From Within – 16.z

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Now

I’ve surrounded myself with lunatics and the mentally ill.

Hunter, in her ‘powered’ state, had control over her power but less control over herself.  Her eyes were too wide, revealing the whites, and she had almost stepped outside without the proper clothing, before they’d brought her back and made her pick something better.  As much as regret chewed at Amy’s middle and false hopes stabbed and tugged at her heart, having Hunter close was reassuring.  She’d had to put measures into place to ensure that Hunter wouldn’t attack her if an attempt at healing her personality rebounded, and it meant Hunter was loyal, reliable in her own way.  The silhouette of Hunter, the shape of the face and color of her hair, it allowed Amy to have the periodic moment of feeling like she was still in the old days, Victoria just a few paces away.

Like Victoria but shorter, narrower, more of an elfin frame than an athlete’s.  Like Victoria, but a Victoria that could disappear in a wave of snowflakes if that snow around them blew any harder.  She was constantly moving, getting ahead of the group, turning to face them while walking backwards, turning forward and creating those black razor-lines, then hopping up onto them, to try walking them like one might walk a tightrope, until her attempts saw her fall behind, at which point she bounded forward again.

Like Victoria when Victoria had been ten and playing at being superheroes, but wearing a body like Victoria at thirteen or fourteen, if she’d never gotten into basketball or running.

Amy walked with her head down, only her eyes visible above her scarf, which she’d pulled up to protect her ears.  The positioning of the scarf was helped by the fact that Dot was curled up against her neck, upper body at one side, thighs against the other, and the little goblin had the scarf pulled around her like a blanket, adjusting every time the cold seeped in.  The walk hadn’t been long, but Dot was already asleep in the warmth, snoring softly.  The little goblin put out its tongue to lick unconsciously at Amy’s neck, and sensations of its being, physical makeup, and overall health leaped into her awareness.

The fact Dot was sleeping meant she had stopped gabbling.  The goblin’s voice was comforting in how there was an omnipresent voice, less comforting if Amy focused too much on the words.  Was it more concerning that if the words were said by a human, they’d sound monstrous, or that the words were said by a monster but sounded so human?

Amy touched her scarf, touching Dot’s head through it.  Dot curled up tighter against Amy in unconscious response.

Mark walked beside her, but he was off in his own world.  Tired, disheartened.

Because I’ve surrounded myself with villains, too.  He can’t come to terms with that.

Marquis was talking about weapons and danger with Chris.  They’d never gotten along in the Birdcage, and they didn’t get along now, but they could cooperate.  It wasn’t just that they were villainous, but that they were villainous with that insane edge around them.

Marquis wore a coat in Shin’s style, and Amy had to admit he wore it well.  She only knew what she knew about fashion because Victoria had rubbed off on her, but she had the sense her father had picked the coat well.  Long, bone white, and decorated at the seams.  He carried a cane though he didn’t need it, and wore no hat.

Chris, for his part, had transitioned to something between a shaggy junkyard dog and a chimpanzee, seven feet tall at the shoulder.  Long-limbed, long-faced, vaguely humanoid, muscle visible beneath the shaggy fur, with no clothes but for a sash around the lower body and that collar around his neck, with syringes poised to plunge home.  He loped more than he walked.

“I like Gosling,” Marquis said.  “Elegant little murderer.”

“I’ll be your elegant little murderer,” Hunter said, eager, skipping forward with snow flying.

“You could be if we wanted that, but I think it’s best for you to stay near Amelia.  I’m negotiating for my personal team, if we reach the point where we need to defend ourselves.”

Chris rumbled while he padded through the snow with shaggy, furred claws.  “It’s not negotiating if nobody wants what you’re picking.”

“Gosling?” Marquis sounded surprised.  “That’s a vehement reaction.”

“She’s weak.”

“Weak isn’t a concern.  Any parahuman has their strengths and those strengths can be nurtured, made to bloom.  My concern is having a team where every member can stand in close proximity and be natural among one another.”

“We’re the two kids who’re picking our teams for gym class and you’re taking the girl who lost a fight against, essentially, an unpowered person with an improvised weapon, not even a good improvised weapon, because you want the team that looks good if they’re asked to take a picture together?”

“Yes!” Marquis said.  “Not that I care about pictures.  Personality, style, expectations.  If I have a wide pool of people to choose from, I’ll pick people who can be in the same room without looking critically at the person next to them and wondering why they’re there.  People who, if I’m offering them something to drink, won’t put in twenty different orders for tea, beer, wine, soda pop, or whatever else.  People I give an order to, who won’t immediately start fighting over how to carry it out.  From my perspective you’re playing the losing game.”

“You’re deluded,” Chris growled.  “Drink preferences don’t have anything to do with how they’re going to kill the guy you’re pointing at.”

“Of course not, but I have a wide pool to choose from.  I’ve been paying attention and earmarking the ones I like for a little while now.  I’ll pick a core team where I believe they’ll be in alignment, then pick the ones I think could be swept up into that alignment, and then pick the ones who won’t cause too much fuss, in that order.”

“Assuming you get that many picks.”

“Assuming I do,” Marquis said, smiling.  “I still want Gosling.”

“You can have her.  Free pick, as I see it.  Johnny.”

“Which one?”

“There’s two?”

“One goes by Johnny in his civilian identity, and then you have Johnny Shambles, who is, I believe, in quarantine.”

“The second one.”

“As I see it, you’re playing the losing game, Lab Rat.  You did this in the Birdcage.  You picked people because they and their powers were resources.  You forgot they were people, too.  Who’s your next pick?  Go ahead.”

“Adze.”

“Exactly the opposite approach to my own.  If I had to pick the three people least likely to find a mutual rhythm, I wouldn’t pick Shambles, Adze, and you, but it would be close.”

“I don’t care, because I’m not looking for rhythm.  I’m looking for people I can send to go do something, with expectations they manage.  Who’s your pick?”

“Screwdriver,” Marquis replied.

“I like her,” Hunter chimed in.  She turned on the spot, walking backward, hands going to her face.  “No mask.  Not really.”

Chris fell silent, and it was a judgmental silence.

“There is a method to my madness,” Marquis said, sounding pleased with himself.

“This method, it involves preaching about team unity, then picking, in order, the murderer who was stabbed with a screwdriver, and the torturer who did the stabbing?”

“Yes.  I’ll let you take your pick,” Marquis said.  “We should keep it to five or six each, leave some behind to defend.”

Amy looked at Mark, her ‘dad’, though it had been a long time since he’d ever felt like a proper dad.  That he was here really helped, if only just for the being there.  He cast the occasional sidelong glance at the pair, but didn’t comment, his head down, hat pulled low against the cold flurry.  He wore his costume as a sub-layer, with pants, hooded sweatshirt, and coat pulled over it, so it was there but only barely.  He looked like a civilian.

“Do you want to join in?  Lead a squadron, Flashbang?” Marquis had a way of sounding taunting in the course of casual conversation, especially when it was with Carol or Mark.  Amy almost said something.

“No.  I’ll stay by Amy’s side,” Mark said.

“Perfect.  That simplifies things,” Marquis said.

They continued making their way through the snowstorm.  In the distance, Amy could see the throughway, the wide-laned, raised road that cut straight through the center of the capitol.  It was meant for heavy trucks and public transportation, but with the influx of refugees, it was being used to move everyone into Shin.  It was dark out, still the early hours of morning before sunrise, and some of those people had been on the road when it had last been daylight.  Shin didn’t use a lot of gasoline, and had only really started producing and refining it for Gimel at Goddess’s behest, as part of deals struck before Gold Morning.  Cauldron, Chris had said.

People milled around the stalled traffic on that raised throughway that took cars over three-story buildings and hills.  Those people were Shin service workers with shovels and brooms, weaving between cars to get snow off of the roadway.  With the platform being raised, lacking railings or dividers between the edge and the city below, it produced a constant plume of white.  A slash of the dull red of taillights captured by the thick snowfall, plumes of white turned dark gray by darkness.

“A slash of human misery and desperation,” Marquis said.  Amy jumped a bit, realizing he was beside her.  “White snow flowing down and out like pus from the wound.  All of it surrounded by warning, alarming red, like blood.”

“Poetic,” she said, “uncomfortable.”

“Always,” Marquis answered, smiling.  His long brown hair had collected enough wet snow to make a snowball.  Her own hair probably had too, she realized.  They had the same hair, especially now that he had gone into exhaustive depth about how she should manage her hair so it wouldn’t be a mass of dull brown frizz.

“It sounds so dark, the way you put it.”

“It is,” Marquis said.  He touched her hair, hand running down the back of her head.  “It’s dark before dawn.  Sometimes we need to take a scalpel to the wounds.  A transplant requires a bit of tough medicine, to prevent rejection, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t want to be the tough medicine,” Amy’s voice came out more unsure than she meant it to.

“If it comes down to it, my daughter,” Marquis murmured, his voice just for her.  “I’ll be the tough, you can be the medicine.”

Amy nodded, noncommittal, not wanting to say anything that might prolong the uncomfortable part of the conversation.

Mark was looking.  She looked at him, and felt Marquis’s hand pull away.  He walked over to Chris again.

Whichever one she talked to or favored in the moment, it felt like she was betraying the other, and yet she had no loyalty to either of them.  They had both let her down when it counted.  Neither had been there.  Now they were here but they weren’t-

Amy stopped herself.  The anger she felt stirred in her chest and she pressed her hand over her heart, as she fought to quell it.

There were a few others on the street, but it was ten to seven, and it was cold enough people were taking their time to get where they wanted to be.  Shin tended to be very informal when formality wasn’t stipulated, and that included roads without lanes or signage, that trusted people to fend for themselves and watch where they were going.  It meant the work week was often a flexible thing.  Obviously someone couldn’t not go to work at all, but arriving a few hours late, staying an extra few hours?  That was fine.

A girl, who couldn’t have been more than eleven, stepped back in alarm as Chris’s shaggy gray form emerged from the flurry of snow.  Instinctively, reactively, she bowed into a kind of curtsy.  The mother seemed paralyzed, caught between getting the child to straighten and not wanting to offend, and ended up bowing as well, head down, as the group passed.  The smaller children simply looked bewildered.

Until Hunter approached, energetic, and bowed too, hands extending forward as part of the bow.  Nervous, they took her hands, and Hunter straightened, lifting their hands and pulling them to a standing-straight position again.

If they’d been reassured by the gentleness of the action, it didn’t show.  It was easily possible the manic look in Hunter’s eyes unnerved them.

Hunter half-skipped, half danced away from the family.  Catching up with the rest of the group for the twelfth time.

Marquis caught her, with his own bit of flourish and reaching hand.  Hunter accepted, and Marquis drew the girl closer, one hand on her shoulder, steadying her, bending low to say something.

And for another instant, Amy could fuzz her eyes, look past Hunter but still see her, snow in blonde hair, snow in eyelashes, a smile on her face, no care in the world.

Just about everyone recharged in their own separate ways, Amy mused.

Hunter wasn’t one of those people.  In this state, she had no recharge or need to recharge, drawing energy from a bottomless well.  It made her hard to deal with, because they had to take shifts to keep an eye on her. Most often, it was Amy and someone else.  Amy and Marquis.  Amy and Mark.  Amy and Chris.  Each came with their own anxieties.  Marquis was the bad influence.  Chris the worse one.  Mark was too good an influence, which made Amy think he’d turn Hunter against her.  She hadn’t wanted to brainwash the girl, that wasn’t how she operated.  She’d kept it at the minimum possible level to keep Hunter in a place where she could help her, and that level was a place where Mark could say the wrong thing or stir doubts.  Too much time with Dot would make this new Hunter even more unhinged.  Too much time with Marquis would make the girl a villain.  Too much time with Chris would make her a monster.  Too much time with Mark would lead to a day Amy got the alert Hunter had run away or gone back home.

Easier to take care of it herself, to take as much time as she could supervising and trying to fix her damn power’s mess.  Amy would never say it out loud, but she was the closest thing to a sane person here, just about the closest thing to a good person when all of her good deeds were taken in aggregate.  The most human, in all her flaws.  And she was steadfast, she didn’t run, she stuck to her commitments.

Hunter needed her.

Dot slept, and she slept a lot, and she burned that energy in fits and bursts.  Amy envied that life, in a way.  She would have liked to be able to sleep easily.  To not spend nights battling her thoughts and doubts, fighting to find that one thing to cling to that would let her get through the night, so she could get through the next day.  Because if she couldn’t get through the next day, it implied mistakes, it implied the world had beaten her down enough, harangued and harassed her, to the point that she stumbled.  And a stumble meant more nights wrestling with her thoughts.  It meant more nights spent having to find that one thing she could say to herself that would let her rest easy.

Chris needed time alone.  Simple enough.  Amy could kind of understand that.  Maybe in another universe, that would be her.  Not now, not when anxiety swelled with every second spent on her own.  She had spent very little time alone over the years, going from being with her biological mother to Marquis to the Dallons, to being with Victoria much of the time.  The times she’d first been truly alone had been when Victoria had been starting to date Dean, the next logical step in Carol’s 1001-step plan to train Victoria to be a classic superheroine.

Having Dot around helped.  It meant she was rarely truly alone, even if her company was someone who could be sucking on a lollipop big enough to fill the entire interior of her mouth in one moment, and sitting in a corner crunching the bones and chewing on the gristle of some mouse she’d just killed in the next.

Marquis, for lack of a better way of getting it right in her head, luxuriated.  Tea, a nice drink at a nice establishment, an evening with a refined woman or spent refining one, or sitting and reading fine literature, which all seemed more exhausting than recharging to Amy.  Shin was a new place with new things for the foreign aesthete to explore.  Clothing was the most recent area of study, and he had a new article of clothing every time she saw him.  One in three times she saw him, he would have a gift for her.  The coat and scarf she wore now were his gifts to her.  He could give her those gifts and gently worded support and reassurance, but he couldn’t help her find a way to recharge.  They were similar in so many ways, but not in that.

Mark fought an uphill battle, with exercise, time alone and time with others seeming to carry him two steps forward, one step back.  He seemed better about it when he was with Carol, but he wasn’t always a better person with Carol.  She could kind of understand and empathize with that.  He didn’t give her any answers, but he gave her reassurance that at least someone else was struggling.

No.  Recharging wasn’t easy.  Different for everyone, hard to impossible for some.  Amy had it hard.

Like Mark, Amy had a few things that could help in small ways, but in isolation, it a two steps forward, one step back thing.  That might have sounded like it was still progress, but it wasn’t.  Not when the rest of the world dragged her down, when things went wrong, like they had with Hunter, like political shifts, Goddess getting more aggressive, and Teacher’s maneuvering.  Breakthrough coming for a visit.

So it became one step forward, two steps back, in the end.  Decline, pressure, misery, those fucking disappointed looks that people gave her, whether they were her own family, professionals, or the party leaders of Shin who had talked to Miss Militia.  A forced downward spiral that took away her focus at a critical moment, or made her slip in her word choice.  Not that she’d ever been ‘gifted with gab’, as Marquis put it.

Amy pressed her hand over her heart, looking at that image of Hunter, still enough in this moment she could be looked at from behind and mistaken for Victoria.

If all she had were glimpses and pretending, then that was what she would nourish herself with.  To recharge, to fight back against that losing battle where the world fought so hard against her.

Chris had had his laboratory moved to the capitol, to be closer to the portal in case something happened.  In response, a lot of the capitol had moved away.  It left some room for Gimel’s population to settle, but for the most part, buildings were being emptied and left empty.  Dark in the gloom of pre-sunrise.

Well, by the look of it, the sunrise was starting.

They had been given a few buildings, and one of those buildings was the dormitory, for lack of a better way of putting it.  It was an apartment, a building brutal in how its architecture had been carved out, like much of the rock had been left raw.  The opposite face was refined, decorated with the faint relief of one quarter of a stone face, a wide-open eye, brow, forehead, and part of a nose.

Adjacent, squat and low to the ground, was Chris’s lab. Atop it was a disproportionately large woman, kneeling with head bowed, hair hiding her face, hands clutched to her chest.

Amy hadn’t asked for it and hadn’t ever said anything about it, but for that statue alone, she was secretly glad that this was their starting point for what came next.

They filed into the lab, pausing in the lobby to shake off the worst of the snow.  The shaking stirred Dot awake.  Amy was brushing away the snow that had collected at the tops of her boots when Dot stretched, side of her body against the nape of Amy’s neck, entire body trembling with the force of the stretch.  She wormed her way out of the scarf.

“Nothing important’s happening,” Amy told the girl.  Her own heartbeat betrayed the lie.  She clarified, “Not just yet.”

The lobby was dark, with desks meant to be staffed by receptionists, were the building serving its original purpose.  They walked past them to the stairwells, which led up to the second floor, and down into the more expansive basement.

Chris tapped a button with a monstrous paw.  Lights flared dark orange, then changed to a softer glow.

The lab had people in pods.  Not many- ten.  All of the people were nearly identical.  Androgyne, with features, skin color, and proportions that looked like they had been pulled from the average of the world’s population.  The stock had been from a slave class created at Bianca’s instruction.  Easily trained, docile, and expendable.  They looked human, but Amy had investigated, and she had verified, they had less emotional intelligence and less self than even a dog.  Intelligence in other, necessary ways, yes.

All short haired, all fairly tan by default, all wearing what looked like white t-shirts and boxers, with a stripe of red down the center of each shirt, down the sides of each set of boxers.

As part of her negotiation with Chris, she had made the treatment of these creatures a major point.  For the most part, they were kept warm, happy, entertained, and safe.  If Chris wanted to experiment on one, he had to ask.

Which served a double purpose of ensuring Chris didn’t disappear into his labs altogether, never emerging again.  He had to maintain connections.

Chris loped over, opening four pods.  “Four to start?”

He was already in the midst of the lab, but Amy had stopped halfway down the stairwell, with an overview of it all.

“I don’t-” Amy started.  She stopped herself, glancing up at Marquis, who had just stepped through the threshold to the .  “Okay.  Four to start.”

Assertiveness.

Two boys, two girls.  One woke at the sound of Chris’s voice.  The rest woke when he opened the tinted glass pods.  Temperature controlled, with airflow.

Then he opened another.  Waking a girl.  He cast a glance up in Amy’s direction, challenging.  Like he was testing something, checking something.

“Why that one?” she asked.

“Just in case,” he said.  The four he’d already woken looked wary at how large he was, but when he pointed, they ducked their heads down and hurried

“You’re being cagey again, Lab Rat,” Marquis commented, from the top of the stairwell.

“I’m always cagey.”

“You’re always cagey when you’re the subject of a conversation, but you’re aggressive when someone else is.  If you’re being cagey, that means this is about you.”

“Mistakes happen.  If we need to do a quick replacement of one that goes to pieces, I’d rather have a fifth prepped and waiting.  If you think this is about me, it’s about me knowing I’m not perfect.”

“No,” Marquis said.  “That’s not it.”

“Well, if you’re not going to put your finger on what it is, can I get to work?”

Amy had wanted to come to look at the would-be patients.  The slave stock.  To make sure she was a part of this, and do what vain little she could to keep it on a good course.

“What can I do?” she asked.

Chris rumbled, “Nothing.  Right now, I have to turn on the generators.  Prep them, load up the programs.   I’ll be half an hour.”

“I’m worried about you doing things in secret.”

“Trust me,” Chris said.  “There’s nothing I can do in twenty minutes that’s even close to the scale we’re talking about.”

Amy glanced at Marquis, who smiled.  “I believe him.”

“I like how you check with your father,” Chris taunted. “You told me once it was you in charge.”

“A second opinion from a trusted party is smart.  I wouldn’t think less of her,” Marquis said.

“Do you know what’s smarter?” Chris asked.  “Trust nobody.”

“Perhaps.  But for now, I’ll check on our soldiers.  Let’s see if they woke up when called.  If this works, spies and telltale cameras will tell our opposition what we’re up to, and they may react.  Let’s ensure we’re ready if they come for us.”

“Don’t stir up anything with my picks.”

“I’ll tell them to get ready and stand by, nothing else,” Marquis said.  “If I say anything else, Flashbang can handle it.”

Again, it sounded taunting, aimed at Chris, aimed at Mark.

Mark, unresponsive, turned around and left, going the way he’d come.

Amy watched for a few minutes longer.

Doing what Riley had done, prior to Gold Morning.  Which had led into Valkyrie’s flock in the second attempt.

Just… with less of a mind to preserving the masks, as Hunter had termed them.

“Hunter and I are stepping outside,” Marquis said.  “We need to have a conversation.”

“Do I need to be a part of this conversation?”

“No,” he said.

Amy nodded, stiff.  That anxiety crept its way in, taking hold.  She had no legitimate reason to mistrust him, but…

“I’ll come.  Can I come?” Dot piped up.  “I want to hang with Hunter.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Marquis said.

Dot leaped across to the highest stair she could reach, crossing about four or five stairs at once.  Once she landed, though, climbing was hard.  There was no railing, and each stair was almost as tall as Dot was.  She bounced up, stair by stair, until reaching Hunter’s foot, at which point she scrambled up Hunter’s side, into Hunter’s coat.

Marquis and Hunter left.  The last glimpse Amy had of Hunter was of her smiling, laughing, as Dot sprang up from her coat collar.

Leaving Amy alone, for the most part.

She watched as Chris did his thing, efficient in his movements despite his monstrous form.  Typing, adjusting chemicals and pumps, then typing more.

“The fifth one is for you,” Chris intoned.

Amy stiffened.  She looked at the one patient who was still sitting in her pod.  The others were drinking medication Chris had given them.  Preparation.  He’d walked her through a mock version of the process a week ago.

“You’ve thought about it,” Chris said.  “Marquis thought this was a selfish move for me.  It might be.  This is important and I don’t trust you to not get in the way when it counts.  You have selfish moves you want to make, too.  Make them.”

Amy felt her balance shift, like she might fall into or down the stairs, or over the railing-less edge onto the hard floor below.

She twisted, touching the wall for stability, and headed up the stairs.

“Amy,” he said.

She stopped, setting her jaw, not looking at Chris or the patients.  “How many more minutes?  Twenty?”

“There are very few people who know how this all fits together.  Who know what it might look like in twenty-four hours.  The world is going to end again.  Again, you know what’s coming.  This time you’re in a position to get in front of it.”

“I won’t get in the way,”she said.  Too quiet for an ordinary person to hear, but the shape he wore had good ears.

She felt so fucking alone.  Dot’s absence, Hunter’s presence, Marquis and Mark as two people each with maybe forty percent of a functional father in them.

“Breakthrough will be there.  You will run into Antares.  You won’t get in the way at this stage, but what happens then?”

Amy clutched at her chest with the one hand, fingernails digging into breast and collarbone, short as they were.

“If you think there’s some kind of disaster looming, I could call this off,” Amy said.  She looked down at Chris.  “You need me for the last step, don’t you?”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.  Thanks for bringing it to surface.  Hunter’s not wrong, about her talk of masks, and what happens when someone like you takes the mask off.”

He was going to say something else, but Amy fled.

Upstairs, into the lobby.  She had no warm little goblin to keep her scarf snug against her neck or around her ears, and as she stepped out into the cold, lonely snowstorm, she couldn’t get her scarf to a good position.

She saw the army.  Men and women with masks, wearing winter clothing.  The ones who’d stepped outside had done so to smoke.  They were awake after all, ready if they were needed.  No sign of Marquis or Hunter.

Dot would tell her what Marquis and Hunter had talked about.  Dot couldn’t keep secrets to save her life.  Not unless those secrets pertained to her Queen or her King.

Amy ventured toward the villains, but she wasn’t sure she trusted herself.  She didn’t trust them, and she’d placed biological imperatives in each of them, to quiet bloodlust and regulate emotion.  The last week had been her final push to get that done.

But Chris’s words chased her, bothered her more than they should have.

The idea that Breakthrough was out there and Breakthrough was involved was enough that she worried she might panic.  Deadlines, pressure, and a pressing need to be better, before she saw Victoria again.  Because Victoria would see anything, anything as an excuse.

And as that idea and deadline took hold, Chris’s words, she felt, were tugging her the opposite way.

It had been a little while since she’d felt this way during the daylight hours.  Pre-Birdcage, Gold Morning.  The family barbecue.  Visiting Antares in prison.  Like she felt in the small and lonely hours of night, alone with thoughts she didn’t like, desperately trying to penetrate that horrible, confused mess, to gather ideas around herself that made it make sense and made it something she could handle.

The alternative, when those moments came, was that she didn’t find the magic answer.  That her body or her power would do something on impulse.  That she’d force something when precision was needed, or instinct would take over, and she’d find herself behind an angry Victoria that wouldn’t even look at her.  And the prison-

She shook her head.

She could handle it.  Because there was no other choice.

I’m not crazy, she told herself.  Where was Hunter, where was Dot?

I’m a good person, she thought.  Where was Mark?

I can manage this.  Where was Marquis?

She found herself heading toward the villains, but that in itself was anxiety-inducing, especially when she didn’t feel like herself.

“Amy!” the voice was distant.

Her dad’s voice.

And she didn’t think of Mark as being her dad often.  Only when she needed the label, and only when she was in need, like a desperate child reaching out for a parent.

Mark was outside another building, talking to a gray-haired woman who was smoking a cigarette.  He was smoking too, Amy realized, and that kind of surprised her.

Just a block away, past snowfall too heavy to see anything distinct in, Amy could see the dull red haze of traffic.

“What’s this?” Amy asked.  She sounded nothing like a Red Queen, entirely like an Amy.

This is a woman from Gimel’s government,” Mark said.  “She’s managing the influx of refugees.  It was Elizabeth Bagley, I think?”

The woman nodded.  Amy still felt bewildered.  The woman held out a hand.  “Directions, gas, medication, keeping traffic clear-”

Amy took hold of the hand.  Elizabeth Bagley’s biology, top to bottom, even vague brain structure, cell life, the cultures in her gut, all flooded into Amy’s awareness.

“-But none of that would be possible without your help.”

“I didn’t really do much,” Amy said.  She felt like she hadn’t changed an iota from when she’d been Panacea.

How many others heard their superhero name, past or present, and cringed, thinking of how weak they had been?

“The medication was your doing, wasn’t it?  We’re handing out one pill to everyone waiting to come through.  They won’t get sick for a year, we’re told?”

“The monoculture,” Amy murmured.  “They won’t get sick for a year, maybe two years.  When they do, they should already have some antibodies against local pathogens.”

“It’s a lifesaver.  You’re a lifesaver,” the woman said.  She held Amy’s hand in both of hers.  “I know someone in the Wardens, I know most of what they do passes without comment or congratulations.  I didn’t want that to be the case here.”

Amy nodded.  The words meant so much more than the woman could have known.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she focused on that point of contact.  She cleared the woman of pre-cancerous lesions she could see in the brain and gut, stemming from a parasite that had come cross-portal in the wake of the portal attacks.  It was something authorities had already begun warning people to get checked for, before other distractions had mandated the evacuation.  A month or two of chemotherapy or radiation would have probably done the trick, but they would have been miserable, pain-filled months.  The brain cancer in particular could have caused permanent damage.

They exchanged a few more words, Mark asking about the process, the refugees, and the settlement.  Elizabeth was staying in one of the evacuated buildings close to the portal, to better manage those passing through.

“Thank you again,” Elizabeth Bagley told Amy.

Amy nodded.  “It’s the least I could do.”

“Then I look forward to seeing what you can do if this is what you consider ‘least’,” Elizabeth said, smiling.

Don’t say that, Amy thought, and the thought was strong enough that it overrode any attempt to put words in her own mouth, or to come up with a civil response.

And Elizabeth was already going, heading over to other staff managing refugees.

“I thought you needed that,” Mark said.  Quieter, he said, “It’s why I’m here.  Making sure you have those reminders.”

She wondered how much he was having to remind himself of why he was here.

But she didn’t voice that wondering.

Hunter had been talking about masks, and Amy was starting to see why it was important.  This… this did nothing to nourish that numbness deep inside her, the cold loneliness.  A goblin could warm the back of her neck, a father’s hand on one shoulder could support and have its own warmth, a dad’s hand on the other…

But the mask helped in other ways.  It let her be the healer again, the heroine, when she’d been so close to having nothing between the uncomfortable inner self and the uncompromising outside world.  To have a mask was to have a barrier.  Not thin kevlar and cloth, no hardened ceramics or steel, no decoration.  More like a witch doctor’s mask in the movies, inch-thick at the very least, more like a shield with eyeholes, or an animal skull she could wear while peering through the eyeholes.

Protection.  Defense.

Not just protecting the inside from the out, but the other way around too.

“I want to be a healer, for… just the next twenty minutes.  Take my mind off things.”

“It’s been a little while.  You lost your confidence.  You feel confident again?”

No.

“Yes.  And I need this.”

“I think we can arrange it,” Mark said.  “This way.”

Merciful distraction.  It took her mind off the deadline Chris had implied.  The imminent meeting she wasn’t ready for.

Only once in recent memory had it gone anywhere close to the way she wanted it to.  A fleeting moment, like the stars had aligned.

And when the only people willing to give her any benefit of a doubt were villains and lunatics, when even Victoria insisted on treating her like she’d done the worst thing imaginable, she was left with the simple question: if she was going to be treated like the worst person imaginable whatever she did, and she was strong enough that if she really cut loose, nobody would stand in her way…

What was really stopping her from forcing those moments?  From making it so life was just a continuous flow of those moments, one after another, the stars permanently aligned?

Except for the fact that she was a good person.

One Week Ago

“You misunderstood,” Amy said, her voice tense.

“My English is quite good, Red Queen,” the Doctor replied.  “Both you and the Lab Rat were clear in your expectations.  I faced a risk, being so close to someone this powerful and unpredictable, doing what I did.”

“She’s going to be so mad,” Amy said, quiet.  “You misunderstood.”

The doctor looked like he was getting incensed.  But he stopped short of yelling at her.

“Would you leave us alone?”

“So you do want this?” the doctor asked.  “At least don’t pretend you didn’t, or that-”

“Please,” Amy said, firmer.

The doctor went silent.

And then he left.

The door banged closed.

Amy turned to look at Victoria, who slept on the cot.  Unconscious.

Dot clambered up Amy’s neck, peering over her shoulder.

And Amy reached up, touching Dot’s face, finding Dot’s lips, where there wasn’t as much fur to reach past with her power.

Dot playfully bit Amy’s finger, and the contact with tongue was sufficient for Amy to tranquilize the goblin.

She set Dot aside, on the tray of medical instruments, gently, tugging the little goblin’s colorful dress into place, so it wouldn’t ride up or cut off circulation.

“I just wanted a moment with you where you weren’t being unreasonable or glaring.  Being accusatory, holding on to old grudges.  Carol still hates Marquis, you know?  You got the grudge thing from her.  And he never really hurt her.  Never attacked her.  He did what he needed to do in the moment, ran his gang like a business in a time period when violent criminals like the Teeth and Slaughterhouse Nine had kind of been the norm.  He gets a bit of credit for bringing a measure of civility to Brockton Bay.”

Victoria was utterly still in repose.  This moment was the eye of the storm, the stars aligning, all thanks to a doctor who hadn’t listened to her, or who had taken a suggestion from Lab Rat.  Preceded by Victoria barging into the prison, and sure to be followed by more rage, more grudges.  Maybe.

But for the moment?  She could force everything out of mind and she could exist in the now.  For the first time in four years she didn’t feel like half a person.

She hadn’t wanted this, after all.

But she’d needed it.

“From the way Carol detests him, you’d think he was worse than the Slaughterhouse Nine.  He wasn’t anything close to perfect, but he wasn’t as bad as them.  Daughter and daughter, we’re playing out the exact same storyline.  The insane thing is, if you took away artificial barriers, heroine and villain, they would get along, I think.  It would be an antagonistic friendship, I think that’s just who my father is, but…”

Amy sat on the edge of the bed.  She looked down at Victoria’s arm, which was limp, marred with so many individual scars, wounds.  The more injured hand was bandaged.

Each one of them a rebuke to Amy.  A lasting pain that could have been healed.  Amy held her hand out, tattooed, marked with strands of gold, like the hair draped over the pillow.

“…It’d be exactly the same for us.  We’d get along again, given a real chance.”

Amy touched Victoria’s arm.  A furrow of scar tissue.  Victoria’s image leaped into her mind, top to bottom.  The fatigue, the injuries, the muscles and the muscle memory.  She could tell Victoria had been in physio, that Victoria was taking medication before bed to make it easier to sleep.  Small, controlled amounts.

Amy removed the gouges in Victoria’s right arm.  The muscle damage.  The tears.  Scuffing at the knuckles where Victoria had thrown a few too many punches.  Knitting skin together with care and tenderness.

Bruising at the ribs.  Lung damage from inhaling smoke, a few weeks ago.

Amy touched the side of Victoria’s face.  Eye damage from too many bright lights or flares.  Victoria didn’t have Carol’s resistance to flashes.  The eye was a complex machine.  Amy fixed it.

Then the other arm.  A bullet wound in the bicep.  Healed over, but the muscle would never be as strong as it had once been.  And the most recent wound, the skinning of the back of Victoria’s hand.  The degloving of two fingers.  The skin wouldn’t heal.  Too much abuse, too recently.

Amy unwrapped the bandage as she regrew skin.  She pulled stitches free, and took the skin that was being pushed free by the new growth.  She paused, noting the missing fingernail, and picked through sheets for a few seconds, trying to find where it had fallen.

Didn’t matter.  If Amy couldn’t find it, Victoria wouldn’t either.

What mattered was that lying there, sedated, Victoria seemed to rest just a little bit easier.

Amy gave Victoria love again.  She reached for the brain and she took down walls with more care than she had the last time.

She stared down at Victoria’s face, burning it into memory.  She wanted to think it looked just a bit more at ease than it had been when the pain and the tension had been lifted, and the body wasn’t working so hard on the little things.  That the micro-adjustments in Victoria’s face were because a girl with love in her heart slept better than one without.

Leaning over, hesitating for one second, she bent down, and kissed Victoria on the lips.  Letting go of Victoria’s arm, she made the kiss the single point of contact, through which she kissed Victoria’s whole being.

She lay down on the cot, her face inches from Victoria’s, her hand at the side of Victoria’s face.

If she took too long, she knew, Victoria would wonder and suspect.

So she gave herself fifty-nine seconds like this.  Shy of a minute, because a minute felt like a milestone, and a milestone felt like an excuse to take more seconds, a second minute.

Her hand found Victoria’s arm, and as she sat up, pulled away, her fingers traced a line from elbow to fingertip.  And in the course of that journey, she restored Victoria’s internal barriers and grudges, she let the artificial healing dissolve, and the wounds return.  The wound at Victoria’s hand slurped up the stitches, which swam through skin like they might through water, finding their place.

“See?” Amy asked, her voice a whisper.  “I’m in control.”

A flicker of Hunter passed through her mind’s eye.  The manic look in the child’s eye.

She pushed it out of mind.  Too dangerous to dwell on.  Small mercies it hadn’t happened while she’d been going through the motions of proving to herself and to Victoria’s body that there wouldn’t be any repeat occurances, which was-

Her hand trembled slightly.  She rubbed it with the other, thumb hard as it massaged the hand, rubbing along the golden portions of the tattoos.

-not even a factor.  With this personal victory, this triumph, she had all the confidence in the world that the next time she saw Hunter, she would be able to mend what was broken.

“I’m in control.  So there’s no need to be afraid.”

Now

“Don’t be afraid.  Be calm,” Amy murmured.

She was working blind, in a way.  A monitor to the left showed one series of waves and numbers.  A monitor to the right showed another.  Strings of A, G, C, T.

One adjustment, and the screen to the left shifted, flaring red, or shifted, flaring green.

Step by step, getting the measures and recordings to match the ones on the right.

She did other work.  Altering the body, helping it on its way.  Altering the mind.  Bringing it up to speed.  This figure had been dumber than a dog, before, less personality, and now… very close to human.  A man, now.

“We’re close enough,” Chris said, so close behind her that she could feel his hot breath on her neck.  Her skin crawled.

“Personal space, Chris.”

He snorted, which was pronounced, because his form was anteater-like, with a pronounced snout.  Large ears, and narrow eyes.  Its torso, however, was cadaverous, ribs exposed, organs and other sacs floating in a clear blob that the ribcage and pelvis held.

He stepped away, and he picked up a syringe, which was attached to a hose.

“Do what you can to steer,” he said.  “But control is paramount.”

Amy looked back over her shoulder.  Mark wasn’t there.  He was looking after Hunter.  Marquis was there.  Which was fitting, considering this didn’t feel like something a good person would be pulling.

The sound of machines chugging to life drew her attention back to what she was doing.  Fluids were flowing in…

And she was suddenly working in a flowing river.  Form became mutable, less something solid she was changing, and more something fluid she was trying to hold on to.

Control was paramount, as Chris had said.  Control meant the brain, the blocks, the loyalty and obedience.

The figure grew.  Not so unusual for what Lab Rat usually did.

But this growth… it was an unmasking.  As Hunter had implied, these were people with nothing but the powers and the meat to hold those powers in this world.

Where Hunter had gone wrong was that Amy had been in charge of the girl, had altered the mind to alter the power, and let something in by accident.  Removing it was too hard, because what had opened could not be closed.

Now they did the same thing, but with form.  They did it intentionally.

“Who is it?” Amy belatedly asked, as the figure grew so tall she could touch only the leg.

“Chevalier.  Courtesy of one trip Breakthrough made to the Warden’s Headquarters.  I had my ‘gaming device’ with me.  Stole a scan of the big man.”

The man moved.  A giant, now.  And as he moved, she could feel how he existed in three places at once.  Overlapping, shifting qualities between forms.  She could feel through him how he touched the floor and sensed its qualities, reached out for the wall-

“Don’t!” she called out.  She pulled away, stepping back.

The giant obeyed.  Second by second, however, it continued to come apart.  She worried it would collapse into constituent parts, but it didn’t.  A storm of overlapping identities and bodies.  And one piercing eye, as it focused its gaze and looked down at her.

With every step she took backwards, the figure seemed to clarify.  She took a step forward, and saw it separate apart again.

Not wholly of this world’s rules.  Closer to Chevalier’s power than Chevalier himself.

One giant leap closer to having their hands in the meat and gristle of this alien biology.  When she looked at Chris, the man was smiling.  Her own heart pounded, and she didn’t not feel like smiling, herself.

It was a victory.  She laid her hand over her heart, fingers digging in.

We did it.

Did you want me to do this, Princess Shaper? she asked, knowing her power would never answer.  Was that why it was easier than fixing my sister’s body?

Of course there was silence.

“Three more,” Chris said.  “Then we break for lunch.  Seven more by the end of the day.”

Amy nodded, exhaling.

“Shin’s leadership will be happy.  Tools and weapons like these.”

Amy nodded.

“I’ll pass on the good news,” Marquis said.  “I’m sure they’re anxious.”

“Thank you, Marquis,” Chris said, sounding too formal, simultaneously almost jovial, even though the eye contact he made with Amy was level, cold.

The door closed above them.  Amy stared up at the shifting giant.

It had to be Endbringer strong.

They would have nine more by the day’s end.

“If you wanted to treat yourself, I wouldn’t begrudge you,” Chris said.

“I don’t-” Amy started.  “No idea what you mean.”

He lunged, moving closer, and she backed up.  She gave a thought to asking the shifting giant for help, and then thought twice of it.  If it was as strong as she suspected, it would destroy everything in the course of saving her.

She backed up until she hit a wall.  The bestial Chris planted a hairy paw to the right of her head, another paw to the left.

“Personal space,” she said, and the words were tense.  No words came out as Chris moved his prehensile nose to her shirt collar, pushing it aside.

Pushing past bra strap-

She jolted, hand lunging forward, to his mouth.  To lip-

The prehensile nose caught her arm, twisting her fingers back.  Too hairy to use her power through.  Her knees bent.

“Don’t be stupid,” he said.  “This is a friendly gesture from me.”

“Don’t touch her,” Amy hissed.  She was as ready to use her power to harm as she had ever been.

He pulled at her collar, moving it aside, then moved her bra strap, so it crossed the bridge of her shoulder.  There was nothing sexual to the action.

Just… exposing that little section of skin that Amy had picked up a week ago, pulsing softly as it breathed, resting at the space over her heart.  It hugged her skin, drinking the nutrients off of her skin, and eating the bacteria.

“If you haven’t corrupted the DNA, you could use it.  I’ve looked over Bonesaw’s work with the clones, I could try implanting memories.  You can have Victoria, with all the memories you want her to have, or none of the memories you don’t want to have.  Guilt free.”

“No,” Amy said.

“Why not?”

“Because this is enough.”

“Is it?” he pressed her, his monstrous face too close to hers.

It wasn’t.

“It’ll have to be,” she said.

“If you tell me no now, if you won’t turn our tidy little human-shaped package of human-derived cells over there into a Victoria that satisfies you, I don’t want you to go off the deep end when the other Victoria Dallon shows up.  Because she will.”

“I’ll manage.”

“I don’t think you will.”

“Being near me makes her miserable.  Being near her makes me miserable, because she’s so fucked up, she’s surrounded by all the wrong influences, and I can’t fix that without outright kidnapping her.”

“So kidnap her.”

“And have the Wardens after me?  The rest of Breakthrough?”

“You’re strong enough.”

“I’m- maybe.  But I’m not good enough, not from a skill standpoint.  I’m not a natural heroine.  But I think I am good.  I am capable of saying… it would make too many people too unhappy.”

“My opinion?” Chris asked, his voice a growl.  “You’re lying to yourself.  Same as when you said you could fix Hunter.  Same as when you said you could fix the politician with an ear taking up half his head.  Same as when you failed to fix Victoria, and embarrassed just about every biology-manipulator, doctor, and tinker in the western hemisphere.  You’re telling yourself one thing, living in the latest daydream, but the moment you turn around and face reality… you’re going to mess up.”

He was provoking her.  Baiting her.

“You set rules for yourself,” he hissed each word.  “But your rules exist for nothing… except to be broken.”

She stared him down, still angry.  This- This had been just for her.  The one time in her life that she’d allowed herself to be selfish.

“The politicians from Shin are going to want to see our handiwork,” she said.  “It would be best if you let me get decent.”

He let go, releasing her, and he walked away.  A needle plunged into his neck, prompting the start of a change to another form.  He’d wanted the prehensile nose, she imagined, to sniff out Victoria’s location.

“Fuck reality,” Amy said, to his back.  Chris stopped.

I have no mask, not for the moment.

She fixed her bra strap, being careful to put it where it helped support that small trace of Victoria she kept with her without pinching anything, then began buttoning up her top again.  “We’re making interdimensional weapons of war.  Let’s put this reality as far behind us as we can.”

Chris rumbled, a sound that could have been a chuckle or a rueful sound.

“Next subject,” he growled out the words.  “It’s someone you know.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter