She stopped at the door, peering through the glass pane, and exhaled slowly, trying to calm her nerves.
She was surrounded by people who were so good at this. She had always been surrounded by people who were so good at this. But whatever genes were supposed to be imparted, whatever lessons were meant to be instilled, she still had to gather her composure before entering a room with people in it.
One person, in this case. The Warden’s Headquarters had some massive statues in the lobby, several stories tall, and this part of the second and third floors was essentially a series of catwalks forming half-circles around the statues, with a view of the lobby below. At this hour, long after most employees had gone home, there were only a half dozen people visible on the catwalks above and the floors below.
It made her think of the hospitals, doing her rounds.
She pressed her hand against the door but didn’t push, stopping to look at the tattoos, the clone-grown fingertips Riley had made for her. Bold black lines and spaces filled in with crimson. Gold tracery, far more fine, subtle but omnipresent, extending from the sun further up her arm. It was bolder than an ordinary tattoo might be, the gold close to actual gold.
A reminder. It still hurt every time. It still brought back memories of her lowest point.
Another breath. She’d been struck by the thought, one night in the Birdcage, that if it wasn’t her biological father or the Dallons that she’d gotten this anxiety and quiet nature from, it had to be her biological mother. It had been a relief, a piece falling into place, and in one fell swoop, the anxiety had seemed… easier?
She had brought it up with her father, not excited, but calm, a bit assured in a way she usually wasn’t. And he had smiled. Just a smile, no words, careful and arranged. She’d known him well enough to know that it was because words would betray and a smile let her keep believing. From that smile onward, she hadn’t kept believing. She took the details she knew and the things he had told her already and picked apart the notion. Her mother had been a cape groupie, with more of a sense of adventure than common sense. Bold and brave enough to raise her for the five or so years before returning to face Marquis, show him the ropes, and get them used to each other. Hardly someone who hesitated before walking into a room with one person in it.
This wasn’t quite like usual, she told herself. The stakes were higher.
She pushed on the door, stepping out onto the pathway that looked out over the lobby.
The space always looked like it was the twilight of earliest morning or cusp of evening. The dark statues were lit by soft floodlights and similar lights shone down from the ceiling, though the catwalks above blocked the direct glare. The windows that did exist were partially shuttered, as a defensive precaution, and didn’t account for how big, imposing, and conservatively lit the space was.
One person was on the second floor, that she could see, leaning over the railing, nursing a cup of coffee. Shorter than average, Asian, with a simple haircut, and clothing choices that were as conservative as could be, while still being very summer-appropriate. Khaki skirt that extended to the knees with a pleat at each side, a white, short-sleeved blouse with a high collar and no adornments. The fact she wore a watch suggested she was old fashioned. Studs for earrings.
The woman -Jessica- straightened, leaving the coffee perched on the railing, workbag on the floor below it.
“Thank you for coming. I’m Jessica Yamada, in case you didn’t read the email closely,” Jessica said. “I should ask before we get underway, do you have a name you prefer going by?”
Amy shook her head unconsciously before realizing she was doing it.
People kept asking that.
What was she supposed to even say?
She had her guess as to why she’d been contacted, and if she went by that, then wasn’t ‘Amy’ the best name for the occasion? “Amy.”
On impulse, starting the action and then feeling there was no option except to follow through, she put her hand out.
Jessica didn’t hesitate.
Jessica’s hand was cool to the touch. With the skin contact, Amy became instantly aware of every cell in Jessica’s body, every process, every measure and composition of hormone, protein, and lipid chain. Of bacteria cultures, of viruses trying to assail the greater structure and losing that battle. She could feel the warmth of the body’s interior, the electricity of nerves firing, from the ones in the brain and what those suggested to the micro-firings that Jessica wasn’t even consciously aware of, that shifted her position by small fractions to keep her balance.
They shook hands. Amy broke the contact.
“Sorry,” Amy said, looking away and down. Two women in business wear were talking while looking at the contents of the same file folder, one holding it, the other pointing at a graphic. Their upper arms touched.
Amy wasn’t looking directly at Jessica, but she didn’t miss that Jessica looked down at her hand, palm turning upward, before asking, “For what?”
“That was a very Marquis thing to do, offering the handshake, putting you on the spot,” Amy said. “A part of me wanted to see if you were scared. If you’d flinch before taking my hand, or if you wouldn’t shake it at all.”
“Should I have?” Jessica asked.
“No. I didn’t do anything, either, if you’re worrying about that.”
Jessica shook her head, walking over to the railing to pick up her coffee. She leaned against the railing, her back to it.
Amy remained where she was. Leaning against the same railing seemed too casual, and she didn’t feel casual. She didn’t have any pockets to slip her hands into, but she didn’t want to clasp her hands or anything. She focused on adjusting her hair by her ear instead. It only gave her a few seconds of not looking like she didn’t know how to be human, standing unnaturally in place.
“Can I ask how James and Riley are?” Jessica asked.
“They’re fine, I think. Usual. James might be a little bit depressed but I don’t really ever see him, they keep us separated. Riley is… hard to interpret. But you didn’t ask to meet me so you could talk about them.”
“I didn’t,” Jessica said. “But I’m trying not to treat you like a patient, and I thought I might approach you as a colleague. I am interested, and I thought I’d ask.”
“Okay,” Amy said. Jessica had walked back a few steps to retrieve her coffee, and Amy wondered if the five or so feet of distance that separated them had been calculated. It was the kind of chessmaster type move her father might have done. Having an excuse to retreat. Which-
“Um,” Amy said. “My throat’s dry. Do you mind? I’ll be right back.”
“Not at all. Do you need change?”
Amy shook her head.
She took the time of feeding in the change from her jacket’s inner pocket and collecting her iced tea to sort out her head. Not her thoughts, but to get to where she could have coherent thoughts in the first place.
She approached the railing, stopping short of leaning up against it. A noise below gave her an excuse to move closer to the railing and look down. The same women from earlier. One of them had thrown something into one of the big stylized trash cans in the lobby.
“Colleagues,” Amy reminded herself by saying it out loud.
“If that’s alright?”
She had no idea if she was being manipulated. She didn’t have the skillset to even begin figuring it out, or to know what to do if she’d been able to put her finger on it.
If she could re-listen to this conversation with her father, with Marquis, then he could no doubt tell her if the ‘colleague’ thing was a trap, something to get her to let her guard down, or to feign equality when they weren’t equal, when she was being tracked and closely watched by the same people who no doubt paid Jessica.
“It’s alright,” Amy said. “How are you? It’s late. Was it a long day, or-?”
“It was a very long day. Always is,” Jessica said. “But I enjoy the work I do.”
“I was wondering if you’d stayed late just to talk to me. I’m glad if you didn’t.”
“You work long hours too?”
“For a certain meaning of work. Babysitting, checking work. Some hospital work. Some research stuff. A few initiatives, like seeing if my power can engineer something to their specifications, that will curb the Machine Army’s approach.”
“How did that go?”
“I could. But they didn’t trust it. The thinkers reviewed the plan and thought it was a bad idea. It’s possible the Machine Army incorporates it or adapts to it. Or there’s something out there that would mutate or twist the pathogen.”
“That’s too bad,” Jessica said, sounding very casual about it.
“I never know what I’m going to do on one day or another. I wake up, check my emails, figure out if I can sleep in. Usually I can’t because Riley is a morning person and she wants to start the day. I’ll have ten emails and five or six will be things people want to talk to me about, and I block out the day. I get more by lunchtime and more by four. By the time I’m done, it’s eight o’clock at night.”
“You could say no, if it’s too much.”
“It’s not,” Amy said. “Like… it’s that, or I go home at five and most of the time I just stay home watching shows with episodes missing, or new shows that seem off because production values haven’t caught up, and new or old, I’ll watch something with a story and it’s just…”
Amy made a frustrated movement with her hands, clenching them.
Jessica looked at her.
“…Dull,” Amy said. It wasn’t the word she wanted, but she couldn’t think of the word she wanted.
“Not my thing either,” Jessica said. “It’s very hard for me to find television to watch. I’d like crime procedurals, but they tend to get too close to home. I find the dramas dull.”
“Dull’s the wrong word,” Amy said. “…Numb?”
“Numb?” Jessica asked, propping chin on hand, elbow on railing. Casual, removed from the professional.
“The emotional moments don’t land. I’ve seen and lived more intense things than anything I could watch.”
“No other hobbies you could pick up, nobody to meet? Just… say yes to all the emails?”
“I mean, I say no sometimes. I’m dating, you know. Kind of.”
Amy nodded. She rested her forearms on the railing and her fingers rubbed at the tension in her hands, like they were trying to follow the lines of the tattoos and wipe them off with enough pressure and repetition. “That was a whole thing. I was upfront, let them know I was seeing someone with powers. They were worried about security, and grilled me about who she was. I thought… I don’t have a mask, no costume. Most people who know about cape stuff know who I am. It wouldn’t be fair to her, because I see her when she’s in civilian clothes.”
“How did they take it?”
“Not well, I guess. But I’ve stacked up a lot of brownie points, I’ve stuck to their rules, and the amnesty technically applies. I’m betting they know who she is, but they couldn’t say no to me without admitting the amnesty doesn’t apply equally to everyone. I pointed out that yes, I did go to the Birdcage, but I went voluntarily. If I didn’t have any powers at all and I checked myself into the loony bin, wouldn’t I be able to check myself out?”
“Not usually,” Jessica said.
“That’s moronic,” Amy said, more bitterly than she intended. “It was a temporary thing.”
“Going to the Birdcage could have been a permanent transition.”
Amy drank her iced tea, and the flavor and coldness of it shocked her. She’d held it this long and hadn’t actually had any of it. She watched the two women in the lobby leave. They looked close.
“They shouldn’t have let me demand to go there,” she said, quiet.
“That was then. Today is today. How’s the dating going?” Jessica asked. “If you don’t mind my asking? I have to live vicariously.”
“Can we like…” Amy clenched her hands again. “Stop pretending?”
“Pretending?” Jessica asked.
“Or dodging around the big elephant in the room? Victoria. I saw her for the first time in a while last night, and now you reach out? I’ve been talking to Carol and she mentioned you were Victoria’s therapist. I’d know even if it wasn’t her, so don’t get her in trouble.”
“That’s not what I’m here to do. I don’t intend to get her into trouble.”
“But you are here because of Victoria. She hasn’t even talked to me or looked me in the eye, but I got an invitation to the same barbecue she did, and she flipped out. So… so much that I’m sure she turned around and went to the Wardens and told them how scary and dangerous I am, and made demands. And maybe you all know it’s ridiculous, but you have to do your due diligence.”
“I can’t talk to you about her. She’s a former patient and it would be breaching her boundaries.”
“If I sound angry,” Amy said, shrinking down a bit, arms folded over one another on the railing. “I’m not angry at you. Just… all of this. And that’s probably dangerous to say, because you’ll have paper-pushers go over every word of this conversation with a fine toothed comb, highlighting every word that suggests I’m dangerous. Angry’s gotta be a big one.”
“That’s not what I’m doing. If there are any recording devices, they’re as big a surprise to me as they are to you.”
“Passing on a message then?” Amy asked, her voice hollow. “Go away, stay away, I’m a terrible, horrible monster? I couldn’t hear all of it, but I heard bits. She treated Carol like a monster for just associating with me.”
“No messages,” Jessica said. “I think she has made it clear she doesn’t want any contact or relationship, sisterly or otherwise. That extends to sending or receiving messages through middlemen.”
“Right,” Amy said, her voice terse.
“I think she has gone to great effort to keep her distance from you, to avoid the same events, associated people, and places. Drawing only from my own conclusions, I think that is incredibly hard on her. The kindest thing you might be able to do is put in a similar degree of effort, to maintain that distance and separation of your respective lives.”
“You asked about my dating life earlier. As a colleague?”
“I did. But as a colleague, I’m hoping you’ll at least acknowledge what I just said.”
“I will, but… let me say stuff first.”
Jessica nodded, sipping her coffee.
“This woman I’m dating is… she’s beautiful, she’s smart, not- not educated, but she’s had to learn about a lot of things, and she picked it up fast. She’s passionate and stylish, she’s interesting, and… it’s like those television dramas.”
“Numb, you said,” Jessica interjected.
“It’s enjoyable, it has its moments, don’t get me wrong. But those moments pass, and… it feels like there’s a bit less of everything to everything. We started it off as an experiment, I was upfront about things, and maybe we’ll taper it off, I don’t know. I think we could remain friends.”
“I don’t think anyone could know the context of what happened and fault you for taking some time, finding your way back to a comfortable place.”
“I don’t want to take time,” Amy said, a little bit emotional now. “I don’t want- I don’t want to work from nine until nine every day, and I don’t want to work from nine to five or nine until noon either, with half my day or my evening spent on dates. I’m not really interested in the… dating part of it. I want to skip forward.”
“Wanting to skip forward to the part where you’re situated and comfortable is very common, I think. I’ve heard similar sentiments from people I know, especially introverts.”
“I want to skip forward to the point where I’ve known her for ten years. Where we’ve been there for each other’s trigger events, where we went to high school, middle school, and most of elementary school together. And I had that. I almost had that.”
“I don’t think that’s possible, short of using time travel. I don’t think you could one hundred percent rule that out, but I think even if you did travel back in time and rewrite history to contrive those scenarios with your new girlfriend in mind… I don’t think you’d have what you really want.”
“Can you broaden your hopes and expectations?”
“I tried. I tried seeing this one girl in the Birdcage. Ex-mechanic, smaller than me but strong, short black hair, funny, tender. I didn’t really believe her story about what she did that got her into the Birdcage, but I didn’t really care. I asked my dad if it was safe to try seeing her and he said yes and…”
Amy trailed off, aware she was rambling.
“…She was my first kiss,” Amy said. “And it was pretty wow.”
Jessica’s expression changed, and Amy caught it. She’d had to catch a lot of those little expressions to navigate the household of Carol and Mark.
“What?” she asked.
“I shouldn’t remark, but… I find that surprising.”
“You mean Victoria.”
“I shouldn’t have commented. I apologize.”
Amy tensed, fists balling up, tattoos tight around her bones. “I wasn’t me. I was fresh off of having my fingers eaten, my home destroyed, my life overturned. Bonesaw tried to break me. She tried to break Mark. I wasn’t me. Victoria wasn’t Victoria.”
Jessica didn’t interject.
“What we did together doesn’t count,” Amy’s words were more a plea than a statement. “Not when we weren’t ourselves.”
She really wanted Jessica to sympathize. Needed it.
When the woman didn’t say anything, Amy went on, asserting her voice, trying to sound confident, “It was my first kiss, with Paroxysm, and a few first other things, but that numbness, knowing it wasn’t what I really wanted? We broke it off about as amicably as you can, when you’re stuck in the same place. I saw a girl after Gold Morning, too, but that was… not fun. She was still mourning, I couldn’t help her through it.”
“Okay,” Jessica said. “I don’t want to lose sight of my suggestion from earlier. It doesn’t change that you and Victoria would be better off if you both tried to avoid each other.”
Amy could have hit something with the frustration she felt. “I’m getting back to that. Listen, I… I can’t be expected to spend the rest of my life alone.”
She felt so lonely, just saying that out loud, and she willed Jessica to see it. Her chest hurt with it, like physical pain.
“I don’t think anyone is expecting that of you,” Jessica said, her voice quiet.
“I’m being punished, but I’m a victim too.”
“If that were so, I’d still stand by my recommendation of striving to maintain the distance. You gain nothing by engaging with her.”
“My sister? My- not being alone anymore?” Amy asked. How did this woman not get this?
“You have your mother, your father, Marquis. You’re on speaking terms with Crystal. I know you have colleagues here. You’re taking initial steps toward figuring out the kind of relationship you want, and that will take time, and it will be hard, but that’s only natural. If you need help finding your way there, I have a colleague who would be willing to talk to you. He opened up one patient slot, he specialized in working with traumatized emergency service workers. Cops, paramedics, doctors, firefighters.”
Amy felt stung. “I’m not nuts. I’m not crazy.”
“You don’t have to be to talk to someone, and it sounds to me like you need to talk to someone.”
“I already am, I get mental fitness checkups with the Wardens, because I spend my time around Riley and people.”
“That’s different. This would be time set aside for you to talk through those feelings of numbness, your frustration, your fears. It wouldn’t cost you anything except a couple of hours out of every week, I got permission from the Wardens, they’ll cover it if I say it’s needed.”
“Great!” Amy exclaimed. “Hey! That’s fantastic, knowing the guys at the top are signing the papers saying I’m crazy and I need enough help they’ll pay money for it. Everyone seems to think this, apparently.”
“They don’t have your name. You talked about brownie points earlier. I used mine. That’s all this is.”
“I’m not crazy,” Amy said. “Really. I’m lonely. I had a bad day years ago, I freaked out, and I wasn’t myself for a while. Now nobody’s willing to forgive me, even people I don’t even know. And the most fucked up thing about it- excuse me. I shouldn’t swear here.”
“It’s not a church, Amy. Some swearing is fine. But if you’re finding yourself using swear words when you usually wouldn’t, it might be a good indicator we should pause the conversation and calm down.”
Amy drank more of her iced tea. She pulled the bottle away from her mouth and indicated the statue in the center of the lobby, the motion forceful enough the bottle almost slopped over, despite being only a third full. “Heroes, right?
“They are,” Jessica said.
“You’re a hero,” Amy said.
“I don’t have powers.”
“You don’t need powers to be a hero. You’re a hero, I think. I don’t know if you’re a good therapist-” Amy stopped short of saying she suspected Jessica wasn’t a good therapist, given how little Amy felt she was being listened to, but it wouldn’t help anything if she voiced that out loud, “-But you’re a therapist. You chose that career. You put a lot of energy and time into helping people who need that help. Doctors, nurses, I spent a lot of time around them as Panacea. All heroes.”
“I like that,” Jessica said.
“You’d think heroes, powers or not, would be more forgiving. You’d think people who have had trigger events would be more forgiving of other people’s traumatic events, where that other person isn’t thinking straight.”
“What happens in the past is the past,” Jessica told her.
“Bull-!” Amy started. Her expression twisted. Quieter, she finished, “-shit.”
“It’s what you do moving forward that matters. Talking to my colleague and taking extra care with boundaries would be a good start.”
“You’re not listening,” Amy muttered. She wasn’t good enough at playing games to hide the hurt on her face. She’d wanted Jessica to listen. “You came here with these things you wanted to recommend because you think it’ll help Victoria, and no interest in hearing out my side.”
“I am absolutely listening, Amy. I do think you’re a good person. A hero, even.”
Amy fell silent, staring down into the empty lobby.
“These things I brought up, they’re for your sake, not Victoria’s. She benefits, sure, but that’s more because we all benefit when we’re all taking care of ourselves. Victoria as a subject clearly makes you profoundly unhappy. Distance or a severing of ties is good.”
Amy finished her iced tea, the speed at which she tossed the bottle back made it clink against her teeth. She was conscious of the minute amounts of pathogens in it. She could even run her hands down its length and get a sense of where the man who had fed the bottle into the machine had touched it, because he’d left bacteria behind with the faint oils of his hands.
Moving suddenly, Amy passed behind Jessica, giving the woman’s back a sidelong look.
Jessica leaned over the railing, and didn’t even flinch.
Another Marquis sort of move. Another test. Either Jessica was very good at bluffing, or she really did think Amy was heroic enough to not worry about the dangerous parahuman with a touch-based power passing within arm’s reach.
Amy dunked the bottle into the recycling bin.
“Thank you for the offer,” Amy said. “But I’m not crazy, I don’t need your colleague.”
“Again, it’s not for the mentally ill alone.”
“The stuff that isn’t mental illness is the kind of thing they can’t help with.”
“What about coping mechanisms?”
“I’m coping,” Amy said, shrugging. “I’m going to the mental fitness checkups. That’s what they pay attention to, isn’t it? Whether or not I’m coping?”
“I’m not happy, I’m lonely, but coping just means you’re dealing with some difficult stuff. That’s the difficult, and I’m dealing, according to the people who do the checkups. Yes?”
“I talked to them before talking to you.”
Great. More rumors about me losing it. “And?”
“And they sounded satisfied.”
“And you believe in them? Your colleagues? Because oh man, I’ve worked with Riley, I’ve heard about James Rinke, I’ve checked on a few of the others, and if you’re not confident that these guys checking on the guards and staff aren’t really good at what they do, then holy shit, we are fucked.”
“Okay,” Jessica said, hands raised. “For what it’s worth, I do believe them. And I believe you. You say you’re coping well enough, alright.”
They were words Amy hadn’t heard enough. ‘I believe you’.
“But wouldn’t it be nice to have an established relationship with someone who understands you, in case a day comes tomorrow where you aren’t coping? I get the sense you regret the last period of time where that happened. Therapists are very hard to come by in the present era.”
“Are you seeing someone?” Amy asked.
“Can’t we focus on you for the moment?”
“Don’t… dodge me,” Amy told her. “You said we were colleagues. As a colleague, are you seeing a therapist?”
“For what it’s worth, I really wish I was. But like I said, therapists are hard to come by, and I have no time. I’ve tried, and I’ve seen one or two for one-off events, to make sure I’m approaching them in the right ways.”
“Yeah,” Amy said. “So maybe, uh, you use your therapist friend? Keep him and that time slot available for when you have time?”
“Can’t. We know each other too well.”
“Then give the spot to Victoria,” Amy said. “Because she’s not coping. Can- can we talk about her for a second?”
“No,” Jessica’s voice was soft.
“Can I- I’ll talk at you about her, for just a bit. You don’t have to interject. You don’t have to do anything. Just let me say my piece, use it if you think it’s right.”
Not that you will, since you’re a shitty therapist who can’t even hear what I’m saying, Amy thought.
Jessica didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.
“Carol neglected me. Mark, in his way, neglected me more. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that was the kindest thing they could have done for me. I think that family isn’t healthy, I think they pressured Victoria and that pressure did a number on her. And the sad, sick thing is, they pressured her to be exactly what she should have been. Does that make sense?”
Jessica didn’t move or respond.
Amy turned, leaning over the railing, not looking at Jessica. Easier than trying to talk without any cues to go by. It was like talking into an answering machine, stumbling over words because the pauses and exchanges weren’t there.
“If she’d been meant to be a basketball player and they pressured her to be a hero, she could have found her way to basketball, I think. But since they pressured her to be a heroine and she was born to be a heroine, I think, it’s all tangled up. The lessons, warnings, the conditional love as much as they probably didn’t intend to make it conditional… the complicated feelings, the family, the relationships… I don’t think it’s bias that Gallant was so bad for her. She didn’t love him. She just felt like she had to be with him because expectations. They didn’t let her hide her identity, not that it was really possible. They made the decision when she was seven and she was brought on talk shows and put in front of cameras to talk about what it was like having superheroes for parents. I had too much stage fright to do it. We were local celebrities.”
Her hands rubbed at her tattoos again. It felt like there was just tattoo, meat, and bone. No skin.
“Our aunt Fleur- she wasn’t officially our aunt, there was never a wedding, but I really liked her. She was kind of an outsider like me. Her body wasn’t even cold when people were putting microphones in front of us. We were kids. Not even in middle school. That fucks you up.”
Amy checked Jessica’s expression. Nothing.
“Victoria did this thing at the community center and that tells me she still needs to be a hero. But she’s angry. If you saw her last night…” Amy said, trailing off. “Carol says she’s not putting on her costume, she’s doing some thing volunteering with teenagers, helping out around the portals. Teaching them about capes. But that’s not enough. She’s in stasis like that. She won’t grow, she won’t heal… because she’s not herself. What I said earlier, about me not being entirely me, and her not being her? She’s still not herself. And I admit I played a role in that.”
Fingers rubbed against tattoo. It always felt like the gold ink should smear.
“She needs to be a hero in a way that doesn’t put that anger front and center. That doesn’t involve Carol and Mark. In a way that involves healing and supporting. Not heroics for justice, not heroics for power. Not revenge, not monster slaying. Because that all feeds back into the anger. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, but I know her. I analyzed her enough over the years, believe me.”
Jessica’s empty cup tapped against the railing. When Amy looked, the woman seemed to be lost in thought.
“Do you want me to take your cup?” she asked.
Jessica handed it over. Amy deposited it into the recycling bin to her right.
Still no flinch. That was reassuring.
Even Crystal had flinched at the barbeque last night, and Amy had taken baths with Crystal, once upon a time.
“Sorry for taking up your time,” Amy said.
“Not at all. I did invite you to talk. I just can’t comment, as I said.”
Amy nodded, looking down at her hands. She’d wanted to maintain a connection to Victoria. Sun for the past on one arm, for Glory Girl. The then-present at her hands, red. And then the future on the other arm, the golden-haired girl. The fall, the rise, a promise to herself. A promise to herself, that she would make things right, and that things would be alright again. Touching Glaistig Uaine had been a moment that had convinced her there was no way that she would remain in the Birdcage. Not if things came to a head in her lifetime. And they had.
“Mark Dallon, on one of his visits, made a remark to me that I made a note of. It’s in a file in a cabinet somewhere on Earth Bet somewhere, no doubt half-buried and soaked in water,” Jessica said.
Amy glanced at the woman.
“He said he didn’t like therapy. That it hadn’t done anything for him.”
Amy found herself nodding in acknowledgement before she caught herself.
“Carol, if I remember right, was made to attend therapy for a time but abandoned it once she was eighteen.”
“I see what you’re getting at. She abandoned it because she had Victoria, just for context.”
“You talked about the influence they had on Victoria. Didn’t they influence you? Is it at all possible you picked up prejudices as a consequence of how you were raised?”
“Not when they were barely parents to me,” Amy replied, her voice harder.
Jessica nodded, her expression momentarily sad.
Because pity. Amy wished that pity was for the right reasons. She felt the urge to make her final appeal, a hail-mary attempt to convince this woman that Carol had described as so important to Victoria. Because even if Jessica Yamada was a bad therapist, and Amy wasn’t sure now, she was important for other reasons.
“I’m not a bad person.”
“If this is another appeal to tell Victoria anything-”
“No,” Amy said. “It’s not. Me to you.”
“If I was a bad person, this would have all been… so much easier,” Amy explained. “You know, it’s like conspiracy theories, where someone’s on the street corner, and they’re telling you the government’s after them, CIA, FBI, PRT, there are agendas there’s these convoluted reasons… and you just want to ask, ‘why are you so important they’d focus on you’?”
“I’m sure they would be able to give you reasons. It’s not so simple as that, Amy.”
“Frustrating,” Amy said, softly. “Sad.”
“It really is. It’s a hard reality. I’m not sure I follow your train of thought, though.”
“I’m saying… you know, there’s this really simple, easy way to decide this.”
“Whether I’m a bad person.”
“I told you earlier, I think you’re a hero, doing what you do, by your own standards. I think you’re a good person at heart, you just need some guidance to be a great person.”
“You-” Amy couldn’t help but huff out a laugh. “You just really sounded like Carol for a second there. My hair stood on end.”
“Not my intention,” Jessica said, and the woman allowed herself a smile.
“Others don’t think I’m good. I know I’ll sound crazy if I say there’s at least one person in my building who watches my comings and goings and keeps an eye on me, but really.”
“Really, I suspect you may be right. I know they do the same for some others.”
Emboldened, Amy continued, “It makes me want to shake them, and poke a hole in their logic. If I was a bad person, I wouldn’t have done what I did. If I was a bad person, I’d have every last thing I wanted, and the world would be better off as a whole.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’d have just used my power on Victoria. Done. Break down artificial barriers between two people who aren’t even blood related. I’d use my power on Carol and Mark, and they’d love me. Mark wouldn’t be depressed. They’d accept the relationship. No need for me to run away from home, we’re all strong against the Slaughterhouse Nine. I’m free to develop my power and figure things out before Gold Morning. I face the end of the world with Victoria at my side.”
“That may be romanticized.”
“Of course it is. But it’s not wrong either. The bullet points are the same. It’s romanticized because I fantasize about it a lot. How things would have gone. How things could go. There are weeks I work twelve hours every day and when I’m not working I dream of what could have been. There’s more life and feeling in that than in anything else. Than in B- In B, the woman I’m dating.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy.”
“Don’t suggest therapy at me again,” Amy warned.
“Okay. But if you’ll allow it, I’ll talk to people-”
“No,” Amy said.
“Not about particulars, but about cutting back on your work hours.”
“No,” Amy said. “Permission not granted.”
Jessica drew in a deep breath, then nodded.
This wasn’t what Amy had wanted. How had it gone the opposite direction?
“The point is,” she said, insistent, annoyed. “I could, very easily, but I haven’t. You know how bad I was at my lowest point. You should have a sense of how I’ve been doing since. But I didn’t. I fantasize about it, because of course I do, when I’d rather have Victoria back in her inhuman shape than not have her in my life at all. I love her. More than Carol. More than Mark. More than Crystal. And I know she doesn’t have anyone else. But I don’t do anything. That’s what’s important.”
“What worries me,” Jessica ventured, picking her words carefully.
“You don’t need to worry.”
“Is the fact that you seem to be telling me that you have very little going for you in your day to day.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Please correct me if I’m wrong on any of these points: there’s no color in your love life, your days are rote and directionless, you have connections to family but you consider yourself alone. And you want this connection to Victoria very, very much.”
“That’s what I said.”
“It seems like a recipe for problems.”
“No, listen, it’s cherry picked from what I said, but it’s absolutely missing the heart of what I’m trying to say!”
Amy moved her hand to tap on the railing to punctuate, a Carol sort of thing, actually. She only realized as she did it. She saw the flinch.
Minute, but Jessica Yamada pulled her hand back as Amy brought her hand forward.
It would have been so easy to reach forward, to touch that hand, to make that contact. And Jessica Yamada would be on her side.
But I don’t, because I am not a bad person. I spent far too long coming to terms with that, healing, recovering, and making up for what Carol convinced me of on a fundamental level.
The anger left Amy, and there was only a deep sadness left.
“I’ll go,” Amy said her voice sounding almost artificial, as she fought to keep it free of emotion. “I am very sorry to have taken up so much of your time, Jessica.”
“Could I convince you-” Jessica started.
Amy shook her head. She would have said something, but she wasn’t sure she could do it with the feeling in her upper chest.
“Then I wish you the best,” Jessica said. “I’m at your disposal if you need me, any hour of the day. If you’re not comfortable talking to me, I can give you any number of contacts. They’re busy but I’ll ask them to make time. You don’t have to call, but keep them on your phone.”
Amy nodded. Fuck this.
“I wasn’t able to get a straight response out of you before. Will you tell me that you’ll keep your distance from her? Contrive to stay out of her way, much as she’s doing the same?”
The words hurt.
Amy nodded. “Yes. But if she calls, I’ll go to her. And I reserve the right to say goodbye.”
“Listen. Listen! I’m not going to kill myself. You can have the mental fitness people check. But I might leave. Go to another Earth. I’ll see if they can find a replacement to check Riley’s work before I go, I won’t do it suddenly. But I’ve been thinking it might be better if I go. Nobody here seems to believe in me, but there are places where they could use my help. It’ll be far from Victoria.”
“That would be an admirable direction to go.”
Amy’s expression twisted a bit as she shook her head. She fixed her hair some, then turned to go. Admirable directions and all. She could have spat, she was so pissed. She’d wanted-
She stopped, and she turned around. The woman was walking toward the elevators.
“Jessica,” Amy said.
A pretty good distance separated them. Her voice barely carried all of the way.
“Do you know why I wanted to convince you as badly as I did, that I’m a good person?”
Jessica, post-flinch, didn’t rebut that last part. “I have only inklings. My connection to Victoria, I imagine.”
“You’re me, Jessica.”
“I’m sorry?” Jessica approached a few feet.
“Maybe it’s crass to say this-” ‘Crass’ would be a Marquis-ism, as the finger tap had been a Carol-ism. “-But when I shook your hand, I got a sense of you. I know how tired you are. The hours you’re putting in. I know you haven’t had a sexual partner in recent memory-”
Jessica stiffened, “That’s a line crossed, Amy. An uncomfortable and inappropriate one.”
“I know the tension in your shoulders. I know how your eyes are so fatigued you probably can’t read the print above the elevators. I know that you have a sense of awareness of yourself, the hum of your own body, the nimbus of feelings you’re not aware of… I tend to think of it as the soul, even though it isn’t. Yours is weary.”
“I consider this a violation,” Jessica said.
“And I consider this a warning,” Amy retorted. “Your heart? Not your actual heart, but your feelings? The edges are blunted. The goodness in you is still there. But you’ve worked so hard you’ve hit the point you don’t always care. If I’m guessing right, you’re probably at the point where you can do the day to day stuff, but when that late night phone call comes and they ask for extra effort or a needy patient needs you extra, you resent them a little. Because you’ve given your all for weeks now, but maybe not once ever in your life has someone else given you their all. Or it’s one person, one sister.”
Jessica was silent.
“You felt obligated to check on the scary healer and you don’t have the energy or focus to really hear what she’s saying. You’re going to hit a point, couple of weeks, a month, where you come to resent the day to day work. And around that same time, support structures fall through. If they existed at all. You’ll hit your lowest point, and either you’re alone or the one person you counted on is preoccupied. Understandable, but it… it’ll still hurt.”
Jessica looked off to one side.
“I think you know I’m not wrong. I think you recognize you’re so close to that point that shaking the boat by reaching out for help might upset it. Um, as a colleague?”
Jessica met her eyes.
“Lighten the load. Go easy on yourself. It’s going to feel wrong, no matter what you decide to do, but I’m telling you right now, as someone who knows, the course you’re on right now is worse. You’re not a bad person. It’s because you’re a good person that you’ve brought yourself to this point. You’re one small crisis or weak moment away from hurting a patient or someone you care about, standing where I stand now, wishing the person you’d just talked to had listened to you.”
Jessica folded her arms. Amy remained where she was, facing the woman.
Lifting a hand from her elbow, Jessica rubbed at one eye. Wiping at moisture that threatened to well out.
She seemed to realize what she was doing, and dropped her hand. She nodded.
“Thank you,” Jessica said, her voice barely carrying.
“I will see you around, I suppose,” Amy said. She turned to go, so the woman didn’t have to be the one to walk away. Let her have her pride.
Amy didn’t feel the least bit like a good person, as she made her way to the front door, stepping outside into early fall weather, in a dark city that smelled like new wood, heavy machinery, and dust from construction.
The girl was beautiful, blonde, more slight than Victoria had been at that age, but with some of the same traits. Poised with back straight, even though her hands were trembling as they rested on top of Amy’s own. In another reality, she could have been Victoria’s sister, more inclined to ballet than any competitive sport. Amy could sense the girl’s toes, the damage her feet had taken, months ago, before the girl’s emergent power had spoiled things. Ballet could be hard on the body. Even months after abandoning the sport, Hunter’s muscle tone was strong, her heartbeat confident. Her proprioception was top notch.
The second child that Carol no doubt would have loved to have, who could have been another natural superheroine in the right circumstance.
Mentally? Internally? An entirely different person. If Amy had to guess, there might have been a common ancestor seven generations back. But that was a reach.
Everything sorted, set in its place. The corona was buried, disconnected by small stages, buried more. Made small. Amy was put in mind of welders working in deep pressure environments. The right conditions could produce a vacuum that would suck a man through a baseball-sized hole.
There was no danger to Amy herself, probably, but it was delicate work in a hostile environment, and her work could easily be undone by the wrong conditions.
“Could you make me a boyfriend?” Dot asked.
“Shh, hush,” Marquis said. His voice was soothing in a way that seemed to affect Hunter.
“Actually, father, would you keep talking to her?” Amy asked.
“To?” Marquis asked.
“Hunter. Same tone.”
“As you wish. Dot will be quiet, and we will figure out something fun to do this afternoon to thank her for being quiet, yes? Mouth closed. Nod.”
Amy glanced up. Both Dot and Hunter nodded.
“And Hunter, my dear, is maintaining excellent sitting posture. Did they beat you with a cane to train your posture?”
“No,” Hunter said, smiling, her eyes still closed.
Amy felt the Corona shift. Portions of the brain that had been tranquil now flared to life.
“You’ll lose your vision or hearing for one second,” Amy said. “Don’t panic, it will come back.”
“Understood,” Hunter reported. Her hands wanted to shake more, Amy was aware, but were too flat against Amy’s own. There was more flaring, more flickering. The house of cards threatened to topple.
Amy deafened Hunter.
“No talk of violence, please.”
“Understood,” Marquis said.
“Your voice reminds her of a grandfather. Talk of old things or tell stories. Nice stories.”
“I will. Happy to help,” Marquis said.
Off at the other end of the room, Mark sat with a phone resting on his knee, looking tense. He had asked yesterday if she would heal his lingering mental issues. Dysthymia and lingering effects of a concussion he’d had as a teen.
She’d said no, and he wasn’t happy about it. He was less happy about Hunter, given the parallels to Victoria.
Which meant the stakes were higher.
Hard, to glance at Mark, to see Hunter in her peripheral vision, and imagine it was Victoria. It made her heart leap, and that was dangerous given how cell-level precise some of this work was.
She gave Hunter her hearing back.
“My father was a physician, you know,” Marquis said. “When he was practicing, they were only just introducing anesthesia for surgery. One in ten died on the table-”
Amy gave her father a hard look.
“Raises the question,” Chris said, from behind Amy. He’d seated himself at the end of the room furthest from Mark. “Would you rather have no anesthesia or roll those dice?”
Amy deafened Hunter, made her close her eyes, and kept Hunter’s eyes closed, calmed her, and forced a lingering sensation of Amy’s hands against her own while Amy stood up and stepped away. “If you’re not going to be helpful, you need to leave. This matters.”
Chris was all shaggy hair, a vaguely yeti-shape. All of his forms had long hair now. Which boded ill, as far as she was concerned. Either he knew she knew what he was doing, which suggested he was trying to intimidate her, or he didn’t, in which case he was being overly defensive. Her power didn’t work past hair, fur, and body hair.
“It’s so interesting though,” Chris said, his voice low, too deep. “He can’t raise a topic like that and not expect me to say something.”
“And you,” Amy turned on her father. “Death? Really?”
“The most interesting stories, unfortunately, have death and violence in them. I gravitate toward them like your father gravitates toward the funnier, more human stories.”
“I should have known better,” Amy said. “Would you take Dot, go find her something fun to eat?”
“Yay!” Dot exclaimed.
“My apologies, dear Amelia,” Marquis said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. Then he left, closing the door.
Amy sat back down, setting her hands in place, and removed the phantom sensations, calm, the forced closure of the eyes, and the deafness.
“A bit scary,” Hunter breathed.
“Sorry. We’re almost done.”
Mark approached, stopping by a table, which he leaned against. “I remember, Amy, you hated to sit still for haircuts.”
“I was a terrible child. I get it,” Amy muttered.
“No, you were a wonder of a child next to the unholy terror that was Victoria,” Mark told her. “And you’re a fine woman now. I wish it wasn’t such a hard journey to get from there to here, but I’m glad to be here with you in the present moment.”
The words seemed to calm Hunter more than they affected Amy.
“You’re trying to butter me up.”
“You can touch me if you want to tell if I’m sincere.”
“Can’t. Focusing on Hunter.”
“No,” Amy said. She was pacified, calmer. “No need.”
She worked her way through Hunter’s brain. There were triggers and flags everywhere. Certain perceptions, certain emotions, attitudes.
Hunter’s power was involuntary.
“We’d give you candies to suck on so you couldn’t complain while sitting in the chair,” Mark said. “And on one particular visit, the last one with the candy, as you’ll recall…”
“A new hairdresser came up, and she hugged you from behind, looked over your shoulder in the mirror, and she said something to the effect of, ‘what would you like us to do, cutie?’ She surprised the hell out of you-”
“That wasn’t surprise.”
“No?” Mark asked. And she could hear the change of tone. He rallied, “But you choked.”
“I did choke.”
“And you gagged,” Mark said, his tone warm. “While you were trying to dislodge the candy. I was thumping your back. And then you threw up, onto the barber’s bib, and it wicked straight down onto your shoes.”
“I can’t believe the world ended and I’m still hearing about it.”
“You were inconsolable.”
Victoria was there, crying too–
That part of the story was left unsaid. The thought of Victoria and the young blonde girl’s presence in front of Amy almost derailed it all. Regret, flashbacks to moments she’d been doing work not so dissimilar to this, errors-
She forced her head back into the right place. Dismissed the thoughts.
The good humor and general calm Hunter felt as she visualized the scene served to let Amy button up her work, set everything firmly into place, make sure there were no loose ends, and then slowly pulled her hands away.
“I feel like a new person,” Hunter said, quiet.
“I want you to let that sit for a bit. Keep your thoughts on pleasant things, let your mind wander. If it helps, talk out loud so we can steer you or distract you. If this lasts sixty seconds it’ll probably last a week. If it lasts a week it’ll probably last a month.”
“Sure,” Hunter said. “I used to be into ballet. That’s where the posture Marquis was complimenting me on came from.”
“Yes,” Amy said. “I noticed. You’re still very fit.”
“My friends never knew. Sam- the boy who brought me here, he had no idea. I was ashamed, it was weird. I was so proud when it was certain people, but if you’d told Sam then, I would have wanted to die. My teacher knew and said something about me doing something for the talent show. I gave her a look and she seemed to clue in, didn’t say anything else.”
“That’s nice of her,” Mark commented. “Not all teachers would care.”
“She was sweet. I saw her outside of class once… totally different person. Hanging out with a bunch of guys.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Amy said.
“No,” Hunter agreed. “But I would have pictured her as someone who knit. She wasn’t even that old. The masks we wear, right?”
“I suppose so,” Amy said, just to keep the conversation going.
“I was thinking, powers and heroics and the stuff we do, if we ever got this thing of mine under control-”
“We will,” Amy interrupted. “And when we do, you’ll go back to school?”
“Do I have to, though?” Hunter asked. “I have powers. My life’s pretty set, you know?”
“There’s lots of options. Going back to ballet-” Amy started.
But Hunter was talking over her. Amy’s heart sank.
“Hunter by day-” Hunter intoned, hand flicking her hair out of her face. Her hands covered her face. Amy jumped to her feet, and it was Mark who hauled her back over the back of the cloth-layered lounging couch Amy had been sitting on.
Hunter’s hand dropped, exposing one eye, too much of the whites showing, “Mincemaid by night!”
The couch detonated, an explosive going off beneath- Amy hadn’t even seen Mark drop it. It lifted up the couch, and Mark, still with an arm around Amy, caught it and oriented it in the air, using it for cover.
The scene looked like a window cracking. Black lines speared up, down, from one another, all around Hunter. Threads, hair-thin, spiderwebbing out to make contact with everything within thirty feet of Hunter, which included most of the furniture. The couch was almost lifted up, and Mark hauled it down, using his back to keep it in position.
“You done?” Chris asked.
Amy looked. Chris had been at the edge of the effect. His arm and part of his upper body were mangled, shredded by the wires.
“I’m done,” Hunter said.
The wires began retracting. Once all visible wires were gone, Mark grunted and shifted position, letting it fall to one side.
A webwork of bones blocked the way too. It seemed Marquis hadn’t left the spot just beyond the door.
“Thank you,” Mark told her father.
“Of course,” Marquis said, eyes narrowing. He smiled.
“The masks we wear,” Hunter said, eyes wide, both showing too much white, her smile macabre. She laughed. “In all the television shows and movies, they’ve got to have that episode with the guest starring hero, don’t they? And there’s always the mystery, and there’s always an unmasking.”
“With the convenient stunt double,” Marquis said, sounding way calmer than Amy or Mark were.
“What happens when you don’t wear a mask?” Hunter asked. She smiled, hands going to her face. “Nobody here does. A lot of heroes don’t. Your old team-”
“Terrible secret identity discipline,” Chris said. He was acting very cavalier about his mangled arm.
“What happens when the maskless get unmasked?” Hunter asked. She made an amused sound. Black lines stabbed out at diagonals, forming a diamond just in front of her face. She stuck her face through them, and stray hairs were severed on contact.
“That,” Chris said, “Is what we’re focusing on, in our own way. On that topic, Red Queen, if you’re not getting right back to work-”
He sounded so sarcastic when he called her that.
“I’m not,” Amy said. I might not be able to do it.
“I’ve been keeping track of our tasks.”
“The refugees? A problem?”
He waved a mangled limb in the air. “No. No problem. Your hapless rescues are getting settled and fed without trouble…”
“Stop dragging it out,” Mark said, annoyed.
“Patience, my friend,” Marquis said, calm. “Interruptions only delay things.”
Mark gave the man an annoyed look. He had to be almost as dejected at this failure as Amy was. She hated this. Hated that Hunter was a link to Victoria, and she’d spoiled it, had ruined her. That she couldn’t fix her.
Hunter just snickered to herself, amused at Mark’s annoyance. “You gotta explain for me. I’m dumb.”
“We’ve been focused on the people who are playing this game at the top level. Focusing on the interdimensional aliens, at a time when not enough people are dwelling on the big revelation of where our power comes from. Wardens, Dragon, Teacher, Mortari, a few others, all paying close attention, all getting our hands dirty trying to steer the unsteerable.”
“And?” Mark asked.
“Teacher’s out of the running. His thralls all got their brains back. According to a very talkative little kid who insists on sending me updates after we’ve parted ways, Breakthrough -that’s ah, my old team, The Red Queen’s sister- are now fully in.”
Amy’s heart sank and soared in equal measure. She knew everyone was watching, and kept her voice level. “We adapt. We promised Shin we’d protect their world.”
“It’s about to need a lot of protecting,” Chris said, coming as close as he ever did to outright agreement or solidarity. “Give me the okay to get my production line going.”
Amy made a face. She felt Mark’s hand grip her shoulder.
It didn’t feel like the move a good person would make. She’d seen the labs, dark and poised to be powered and set into motion. Chris had unveiled them, and she’d told him no. Not unless it was absolutely necessary.
At least five different groups were trying to save the world. Victoria’s was now among them. She and Chris, Lab Rat, were chasing down the bloody road of biology and transcending earth and humanity both, more as an emergency clause than anything else. If she had any say in it at all, she wanted to at least preserve the good and healthy parts of humans and humanity, whether they used the emergency measure or not.
And that preservation necessitated that she have a handle on what ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ were. Failing with Hunter made her less confident in that regard.
Saying yes elicited many of the same doubts.
“Yes,” she said it, quiet. She felt the slight change in Mark’s grip as his faith faltered as well. She indicated the door, where Marquis and Dot were standing. “But I’m coming. This is going to be messy.”