced her to cut back. Pledges about diets, pledges to me about making friends beyond my friend group. She would believe it.
“That’s a relief,” Sveta said.
“Not really how I’d put it, if I’m honest,” I said. “What about you guys? Any objections? You okay with this?”
“No,” Rain said. “No objections, I mean. I’m okay with it.”
“I’m worried about Chris, but I trust you when it comes to your family,” Ashley said.
“I’m good if this is good,” Kenzie said. We’d told her about the signals. If anyone on Breakthrough would see the little things we’d told them to pay attention to, it would be Kenzie. Our Lookout.
So many things worried me about her, but her not picking up on information wasn’t one of them.
“No issue,” Sveta said. “You’ve been way more fair about this than I expected.”
Most of my attention was on Tristan, though. I willed him to get what I meant, where I was going with this.
“You really want my opinion on this?” he asked, picking up on my quiet intensity.
“I want your opinion especially. We’ve talked about sibling stuff. I want your take on this.”
“Then okay. Yeah.”
We’d talked about it. Permanent solutions, if we had to.
He was in agreement. It was in the cards, at the very least.
“I’d rather the Wardens had more oversight here,” I said.
Chris spoke, “Separate world, separate nation. The Wardens have no responsibilities here, no role.”
“Then I’ll rephrase. I want Amy, at the very least, to make trips out to the Wardens, for checkups, talks with a therapist we trust. Let’s get to where none of us have to worry about mistakes.”
“No,” Chris said. “That’s probably not going to work out.”
“Why not?” Rain asked.
“They don’t like us doing the back and forth thing. Makes it too easy to pass on information, makes us harder to keep track of. If you come here and you go any further than this little city hub here, the checklist of things you have to do gets long. Not to mention it’s a hell of a trip to even get here.”
My mom’s hand tightened around my shoulder.
Was that it, then? My mom’s request for help in escaping? Parahumans that stayed were expected to remain in their island chain area?
“He’s not lying,” Marquis said. “I think the trip could be managed. Long but I suspect Amy is willing to endure long trips if it mends bridges.”
“We’re not mending anything,” I said, harsher than I’d meant to sound.
“If-” Amy started. She flinched when I turned her way, stopped talking.
“If you’d be open to the opportunity, if you’d at least talk to me when I went, I could pull strings, maybe get an escort they trust to come with me and watch what I do, I know they want me to do certain healings of famous people here to prolong their lives and enrich their cultures, and I’ve been refusing on principle. If I bartered that healing, I could get permission to come.”
“On the condition you see me?” I asked, my voice hollow.
“On- I’m not doing that or asking for that for me, Vicky. I want you to feel reassured. I want you to not be afraid anymore. I want you to be okay. I will go to whatever lengths it takes to do that. Really. Seeing you would just let me know it’s not making things worse.”
I closed my eyes.
Was it okay to say whatever, if it meant we could get her to Wardens Headquarters? Get her into that building, up to the stairwell, and then have a portal open. Push her through as we’d done to Tattletale, but without any humor in the action. Maybe using one of Rain’s mechanical hands, to avoid touching the dangerous striker-class cape.
And after that just… not open the door again.
“We can talk about it,” I said.
“That’s all I wanted,” Amy said, and the hope in her eyes was naked.
We left the conversation at that. Chris said something to her that she didn’t hear, which prompted her to move closer, and from that point they were huddled.
“You did good,” Sveta said.
I nodded, fidgeting more, glancing at the huddle.
“They’re talking about which strings they’re going to pull to get her to listen,” Kenzie said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Keep me informed?”
“Will try. I can only listen to two things at once.”
In the other room, one of the scribe-boys was standing closer to the center, reading from his little notebook.
My mother put an arm around my shoulders, squeezing. She leaned in closer. “I’m proud of you.”
I smiled, and the smile was a lie.
Amy, too, smiled. I couldn’t reconcile that. I couldn’t make peace with it. She’d done it earlier, while chatting with her dad, and it bothered me. She was in a good mood and it was largely because she’d succeeded in lying to herself and thought she’d succeeded in lying to us. She’d broken someone and I wasn’t confident she was confident in fixing that someone.
She had her little lie, and so did I.
She entertained a world where what she’d done was fixable, to this blonde girl, to me. She’d tried to convince us.
I offered a middle ground. Not forgiveness, but talks, a balance, and acceptance of what she was doing. That was my lie, because I couldn’t bring myself to.
We’d run it by the Wardens at the next opportunity. It wouldn’t be my team’s biased take on it. Other hero teams would hear the situation, listen to Kenzie’s recordings, and then decide if it was appropriate, to dispose of my ex-sister, and cast her into another world alone, with no plans to retrieve her.
Would there be pushback? Probably. A lot of this hinged on my knowledge that Amy had been lying about how certain she was.
If there was pushback, maybe a test. If she couldn’t fix this person she’d altered, she was too dangerous. If she could, I’d back down.
We’d have to give her a chance first, use every resource to get her to a stable place, for this person’s sake, and for absolute fairness.
After that, if it came down to laying down the ultimatum and what was at stake, then I couldn’t imagine a world where she rallied and performed better, fixed this girl and saved herself. She didn’t handle pressure well.
There was a knock on the door. Guards moved to either side of the doorway, parting the way.
“If you’d rejoin us?” Luis asked. “We have some things we’d like to address.”
Slowly, the room filed out. I was relatively close to the door, so I followed Tristan. My mom came with me. I glanced back, in part to check that Amy wouldn’t try to touch me while my back was turned, like she had at Breakthrough Headquarters.
Again, that fucking smile.
I stopped, pulling to one side and letting my mom walk on. The rest of the group filed out, with the middle section mingled between Ashley, Marquis, my dad, and Chris.
Amy was at the rear, escorted by Spruce. She saw me, stepped closer- and I stepped back, maintaining a safe distance.
I knew it looked bad. That we were trying to massage a peace. But I wasn’t insane.
“What?” she asked.
“Just- don’t move, or I might kill you,” I said. “Private question.”
I looked at Spruce as I said it.
He checked with her, then with Marquis, and then he backed off.
Just me and my ex-sister.
“What?” she asked. No smile on her face now, but that light of hope in her eyes.
“Her- oh,” she said. “Hunter.”
A punch in the throat.
“I know Hunter,” I said. I was pretty sure, anyway. After the community center attack, before Breakthrough, I’d worked with Ms. Yamada to get Hunter sent to the Asylum-like spot in Europe.
“She knew of you.”
“Did you use my name? Your relationship with me?”
“Did you convince her that you were legitimate or that you were safe by using the fact we’re related?”
“No,” Amy said.
Not quite a lie like the other, that was something she desperately wanted to believe. This… a half truth.
I stared at her, and she broke eye contact.
I drew closer to her, fully ready to hurt her if I had to, if she moved a muscle. True to her word, she didn’t.
I got so close I could smell her, and the smell stirred up memories that Engel had shaken loose.
I might have lost track of what I’d meant to say, but I saw movement. Nestled in the mane of brown curls that really needed more conditioner, Amy’s little imp Dot was curled up against the back of her neck, face pressed against the side, peering through the strands. She bared needle teeth at me.
My voice was barely audible when I spoke to Amy.
“Next time, if you want to insult me to my core, try going straight to spitting in my face, instead,” I told her. “It’s not quite as bad, and at least there’s only some chance you hurt innocents with the collateral damage.”
She stepped back as if I had hit her. I saw emotions cross her face. Then that faint light of shaky hope I’d hoped to extinguish appeared once again.
“I’m handling it,” she said. “I can do this. I’ll show you.”
I believed her even less this time.
Maybe it was better I hadn’t extinguished it, if it got her to the Warden’s headquarters.
Could I count this as one demon slain?
But I could handle it. I could see a possible light at the end of this tunnel.
Back to the arena. To our group, which stood clustered at one segment of the circle. Natalie was there, her forehead creased in worry.
“How are we?” I asked her.
“Not great,” Natalie answered. “You?”
“Great. I hope you won them over.”
The murmur of conversation in the room sounded different from one end than from the other. Our group spoke in one tongue, other groups spoke in another.
All went silent as Luis stepped forward. Sleek figure, black, with a braided tie. His movements were dramatic and echoed our own Earth’s, but they made me think of a showman, not a statesman.
“We stand at the crux of two solutions,” he stated. “In one hand, we hold a breaking of ties. We would send you home, keeping only a select few, and we would end all trade, all promises, and retract all contracts.”
That was still on the table.
Miss Militia was tense.
He held out his right hand. “On the other hand, Miss Militia offers us assurances, and we are not assured. We don’t trust you as a whole, and as things rest in this hand, we can’t come to a resolution.”
No contract or no resolution? What?
“By a showing of hands?”
Some raised extended both hands, as if out for a hug. Some raised their right hands. Only one held out left hand only.
“Can I comment?” Miss Militia asked.
“You have,” Luis said.
A woman wrapped in loose cloth stepped out of Yosef’s group. Her hair was braided at the sides, straight along the top. “By the deal and compact we formed with you, Red Queen, Marquis, Cryptid, in exchange for your freedom to settle and our cooperation and support, you are to protect us against any and all transgressors.”
I looked at Miss Militia. Her weapon wasn’t changing. What she’d said about being ready to use our powers, was she signaling we shouldn’t use ours? That we shouldn’t fight this?
Her back was ramrod straight, and her focus was wholly on the other group of parahumans.
Ah. There it was. That annoying sliver of hope in my ex-sister’s eyes wasn’t there anymore.
We outnumbered them. We could win. And we probably would.
But at what cost?
“Arrest them,” Luis said, indicating us.