I jumped as the door opened. I hated myself for doing it.
“You don’t need to flinch just from seeing me,” Amy’s voice was loud in ways that had nothing to do with volume, filling the otherwise silent room.
“I thought you said you read my feelings and you understood.”
My own voice sounded so loud, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I sounded angry, argumentative.
She didn’t respond, her eyes moving this way, that, before settling on her chair, which she dragged a noisy foot and turned a bit before seating herself. Fixating on the chair seemed to let her not fixate on my statement.
My heartbeat was even louder than the chair, than her voice, mine- or it felt that way. Every sound was a vibration in the air, and my heartbeat was a vibration in me. By the metrics of what constituted loud, the thuds were loud enough to make thinking hard, to make breathing difficult.
There were no sounds in the hallway, no voices elsewhere, no hum of ventilation or creak of architecture. Just stone walls.
My bandaged hand did its best to grip my good hand, because any alternative was to have my hands shake, and I didn’t want to show weakness. Weakness was my second-to-last resort, and it was ranked as such because it was volatile. Every time I’d been weak in front of her, she’d used her power on me. If I counted when we’d been Goddess-compelled as a time of weakness, she’d tried. And every time she’d had reasons but she’d still done it, and she’d done it without my okay.
Even the day she’d triggered, now that I thought about it. Almost a year into me having my powers, a gang called the Chorus had attacked a mall in Brockton Bay. I’d gotten hurt, Amy had triggered, and she’d healed me. The gang didn’t endure our retaliation or Coil’s expansion of activities as he’d claimed more of downtown. It had seemed like such a rare, clear-cut case of a trigger event providing an answer to the problem at hand, no fuss, no muss.
Fucking ha. Fuck.
No, weakness was a resort only because I knew the only way to truly get through to her was to bludgeon her, to go all out. I couldn’t smack her without consequences, shouting her down risked bringing people to us and threatening the trade deal, which seemed so far away now. My tools for breaking through were like my harsh comments earlier, driven by loathing, cutting remarks, blunt observations, challenges. Insults.
But they had to be timed. Each time, there was a risk she’d find her footing, throw up walls, map out a route around the thought… and that tool wouldn’t cut as sharply or penetrate as deep the next time around.
And when I’d exhausted nearly every other option available to me, maybe, just maybe, I’d let her see more of how scared of her I was. How hopeless I felt this situation was.
Leaving me my last resort.
I looked at her. Train of thought interrupted. I couldn’t help but resent her for it. The latest in years of her butting into my head, whether she knew she was doing it or not.
“My thoughts were somewhere else. What are you talking about?”
“About the emotions. I read them, I should know why you’d flinch. You’re right,” she said.
I didn’t fill the silence. Dot crawled out of Amy’s hair, down her arm, and onto her hand. Amy moved that hand into her lap, partially covering Dot with her other hand, two untattooed fingers behind Dot’s ear.
“Fair,” Amy added, almost like it was an afterthought.
“Do you think I’ve been unfair?” I asked. I had to measure out each word because keeping my voice stable felt like walking a tightrope, with a scary sort of chaos lying below.
Amy didn’t immediately respond.
I wished there was a window. I wished there were sounds elsewhere to focus on.
“I think there’s no right way to answer that question,” Amy said.
“Okay,” I said. My hand clenched the other. “Do you think you’ve been fair, here?”
“Keeping me prisoner, cornering me?”
“We’re not- let’s not be combative. Please. We were being civil.”
“Okay,” I said. One more measured out tightrope walk of a word.
Amy sat up straighter, looked more at ease.
I felt the pressure of the room and her presence press in.
I spoke, more measured words, easier because they were more aggressive. A tightrope was easier to walk if you moved more quickly, forward. “I get the impression you think we’re making headway whenever I make a concession. Just to be clear, I’m being calculating or hiding barbs in my words.”
“And you think that’s being civil?”
I had to think for a second before responding, because this was so fucking hard. “Yes. You get the choice of me being honest and upset or me being polite and… biting, I guess. Biting and deceptive. It really is your choice.”
“Vicky-” she said, like she was almost exasperated.
“You said you understood my feelings. That means you understand these are the only options.”
She looked annoyed. I knew why, too.
In a very subtle way, she’d cornered herself. I meant that in every sense- not that she’d put herself in a corner against me. She’d cornered herself against herself. In saying she’d grasped my feelings and she understood them, in the fervor she’d had when she told me that, she’d found another thing to cling to.
She dodged, she evaded, she circled around. Not in real fights -she was crap in a real fight-, but in a broader sense. When confronted with something bad, she grasped, she reached.
She’d faced my real emotions, supposedly, and she’d reached and she’d settled on the idea she’d figured me out. That she had a way forward.
She needed this little revelation. Her way of dealing with those tangible emotions had been to turn it around, to say ‘that’s the answer’.
“If those are the choices, then be civil, polite. Keep talking to me,” she said. “With enough communication, we can get past anything. We as in humanity, I mean.”
I could hear our mother in that ‘communication’ line.
Fuck me, I wished there was actual ventilation in this room. The thought crossed my mind that my ex-sister could create airborne pathogens, complex ones, and that thought didn’t leave once it found its mental real estate.
No window, closed door, nothing to look at-
My eye fell on Amy’s little minion.
“What about you, Dot?” I asked.
Amy’s little pet twisted around, flipping over to get her feet under her. Crouching on Amy’s leg with both hands and feet, like a frog poised to leap, she stared across the room at me.
“Huh?” her voice was quiet but high pitched.
“What do you think about all of this? How do you feel about it?”
“About my Queen?”
“Or this world, or me. Or how we’re all standing on cracked ice.”
“Cracked ice makes sense. I’ve seen too many family die.”
“Your family?” I asked.
“Yes. Starvation, hunted by people like you. Killed by machines. Killed by pollution. Age. It all feels fragile. Every death feels sudden and unfair, like ice.”
“I don’t disagree with you there,” I said.
“Dot lived on Bet until a little over a month ago,” Amy said.
“You?” Dot asked. She pointed at me, extending a tiny, doll-size hand. “I’m angry.”
“Angry? Okay. Why?”
“Because I want us to be done. I want my Queen to build kingdom, gather power and earn trust of this world. Then she can make journeys. Go through your world. Into mine. She can save more of my people.”
“I’m a distraction?”
The little tail swished. “Yes.”
“Is it okay if you come closer? It’s hard for me to see you.”
Dot craned around to look at Amy.
I saw the hesitation on Amy’s face. Worry. Thinking I’d take Dot as a hostage? I had the impression Dot wasn’t something Shin knew about as a whole, and taking her hostage would leave Amy without much recourse.
“I trust her,” Amy said.
Dot bounced down the length of Amy’s leg, across the floor, and up the frame of the bed, before perching on the foot of the bed, on the little raised bar of metal that kept the mattress in bounds.
Red hair had been combed all to one side of her head, her bat-like ears long enough they poked out of her hair and away from her head, each tipped with tufts of wispy red hair, both ears aimed my way. She had fur like a golden lab, but puppy-fuzz short, freckled with red spots that were so round they seemed artificial. She had a mouth with a shape and pronounced teeth that made me think of a tiny bear trap when the lips were pulled away, while being as expressive and wide as a cartoon character’s when closed.
She wore a pinafore-style dress, like overalls at the body but a dress at the bottom, and the dress portion was constituted of five or six layers and colors of wavy, ruffled cloth, to the extent it looked like a flower in bloom with two skinny legs and a thin tail sticking out from the folds. The dress itself was black, but the ruffles and the decoration on the straps ranged from white to yellow, pink, and red. Spiral-striped socks and elbow-length gloves had a similar color scheme. A long, prehensile tail had a tuft of the red hair at the end, like a paintbrush, and a long ribbon where the tuft started. She seemed to like to swish it around and let the ribbon trail in the air.
“I like the outfit,” I said. I wasn’t lying either. There were very few people who could pull it off, but she wasn’t people, and she could pull it off.
“Thank you,” Dot said. Clawed hands and feet gripped the bar she perched on, her tail swishing more energetically. “My Queen made it.”
Made it made it?
“You said she wanted to earn Shin’s trust, so she’d have more freedom.”
“I think, uh, if she wants to do that, she needs to win my trust, and the trust of people I work with.”
“Then trust her. She knows everything, she’s strong, she’s almost as beautiful as my fallen King.”
“Thanks,” Amy said. “That’s, uh, a ringing endorsement, comparing me to Nilbog.”
That was a heavy topic and the reality was that I didn’t know enough about him. I’d known about the Old Man, Case Twelve, but in a way I knew only about as much about Nilbog. They hadn’t broadcasted information about him.
“If everything broken,” Dot said, dark eyes gleaming as she widened them, leaning forward on her perch until I thought she’d fall to the mattress, “Let people fix it.”
“Amy? Your Red Queen?”
Fuck, it made my skin crawl to give her a title. Like it gave her more power, when the broken Amy that had twisted me up and spat me out had been so broken and low.
“Yes. She has so much power. Could do anything she want if she use it, but she won’t. She still trying to be something she isn’t, gentle and human. She needs to be Queen instead.”
“It’s not that easy,” Amy said.
“You can claim a Kingdom. You have power,” Dot told her. “You’re halfway there.”
“We’ve had this discussion a lot,” Amy told me.
That doesn’t reassure me, I thought. A little voice in Amy’s ear, saying queen, kingdom, queen, kingdom. For weeks now?
I didn’t want to be here. I was pressed so hard against the corner of the room that my back would hurt tomorrow. My arms wrapped around my legs, and that was tight enough I’d feel it tomorrow.
And it was so fucking quiet, a room like a sensory deprivation chamber, which magnified the things in the space. Me and my emotions, her.
Dot was safer.
“Dot,” I said, getting the little one’s attention. “Were you there when she worked on Hunter?”
“Yes. I remember Hunter. I like the name. It sounds like blood and biting, but the Hunter I met bites the air.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it went wrong, didn’t it?”
“My Queen says so. But Hunter was gloomy and bleh before. She’s exciting now. She laughed more after.”
Maybe Dot was a key, or a way I could distill a message clear enough for Amy to get, without running into walls.
“But she’s your queen. She’s not happy with it, is she?”
“No,” Dot said, almost absently. She crawled along the bar at the foot of the bed, slinking along, crawling under and squeezing through the narrow gap between bar and mattress, looping over, then squeezing through again, in a spiraling path from one corner of the bed to the other. Each time she got far enough through the gap, the dress she wore went from being compressed to poofing out dramatically. “She’s unhappy, so it no good, probably.”
“I’m not happy with it either. You’re the Red Queen’s subject, aren’t you?”
“What are you doing, Vicky?” Amy asked.
“Aren’t you?” I asked Dot, ignoring Amy.
“You’re hers to look after?”
“Yes,” Dot said. She reached the corner of the bed, gripped the bar with clawed hands, and walked up the wall until she was doing a handstand. Moving hand over hand, she began to move down the bar, legs extended above her. The poofy layered nature of her dress meant it didn’t flop down.
“Hunter was someone I tried to look after. Someone asked me to help her, and I made sure she got that help.”
“Your subject,” Dot said.
“Not quite but close. And the Red Queen used my name without my permission to get close to Hunter. And then she broke her.”
Dot went from handstand to sitting with one leg on either side of the bar in a single, sudden motion that made the bar sing, and would have had me seeing stars in her position.
The goblin looked at me, then at Amy, and then at me again.
“I can handle it,” Amy said.
“She can handle it,” Dot echoed.
“But she betrayed trust,” I said. “Is that how a Queen is supposed to act?”
“Are you trying to turn her against me?” Amy asked.
“I’m asking,” I said. This was easier when I could focus on Dot, without Amy chiming in.
“It’s not so bad,” Dot said.
“But… can I try an analogy?” I asked. I could do this if I could treat it like picking apart a puzzle. Treat it like I was figuring Ashley out and finding a common ground, with her natural imperiousness and skewed perspective. Treat it like I was trying to figure Kenzie out, before I’d figured out the smile or the family situation. “Hunter was my charge, someone I helped, and Amy took her and broke her. What if I took you and broke you? How would Amy feel?”
“Broke me how? Made me interesting?” Dot was very still.
“I’m not going to hurt you. But in this story we’re telling… how would she feel if I killed you?”
“Pissed,” Amy answered for Dot. “Not many people have my back or keep me company. I’d mourn her. Seriously, do not hurt her.”
“How would she feel, Dot, if I fucking told you I knew the Red Queen and you could trust me, and then I killed you? Or I… broke you in other ways, made you uninteresting?”
“Took my colors?”
“Took your colors, took your…”
I didn’t want to budge from where I was, but I lifted a foot. My boot had been removed and I just had the athletic sock on. I extended my leg across the bed and tapped Dot in the chest.
“My heart,” Dot said.
Dot’s ears weren’t as high as they had been at the start of the exchange, and stuck out to the sides more than they stuck up, now. A clawed hand gripped my big toe.
“I’ll fix her,” Amy said.
“I trust her,” Dot spoke up. “She’ll protect me from anything like that. She’ll fix what’s broken.”
“You trust her but nobody else does, and if nobody else does, she can’t help your… family, was it?”
“Most importantly, Dot,” I said, withdrawing the foot I’d extended Dot’s way, hugging my legs tighter. “She can’t do what she does if she doesn’t trust herself. That’s when she makes mistakes, she loses trust in herself, and she makes more mistakes, and so on. It’s what happened when she broke me. When she doesn’t trust herself she stops fixing things and starts breaking things more.”
“Vicky,” Amy said.
“Do you deny it?” Again, in the quiet room, I sounded angrier than I’d intended.
It made me afraid to move, because my movements might be the same. I could see myself using my power without wanting to, and I considered my control over my power to be one of the few things I was confident in.
“It’s things other than trust or trust in myself,” Amy said. “Pushing in, twisting things around.”
“She said what she did to you,” Dot said, interrupting. She wasn’t moving as much as she had been. “You sounded beautiful and noble.”
That being said to me, somehow, seemed to slap Amy across the face more than my calling her a cunt, earlier.
It kind of slapped me across the face too, for that matter.
“You’re not helping, Dot,” Amy said.
“Not trying to help. Am saying,” Dot said. “I think you thought it beautiful and noble too or you wouldn’t have done it.”
“It was a mistake,” Amy said.
“I’m sorry you look boring and ugly now,” Dot told me, her ears turning my way a fraction of a second before her head did. “Nothing interesting about you. You not so beautiful as she is.”
“But she did it without asking. I wasn’t her subject. Hunter wasn’t her subject. She made mistakes with… how many others?”
“Three or four,” Amy said.
“Ten, twelve,” Dot said. “I wasn’t there for all. I saw some and decided to stay and watch. I hope every time for more beautiful-interesting things.”
“Not ten or twelve,” Amy said. Her voice was tight. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Coloring outside the lines,” I said.
“Yes!” Dot said, her eyes widening. “I love those words. I love color.”
“Do you remember what she did?” I asked. Dot was… she was like a miniature force of nature in this confined space we occupied. The more exuberant she got, the worse it was for both Amy and I.
But it was putting pressure on Amy, uncovering more truths. Her buttons were obvious, apparent, and easy to push.
“Girl with a bad back, twisted up. The day after Hunter,” Dot said. “Back straightened until it broke. Snap, crack, couldn’t walk. She screamed.”
“That was one,” Amy said. “I fixed it.”
“The old man. Aged backward,” Dot said.
“Just stop, okay?” Amy cut in. “This isn’t helping anything.”
“Was it interesting?” I asked.
Dot’s head turned my way, eyes wide. She looked interested at the sheer mention of the word interesting, ears up. Then the ears dropped to the sides and she shook her head. “Not really.”
“Dot,” Amy said.
“Why not really?” I pressed.
“Because it was ordinary. He old and kind of interesting looking, then he young and not so interesting looking. But he shouts and swears and says not his face, not his face.”
“He wanted to be young again,” Amy said. “He was offering a lot, politically and for what we could give to Gimel. We struck a private deal. I de-aged him, made him thirty again, but he didn’t recognize his face in the mirror as the one he used to have. He was upset and didn’t follow through on his end of the deal. Said I made him ugly.”
“Very plain,” Dot added.
“Was that your mistake or his?” I asked. I waited about one second, as Amy paused, trying to find the words, and butted into her thoughts with, “Don’t lie.”
“My mistake. I don’t see it as a ‘coloring outside the lines’ thing. It was a question of how much I pursue the art and how much I pursue the science, and I fell too far on the side of art.”
“You were working with Bonesaw for a bit. Dad said she was big on the ‘art’. When she showed up at the house, she talked a lot.”
“Don’t. Don’t compare me to her.”
“I guess you got some practice in art before making Dot’s dress. It really is pretty.”
“Yes!” Dot said.
“Stop!” Amy raised her voice.
My heart pounded at the volume of the word, at the situation. Every instinct was kicking in, to the extent I could have lashed out if I wasn’t already huddled up into a tight space.
I didn’t take my eyes off of Amy as I asked, “Dot, what were the interesting results from her power?”
“This is being confrontational again, Vicky.”
“The ear one,” Dot said.
Amy visibly winced.
“Fixing an ear, a wiggly hole going through head. Canal. She colored outside the lines, little ripply-rigid flesh around the ear and more holes twisting through. There was blood bubbling out.”
“Getting into that art, huh?” I asked.
“You were being civil before,” Amy said.
Dot went on, “It was beautiful. Wasn’t until I said something that she stopped, half the head was holes reaching through, ripples and ridges around.”
“I zoned out. I hadn’t slept, I was tired,” Amy said.
“She called the Snark for help. Asked him to fix the ears. He wouldn’t. But he sat with and talked her through. He sat with for the next few too.”
“Marquis?” I asked.
“Chris,” Amy answered.
“Oh, Snark, of course.”
“That was fun. That was a good day,” Dot said.
“Were there others?” I asked Dot.
“Stop,” Amy raised her voice getting to her feet. I flinched involuntarily at the movement, my head turning partially away. She spoke again, quieter, “Just stop. Please.”
Where I’d shrunk back a bit, Dot scampered to the corner of the bed and leaped for Amy’s hand, grabbing onto the sleeve before scampering up to Amy’s shoulder.
“Our fifteen minutes are probably nearly up,” I said.
“What?” Amy asked, momentarily flabbergasted, on top of her general upset. “You were counting?”
“I did say I’d be underhanded,” I told her. “There’s no way I’m going to spend more time in your company than I’m obligated to.”
“What the fuck, Vicky?” she asked, stepping closer.
She stopped when I pulled back.
She turned away, and I could relax a fraction, no longer drawn so far into the corner that I was forced to hold my breath.
“I had a long list of things I wanted to bring up,” Amy said. “I haven’t been idle. I’ve been trying to help Gimel. I’ve been trying to heal people who nobody else could help, or use my healing to do more good. I’ve figured some things out and gathered resources. Capes, even.”
“Assuming I can trust you, which we really haven’t established.”
“You can trust me, Vicky.”
“Can I? Based on what?”
“Based on the fact that I’ve had good intentions every step of the way. I’ve always been on your side.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“Fuck off, Vicky,” she said. “Fuck. I have enough good info and resources that you and I could sit down for an hour and you wouldn’t want to imprison me or anything. You’d want to keep talking. If you’d give me a chance.”
“I think my stomach would be all ulcers and I’d be incapable of sleeping after. Or did you forget that you got a taste of what I feel right now? Or is that something you only conveniently bring up?”
“I fucking remember, Vicky,” she said, angry now. She paced, not facing me at any point, but still testing my tolerances, setting that panicky feeling into motion. Like being in a cage with a tiger. “It gets easier each time.”
“It gets harder.”
“No. I can show you that this is doable, you can set the terms of the conversation-”
“Drugged, locked in a room I didn’t ask to come to, cornered?”
“No,” she said, still angry. Angrier.
“Then I’m free to go? If I open that door-”
“It’s a prison, Vicky.”
“But you have the power to let us go, you said that earlier.”
“Stop!” she shouted, wheeling on me.
She wasn’t at the far end of the room now. She was in the center. I was on the bed in the corner, all tension.
But that was the crack.
Cracks, though, were unpredictable. They traced across weak points and forked and terminated early. It was hard to predict the route they’d take.
So I waited, tense, not breathing.
“Teacher’s exploiting the system,” she said, her voice almost emotionless. “He’s going to pick a fight sooner or later, and it’s going to be devastating. He manufactured a crack, he’s going to intentionally create more. Each one gives him more access to the system and more control over the levers and knobs that decide everything else. He can force-create a Dauntless and the ones he makes will listen to him.”
I was silent.
“Teacher was one of the only other people in the Birdcage who kind of ‘got it’, who engaged with me when I talked about that stuff.”
“I shouldn’t have said as much as I did to Teacher,” Amy said.
“You gave him ideas?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He has no interest in ruling the world, and I think he’d view it as a distraction or detriment.”
“Because powers don’t like stable. As you well know, look at me.”
The attempt at self depreciating humor fell flat, came across as mournful, self-pitying.
“I make mistakes, and my power makes it easy to make mistakes. All it takes is an impulse, or a drifting thought.”
“When you’re tired, when you’re upset. When-”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it. When you’re lonely.
“I’m always tired, I’m always upset. I’m always everything. The first time I felt like I was able to actually take a deep breath was when I went to the Birdcage. Away.”
I remained silent. Letting her talk.
“Stability is tricky and hard to maintain. It takes effort. Teacher could control everything but he’d be fighting against everyone else and even against himself and his power,” Amy said. “What he wants is bigger than that. And he’s getting there. Even with the tools he has, he’s too dangerous to fight. Because I can touch someone with powers and look at those powers… I was doing that with Hunter, trying to figure out how to rebuild her personality…”
She stopped there, almost like her train of thought was gone, or she’d lost herself in memories.
“I look at that broken, fragile landscape and I see Teacher’s hand in too many places. With too many connections, too many networks, and a massive hole in another world that he’s elaborating on.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Does that count for anything? I could provide more details, but… does it matter?”
“What do you mean ‘count’?” I asked. “Is someone keeping score?”
“I’ve healed so many people, I’ve done so much, devoted months of my life to fixing things. I threw myself into things around Gold Morning. I played a big role, for better or for worse. I’ve always been on your side. And none of it matters.”
“It matters,” I said. “But it’s not like there’s a big scorecard where you reach fifty thousand points and you win the forgiveness of one unconscionable act. You don’t reach a certain point total and win the girl of your dreams automatically. It matters, but it’s fifty thousand things that matter on an individual basis.”
“I’m not saying I want to win you, Vicky. I’m just saying…”
“You want it to count. To count enough.”
She shook her head. “You’re not getting it.”
“If you heal thousands of people and you mutilate twelve or so, you’re a healer who mutilates people. You don’t give me an hour’s worth of abstract interpretations of the big picture and buy fifteen minutes of me being happy to spend more time with you.”
“That’s not what I’m asking for.”
“Bonesaw and Swansong will always be ex-Slaughterhouse Nine. Precipice will always be ex-Fallen. Chris will… I don’t even know what he’s trying to be or not be.”
“He wants to escape his humanity. Leave weaknesses behind. He likes you and that makes him dangerous because he wants to kill what he likes.”
Good to know.
“I sent him away,” Amy told me. “Made him leave so he wouldn’t retaliate.”
“I don’t think he can escape his humanity like he wants, and even if he does find some magic potion that transforms him permanently into something entirely inhuman, if he enlists your help-”
“I won’t help him do that.”
“He will always have been human. And me? I will always be the girl who was turned into a monster by my sister. To others in the know and to myself.”
“No,” Amy said. She shook her head. “I- Only if you hold onto it. I offered to let you forget it all.”
“Doesn’t work that way. If you don’t remember it then you’re more beholden to it.”
“What?” Amy asked. “Vicky, you’re a smart person. You got good grades, but that might be the dumbest thing I’ve heard you say, and I remember being kids and you telling me that birds can’t go into space because they need gravity to swallow and therefore they can’t swallow while they’re up there.”
“On space shuttles, you dumbass. And you need to remember and dwell in the ugly shit because if you don’t, you just end up right back in it. How do you change if you don’t tackle it head-on?”
“By getting through it and then putting it firmly behind you.”
“Except you tried that, apparently, and then you went and you destroyed Hunter.”
“I didn’t destroy her, I made a mistake. I think I can fix it. Fuck. I should have known better than to expect you to be fair, Vicky.”
The more agitated she got, the more my body ratcheted up the physical signs of tension. I tried to remain still, told myself flight was an option. I had a headache from where my neck and jaw were tense, and with that painful buzz in the back of my head, I tried to visualize it as a tactile reminder of the people behind me. Of refugees who needed that food.
Stupid, like a dumb mnemonic, but it helped me to process.
Every time I’d spoken, I was left feeling like I was risking pushing too far, or not pushing far enough. If I didn’t push enough, she lost momentum. If I pushed too far, she threw up walls.
And I didn’t really know her enough to know where those boundaries were now.
Here, I had zero idea. For the first time, I couldn’t even recognize enough of her to say.
“You know what the shitty thing is, Vicky? I told myself I wouldn’t say this. I was doing okay. At the Birdcage, after, figuring myself out, finding a balance, coming to terms with how much I hated myself… I’m rambling.”
The fingernails of my good hand dug into my leg. The fingernails of my injured hand touched my leg, two of them wobbly, barely attached. A reminder.
“I earned my stripes saving the world, I got offered work and money helping manage things behind the scenes, watching Bonesaw. I healed heroes now and then. I managed, I was doing okay. I repaired bridges with Carol, and I had an actual mom for the first time ever. Mark was cool, all considered. I was fine.”
“I didn’t do anything to stop that.”
“You- you kind of did. You appeared at the edges and fringes. You re-entered my life and it all went to pieces. Again and again.”
“All my fault.”
“No. But you didn’t make it easier, for yourself or for me.”
“By existing? By having a life? Normally, Amy, when someone does what you do, it’d be you who abides by a restraining order, who stays a certain distance away, or who gets locked up in a cell.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she told me. “It would have been best if one of us hadn’t made it through Gold Morning, that’s all.”
I maintained eye contact with her for long seconds, staring her down. She was the one to look away first.
“I don’t resent you, I’m on your side,” she said, looking at the door. “If you need anything, just ask. I’ll be here.”
“I thought you said that if I had an honest conversation with you, that you’d do what I asked.”
She shook her head.
“Do what I ask,” I told her. “I endured this room, this exercise of yours. I played nice. I measured out my fucking words, I told you, straight up, what I needed and wanted, instead of being really underhanded and throwing you through a portal to another world and throwing away the key, no warning, no appeals. I told you that I think you need help. That you need to talk to the Wardens and talk to a therapist.”
“I doubt you really tried,” I said, anger putting bite into my words. “Right now, you’re spiraling. You don’t stop until someone makes you stop. You hurt Hunter-”
“You never even met her!”
“She still fucking counts. Those twelve people that Dot mentioned-”
“Who I fixed!”
“They count. You’re going to keep hurting people until someone makes you stop. That’s either with the help of a professional, more imprisonment-”
“-or a bullet to your head.”
The look she gave me was as wounded as if I had actually shot her.
She walked to the door, opened it, and stood there, door partially open, hand on the handle, talking while her back was to me.
“While you were unconscious I was talking to people, catching up on the deals Citrine struck,” Amy said. “You’re getting out soon. Supplies should be okay, I don’t know about the escalated supply I was pushing for, because they don’t trust me.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
“They say the doctor drugging you was a miscommunication, but you and I know that isn’t true. It was about power. They said the prison guard attack wasn’t planned and Marquis, Chris and I believe them. Parahumans don’t count and can’t count in their perspective. Kind of like how I’m not supposed to exist or count in your reality.”
Citrine had been saying something like that when I left the room with the others. Well, without the self-pitying bullshit.
“They wanted to make you squirm, but once they heard about you being hurt, they were pretty satisfied with the fact you bled for them and kept your cool. I guess when you do things they count for something.”
She hauled the door the rest of the way open, and stepped out into the hallway, looking this way and that.
“Dot-” I started.
The critter leaped to the doorframe. I supposed there were no guards outside. I’d prepared to say something shorter, more perfunctory, but I found myself mentally stumbling. My realization I could say something more profound tripped over the dizzying relief that Amy was finally fucking off, that the pressure of the room had been relieved, and the adrenaline of being so close to an angry, unhinged Amy.
“Look after her. Keep her on track. If she makes what she and I call mistakes, it hurts everyone’s trust in her, and she can’t help your family. It needs to start with helping Hunter. Nobody’s going to let that go.”
Dot’s ears moved up, down, up, and her tail swished, before she leaped away.
My feet were numb from now hard I’d clenched my legs to my chest, my arm hurt, my hand throbbed, while my head pounded.
My boots were on the floor, and I pulled them on. I eased my way to the ground, looked over the cot and surrounding area, and then stepped out into the hallway.
Was this a win? A loss? Had I changed anything?
The guards were posted at the end of the hall. They waited as I walked on a foot that was still partially asleep, sore and spooked.
They reached for my arm and I flinched. They took it anyway, then guided me, strongarming me down one hallway, then the next.
Through the maze, deeper into the complex, I was sure, yet it felt like I was on my way out. Away from the bullheaded monster. Into light and a place I could breathe again.
My hand was shaking and I couldn’t make it stop. I was glad for the bandage on the other.
We passed into the showers, which smelled like showers in any gym, physio center, or PRT Wards building I’d been in, except for maybe the scent of a different flavor of soap.
They locked the door behind them, leaving me to find my way myself, my arm feeling bruised where I’d been manhandled.
I found my team in the same hallway they’d been in before.
“She’s back,” Rain said, for the benefit of others without the angle or line of sight to see.
“Sveta?” Kenzie asked.
“Victoria,” Rain said, while everyone got to their feet.
“Hey,” Vista said. She hurried to my side, hands steadying me. “You’re as white as a sheet. The surgery-”
I shook my head. I counted heads. Tristan, Rain, Kenzie, Ashley, Vista. “Where are Sveta and Theo?”
“She got dragged off when you passed out,” Tristan said. “Marquis said they gave you a drug that knocked you out-”
“Against my will and express permission,” I said, my voice tight.
“That would explain why Sveta flipped. We were wondering if it was her new body having a weird stress response or if something else happened. She fought guards to try to get to you,” Tristan said. “She almost used her power. We told her to calm down, that we couldn’t afford to risk everything. She listened.”
“Where is she?” I asked. “I need her.”
Tristan’s voice was calm, resassuring, “In a special cell. We’ve been visiting but they only let one person visit and only for a short while. Theo’s with her now. The idea is they’re supposed to sit in those cells, then they get dragged off during the next round of punishments, but that punishment doesn’t count against their sentence.”
“What?” I asked, alarmed.
“It’s okay,” Vista said. “Citrine’s getting us out. We leave before any punishments happen.”
“We don’t leave without her.”
“I know. We know,” Tristan said.
My emotions felt so messy. As bound-up and constrained as they’d been in the room they felt like a tangled mess of wires inside of me now, impossible to untangle, choking.
“Why do you need her?” Tristan asked. “What happened?”
In my mind, I’d thought of my friend because I could trust her, but I did trust the team, if only a slight fraction less.
“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.
Our time with Goddess had hammered in that particular lesson. Everyone got it.
“What happened?” Ashley asked.
“Amy,” Vista guessed. I flinched, looking away.
“Fuck,” Tristan said, with some emphasis and at least two syllables. “Marquis said she left, he’s never been anything but straight with us, we were focused on Sveta because she was in more immediate danger and you were just getting surgery, we looked in once or twice-”
I shook my head.
“What did she do?” Vista asked.
“I don’t know. But she did use her power on me. Tell me how long I was gone?”
“Not that long. When we last checked in, you were still getting stitched up forty minutes ago. She wasn’t there then.”
My thoughts were a messy, tangled-wire storm of calculations, dropping one number as I tried to pick up another and arrange events into some kind of sequence.
So hard to gauge time.
I wouldn’t have been out for long. Accounting for the time before our ‘fifteen minutes’ of conversation, the break when she’d left the room, the time to come back…
I couldn’t imagine she’d had time to do anything big. There was only a gap, a big question mark on my brain and my body.
“I want to see Sveta, make sure she’s okay.”
“Can’t. Not until ten minutes after Theo gets back,” Vista said.
“We won’t even be here that long,” Tristan said. “Then we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing.”
“Doing?” I asked.
“About the raid on Teacher.”
The word was an alarm bell in my head. I shot him an alarmed look. He’d said it outright, in a place Teacher could overhear.
“Don’t,” Ashley said, but she didn’t say it like it was a condemnation or a warning. “Victoria doesn’t need that right now.”
“I really need it. Information, distractions,” I said. When I swallowed I found my throat dry. “Please.”
Tristan answered, “The attack was mounted, while our thinkers thought he was distracted. Citrine said they’re gathering troops and allies for a second phase assault, because not enough of the first group are reporting back. We’d be going as late arrivals, stragglers.”
Against an enemy Amy had called unbeatable.