Sundown – 17.2

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What got me was how fucking quiet it all was.  I could look out the window and except for the highway, I couldn’t see the lights of a single car.  Snowfall muted everything, and the city wasn’t quite awake yet.  No work to go to, not enough people around to talk to.  The very real possibility there was no future.

Only the moments, now.  People elsewhere packed up.  They got in their cars.  They drove to some far away place.  They put their life’s possessions away in this new place.  They slept a bit.  They got food in a horrendous lineup.  Their days went on.

I stepped away from the window, still drying my hair.  My finger without the fingernail hurt like fuck.  I got dressed while still in the washroom, then tended to basic don’t-want-to-look-sick makeup and other ministrations.  I passed Crystal, who floated in for her shower.  No sound, no footsteps, even.

Crystal flew, and I floated just enough to keep my steps light, because I’d overdone my physio before my nap, overextending the underside of the foot I’d cut a week ago.

Carol was still working on her hair, which she had been doing before I started my fifteen minute shower, finished post-shower ministrations, dressed, and stepped out.  Golden hair parted, slicked close to the head at one side below the part, a roller removed from the hair at the brow, where it gave her hair some wave as it swept over one corner of her forehead.  Every strand with a place, but the short hairstyle wasn’t the sort of thing that required fifteen minutes.

Her power had nothing to do with steel, but her name and identity kind of did.  Brandish.  Steel out, steel in the spine, steel in the expression.  Unflinching in meeting my eyes, like a swordswoman might not flinch as she crossed swords with someone else in a duel.

No, not a duel.  Not a training session either.

Pure demonstration.  This was for her sake, and it was for mine.  But it wasn’t an exchange.

I had napped, taking forty-five minutes to myself to try to restore what hadn’t been restored by the time in that alien landscape.  Carol hadn’t rested at all, working out with my cousin that we would be going out later, then immediately starting with her wardrobe, hair and makeup.

All in all, Carol had taken an hour to get ready.

My clothes were somewhat rumpled, so I ventured back to the bathroom and called out, “Crystal?”

My voice wasn’t that loud, but it sounded deafening with how quiet it all was.

“-hate being bothered when I’m showering.  Give me a few minutes of peace, damn it.-”

The grumbling continued.

“Can I borrow clothes?”

“Yes!  Go away!”

Crystal wasn’t a morning person.

I stepped away to fish around in her closet, when I heard her talking again, which led to me exiting the bedroom to get closer to the bathroom door and listen.

“-not from the boxes.”

“You don’t want me to grab anything you’ve already packed?” I asked.

“Didn’t you hear me?” she asked.  “You’re interrupting my shower and you’re not even listening.”

“You told me to go away, so I walked away.  Your shower’s in progress and you have water on you, nothing’s interrupted.  Stop being prickly.”

“Stop interrupting my shower and I’ll stop being prickly.”

“I’ll grab something.  Thank you.”

I’d just reached her closet when I heard her talking again, which forced me back out of her room to get to where I could hear her again.

“-can check on Mark.”

What?

“While we’re there at the new headquarters, we can check on Mark.  They should have a link to Shin.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Stop talking.  Shower.  We’ll work it out after.”

I rolled my eyes, looked at Carol, and realized what I was doing when I saw how unflinching she was, not batting an eyelash, not really reacting or reflecting what I was doing or what the external world was doing.

The smile she put on her face was very much the kind of smile that was put on faces.  Nothing wrong with it, but I could tell she was making an effort.

“Doing okay?” I asked, feeling like I’d done something wrong or alien by being natural with Crystal, when it was my mom who was out of place.  Or was it guilt, because the little wrongnesses about my mom were in part due to the head injury, which was in large part my own fault?

“Doing better,” my mom said.  “It warms my heart, seeing you two together.  I’m glad you have each other.”

“I’m glad too,” I said.  My foot hurt, so I picked it up off the ground, drilling the floor with my toe a bit.  I felt like a kid with no idea what to do while being addressed by an adult.

“Coffee?” my mom asked.

“Sure,” I told her.  “Please.”

“Maybe a breakfast sandwich?  English muffin, meat hash patty, no egg?”

“Please.  That’d be great.”

The only sounds as my mom made her way from the mirror in the hallway to the kitchen were the hiss of the shower and my mom’s faintly clunky footsteps.  Trying not to clunk too much, but clunking nonetheless.

I had distinct memories from my childhood of those efforts.  Being up late with Amy, a blanket around us and finished bowls of ice cream on the coffee table, a scary movie in the beta player, when Carol came in wearing her costume.  Giving us a smile that was too ordinary and normal to be anything but a cover-up for the fact that things weren’t okay.

I grabbed a shirt from Crystal’s closet, and paused on seeing a sweater hanging up.  Not my style, but it looked like it hadn’t been worn yet, and it looked a damn sight like it was going to be left behind.  It was zip-up, which I knew Crystal had her kneejerk reactions to, with zipper tags, zipper and the brand-name button at the collar all in blued brass, the fabric transitioned in a smoky pattern from red to black, from left shoulder to right waist.

It was a lot, but it was a lot in a striking way that a superheroine in her known civilian identity could get away with.

I wore my own jeans, pausing to investigate my cramping foot before pulling on socks, then made my way to the kitchen, walking just enough that it wasn’t too apparent I was flying.

I put it on, then set about braiding my wet hair.  I made my way to the kitchen, watched my mom for a minute while I finished the loose braid.

Her process of going about making breakfast was just a bit slower, a bit more measured out.

I pushed up the sleeves, and began helping out my mom with the prep, pouring out the coffee.

“How are you doing?” I asked.  “Honest assessment.”

“Managing,” my mother said.  “Everything’s fine if I concentrate.”

“I’m sorry, you know.”

“I know.  I raised you, I know you.  I will recover, don’t worry.”

I remembered what I’d seen of my mom and Crystal.  My mom not being able to prepare dinner.

“Don’t push yourself too hard.  Save some energy for later in the day.”

“No,” my mother said.

“No?”

“I’ll push myself to the limit, reach the point where I feel like I have nothing to spare, then find a way to dig deeper.”

She cracked some eggs, putting them in the frying pan – for Crystal and herself.  In another pan, english muffins were lying face-down in a little bit of butter, alongside some mystery meat patties that were frying up.  The pan had warped a bit because Crystal had a habit of rushing the heating-up of the pans by lasering them, which concentrated too much heat in one place.  My mom used the fact the pan naturally tilted to manage the way the butter and meat juice pooled.

I cut the lettuce.

We wrapped up.  Bit of mustard, bit of lettuce, meat patties, egg for Crystal and mom, toasted english muffins, coffee in industrial size travel mugs with lids, like I imagined truckers using.

The fact my mom used the travel mugs was maybe the first real tell she had given me about where she was at emotionally since she’d broken down in tears.

Crystal floated in.  “Holy hell, is that sweater mine?  It looks great.”

I turned to face her, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, zipper front.  Huh.  Now I remember it.”

“You got it for your birthday,” I commented.  “One of a few things.”

“I remember now,” she said.

“From me.”

She had the decency to look embarrassed.  “To be fair, that looks way better when worn than it did hanging in my closet.”

“You could have taken my word for it,” I said, looking over my shoulder.  I studied her expression.  “Do you want to wear it?”

“Red’s more my color than yours anyway,” Crystal said, dodging the thrust of what I was saying.

“That’s not an ‘I didn’t even try on the sweater you gave me for my birthday’ apology.”

“It’s as good as you’re going to get.  You’re on probation and you’re technically in my custody.  I can give you orders, can’t I?”

I pulled off the sweater, passing it to Crystal with a roll of my eyes.  She wasn’t trying to be nice, either.

“I see,” she said, “The fabric and texture change a bit when it’s stretched out.”

“Which you’d know if you actually tried it on!” I called back, as I was already halfway to her closet.

Everything close to normal.  Pretend-normal, like the conversation last night hadn’t happened.

In her closet, there was a bulkier black sweater with a deep groove to the fabric and a hood built in.  It had been my first choice to wear, but I’d wanted to make a point with the abandoned birthday present.

I reached out, and on impulse, activated my forcefield.

The Wretch struck the doorframe of the closet.  It was loud, considering the otherwise quiet morning.

“Vic!?” Crystal called out.

“It’s fine!” I called back.

Focus, I thought.  Focus without focusing, calm.

We pulled the sweater from the hanger, lifted it up…

And I caught it, as I dismissed the forcefield.

Clothes had a way of being armor.  Walls erected between skin that was made of stray animals, bugs, and rodents and the outside world where monsters lurked.

I had actual armor now, and it wasn’t what Weld had helped me make for my costume.  It wasn’t quite perfect, and it was bound up in a whole lot of negative emotion, but it was armor.

Which let clothes be more like actual clothes.  I pulled on the sweater and felt its plush warmth against me, hugging my arms around my body.

Good.

“You ready?” Crystal called over.

“Just about,” I said.  I rejoined them.  My mom was already ready with three travel mugs of coffee with lids, and with three sandwiches wrapped in paper towels, each with a little marking on the folded corner of the paper towel that stuck out.  The Brandish icon, the Laserdream icon, and a star with five prongs sticking out the top.

Which was a hilarious way of marking something ‘no egg’.

“Find something?” Crystal asked, trying to find her shoes in the mess of footwear she hadn’t packed up.  She didn’t even walk, half the time.

“I think I found something, yeah,” I decided.  I gave her a look.  “Ready?”

“No,” Crystal said, unnecessarily.  One look told me she wasn’t.

There were easily a hundred heroes in the Warden’s headquarters at ass-crack o’clock in the morning, on their way to and from various missions just like the one my team had gone out for yesterday.  Controlling villains, getting them to stand down, trying to reduce power uses.

There were people who could enter a room, and everyone would stop talking, or the tone of conversation, at the very least, would shift.  Chevalier.  Legend.  Narwhal.  Dragon.  There were people who had impacted world-scale events who didn’t quite have that presence or clout.  I was pretty sure Tattletale was one such person.

Some of those people had become what they’d become because the PRT had helped make them into icons.  Had taken the virtues those capes represented, and sold them, hard.  They’d made it subliminal and liminal, marketed it to kids and the elderly, and made things like strength, courage, nobility, caring, honesty, and justice things that just happened to go hand in hand with the heroes appearing.  The PRT had boosted social media that sold these principles and the presence of these capes, and had provided deft answers for anything that appeared to hurt these notions.

Not that these guys were the type to make those kinds of mistakes.  There were capes who’d come close to being big but didn’t have the underlying character.  Bastion sprung to mind, in the time before his death.

There was another class, though.  Another type.  Eidolon, by all accounts, hadn’t had that underlying character.  A lot of people had instinctively disliked him, even.

People reported coming away from a meeting with Legend feeling like they wanted to be better for the next meeting.

They had reported coming away from meetings with Alexandria feeling like they’d better be better, or else they’d be seeing her again.  Sometimes there would be a smile on their faces as they joked, sometimes not.  The joke was sour to even think about now, when it had been reported her downward turn and violent tendencies had been partially because of Simurgh interference.

But Eidolon?  They came away from meetings with Eidolon feeling like they’d never be good enough, not wanting to see him again.  In some of the files I’d been given in the big file dump I’d negotiated for, I’d read that a lot of people with sensitive or shaky powers had felt like their powers didn’t like Eidolon.  Anecdotal evidence said Scion hadn’t, even.

Thing was, dislike or no, however instinctual or proud or resentful that dislike was, one couldn’t hold onto that after that one video of Eidolon, holding a bridge up during a disaster, too preoccupied to stop a building from falling down nearby… then shore up the bridge, reverse time to save the building and its occupants, shore up the building, and move on, like it was fucking nothing.  Didn’t watch Eidolon taking one shot to execute a supervillain the Kings Men had been trying to keep occupied for an hour, not three seconds after appearing on the scene.  Most of that had been early in his career.  But it counted, he wore the deeds like some wore capes.

Dislike or no, you knew if the man was in the fucking building.

My mother and I were aware of something on that scale, Crystal too preoccupied to be immediately aware.

People left one hallway, glancing behind them.  They made comments to people in passing.  My mother touched Crystal’s arm, indicating.

Crystalclear emerged from the crowd, and some of those eyes followed him.  It wasn’t Crystalclear drawing the fuss, though.  Obviously.  He was just the messenger.

We met him halfway to get the message.

“This way,” he said.

“How’re you doing, ‘Clear?” Crystal asked.  “I hear you’re doing pretty well.  Wardens like you, Foresight likes you.  I keep hearing your name and thinking people are wanting to make sure I’m paying attention.”

Crystalclear rubbed the quartz-like chunks that jutted from his head, smiling.  “Sorry, Laserdream.”

“It’s alright.”

We wove between the groups and individuals of the crowd.  I was noticing, and this was a relatively minor thing, but capes were really bad at getting out of the fucking way when it came to foot traffic.  Like the sidewalk situation where the six foot tall guy in a suit seemed to expect people to get out of his way, talking on the phone and not making eye contact, like he got a fucking half-chub from the miniscule power trip.  Except here, it was a good one in three, and sometimes included the teenagers who didn’t even come up to my collarbone in height.  I helped my mother a bit, steadying her.

I was tempted to fly over, but I was supposed to be avoiding any of my power use, while they were evaluating me.

“You, ah, you nervous?” ‘Clear asked.

“Really nervous.  Terrified.  Do you have any advice?  What to expect?”

“We’re having a lot of these meetings, because we’re thinking this is going to be an ‘all hands on deck’ thing.  Based on what I’ve seen, read with my power, and heard?  Keep expectations low.”

“Okay…” my cousin said, looking like she was going to say something else.  She didn’t, letting the word trail off.

We walked through a bit more of the crowd.

“…Thanks,” she said, instead.

“Here.”

He opened the door.

Valkyrie, that presence that had turned heads when she hadn’t even been in the room, was at the far end.  Wings that could have been projections or creations of light were partially wrapped around her, hiding much of her body, and the shadows of her helmet would have hidden her eyes, but something shone within her eyes and made them apparent.

She knew exactly how those shadows fell on her face as she moved her head slightly, looking up at us.

Aunt Sarah sat in a chair at the end of a long table, and stood as we entered.  Deep purple eyes, younger, wearing a costume that was darker than her old New Wave one, but it was clearly inspired by it.  The starburst icon at her chest had lines that extended out from the icon and around her body, but the lines had more flair to them, and the starburst icon was framed by two faint wings.

“I’m not sure what Crystalclear told you,” Valkyrie spoke with more than one voice, the voices that weren’t hers had an echo quality to them.  “I have been going to some effort to bring back some of those lost in Gold Morning.  The Wardens wanted their families and teammates to meet them and acclimatize to things before they started appearing in a more active capacity.”

“You don’t ask the families for permission?” my mother asked.

“I ask them,” Valkyrie replied in her faint chorus of haunted voices, indicating Sarah.

“She asked me before bringing me back,” Sarah confirmed.

Beside me, Carol folded her arms.

I didn’t miss the slight movements of muscles at the corner of her jaw, the way she looked down and away, back up, clearly fighting her emotions.  Those emotions weren’t her being upset.

“The process isn’t perfect,” Valkyrie warned.

“Victoria forewarned us,” my mother said.

“It’s… the parts and memories of the person the powers were most interested in?” I ventured.  “And then whatever that person has been able to scrounge up, rebuild, connect back to?”

Sarah looked like she was going to say something, looked off to the side, where whiteboards were marked with rows and columns of rectangles, some filled in with color.  The notes suggested it was about refugee allocation within this base.  The silence seemed to draw out a tension in Crystal, like she couldn’t move or breathe.

Sarah nodded.  “Yes.”

Crystal visibly reacted to the voice.  Tension broken, a relief at hearing the voice, a bit of emotional pain at the confirmation.

Valkyrie added, “You’re appraised.  Good.  Some have felt the need to castigate me, ask questions of me, say things.  If you need me for any of that…”

She left the invitation hanging.

“Crystal?” my mom asked.

Crystal shook her head, blinking rapidly.

Sarah put her arms out.  No…

Aunt Sarah put her arms out.  Crystal flew to her, in a hug quick and fierce enough it would have bowled her over, if Sarah hadn’t also been able to fly.

“You must have other things you want or need to be doing,” my mom said, a bit of emotion breaking into the otherwise professional, concise words.  “Don’t let us keep you.”

Crystal was so still, hugging Aunt Sarah, like she thought anything would break the spell.  Aunt Sarah stared out, and I could see the shimmer of moisture in her eyes.  She reached out with a hand, toward my mom.  Her sister.

My mother put one hand on the table to steady herself as she made her way over, clasping that one hand in both of hers.

Aunt Sarah’s other hand pulled away from Crystal to give me a little wave, and the break in that bit of contact broke the spell in Crystal, who moved her head slightly.  She went still again as the hand went back to where it was, hugging her.

I could have gone over, but Aunt Sarah was my aunt.  I’d already reached out, had my reunion of sorts.  My mother and cousin were the ones who this reunion was for.

Valkyrie walked down the length of the room, on the other side of the table.  She stopped next to me.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I should thank you.  Your team went to great lengths, and your teammate Swansong gave her life to save me and other members of my flock.  It’s thanks to her that some of them were able to have their reunions today.”

I nodded.  “Did you…?”

“She didn’t want me to.”

I nodded.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I couldn’t imagine making that decision, and yet at the same time, I couldn’t imagine handing over my whole being to be imperfectly translated.

Just the thought stirred up some faint feelings of panic that could have become overwhelming feelings if I was willing to let them.

“How much is she… Sarah Pelham?” I asked, quiet.

“I don’t know.  I would have had to know the real her to have something to measure against,” Valkyrie told me.  There weren’t as many echoes in her voice as she said it.

I nodded.  It made sense.

“Ninety percent, maybe.  Eighty percent?  Seventy?”

I nodded again.  I didn’t trust my voice if I spoke.

“I would tend closer to ninety, now that I think about it,” Valkyrie said.  “When I was talking to her, prior to bringing her back, I remember she talked about flying with her family.  Her heroics were intertwined with her love life, her family, her work, the face she wore every day.  If it’s not ninety percent or more, it’s going to be easier for her to get there than it has been for others.”

I nodded with more vigor this time.

The hug had broken.  They were exchanging words now.  I could have gone over to talk, but it would have felt like I was intruding.

“I do have questions,” I said.  “Do you have ten minutes?”

“I do, but…” Valkyrie let the last of the echoes die away.  When she spoke to me, it was as a singular person.  “I’m suspicious they have to do with what you were up to last night?”

“Yeah.”  The crystal world.  The guts of this alien system.

“If my colleagues asked what I was up to, and I told them I was encouraging what you did by giving you more answers, it wouldn’t earn me any favors.”

“It was suggested that it was either losing the favor and resources of the Wardens or keeping it but being in trouble.  It sounds an awful lot like I’m getting the worst of both worlds.”

Valkyrie smiled behind her helmet.  Only the section of her mouth beneath her nose was visible, but I could see the teeth showing, the crinkle in the eyes that suggested she was closer to my mom’s age than mine.

“I saw some other things,” I said.  I hesitated.  “You were the one that found the Wardens and the people who were lost in the portal attack?”

“Who are you interested in?” she asked.

“Bonesaw,” I said.  I met her glowing eyes.  “Jessica Yamada.”

I could see that there was something in how she reacted, that drew a direct line between those two.  My heart sank, and not because I could guess her answer.

“I can’t give you the answers you want.  It would betray confidences, as well as classified material.  Jessica is around, I think.  If you wanted to ask her, she might be able to tell you.”

“Okay,” I said.  I couldn’t even imagine having that conversation.

“I think you’re very close to where some of us stand.  It’s a dangerous place, when you know too much, but you don’t know enough to keep yourself safe.”

“That’s why I’m asking.  I’m trying to close that gap.”

The halting conversation on the other side of the room had become actual conversation now.  Crystal was crying as she talked, not even trying to wipe away the tears now.  Aunt Sarah reached out to give it a shot, and Crystal stumbled over her words.  Carol rubbed Crystal’s back.

Valkyrie spoke up again, but it was only after my extended family had exchanged three or four questions and answers, with some elaboration.  “I’m told Vista came back from patrol earlier.  Could you find her, bring her to the garden bridge for me, the one on the third floor?  I’d use my powers, but you can understand how concerned we are about power use in fragile areas.”

“I know her phone number?” I suggested, shrugging.

“That works.  I’ll see about giving you some answers, in a way that won’t breach anyone’s trust.”

“Thank you.  That would be great.”

“We’re on the same side, child,” she told me.

Child.  It did not feel like the first, second, third, or anything on the way to the tenth descriptor that I felt suited me.

“I’ll let the Wardens know Vista will temporarily be the one keeping tabs on you.  Don’t detour or they’ll worry.”

“Alright,” I said, still weirded out.

She let herself out of the room.

I let my family know I was stepping out, then made my way into the busy hallway, noting the direction Valkyrie had gone by the reactions that seemed to follow even thirty seconds to a minute after her passage.  I pulled my phone out, messaging Vista.

Me:
Are you available?  Want to meet, Valkyrie sends me

Vista (Little V):
Am kinda
IF Valk sends you then I can make myself available
Dormitories at ex-Teach HQ
WTF you doing talking to Valk?

Me:
Aunt Sarah’s meeting Crystal and Carol

Vista (Little V):
Oh shit!
Dorm room 22-9-19-20.
Catch me up then
If I’m not there wait. Won’t be long

I started walking.

The organization system took a bit of interpretation, but I had the general sense of it from having to find Byron’s hospital room.

People milled this way and that, and as I got closer to the dormitories, I saw more people in civilian clothes, including refugees.

The refugees were easier to walk among, even though they were arguably the group I identified with the least.  Maybe the Victoria who had been part of Patrol block would feel more at home among them, but… that had been a long time ago.  But I got out of their way, they got out of mine.  The urge to fly and expedite the trip was a dull itch, without being a physical pain or outright strain on my patience.

I wanted so badly to experiment, to test my power, to make sure that the control I’d managed to forge wouldn’t slip away from me due to hours of neglect.  I wanted to do more small exercises like the clothes hanger and sweater.  To figure out where I needed to be or the mental state I needed to avoid those impulsive, uncontrolled movements.

But I couldn’t.

So I bit my tongue, and held onto the positives.  That Crystal had the chance to hug her mom, or someone close enough to her mom to count.  To talk to her, to ask questions.

Section 22.  I found row 10.  Close.

22-10… one row over, good.  Then column…

22-9-15…

22-9-18… I carried on down the corridor.  Turned a right at 19.

22-9-19-5…

The intersection was more like an apartment building, rooms marked with their individual number code, with doors facing out.  A ramp led up to the second ‘story’ of dormitory rooms.  The lights in the hallway had been dimmed, and a few screens along the way urged me to be quiet.  Members of the latest patrol were sleeping.

I found the room, and knocked softly.

No answer.

I knocked again, a little firmer.

I let myself in at the lack of a response.  My eyes adjusted to the gloom, and the first thing I recognized was a poster of Gallant on the wall, which was hilarious.  The second thing-

Sudden movement in my peripheral vision, a yelp-

And I had to restrain myself from yelping too, before I turned and fled the room.

Okay!

Wow.

“Fuck,” I heard Vista.  “Shit.  I’ll be right out!”

Her dormitory neighbor banged on the wall at the noise.

I opened my mouth to reply, and words failed me.  I just stayed where I was, back to the wall, door to my left, reflecting on life, the passage of time, and exercising what were now years of experience in not letting thoughts or mental images settle in my mind’s eye.  I’d relax, surrender the scene to the natural flow of thoughts, and refuse to allow the image to be committed to memory.

What felt like an interminably long, silent period of time passed.

I heard laughter.

“Don’t laugh!” Vista snarled.

The laughter got louder.  Tristan emerged from the room.

My eyebrows went up.

“Apparently my brother doesn’t want to do the walk of shame, so he’s given me my turn.”

“He’s doing better, huh?” I asked, my eyebrows still raised.

Vista stuck her head out the door, shoulders bare.  “It’s not a walk of shame if we didn’t do anything!”

How had she not pulled something on by now?  Was she just sitting on her bed, face in her hands or something?

Tristan laughed more.  Vista slammed the sliding door in response.

The neighbor banged on the wall yet again.

“You’re okay with this?” I asked.

“They didn’t do anything,” Tristan said.  “She made a pass at my brother that was awkward but forward enough to get through his thick skull.  They negotiated it with me.”

“He’s doing better then?” I asked.

“Yeah.  If he was a one before, he’s a three or four now.  Not very mobile, but… last night helped.”

I glanced at the door.

“Rain’s dream,” Tristan said, smiling.  “The world beyond it.  And we’ve got cheerleaders encouraging him to put in the effort…”

He pulled out his phone.  Showing me messages from Kenzie, that included input from Darlene, Chicken Little, and Candy.

‘Go get her ice cream’ was the latest message.

I smiled.

“Can I talk to him?” I asked.  “Is he okay to sit or stand or…?”

“Probably,” Tristan said.  He leaned back against the wall, then blurred.

Byron replaced him, slumping down a bit, in part because the strength and coordination weren’t all there.  In part because he’d been caught.

“You good?” I asked him, keeping my voice down for those who were sleeping.

“Mm,” he grunted.  He was naturally quiet, to the extent he didn’t have to change much to account for the sleeping patrolers.  “There’s no answer to that question that doesn’t sound wrong.  If I say ‘better’ it sounds like I’m being clever, and I’m worried you’d hit me.  If I say I’m not feeling good, I’d be lying…”

He trailed off.

She good?”

“Not right this second, but yeah,” Byron said.  “In general I think… good.”

Good,” I said, stern.  “You realize she’s a friend of mine, she deserves all the good things?  You hurt her, you and I aren’t going to be on good terms.”

He nodded.  “I wouldn’t want anything else.”

He looked so weary.  I almost felt bad.

“These things the Chicken Tenders are telling you to do?  These things, at a glance, seem good.  Teasing and obviously weird stuff aside, do them.”

“Vista doesn’t seem like the type to go ga-ga over flowers,” Byron said.

“Would you want flowers?” I asked him.

“I suppose.  I’d be touched.”

“There you go,” I told him.

He ran his hand through his hair, pushing it out of his face.  “Okay.  Sorry, by the way.”

“No apologies, provided everything’s good.  But if it’s not, you’re going to need big apologies, because I’m going to be pissed.”

“Got it,” Byron said.  “But for what it’s worth, I am sorry.  I feel like she’s a friend of yours, I should have asked, but I’m still not one hundred percent there, it was early.”

He mumbled a bit more at the tail end of it.

“Why don’t you swap back to Tristan?”

“Thanks for being cool,” he said.  He paused, “I really like her.”

Then he blurred out.  Like he couldn’t even look me in the eye after admitting that last bit.  Running away.

Tristan just smirked, enjoying himself too much.

“I’ll get going so Vista can come out of hiding,” Tristan said, and in contrast to Byron, even trying to be quiet, the pitch and volume of his voice were on the borderline of what I’d consider tolerable.

“You sure you’re good?” I asked him, stopping him before he could walk off.  “Absolutely sure?”

“My brother deserves good things,” Tristan said.  “If it’s another human being being close, nothing rude?  That’s just human contact.  It’s human contact with someone I like and respect.  He’s willing to extend me the same allowance.  We’ll figure it out.”

I nodded.

“Later today, I’m seeing this guy I knew, Nate.  Catching up.”

“That’s great.”

“We’ll see,” Tristan said.  The smile dropped off his face.  “He disappeared after my attempted murder.  Byron says he’ll put in a good word, reassure Nate, but I don’t think that kind of betrayal and surprise is something a guy just gets over.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah.  Thanks,” Tristan told me.

He looked back at the door, then smiled again, chuckling under his breath.

He left, and I waited a good minute before the door slid open.  Vista didn’t emerge.

I ventured inside.  The lights were on, now.

“I didn’t think you were close,” Vista said, accusatory.  She had the phone in her hand, like she was trying to decipher the texts and figure out how things had come to this.

“What?”

“You said Photon Mom was seeing your family, not your family seeing her, so I thought you were somewhere else, you’d have to travel here, and you can’t fly because you got in trouble, right?”

“We were in the conference room near the main lobby.”

Fuck,” Vista said.  “I’m so humiliated.  I thought there’d be time to sleep in another ten minutes, take him back to his dorm room while chatting with Tristan, come back and meet you.”

“I knocked.  Twice.”

“They knock constantly, whenever they’re trying to round some of us up for an errand.”

The person next door thumped.

“Let’s go,” she said, quieter.

“Coat,” I pointed out.  “We’re going outside.  Garden balcony, third floor.”

She got her coat.  Bulky and covered in patches.  It made me think of Rachel Lindt, a bit.

“What was the terrible pick-up line you used?” I asked.

“We can’t forget this whole episode happened?” Vista asked.

“Just making conversation,” I told her.  “I’m… backing you two.”

“I know.  I heard some of that.  Thank you for telling him to get me flowers.  That’s the sort of thing so dumb I wouldn’t know how to hint at it.  I’ll look forward to that.”

She was fidgeting a lot.

I walked with my hands in my pockets.

“He said he really likes me,” she said, quiet.  Vista, who was still petite, even after growing most of the way up, who had taken up a vaguely grungy, ‘tough’ look, with the black eyeliner and patched jacket, looked outright bashful.

“You realize what I said to him about not hurting you goes for you too?  He’s recovering, he’s vulnerable.”

“I know.  Tristan’s really helpful there.  He’ll tell me if I’m being dumb.”

I nodded.

“He was getting better and they needed the hospital room.  So he has a dorm room.  We were talking and I suggested, uh, my room’s closer to the hospital room than his new room.  And skinship, skin to skin contact, it’s apparently good for mending.”

“Wow,” I said.  “Wow.  Didn’t actually need the details.”

“Shut up.  And you did, because if I didn’t tell you, you’d wonder or worry.”

“Tristan said you were forward, but-”

“Shut up.  And it wasn’t a dumb pickup line, because it worked.  Tristan even said it was the right line to get through to Byron.  We went to my room instead of his.  We cuddled, we napped.  That’s all it was.  Anything else has to wait until he and Tristan figure it out and Byron gets better.”

She was blushing, and furiously trying to suppress it and hide it, messing with her wavy, dirty-blonde hair by combing it with her fingers, arms up near her face, hiding most of it.  But I could see that her ear was pink.

“Valkyrie said she’d have some answers about the weird interdimensional stuff.  But I had to bring you to her, or whatever?  Just to let you know what’s what.”

“Fill me in?  What even happened last night?”

I filled her in, broad strokes, the general details of what we’d done, why.  What we’d seen and done.

We navigated our way down a floor, then off to the side.  To the garden balcony, which was an extended ramp that stood out from the side of the building, with a number of planters that had bushes, trees, and flower beds on it.  It was covered more in frost than snow, the plant life withering in the cold.  Vista pulled on the coat she’d had under one arm.

Valkyrie wasn’t there.  Two others were.  I belatedly connected to what Valkyrie had intended when she’d said she wanted Vista.  She was still arranging the meetings.

Dennis’s red hair didn’t move in the wind, and there was a faint lensing at the very edges of his face, like they might at the corner of a chandelier, except more dark than light.  He wore a coat over a gray costume with clock faces worked into it, Valkyrie’s ‘wings’ at the clock predominant at the chest.

Chris -Kid Win Chris- had hair that was more gold than blond, and definitely not brown.  There were more changes than I’d seen on either Aunt Sarah or Dennis, and I had no idea if he’d added cyborg parts or if he’d just come across that way.  The back of his neck, the ridges of his ears, and his eyes all looked more like technology than flesh.

Vista barely flinched.

“No shit?” Dennis asked.  “What’d you do, Missy?  Went and grew up on us.”

Vista snorted.  “You went and died on us.  Much ruder.”

Dennis smiled.  He looked at me.  “You’ve barely changed.”

“You hardly know,” I told him.

“I’m glad you’re better,” Kid Win said.  His voice was deeper than I remembered it.  I assumed it was because two years had passed before he’d died, more than anything about his current body.

I shrugged.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Kid Win told Vista.  He indicated me.  “She does, a bit.  I get it, we look a bit weird.”

“A bit surprised,” I said.  “And you don’t look that weird.”

“I looked you up,” Vista said, jamming her hands in her pockets.  “Came to terms with it.  Figured your- whatever Valkyrie is, she’d introduce us when the time was right.”

“Look at you!” Dennis said.  “I can’t get over it.  I remember when you didn’t even have all your adult teeth.  Now you’re… grown.  Kind of!”

Vista glanced at me, like she thought I’d say something.  I pursed my lips together.

“Grown enough to chuck you off this ledge.  I’ve mourned you once, I can do it again.”

“You’re a lieutenant to one of the top Wardens or something?”

“Narwhal.  Sometimes Cinereal.”

“That’s crazy!” Dennis exclaimed.  He took her by the shoulders and shook her.  “Crazy!  You do realize that?”

“Yeah.”

“Congratulations,” Kid Win, who wasn’t even a kid anymore, told her.

“Thanks,” Vista said.  Something in her seemed to relax.  “My parents never even congratulated me.  I don’t think they even really get it.”

“Still living with the parents?” Dennis asked.  “At least-”

He stopped as Vista shook her head.

“You’re living out on your own?”

“Dormitory, now.  But basically.”

“The whole world went and moved on, huh?” Dennis asked.

“That’s what happens when you die, you fucking moron,” Vista told him.

“You’re a lot more abusive than I remember.”

“You guys all left me alone,” Vista shrugged as she said it, like it was a passing comment.  “You deserve the abuse.”

“Well,” Dennis replied.  A full, one-word statement.  “Couldn’t really help it.”

“The mutated hair looks cool, at least,” Vista said.  “I bet it’s a pain in the ass.”

“You have no idea,” Dennis said, touching hair that might as well have been time-stopped, it was so unmoving.  “I can’t wear my usual style of helmet.  But that’s enough about me, and creepy changes.  Let’s talk about you, catch up.  You can explain this whole punk, grunge, angry little Vista-”

“Little?” Vista asked, arch.

“And angry, see?”

“Angry enough to toss you off the edge.  I’m not even kidding, I’m still so mad you went and died on us.”

“Couldn’t help it!  The world ended!”

“I managed it!”

“You’re ridiculously powerful!” Dennis protested.  He looked at me.  “Please tell me that our little Vista found a Gallant to use as a release valve.”

Vista puffed up, pink touching her face and ears again.  She shot me a glare, daring me to comment.

“You do.  That’s amazing.  Who?”

I backed off, staying where I could fly after Dennis if she really did toss him.

Kid Win approached me.

“Was he like that, around Gold Morning?” I asked him.

Kid Win shook his head.

“He was like that at different points.  Jokey, teasing.  On the battlefield, when on the defensive.”

“Yeah.  I remember a bit of that.”

The back-and-forth between Vista and Dennis went on.

“You’re quiet,” I said.  “I know that’s a dick thing to say, but…”

“I’m not very me, not whole,” he admitted.  “Not yet.”

“I won’t hold it against you.”

“Thanks,” he told me.  We watched the arguing continue.  “Valkyrie said you wanted details.”

“Do you have details?  About the agent’s territory?  The crystal landscapes?”

“Some.  Kind of.  We’ve been… talking about stuff.  Doing some training, digging into memories, experiences, stuff from when we were gone.”

I nodded.

“She figures we’re going to have to be prepared to fight on that level, or at least deal with things on that level.”

We.

That we felt different.

Yes we are, I silently agreed.  I wondered if my agent heard me.  The ‘Wretch’.

“Tell me what you can,” I told him.

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