Breaking – 14.12

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The tech Kenzie had provided me wasn’t perfect.  Cryptid flickered in and out of view as he passed within the view of the facility’s security cameras and then entered the blind spots.

The guards in the hallways ahead of us were the same.  Major points were watched, but there were a few who retreated to places the cameras didn’t see and stayed there.  If this were Gimel I might have guessed they were smoking, but I hadn’t seen or smelled a single cigarette yet.

The gaps meant I had to focus, devoting attention to tracking every single person who stepped out of sight, remembering that they were there, and accounting for the places they could be.  I was reasonably confident in my ability to do that, I was good at memorization, I could wrap my head around who was where in a conflict and not be too surprised at any point.

Except the Cryptid factor required a whole other degree of my attention.  His focus was us, by the looks of it, as he pushed forward and even pushed past guards to make his way to the shower area, then from there to the plaza.  I could see glimpses of the scene through the mess, the blur of regular prisoners blocking him off.  They even pressed him back, to the point he retreated a few steps.

That would be our distraction, a rowdy fight that drew in most of the prisoners.  The distribution of prisoners was almost as dense as it was around meals, but these guys were riled up in a whole other way.  Shin’s response to powers, parahumanity, and the strange was an instinctive, aggressive push back, whether government or prisoner.  It added to the riling and aggressiveness.  They’d been controlled once already and they wouldn’t do it again.  A good share of the ones who would have accepted parahumans had been enlisted by us for our distraction.

Guards supported Cryptid, falling in step beside him, while he tried to nose his way forward toward the members of Breakthrough who were hidden in the crowd.

Rebuffed again, or hurt, or because he caught a whiff of something, he turned around, pushing back through the showers, looping back to Armstrong, Natalie, Crock o’Shit and Coalbelcher, presumably to communicate.

Then he was running down hallways, sprinting as fast as a large dog.  A rat disappearing into the maze, flickering in and out of sight as he passed beneath the cameras.  Coalbelcher jogged after, but he was only a third of the way down the hallway by the time Cryptid was at the end.

Though they were distant, I could see Cryptid stop, pausing at an intersection.  He jerked his head to one side.  A signal to Coalbelcher.

They were after us.

“They’re coming,” I said.  “Cryptid and Coalbelcher.  Cryptid has some running form.”

“Remind me who Coalbelcher is,” Vista said.

“Uh, was one of the fire-themed villains that tried to band together against Cinereal.  Most of that group got trounced, he didn’t, he became a mid-level boss there.  Careful, camera up ahead.”

We were running and we had to stop before we ran right into the camera’s field of view.  I leaned closer to Vista and indicated with my hand.

The camera was set so people couldn’t walk beneath.  But Vista expanded the gap that was there at my instruction, giving us room to move through.

“After Gold Morning he went to prison after breaking a guy’s jaw and back.  Ended up being leader of the men’s side.  Went with Cryptid and the Red Queen.  Reasonable-ish.  Combustible spit, and he spits a lot.  Added strength but not a lot of added durability.”

Three guards up ahead.  One disappeared from view as they left the camera’s radius.  The other two responded to something -a call, a message by radio or intercom, I wasn’t sure what Shin had- and started running our way.

“Hiding spot,” I told Vista.

“I can make a pocket but it won’t be perfect.”

“Fast,” I said.  I pointed down the hallway.  Closer to the guys we were running from.  The lights overhead had two bulbs per installation, but one of the two bulbs was dark in that section of hall, casting it into relative shadow.

Vista pushed the wall out so it bulged, and bid us to step inside.  She pinched it shut, drawing the sides together and the top down, all close to the ground.

“Can’t see how good my work is,” Vista whispered.

“Shh,” I said.

Ten seconds passed.  Guards appeared in my one eye, then disappeared.

I could hear the tromp of boots.

They carried on running toward the plaza, where things were riotous.

I nudged Vista, and she undid the effect, unpinching the gap so we could stoop through, then letting the wall revert back to normal.

“You’ve gotten better,” I said.

“I’ve been working my ass off.  Doing everything the books say might help.  Even fucking meditation.  I hate meditation.”

“Why meditation?” Ashley asked.

“Because you need to change the way you think about your powers,” Vista said.

“Did it work?”

Vista made an ‘enh’ sound, unimpressed and unsure.  “Some stuff did, somewhere along the line.”

“It’s like the hair,” Ashley said.

“Hair?” Vista asked.

“Putting it in your costume, to extend the Manton effect.  Victoria’s idea.  Lots of useful ideas.”

“Benefit of being a good guy.  The crooks don’t have good power labs.”

“Mm.”

Vista gave us a way beneath the next camera, adjusting the gap beneath without modifying anything in the camera’s field of view.

“Cryptid’s closing in,” I said.  “Crock o’Shit’s keeping close to Armstrong and Nat.  Coalbelcher’s… not really a runner.  He’s covering ground Cryptid isn’t.  I think he’s been here before, because he’s moving with purpose.”

“He’s not sticking with his team,” Ashley said.

“Cryptid?” I asked.  I got a short nod in response.  “He isn’t.”

“He doesn’t think in terms of teamwork.  He thinks in terms of problem solving.”

“Sounds right,” I said.  “We have to out-problem solve him.”

I could use the tech Kenzie had given me to track what was going on, and it told me we were getting into an area with more prison staff.  I’d noted before we entered the prison that it was built like a castle set between two halves of a bisected high-rise.  The hallway before us, divided halfway down with a gate or small portcullis, marked the distinction between the ‘castle’ and the high rise part.  With the change came a stark contrast in, well, everything.  The tile transitioned smoothly from slate gray and black to a glossy black and tiles with sunset hues like oil on a roadside puddle.  Statues embedded into the wall broke up the stone on either side of us, allowing for the transition to the maroon and tinted glass of the high-rise.

I looked back.  Cryptid was closing in, sniffing his way to us.  Halfway there.  Armstrong and Natalie were being taken to a side area, denser with prison staff, still in the custody of Crock o’Shit.  The lie detector with the tattoos of scales and her namesake words on her cheeks.

“Options,” I said.  “Our goal is alerting or rescuing Armstrong.  We do it without outing ourselves if we can.”

“Where is he?” Ashley asked.

I pointed.  “That corner of the facility.  Lots of guards, and Crock o’Shit.  Good few guards between us and him, too.”

“And Cryptid,” Ashley said.

“Yes.  And Coalbelcher.”  I pointed with my best guesses.  Both were outside of any camera’s field of view.  “We could go through.  I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s easy to be cornered with Cryptid coming after us.”

“I do worse with cornered,” Vista said.

“Other option is we go over.  Through here, upstairs… and I remember the glass above the plaza had cracks in it.  In the right situation, Vista could open that crack and I could fly us down.”

“We go outside or above and we signal him from there?” Vista asked.  “How?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “They might be keeping him in a windowless room.”

“Steal a walkie-talkie,” Ashley said.  “Say it to every guard, if he’s in a room with them he’ll hear it.”

“Raising suspicion.”

“If there’s reasonable doubt then we’re fine,” Ashley said.

“Is it though?” Vista asked.  “Is it really fine?”

“I’d rather save him and then go from there.  If there’s trouble it’ll be trouble with an exit.”

“And after that?  Do we escape that trouble for more trouble with an exit?  Ad infinitum?”

“Sometimes that’s all you get,” Ashley answered.

“Option three,” I said, interrupting the back and forth.  “We push for the room where they stowed our stuff.  We get a few of our things, including our phones, and we take it back to Kenzie.  She calls Armstrong or Natalie.”

“Can we find the room?” Ashley asked.

“Pretty sure,” I said.  I looked down the hallway.

Cryptid was still navigating his way to us.  Coalbelcher took another hallway, walking with a steady pace.  Coalbelcher was a good two hundred and fifty pounds minimum, which probably impacted his ability to run around.

“We do your plan,” Ashley said.  “Mine as a backup.”

I looked at Vista.

“Your team, your tech, you seem to know, it’s your call,” Vista said.  “But you’re asking us which option, and it seems like one’s better.  Why?”

“Because this requires us to get to the room, get access, get back, let Lookout do her thing-”

Voices echoed down the hallway, chatter.  Ashley, Vista and I stepped around the corner to be out of sight.

Vista started to create another pinched-off space.  It turned out to be unnecessary.  The people were staff in the high-rise section of the prison, and they weren’t entering the prison section.  I saw their shadows mixing in with the shadows from light filtering through the portcullis gate, before they moved on to wherever it was they were going.

“You didn’t see those coming?” Ashley asked.

“Lookout’s camera only tells me what the cameras see.”

“Great.”

“Cryptid is getting close.  Let’s figure out where we’re going.  Can you pantomime for Darlene and Candy?  They have no audio.”

Ashley gave me an unimpressed look, but she nodded.  I stepped back so she was in my full field of view.

She mimed taking a photo, then mimed Kenzie’s height, before motioning like she was holding a phone to her ear.

The text appeared in the corner of my eye.

-Her phone?-

I nodded.

-Have to ask her.-

“They’re figuring it out,” I said.  I didn’t love that we were at an intersection of three hallways, or that Cryptid was getting closer.

“Say we alert him,” Vista said.  “What does that change?  Can he escape on his own?”

“Or we alert Natalie,” I said.  “It means he can find an escape route.  If they want to frame us for his death then that probably means they want to be able to account for my whereabouts and have a plausible explanation for his whereabouts at the same time.  Sending him to go talk to Sveta, maybe, and then intercepting him.  Probably with Crock o’Shit.”

“That’s a hell of a name,” Vista said.  “She’s strong enough to pretend to be you?”

Cryptid had reached the point where we’d gone through the wall.

The message appeared from Kenzie’s team.

-down hall with gate. basement of that part of complx-

“Yeah,” I said.  “Open the way, get us through there?”

I indicated the portcullis.

“The building without enough cameras for us to know where everyone is?” Ashley asked.

This part of the prison doesn’t have enough cameras for me to know a hundred percent.  That building’s worse.”

“Great,” she said.  There was a terseness and tension to her that I knew was because she was worried about Armstrong and insecure about our ability to help him.

It was easy to be cool and collected when you didn’t care about anyone or anything, but the guy had earned a place with her.

Vista parted the bars.  While she did, I looked ahead, finding the cameras and focusing on them, watching the little circle lock onto each, before giving me a view of what the camera saw.  There was a stairway to the basement but cameras had too tight a view from within the stairwell, of that stairwell.

“We go for what I’m pretty sure is a storage area.  Stop at the end of the hall, check, then run for it on signal.”

Cryptid closed in.

“Crock,” Vista said.  “She’s strong?”

“After,” I said.  “I’ll fill you in when I’m sure we won’t be caught talking.”

She nodded.

Too many things to keep track of.  We hurried through the gate and down the hall, stopping at the corner.  I indicated our path with my finger, a zig-zag around the areas cameras could see.  The ground floor had an eating area taking up a good fifth of it, another area that was sealed off and curtained, maybe a closed storefront, and then lobby and smaller rooms.  There was a stairwell tucked into a nook, just to the left of the hallway we were in, my view through the camera telling me it led up and down.

But our focus was the smaller room.

I checked, then gave the signal.  To the room by a trolley loaded with bottles and folded cloths.

Into the room, where more bottles and cloths were stored and shelved.

Using Wretch strength, a burst, I moved a shelf.  Metal scraped against floor.  We stood in silent tension, waiting and listening to see if there would be an issue or cry for alarm.

“I’m making a hole?” Ashley asked.

“Controlled destruction,” I said.

“I don’t do controlled.  Not well.”

“Vista, expand the target area?  I want it so that when things revert, the hole is small.”

Vista nodded.

“That works,” Ashley said.

“Crock.  She was Fidelis, once.  Ex-marine who left the service to be a Protectorate heroine.  Louisiana PRT.”

“I don’t remember her,” Vista said, as she expanded the floor that had been beneath the shelf.

“Before your time,” I said.  “Took on a position where she’d spend six months of the year with the Lousiana team, six months going from town to town in one of the dead zones without any nearby departments.  Helping police with weird and tough cases.  She’d work as a lie detector, then if there was trouble she’d mutate into an eerie, beautiful, ten foot tall woman.”

“I’ve seen hints of what she becomes and she isn’t beautiful and she’s barely-”

A crash marked Cryptid arriving at the portcullis gate.  He slammed into it, loud, striking bars and straining metal.

“-Barely a woman,” Ashley said.

“That’s Cryptid,” I murmured.  “We should go.”

Through the stairwell camera, I could see people hurrying to the scene to see.  They saw and backed off.

Being big and ugly isn’t working for you here, I thought.

I kept my voice a hush.  “Her lie detection’s a thinker power, technically, but in actual application it’s changer.  She feels it in her gut because her gut morphs and mutates in response.  About a year or two into the routine I was talking about, she gets dropped from official PRT stuff.  Gets the same treatment as capes who are too vicious, ugly, or problematic to market.  Essentially becomes nameless, the only reports of her are her turning into a ten foot tall woman that’s more unsettling than eerily beautiful.”

“Go,” Vista told Ashley.  “You don’t need to go deep.”

Ashley cupped her hands together and channeled her power.  A spark, with the cupping meant to restrain the sound.  She pushed the spark of darkness into the floor, annihilating, twisting, and condensing the matter there.  Once she verified how deep she needed to go, she used her power again.  Each use was marked with a sound like a chainsaw being revved, blades scraping against a chalkboard.

It made a hole.  The others slipped down through it, and it was narrow enough their shoulders grazed the edges.

I could hear Cryptid, guttural voice, a bang on the bars.

I slipped through, flying to hold my position as I dragged the shelves above me to block the hole.  One smooth motion, a bang as it came to rest flush against the wall, and things fell to the floor.

I didn’t even touch the ground of the floor below when Cryptid came barreling in through the door.

We’d have to shake him.

I held my finger to my mouth.  Instructions from Kenzie’s team had been replaced with a number, marking the distance to our destination.  As we headed into the dim basement hallway, the number dropped.

Taking us to a storage room where boxes had been lined up.  Each with a word in an unreadable script.

“When she detects lies she absorbs them, or some… some of the ugliness and intent, makes them part of the changer form she carries with her.  She went from being a heroine who turned into a beautiful giantess to being nameless and disfigured.  She got pretty into her investigation of something big that she’d uncovered, a conspiracy, taking down a crime ring.  I don’t know because I don’t think she was communicating much with her bosses then, so the paperwork is a big question mark.”

“Sure,” Vista said.  “I kind of know the type.  A few of that type.”

I talked while frantically searching.  Dipping into explanations and cape stuff helped keep my hands steady.  There were a lot of boxes with things that I could immediately rule out as non-Breakthrough.  The others searched as well.  “She took a leave of absence and dove into her investigation, and she… never surfaced, I guess.  What came out the other side was a dark version of her, mean, tattooed, filed teeth, and blood on her face because she’d torn into some crime lord’s neck and the blood was still there after the mutations receded.”

“That’s what I saw,” Ashley said.  “It wasn’t very crocodile.”

“No,” I agreed, tilting a box so I could see what was within.  Familiar stuff.  “Found a box.”

“Good,” Ashley said.  She reached my side while Vista appeared at the other side, and the two of them searched neighboring boxes.

I dug through mine, adding, “But she’s strong enough to do to Armstrong or Natalie what I did to my mom.  All they need then is the plausible scenario.”

“Let’s not give them it,” Ashley said.

I had Kenzie’s phone.  A little pencil-case like box that I popped open had photos of Breakthrough inset into the top.  The bottom side had a series of tools, including screwdrivers and things I couldn’t really figure out.  One might have been a pencil-thin blowtorch.  Beneath the tools were more pictures.  Chicken Little, Darlene, Candy and Kenzie, arms around each other’s shoulders.  Another with a younger Kenzie and two adult men, the faces blurred out.

“Hoy!” the voice rang down the hallway.  “Assholes!”

Cryptid, speaking in that distorted voice of his.

We didn’t have a good escape route, and our way up was hazardous, blasting a hole.

At a silent agreement, we emerged from the room.

He was wearing a shape that looked halfway between bird and hairless dog, with a back that arched unnaturally high near the front shoulders, and a frame that seemed too narrow for how tall it was.  Talon-claws rested on the ground.  It was earless, and its beak-muzzle was wide open, revealing Cryptid’s mostly normal face on the inside, filling the void that would have his head within.

He was clothed, but not in the sash he’d worn when he was on Breakthrough.  A metal collar had a ring of metal-encased syringes primed to plunge into his own throat, and that collar had four broad lengths of  cloth draping back from it.  Shin’s textiles were top notch, which was probably why they wrapped everything from themselves to their guns in it, and he’d decked himself out in plenty of it, all crimson with gold tracery.

“Sneaky,” he said.

“You’re one to talk,” Ashley retorted.

“Am I?  More than you?  Any and all of you?” he asked.

One of the syringes in his neck plunged in like it had been fired from a gun, eliciting a gout of blood that dribbled to the floor.

“Think twice,” I told him.  “If you change-”

“I’m reverting,” he said.  The syringe plunged in again, for a repeated stabbing.  “This is good for giving chase but not so good for anything else.  I’m supposed to keep the peace and handle parahuman shit.  Which means I handle you.”

“You can’t handle me, Cryptid,” Ashley said.

“I found you.  Whatever you were doing, you’re not going to do it now.  Remember Victoria saying she wanted to deny the bad guys what they wanted?  Hey hypocrites, you’re the bad guys here, going against the local authority.  If you want to sneak away I’m not letting you.  I know how you think.”

“You went and made yourself big and ugly,” Ashley said.  “You bullied a kid, trying to taunt Kenzie.  You like to think you’re a smart guy, Cryptid.  You know me.  How does this go?”

He was reverting to human form, bones cracking, muscles shifting.  The syringe plunged into his neck again, for a third strike, and the process of reverting accelerated almost immediately.  Blood trailed down his arm from the wound beneath the collar to his fingertips.  He stood there, distorted in shape, his hair a mop that was just slick enough with his prior form’s bodily fluids to stay where it was when he pushed his misshapen, still-partially clawed fingers through it and moved hair away from his eyes.  The collar was now a hoop that rested atop his shoulders and against the back of his head, showing collarbone and part of his distorted chest, that was still absorbing the lower portion of the form’s jaw.  The cloth that draped down from it covered everything from that point down, pooling on the floor.

His head more or less normal now, he cracked his neck and yawned his jaw open, before smiling.  “I’m smart enough to know you can’t.  Not me.  It would destroy you.”

“I think I could get over it,” she said.  “You’d… rot, I suppose.  I think I come out ahead.”

He smiled.  “See, this?  This?  I almost missed this.  The you that used to be cool.  The you that was mean and callous enough that I could almost believe you when you said stuff.  But you’ve got no bite to your bark anymore, people laugh at you because you’re so toothless.”

“Are you seriously trying to convince her to hurt you?” Vista asked.

“She can’t.  If she could have she would have already.”

“I’ve never had more respect for her,” I said.  “And it’s not because she’s so-called ‘toothless’.  It’s because-”

“Oh fuck off,” he cut me off.  “Sanctimonious hypocrisy.”

“Big words from a two year old,” I told him.

That’s better,” he said, and there was something resembling fervor in his eyes.  “The bullshit you were spewing a few seconds ago was completely empty.  This at least shows you’re thinking about things.”

“If you think I’m not, then you’re not nearly as clever as people were saying you were.”

“Her,” he said, pointing at Ashley.  “Figure her out yet, or am I right, are you not thinking about it?  Being willfully blind?”

“I’ve been thinking about her a lot.  Working on figuring her out.”

“One word, sum her up, come on.  I’ll even give you a hint.  If it doesn’t piss her off to hear it sound out loud, you’re wrong.”

“Ascension,” I told him.

He made an abrasive buzzer noise, made more abrasive by his distorted, too-deep voice.  Then, pleased with himself, he chuckled.  “Try ‘facade’.”

A spark of something crackled at Ashley’s hand.  I mimed for her to stand down, hand out.

“Nah,” I said.

“Yeah,” he answered.

“How would you even know what the right answer was, Cryptid?” I asked him.  “The only times you were around, you had your head stuck so far up your own ass I’m surprised you could see anything.”

“Because I’m an expert in molding yourself into something.  Putting on faces.  The only difference is that instead of ‘fake it until you make it’, I take it until I make it.  Glug glug.  She was a scared little girl once and she found the closest thing she could to strong and untouchable and she wrapped herself up in the lie.  The only difference now is that she’s wrapping herself up in another lie.  Sad thing is, in the years since she was that scared little girl with her parent’s blood spattered all over her, she’s let the human shit atrophy.  There’s nothing left except the fakery.”

“Big man, taking what was shared in private therapy and trying to use it to hurt me.  Kenzie was right,” Ashley said.  “You’re pretty pathetic.”

“They say eyes are windows to the soul, and your eyes are blank from corner to corner.  Says it all.”

“Not right now,” I said.

“Kind of true,” Cryptid said.  “Shit, I thought of that one a bit ago, was holding on to it.”

“And you call us pathetic,” Ashley said.

“I call Breakthrough fundamentally dishonest and hypocritical, my ‘pathetic’ is reserved for you and Kenzie.  Unlike you guys, I don’t preach one idea and live another.”

“What are you doing?” I asked him.  “Secret’s out, Lab Rat.  No more reason to hide.”

“Is this supposed to be my monologue?  I talk about everything?  Pass.”

“The alternative is we’re doing something and you’re just floundering, pretending to have direction,” I said.

“I’ve been putting little things you said into context,” Ashley said, joining her voice to mine in pressuring him.  “Wanting to get away, hating your own skin.”

“I’m away.  Got a whole continent mostly to myself, now.  I changed my skin.  What I’ve got on right now by default isn’t really human or mine.  I’ll change it up more later.  I have direction, Victoria.  It’s being my own person with control over my own existence, not being some hypocritical ping pong ball that’s bouncing around from crisis to crisis.”

“You enjoyed the crises.”

“I did.  But getting there is a pain, having to drag you all kicking and screaming, seeing you all fight yourselves every step of the way.  This is better.  I’ve got projects in the works, and if the world ends up ending like Amy says it will, I think I can get enough people into space, away from it all.  Build something, give ’em all bodies adapted to that environment.”

“Powers don’t work in space,” I told him.  “We’re tethered to the agents and if you move far enough away the power doesn’t feed in.  You wouldn’t get any tinker inspiration.  When Sphere was trying to build the moon base, he had to build on Earth and send stuff up.”

“You think I don’t know that?  Shin has better power labs and research than you do.  I’m aware, and I’m confident.  Don’t worry, but don’t expect a reserved seat either.  Because you’re either going to be stuck right here, or you’re going to be the ones who ran, caused trouble, or otherwise left millions to go without supplies because your recklessness jeopardized a trade deal.”

I tensed.  It was the kind of line that preceded aggressiveness.  He remained where he was.

“How much of this did you plan?” Vista asked.

This?  It’s stupid politics and a bit of Teacher, a bit of one of the bigger precogs.  I just showed up, enjoyed the show, and figured I’d fulfill my promise to Panacea while I did it.”

“You set me up to go to her.”

“Gave the doctor the miracle drug that would knock you out, pulled the strings, gave her the room number, let the meeting happen.  One way or another, I figured I wouldn’t have to listen to her whine any more.”

I nodded, letting the hollow, empty feeling take up residence in my head, throat, and upper body.  It was likely it was the very same emptiness he’d alleged Ashley had inside of her.

That I could’ve felt as scared and awful as I had back in that room with Amy, and that someone could have inflicted that on me so casually?

“Fucking why?” I asked.

“He wants us to hate him,” Ashley said.  “It’s safer.  It lets him stay isolated from the rest of the world, unaffected by others.”

“It’s worked, then.  If he wants me to be his enemy then he’s got it,” I said, my voice low.  I didn’t clench my fists because I was pretty sure that if I did, I wouldn’t unclench them until they were halfway through this sneering asshole’s skull.

“You know Teacher’s doing a whole thing, right?  Manipulating information, setting friends against friends, enemies against enemies, to create enough distraction that nobody’s organized enough to work against him?  He left stuff around for her to find,” Cryptid told us.  “He doesn’t trust me after the years we spent jockeying for power in the Birdcage, I cured some of his thralls, fucked with him a few too many times.  He wants to pretend he’s objective and rational but he can hold a grudge.  He was fucking with your sis, Victoria, I knew he’d keep doing it until I took that card away from him.”

“By putting me in that room with a monster?”

“You’re more monstrous than she is,” he said.  “And Coalbelcher?  You’re really fucking slow.”

Coalbelcher was coming down the hallway.  Heavy, with a roll of a chin covered in stubble, black smudges all over his face to create the illusion of a three-dimensional skull, drooling thick rivulets of black that disappeared into his top.  He wore an outfit of nice Shin fashion that had been stained with black handprints and globs.

“Coalbelcher.  We made a deal before,” I tried.

“You got me out of prison in exchange for my help.  Or I got out of prison and it happened coincidentally.  I’ve made more deals with him, more recently, and that counts for more.  I like the current gig.”

“You have nothing,” Cryptid said.

“Guards should be thirty seconds behind me,” Coalbelcher said.  “I think I hear ’em.”

I looked to the camera in the stairwell, let the tech in my eye lock on, and looked through it.  Sure enough, they were coming down.

“Good.  Let’s not give them an excuse to say they did half the work.  Blast ’em.”

I saw Coalbelcher draw a breath, rearing back, while Cryptid hopped back, hauling a door open to use the room inside as cover.  I flew forward, to act as cover.

Coalbelcher vomited a stream of black at us, a geyser spray.

I saw him clench his fist, punching it forward into the stream he’d just terminated.

It detonated, a rolling explosion that chased the geyser toward us.  And with Vista’s space warping, it changed direction and all splashed along one wall, licking it with fire.

Already flying forward to intercept, I kept going.  The only way to do this was to execute it quickly and efficiently.

And if need be, kill them and have Ashley annihilate the evidence.

But Coalbelcher’s power produced a spray, and that spray included flecks that had scattered to the floor, ceiling and walls just in front of him.  He hadn’t detonated that.  I saw it at the last second, threw hands and arms around my head, and felt the explosion throw me off course.  A ring of fire, that left me spinning in the air for a second.

A meaty hand grabbed me, as he leaped up to me and seized hold, and as he came down, he threw me hard into the concrete floor.  I put out my hands to stop myself from crashing down face first, and I felt staples in my hand pull free, tearing at skin.

He exhaled, and it wasn’t a liquid geyser this time, but a cloud, aimed over and past me.

Swansong, following up.

Vista’s power altered the cloud, shrinking it.  But with the close confines being what they were, and the particles being just as effective if they were on a wall or on the ceiling, she was left to keep them suspended indefinitely in air.

Ashley threw a hand to one side, threw herself the opposite way.  Without taking the time to get up, I came at him from another angle, staying low and sliding along the ground with my flight.

Vista moved the blob of gas.  It detonated to Swansong’s right, and the detonation was localized, kept to one side of the hall while Swansong slipped past.

Chris, partially mutated, his head encased in what looked like a rat skull, his body and limbs long, reached out to grab her out of the air.  He got his grip on her and then biological mechanisms in his limb turned his already long, red-furred arm into a piston, punching her through a door.

I still managed to hit Coalbelcher.  A strike dead center to the stomach, hard enough it might have caused internal damage.

Guards yelled noise in a foreign language.  I looked, and I didn’t see them.

I looked at Cryptid, and saw him smiling, his face barely visible as it dissolved into connective tissue that cobwebbed out to the interior of the skull that was his new head.  No skin grew over that skull.

The lights went out.

-That was us– the message on my display read.  –cuz guards-

I saw the silhouettes of Cryptid and Coalbelcher, and hit the latter, three times, with two of the hits in the same spot and the third hit aimed at his leg with Wretch strength added in, because a power with that much output had recoil and he couldn’t handle recoil without legs.

“Crypt,” Coalbelcher gurgled, around an audible outpouring of more combustible gunk.

“Go!”

I put myself between Coalbelcher and Ashley just in time for another explosion.

The explosion illuminated the hallway, illuminated Coalbelcher, who was now visibly on fire, nice clothes burning, especially where the blackness had leaked into it – handprints and all.  The ‘skull’ where his face hadn’t been painted black was now the only part of his head that wasn’t on fire.

Guards in the background were cowering, shielding their eyes, and retreating.

Then Cryptid was there, lunging out of the doorway at the side of the hall, into the corridor and positioning himself over Coalbelcher, not caring about the flame.  A skull was illuminated in orange, and limbs with forearms, biceps, calves and thighs as long as I was tall were bent and cocked, ready.  The hoop he’d had around his shoulders before was now around his waist, cinched tighter to act as a belt.  The fabric was like a loincloth.

The tail was the catch, prehensile, sneaky, stabbing along the edge where floor met wall.  I planted my boot on it, crushing it to the point it broke.  The part I’d separated from its owner flailed madly.

“You can see in the dark,” he remarked.  “So can I.”

The hand snatched out, forearm consisting of multiple pieces that acted like crossbow and arrow, the arrow remaining attached to the rest of it.  All to double the length of his arm.  It made him faster at reaching than I was at flying.  It seized me and then pulled me with it as it reeled in, slower than it’d reached out.

I wrapped my legs around it, gripped it with my good hand, and flew backward.

It pulled him off balance, pulled him closer to us.

That was what he was afraid of, after all.  Getting close.

He braced himself, and I used Wretch strength.  The Wretch hit and broke his arm in two places that I could see in his silhouette.  It provided the strength to pull him forward onto his stomach, limbs out around him.

“Burn us!” Cryptid hissed.

“Do and he dies,” Ashley said, quiet.

Coalbelcher didn’t.  I was betting he liked his gig more than he liked Cryptid.

“She’s bluffing,” Cryptid said, his voice like a hiss from the bottom of a well.  “She can’t kill.  She’d be giving them evidence and they’d cut off supplies to millions.”

“Reasonable doubt,” Ashley said, her voice barely above a whisper as she fumbled her way to stand beside me, her hand pointing in the direction his voice was coming from.  “That’s all I need.  I’ll blow a perfectly square hole in you.”

“New trick?” Cryptid asked.

“Nah.  I can’t do perfectly square,” Ashley said.  “But I can do messy, and Vista can make messy neat and square.”

“Yeah,” Vista said.

“She can’t work in the dark,” Cryptid growled.

“Tinker tech.  Warden provided.  You’re a tinker, you can recognize it when you see it.”

“Bluffs on top of bluffs,” Cryptid said.  “You-”

He fired off an arm, reaching.

I kicked it, Wretch-strong, and booted it into the wall, shattering the mechanisms.  Cryptid arched his back, suppressing a scream, then letting that suppressed scream become a chuckle instead.

“Bluff,” he hissed, through the chuckles.

“You say you don’t care,” I told him, my voice barely above a whisper.  “You don’t give a shit.  Fine.  But if you fuck with us right now, if you push this hard on this and give them the chance to kill Natalie or Armstrong, then you’re proving you do care.  You-”

“Oh fuck off,” he hissed.

“Fine,” I told him.  “Your choice.  Fuck with us and we find a way to destroy you that doesn’t look like anything Breakthrough could do to you.  We destroy everything you’ve built, we expose everything you want to hide, and we make you suffer.  Or you can fuck off.”

“Just fuck off.  You’re so good at it,” Ashley said.  “And it’s so much better than you deserve.”

“I’ll go limp that way with both of my arms shattered, one almost torn off, and I’ll say we didn’t find you.  I’m sure they’ll believe me.”

“You can heal,” I told him.

I heard a syringe sink home.  The silhouette imaging caught the blood spatter for the one or two seconds it was warm.

“Don’t be stupid,” I warned.

He let go of me.

“You’re lucky I don’t really care,” he said.

He pulled away and straightened.  I went to Swansong and, in the pitch black, I helped her to her feet.  I got Vista too, and led them down the hall, back to the spot below the storage room, perilously close to guards who stood in the dark, brandishing guns and waiting for the lights to come back on.

Once we were far enough away, safely in the room with the door closed, the lights returned.

Vista widened the hole again.  It was barely big enough to drop a quarter through, but as she widened it, we had something us-sized.  She went a step beyond and expanded the gap to let us get past the shelf without moving it.

I kept close to the door, my hand pressed over the part of my hand with the pulled staples, listening.

“Nothing,” Cryptid told the soldiers.

“Those weren’t nothing sounds.”

“Our friend here thought he saw something and he’d flush them out.  It was an animal.  Someone’s office pet.  He burned me, we had words.  There was nothing.  You’re wasting my time.”

“The lights-”

“Was us.  Me.  I make things, I make light switches.  I see better in the dark than you do in the bright, and it slows down anyone running from us.  Except it was a false alarm.”

The hole was big enough to crawl through.  I went up first, and gave Swansong a hand.  She’d been battered in being pushed through the door.  Vista was last.  While she climbed up, I peeked through a crack in the door.

We crossed the lobby just ten or so seconds before the guards got to the top of the stairs, a matter of feet away.  We ran down the hallway, as quickly and quietly as we could, before they could walk over and look our way.

Back to the others, Kenzie’s phone and toolkit in our possession.  Once she had it, she could alert Armstrong and Natalie.  It was the best we could do, short of fighting our way through dozens of guards and trying to pass it off, or tearing through the building to get to them.  If they needed that kind of help, we’d provide it, but it was the best we could do while staying covert.

Then it would be up to them.

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Breaking – 14.11

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The guards escorted me to Sveta’s holding cell.  The setup wasn’t so different than the room we’d met Citrine in- walls that looked like concrete, with high windows and textured glass that, I was assuming, let them look in from one side, while distorting our view looking at them from our side.  Diagonal bars separated Sveta’s side of the cell from me, but the room was long, and two-thirds of it were devoted to Sveta’s side.  Once I seated myself on the stool and a female guard stood between Sveta and I, the setup of the room made me feel like I was the prisoner in the cell.

Sveta’s hair had been combed with her fingers.  She’d pulled on a prison-supplied tunic, keeping her shirt, but tying it around her waist, in a loose approximation of what the veteran prisoners had done.  One of the sleeves had a bloodstain.  Her arm had been bandaged where it had been cut, but even there, the way blood had soaked into the bandaging suggested a wound more like a piece had been taken out of her, shaped something like a cross between a jigsaw piece and a lightning bolt.  She had no stool, only two worn mattresses and a pile of old clothing she’d left in one corner.  A single hose that dangled to waist height stuck out of the wall, near a drain that I was guessing served double duty as shower and toilet.

She walked over to the wall and slumped down into a seating position by the bars there.  I remained at the stool.

She studied me.

“Hi,” she said.  “Are you okay?”

“As far as I can tell,” I said.  “They’re watching and recording us?”

I made it a question, but it was a statement.

“Maybe.  You look more done with this than I am.”

“Pretty much,” I said.  “We’re guessing it won’t be much longer.  Jeanne Wynn said she’d pull strings.  I talked to Amy after I woke up-”

“Siblings are tough,” Sveta said, quiet, her eyes intense and searching as she studied me.

“All family is, in a sense,” I said.  I suppressed a sigh and changed the subject, “We’re guessing it won’t be long.  An hour at most, probably half that.”

“Educated guess or…?”

“Kenzie guess, really.  We know Jeanne is quick.”

Sveta nodded.

“We think it’s either going to be Natalie or someone else like Armstrong.”

Sveta looked a bit surprised.  “Another Kenzie guess?”

I nodded.  “We were thinking who we’d want to have there when we get out, worried family members, friends.  Ashley thought Armstrong made sense, and the more we thought about it, we thought it was likely.  He’d want to help if he could and he does have some clout, he knows Jeanne a bit.”

Sveta nodded, and her face relaxed a bit from the line of thinking alone.

Armstrong was the kind of guy who had that effect on people.  He’d leaped from a position at the University to a position of being consultant to the early Boston PRT, then full-time staff, and ultimately director.  He was responsible for rescuing Weld after Weld had been dropped off, an amnesiac with a head and part of a chest, left in a scrapyard.  He’d treated Weld as the closest thing to family.  He’d looked after the original Ashley, reaching out and trying to coax the supervillain into a position with the PRT.  When Sveta had started dating Weld, he’d accepted her as readily as he’d accepted Weld, even going so far as to fund her prosthetic body.

He was someone who cared.  Who looked for answers.

It hardly needed to be said, but Kenzie’s ‘guesses’ about timeline and Armstrong coming weren’t guesses.  We’d been thinking about plans, about who we wanted to come and pick us up, and Ashley had suggested we ask Darlene and Candy to ask Armstrong to come for Sveta.

I had little doubt Ashley had wanted to see him too, but we had collectively glossed over that detail.

Once he’d caught up on the situation, Armstrong had reached out to the mayor Jeanne Wynn.

“Knowing it could be soon makes the waiting harder,” Sveta said.  “Especially with everything else going on.”

“Yeah.”

“But I have you for company for the next five minutes,” she said.

“Makes me think of the hospital.  A lot of moments where I wanted to make the most of our limited time together, but not knowing what to say.”

“We hung out so much we ran out of things to say.  But having you around is nice, even if we aren’t talking every second.”

“Do you remember the drama when they rolled out that whole patient chat thing?” I asked.

“They regretted that about five minutes after turning it on,” Sveta said, smiling.  “I think about half of the technical downtimes were to give hospital staff a chance to recover.”

“They eventually outsourced the management,” I said.  “You were gone by then.”

The patient chat had been voice chat and instant messages for patients who couldn’t leave their rooms but who had access to computers or phones.  There was more limited access for people like Sveta and I, who had needed more specialized interfaces for using keyboards.  Pullable ball-tipped knobs for Sveta with a spaced out key arrangement, while I’d had the knobs unscrewed and removed, just using the spaced out keys.

Thinking about the events, schedule, and timeline reminded me that I hadn’t actually been in the hospital with Sveta for all that long.  She’d left not all that long after I’d arrived.

“Did we ever look up what happened to Earl?  Buzzer?” Sveta asked.  “I know he was one of the real personalities in the patient chat.  He graduated out, didn’t he?””

Earl had had an always-on power that produced an abrasive noise at volumes loud enough to cause permanent ear damage, audible from halfway across the city.

“Yeah.  He met someone who could ‘eat’ powers.  Drain the power gradually down over time, get stronger from it.  They had a thing going, until it turned sketchy,” I said.  “The eater got controlling.”

“Shit.”

“Just something that happens when you put two people together, sometimes.  He went back to the hospital, and then a few weeks later left to go work in a remote location, I think.”

“Hey, good for him,” Sveta said.

“Nicest person in a face to face conversation, but when it came to the online stuff he was a drama magnet.”

“Yeah.  What about, uh, Keelee?  She graduated out.”

“Yep.  She remotely signed into patient chat a few times.  Worked online at a call center.”

“Good for her.”

Keelee had regressed in age every time she’d used her time manipulation power.  Weeks, months, and years regressed as she’d become a teenager, then a kid.  The regression was fast to set in, and the only way to go the other way was real, actual, unwarped time.

I wouldn’t say it while Shin might be listening, but Keelee had joined a criminal group with the plan of defrauding a wealthy family in France.  In a fit of unbelievable, unfathomable, possibly addiction-induced recklessness and stupidity, she’d intentionally de-aged herself to the apparent age of three years old, while maintaining all of her mental faculties.  The idea had been to get adopted into the art-loving family after showcasing ‘natural’ artistic and musical talent she had learned from classes.  A text-focused thinker in the crew to get her into the registries, a tinker on contract to make a few forged toys that doubled as communication devices so they could be her handler…

But the tinker had bailed because the job was an enterprise that would take years, and they were too impatient.  The text thinker had bailed when the family had adopted a handsome three year old boy instead, who had showed zero ability with finger paint or music.

Leaving Keelee in her de-aged state, an absolute monster onlineOffline, she’d complained constantly about wanting cigarettes, which the nurses refused to let her have, except on her birthday.

Gossip, talking about powers and patients, it made a good way to pass time while occupying the mind, because there had always been something going on, even while we’d been in limbo.

Sveta asked about Roos, AKA ‘Jacked’, who had surgically removed his own body parts to implant hypermuscular cyborg replacements, and did just fine for himself until he got hurt in a fight.  He’d left the hospital after weeks, which had been enough time for the natural degradation of tinker stuff over time to ruin his implanted parts.  With broken parts he hadn’t been able to collect materials or earn cash to buy the materials, couldn’t keep up with tinkering.  His health had suffered, and he’d ended up at the Asylum, trying to get stable so he could get back on his feet, literally.  I told her he’d passed.  Even with the hospital’s help, he hadn’t bounced back.

There were ones who’d ‘graduated’, ones who’d left or outright escaped, and ones who would have stayed for a lifetime, had Gold Morning not cut those lifetimes short.

“I wish Armstrong had met some of them,” Sveta said.  “He was always super interested in the weird cases, parahuman research, all that geek stuff.  He’d love to collab with these guys, since they’re apparently fantastic at deciphering this stuff.”

I might be interested, forgetting everything else,” I told her.  Thinking about the ‘everything else’ put a bit of a damper on my mood, after the lighter conversation.

Lighter but not ‘light’.  Even now, I was kind of strategizing, and I was pretty sure Sveta was picking up on what I was trying to do.  Keeping things positive, highlighting that parahumans had issues too.  Now we talked about positives.

I wasn’t lying, though.  A big part of me wanted to work with anyone who could help decipher parahumans and powers, especially with what Amy had said.  Everything on the line, cracks spreading, broken triggers on the scale of Dauntless happening in greater frequency and numbers.

Yes, they’d tried to hurt us or kill us.  They were after our reputations, all for the sake of political points.  They had a twisted view that we were in a separate box from everyone else, and we thus didn’t ‘count’ when it came to the terms of war or diplomacy.

In their eyes, killing one of us was worth thirty of their own dying.  To wound all of us with something as fuzzy as temporarily detaining a group that had just been on television for causing issues?  They viewed it as worth a possible diplomatic crisis.  Miss Militia or Jeanne Wynn?  Too high profile, too problematic.  Us?  We were more acceptable as targets.

And I wasn’t ruling out that Amy or Chris had said or done something.

There were a hundred things I wanted to talk to Sveta about, but we chattered instead, keeping up the lighter tone, talking around the elephants in the room, and tried to convey a positive image.

“I’m anxious to get back to the hero stuff,” Sveta said.  “Help people, um, I know Weld isn’t waiting for me at home anymore or anything, but I do look up to him still.”

“Even if he is a bit dumb about stuff.”

“About relationship stuff.  And he’s inexperienced, not dumb.  So am I.  But I want to live up to the standards he set.  For him and for Armstrong.”

“Yeah.  Do…” I started, hesitating.  Sveta tilted her head to one side.  “…Do you see yourself dating again?  Finding a guy?”

“I want to find myself first.  Then yes.”

“Cool.  I’ll look forward to that.”

“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to talk your ear off or obsess with stars in my eyes, like I did way back then?”

“Nah,” I said, my voice soft.  “Nah, I like seeing you happy, and you were happy in those moments.”

“And happier when I met him, thanks to you.  Happier when I met him again, after screwing up the first time, thanks to you.  Happier when I went with him and got to go out into the world, thanks to you.”

I dropped my eyes to the floor.  I supposed Weld had told her, that I’d had to convince him to go back and talk to her.  That she needed the support.

“Sorry it didn’t work out.”

“No.  I grew a ton as a person.  I was such a kid back then.  I’m glad, even if, even now, it hurts.”

I nodded.

She shifted position.  Her head rested back against the wall, staring across the room at the wall while she asked, “Is it weird if I see myself with another Case Fifty-Three?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so, but it depends on rationale.”

“Just… a part of me still wants to belong to that.  Fat chance, though, right?  They’re not fans of me.”

“Some are, I’m sure.”

Sveta shrugged.

“You and Egg, huh?

Sveta made a face.

“In all seriousness, it’s cool.  Knowing what you like.”

“I think I like it.  It’s hard to say for sure.  It might be me wanting to belong, like I said, and I’m misinterpreting that.  I don’t think I do know what I like, only what I kind of expect or assume by default.”

Fuck, there was a lot to unpack there, but I didn’t have the energy to get into it.

“Don’t mind me,” Sveta sad.  “Getting lost in my own head.”

“Nah, you’re fine,” I said.

“I hate this,” she said.  “I hate all of this so much, and I know I have no right to complain, but it really sucks that I finally have a real body, a really good compromise between having a power and being normal, and we run into these guys, who are dead set on making me out to be a monster.”

“You know you aren’t though, you know?”

“I know but I don’t feel it,” she said.  “My feelings are taking a while to catch up with things, and then this is dragging those feelings the opposite way.  It’s fucking with me.”

“It ends soon,” I told her.

“Maybe.  Sorry.  I shouldn’t be complaining.  Not when-”

I shifted position, scratching at and tugging on my ear.

“-there are so many bigger, realer things to worry about.”

“It’s big enough and real enough to you,” I told her.  “It’s who you are.  That’s massive.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know why I put it that way.”

A good thirty seconds passed where we didn’t talk.  The guard that stood by the bars looked a touch restless, which put me on edge, but that didn’t seem to be the prelude to anything.  Nobody was audible in the hallway, and nothing came of the restlessness.

“Thank you for coming,” she said.  “I was so anxious, when you got hurt.  Then we didn’t get attention, and then when we did, it all went wrong.  You’re really okay?”

“M and S protocol, but okay.”

I saw her eyebrows knit together for a second before she forced them apart.  She clenched one hand, then rubbed it with her other hand, before tracing that hand up her arm to her wound.  Her voice, though, remained casual, as she said, “That’s a pain.”

I shrugged.  “Mark and Aunt Sarah.”

“Ugh, family,” she said.

“Yeah.  Family,” I said, sighing.

Our tone remained casual.  A few more names that anyone overhearing wouldn’t necessarily pick up on.  Only the use of the word ‘protocol’ would stand out.

I could hear footsteps in the hallway.

Time was up already?

“I’ll help when I can, once we’re out of this,” Sveta said.  “Mark and Sarah or no.”

“Yeah.  We should be out soon, so just stay safe.”

“Yeah,” she said.

The door opened.  More guards.  My escort.

The prisoners in these cells got up to five minutes of company up to three times a day, never the same person more than once.  Shin viewed the family unit as something to keep together, so the policy was meant to let kids visit parents and parents provide guidance to kids.  There were cultural aspects in the midst of it all.

“Thanks for keeping me sane,” Sveta said.

“Likewise,” I told her.

The guards liked to manhandle us, to put hands on us and guide us, forcing us to move.  I didn’t fight them on it, though I did flinch slightly as one suddenly brought a hand near my eye.  It made him smirk, as he pushed on the back of my head, driving it forward and down, while two more shoved my back and shoulder, respectively.

Back toward the central complex of the prison.  Toward hallways and faintly uneven floors, moisture and people milling about.  Toward prisoners who would attack us and guards who would stand by or help.

Once I was through the doors and the doors were shut, I had no escort.  I was left to rely on memory to navigate, and my thoughts felt as tender as the most damaged parts of my body did after a physio session.  Every road was a dangerous one, that could provoke pain or surges of emotion, and I had to remain calm.  One foot in front of the other, every second got us closer to that release.

Closer to the raid, leaping into a bad situation.

Ashley found me, falling into step next to me.

“She’s mostly fine,” I told her.

“No she isn’t,” she replied.  Her face was drawn, tense.  “Emergency.”

“What?”

“This way,” she said.

She didn’t move her head, but she flicked her eyes up and over.  With the special projection cameras removed from her eyes and her power not having seen recent use, her pupils were visible, and even her irises had some gray to them.

Camera.

In another hallway, a child screamed.  Another child screamed back.  Then there was laughter between the two.  When I turned my head to look, I saw one of the attackers from earlier in the day.  A guy with the ragged cloth decoration marking him as a veteran prisoner.

A kid ran up to him, smashing face into stomach, wrapping arms around pelvis.  She peered through a mop of messy black hair to look up at him, then over at me.  No older than eight, and she wore the same veteran clothing as the guy I was assuming was her dad.

This fucking world.

The team was assembled in one of the back hallways.  Ashley leaned over my way.  “This is contested turf, but we need it.  They aren’t pressing us hard yet, but if the day got longer, I think they might fight us for it.”

“Why do we need it?” I asked.  It was furthest from the plaza, and moisture had settled in the lowest point, where there was probably supposed to be a drain, except it had clogged.  I wasn’t sure why it was so in demand.

“We’re mostly out of camera sight here, and the one camera has water on the lens, courtesy of my brother.  They don’t want us leaving unscathed and we need privacy if we’re going to do something about it,” Tristan said.  He kicked a scrap of cloth too small to wrap around anything into the water.  “They want Armstrong.”

“What?”

“If we’d sent Natalie they might have gone after her, but Armstrong is worse for them, I think.  Believes the opposite of what they do.”

“Start from the beginning,” I told him.

“Yosef’s faction, the hardline guys from the meeting, Kenzie says they’re pulling something, they want to stage an attack.”

Kenzie looked around, then slapped the wall.  She blinked a few times.  “Listened in on the phones, my team gave it to Miss Militia to translate, she got back to us while you were gone.”

“And they want to hurt Armstrong.”

Tristan answered while Kenzie fiddled.  “They were trying to figure out what Sveta is capable of.  They were talking about her before, but they figured out that she changed her body after one of their people called people she knew.  They want to lead Armstrong to some place and kill him in a way that makes it look like Sveta did it.  Then they can hold us indefinitely or execute us, they take out one of our side’s allies and big players, and they make the Founders and Coalition look bad.”

“Founders are Luis’s group, closest to Goddess’s old power structure.”

“And the Coalition are the guys who weren’t at the meeting,” Vista supplied.  “Coalition and Founders manage this prison.”

Kenzie pulled her hand away from the wall.  I saw the weapon she held, like a knife a foot long.  She’d combined two of the projection lenses into a single long one.  She looked around, then stuck it into the wall.  I saw her squint one eye, then the other.

“They’re more or less on the same side when it comes to parahumans but they still compete and have big differences when it comes to other politics,” Ashley said.  “And they’re new.  When you look at gangs and governments, the newly established ones are the most insecure and reckless.”

“It isn’t how it should be, but it happens,” Rain said.  “Even with the Fallen, a family would get too large, people would leave and try to set up shop elsewhere, filled with motivation and new ideas, and they’d make messes.  I remember hearing about it.”

“Everywhere,” Ashley said.  “Everyone, every time.”

“Almost every time,” Kenzie said.

“Do tell,” Ashley replied.

“I think the future Kingdom of Damsel will be flawless.”

“You’re sweet,” Ashley said.  “But let’s focus.”

“Right.  Poking my eye into the wall, and… this’ll work.”

“What are they rigged to do?” I asked.

“Give me a look on the other side, tap into phone lines, and boost signals for my tech.  It’s still not great.  Lots of dense stone wall.”

“Do we break through and intercept?” I asked.  “It fucks a lot of things up.”

Kenzie talked while running a hand along the wall, “They’re stuck, trying to figure out what works as a way that is unequivocally Breakthrough murdering Armstrong, but in a way that doesn’t alert the Coalition or Founders that they’re up to something.  If it was old Sveta they could strangle him.  But it’s not and they don’t know how she works now, except that she’s made of ribbons, so they debated it for about three minutes.  Now they’re talking about framing Rain- large clean cuts, framing Byron, except they’re confused about if he’s here, and framing Ashley-”

“Structural damage and big holes,” I said.

Kenzie nodded vigorously.  “They’re unsure about convincingly doing all of those, which means it’s down to me, I don’t really do weapons, or you, Victoria.”

“Smashing him,” I said, my voice hollow.

“They’re getting the pieces in motion.  The problem is, they aren’t going to bring him to us where we can stop them.  They’re on the other side of big walls.”

I started to follow Kenzie, but Tristan put a hand on my shoulder.  I looked at him.

“Do me a favor, stay put?” he asked.

I glanced at him, looked around, and then looked at the water.  The murky pool near the blocked drain had a faint glimmer of light to it.  Orange light.

“You’re sure?” I asked him.

He nodded.

Rain dropped to a crouch, dipping a gloved finger into the water.  He began to sketch.  A square, trapped inside a diamond, trapped inside a square.  Four rooms set out along the exterior of the big square, for the various rooms at the outer edge of the prisoner area.

A map of the place.  The square in the center was the plaza.  The four exterior rooms included the shower area and the private dining room for the religious.

“That’s the best I can do,” Kenzie said.  “My projection hairclip is modified to work as a camera and give us eyes on one of the hidden doors the guards can use to flood this area.  Then I have one in-eye camera for me and one for one of you.”

Tristan stuck his toe in the water, boot scraping as he dragged a stone knife out into view, then stepped onto it.  He was making more.

“We sneak out, get to where we can warn him,” Tristan said.  “If they spot us we go offensive.  Hit them before they can use their guns, break out.”

“Seems too dangerous,” I said.  “All of us, some of us walking with a limp?  We’d get seen, or we wouldn’t be able to find hiding places.”

Rain frowned.

“We can’t let him walk into a trap,” Ashley said.

“We won’t.  But we divide our efforts,” I said.  I closed my eyes for a second, thinking, shifting mental gears.  This was more familiar territory.  It made me think of working with my mom and dad.

Which reminded me that my mom had signaled a need for help.  I interpreted it to mean that she needed a way out of Shin.

“Divide by?” Rain asked.

“Distract the guards.  Start a small fire, or… something.”

Rain reached over and picked a knife out of the murky water, holding it so it was partially hidden.  He held it in his lap so those of us who were close could see.  “This?”

“That’s extreme,” I said.

“We need extreme,” Tristan said.

“Missy, Theo, please help me wrap my head around this.”

Vista shook her head.  Her eyeliner had smudged overnight, outlining her eyes inconsistently with a blur of black that extended to one cheekbone, her hair was messy.  “He’s like a dad to Weld, he’s important to Sveta.  I feel like Gimel needs him.”

“And he came for us,” Ashley said.

“I’m not saying no,” I said.  “But stabbing?”

“No,” Ashley said.  She reached down.  “Give?”

Rain passed the blade to her.

I glanced down.  Kenzie was setting out little rocks and bits of debris on Rain’s map.

I stuck my toe out at the nearest rock.

“Three guards,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t have enough bits.  Two.  Three.  The big prayer room is the best way to go.”

“Rain, you come,” Ashley said.  Her expression was a dark glower.  She looked over our group.  “Victoria.”

“Why us, specifically?” I asked.

“Because you two look the meanest next to me.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I know I haven’t washed my hair with actual conditioner or shampoo, but-”

“But nothing.  You had a shit day, you look drained, it works for our purposes.  We don’t have time,” she said.  “My instincts say this works.”

I looked at Rain, who nodded.  I gave him a hand in standing and a hand in walking.

“Let him limp,” Ashley said.  She sighed.  “We’re trying to look like assholes, so don’t be nice to him.  Connect the dots.”

“Mm,” I grunted, glancing at Rain again as Ashley started walking toward the plaza.

There was a family at the corner, nothing to do with the one guy who’d attacked us, who had a kid with him.  It made me think of New Wave, because they included parents and children, uncles and aunts, and scattered relations, all with family resemblance.  They favored green and black for their extra clothing, like they’d all been wearing those colors when arrested, and had doe brown hair that was as coarse-thick as any hair I’d seen on anyone white.

“These are the guys who run this hall,” Rain said.  “Theo and I heard about them when we were asking questions last night.  People had a hard time translating it.  They live in the systems.”

“Prison family.  Successive generations spent arrested.”

“Kind of.  But it’s more complicated.  It’s not just prison.  It’s other services.  Goddess elevated them to a certain status by making an office for those who were loyal and willing to do what she needed.  Like private military.  These guys and people like them signed right up.  They’ll accept anything if it gets them a cot and hot food without them having to work.  Military, Goddess’s task force, prison, some types of school…”

“Useful,” Ashley said.

“Kind of scary,” Rain observed.

“But useful.  Scary and useful often go hand in hand,” Ashley said.

People squared shoulders and raised chins as they stared us down.

“Any of you speak English?” Ashley asked.

“Goddess’s tongue,” I added.

A boy with long hair said something in a foreign tongue.  An adult offered a one-syllable response.

“I learned for school,” the boy said.

“We need a favor.  We’ll buy,” Ashley said.  “But we need it soon, no fuss.”

The boy translated.

Another one syllable response.

“Guards say you killed the Goddess in Blue.”

“She threw a building at us.”

The boy considered, translated, got a grunt of an answer, and then said, “Cost us.”

“If you want to drag out this conversation, we’ll go elsewhere.”

“If you want a favor, we’re the best.”

“Not Rafa?” Rain asked.

The boy wrinkled his nose.  His parent nudged him, and he translated, catching the parent up on the last few exchanges.

The man made a face, momentarily disgusted.

“They put their dicks in dogs,” the boy said.

“They what?” Rain asked.

“Idiom,” I guessed.  “I hope.”

“They make messes, fall over each other, drink.  The only thing you can trust them to do is put their dicks in dogs.  You don’t want them.”

“Then deal with us.  We need a distraction,” Ashley said.  “We’ll pay.”

She held out her hand, palm down, thumb tucked in.  The boy reached out, and Ashley laid her hand atop his.  The knife was there, hidden from view, and the boy felt it.

“That’s-”

“Sharp,” she said.  “There are more like it.  That’s your pay.  But you distract the guards, so we can do what we need to do.”

The boy translated, dropping his voice at the tail end.

The adult answered with the longest sentence yet.

“Dangerous.  Burns the hand we want to keep warm,” the boy translated back for us.

“What do you want?” she asked, more tense, almost hostile.  Time was running out if Armstrong was due to arrive and collect us.

The boy shrugged.  “This.”

“You want security,” I said.  “You want reliable.  Comfort.  Stability.”

“Yes.”

I nodded, trying to figure him out.  “What if you could come to Gimel?  There are plenty of homes, we’re doing our best to provide food, and most of that is free.  If you want stable… we could arrange that.  Say… five people from your family.”

“Ten.”

“Five… Ten if you abide by our rules,” I said, ninety percent sure they would.  “You don’t kill anyone when you distract.  You don’t kill anyone after.”

“Killing like this destroys you,” the boy said.

“Gets you executed,” Rain interpreted.

“If you hurt anyone it’s someone who deserves it,” I said.

“A man.  He gave Goddess names of people who were educating their children alone so they would not learn Goddess Tongue in schools.  Later he gave Coalition names of those who were loyal to Goddess.  Some of ours.  He’s a man of sick loyalty, always turning around.  The prisons love him so they go easy.”

“Maybe,” I said.

The boy translated the conversation so far for his parent and other family members.

The adult responded.

“We’ll take that knife for your distraction.  Put a blade through his tush so he won’t be able to hold his shit in.”

“Tush?” Rain asked.

“Rain,” Ashley said.  “It’s not important.”

“Wrong word?” the boy asked.

Rain nodded, while I pressed, “No harm they can’t heal.”

The father said something.

“We could harm three,” the boy said.  “Three to distract.  All deserving.  Sick loyalty, sick eyes, and a sick that lasts for generations.  Two men and a woman.”

Rain touched my shoulder.  I looked at him and he indicated the group.

They were agitated.

Armstrong was here.

“Don’t hurt them too much,” I said.

Rain added, “We can’t guarantee we’ll give the visas to any specific people.  This is for your family as a whole.”

“Yes, of course.  We’re happy here, but some of ours don’t have prison, hoping we don’t get punished so we can stay longer.  Some don’t have anything.  They’ll go.”

“They’ll be good?”

He nodded.

For a lot of lines, for a kid who wasn’t older than Kenzie, he wasn’t even asking his dad or translating.  He just seemed to accept it as the rule or fact of their whole dynamic.

“When we signal,” I said.  “You distract.  Do it near the showers.  Keep guards away from the, ah, prayer room?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.   “The eating room?”

The boy said a word.

“That, yeah,” Rain said.

“And don’t tell,” I stressed.  I figured it was a given, but not kidnapping and  assaulting diplomatic envoys seemed like a given too, and Shin was way the fuck behind the learning curve on that one.

“Keep your deal and we keep our throats closed.”

Ashley reached out again.  The boy reached to take the knife, discreetly putting it away.  He began explaining to his family.

We walked back to our group.

“We have a distraction?” Tristan asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “It’s all about projecting the right image and asking the right people.  They respect the powerful and naturally noble, and they respect fear.”

“Good enough,” Tristan said.  “Who’s handling this?  Staying hidden, doing something to signal our guy, get back without drawing alarm.”

“I’ll go,” Vista said.

“I’ll go too,” I said.

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.

“Sure enough.”

Kenzie was a kid, as useful as it would be, and we needed her to stay behind to tell the group what the guards could see and where they were.  Tristan needed to stay to keep an eye on the knives he’d made.  He prepped two more while we negotiated.  When push came to shove, they’d stay in a place nobody and no cameras were watching and swap out, turning the weapons we’d given over into water.  No evidence.

Theo would stay because he was too big and didn’t trust his stealth ability.    Sveta was captured.  Rain had a limp.

We wanted at least three, and Ashley did have some capabilities, she made a lot of noise, but if we were careful and kept her power use small, that would minimize the effect.

Three of us.

Kenzie bid me to bend down.  I did, keeling with some use of my flight for stability.

The wicked multi-pronged thing appeared in her hand.  She looked around to make sure the coast was clear, then extended it into my head.  I could feel it, a glimmer of sensation, a blorb sort of feeling in the fluids of my eye, a sting of a tickle in cavities at the back.

Then my vision distorted, like I was looking through an inch of water, and clarified.  I could see images and text.  Outlines visible through walls, highlighting guards, cameras, and power lines.  The field of view of each camera was plainly visible, and as I looked at a camera, I could see a crosshair focus on it.  Staring at it for what I guessed to be two seconds snapped my view so I was looking through it.

Text at my peripheral vision remained as clear as day despite the fact I wasn’t focusing on it.

Candy, telling me she was working with me on this.

Telling me she’d relay Kenzie’s messages that couldn’t be conveyed through the camera.

Rain and Theo joining us, Vista, Ashley and I retreated to the area where the private eating partitions were set up during mealtime.  For the time being, everything had been taken down and folded up.  Despite space being a premium, people didn’t move mattresses or things into the large empty room.

We didn’t enter either, but that was because our destination was another wall, putting us close to the hallway with the least guards.

A flash of blue marked my peripheral vision, and I looked.  I saw the distant silhouette.  Armstrong.  Another- Natalie.

Another figure, not the red of guards or the blue of our hostages, but a yellow-green, could be seen in their company.  After second, more silhouettes appeared.

Cryptid.  Silhouette one, the fastest one the system had recognized.

Crock o’Shit.  Silhouette two.  The lie detector from the prison raid.

Coalbelcher.  Silhouette three.  The heavyset man who’d been something of a crime boss on the men’s side of the prison.

It couldn’t be easy.  I couldn’t trust Chris to play nice.

No.

I nodded to the others.

Getting us our distraction.

The commotion drew hollers and alarms.  Guards broke into runs, diverging from their paths at the tops of the wall to hop down or use ladders to descend into the prison.  Some hurled canisters, producing gas.

We retreated back to our side, as the guards in our company thinned out.  There were still some stationed at exits, but we didn’t need an exit.

Rain looked to me, and I nodded, touching the wall.

He produced a silver blade, and he stabbed into the surface.  Not a line, but a hole from a thrust.  He backed off, then struck the wall with his elbow.  The silver flared, and the material of the hole broke, a thin crack.

Vista expanded it until it was large enough for us to enter.

We slipped through, into empty hallways.

-He’s changing-, the text in the corner of my vision told me.

I looked, and I saw Chris’s distant silhouette morphing.  He was here to be their enforcer.

He broke into a run, and so did we.

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Breaking – 14.10

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I jumped as the door opened.  I hated myself for doing it.

“You don’t need to flinch just from seeing me,” Amy’s voice was loud in ways that had nothing to do with volume, filling the otherwise silent room.

“I thought you said you read my feelings and you understood.”

My own voice sounded so loud, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I sounded angry, argumentative.

She didn’t respond, her eyes moving this way, that, before settling on her chair, which she dragged a noisy foot and turned a bit before seating herself.  Fixating on the chair seemed to let her not fixate on my statement.

My heartbeat was even louder than the chair, than her voice, mine- or it felt that way.  Every sound was a vibration in the air, and my heartbeat was a vibration in me.  By the metrics of what constituted loud, the thuds were loud enough to make thinking hard, to make breathing difficult.

There were no sounds in the hallway, no voices elsewhere, no hum of ventilation or creak of architecture.  Just stone walls.

My bandaged hand did its best to grip my good hand, because any alternative was to have my hands shake, and I didn’t want to show weakness.  Weakness was my second-to-last resort, and it was ranked as such because it was volatile.  Every time I’d been weak in front of her, she’d used her power on me.  If I counted when we’d been Goddess-compelled as a time of weakness, she’d tried.  And every time she’d had reasons but she’d still done it, and she’d done it without my okay.

Even the day she’d triggered, now that I thought about it.  Almost a year into me having my powers, a gang called the Chorus had attacked a mall in Brockton Bay.  I’d gotten hurt, Amy had triggered, and she’d healed me.  The gang didn’t endure our retaliation or Coil’s expansion of activities as he’d claimed more of downtown.  It had seemed like such a rare, clear-cut case of a trigger event providing an answer to the problem at hand, no fuss, no muss.

Fucking haFuck.

No, weakness was a resort only because I knew the only way to truly get through to her was to bludgeon her, to go all out.  I couldn’t smack her without consequences, shouting her down risked bringing people to us and threatening the trade deal, which seemed so far away now.  My tools for breaking through were like my harsh comments earlier, driven by loathing, cutting remarks, blunt observations, challenges.  Insults.

But they had to be timed.  Each time, there was a risk she’d find her footing, throw up walls, map out a route around the thought… and that tool wouldn’t cut as sharply or penetrate as deep the next time around.

And when I’d exhausted nearly every other option available to me, maybe, just maybe, I’d let her see more of how scared of her I was.  How hopeless I felt this situation was.

Leaving me my last resort.

“You’re right.”

I looked at her.  Train of thought interrupted.  I couldn’t help but resent her for it.  The latest in years of her butting into my head, whether she knew she was doing it or not.

“My thoughts were somewhere else.  What are you talking about?”

“About the emotions.  I read them, I should know why you’d flinch.  You’re right,” she said.

I didn’t fill the silence.  Dot crawled out of Amy’s hair, down her arm, and onto her hand.  Amy moved that hand into her lap, partially covering Dot with her other hand, two untattooed fingers behind Dot’s ear.

Scratch, scratch.

“Fair,” Amy added, almost like it was an afterthought.

“Do you think I’ve been unfair?” I asked.  I had to measure out each word because keeping my voice stable felt like walking a tightrope, with a scary sort of chaos lying below.

Amy didn’t immediately respond.

I wished there was a window.  I wished there were sounds elsewhere to focus on.

“I think there’s no right way to answer that question,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.  My hand clenched the other.  “Do you think you’ve been fair, here?”

“I’ve tried.”

“Keeping me prisoner, cornering me?”

“We’re not- let’s not be combative.  Please.  We were being civil.”

“Okay,” I said.  One more measured out tightrope walk of a word.

Amy sat up straighter, looked more at ease.

I felt the pressure of the room and her presence press in.

I spoke, more measured words, easier because they were more aggressive.  A tightrope was easier to walk if you moved more quickly, forward.  “I get the impression you think we’re making headway whenever I make a concession.  Just to be clear, I’m being calculating or hiding barbs in my words.”

“And you think that’s being civil?”

I had to think for a second before responding, because this was so fucking hard.  “Yes.  You get the choice of me being honest and upset or me being polite and… biting, I guess.  Biting and deceptive.  It really is your choice.”

“Vicky-” she said, like she was almost exasperated.

“You said you understood my feelings.  That means you understand these are the only options.”

She looked annoyed.  I knew why, too.

In a very subtle way, she’d cornered herself.  I meant that in every sense- not that she’d put herself in a corner against me.  She’d cornered herself against herself.  In saying she’d grasped my feelings and she understood them, in the fervor she’d had when she told me that, she’d found another thing to cling to.

She dodged, she evaded, she circled around.  Not in real fights -she was crap in a real fight-, but in a broader sense.  When confronted with something bad, she grasped, she reached.

She’d faced my real emotions, supposedly, and she’d reached and she’d settled on the idea she’d figured me out.  That she had a way forward.

She needed this little revelation.  Her way of dealing with those tangible emotions had been to turn it around, to say ‘that’s the answer’.

“If those are the choices, then be civil, polite.  Keep talking to me,” she said.  “With enough communication, we can get past anything.  We as in humanity, I mean.”

I could hear our mother in that ‘communication’ line.

Fuck me, I wished there was actual ventilation in this room.  The thought crossed my mind that my ex-sister could create airborne pathogens, complex ones, and that thought didn’t leave once it found its mental real estate.

No window, closed door, nothing to look at-

My eye fell on Amy’s little minion.

“What about you, Dot?” I asked.

Amy’s little pet twisted around, flipping over to get her feet under her.  Crouching on Amy’s leg with both hands and feet, like a frog poised to leap, she stared across the room at me.

“Huh?” her voice was quiet but high pitched.

“What do you think about all of this?  How do you feel about it?”

“About my Queen?”

“Or this world, or me.  Or how we’re all standing on cracked ice.”

“Cracked ice makes sense.  I’ve seen too many family die.”

“Your family?” I asked.

“Yes.  Starvation, hunted by people like you.  Killed by machines.  Killed by pollution.  Age.  It all feels fragile.  Every death feels sudden and unfair, like ice.”

“I don’t disagree with you there,” I said.

“Dot lived on Bet until a little over a month ago,” Amy said.

“You?” Dot asked.  She pointed at me, extending a tiny, doll-size hand.  “I’m angry.”

“Angry?  Okay.  Why?”

“Because I want us to be done.  I want my Queen to build kingdom, gather power and earn trust of this world.  Then she can make journeys.  Go through your world.  Into mine.  She can save more of my people.”

“I’m a distraction?”

The little tail swished.  “Yes.”

“Is it okay if you come closer?  It’s hard for me to see you.”

Dot craned around to look at Amy.

I saw the hesitation on Amy’s face.  Worry.  Thinking I’d take Dot as a hostage?  I had the impression Dot wasn’t something Shin knew about as a whole, and taking her hostage would leave Amy without much recourse.

“I trust her,” Amy said.

Dot bounced down the length of Amy’s leg, across the floor, and up the frame of the bed, before perching on the foot of the bed, on the little raised bar of metal that kept the mattress in bounds.

Red hair had been combed all to one side of her head, her bat-like ears long enough they poked out of her hair and away from her head, each tipped with tufts of wispy red hair, both ears aimed my way.  She had fur like a golden lab, but puppy-fuzz short, freckled with red spots that were so round they seemed artificial.  She had a mouth with a shape and pronounced teeth that made me think of a tiny bear trap when the lips were pulled away, while being as expressive and wide as a cartoon character’s when closed.

She wore a pinafore-style dress, like overalls at the body but a dress at the bottom, and the dress portion was constituted of five or six layers and colors of wavy, ruffled cloth, to the extent it looked like a flower in bloom with two skinny legs and a thin tail sticking out from the folds.  The dress itself was black, but the ruffles and the decoration on the straps ranged from white to yellow, pink, and red.  Spiral-striped socks and elbow-length gloves had a similar color scheme.  A long, prehensile tail had a tuft of the red hair at the end, like a paintbrush, and a long ribbon where the tuft started.  She seemed to like to swish it around and let the ribbon trail in the air.

“I like the outfit,” I said.  I wasn’t lying either.  There were very few people who could pull it off, but she wasn’t people, and she could pull it off.

“Thank you,” Dot said.  Clawed hands and feet gripped the bar she perched on, her tail swishing more energetically.  “My Queen made it.”

Made it made it?

Uncomfortable.

“You said she wanted to earn Shin’s trust, so she’d have more freedom.”

“Yes.”

“I think, uh, if she wants to do that, she needs to win my trust, and the trust of people I work with.”

“Then trust her.  She knows everything, she’s strong, she’s almost as beautiful as my fallen King.”

“Thanks,” Amy said.  “That’s, uh, a ringing endorsement, comparing me to Nilbog.”

Nilbog.  Ah.

That was a heavy topic and the reality was that I didn’t know enough about him.  I’d known about the Old Man, Case Twelve, but in a way I knew only about as much about Nilbog.  They hadn’t broadcasted information about him.

“If everything broken,” Dot said, dark eyes gleaming as she widened them, leaning forward on her perch until I thought she’d fall to the mattress, “Let people fix it.”

“Amy?  Your Red Queen?”

Fuck, it made my skin crawl to give her a title.  Like it gave her more power, when the broken Amy that had twisted me up and spat me out had been so broken and low.

Yes.  She has so much power.  Could do anything she want if she use it, but she won’t.  She still trying to be something she isn’t, gentle and human.  She needs to be Queen instead.”

“It’s not that easy,” Amy said.

“You can claim a Kingdom.  You have power,” Dot told her.  “You’re halfway there.”

“We’ve had this discussion a lot,” Amy told me.

That doesn’t reassure me, I thought.  A little voice in Amy’s ear, saying queen, kingdom, queen, kingdom.  For weeks now?

I didn’t want to be here.  I was pressed so hard against the corner of the room that my back would hurt tomorrow.  My arms wrapped around my legs, and that was tight enough I’d feel it tomorrow.

And it was so fucking quiet, a room like a sensory deprivation chamber, which magnified the things in the space.  Me and my emotions, her.

Dot was safer.

“Dot,” I said, getting the little one’s attention.  “Were you there when she worked on Hunter?”

“Yes.  I remember Hunter.  I like the name.  It sounds like blood and biting, but the Hunter I met bites the air.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But it went wrong, didn’t it?”

“My Queen says so.  But Hunter was gloomy and bleh before.  She’s exciting now.  She laughed more after.”

Maybe Dot was a key, or a way I could distill a message clear enough for Amy to get, without running into walls.

“But she’s your queen.  She’s not happy with it, is she?”

“No,” Dot said, almost absently.  She crawled along the bar at the foot of the bed, slinking along, crawling under and squeezing through the narrow gap between bar and mattress, looping over, then squeezing through again, in a spiraling path from one corner of the bed to the other.  Each time she got far enough through the gap, the dress she wore went from being compressed to poofing out dramatically.  “She’s unhappy, so it no good, probably.”

“I’m not happy with it either.  You’re the Red Queen’s subject, aren’t you?”

“What are you doing, Vicky?” Amy asked.

“Aren’t you?” I asked Dot, ignoring Amy.

“Yes.”

“You’re hers to look after?”

“Yes,” Dot said.  She reached the corner of the bed, gripped the bar with clawed hands, and walked up the wall until she was doing a handstand.  Moving hand over hand, she began to move down the bar, legs extended above her.  The poofy layered nature of her dress meant it didn’t flop down.

“Hunter was someone I tried to look after.  Someone asked me to help her, and I made sure she got that help.”

“Your subject,” Dot said.

“Not quite but close.  And the Red Queen used my name without my permission to get close to Hunter.  And then she broke her.”

Dot went from handstand to sitting with one leg on either side of the bar in a single, sudden motion that made the bar sing, and would have had me seeing stars in her position.

The goblin looked at me, then at Amy, and then at me again.

“I can handle it,” Amy said.

“She can handle it,” Dot echoed.

“But she betrayed trust,” I said.  “Is that how a Queen is supposed to act?”

“Are you trying to turn her against me?” Amy asked.

“I’m asking,” I said.  This was easier when I could focus on Dot, without Amy chiming in.

“It’s not so bad,” Dot said.

“But… can I try an analogy?” I asked.  I could do this if I could treat it like picking apart a puzzle.  Treat it like I was figuring Ashley out and finding a common ground, with her natural imperiousness and skewed perspective.  Treat it like I was trying to figure Kenzie out, before I’d figured out the smile or the family situation.  “Hunter was my charge, someone I helped, and Amy took her and broke her.  What if I took you and broke you?  How would Amy feel?”

“Broke me how?  Made me interesting?”  Dot was very still.

“I’m not going to hurt you.  But in this story we’re telling… how would she feel if I killed you?”

“Pissed,” Amy answered for Dot.  “Not many people have my back or keep me company.  I’d mourn her.  Seriously, do not hurt her.”

“How would she feel, Dot, if I fucking told you I knew the Red Queen and you could trust me, and then I killed you?  Or I… broke you in other ways, made you uninteresting?”

“Took my colors?”

“Took your colors, took your…”

I didn’t want to budge from where I was, but I lifted a foot.  My boot had been removed and I just had the athletic sock on.  I extended my leg across the bed and tapped Dot in the chest.

“My heart,” Dot said.

“Your you.”

Dot’s ears weren’t as high as they had been at the start of the exchange, and stuck out to the sides more than they stuck up, now.  A clawed hand gripped my big toe.

“I’ll fix her,” Amy said.

“I trust her,” Dot spoke up.  “She’ll protect me from anything like that.  She’ll fix what’s broken.”

“You trust her but nobody else does, and if nobody else does, she can’t help your… family, was it?”

“Family, yes.”

“Most importantly, Dot,” I said, withdrawing the foot I’d extended Dot’s way, hugging my legs tighter.  “She can’t do what she does if she doesn’t trust herself.  That’s when she makes mistakes, she loses trust in herself, and she makes more mistakes, and so on.  It’s what happened when she broke me.  When she doesn’t trust herself she stops fixing things and starts breaking things more.

“Vicky,” Amy said.

“Do you deny it?”  Again, in the quiet room, I sounded angrier than I’d intended.

It made me afraid to move, because my movements might be the same.  I could see myself using my power without wanting to, and I considered my control over my power to be one of the few things I was confident in.

“It’s things other than trust or trust in myself,” Amy said.  “Pushing in, twisting things around.”

“She said what she did to you,” Dot said, interrupting.  She wasn’t moving as much as she had been.  “You sounded beautiful and noble.”

That being said to me, somehow, seemed to slap Amy across the face more than my calling her a cunt, earlier.

It kind of slapped me across the face too, for that matter.

“You’re not helping, Dot,” Amy said.

“Not trying to help.  Am saying,” Dot said.  “I think you thought it beautiful and noble too or you wouldn’t have done it.”

“It was a mistake,” Amy said.

“I’m sorry you look boring and ugly now,” Dot told me, her ears turning my way a fraction of a second before her head did.  “Nothing interesting about you.  You not so beautiful as she is.”

“But she did it without asking.  I wasn’t her subject.  Hunter wasn’t her subject.  She made mistakes with… how many others?”

“Three or four,” Amy said.

“Ten, twelve,” Dot said.  “I wasn’t there for all.  I saw some and decided to stay and watch.  I hope every time for more beautiful-interesting things.”

Not ten or twelve,” Amy said.  Her voice was tight.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Coloring outside the lines,” I said.

“Yes!” Dot said, her eyes widening.  “I love those words.  I love color.”

“Do you remember what she did?” I asked.  Dot was… she was like a miniature force of nature in this confined space we occupied.  The more exuberant she got, the worse it was for both Amy and I.

But it was putting pressure on Amy, uncovering more truths.  Her buttons were obvious, apparent, and easy to push.

“Girl with a bad back, twisted up.  The day after Hunter,” Dot said.  “Back straightened until it broke.  Snap, crack, couldn’t walk.  She screamed.”

“That was one,” Amy said.  “I fixed it.”

“The old man.  Aged backward,” Dot said.

“Just stop, okay?” Amy cut in.  “This isn’t helping anything.”

“Was it interesting?” I asked.

Dot’s head turned my way, eyes wide.  She looked interested at the sheer mention of the word interesting, ears up.  Then the ears dropped to the sides and she shook her head.  “Not really.”

Dot,” Amy said.

“Why not really?” I pressed.

“Because it was ordinary.  He old and kind of interesting looking, then he young and not so interesting looking.  But he shouts and swears and says not his face, not his face.”

“He wanted to be young again,” Amy said.  “He was offering a lot, politically and for what we could give to Gimel.  We struck a private deal.  I de-aged him, made him thirty again, but he didn’t recognize his face in the mirror as the one he used to have.  He was upset and didn’t follow through on his end of the deal.  Said I made him ugly.”

“Very plain,” Dot added.

“Was that your mistake or his?” I asked.  I waited about one second, as Amy paused, trying to find the words, and butted into her thoughts with, “Don’t lie.”

“My mistake.  I don’t see it as a ‘coloring outside the lines’ thing.  It was a question of how much I pursue the art and how much I pursue the science, and I fell too far on the side of art.”

“You were working with Bonesaw for a bit.  Dad said she was big on the ‘art’.  When she showed up at the house, she talked a lot.”

“Don’t.  Don’t compare me to her.”

“I guess you got some practice in art before making Dot’s dress.  It really is pretty.”

“Yes!” Dot said.

Stop!” Amy raised her voice.

My heart pounded at the volume of the word, at the situation.  Every instinct was kicking in, to the extent I could have lashed out if I wasn’t already huddled up into a tight space.

I didn’t take my eyes off of Amy as I asked, “Dot, what were the interesting results from her power?”

“This is being confrontational again, Vicky.”

“The ear one,” Dot said.

Amy visibly winced.

“Fixing an ear, a wiggly hole going through head.  Canal.  She colored outside the lines, little ripply-rigid flesh around the ear and more holes twisting through.  There was blood bubbling out.”

“Getting into that art, huh?” I asked.

“You were being civil before,” Amy said.

Dot went on, “It was beautiful.  Wasn’t until I said something that she stopped, half the head was holes reaching through, ripples and ridges around.”

“I zoned out.  I hadn’t slept, I was tired,” Amy said.

“She called the Snark for help.  Asked him to fix the ears.  He wouldn’t.  But he sat with and talked her through.  He sat with for the next few too.”

“Marquis?” I asked.

“Chris,” Amy answered.

“Oh, Snark, of course.”

“That was fun.  That was a good day,” Dot said.

“Were there others?” I asked Dot.

Stop,” Amy raised her voice getting to her feet.  I flinched involuntarily at the movement, my head turning partially away.  She spoke again, quieter, “Just stop.  Please.”

Where I’d shrunk back a bit, Dot scampered to the corner of the bed and leaped for Amy’s hand, grabbing onto the sleeve before scampering up to Amy’s shoulder.

“Our fifteen minutes are probably nearly up,” I said.

“What?” Amy asked, momentarily flabbergasted, on top of her general upset.  “You were counting?”

“I did say I’d be underhanded,” I told her.  “There’s no way I’m going to spend more time in your company than I’m obligated to.”

“What the fuck, Vicky?” she asked, stepping closer.

She stopped when I pulled back.

She turned away, and I could relax a fraction, no longer drawn so far into the corner that I was forced to hold my breath.

“I had a long list of things I wanted to bring up,” Amy said.  “I haven’t been idle.  I’ve been trying to help Gimel.  I’ve been trying to heal people who nobody else could help, or use my healing to do more good.  I’ve figured some things out and gathered resources.  Capes, even.”

“Assuming I can trust you, which we really haven’t established.”

“You can trust me, Vicky.”

“Can I?  Based on what?”

“Based on the fact that I’ve had good intentions every step of the way.  I’ve always been on your side.”

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“Fuck off, Vicky,” she said.  “Fuck.  I have enough good info and resources that you and I could sit down for an hour and you wouldn’t want to imprison me or anything.  You’d want to keep talking.  If you’d give me a chance.”

“I think my stomach would be all ulcers and I’d be incapable of sleeping after.  Or did you forget that you got a taste of what I feel right now?  Or is that something you only conveniently bring up?”

“I fucking remember, Vicky,” she said, angry now.  She paced, not facing me at any point, but still testing my tolerances, setting that panicky feeling into motion.  Like being in a cage with a tiger.  “It gets easier each time.”

“It gets harder.”

“No.  I can show you that this is doable, you can set the terms of the conversation-”

“Drugged, locked in a room I didn’t ask to come to, cornered?”

“No,” she said, still angry.  Angrier.

“Then I’m free to go?  If I open that door-”

“It’s a prison, Vicky.”

“But you have the power to let us go, you said that earlier.”

“Stop!” she shouted, wheeling on me.

She wasn’t at the far end of the room now.  She was in the center.  I was on the bed in the corner, all tension.

But that was the crack.

Cracks, though, were unpredictable.  They traced across weak points and forked and terminated early.  It was hard to predict the route they’d take.

So I waited, tense, not breathing.

“Teacher’s exploiting the system,” she said, her voice almost emotionless.  “He’s going to pick a fight sooner or later, and it’s going to be devastating.  He manufactured a crack, he’s going to intentionally create more.  Each one gives him more access to the system and more control over the levers and knobs that decide everything else.  He can force-create a Dauntless and the ones he makes will listen to him.”

I was silent.

“Teacher was one of the only other people in the Birdcage who kind of ‘got it’, who engaged with me when I talked about that stuff.”

She paused.

“I shouldn’t have said as much as I did to Teacher,” Amy said.

“You gave him ideas?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  He has no interest in ruling the world, and I think he’d view it as a distraction or detriment.”

“Detriment?”

“Because powers don’t like stable.  As you well know, look at me.”

The attempt at self depreciating humor fell flat, came across as mournful, self-pitying.

“I make mistakes, and my power makes it easy to make mistakes.  All it takes is an impulse, or a drifting thought.”

“When you’re tired, when you’re upset.  When-”

I couldn’t bring myself to say it.  When you’re lonely.

“I’m always tired, I’m always upset.  I’m always everything.  The first time I felt like I was able to actually take a deep breath was when I went to the Birdcage.  Away.”

I remained silent.  Letting her talk.

“Stability is tricky and hard to maintain.  It takes effort.  Teacher could control everything but he’d be fighting against everyone else and even against himself and his power,” Amy said.  “What he wants is bigger than that.  And he’s getting there.  Even with the tools he has, he’s too dangerous to fight.  Because I can touch someone with powers and look at those powers… I was doing that with Hunter, trying to figure out how to rebuild her personality…”

She stopped there, almost like her train of thought was gone, or she’d lost herself in memories.

I waited.

“I look at that broken, fragile landscape and I see Teacher’s hand in too many places.  With too many connections, too many networks, and a massive hole in another world that he’s elaborating on.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Does that count for anything?  I could provide more details, but… does it matter?”

“What do you mean ‘count’?” I asked.  “Is someone keeping score?”

“I’ve healed so many people, I’ve done so much, devoted months of my life to fixing things.  I threw myself into things around Gold Morning.  I played a big role, for better or for worse.  I’ve always been on your side.  And none of it matters.”

“It matters,” I said.  “But it’s not like there’s a big scorecard where you reach fifty thousand points and you win the forgiveness of one unconscionable act.  You don’t reach a certain point total and win the girl of your dreams automatically.  It matters, but it’s fifty thousand things that matter on an individual basis.”

“I’m not saying I want to win you, Vicky.  I’m just saying…”

“You want it to count.  To count enough.

She shook her head.  “You’re not getting it.”

“If you heal thousands of people and you mutilate twelve or so, you’re a healer who mutilates people.  You don’t give me an hour’s worth of abstract interpretations of the big picture and buy fifteen minutes of me being happy to spend more time with you.”

“That’s not what I’m asking for.”

“Bonesaw and Swansong will always be ex-Slaughterhouse Nine.  Precipice will always be ex-Fallen.  Chris will… I don’t even know what he’s trying to be or not be.”

“He wants to escape his humanity.  Leave weaknesses behind.  He likes you and that makes him dangerous because he wants to kill what he likes.”

I nodded.

Good to know.

“I sent him away,” Amy told me.  “Made him leave so he wouldn’t retaliate.”

“I don’t think he can escape his humanity like he wants, and even if he does find some magic potion that transforms him permanently into something entirely inhuman, if he enlists your help-”

“I won’t help him do that.”

“He will always have been human.  And me?  I will always be the girl who was turned into a monster by my sister.  To others in the know and to myself.”

“No,” Amy said.  She shook her head.  “I- Only if you hold onto it.  I offered to let you forget it all.”

“Doesn’t work that way.  If you don’t remember it then you’re more beholden to it.”

“What?” Amy asked.  “Vicky, you’re a smart person.  You got good grades, but that might be the dumbest thing I’ve heard you say, and I remember being kids and you telling me that birds can’t go into space because they need gravity to swallow and therefore they can’t swallow while they’re up there.”

“On space shuttles, you dumbass.  And you need to remember and dwell in the ugly shit because if you don’t, you just end up right back in it.  How do you change if you don’t tackle it head-on?”

“By getting through it and then putting it firmly behind you.”

“Except you tried that, apparently, and then you went and you destroyed Hunter.”

“I didn’t destroy her, I made a mistake.  I think I can fix it.  Fuck.  I should have known better than to expect you to be fair, Vicky.”

The more agitated she got, the more my body ratcheted up the physical signs of tension.  I tried to remain still, told myself flight was an option.  I had a headache from where my neck and jaw were tense, and with that painful buzz in the back of my head, I tried to visualize it as a tactile reminder of the people behind me.  Of refugees who needed that food.

Stupid, like a dumb mnemonic, but it helped me to process.

Every time I’d spoken, I was left feeling like I was risking pushing too far, or not pushing far enough.  If I didn’t push enough, she lost momentum.  If I pushed too far, she threw up walls.

And I didn’t really know her enough to know where those boundaries were now.

Here, I had zero idea.  For the first time, I couldn’t even recognize enough of her to say.

“You know what the shitty thing is, Vicky?  I told myself I wouldn’t say this.  I was doing okay.  At the Birdcage, after, figuring myself out, finding a balance, coming to terms with how much I hated myself… I’m rambling.”

The fingernails of my good hand dug into my leg.  The fingernails of my injured hand touched my leg, two of them wobbly, barely attached.  A reminder.

“I earned my stripes saving the world, I got offered work and money helping manage things behind the scenes, watching Bonesaw.  I healed heroes now and then.  I managed, I was doing okay.  I repaired bridges with Carol, and I had an actual mom for the first time ever.  Mark was cool, all considered.  I was fine.”

“I didn’t do anything to stop that.”

“You- you kind of did.  You appeared at the edges and fringes.  You re-entered my life and it all went to pieces.  Again and again.”

“All my fault.”

“No.  But you didn’t make it easier, for yourself or for me.”

“By existing?  By having a life?  Normally, Amy, when someone does what you do, it’d be you who abides by a restraining order, who stays a certain distance away, or who gets locked up in a cell.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” she told me.  “It would have been best if one of us hadn’t made it through Gold Morning, that’s all.”

I maintained eye contact with her for long seconds, staring her down.  She was the one to look away first.

“I don’t resent you, I’m on your side,” she said, looking at the door.  “If you need anything, just ask.  I’ll be here.”

“I thought you said that if I had an honest conversation with you, that you’d do what I asked.”

She shook her head.

“Do what I ask,” I told her.  “I endured this room, this exercise of yours.  I played nice.  I measured out my fucking words, I told you, straight up, what I needed and wanted, instead of being really underhanded and throwing you through a portal to another world and throwing away the key, no warning, no appeals.  I told you that I think you need help.  That you need to talk to the Wardens and talk to a therapist.”

“I tried.”

“I doubt you really tried,” I said, anger putting bite into my words.  “Right now, you’re spiraling.  You don’t stop until someone makes you stop.  You hurt Hunter-”

“You never even met her!”

“She still fucking counts.  Those twelve people that Dot mentioned-”

“Who I fixed!”

“They count.  You’re going to keep hurting people until someone makes you stop.  That’s either with the help of a professional, more imprisonment-”

“Exile.”

“-or a bullet to your head.”

The look she gave me was as wounded as if I had actually shot her.

She walked to the door, opened it, and stood there, door partially open, hand on the handle, talking while her back was to me.

“While you were unconscious I was talking to people, catching up on the deals Citrine struck,” Amy said.  “You’re getting out soon.  Supplies should be okay, I don’t know about the escalated supply I was pushing for, because they don’t trust me.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“They say the doctor drugging you was a miscommunication, but you and I know that isn’t true.  It was about power.  They said the prison guard attack wasn’t planned and Marquis, Chris and I believe them.  Parahumans don’t count and can’t count in their perspective.  Kind of like how I’m not supposed to exist or count in your reality.”

Citrine had been saying something like that when I left the room with the others.  Well, without the self-pitying bullshit.

“They wanted to make you squirm, but once they heard about you being hurt, they were pretty satisfied with the fact you bled for them and kept your cool.  I guess when you do things they count for something.”

She hauled the door the rest of the way open, and stepped out into the hallway, looking this way and that.

“Dot-” I started.

The critter leaped to the doorframe.  I supposed there were no guards outside.  I’d prepared to say something shorter, more perfunctory, but I found myself mentally stumbling.  My realization I could say something more profound tripped over the dizzying relief that Amy was finally fucking off, that the pressure of the room had been relieved, and the adrenaline of being so close to an angry, unhinged Amy.

“Look after her.  Keep her on track.  If she makes what she and I call mistakes, it hurts everyone’s trust in her, and she can’t help your family.  It needs to start with helping Hunter.  Nobody’s going to let that go.”

Dot’s ears moved up, down, up, and her tail swished, before she leaped away.

Yeah.

My feet were numb from now hard I’d clenched my legs to my chest, my arm hurt, my hand throbbed, while my head pounded.

My boots were on the floor, and I pulled them on.  I eased my way to the ground, looked over the cot and surrounding area, and then stepped out into the hallway.

Was this a win?  A loss?  Had I changed anything?

The guards were posted at the end of the hall.  They waited as I walked on a foot that was still partially asleep, sore and spooked.

They reached for my arm and I flinched.  They took it anyway, then guided me, strongarming me down one hallway, then the next.

Through the maze, deeper into the complex, I was sure, yet it felt like I was on my way out.  Away from the bullheaded monster.  Into light and a place I could breathe again.

My hand was shaking and I couldn’t make it stop.  I was glad for the bandage on the other.

We passed into the showers, which smelled like showers in any gym, physio center, or PRT Wards building I’d been in, except for maybe the scent of a different flavor of soap.

They locked the door behind them, leaving me to find my way myself, my arm feeling bruised where I’d been manhandled.

I found my team in the same hallway they’d been in before.

“She’s back,” Rain said, for the benefit of others without the angle or line of sight to see.

“Sveta?” Kenzie asked.

“Victoria,” Rain said, while everyone got to their feet.

“Hey,” Vista said.  She hurried to my side, hands steadying me.  “You’re as white as a sheet.  The surgery-”

I shook my head.  I counted heads.  Tristan, Rain, Kenzie, Ashley, Vista.  “Where are Sveta and Theo?”

“She got dragged off when you passed out,” Tristan said.  “Marquis said they gave you a drug that knocked you out-”

“Against my will and express permission,” I said, my voice tight.

“That would explain why Sveta flipped.  We were wondering if it was her new body having a weird stress response or if something else happened.  She fought guards to try to get to you,” Tristan said.  “She almost used her power.  We told her to calm down, that we couldn’t afford to risk everything.  She listened.”

“Where is she?” I asked.  “I need her.”

Tristan’s voice was calm, resassuring, “In a special cell.  We’ve been visiting but they only let one person visit and only for a short while.  Theo’s with her now.  The idea is they’re supposed to sit in those cells, then they get dragged off during the next round of punishments, but that punishment doesn’t count against their sentence.”

“What?” I asked, alarmed.

“It’s okay,” Vista said.  “Citrine’s getting us out.  We leave before any punishments happen.”

“We don’t leave without her.”

“I know.  We know,” Tristan said.

My emotions felt so messy.  As bound-up and constrained as they’d been in the room they felt like a tangled mess of wires inside of me now, impossible to untangle, choking.

“Why do you need her?” Tristan asked.  “What happened?”

In my mind, I’d thought of my friend because I could trust her, but I did trust the team, if only a slight fraction less.

“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.

Our time with Goddess had hammered in that particular lesson.  Everyone got it.

“What happened?” Ashley asked.

“Amy,” Vista guessed.  I flinched, looking away.

“Fuck,” Tristan said, with some emphasis and at least two syllables.  “Marquis said she left, he’s never been anything but straight with us, we were focused on Sveta because she was in more immediate danger and you were just getting surgery, we looked in once or twice-”

I shook my head.

“What did she do?” Vista asked.

“I don’t know.  But she did use her power on me.  Tell me how long I was gone?”

“Not that long.  When we last checked in, you were still getting stitched up forty minutes ago.  She wasn’t there then.”

My thoughts were a messy, tangled-wire storm of calculations, dropping one number as I tried to pick up another and arrange events into some kind of sequence.

So hard to gauge time.

I wouldn’t have been out for long.  Accounting for the time before our ‘fifteen minutes’ of conversation, the break when she’d left the room, the time to come back…

I couldn’t imagine she’d had time to do anything big.  There was only a gap, a big question mark on my brain and my body.

“I want to see Sveta, make sure she’s okay.”

“Can’t.  Not until ten minutes after Theo gets back,” Vista said.

“We won’t even be here that long,” Tristan said.  “Then we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing.”

“Doing?” I asked.

“About the raid on Teacher.”

The word was an alarm bell in my head.  I shot him an alarmed look.  He’d said it outright, in a place Teacher could overhear.

“Don’t,” Ashley said, but she didn’t say it like it was a condemnation or a warning.  “Victoria doesn’t need that right now.”

“I really need it.  Information, distractions,” I said.  When I swallowed I found my throat dry.  “Please.”

Tristan answered, “The attack was mounted, while our thinkers thought he was distracted.  Citrine said they’re gathering troops and allies for a second phase assault, because not enough of the first group are reporting back.  We’d be going as late arrivals, stragglers.”

Against an enemy Amy had called unbeatable.

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Breaking – 14.9

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There were no convenient little boxes with red crosses to mark first aid kits or similar signs to show us the way to the medical center, which left us in a weird kind of lurch.  We passed through the showers and into the building proper.  People talked to us in foreign tongue, and for the most part, there was a dissonant lack of concern in our welfare.  They looked at my mangled, partially flayed hand and didn’t show a shred of empathy, faint ‘human’ reaction to gore aside.

We’d collected towels and hand-towels from the shower area, and they hadn’t stopped us.  The towels weren’t so different from what we used on Gimel, but seemed to have divides where one end of the towel was used to effectively get the initial bit of moisture off, and the remainder absorbed or warmed.

Kenzie walked a little too confidently with a streak of blood on her face.  Ashley had her tilt her head back so her nose pointed skyward.

“Don’t,” I said.

“What?” Kenzie asked.

“Was talking to Ashley.  But you too.  Don’t tilt your head back.”

“It’s what they do in the movies.”

“It’s debatable whether it works, but if there is a benefit, it’s not as good as blood draining down the back of her throat is bad.  Too much blood in the stomach makes you puke.”

“Head down,” Kenzie said, holding her nose.  “Thank you.”

They watched us, guards and the staff in the hallways we were in let us enter, but they didn’t guide.  At most, with numbers, they herded and left us to guess. Making life as hard as they could.

I wasn’t going to bleed to death, but in the wrong circumstances, I did have to worry about infection or the long-term damage that happened if I didn’t immediately reattach skin.  If that was possible.

At least our navigation of this labyrinth had its own trail of breadcrumbs, a ball of thread.  It was Amy’s world, reflecting Amy in more ways than one, and so it was entirely natural that the path we walked through the facility was dotted with crimson droplets and dribblings.  Tristan had a clean towel wrapped around one arm, but there was blood leaking out near the elbow.  Rain nudged him to ensure he held it up, and helped secure the towels tightly around the arm, holding the wound closed.

“How are you holding up?” I asked Theo.  The hand-towel he had pressed to his stomach had a crimson-brown stain leeching into it, and more blood leeched into his top, a dark line amid a lighter blotting.  That shirt was going to be hell to pull away from the wound, once the blood clotted and connected skin to material.

The towel around my hand was too, for that matter.

“I should ask you,” he said.

“Tough,” I said.  “I asked first.”

“Surface level, I’m pretty sure.  It’s one more scar added to a hundred.”

“A hundred, huh?” I asked, trying to sound casual, because I felt anything but.  Every corridor was interlocking brick in different arrangements, combined with stone to contrast the brick’s red clay hues with dark gray.  I was starting to think making this place hard to navigate to trip up anyone trying to escape.

“Is there medical?” Sveta asked.  She wasn’t joining the conversation; she was asking a guard.  She got no answer.

“Courtesy of Jack and Hookwolf,” Theo said.  “I got good treatment, but when they asked, I decided I’d rather have something left behind than have brand spanking new skin.  It only really shows when I tan, but if I say it’s only a surface wound and someone asks me if I’m sure, I have plenty of evidence saying I know what it’s like to be cut up.”

“Ah,” I said, words failing me as pain surged, like my brain psychologically heard words like ‘cut up’ and ‘scar’ and fired more neurons and sparked up more nerves to tell me how fucked up my hand was.  “Cricket did something similar, I think.”

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Right.  I actually kind of forgot about that.”

“Nice, Victoria,” Vista said.

Oh.  Right.  He’d probably known Cricket. It might have sounded like I was drawing connections or… didn’t matter.  Touchy ground.

“Sorry,” I told Theo.

“Nah.  You’re not wrong.”

“I don’t think of you as part of that crowd, so it’s hard to connect the thoughts, especially while we’re wandering around and not seeing any frigging medical center.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Hi,” Sveta tried, addressing a guard.  “Medical?”

He pointed.

Okay.

“I did it too,” Vista said.  “Collected my scars.”

“Past tense?” Tristan asked.

“I got a new one from March, but I’m not working so hard to collect them.  If someone could magically erase them I might take them up on the offer, but it’s hard to find someone to trust.”

“Now who’s being rude?” Theo asked.  He elbowed Vista.

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “I meant it to sound more sympathetic.  Sorry.”

“Nah,” I said.  “You’re fine.”

Frick.  Fuck.  Motherfuck.

I worried about Theo.  I worried about Tristan.  Both had been slashed.

“I could make a cast,” Tristan said.  “Draw something out in red-orange dots and lines and encase your hand.  Keep it covered.”

“I’m not sure that’d help,” I said.  My voice was a bit raw from having puked, a bit of a burr, like that minute amount of acid had scarred my throat, when it hadn’t.  Only a bit of irritation.  “I’m more worried about you.”

“I’m a bit worried about me.  But I’m tough.  Let’s just get some medical attention.”

Medical attention made me instinctively think of Amy.

Would we turn a corner, and find ourselves face to face with another gang of hostile prisoners?

Would I turn a corner and find myself face to face with the bullheaded denizen of this labyrinth, that kept turning up?  Kept looming above me?

“Medical center?” Sveta asked some guards in red uniforms, all armed with cloth-wrapped guns.  She twisted around, asking people behind us.  “Medical?  Doctor?  Anything?”

The answer was foreign, cryptic.

The pain was blinding, a haze of red and darkness at the edge of my vision, narrowing my focus.  Even though the temperature was a degree or two below comfortable, I was sweating, which created a clammy layer between clothing and skin.  It made me very conscious of my body, and how uncomfortable skin was to wear.

It was many times more uncomfortable to have the skin missing, to have the back of your hand and most of two fingers ripped off, cleanly sliced off at first, then the last fingernail-studded inch torn.

Thinking about it made me sweat more.  I still had a dirty stretch of skin in my free hand.

“Medical?” Sveta asked.

“Back that way,” a guard said, indicating the way we’d come from.  “Your guest is in this room.  She won’t be allowed to stay for long.”

Fuck.  I’d wanted to talk more, to touch base.  What was this?

Fuck.

My head swam with the pain, memories of Amy with gore up to her elbows, my gore, me, and with implications and ideas.

I turned to go.

“Where are you going?” Sveta asked.  “Victoria.”

“This is probably a faster way,” I said, as I pushed the door open.

The room lacked furniture, though it had pillars in the corner with plants hanging from the tops.  Citrine stood next to her husband.  A burly guard stood in the center.  As we entered, one of the guards in our company slipped through and went to stand by the burly guard.

Blocking our direct view of Citrine.  They stood with their backs to one another.

Positioning mattered, even in a visitors area.

“I’m surprised you came,” Tristan said.  “Considering what happened to the last people who did.”

“We’re fine, but you clearly aren’t.  You were attacked?  Or punished?”

“Attacked,” Tristan said.

“Are they refusing medical care?” Citrine asked.

“No, but they aren’t exactly being clear or open about how to get it.”

Citrine looked at the guard that stood between our groups.  She said something in a foreign language, one word, it didn’t sound quite right based on what I’d already heard, but it wasn’t hesitant or shaky either.

“When they will ever wish,” the guard said.

“I take that to mean you can go get assistance when you wish.  Unless you’re afraid to do so?  We could try to pull you out.  It might be costly.”

“It might be good to get Lookout out of here,” I said.

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Nuh uh.  It would suck more being not here than being here.  Prison riots aside.”

“I’m sure you could debate for some time, but I don’t like that bleeding, so I’ll bring you up to speed,” Citrine said.  “Briefly put, we’re pulling strings.  We expect to have you out soon.”

“I’m covering the financial side,” her husband said.  He looked like an accountant, wearing a peacoat, scarf, a light blue dress shirt, black slacks, and thick-framed glasses, his hair short and pressed down from the hat he’d had on.  “Jeanne is covering everything else.  We do have ways to apply pressure.”

Citrine looked us over, as best as she could with the guards standing in the way.  “It’s good you bled, but you need medical care.”

Weird, to have her so concerned.

“I wondered if the bleeding was in our favor,” I said.  I glanced at Vista.  She’d hurt herself at my recommendation.  Her one hand was pressed down over the back of the other hand that she’d sliced.

“How badly was the opposition hurt?”

“One woman was hurt by her own weapon.  A prisoner hurt a guard by accident in the fracas.”

“Good.  As close to ideal as we could hope for,” Citrine said.

“Us not being attacked would be ideal,” Vista answered.

“True,” Citrine admitted.

“Are you safe to go?  The less injured could stay,” Kurt said.

“Safety in numbers might be best,” I said.  “But we’d have four people in each group, at least.”

Citrine looked at my hand, then looked at Tristan, her eye falling on the bloody towel he’d wrapped around his arm.  She said something in Spanish.

Tristan responded.

“No,” the guard said.  He put his hand out.  “Not that, change to the Goddess tongue.”

“I was asking if his family knew he was here,” Citrine said.  “He said they don’t.  I’ll tell them.”

“Thank you,” Tristan murmured.  The guards were focused on Citrine.  While they told her something, Tristan leaned his head over and murmured to me, “She was asking if it was guards that attacked us.  I said some did.”

I nodded, turned to Sveta, and passed on the message.

“We have to strike a balance,” Citrine said.  “They will keep their deal, but they won’t necessarily be kind in the meantime.  We’ll do what we can to pressure them to leave you alone.  I could elaborate, but I’m worried every second counts with that bleeding.”

“You should go,” Sveta said.  “Take some of us with you if you need.

“I’ll go.  We’ll go,” I said.  “You fill in my teammates, they’ll fill us in.  Golem, Capricorn, me?  Vista?”

“I’m fine.  Shallow.  Bring me a bandage or something after, or I’ll grab something.”

“Sveta?” I asked.

“I’ll come.  More to keep an eye out than because I need it,” she said.  She turned her arm around, and I could see that ‘straps’ of tissue were pressed against the underside of the wound, fluids oozing out and clotting to blur the boundaries.  There was still a ‘zipper’ edge around the boundary of the wound.

“Miss Militia said she wanted you out, she said the Wardens need your help.  It won’t be more than twelve hours.”

Roughly midnight, then.

“Thank you,” Tristan said.

“Guard?  If you’d have someone escort them to medical?  Promptly?” Citrine asked.  She added a two-word statement in their language, stiff.

One of the two guards at the center of the room turned and headed to the door, he motioned for us to follow.

“You trust them?” Ashley asked.

Citrine answered, “I trust them to deal with us, yes.  They are taking the stance that parahumans are something set aside, so as a group of parahuman envoys you…”

The door closed behind Tristan, Sveta, Theo and I as we stepped out into the hall.

Back into the labyrinth, this time with a guide.  My hand gripped the towel that wrapped around my other hand, the loose skin I’d collected pressed between palm and fabric.

They led us down the hall, and there was purpose to where they went.  Whenever we came across guards, those guards stepped off to the side of the hall and stared us down as we passed.

The individual medical rooms were well set up, shelves lined with bottles and with tools that sat in red and pink solutions, possibly to sterilize them.  We passed one room with a child and their mother seated.  The child had the skin that made me think of bleached hair, while the mom had a bit of it.

Unfamiliar medicine, administered by people who hated us.

Get me in one piece and I’ll have doctors I trust handle this after, I thought.

Sveta remained in the hallway as Tristan, Golem and I entered our individual rooms.  There were no doctors within, but there were people in the hallway, and one rang a dull bell three times, apparently to summon three doctors.

Right away, the doctor swabbed my blood, putting it in a dish with some liquid.  My leftover skin went in another dish.  Then it was the process of having the towel peeled away.

There were no words exchanged, no explanations, not that I would have known what he said if he’d addressed me.  Just quiet, clinical practice.

He reached for another tool -a syringe- and I stopped him.

“What is that?” I asked.

He answered in another language.  He motioned to bring it toward my hand.  I stopped him again.

“I need to know what it is.”

Again, he answered in the other language.

“Uh, guard?” I asked, raising my voice.

It was Sveta who brought the guard to the doorway.

“What’s he saying?” I asked.

“Quiets the hand,” the guard explained.  “Quiets you.”

“Quiet as in-” I put my hand at an angle, closed my eyes and moved my head over.

“Yes.”

“No,” I said.  “I’ll stay awake.  I have to stay awake.”

“The patients here do not decide.  Outside?  Yes.  Inside?  No.  You don’t choose.”

“This isn’t my choice.  It’s government.  Gimel, Shin made agreements,” I said.  “You were told to fix me.  You can do it without knocking me out.”

He exchanged words with the doctor.  The doctor looked annoyed.

The exchange continued for what felt like a minute.  Every movement of air on the back of my hand made me want to throw up, not because of pain, but because of how visceral it was, where it took me in a horror sense.

My skin was-

I had a very mixed relationship with my skin.

“Someone who was treating me didn’t listen when I told them to stop, once, and I got-”

The guard motioned for me to stop, or to back down, or shut up.  I wasn’t sure which, but the hand was swiped my way, firm.

“-fucked up.”

The doctor twisted around on his seat, facing me.  He looked pissed.  With an exaggerated show, he set the syringe down.  He picked up a small glass bowl and filled with colored granules that looked like tinted sugar.  He said a single word in his language.

“This,” the guard translated.  “Is this acceptable?”

“I have no idea what it is.”

There was another brief exchange.

“It cleans the hand.  Some quiet.”

“For just the hand?” I asked.

“Yes, the hand,” the guard said.

I didn’t trust it, and I didn’t trust them, but I was already worried, and I had no idea how clean that clean towel had been.

“Yes.”

The guard translated.  He didn’t wait to see or do anything before walking down the hall toward Tristan and Theo.  Sveta remained where she was, her attention divided between me and the guard.

He sprinkled the mixture over my hand.  It felt cold, but that was the anaesthetic element of it.  My hand tingled, cold, the pain stopped, and then the anaesthetic claimed my hand in entirety, followed by a swift loss of my arm, and it reaching my chest to grip my heart in some combination of horror and numbness that I couldn’t tell apart.  From there, it swept over my entire body.  It reached my throat, my head- and it decimated my consciousness.

With what remained of my awareness, I looked at Sveta, and saw her looking down the hall at the guard, rather than looking at me.

Then the next wave came, and I was out and gone, the doctor catching me as I slumped over.

Amy smiled, her arms folded.  She only wore a simple short sleeved top, crimson fabric, and with her arms exposed her fucking tattoos were plainly visible.  She looked as at ease as I’d seen her in recent memory.

A doctor said something in a foreign tongue.  Amy stumbled through her response.  Fucking Citrine had been better at speaking the language, and Citrine hadn’t lived here for any length of time.

Emotion choked me.  Everything I’d felt in the last two years at once.  Every swear word I’d uttered multiplied by every jawbone and sternum, every rib I’d shattered, the lives I’d taken and the damage I’d done.  I trembled with it and I couldn’t find an outlet.  I would have puked again, I would have screamed at her, and I couldn’t.

Only paralysis.

Then fear.  Every flicker in my peripheral vision, every doubt that had crossed my mind, all gathered together.  Except… she was here, a half smile on her face as she said something to the doctor, who looked annoyed.

I felt like there was a deal we made with ourselves growing up.  That we were kids and we were scared of the dark and the unknown, and we braved the world and each fear we faced down was a promise to ourselves.  Fourteen year old Vicky enacting an unspoken agreement with little waist-high Vicky, saying ‘We’re going to approach that boy, and it’s exciting and it’s scary but I’ll handle it if it gets messy’.

That I’d step into that first fight with an adult man almost twice my size, and I’d manage.  A pledge from myself to a more vulnerable myself, that we were strong enough.

A silent promise to myself when I fought a person with powers.  Scared every time, but earning that trust and the ability to make bigger and better promises along the way.

Here, that vulnerable, small, childish part of me that was ready to be scared of everything was in the driver’s seat.

The bigger, adult me was paralyzed, thrust away.  Because in that storm of bound-up feelings that were hitting me full force, there was another kind of non-feeling process.  I’d disconnected, pulled away, detached so many times.  Gone to another place, dove into academic thought, dove into memories, lost myself in violence, even.

As I felt anger like I’d kept all of the anger of the last few years in reserve, and a quiet terror that seemed to encapsulate every fear I’d ever had, I felt the safety of the disconnect, observing everything from arm’s length, even myself.

I tried to speak and only a small sound came out.

Immediately, that ease I saw in her disappeared.  Amy turned my way, then hurried to my bedside.

I reached for powers and found paralysis instead.  They were there, but-

I thought of the Gimel refugees.  Of the need for supplies.

Between paralysis and the stray thought, reaching for my powers and finding them was slower than Amy was in reaching out to touch me.

The touch lasted all of two seconds.  Then, belated, she pulled her hand away, and my consciousness went in the other direction, more of an immediate blackout than any time I’d fallen asleep or been knocked unconscious.

Forced.

I roused, and my body felt leaden.  I used my flight, instinctively, like I was getting out of bed in the morning, and I pushed myself to a sitting-up position.

The feeling of having betrayed myself was the first thing to set in.  I’d betrayed every aspect of myself, from that vulnerable side of myself to the scholar to the warrior monk and the wretch.

I’d let my guard down.

Now…

I dared to look.

A square room with a cot and a closed door.  I lay on the cot.  Amy sat in a chair in the corner opposite where I lay.  A guard stood near her.

I brought my knees to my chest, and I hugged them, as if I could put myself further away from her.  My hand was bandaged.  I felt tightness around the injured parts.  I couldn’t tell through bandage, but it felt like the skin was there and swollen.

I wondered if I’d have to hurt her.  I’d have to be careful of my injured hand.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” she told me.

I didn’t answer.

“Don’t give me the silent treatment.  Please.”

That just made me want to do it more.  Petty.  Refuge in hate, in fighting mindlessly because the alternative was surrender.

I thought of Sveta’s absence.  She’d been watching over things.

“My team.  Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  They’re back in the prison population.”

“Do they know you’re in here?”

“No.”

I squeezed my legs harder.

“They were angry, when you passed out,” she said.  “There was almost an incident.  Marquis- he’s here because I am.  He talked them down.  Your group had a huddle.  They talked about it.  They agreed it made the most sense to let it be, given cost, benefit, and what Citrine said about Shin.”

“Leaving me here,” I said.

“They didn’t like it but given what’s at stake…”

“Supplies for Gimel,” I said, feeling hollow.  The hollowness scared me.

“Materials from Shin have been about thirty percent of what Gimel received to date.  Cheit’s fifty, if I remember right.  Ten percent from Nun and other associated corner worlds.  Something like six percent from Gimel itself, three percent from Bet, reclaim and scavenging.  You guys wanted to put as much as you could into rebuilding.  Shelters and businesses first, Gimel having its own supply and manufacturing chains came second.  The numbers for supplied food versus what Gimel produces on its own are different, but I think last winter they were sort of close to what I just said.”

“It’s ‘you’, huh?” I asked.  Still hollow, harrowed, emotionally wrung out from nothing except being in this room, in this position.  Under her power.  “Gimel is ‘you’ and Shin is ‘us’?”

“You know what I mean.”

I looked down at my cot.  There were a shallow set of railings running along the edges to keep the mattress within bounds.  I wondered if I could grab those, fly, leverage strength, and use the cot as a weapon to kill Amy and the guard in one shot.

If I had to.

That made me feel better.

“Let’s talk,” Amy said.

That made me feel worse.

“Is that an order?” I asked.  “A directive?  Not a request, obviously, not an option?”

“If I say it’s an option you’ll say no,” she said.

“You’ve lost every right to dictate terms, Amelia.”

“Call me Amy.”

“You don’t get to choose what I call you,” I told her, my voice low.  “If that guard wasn’t here and if I wasn’t worried it would cause an incident, I’d have other names for you.”

“I don’t get to choose, I don’t get to dictate,” she said.  “You know… there’s never once been a time in my life where I got a real say in anything?  I was a kid and Marquis decided I’d live with the Dallon family, and then Carol and Mark got to decide when my bedtime was, when and what I ate, and what I did for homework.  When I had friends they were your friends or it was just you and I never really got a vote.”

“That’s being a kid.”

“It happened even later.  I didn’t choose my costume, it was Carol showing me some sketches and saying A, B, or C.”

“Sketches done with your input.”

“And it was other stuff, it was the times I got forced to go out heroing, and it was school and it was career path and-”

“And that justifies it?”

“And I’m not going to dwell on it, but…” she floundered.

“But what?”

“But maybe it would be nice of you to realize I’ve kind of been under someone else’s thumb or in someone else’s shadow or following someone else’s directions every step of the way.  And when I did finally do things out of my own free will I was unpracticed and traumatized and-”

“And that excuses it?”

“No!  Ye- no.  But it would be nice if it could be taken into account,” she said, her voice dropping in volume.  “It would be nice if for this, right here, instead of you getting angry and saying we won’t talk, maybe you meet me halfway.  I don’t want to domineer the conversation, I don’t want to force you to have it, I want you to want to have it.  An actual, even, fair conversation.”

“While a guard who could shoot me stands at your side-”

“He’s not-”

“-and you have me cornered, and you’ve-

I choked on the words I was going to say.

“I don’t have you cornered.”

“You’ve used your power on me, and I have no idea what you did to me while I was defenseless.”

The tear that sprung from one of my eyes caught me off guard.  It seemed to do the same for her.

“Th-”

“Again,” I said, more to myself.

It still shut her up.

She said something in the other language, stiff.  The guard gave me and her a wary look, then hauled the door open.  It slammed on shutting.

“Guard’s gone,” she said.  “He doesn’t speak English, by the way.  That’s why it was him, specifically.”

“Doesn’t make me feel better.”

“I can’t help you feeling cornered-”

“You can leave.  Leave me alone.  That’s all I’ve asked for.”

“About the third thing,” she said, stubbornly plowing ahead.  “What I did.  I can explain.”

“And I’m supposed to trust you?” I asked.  My voice went out on ‘trust’, so I mouthed it more than said it.

“I’m hoping that after we talk you can.  At least a little,” she said.  “I only used my power the once.  They hadn’t warned me you’d be paralyzed, my first thought was that it was a stroke, um-”

“You used your power on me, you cunt.”

The word seemed to catch her off guard, but not as much as I’d hoped.

“I checked you.  I got a read of your system.  Um.  That includes the neural connections-”

I let go of my legs, burying face in my knees, that were pulled up to my chest, and covered my head.

“It includes emotions.  Um.  If it’s any reassurance-”

“Fuck you and your reassurance,” I said.

“I get it now,” she said.  “How you’re disgusted by me, how you feel betrayed, the hate, the pain.  Crystal clear now.  I felt it, realized what it was and that it was all real, and I pulled my hand away like it was a hot stove.  I did use my power, but it was like pulling my hand off a hot stove.  Pushing you away, into unconsciousness, while I pulled back.”

My skin crawled.

She sounded mournful, subdued.  Her hands clutched one another in her lap.  The imp Dot had climbed out of her hair and had a lock of Amy’s hair in her teeth.  Her tail swished as she glared at me.

“Amelia,” I said.  I properly lifted my head.

“I guess you’re going to call me that.  Okay.  What?”

“Those feelings are mine.  You’re not supposed to read me like a fucking book and ‘get it’.  You’re supposed to read my fucking lips and hear the fucking words I’m saying and believe me.”

“Okay.”

“Then fuck off and die somewhere.”

“I do get it,” she said, instead of following the instructions.  “The anger.  I definitely felt that.  The hate.”

“I’ve been working on that,” I said.

She nodded, shoulders relaxing a hair.  “I’m glad.  For your sake I mean.”

“Cultivating it, channeling it.  Stoking that fire a bit whenever there’s a good excuse.”

I saw her face fall, and it hadn’t been ‘up’ in any way.  Just… not guarded.

I went on, “The anger, it hurts others, you know.  It drove me to maim or thrash Nazis and people who’d try to coerce fifteen year olds into prostitution.  Scum of the earth.  But there’s too much risk.  Too much collateral damage.”

“You don’t have me to clean up the mess.”

I shrugged.  “Hurts too many people for me to have anger as an outlet nowadays.  I find myself saving it up and then shattering Valefor’s jaw or something.  Fear, though?  Fear… it just kills me inside.  Sucks up all my energy.  Eats me alive.  And I’ve been scared every day since what you did.  Really fucking scared.”

Emotions were leaking into the words, when I wanted to lay it all out.

She nodded.

“Self loathing, hating my own skin?  Not feeling like I’m me?  It eats at my identity.”

“This is why I want to talk.  So we can address these things, work on fixing them.”

“You can’tYou can’t,” I said.  I put a different emphasis on the second repetition.  “You don’t get to.  This is what I hate about you.  This is- this is the point I was getting to.  Hate.  Anger hurts others, fear eats away at you, self-loathing fucks with your sense of identity.  But hate?  Hate’s focused.  If I have to have shitty feelings in the aftermath of what you did to me, I prefer hate because it has one target, one casualty at most.  You.”

“It bleeds into other things.”

“Maybe.  Cross that bridge when we get to it.  For now?  Hating you keeps me sane.  And I fucking hate that you’re arrogant enough to think you can fix me or fix my feelings, or fix this situation.  Walk away.”

For a second, I thought she might summon the strength to push herself to a standing position and then leave the room.

Muscles that had momentarily tensed in her tattooed arms relaxed.

“I want to talk,” she said.

“I want you to die.  I guess neither of us are getting what we want.”

“I want one hour of your time.  Here.  Talking.  Fair, even conversation.”

“There’s that arrogance of yours,” I told her.  “I can’t believe I thought any of this would be good for you, Red Queen.”

“One hour,” she said, firm.  “You can leave Shin with your team.  If you hear me out and if you’re fair, I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Whatever I want?”

“Anything that helps.”

“What about you going to Gimel, talking to therapists, counselors?  Anyone and anything that helps you get your shit together.  You stay away from mom, you stay away from dad, you stay away from Chris, my team, and me most of all.  If I want to talk to you again, I make the first move.”

“I’d be willing.  I haven’t had much luck with therapists, but I’d try.”

“What about-” I started.

I shouldn’t show my hand.

I couldn’t hold my tongue.

“What if I said you had a few days to try to fix Hunter, while Breakthrough and I handle some other shit, and then I had people take you to the Wardens for them to make a bigger decision?”

“A decision about?”

“About whether they give you some more of that counseling and a few more shots at fixing Hunter, and if you can’t, or maybe even if you could and they decided you were a danger, we’d get rid of you.”

“Get rid.”

“Chuck you into an alternate Earth with no other human beings.  Where you can’t hurt another Hunter.”

“I can help Hunter.”

“You’re positive?”

“I’m- reasonably sure.”

“Then it’s a reasonable chance things are fine and we don’t end up chucking you into an alternate reality where you can’t hurt anyone.  Of course, it’s the Wardens deciding what to do, not me.  You say you read my emotions, so you know how much I hate your guts.  I know how much I hate your guts.  I’d just be telling them what I think and giving them a suggested starting point, but they make the final call.”

“You’d be telling them to exile me?”

“Probably.  If you can’t fix Hunter?  Almost definitely.”

“That’s-”

“What?  What is it, Amy?”

“It feels like the hate and that kind of idea you’re talking about is coming from the side of you that scared me, when we patrolled together.  When you hurt an ABB child abductor so badly you had to call me to fix him.”

“Well…” I started.  I floundered for a response.  “Fucking obviously?”

“What?”

“I mean, it’s obvious that that kind of side of me is going to be bigger and more pronounced in comparison.  You took all the parts of me you liked and mashed it all together into a big pile of lovey-dovey ‘Vicky’ you could cuddle with, kiss, use-”

She shook her head, violent.

“Don’t shake your head at me.  Yes.  You used me to soothe yourself.  You said you loved me but well before you made me into the w- into that mess that had to go to the hospital, you made me into something that wasn’t Victoria, for your own selfish wants.”

“When I read your emotions and tracked them to their roots, I saw that the memory blocks I originally put into place to protect you were down.  Brain routing around.”

“You took all of me that you liked and you multiplied it and you mashed it all together like some kid mixing their paints together into a single blob.  What the fuck do you expect is going to be left intact and strong, except the ugly parts you didn’t want to touch?”

She shook her head.

“I’ve been rebuilding me.  I’ve been trying to find the good and admirable parts of Victoria for a long while now.  But that other side of me is there and I’ve spent a while trying to ignore it.  The barbaric side.”

“I’ve been trying to find myself too.”

“Fuck you.  I don’t care what you’re doing.  You- fuck you for even saying that in the same breath as what I’m talking about.”

“You are a victim, Victoria.  I’m not denying that.  What happened was horrible and unconscionable and it eats me up inside.  But I’m a victim too.  The Slaughterhouse Nine came after me.  I lost my family.  I lost you.  What happened wounded both of us, and impacted the both of us in a massive way.”

Dot had her teeth set on my ex-sister’s ear, while following the conversation.  A small part of me hoped the little creature would sit back at the fucking gall of what Amy had said and then use its box cutter to slit her throat.

Just a ‘fuck this, not hitching a ride with -this-‘ kind of thing.

Dim hopes.  Dot continued to nibble on Amy’s ear until Amy made her move, pulling her down to her lap, where she absently stroked the doll-sized creature.

I had to play along.  I didn’t want to lie, and I wasn’t even sure I could, but… she seemed genuinely shaken by what she’d taken in when she touched me, reading my emotions.  There was a crack.

And it sucked, but a cracked Amy was the only Amy I could hope to budge in the slightest.  Push too hard and she’d fold into herself and go back to being stubborn.

If I didn’t push at all, she’d steamroll over me.

“Sure,” I said.  “You’re a victim too.  Slaughterhouse Nine and shit.  Carol was a shit mom.  You were lonely.  I could have handled things better.”

“You were fine,” she said, eyes on the floor.  “You were the one good thing.”

“I was angry and hurt from losing Dean and Dad being brain damaged, I hated the idea you had secrets from me, as Tattletale said, and I wasn’t there for you.  Maybe if I had been, then Bonesaw wouldn’t have been able to come after you as easily as she did.”

“You’re fine.  You were the one good thing.  Your feelings made sense.”

“Amy.  You’re a victim too.  Fine.  But what you did you did to me.  What happened to you happened to you.  Blame the Slaughterhouse Nine or see them like a natural disaster… there’s no cause.  You don’t have the right or the position to complain about being a victim when you were the one who hurt me.  Who used me.”

“You keep saying I have no right, I can’t, I’m not allowed-”

“Because when you do something criminal you lose rights.  You lose privileges.”

Amy shook her head, like she didn’t realize she was doing it.  The palm of her hand rested on Dot’s front, while fingers absently scritched at Dot’s chin and neck.  Tiny hands and feet gripped the outer edges of Amy’s hand, tail swishing.

“One hour, you can take me to your therapists, put me in front of your tribunal, let the Wardens decide what to do with me.  Okay.  It might even be a relief, to be sent away.”

Probably not.  But I wasn’t going to test her cooperation.

I would test one other aspect.

“Fifteen minutes,” I told her.

“What?”

“Not an hour.  You don’t deserve an hour of my time.”

“Half an hour?”

I had planned to suggest half an hour, as a fair compromise, but that she’d asked left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

“Fifteen minutes.  Say what you’ve got to say.”

“I want there to be back and forth.  I don’t want you to tune out.”

“Okay.  Go.”

She nodded, very exaggerated, too fast.  Her hands were visibly shaking, even as she pet Dot.

“Then,” she told me.  “Then um, I’ll start with something I know will get your attention.  Appeal to the side of you that loves cape stuff.  Or loved.  I don’t know if you’ve changed.”

I remained silent.

She swallowed hard.  “Back at the Birdcage, I came into contact with Glaistig Uaine.  She’s Valkyrie now.  I got a glimpse of how powers are organized.  I figured out Gold Morning before it happened.”

“Okay.  Were you able to get it to anyone?”

“No.  Not really, but I tried.  I did fill them in once I was out.  But that map, that set of connections, it’s still kind of there.  The central hub is dead and all shards are acting like Cauldron shards used to, not developing right, not aggregating data in the same ways, not updating or adapting to their hosts like they should be.  A lot of just outright dumb now.”

“The broken triggers.”

“Yes.  And Dauntless.  The Kronos titan.”

“A broken second trigger multiplied by a portal and time effect, or something.”

“Kind of.  Um.  But when I work on the right people I see the landscape that’s laid out, the old roads where connections used to be.  I think we’re going to see more.”

“More broken triggers?” I asked.

“More Dauntlesses.  A lot more, and soon.  The city’s the worst spot… it’s like all those portals?  Them being there make it easier for the big, messy results to happen.  Like tearing paper with a row of holes in it.  The holes guide the tear.”

“How certain are you?”

“One hundred percent.  Ninety nine percent.  Weird stuff can always happen.”

I nodded to myself.

“Victoria, the city’s like a lake covered in ice, with countless cracks spread across it.  Powerful capes are staying away from it because they make it worse.  They’re too heavy for the ice.”

“They haven’t said anything.”

“If we abandoned the city and set up elsewhere, those cracks would still spread.  The end result is the same, except it’s a bit delayed and a lot of people die because they abandoned the infrastructure, supply chains, resources, and support the city offers.”

“They’re trying to find answers.”

“They’re trying to find answers to the problem, they’re trying to mitigate the damage by spreading out the stress points, manage how much power is in the city at one time, and do productive hero work while they’re maintaining those balances and figuring out those things.  Just… elsewhere.  That’s what the Wardens are really about.  Like park wardens, maintaining a park by managing who can go in, managing resources…”

“Got it,” I said.  I nodded.  “Got it.”

“Part of the reason I wanted to bring Gimel’s prisoners to Shin instead of letting them run around the city was to do the same thing.  Manage the stress.”

“And if you’re to be believed, they didn’t tell us because they didn’t want us to panic.  Because… Dauntless-like events and broken triggers are going to get more common?”

“They are, but that’s not the ‘because’, Vicky,” Amy said, hunching her shoulders together, leaning forward.  Dot clambered up her arm to her shoulder.  “The ‘because’ is that Scion’s species’ life cycle didn’t stop just because he did.  Even if you don’t fertilize an egg, the chicken is still going to lay it.  All of the passengers are going to fumble together for connections, gather and translate power, and they’re going to… try to spread themselves to other places of interest.”

“Just like that.”  My voice was quiet.  I hugged my knees.  “If you’re to be believed.”

“I am.  Teacher believes it too, but he has bigger plans.  He thinks he can control the damage and control what happens when it all comes together.  He actually has something in common with one of your teammates, because when I look at the landscape-”

“Amy,” I cut her off.

She shut up.

“Can we put the fifteen minutes on hold?  Can you give me a second?”

“Yes.  And yes,” she said.  “I could, um, get you some water.”

I thought of all the things she could do to a glass of water.

“Do they have bottled water here?  Any sealed drinks?”

“Not really.  I mean, yes, they have capped drinks elsewhere, but not in the prison.”

“Then no.  No drink.  Just give me a few minutes.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I could use a break too, actually.”

A few seconds later, she was gone, the door shutting.  Me in my cell.

My hands were shaking, and it wasn’t Amy’s hypothesis.

I took a deep breath, trying to center myself.

I figured out a way to undo and then start unwrapping the bandage on my hand.  Loop by loop.  Their method of bandaging wasn’t any different from ours on Gimel and Bet.

The skin had been connected by tight, tiny threading.  It was swollen, but when I touched it I felt sensation, like I might feel when my foot was slightly asleep.

Fingers, much the same, but I couldn’t really bend them to test their mobility, with the swelling being what it was.

Fingernails… five fingernails attached, two tender to the touch, feeling that same kind of wobbly as a child’s tooth might be, when it started to show signs the kid might lose it.

I’d lost two fingernails when attacked in the prison plaza.  When I’d picked up the skin, only one fingernail had still been attached.

The sweet and good hearted people of Shin had found a stray fingernail and brought it in for reattachment?

Not likely.

Had it fallen on me, landing on my clothes without my notice?

No- the wire had raked along my hand and toward the woman, away from me.  The nail would have been flung toward her, not toward me or onto my clothing.

Had I somehow missed that another fingernail had been attached to the loose patch of skin I’d picked up off the ground?  Had they found it and attached it as normal.

I wasn’t sure.  Possible.  Maybe it was the most likely possibility.

Or the final possibility.  That Amy had lied to me, more than once, in the course of our conversation.  It would be cause for simultaneous gut-wrenching horror and relief; it would suggest she’d used her power on me and hadn’t told me the full truth, but it would also gave some reason to doubt her interpretation of what was coming.

In that, at least, I really wanted her to be lying to my face.

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Breaking – 14.8

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“Can anyone do us a big favor?” Kenzie asked, distracted.  “We need someone to walk over to Theo and Rain and tell them that the surveillance state is our friend.”

“Tell me where they are and why I’m telling them that and I will,” Byron said.

It was the small hours of the morning, and for the most part the only light was the ambient glow of city lights finding their way into the prison center through the glass roof.  The building’s heat led to some of the snow and ice on that glass to find its way in through cracks, precipitating a series of steady trickles and drips.  All of us, for the most part, had found places to settle in, but few of us slept.

The place lacked proper rooms, and it had the feeling of a labyrinth.  A central plaza was set in the middle, while showers, bathrooms, and one room with a purpose I hadn’t yet figured out were set around the perimeter.  A lot of the walls were paths for guards and guards only, and a lot of the hallways had thick glass windows with guards on the other side, with gaps and apertures for guards to fire through.  A lot of the hallways, ours included, had a faint four or five degree incline – not so much it was impossible to settle, but enough that it was hard to rest easy without feeling like we’d roll down the hall.

Byron was in prison clothes now.  Tristan hadn’t wanted to keep his brother in reserve as the hours crept forward, and so we’d had to find an excuse to swap them out.  Laundry was handed out on a requirement basis, and after some confusing discussion and pantomime we’d requisitioned an outfit.  The twin that was swapped out wore the armor, which made the swapping something that had to happen in a bathroom stall.

“They’re in the courtyard, southeast corner.  I think they’re trying to follow the rules but they’re not quite in the camera’s range.  I would bet if they stay in a blind spot like that the guards are going to harass them.”

“And we want to stay where the cameras can watch us,” Byron said.  He looked up at the cameras in our hallway.  “Got it.”

He pulled himself to his feet and walked off.

“Agents in hallway to our left and middle,” Kenzie said, sticking an arm out to indicate the hallways.  “I can’t say for sure that they’re going to be problems but-”

“But we take the right hallway to get to the central courtyard and there isn’t going to be a problem for sure.”

“Yep.  Pretty sure.”

Stay in sight, stay clearly under the cameras we were in a position to manipulate, and be model prisoners.  That was the game, the charade.  It was a game we could cheat at in small ways.  Kenzie was a big factor in that, with an eye on the same cameras the guards used.

For all the world, it looked like she was sharing a cot with Ashley, Ashley sitting against the wall, Kenzie lying down with a thin pillow propped up against Ashley’s thigh, which she used as a pillow.  Kenzie’s hands were motionless, folded across her stomach.  But as Byron left on his mission, Kenzie began humming dissonantly.  Tinkering in another way.

“Hmm hm, mm-mm-mm, hmmmm… Mm-wah, hmm…”

There was no musicality, it even bordered on anti-music.

“Kenzie, you’re cute and all,” Vista said, and her voice had a burr of tiredness in it.  She trudged over to the cot Byron had been sitting on and plunked herself down. “But you are going to get shanked if you keep that up.”

Kenzie tittered.  “Don’t make me laugh, you’ll make me mess up the sequence.”

“Does it have to be done tonight?” Vista asked.

“No.  I can finish programming tomorrow,” Kenzie said.  She turned onto her side, eyes pointed the way of Ashley’s knee, then twisted around almost to face the opposite direction to look up at Ashley, “You okay?  Your leg isn’t falling asleep?”

“You’re fine,” Ashley said.

“Darlene’s throwing me off with the sequences anyway.  She’s staying up tonight to keep an eye out in case I need emergency help or hands elsewhere.  She’s giggling because both Candy and Chicken are snoring.  It’s like dueling banjos, but snorty.  She’s trying so hard to not laugh so much she wakes them up.”

“You stay connected while you’re asleep?” I asked.

“Sometimes!  The first time we did it, Darlene fell asleep by accident, so there was nobody to cancel it, unless we wanted to wake her up on purpose.  Then that was the same night someone, I’m not gonna say who, they had a nightmare.  Really spooky when it happened, because you’re paralyzed while you’re asleep, but you’ll jerk and twitch and your heart rate goes up and stuff.  So I thwacked my hand against my bedside table to wake everyone up.  A little too hard.  It still hurts a bit.”

“Might be a little too much, if you’re always connected,” I said.

“Maybe.  But it’s kind of nice having company when falling asleep, you know?  It’s only been good dreams ever since.  I can feel them breathing and it makes it easier for me to breathe when it’s dark and I start thinking about spooky stuff.”

“Do you have trouble breathing?” I asked.  “Panic attacks?”

“Not actual trouble.  But everything feels heavier, you know?”

I digested that.  The pressure of the twilight hours.  “I know.  Is it the cape stuff that’s getting to you?”

“No, nah.  Cape stuff is fun.  Spooky stuff is when I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling, and I start thinking about what if I never figure it out, you know?  What if I’m never better and I spend the rest of my life pushing people away, and every morning and every night I wake up without a family, and every Christmas it’s just me buying myself a present.  Always just me, you know, smiling smiling smiling, trying to keep busy making Christmas treats for the needy for Church events and still doing tinker stuff too because that’s going to be in my life forever…”

Her voice was taking on a wobbly cadence like she was finally drifting off to sleep.

“You’ll have me,” Ashley said.  “It’s hard to get rid of me.”

“Yeah, but…” Kenzie said.  It took her a while to summon up the thoughts.  It seemed like fatigue more than anything.  “…People go away.  They die.  So I think of you and I feel better, but then I think what if something happens, and I feel worse again.  Then I start thinking… better tinker.  If I make better stuff I can protect all of you.”

“I’ve died a bunch of times and I’m still here.”

“Yeah.  But don’t want to stretch that until it snaps,” Kenzie mumbled.  “Mm.  Don’t let me fall asleep.  I need to keep an eye out.”

“You need to sleep.  We’ll manage.”

“It’s unfair, you know.  Because being around you all like this and networking into the others through Darlene, Aiden sleeping in a cot in Darlene’s room and Candy sleeping in a beanbag chair in her room… is when I feel the least like I’m going to end up alone and I feel the most like I can sleep easy… but I should watch for trouble, I shouldn’t sleep.”

“You should.  Shh,” Ashley said.  “Rest.”

Kenzie twisted around, curling up closer and wrapping her arms around Ashley’s thigh, where Ashley sat cross-legged next to her.  She squeezed and smushed her face tight against Ashley’s leg.

“Chicken has a snot bubble in his left nostril.  It’s clicking rapid-fire every time he breathes out,” Kenzie said.  “There needs to be a camera that captures moments like that, and all of the feelings around that moment.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.  “We’ll see if you snore and put a smile on Darlene’s face.”

As I said it, I saw some people walking through the hallway in the dark.  They paused as they saw us.

Six, seven people.  Men and women, all silhouettes in the dark.  People came in wearing whatever clothes they had that were allowed, and those clothes were a kind of status symbol.  People inevitably had to start wearing the shitty prison uniforms after a time, and so that marked a kind of veteran status.  But the people who were veterans and had any kind of clout or standing were those who’d migrated into wearing the prison uniforms but had other clothing worn as part of their outfit, the more tattered the better.

Shirts with patterns had sleeves tied together and were worn around the shoulder or waist.  Dresses torn up and wound around hair or worn as wide hoods that extended from shoulder, over the head, to shoulder.

Beyond that, there were stages of quality.  One man with a frayed basket-weave mesh of two cloth types, worn as a scarf.  A woman with a complex five-part braid to her shawl seemed to be the one in charge.  Colors seemed to signify gangs or group affiliation.

We had settled down in an area of the prison the gangs seemed to stay away from, because the conditions weren’t great-it was cold enough there was a puddle of water in the corner with hints of ice at the edges- and because it was under the cameras.  A couple of older women and two family groups were set up in this spot.

“If you hug my leg that tight, you’re going to cut off the circulation,” Ashley told Kenzie.

But the kid was already asleep.  Ashley seemed to make peace with it.

“The first time I met her, I found her really hard to get used to,” Vista said.

“Kenzie?” I asked.

“Mm.  It took me a while to realize why.  Wasn’t anything to do with her.  It’s that she’s the opposite of me, back when I was a hero her age.”

The gang hadn’t moved.  They stood in the hall, staring us down.

“I look back and I wish I’d tried harder to be a kid.  Have friends my own age, crushes my own age instead of crushing on an older boy.  I wish I’d leaned on people more.”

“To be fair, he was crush-worthy.”

Vista made an amused sound.

Ashley turned her gaze my way.  She hadn’t used her power on herself recently, and with the apparatus out of her eyes and in Rain’s possession, she didn’t have her pupils erased or her smoke effect.  Her eyes looked almost normal.  In the dim, I could see her eyes move between me and the gang.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding slightly.  “Yeah.”

Ashley nodded.  She’d just wanted to make sure I was aware.

Did they want to intimidate us?  Were they keeping track to see if we all fell asleep at the same time?

“This thing about them sharing bodies or whatever?”

“They feel what the others feel.”

“Yeah.  That’s a little weird and creepy.”

“Yeah,” I said, I laughed softly, keeping my voice down to avoid disturbing anyone.  “Absolutely.  But it’s complicated.”

“Keeps her mind off of the idea of a lonely Christmas,” Vista said.

“That too,” I said.  “We’ll talk to her about it.”

“I don’t want to begrudge her anything she needs or wants,” Ashley said.  “Even if it’s ‘bad’.”

She made air-quotes as she said it.  When she lowered her hand, it rested on top of Kenzie’s head.

“Bad is bad,” I said.  “But I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing.”

“If her path to happiness means weirdness, or blackmailing her parents, or staying up late tinkering, then I’ll support that,” Ashley said.  “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it does require those things.  But if it did or if it does in the future, I wouldn’t necessarily stand in her way.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

Byron, Rain, and Theo came back, walking down the hall.  They didn’t slow down as they got closer to the gang.

I thought about my options.  How hard I could hit people, how fast I could move with flying without betraying that I was using powers.  I stood and stretched, so I’d be ready.  Vista pushed herself up from a position where she was sort of lounging to a proper sit.

Looking at all of us, the gang leader with the shawl braid nudged her lieutenant.  Without a word exchanged, the gang broke up, a good portion of them walking off in the direction of the showers.

It wouldn’t stay that easy.

I’d had Kenzie reach out to Citrine, and Citrine would apply a bit of pressure.  The Wardens would surely do the same.  Hopefully.

That gave us a clock, a period of time where we needed to play by their rules and avoid getting caught in their traps.  We could give them no video evidence, nothing that could be cut out of context, and no excuses.  If we did, then they would move for harsh punishment.

Kenzie had confirmed they didn’t have audio.  They did have video.  They kept tabs on us with soldiers, and with her eyes on the camera, she’d confirmed that some prisoners had entered the facility, possibly from another similar building, some of them were like the gang leader with the braided scarf, arriving dressed and acting like veterans with some clout.

And, Kenzie had observed, using the cameras, that these people had gone straight from the entryway, a different one than we’d used, to find us.  Now they remained in our periphery.

They would adapt.  As the clock ran down, they’d be more willing to force an imperfect conclusion over a perfect one.

I sat back down on my cot, being careful not to disturb Sveta, who was sleeping.  Beneath the two blankets she’d draped over herself, her body had partially disassembled, shoulder and ribcage dissolving into straps so she could more easily lie ‘flat’ on the angled hallway.

Byron looked over at Vista, who had stolen his mattress, and then started to look for another.

“A lot of the other mattresses are damp or cold,” Vista told him.

“Then you keep that one.  I can endure the cold and the wet with my power.”

“Don’t be dumb, Byron,” she told him.

I watched him hem and haw for a second.

“Not dumb,” he said.  “Just…”

“Complicated,” Rain volunteered.

Byron nodded.

“Come, sit.  We can talk about it,” Vista said.  “Or say the word and I’ll find another spot.”

He walked over, and he sat.

Rain and Theo found their own cots.  If Rain was bothered by the quality of his mattress, he didn’t comment.  He’d carried his issued blanket with him and draped it over himself without much of a care.

Golem, meanwhile, just sat.

“What are the rules or boundaries?” Vista asked.

“What?” Byron asked.

“Like, just for the sake of argument, if you were to start seeing a girl, what are the rules of engagement?”

I turned to look at Vista, my eyes widening.  She ignored me.

“I’m not sure I would.  I don’t think it’s fair to the girl.  Too many hurdles, too much baggage.”

“We all have baggage.  We could all die at any time, that’s life as a cape.  Put those things together and if we wait to get over our baggage we’re liable to end up dead before we get anywhere.”

Morbid pick up line there, Vista.

“True.  It’s still messy, if you ignore all of that.  If we expect to die sometime soon, we don’t want the meantime to be full of angst and anger, right?”

“Right, so we talk.  Negotiate.  Where are we at, Byron?  If a girl says she likes you, what does it take, what’s off the table?”

“I could make an educated guess, but I dunno.  I thought I had a good idea of it before and then things all went wrong.  Couldn’t go to third base, probably not even second.  I’d hesitate before even kissing, and if the line’s drawn there…”

“Doesn’t feel much like a relationship,” Vista said.

“No.  Which isn’t fair to the girl.”

“Your kid teammate over there was talking a bit about finding her way to a less lonely place.  Protecting those close to her, having people she’s connected to while she sleeps.”

“They’re doing it while they sleep?” Byron asked, alarmed, leaning forward to get a better view of Kenzie.  “Is that just because of this whole thing, or-”

“Focus.  Focus,” Vista said, pushing him back down to a sitting position.  “Can’t do anything about it.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

Vista had pushed him down, and she didn’t move her hand from his chest.

“I think you’re cool.  I like the words that come out of your mouth when you talk.  And I think Tristan’s really neat too, I think he’s fun and he’s good company.  If you want to try to figure out what you and me look like, and if Tristan was cool with it, I’d want to try.  You, me, Tristan, and what I imagine are a lot of rules and boundaries that keep things peaceful.”

“Did you talk to my team to figure out how to approach this?”

“Nope.  I mean, some preliminary fact checking, seeing if there were any things to watch out for.  They gave me the twenty-words-or-less on your ex.”

“They’re pretty restrictive,” Byron said.  “The rules.”

“Sure.  But we’ve talked a bunch of times now and I like you more each time.  I think I’d rather try you and me with all that stuff in the way than hang back and wait for some other sexy black knight type to turn up.  I worry there’s not enough time to wait for perfect.”

“I’m a blue knight more than a black knight.”

“Ehhh.  Broody and introspective with a dark background?”

“Yeah, maybe.  Conceded.  Feels like I’m being called evil though.”

“You can be a dark knight without being evil.  Trust me, if you were evil, it would be a total turn-off.  Speaking of turn-offs, you were supposed to pay more attention to when I called you sexy.”

“That’s… harder to navigate.”

“Yeah.  Just say you feel flattered.”

“I do.  Really.”

“You can add something to the end, Mr. Taciturn.  Like, ‘especially when it comes from a beautiful young lady such as yourself’.”

“You have no idea,” Byron said.

“That’s a good answer,” she said, her voice soft.  “So, uh, that’s me.  Now you do your thing, brood on it for a while-”

“Brood sounds so negative.”

“Introspect on it.  Digest.  See how you feel about it.  Talk to Tristan, see how he feels about it.  Tristan, you can talk to me if you want.  If any of you have any concerns or doubts or if you want to let me down easy, just say it’s too complicated or there’s too much going on.  I’ll understand.”

“Doesn’t feel very organic.”

“Nope,” Vista said.  “But it’s what we get.  Now I’m going to go find another cot, or I’ll be super self conscious.”

“Nah,” Byron said, getting to his feet before she could.  “Easier for me to get comfortable elsewhere than it is for you.  Let me be the gentleman, as a way of thanking you for being cool.  I’m not good at this whole thing, but it kind of made my week.”

Vista hugged her knees.  “It making your week makes my month.  So there, take that.”

Byron, wearing insulated footie costume feet and sandals, padded his way over to other mattresses, to find one that was unoccupied and in decent enough condition.

Vista, for her part, let herself tip over, until she lay on the mattress, and pulled the blanket over herself.  She saw me looking and winked.

She did end up slipping off into dreamland, not too long after that.  Byron wasn’t in a great position to watch both ends of the hallway, and Rain was reclining with intent to sleep, apparently having worked it out with Theo, so it more or less left Theo and I to maintain watch.

Into the small hours of sunrise, and the light of dawn on an alien Earth.

The dawn brought breakfast, and the plaza was loosely organized with people in line, with guards milling through.  The crowd was dense enough that there wasn’t a place to stand where we could extend our arms fully to each side, and that was a problem.

Our ability to eat was on the line.

“Not enough cameras here,” Kenzie observed.  “They use the guards more.”

The press of bodies would have made identifying incidents hard with the cameras.

It was hard to find a way through the crowd that didn’t put us in a position to get shivved, and I wasn’t ruling that possibility out.

It didn’t look like not eating was a possibility either.  Each person who picked up a bowl to get food had a bracelet put on them.

“Rain and I found some English-speaking prisoners last night,” Theo said.  Even without his armor, Golem was a big guy, and big was useful when we wanted people to get out of our way and give us a bit of space.  It wasn’t enough to give us a clear route, though.

“They were nice enough,” Rain said.  “But I think they didn’t realize who or what we are.”

One of the people in line went to get their food, bowl out.  The person checked their bracelet, ready to slip another on, then grabbed hold of their wrist, holding it up as much as they could while leaning over the serving table.

Guards came and seized the prisoner.  There was no struggle, no resistance.

“Want to know something crazy?” Theo asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “Hit me with it.”

“They want it.  This thing with the meal?  They stretch it out, so you’re hungry, you have to wait in line, you have to push, pull, shove, or you get the shitty food that’s left over when everyone else has eaten, all the chunks gone, and only the broth remaining.  So you do what you can to balance not causing trouble with getting your food, and bam, they check your bracelet, you won the lottery.  Guards grab you, drag you off, and take you into the administration building.”

“Punish you,” Rain added.

“And they want it,” Theo said.  “Most people in line here, they’re hoping for it.”

“Explain that one for me,” Vista said.  I didn’t miss the fact that Vista and Tristan were hanging out.  Everyone had gone to the showers on waking up and while inside the stall Byron had changed to Tristan, Tristan had set the armor aside, changed back to Byron, who’d put it on, then they’d changed back to Tristan for good.  There wasn’t any structure here, so they could do the same thing whenever they needed to swap.

He’d gone straight to Vista to talk.  Last night, eavesdropping hadn’t really been a choice, my only other option had been to stop standing guard and keeping an ear out for trouble, and that didn’t make sense.

“Sentences aren’t really sentences in terms of time,” Theo said.  “The Coalition and the other major civilized nations hate the idea of long sentences and stays in prison, they think it’s barbaric, so they make the stays short, unpredictable, and the punishments harsh.  Getting dragged off means you get punished, yeah, but it also kind of acts like a chance to prove yourself and have a kind of parole hearing in front of ten randomly chosen citizens, where a lot of the time if you give the right answers you get released.”

“The part that got me,” Rain said, “Was that once you’re out, your debt to society is paid.”

“There’s a bloodthirst to the punishment,” Theo said.  “I won’t deny that.  It took my breath away, just hearing it from the prisoners.  But here, at least, they want to knock out your defenses and natural resistance.”

“And brainwash you,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Basically.  I would not say I’d rather come here than go to a prison on Earth, if I’d done something wrong, but… wouldn’t say I’d rather go to a prison on Earth either.”

“The ‘rebuilding’ is supposed to be according to strict rules and shit,” Rain said.  “Revise and uncover coping mechanisms, perspectives, toxic relationships… really big focus on the rehabilitation part.  I’m really not sure how I feel about it.  The idea of going and within a year or three being done?  Being allowed to re-enter society?  That sounds good enough that I could see myself looking past the brainwashing.”

“Poor Rain,” Ashley said, putting a hand on Rain’s shoulder.  “The last few brainwashings really did a number on him.”

“Fuck, don’t scare me like that,” Rain said.

The thought of brainwashing led to me thinking about the hospital room.  I tried to divorce my thoughts from it, and found myself looking at Sveta.

More than a few of us had been brainwashed or affected mentally.  Rain, legitimately.  Ashley, through powers and programming.  Sveta, through Cauldron.  Me, through Amy.  Kenzie had maybe perpetrated it, if blackmail and manipulation of her parents counted.

It looked like one in eight or one in nine people were being pulled out of line.  To be punished, reconditioned.  I saw a family two parents with kids leading their kids by the hands.

That wasn’t really my focus though.  Supposedly we were safe.  We weren’t supposed to be punished.

Supposedly.

My focus was in the crowd.

I looked for the telltale pieces of clothing that weren’t light gray or brown.  Different colors of cloth were woven together to create clashing patterns, and those caught the eye.  But there were places where long hair was braided or woven with cloth, and that caught the eye in the same way.  There were pieces of clothing that had multiple patterns and texture that nearly matched, which made them stand out less.

I wanted to fly, to see over this crowd.  But we had been rendered almost powerless, by politics and not by any interference.

“We should eat,” I said.

“We have to.  If we don’t the guards drag us off and give us a hard time,” Rain said.

“Good to know.  Good research.”

“Thank you.”

Into the crowd.  Our formation was a battle formation, two people watching our flanks, two up front, two at the sides.  Our most vulnerable member was in the middle.

Guards moved through the crowd, jostling people, pausing to question or check them.

A whole group of people walked in row and column, the crowd parting, as they carried covered bowls to the large room I’d observed before.  I’d had a glimpse of the space as I walked to the showers earlier – it was now partitioned off into sub-rooms.  Apparently there was a sub-group of people who viewed eating in public or eating communally to be the equivalent of taking a shit in the company of friends.  Curtain partitions and a mutual expectation to eat in total silence allowed them their privacy.

I saw gang members with prison uniforms and accessories fashioned of old clothes in the midst of the crowd.  One guy, huge, with cloth wrapped around his hands like a kickboxer might do.  A woman with a strip of material  with a tight knot at the end had been stopped by guards.  As we passed, she and the guards she was talking to looked at us.

“Group of weirdos just hit the edge of the crowd at our seven,” Kenzie said.

“Weirdos?  Be more specific,” Rain said, turning to look.

“All dressed in black, bright bandannas.  Camera quality isn’t great.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“And guards,” Ashley said.

The heads-up was late, because the guards were moving through some of the densest parts of the crowd.  They passed that part of the crowd and set their sights on us.

Kenzie discreetly passed something up to her neck, before popping something else into her mouth.  She turned to Rain, motioning toward his sleeves.

Only another moment or two before they were here-

Rain pulled it out, fumbled with it for a second, too long-

Kenzie reached out, pushing the pronged apparatus into Rain’s midsection.  It was set to phase through, but Rain winced like it hurt.  Sveta took the other from Kenzie’s hand, and passed it under her top.

Guards forced us apart, proceeding with a pat-down.  They were young, no older than Tristan, and their expressions were hard, their hands rougher.

Checking us over quickly.

It was a mistake to think the guards and security cameras were enough.  The same woman with the braided shawl from last night stepped out of the crowd.

I’d expected a shiv.  Something prison-issue that had been honed to a point.  Failing that, I expected a flail or weighted object.

Not so.  She flung out an arm in our direction, and something lemon-shaped, metal, and the size of a golf ball came our way, a thread or wire attached.

I reached out to swat at the tiny lemon, ready to use my power, timing the Wretch with the swat, and then reconsidered- power use, could I get away with it?

I could.  I would have, but my hesitation threw off my timing, and I was a hair too late.  The projectile whipped around my hand, carrying the wire with it.  She pulled, and almost all of the skin between the middle three knuckles of my left hand and my wrist was pulled away, wrinkling up around the backs of my fingers, bound in wire.

Fuck, did it ever hurt.  I dropped to my knees, looked back at the guards- and saw the one who had been closest to me stepping back.

She flicked out her other hand, an identical projectile, and it was set to fly around my head.  I could bring one arm up, but it would circle around, catch me at one side of the face.

It curved in the air, ready to whip around, and then sailed straight, instead, cutting the guard’s forearm instead.  He barked out words in a language I didn’t understand.

Unfazed, barely seeming to realize that anything fucky was happening, she just hauled back on the wire, dragging the length of it up my hand, past the knuckles at the base of my fingers, and up to the first knuckle of my index and middle fingers, skin coming off like someone had taken a potato peeler to it.

Theo pulled his shirt off and threw it over the wire before trying to grab it.

I saw him run his fingertips along the edge of the wire, fiercely enough to make them bleed.  I saw some slack appear, as the woman who held the wire-

His fingernails, passing through the wire to lacerate the part of her hand it rested against.

Theo’s efforts individually might not have been effective or very visible, but they gave me some slack to work with, and they did get the attention of someone nearby, the guy with the basket-weave scarf around his neck.  Almost Theo’s size, he barreled out of the crowd and kicked Theo hard in the side of the stomach, sending Theo sprawling into the wire, causing me and the woman with the braided shawl to fall in his direction, as he fell on the wire.  The wire came free, mostly because it had finished its journey, starting at the base of my wrist and scraping its way up to fingertip.  The pain was blinding, and I was dimly aware I’d lost two fingernails along with a good bit of skin.

They said swearing had an anaesthetic effect, making pain easier to handle.  I couldn’t bring myself to worm a word, but I managed to make a noise that anyone, in any language, would interpret as something between scream and invective.

Guards barked words in their language, grabbing and pushing to keep my teammates from helping.  More guards came, only adding to the obstruction, but they didn’t step into the midst of this.

The woman started to reel in her weapons, and I stepped forward, planting my foot on the threads and the wad of my skin that had come off, probably with fingernails attached.  She stepped back, dropping threads, and turned her body away, almost a fencer’s pose.  To hide what she was doing with her right hand.

People had backed away enough I had a moment.  I stooped down, using my good hand to scoop up Theo’s shirt.  She threw another of those lemon golf ball yoyos with thread spooling out, and I used the Wretch, defending myself just enough that the thread would be glance off, be pushed away by the Wretch’s expansion.

A second later, I canceled it, throwing the shirt up and letting it catch on the wire.

I grabbed the cloth and the wire, and used the Wretch to ensure my grip was secure and that the wire wouldn’t cut through cloth and into my hand.

I wasn’t sure what happened next, as I tried to throw it down so I could step on it and make reeling it in hard.  It could have been the Wretch, reaching out with another hand and tugging.  It could have been the way she had the wires arranged for easy deployment.  But it cut her.

She didn’t scream, didn’t yelp, just immediately fell to her knees.  Wire had sliced through her hand from between middle and ring finger to the middle of the palm, with a visible gap.

The pain from the back of my hand made it hard to stand up straight, and hard to take a deep breath.  Every breeze across that area where skin had been flensed away made me want to scream again, or to vomit.

Broad fucking daylight, how many witnesses?  And someone in black clothes with a red loop of cloth at the neck made a run past Sveta, cutting her with a blade, and went straight for Tristan.  Tristan leaped back, groped for an empty bowl, and the man who held the bowl handed it over.

The guy with the knife had skin that looked like the equivalent of hair bleached blonde, too white, damaged, and uneven to be entirely normal.  He made two swings and Tristan held the bowl so it surrounded his fist, punching at the knife swings to deflect them with the wood.  He saw an opening and hopped forward, kicking the attacker in the gut.

The guy with the knife came at Tristan again.  Tristan stood ready, bowl in hand, and the guard who had been searching him earlier gave him a kick from behind, putting him off balance.  The knife slash extended from the side of the wrist to elbow.

Someone stepped out of the crowd, toward Tristan.

The guard intoned a single word in another language.

I didn’t need to guess what it was.  It was easy enough to tell, as Tristan took one step away from the conflict and toward the crowd, like he hoped to escape this.

People closed ranks.  Men stepped in front of women.  Rain tried to circle around behind the guy with the knife, only for someone in the crowd to grab him, throw him to one side, and kick him in the hip.  He rolled onto his back as a couple of people stepped closer to him.  A mob.

I saw a glimmer of silver at his fingertips.  He dismissed it before it took any form.  It could have been mistaken for a trick of light through the snowy glass ceiling above the plaza.

Rain’s attempt to stand saw him wince, dropping to one knee.  People looked ready to deliver another kick if he got close enough, but he couldn’t get closer to the knife wielder.  Without his powers available, he remained where he was, one hand at his hip.

Every last one of them against us.

Because we were parahumans.

Fuck.  Goals.  What did they want?

They wanted to frame us.  They wanted an excuse to force the issue with their trade deal.  To get their people into our city, where they’d have their own kind of influence.

Vista backed away as the guard who had been holding her lost his grip on her arm.  Toward Tristan, a little closer to the guy with the knife.

What had I said to Ashley, back on the train?  Every little bit mattered.  Every ally made, every reinforcement of positive expectations.  It counted toward a greater something.

Here, that something wasn’t in play.  Here, a small, powerful group led by a small, powerful person had frittered away any and all currency they had with the public, turning to force instead.

Every time a parahuman pulled out a gun because it was easier, or crossed lines, or went after families, or threw away all pretense of showmanship to go hard at the efficient, rational route, they were edging us collectively toward this.

Could we win, if we went all out?  Probably.  But would that lead us to a world we wanted to live in?

No.

Needed to find a way out, when surrounded by hundreds who hated us on principle.  By authority and institution that had no reason to take it easy or to tell the truth.

“We stopped Goddess, damn it,” I said, through pants for breath.

“We stopped her!” Tristan raised his voice, far louder than I was.  “Any of you speak English?  Tell them!”

Nobody translated for us.

Too angry.  Too riled up.  This wasn’t a prison like I was used to seeing on television or in movies, but it was a prison with its own pressures and influences.  People needed an outlet, after months or years of having their lives on hold.

They needed blood.  Punishment.

“Vista,” I said.

“Mm?” she responded with a sound, not a word.

“They want us to bleed.”

The guy with the knife came after her.

“Fuck it,” Vista said.

The guy tripped, his foot finding no traction, and he sprawled.  Vista walked up to him, stepped on the back of his neck on her way to step onto the wrist of the hand that held the knife.

She drove her heel down, grinding the back of the hand until the knife was released.  A good old prison shiv, instead of some razor wire bola bullshit.

“You want blood?” she asked, turning to face the crowd.

The guards didn’t look impressed, and looked wholly ready to come after her.

She cut the back of her hand, a single slash.

“How’s that?  Satisfied?  Is this what you want?” she asked, raising her voice.  “Blood?  These guys gave you enough blood when they put their lives on the line to stop your tyrant!”

Someone in the crowd translated this time.

Vista grabbed the blade and snapped it off.  I suspected she had used her power to thin it enough it would easily break.  She threw the blade to one side and the handle to the other.

Ashley wasn’t too bloody, but she hadn’t really fought, except to drop to the ground, a guy looming over her, her eyes narrowed at him.  Kenzie had a bloody nose.  Sveta had been cut, and the wound around the cut was zipper-flesh, her new ribbons, no longer meeting around the injury.  But it was a small cut.

Tristan and I had the worst injuries, objectively.

We’d cheated some, using powers, but not in such a way that they could easily point fingers at any of it.  Not in a way that -I glanced around, looking for cameras, and failed to find any- would play badly in video form.

No, they’d wanted us to bleed and we’d bled.

I saw heads turn, I saw expressions change.  People peeled away, moving toward the breakfast serving area, and in their push to get further from us and this scene, they barely left breathing room for one another.  The clearing expanded around us and the perpetrators who hadn’t yet backed off.  Some guards, some prisoners.

The reason the heads had turned, though…

On one of the raised walls overlooking the plaza, my sister looked down at my injured self.

“What do you want?” Sveta asked her, because I didn’t have the breath.  Pain lowered my defenses, this scene kicked what lay behind those defenses in the tits.

“I’m supposed to look after you, keep an eye out for trouble.”

“Fuck you,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” Amy said.  She sounded disappointed.

I tried my best to ignore her, turning my attention to the mess on the floor.  Wire lay limp on the ground, and mixed in with it was some general debris, food slop that had dripped from bowls, dust made moist and collected into tiny amounts of mud with the tromp of feet and more of the food, and the blood spatters from our various injuries.  Globs of blood dripped from the back of my hand.

“I’ll testify I saw this happen, you did nothing but defend yourselves.”

“That would be appreciated,” Theo said.

I found what I was looking for, tangled in wire.  My skin.  Only one fingernail attached at one corner, where the finger skin had folded in and stuck all together.

I did not like my flesh being where it wasn’t supposed to be, especially while hearing that voice.

Amy spoke down to us from her perch on the wall.  “Citrine is here.  She heard about you guys being arrested and she’s working on it.  Wardens obviously know too, but they’re wrapped up in a new crisis or something.  What do you say we get you cleaned up and see you guys to the visitor center?  I’ll crisis manage in the meantime.”

A dozen wretched feelings stirred within me, and combined with the pain and revulsion of the detached bit of flesh, and the stress of all of this, I spat up a mouthful of bile.

“Sure,” she said.  “That-”

I spat off to one side to clear my mouth of the remainder of it.

“Sorry,” I said, not to Amy, but to my team.  “How’s it, Tristan?”

“Definitely need stitches,” he said, keeping a wary eye on the wall.

“Kenz?”

“I walked into a guard’s elbow, that’s all.”

“Sveta?”

Sveta made a face.  Her arm took wounds in a strange way.

Theo had been lacerated when he fell against the wire shirtless.  Almost as bad as Tristan’s cut.  Vista had the cut on her hand.

“Let’s get looked after,” I said.  The ‘uk’ part of ‘looked’ almost saw me vomit from purely reactionary factors again.  “Go see Citrine.”

“Can we get medical attention?” Ashley asked one guard.  She still knelt on the ground, still wore that tense expression.

The guard pointed.  Same direction as the showers.

He had been a participant, but hadn’t been one to actively kick or shove, except whatever he’d done to handle Ashley.

There were worse people to follow.

We headed toward the showers and the medical area that lay beyond.  Some of us supported others.  Sveta held the bridge of Kenzie’s nose.  Theo leaned on me.  Rain leaned on Ashley, limping.  Our priorities were to get help for Tristan and Theo.  Or Theo, at the very least, if we could manufacture a situation to swap Tristan out.

“We do this for Gimel.  If anyone isn’t comfortable pushing forward with this, if you’re scared or if you need out, we could-”

God, I hated to say it.

“-Ask for some strings to be pulled, favors called in,” I finished.

Even with my offer, nobody seemed especially intent on escaping or going.  They knew the importance of getting those supplies for Gimel.  Even if it meant enduring a gauntlet.

We’d have to be more careful.  If the Wardens were busy, most likely with Teacher, we were largely alone in this.  We had us, we had Kenzie’s group, we had Undersiders, maybe, and we had Citrine, who we were about to chat with.

Again, I looked up at the perch, absent my sister.  She’d disappeared around the time I’d puked.  Just… walked away.  The opposite of help.

But there was no reassurance in her being gone, definitely no reassurance in her being here.  I wouldn’t even be reassured, I worried, by escaping this place and leaving Shin well behind me.  She’d proven she could pull me in if the right crisis was manufactured.  This, in so many ways, was her world.

The only peace I could be sure of would be to remove her from it, to remove her from Gimel.  Something permanent.

I hoped with every last iota of my being that the Wardens would be intact enough after the Teacher raid to make a level-headed call on the subject of Amy.  I certainly didn’t trust myself or my team to make that unbiased call, not after this.

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Breaking – 14.7

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Chris’s brash chortle of a laugh formed the backdrop of the tense, otherwise silent few seconds as every cape present tried to figure out what the fuck we were supposed to do.

“This isn’t a joke,” Luis said.  The way he stood, the light didn’t catch his eyes, so the sockets were cast into shadow.

“I know.  I just can’t- your sheer cojones,” Chris said.

Yosef and the woman I was assuming was his wife looked at their translator, then at Luis.  Both clasped hands together, Luis in front of him, Yosef behind him, and shrugged.

Weird, the things that ended up so similar, in societies so distinct.

“Balls,” Chris clarified, with a roll of his eyes.

“You’re not helping,” Amy said.

“You’re implying I should be.”

I looked at Miss Militia, and she raised her eyebrows.  Her scarf was pulled down, as she’d removed it when we’d all removed our masks, and her lips were pressed into a firm line.

She wasn’t speaking up.

I turned to look at my team.  Sveta looked faintly angry, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was Amy, and how much was this being a slap in the face to someone who’d tried to realize their humanity, only to be defined by how human she wasn’t.

Tristan held a pose almost like Ashley’s usual one, a little arrogant, like someone who was standing a little extra taller because they expected to be knocked down a peg at any moment.

Ashley was unmoving, her eyes dark in how white they were.

Kenzie smiled, hands fidgeting.  But for the movement of my head to look over at the others, I was still, only my eyes moving.  Kenzie’s head was constantly turning, looking to her older teammates for reassurance or guidance.  In the midst of her looking at each member of Breakthrough, she looked for and turned her attention to Chris.  I heard a faint sigh from her.

And Rain, as odd as it was, seemed most at peace with this.  Most focused, and most himself in this alien place.

“We’ll cooperate,” I said, while my head was turned to my team, not the others.  Nobody flinched, nobody bucked or rebelled.  They knew.  We had to.

“I assume Natalie isn’t included in this,” I added.

“She isn’t,” Luis said.  He didn’t even have to look at the other groups for input.  Because we were being arrested purely because of who and what we were.  Parahumans.  Ones they couldn’t trust or pretend to control.

The younger Wardens exchanged a couple of words.  Vista, Golem.

“Okay,” Vista told Miss Militia.

“We’ll cooperate,” Miss Militia echoed my phrasing.

Scribe-boys scribbled.  The room seemed to accept the answer with what I might have called a quiet kind of smugness, not smirking, not gloating or lording over us, but… maybe self-satisfied was the word.

And then there was Amy.  Staring at me.  How many times had she been at the periphery when things went to shit?

Fuck it.  I’d made my decisions.  She didn’t warrant more thoughts until it came to figuring out what to do, and when it came to that, it would be the Wardens who had the power to make the decision, and I would make my biased argument, citing my warning to Jessica about Amy.

Past that, I had other things to concern myself with.

The translators finished.  A few words were exchanged in foreign tongue.  Miss Militia seemed to relax slightly, though calling her relaxed would have been a lie.  She’d put the power into our hands because her decreeing it meant something different than us agreeing on our own behalf.

Luis stepped forward, toward the center of the room, and talked in his foreign tongue, addressing the other groups.  One of the men in the conservative muumuu-style outfits stepped forward.

It was our turn to be outsiders, needing the translation.  Miss Militia supplied it, telling us, “They have different types of prison for different types of criminal, they’re deciding where to put us.  Rehabilitative, holding, reconstruction, castigation, devastation.  I’m-”

Devastation?” Rain asked.

“I was about to say I’m butchering the translation.”

“Please tell me there’s a really frontloaded curve that favors rehabilitation,” Sveta said.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Kind of.  They don’t punish for minor crimes the way we do.  They don’t have traffic laws or drug laws in the same way.  But they punish harshly for wrongdoing or even accidents.  Luis is arguing for holding.  Aian is arguing for us to be held in a reconstruction facility.”

Aian was the guy in the muumuu, though the outfit wasn’t bright and hung heavier than a normal muumuu.  His beard was thick and dark, his eyes narrow.  His hair was long but tied back straight against the scalp.  When speaking, he repeatedly held up or held out a hand, bent back so the wrist stuck forward, fingers and thumb curled in to rest against the flat palm.

“Reconstruction sounds scarier than castigation,” Sveta said, “assuming it means what I think it means.”

Rain guessed, “Break someone down, build them up the way you want, instead of just… breaking them?”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “And I agree, Sveta.  But I’m not sure if they plan to actually punish us or take action.  It would be the quality of the facilities given.  Food, the amount of sleep we’re allowed, outside communication.”

“You don’t sound certain they’re not going to punish us or do something more serious.”

“This is symbolic,” Miss Militia said.  “They want to stress they have power.  If they do want to punish us I’ll argue to take on the punishment on behalf of my subordinates.  There’s precedent.”

“Punishment like… lashes?” Rain asked.

“Flogging was mentioned,” Miss Militia said, stoic, doing double duty in explaining and listening.  “They’ve argued down to bloodless lashes.”

Beating?” Rain asked.

“I understand it to be water,” Miss Militia said.  “I won’t say more out of concern for Lookout, here.”

“If you’re afraid of scaring me, don’t worry.  I hang out with Heartbroken.  I don’t scare easy.  I’d rather know.  I like knowing stuff.”

“She would,” Ashley said.

“Water buckets.  They tie you in place and splash you, hot enough to almost burn or ice water, no rhyme, reason, or timing.”

“You’d faint,” Tristan said.  “We’ve looked into stuff relating to cold water because Byron.  With hot water and sudden temperature changes, you’re talking syncope -fainting-, arrythmia, low blood pressure?”

“They may give drugs to keep us from fainting.  I suspect they’d rather we faint, they wake us up or wait until we wake naturally, then resume the process.  There’s a very real motivation here to see us brought low and repeated faintings would qualify, I think.”

“If I could swap out to Byron that’d work,” Tristan said.

“If it comes down to bloodless lashings for Byron, Tristan, then it’ll be your entire team, Vista, Golem, and myself,” Miss Militia said.

“I’m kind of regretting agreeing to cooperate,” Tristan said.

“I’m not,” I said, keeping my voice low.  “No, this is… fuck this, especially if they’re going after a kid like Kenzie-”

“They’d relish the chance,” Miss Militia interrupted.

“Yay,” Kenzie said, her voice small.

“Sorry.  You said you wanted to know.”

“I do.  Thank you, you’re super nice, but I’m a tiny bit scared now.  Plus I think I’d have to disconnect and that’d make me more scared.”

“Disconnect from?” Miss Militia asked.

“My team’s headquarters.”

“Kid Win was similar,” Vista said.  “My old teammate.  Couldn’t take him away from his workshop too long or he’d get antsy.”

“Haha, yeah,” Kenzie said.  Then, as if renewing her efforts, she launched into quiet chatter with a different tone, “At least we’re somewhere pretty.  Every building, all the clothes, the language-”

“Something nice to say about anyone, even the guys who are jailing us?” Tristan asked.

“I’m sure they have good reasons.”

I repeated myself, “I don’t think this is right, I don’t think this is okay, especially if it involves Kenzie or people who are only here for functional purposes, like Vista or Golem.  But I’d rather stay and go through their charade if it means securing supplies for people back on Gimel.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  “I’ve been hurt before.  I just don’t want to be hurt and alone.”

She wasn’t talking about her computers or tech.  She was linked in to Darlene and possibly the others.

“I won’t let it happen,” Ashley said.

Kenzie made a nervous sound, halfway to a laugh.  “I hope so.  Just a bit nervous now.  Not that I don’t believe in you.”

Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s head.  “Be brave, look confident.”

“Their motivation isn’t the pain,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s about posture and position.  They’re playing a game of chicken, knowing we could threaten them, but they hold supplies hostage.  Even if we went to war, which we absolutely won’t and can’t do, we wouldn’t have their cooperation or supplies in the meantime, and that would cost us too much.”

“Please tell me Luis is arguing for something milder and winning that argument,” Sveta said.

“He’s arguing,” Miss Militia said.  Answering only part of the statement.

As if her words had been a mechanism, Luis fell silent, his argument ended.

Aian said something in response.  I could see Miss Militia’s posture change.  I could see Aian in the boxy robes punch a fist out to his left.

With the way the groups were arranged, Luis’s group, the Founders, were to our left.  There was a group that hadn’t spoken yet, then Yosef’s, two more groups that had been mostly silent, then Aian’s.  To Aian’s left was the group with my mother, father, Marquis, Spruce, and Chris.

And my sister.  Aian’s fist extended to her, specifically.

“It’s about making a statement about them too,” I said.  “The parahumans who came to Shin.  Chris, Marquis… telling them their place.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.

“They want them to handle the arrest, put us in our cells.”

“Yes.  And to handle any punishments.  Aian just cut through several of Luis’s arguments by saying that punishments can be more pointed because Amelia Claire Lavere can be ordered to maintain our health,” Miss Militia said, her voice overlapping Luis’s rebuttal, which was quickly followed by a response from Aian.  “If we refuse, if she refuses, we’re clearly lying in reassuring them, either Amy’s too dangerous, we’re too dangerous, or both.”

Okay.  I was on the same page as Tristan now.  Didn’t expect hardball to this degree.

What else could we do though?

“Are they being influenced by Teacher?” Ashley asked.  “This feels pointed.”

“This is how they politic, I’m afraid,” Miss Militia said.   “This seems normal.”

I spoke, “When we investigated Teacher, it all seemed normal or excusable.  Things so close to reality you could believe it happened.  You had to look at the end results and the consequences to find patterns.”

“Luis and his Founders are center, as far as we’re concerned, joined by the group to his right.  Normally the Coalition balances it out, and with my voice or another Gimel voice we can strike a healthy compromise.  The Coalition being absent could be Teacher.”

With them gone, the guys in the ‘center’ were our best advocates.

And our best advocates, Luis’s faction- he was stepping down and back, no longer one of the people speaking.  Ceding the floor to Aian.  Ceding a victory to Aian.

Aian talked, his voice low, and he did all of the talking, with only a periodic one or two word comment or agreement from other groups.  Luis was entirely silent.

Fuck me.  Gary had stirred shit up to score a political victory at home, and caused an inter-earth incident in the process, painting their parahuman saviors and neighbors in the worst light possible.  We went to handle that, just so we could go after Teacher without worrying about what’s happening in the background, and we faced imprisonment, torture, public humiliation…

And worse than imprisonment and torture.  We faced my sister.  My sister who was ‘not well’, according to my mother.  Who was spiraling out, doing her best to mitigate that spiral by moving slowly.  I wasn’t sure her best was very good.

I was even less sure it would be good if she was forced to cooperate in our torture and humiliation.  My torture and humiliation.

The feeling, now, was of something institutional and wholly unfair, something biased against us, that was now dragging us inch by inch toward something ugly.  To my sister being made to lay hands on us, on me, all while being in the worst fucking state possible to handle her shit.  And she hadn’t been handling it.

Aian squared his shoulders, moved his arm, and faced us.  Yosef’s wife approached to stand beside and one step behind him.

When he spoke to address us, his voice was faintly nasal and insistent.  His translator’s voice was normal, but the opening of each statement overlapped with the end of Aian’s.

“All but Militia will stay in a reconstruction facility, where you will join the rounds.  Miss Militia will return to Gimel and explain the situation.”

The ’rounds’ – I  only had to look at Miss Militia’s expression to know how things had gone.    I didn’t miss her glancing at Kenzie.

“If I may-” Miss Militia started.

“You may not.”

“If I may!” Miss Militia raised her voice.

There were murmurs, there was chatter.

Aian ceded, his hand moving to motion her to come closer.

“A general can take the punishment for their men.”

“Are you a general?  You dress as one but you insisted you were something else.”

“I am not someone who leads battles against humankind.  I am someone who leads battle against monsters and fights to make humanity shine brighter.  These people have fought under or alongside me.”

Aian answered.  The translator translated, “Your Wardens, yes.  Breakdown-”

Luis coughed a word.  The translator corrected himself.

“-Breakthrough is not yours.”

“They are my responsibility.  I will stay and I will take any punishment you see fit, as much as I disagree.”

“You will go,” the translator translated for Aian.  “Because we want someone we can trust going between us and Gimel.”

“I will not see people, many of them not quite adults in the eyes of our government, punished for the crimes of adults.”

“Punishments with kind intent and purpose.”

Ashley put her hands on Kenzie’s collarbone, pulling her back into Ashley’s front in a protective hug.

“Unacceptable,” Miss Militia said.  “Our memory is long when it comes to this sort of thing.  You will hurt relations far more than you realize.  I told you from the beginning, they’ve earned goodwill.”

“Then imprisonment until the trade deal is signed and new protections agreed to.  We are insistent on having our presence and security affirmed.  And if these parahumans cause trouble, they will bleed for it.  The so-called Red Queen will ensure they don’t bleed too much.”

“That should be fine,” Miss Militia said.  “It won’t come to that.”

“Do you say that because you know they’ll cause trouble and you’re at peace with the politics of it, or because you’re lying to yourself?”

“Being parahuman doesn’t mean trouble is inevitable.  Have I caused you trouble?”

“You have the gall to ask that after raising your voice in here, threatening us?”

“I made no threat.”

“You are a threat.  You have the power, I’ve been told, to kill all of us here.  Our soldiers might shoot you, but these others you’ve brought with you could kill them, for all we know.”

The ‘walk softly and carry a big stick’ might have been something they prized, but the moment we didn’t speak softly…

Aian spoke, giving the order.  His translator voiced it in English.  “Take them.”

My eye fell on Amy.  The fear that ran through me had a grip to it, paralyzing.  They were putting me in her charge, and I’d just told her off.  I’d just been harsh with her.

Did that impact her willingness to obey?  I had a fundamental understanding of her yet I had zero idea what she might do.  If pushed, did she refuse, try to prove herself to me by refusing to take action against me?  Did she go the other way?

Which was worse?

Did she internalize all of this and slip further?  All it had taken for Hunter might have been a similar hair color and appearance, a bit of exhaustion, and Amy had slipped, had made a critical error.

If we said no, fought, ran, or brought war to their doorstep, then they rescinded aid.  We would take the blame, and they would claim a victory in that, having brought us low and reminded us of our place.

“Us too?” my mother asked.

“You’re the custody of the Red Queen,” the translator said.  “Her responsibility is yours.  Your dereliction is hers.”

This is why they need help escaping.  They were roped in with Amy.  If they left, it was deemed Amy’s failure.  Prisoners in the loosest sense.

We’d had to make our decision.  The Shin parahumans now had to make theirs.  Marquis had no reason to be fond of us but in a weird way I could trust him most.  My dad.  My mom.  Spruce.  Chris.  Amy.  As I got to the last name on that list, the amount of trust I had in the individual dwindled.

Fuck.

I nodded, mostly to myself, and that seemed to be the signal that gave permission to the Shin parahuman group.  Not as organic as Miss Militia leaving Breakthrough to make a call without any input from her, but… whatever.

“What do I do?” Natalie asked.

“Go with them.  You’ll be the back and forth for them and Gimel,” Miss Militia told her.  “Come back here, report to me.  They should treat you well.”

“Damn.  Okay,” Natalie said.

“All of you do your best, avoid responding to any taunts or tricks,” Miss Militia said, her voice quiet enough for just our group.  She turned to Vista.  “And if it comes down to it and it seems they intend to castigate you or anything like that, escape.”

I spoke, “That would mean-”

“Escape,” she interrupted me, turning to me.  “Any of you, if it comes to it, escape.  If it gets that bad, if they’re willing to go that far, trade may not be possible, the situation wouldn’t be salvageable.  At least like this, it was superficially a charade, a heavy-handed moving of segments of the political machine.  We can recover from it.  But we can’t sacrifice people to that machine.”

“Got it,” Vista said.

“For the love of God, be good,” Miss Militia said.  She said it to Vista and Golem, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t intended for them.  It would have been crass to say it to us, and she wasn’t crass.

“What are you guys going to do in the meantime?” I asked.  I shifted my footing, signaling I was asking about Teacher.

“Just focus on yourselves.  We’ll work something out.  This should only be a few days at most before we work it out.  In the meantime, I think they want you to give them an excuse, they can punish you, and use the film of act and punishment for their political enrollments or even televising it for the public.”

“Political enroll- nevermind,” Tristan said, changing his tune as Marquis and the others drew closer.  He looked at Vista, who had her chin set.  She didn’t look anywhere near happy about this.  “This is screwed up.”

“It’s theater.  We’re capes, theater is part of it,” Ashley said.

“Well said,” Miss Militia told her.

Behind Chris, Spruce, and Marquis, I could see my parents and Amy.  Amy hesitated, then approached until she stood beside Marquis.  A diplomat from Aian’s contingent accompanied them.  No doubt to show them where the hell they were going.

“Would it be tactless for us to use weapons?” Marquis asked.

“It might be best,” Miss Militia said.

“Would it, now?”

“You’re effectively their parahumans.  Your weapons and clout are theirs.  Show off a bit if you must.”

Marquis made a hand motion like he was snapping a finger in reverse, and the snap produced a rapier-thin blade from his middle finger.  He waved it in the air before settling on Tristan, Golem, and Rain, bidding them to move.  Spruce joined him.

“Come on,” Chris said.  He pushed Ashley’s shoulderblade hard enough she had to take a step and as part of that, had to manage Kenzie, who was standing just in front of her.  “Let’s go.  I want to get back to my own stuff.”

When she didn’t move fast enough, he gave her another push.  She shot him a look over her shoulder, her neck and jaw tense enough that lines and muscles stood out.

“It’s only going to get worse when you’re in there.  Suck it up.”

“Theatrics,” my mother said, as she walked into the midst of our group.  She smiled at Natalie.  “Earning your pay, hm?”

Natalie’s responding smile was weak.

“I’ll make it up to you,” my mother said.

“I believe you.”

My mother produced a coruscating spike in her hand.  I knew the energy she made could be diffused or left ‘sharp’, and I imagined she’d picked something that would burn at worst, if someone were to walk fast enough into it.

I’d wanted her to guide me.  But she didn’t, instead putting a hand on Sveta’s shoulder.  Because she didn’t think – there was a dwindling number of people to manage us.

“Regretting sending mom here?” I asked, approaching my dad, because the alternative was that he wouldn’t think either, and I’d be left with Amy guiding me.

I didn’t walk a straight line to my dad, either.  I took the path that kept him between Amy and myself.  She had a look in her eyes that was somewhere between wounded and hopeful, constantly changing, and my little maneuver pushed things into the ‘wounded’ for the time being.

Though he held his arm straight out in front of him, the hand he put on my shoulder wasn’t one that gripped me hard.  It was almost reassuring.

“It saved her life,” he said.

Right.  Of course.  “Sorry.”

“I’m sorry this is happening this way.”

I shook my head.

Besides the fact that Amy was behind me and I had no idea what she was doing, besides the fact that she’d tried to grab me from behind once already, and had chased after me more than once in the time since Gold Morning…

No, I’d rather bite the bullet and keep the peace.  How did it go?  Rule of law, then right and wrong, and if neither of those worked, reach out for counsel?  If none of that was possible, do what I could do without regrets?

This was the law here.  It was ridiculous and unjust, pure farce for political points and to apply pressure on another government.

“Fuck me with a salted log, do not fucking touch me,” Vista said.

I turned to look.  Amy, with about a foot of distance between a reaching or motioning hand and Vista.

“I don’t want to fall behind,” Amy said.  “This is hard enough.”

“Give me a second.”

“You’re going to make them suspicious.”

Vista didn’t budge, staring Amy down.  In the meantime, my dad and I were stopped, while the others left the room.  Miss Militia remained where she was, a short distance from Vista and Amy.

“Be good,” Miss Militia told Vista.  This time, the words really did seem meant for Vista.

“I am.  But if it comes down to it, I’m not going to have a squad of soldiers who I don’t know or trust at my back without taking steps.”

Miss Militia looked around.  “You undid it?”

“Just finished,” Vista said.

She walked, Amy following, guards following Amy.  Vista didn’t hurry, and the result was to create a good fifteen or twenty foot gap between myself and Amy.

Natalie hurried to catch up to my dad and I.

“You coping?” I asked.

“I should be asking you that.”

“Life as a cape.  Before I even had powers, I made myself stay up until I heard my parents come back in.  My dad taught me some first aid from pretty early on.”

“I didn’t know you stayed up,” my dad said.

I ignored that, addressing Natalie, “Are you managing though?  You’ll be going home, maybe report to people or tell them what Miss Militia’s more or less going to say so she can focus on other things.  Then, I imagine, a… stiff drink?”

“I can’t drink when anxious,” she said.  “I have a… guy.  Kind of but not really a boyfriend.  Does that sound awful?”

“No,” I said.  “A guy sounds really nice.”

“We’re in a fuzzy territory.  It doesn’t matter, you have bigger things to worry about.  I’ve got someone to give me a hug when I need it, that’s what matters.  I’ll call him once I’m in range for cellular service.”

“Good,” I said.

“I don’t want to sound rude, but… I didn’t expect family to be such a factor.  Carol’s… very different.”

“She’s recovering,” my dad said.

“Yeah.  I get that.”

A glass-covered, glass-walled tunnel with snowbanks on either side separated buildings.

“I’ve talked to Vista a few times,” Natalie said.  Her voice was quieter.  “She sounded really unlike herself just now, talking to Amy.  Scared.”

“Amy’s not that scary.  She’s a good person who’s been through a lot, like most parahumans,” my dad said.

“Vista’s been through a lot.  She’s level-headed, she’s smart, she’s experienced- fuck, she’s more experienced than me, I’m pretty sure.  And she’s scared.  I’m scared.”

“Singular bad experiences, traumas or histories of trauma, and our mental issues can screw up the tools we use to determine if we should fight, fly, or freeze.”

It hurt, hearing that.

“So can love,” I said.  I looked at my mom’s back.  “And guilt, shame.”

It wasn’t a short walk to the prison.  We pulled hoods up and helmets on as we left the warmth of building interiors, the young politician that was showing us the way passing us on to a guy in a guard’s uniform.  We walked past groups of people, all dressed more like Luis than any of the other delegates.

Our destination was a building that looked to be a stout castle, split in two and separated, with an office building growing out of the divide, concrete and tinted windows covered in bars.  Wrought iron fences with whole sections wrought to be bent to right angles, spikes rising up from the face of it in echoes of the multitude of medieval-style towers that leaned out and then up from buildings around us.

Just a few days.  No alternative, we did this, we let the Wardens handle shit and work out an alternative, and we went back.  If we couldn’t, we’d break out.  We had the means.

The cold was biting enough that I was glad to be indoors.  I was less glad that the lobby before the internal prison gates was as small as it was.

I was very aware of Amy entering the space, of her proximity to me, and to everyone else.  Vista avoided being within arm’s reach, and on Amy’s opposite side, guards did the same.  It made everything else more squashed with the sudden influx being what it was.

My dad went to her side, creating a buffer of space where others could move closer without being in immediate proximity.

I’d complained the greenhouse patio was claustrophobic.  This was worse.

From alien political pressure to cold to claustrophobia.  There wasn’t any time or place since I’d entered this damn world that I’d felt capable of breathing.

Vista had talked about how the little things went underappreciated.  That the public would never know about the monsters being slain, the nascent S-class threats that never grew beyond a certain point or figured out how to use their full potential, because the PRT or the Wardens had stepped in.

With orders and directions given in a language we didn’t understand, we were all filed off together into an adjacent area.  The Western of the two half-castles.

Co-ed shower, with only a dividing wall up to my shoulder.

We had to.  As much as I could briefly entertain the notion that we might eventually have to say ‘fuck it’ and stop caring as much about what civilians thought, in practice, if aid for millions was on the line, I’d eat the shit, I’d endure.

I’d fucking endure my sister being here, of all things.

I just had to hope our more temperamental and unreliable allies could keep it toned down.  That we could manage this for the one or two days it was necessary.

We handed over gear, piece by piece, slowly, with multiple guards keeping weapons trained on us.  Because we’d cooperated this far, but when asked to hand over phones, keys, pens, loose change, that was when we’d pull out guns and open fire, right?

Fuck me.  Fuck this.

“Amy doesn’t need to be here,” I said, as I finished removing the stuff in my pockets and started removing ornamentation, like the decoration at my hood and shoulders.

She looked at my mom, as if for confirmation, then said, “I kind of do but-”

Think,” I said.  “Find two rational thoughts, put them together, and think about it, please.”

“I am.  I’m aware this is awkward.  But they want this.  They want us to watch you and I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go.”

I could have choked on the anger I felt.

“Come keep an eye on me,” Tristan said.  “Give Victoria her space.”

Amy was just short enough that only the top of her head, still covered by her hood, was visible over the top of the divider.

I pulled off the outer layers of my costume, my mom and two guards looking, a third guard looking over my red letter – my paperwork from the portal.  They checked me over, one guard examining me, another going over my clothes inch by inch, while I stood on the clammy floor, still with beads of moisture and droplets from when prisoners had used the space.

They let me change back into the tank top and costume leggings I’d been wearing, and they gave me simple shoes and socks to wear.  I kept the socks in my pocket, slipping wet feet into the shoes.  Wet socks would be worse and would get the shoes wet anyway.

I wanted more.  The protection of the heavy coat, a barrier between me and everything else.

After they finished Sveta, I settled into position, still in the stall, my arms resting on the divide between Sveta’s stall and my own, my chin resting on my arms.  My position let me keep an eye on the others while keeping Amy in my peripheral vision.

“You have scars,” Amy cut into my thoughts.

From a vantage point on the boy’s side -she’d moved to higher ground to be able to see faces above the shoulder-high divider- she could see my head and the arm that rested on top.  I dropped my arm and covered the topmost scar with my hand.  Notches where the acid centipedes had raked me.

I pulled the hand away, anger and hate and bitter feelings boiling up.  I could have used my aura or power, if it wouldn’t have been so costly.  Fuck me.

“Don’t follow through with that thought,” Vista said, so I didn’t have to.

I saw Amy look momentarily frustrated and lost.  She looked to my mom, who didn’t respond.  She looked to my dad.

“Hostility doesn’t help any of us,” my dad said.

“Technically speaking,” Chris said.

“Oh my god, please shut up, Chris,” Vista said.

The guard barked a word at her in a foreign tongue.  He was checking her hair.

“I think he said to be quiet,” Marquis said.

“Hostile execution of a certain world-conquering tyrant got me my current position.  A kind of diplomatic immunity,” Chris said.  “Hostility is great, if you have good timing.”

“There are more than a few hostile things I could say to you,” Ashley said.  “The mildest of them is that you’re tiresome.”

The guards moved on from Vista to Ashley, taking the dress from where she’d already hung it over the same divider that made it so I could only see her head, and made it impossible to see Kenzie at the far end of the row.

“Tiresome, says the wannabe villainess who can’t drop the same old act.  Nobody’s impressed, Ash.”

“Hey,” Kenzie said.  “Leave her alone.”

“I almost had a morsel of respect for you, tidbit,” Chris told her, his voice echoing just a bit more in the room with its open area and hard surfaces.  “Leaving this trainwreck was a good idea.”

“I didn’t want to leave.”

“Okay, then I’ve changed my mind about the morsel of respect.  You could be so great, so powerful.  And what are you doing?  You’re obsessing over making friends, the one thing you’re worst at.”

“Like you’re any better?” Tristan asked.

“Don’t say it like that,” Sveta said.  “She does have friends.”

The guards were looking a little anxious about the chatter and debate, all in a language they didn’t understand.

Marquis stepped forward, to put a hand on Chris’s shoulder.  He leaned in close to say something, but Chris didn’t really stop, shrugging it off.

I made a short, small whistle, and when they looked my way, I had my hand at the side of my head, at my left ear, fingers in my hair.  Our signal, meant for me to calm down.

My team, at least, chilled out, with emphasis on the bitterest sense of chill.  Some turned their backs.  Kenzie had hopped up onto the bench in her stall, and peered over the wall at Chris.  She’d removed her headband and pin.

“So you have friends,” Chris said.  “Tell me when you keep them for more than a month without fucking it up.”

Fuck me, I thought for a second Marquis might have said or done something.  He certainly tried to get Chris to quietly leave.  The rest of my team, myself included, held their tongues while simultaneously wanting to backhand Chris.

Kenzie smiled at him, “It’s been a little while, actually.  Um.  I’m sure I’m wearing on them-”

“Imagine that,” Chris said.

I still had to talk to her.  There hadn’t been a great chance.  Too many red flags had popped up.  I wanted to do it while out of Teacher’s sight, and with this circumstance, I couldn’t.

“Um!  Hm.  But I kind of really love them, like, crazy friend-crushing on some of them and crush-crushing on Chicken Little.  My first ever crush-crush.”

“Imagine that,” Chris said.  “You in love.  That’s like saying a trash fire is hot.  That poor Chicken is going to get burned.”

“I don’t know.  I’m not sure.  They get me in ways nobody else has.  I think there’s a way forward, even if I am a trash fire.”

“You aren’t,” Sveta said.

“Okay, thank you.  Anyway, it’s neat.  That’s your catch-me-up on the happenings of Kenzie.”

“The inherent humor in seeing you get thrown in the clink is the only thing holding my interest right now.”

“And Ashley- what?”

The guard was turning Kenzie around.  Her turn.

Out of sight, Kenzie pitched her voice higher to be heard.  “Ashley’s actually really neat to be around in whole new ways nowadays.  She’s grown and she’s warmer sometimes, and she’s still super cool.”

“A compliment from you is like herpes from a hooker, Kenz.  It’s a given.”

“I think you’d be surprised.  She’s changing and she’s trying to change, and even if I only get breakfasts-”

The guard barked at her.

“He’s saying to stop talking,” Marquis supplied.

“How do you say ‘that won’t happen’?” Tristan asked.  “She’s a talker.”

Marquis paused, smiled, and said a single word.

The guard heaved out a sigh.

“I think that was ‘can’t’,” Marquis said.

“Thanks,” Tristan said.

“Anyway!  She’s trying, she’s cool, and even if sometimes all I get to see her is breakfasts and sometimes-hangouts I love being a part of it.”

“I miss you too,” Ashley said.

“Gag me,” Chris said.

“And um, Chris?  Cryptid?  Lab Rat?  Whatever you want to be called?”

His expression changed.

He hadn’t known we knew.

“Um.  I get it.  I know how frustrating it is to be unable to change, no matter how hard you try.  And I know it’s scary too, and lonely.”

“You never got that,” Chris said.  “That I don’t get lonely.”

“You do, though.  Because ever since we showed up all you’ve done is be angry and push and prod, like you’re trying to prove something.  The world’s moved on and you’re stuck being whatever you are and it doesn’t matter how much you change on the outside because on the inside?  You’re still a miserable little fucknugget.”

It was, in any other circumstance, the kind of line that would have seen Chris guffaw, laugh, say something.

Silence followed.

“Um.  Haha, my heart’s beating so fast, because I’m angry, and I’m angry because you missed out, you know.  Because even now?  Even if I might get tortured, I’ll be  happier than you are Chris.  You missed out and you deserve to.  There were glimmers of good in you like when you helped Rain, but you didn’t stick to that and you didn’t try.  You were super cool when you stopped trying to be uncool, and I kind of loved you and now I kind of don’t.  You’re being shitty by pushing us away and making something hard even harder and suckier because you’re scared and resentful and whatever.  I know whatever happens next for you is going to be ten times as hard and sucky as what I have to deal with.  You’re going to be just as alone and even more frustrated because you’re never going to be able to take a drug that changes you deep down inside and makes you any less of a pathetic miserable fucknugget.”

This from the girl who always found something nice to say about anyone.

He didn’t immediately respond.

When he did, it was a simple, “Say what you really think.”

“Okay,” she said.  “There’s nothing sadder than someone who’s unwilling to change for the better.”

I looked across the room at Amy.  I saw her look, saw her expression change, as she looked away.  More different real emotions that weren’t her being wounded or blindly hopeful crossed her face in a few seconds than I’d seen since she arrived in the conference building.

“There’s something sadder,” Amy said.  “When the rest of the world won’t let you change.”

There we go, I thought to myself.  One shot and you missed it.

It was Amy who stormed out, giving Chris the excuse to follow.

They went to the lobby, and the rest of us, once the guards had picked through Ashley and Kenzie’s stuff, with Kenzie’s small pack having a change of clothes they provided, were let through another set of doors and a series of gates.  Each of us had a wristband with a series of symbols.

Natalie saw us off.  When the door shut, it separated us from her.

The prison was a series of hallways, with few rooms beyond an atrium area with a glass ceiling, where it looked like food was provided at other times of the day.  The hallways were lined with thin mattresses, and it seemed to be first come, first serve.

Co-ed, anarchy.  Going by what Miss Militia said, the principle of there being little to no traffic laws and high personal responsibility with severe punishments seemed to hold within the prison grounds themselves.  There were places where guards patrolled on raised platforms or on the other side of windows, guns in plain few.  I could see two cases of them breaking up prisoners – one case where a man and woman were sitting too close together, suggesting that co-ed didn’t mean open season, and another case where things were getting loud- two parents with kids a few years younger than Kenzie were arguing about a game in their natural tongue.

Our priority was to find the quiet, to powwow, figure out where we stood.

We just had to get through a couple of days.

Ashley’s natural intimidation worked in our favor.  When we found a place with only a few people, a little damp where moisture dripped down through a crack in the glass above, they saw Ashley and got out of dodge.

“No cameras?” I asked.

“Guards but no cameras, not here,” Kenzie said.  “I can tell.”

“You’re an asset,” Tristan said.  “And you’re a champ.”

She nodded, no longer smiling, all seriousness.

“How are you for tech, Kenz?” I asked.

She reached up to tap the side of her head.  The sound was artificial, a clink.  “Hairclip.  Projection.  Only a few hours of battery.  I’m gonna turn it off and hide it.”

“Okay.”

“Um.  Oxygen tank and mask.  That’s a good one.”

“They didn’t find it?”

“It was hidden with projection.  I hung it on the shower lever while talking to Chris.  Um.  Oh, I’ve got these…”

She reached up and she scraped a fingernail along the surface of her eye.  Ashley moved closer, to block the guards’ view.

Golem had the biggest body, and he blocked off the view to the side.  He beckoned for Rain to come sit beside him.

“Oh,” Kenzie said, letting go of her eye.  “Vista.”

“What?”

“Can you uh, not do your thing, like, at all?  At least while I’m working on the eyes?  Because your thing borks up my thing and hoo boy.  It would be like pulling a pinecone out of a grape.”

“Not doing my thing,” Vista said.

The action drew a prisoner’s attention.  A woman, broad with bad skin, raised her voice, asking what might have been a question, but which lacked the inflection at the end.

Sveta turned, and with one finger, drew a line from lower eyelid to chin, then pointed to Kenz.

The woman made a face, sympathetic.

Kenzie pulled out the apparatus that had been phased into her eye, six inches long and bristling with antennae and prongs.  She partially removed the one from her other eye, then pushed it back in.

“Not removing it?”

“It lets Darlene, Candy, and Chicken look in,” Kenzie said.  “And I’d feel lonely if they couldn’t.  Besides, it lets me see the cameras, and I want to figure out where they all are before I run out of battery.  If I have time and if I can make tools, maybe a few minor things, I’ll turn this oxygen can into a battery pack.”

The projection setup for the smoking eyelashes was buried in Ashley’s eye as well.  Kenzie removed those, handing them to Rain.

“Can you make something?” I asked.

“What do I need to make?” she asked.

“I’m worried Teacher might try something.  We’re cooped up and we’re easy targets.  Do you think you could give us a way to track what happens?”

“You think they’ll come after us?” Tristan asked.

“I think they might.  Or they’ll try to frame us.  Or stage a breakout attempt.  Our job is to stay in, at least for a little while, keep the peace.”

I shifted my footing.

And if the Wardens need us they can get us.  If not, then the scheduled attack on Teacher happens and we’re stuck on the sidelines because we’re losing this game of political chess.

I saw a few of the others nodding to themselves.

“Should I give Darlene and the others a message?” Kenzie asked.  “Call anyone?  Even for dumb stuff?  I think they’re worried.”

The others named names.  Rain wanted a message given to Erin.  Tristan asked for his parents, and mentioned the subject of Byron, who was still in armor.  A complicated subject to navigate – he hadn’t felt comfortable changing with an anti-parahuman holding him at gunpoint.

Ashley had nobody, and Sveta requested a message to go to Armstrong, just to tell him not to worry.

And me?

Half of the people I knew and cared about were here.

“Citrine,” I decided.  “We’re going to need some help from above.”

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Breaking – 14.6

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Breaking from their ranks to some degree, a handful of the soldiers found positions where they leaned against walls or sat on tables.  The one who had interrupted my mother in the middle of writing her plea for help was the one I was most mindful of, because he was being so very mindful of his gun.

Mindful in the sense that there was a kind of forced casualness that he wasn’t selling.  He put his cloth-wrapped gun down, and when Kenzie moved closer to him to poke at one of Rain’s little arms, his hand was too quick to reach for the weapon again.

Help, I thought.  My mother stared out the window, and if she was tense, it was hard to tell because she had a natural rigidity to her posture.

There was only quiet chatter, careful conversational forays into that dangerous space between Breakthrough and Shin’s parahumans.  So often, there was a measured reaching out, a safe topic broached, and the conversation would continue until Chris said something or someone said something a little too biting.  Marquis wishing he had a cup of tea leading in its way to Ashley rebuking him for not being discerning enough.  Then silence.

A minute where Marquis only talked to Spruce, who was back in the far corner.  Where Golem approached Rain.  Vista had her visor off, and hopped up onto a table to sit on it, close enough to Ashley that when they had a murmured exchange of words, she could reach up and stick her finger into the black smoke eyeliner that was projected around Ashley’s eyes.  Ashley didn’t flinch.

A minute where I had to try to get my shit together.  My mom had written about needing help.  Miss Militia had suggested we might need to use our powers and she was on her own out there.  The guards with guns weren’t staying in their lane, moving themselves and their guns around, necessitating that little bit of extra attention.

And I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t wrap my head around all of it.  Any of it.

I saw movement, saw a face in the corner of my vision that served to backhand the warning bells in my brain before I’d even fully processed seeing it.  Then I did finish processing, pieced together that it was Marquis, and I saw how similar he was to Amy.  In hair type and even the way the hair fell across their shoulders, in face shape, and the cast of eye and nose.

He looked so casually confident, wearing a red velvet jacket and a black silk ascot that ninety nine percent of men would not have been able to pull off.  He had a cane topped with a cat skull that looked like it was mostly bone, with inlay only for decoration.

She- I glanced.  She was wearing a red blouse under a black cardigan, and she wore a brooch that seemed like it was meant to mimic her tattoos in style, like stained glass in gold bands with panes of red.  Worn over the heart, vaguely heart-shaped.  Ankle-length black skirt with red trim.

One thing at a time, then.  For now it was peaceful.  My team had other bases covered.

I’d wanted to face my demons, I’d locked myself in this cage with them.  I studied her clothes and remembered the person I’d grown up with, I looked for the mannerisms-

She isn’t well

-that could give me any clue.

Looking at her was like staring into the sun, but it elicited thoughts of something noxious instead, not something bright.

Ankle-length because she’d never liked short skirts or pants that hugged the leg.  Self conscious about the shape of her legs, despite the fact that they’d been fine.  Even now, past the end of the world, little things held true.

To stare into the sun was to do permanent damage to the retina.  To face her down was something more guttural, a feeling at the hollow of the collarbone, an ugly feeling that made me worry there would be a similar kind of permanent damage.

I wanted to expel it, somehow, exorcise it.  To vomit, to say something foul.

To say the simplest thing ever, from the part of me nearest to the center.  I’d grown up telling my parents I loved them.  I’d said I’d loved Amy and I was more certain I had than I was that I’d loved my parents.  We loved family just because.  I’d once loved Amy as a sister for reasons that went beyond just because.  Because she’d had my back and I’d had hers, and because we’d both been fuller, richer people in each other’s company.

But nothing quite mirrored the feeling I was wrestling with now more than my third time with Dean.  Because I had loved him.  After our first and second times together, nervous and still figuring ourselves and each other out, our third time together had been comfortable, heated, intense, and the love I’d had for him had been something I could experience with every sense, something that could brim the fuck over.

Making love as a word had made sense to me, because we’d done it, in all senses of the word, and then we had that love, we’d cuddled after and basked in each other, we’d been comfortable with each other in a profound way.

And I could remember Amy’s comments back then, when I’d told her about it, when I’d tried to encourage her to date Dean’s friend.  How many high school relationships really lasted?  It was worth trying.  I couldn’t imagine a world where I wasn’t better off having experienced this.  How many times had we broken up and gotten back together, she’d asked.  Three.  Didn’t that make me worry, she’d asked?  No.

His parents didn’t love each other and might not have even loved him, and my parents were Mark and Carol fucking Dallon, we were parahumans, and none of that mess was easy.  When he’d been given the unique ability to resolve conflicts by laser-punching people with emotion and reading their feelings, I’d been handed the conflict resolution ability of breaking people.  Neither of us had been able to use our innate, shockingly powerful capabilities on each other.  Of course we’d bounced off each other.  But love drew us back in.  Each time, a couple of the romantic illusions were shaken off, and romantic realities replaced them.  We’d had to learn to communicate, to figure each other out.

That one night with Dean had redefined things for me.  Something I’d carry with me always when it came to putting ideas to the word ‘love’.

And, because it was the elephant, the abomination in the room, I would think of years spent pining.  A love I knew and had known was fake and manufactured that had stayed with me for two years, threatening to wash away and taint every other kind of love.

Now, the mirror to that.  In an uncomfortable, vaguely alien world, surrounded by coldness and restrained tension, staring across a gap and feeling emotion somewhere between disgust, outrage, and betrayal roiling inside of me, I could genuinely say I hated her.

I looked away, out the window, and there was nothing there.  Only snowdrifts, glass opaque with the snow that rested against it, and vague shapes of buildings.  Maybe there would be more of a view when the wind died down.

I looked at my teammates instead, and they were doing their duty, holding their own, being good, keeping an eye or an ear out.  Vista was helping Tristan keep an eye out, her hands folded over the top of a chair leg that jutted up beside her, chin resting on hands.  She was more worried for Miss Militia than anyone, I suspected.

Tristan, Vista and Kenzie were making sure Miss Militia was safe.  If something happened, we could spring into action.

But looking at my team meant they looked back, and I wasn’t sure I wanted them to see my expression or read something into it.  For this moment I held it together.  If Sveta or Ashley tried to be nice and help me then that’d jeopardize that stability.

And if I wasn’t looking in Amy’s direction, wasn’t looking out the window, wasn’t looking at my team- I looked at the guards.

A few of them looked at me with that same hate I’d so recently found so painfully clarified.  They reminded themselves of their guns.  I was left to wonder if they’d be any more ashamed than Yosef if they ended up gunning us down.

I couldn’t stare them down without worrying about provoking violence, much as I couldn’t look at my team without worrying about provoking kindness.

Nowhere for my eyes to sit.  Across a few fleeting seconds, I was as far from stability as I could hope for, panic setting in because I couldn’t even stare at the floor without looking weak, and there were people here I couldn’t let myself look weak in front of.

I looked back to Amy.  Back where I started.  Back to this girl I hated.

She didn’t even know.  No emotion reading power, no awareness.  In the here and now, she said something joking to Marquis, who was moving his head in funny ways.  The tone of that joking statement was one I recognized from childhood, from adolescence.  I could probably think of a dozen specific statements she’d made in that exact same tone.

I hated her more because she smiled, joked, and maybe forgot I was in the room.

Marquis moved his head, and she moved her head, sitting up to try to see what he was seeing.  It meant she looked in my direction, looked at me, and the partial smile she’d maintained as part of her joke or interaction with Marquis fell away.  Their heads were turned to similar angles, shadows fell across their faces in similar ways.

“Do you need something, Marquis?” my mother asked, in what I processed as her ‘you’re in deep shit’ tone from my childhood.

“A haircut,” Chris said.

“If you’re going to be a pain, Chris, try to be actually funny,” Tristan said.

“Or, you know, consider what’s on the line,” Sveta said.  “You’re not making any friends, you’re not getting any advantages by acting this way.”

Chris snorted.

Marquis ignored it all, tilting his head another way, peering at or past the soldiers.  I didn’t look at Amy beside him, who didn’t match his movements, instead continuing to stare.

Marquis looked at my mother, and my mother looked away.  He got around to answering her statement, “I was wondering how they were doing in there.  I’d come over, but… I won’t intrude.”

Intrude.  This greenhouse patio we were situated on was exactly the wrong shape for discussion, resolution, or for opposed elements to be crammed inside without difficulties.  The hall where the discussion, debate, the whatever had been, it had been open and spacious, allowing five representatives and their retinues, and us, a guest, to all gather with a comfortable amount of space between us, the guards arranged around the perimeter.

This was not that.  My inability to even find a place to rest my gaze was an extension of the way this was laid out.  This was a space that was too long, where tables and chairs against one wall became a barricade that ate into the space that could be occupied, something that demanded effort or maneuvering in order to clear a space to sit on.  Once situated at that edge, it was hard to be next to others, to huddle, to turn to face the person beside you without looking through a nest of chair and table legs.

And it wasn’t our space, so we couldn’t exactly rearrange anything or everything.  It was impossible to create a space for actual discussion in here, where we weren’t talking past people.

It made me think of parties, of people gathered in hallways, so conversations happened in the exact same places where people were needing to walk by, voices raised to be heard, noisy, chaotic-

Except we were quieter than not.  We weren’t moving around.  This space would have been comfortable if everyone present was on good terms, but we weren’t.

“They’re fine,” Tristan was the one to volunteer the answer.  “Miss Militia’s addressing the room.”

“From where?” I asked.  “Center of the room, still?”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“What does it mean, exactly?” I asked.  “Her being in the middle.  I noticed position mattering.”

Distract me.

But not too much.  I had to watch Miss Militia, keep an eye on the kid with the gun.  I was supposed to watch Breakthrough but holy shit was I not up to doing that right now, and when I had, it had barely mattered with the people I’d wanted it to matter with.  I’d cross that bridge later.

It was Marquis who answered, “In the textbooks they hand out for young men and women on academic tracks to become politicians or innovators -scientists-, they say a good discussion starts at the edges, with agreed upon facts, and it migrates toward the center as a dance, often a duet or a solo venture.  Ideally, you want to get there without someone else stepping in and forcing you to step away from center.”

“She went there and she’s staying there,” Tristan said, without turning around.

“I can make educated guesses, but before making one, I should tell you that dance once had firm rules, but as with many things so deeply rooted in a culture, qualifying and quantifying everything is next to impossible.”

“He doesn’t know,” my mother said.  She turned toward Marquis.  “If you don’t know, admit it.  Don’t give us misleading or incomplete information and leave us to struggle with it.  This is precarious enough as it is.”

“I know enough, dear Brandish.  I would say it’s similar to a filibuster, but with an expectation of ask and answer, to suggest you can hold your position with reason despite an onslaught of criticism or condemnation.”

I looked again through the window at Miss Militia.  Natalie stood at the position at the circle’s edge, hands clasped behind her back, eyes visibly wide even from a great distance.

“Whatever it is, we’re in a precarious position,” my dad said.  “A lot of good, innocent lives hang in the balance here.  It’s frustrating.”

“I’d say what she’s doing is closer to defending a PHD,” my mom said.  “Against a biased room.  I suspect Shin has already decided their conclusion.  It’s smart for Miss Militia to take this stance, because it forces them to justify theirs.  She’s been here for a long time, mediating when she wasn’t elsewhere killing monsters or handling crises, she’s figured out how to play this game.”

“Agreed on every count,” Marquis said.

My mom gave him a dark look.

“Mom,” I said, in part to pull her away from any interaction with Marquis that would end in bone spears and laser axes.  I kept my voice casual.  “Should we talk war stories?”

“I’m sure yours are better than mine,” she said.  I saw her eyebrows draw closer together.  “Why?”

“You were drawing on the window.  It got me thinking.”

I saw her nod, not her usual nod, and I saw her smile a bit.  I was pretty sure she got my meaning.

But the smile changed.  She reached up and touched my hair at the back of my head, smoothing it down with her hand.  “Battle stories could be misinterpreted by our hosts.  They’re very fond of metaphors and proverbs, and might draw the wrong conclusions.”

“Of course,” I said.  My attempt to have my mom give me some idea of what they needed help with wouldn’t work.

“I’m sure you’re eager to share some with me,” she said.  “We shouldn’t part ways without catching up.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  I met her serious look with one of my own.  “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“More or less okay,” she said.

I gave her a one-armed hug, and leaned in closer, wanting to exchange a whispered or muttered word, anything to shed more light on what she’d tried to communicate to me.

The guard with the gun was close enough I couldn’t be sure about getting away with it.

At the same time, though, my mom had her arm at my shoulder.  Her finger tapped.

Then again: tap tap tap.

And again: a thump with three fingers striking the ornamentation at the shoulder of my coat at once.  A tap.  Another thump, a tap.

I wasn’t perfect on my Morse code, but I knew common letters in the alphabet.  E was one tap.  S was three.  The last- P?  No.  Didn’t make sense.  Y?  X?  No.  C.

Esc.  Escape.

If they were trapped, we might be too.  It raised questions about who, if it was Amy included, or just my parents.

“You know what’s shitty?” Vista asked, in the background.  Another track of conversation, overlapping our own.

“I could name a thousand things,” Chris said.

“It’s shitty that Miss Militia is doing this, she’s giving her all, and how many people are really going to know about it?  I think it’s the worst move the Wardens have made so far.  We don’t want to scare people, but we don’t tell them about the Endbringer-level badness we’re dealing with.  We don’t tell them enough about how food supplies might get cut off.”

“It would lead to panic,” Flashbang said.

“As is, it leads to resentment,” Vista said.  “We’re helping but they don’t see that.  They just see…”

“People with a whole lot of power and organization camped out in their backyards,” Rain said.

“Yes.  Exactly.  Thank you, Precipice.”

“In our case,” Chris said, “we made the compelling offer of ‘let us live in your backyard or others are going to do the same’.  We got them on a good day.”

Amy looked uncomfortable, one arm rubbing the other.

“We made compelling arguments,” Marquis said.  “A Mrs. Jeanne Wynn helped.  It seems the honeymoon period has worn off.”

“It reminds me of Brockton Bay,” Vista said.  “Trying to keep the peace, putting in all of the effort, and getting all of the flack.  Clockblocker always- he resented it.  I thought I was okay with it, but the more I look back the less it sits easy.”

“We’re putting in effort too,” Amy said.

“Are you saving the world every other week?” Vista asked.

“Easy,” Golem said.

“Yeah, sorry.  Nevermind,” Vista said.

Amy shook her head.”We’ve taken one hundred and fifty dangerous parahumans who, believe me, could have gone to the Birdcage, and we rehabilitated them.  Addictions removed, impulses tweaked, emotional balances adjusted.”

My father nodded.  He didn’t look like he glowed with pride, but he seemed to accept it, agree with it.

“I wouldn’t call that rehabilitation,” Ashley said.

“What else is it?  I saw enough of how Bonesaw adjusted biology to work with powers that I’ve been able to fix things for parahumans where that’s a problem.  How much harm does that stop?”

The feelings I’d found and clarified were a refuge.  I could look at her, hold on to those feelings, and I could kind of deal.

Was it easier, if I thought of the sister I’d grown up with as dead, if I grieved her to some measure while negotiating with myself to decide just when and where she died, replaced by this person?

I knew she was still alive.  I knew she was complicated.  I knew she probably had a hundred excuses or mitigating factors that went into what she’d done to me and the decisions surrounding it.

But it was sure as fuck not my duty to do anything except what was good for everyone, and do what I needed to do to stay sane.

“Do they know what you did, that Gary Nieves mentioned?” I asked.

Sveta drew closer to me.  I kept an eye out for the ear-tug.

My ex-sister opened her mouth, then closed it.

“They?” Marquis asked, in her place.

“Shin.”

“They know as of earlier today,” Marquis said.

“Can- can I hear it from her?” I asked.

“Does it make a difference?” he asked.

Amy reached out, touching his arm, and he moved aside at her bidding.

“Shin knows?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“We need to know, too.  What happened when you repeated old mistakes.”

I saw her shake her head a bit, turn to look away-

“You don’t get the option of not answering,” I said.

She stopped where she was.  She looked at me, wider-eyed.

“We’re technically a sovereign nation,” Chris said.  “We have lots of options.”

“Shut up, Chris,” I said, without looking away from my ex-sister.

“Shut up,” Amy’s voice was faint.  “Not now.”

Chris slouched back in his chair, long arms draped over the arms, long hair in his eyes.

I pressed, “You have to tell us.  If nothing else, you tell me, because you have zero right to keep anything like this from me.”

Again, that look on her face.

Marquis answered, “You wanted us to keep our distance, fine, we went to another world.  I went with her, to keep an eye on things.  Now you want to be informed about every happenstance?”

If I’m asking?  Yes,” I said.  “And you’re not part of this, Marquis.  Please stand down.”

“I’m her father.  I’m the only family member she ever had who has at least consistently tried to support her through the good and the bad.  I’m not about to stop now.”

No ear tug from Sveta.  Should I have picked someone who wasn’t as close to the Amy fiasco to monitor me?

I looked to Vista, and Vista was silent, no signals, ear tug or otherwise.

“By intervening and interjecting you are making things less good, Marquis,” I said.  “I want the facts from her.  That’s our best road to a positive place.”

“Aren’t facts better from a more objective source?” Marquis asked.  “I may be the best you get.”

“I don’t know or trust you,” I said.  I was mindful that guards might be listening.  “You’ve been level and fair in most things to do with Earth N, I don’t have any grudges, but right now you’re not winning points with me, and if I get answers I want to hear them from the mouth of that person.  I grew up with them, and if a lie comes from that mouth, at least, I’ll know it.”

Hate was a harbor, a refuge.  I could take conflicting feelings and bury them in it.  I wasn’t sure I cared if she died.  I might have been relieved, even.  Hate was dangerously close to love in how passionate it was, but never in my love for her or for Dean or for any teammate or other family member had I ever driven forward, gone on the attack, accused.  Not on this level.  Even in my arguments with my mom, it had been debates and arguments from reason prior to Gold Morning and me shutting down after.

New ground was safer.

Amy made Marquis stand down again.

“I do have it handled,” Amy said.  “I want to stress that.”

“I want to judge that for myself,” I said.  “Tell me.”

I saw her do something I’d seen too many times in our childhood, in our early teen years.  I thought of it as clinging.  Finding an argument or idea and constantly going back to it.  She’d convinced herself she had it handled, and she’d go back to that over and over, even after it ceased making sense.

I had zero doubt she’d done it in rationalizing things as she did them to me.  Zero doubt they played into her spiral down.

She would say it again.  That she had it handled.

“You don’t get to keep silent if I ask,” I said, with emphasis on the ‘I’.

“I checked over all of the prisoners from the prison on your Earth and the leftover parahuman warlords from here.  Put things in place, mental checks, emotional controls, whatever they needed.  Chris handled information gathering, interviews, collected a handful he thought would be useful to keep around as…”

“Lieutenants?” I asked.

I saw Chris shrug.

“I don’t know,” Amy said.  “I wanted to focus on good things, peace, giving you the distance you wanted.  So long as he wasn’t hurting innocents and let me keep one eye on what he was doing, I didn’t mind.  Same checks and balances for him.”

“And nobody checking and balancing you?” I asked.

“That’s not fair,” she said.

Isn’t it?  This is important.  This is billions of lives important.  That’s what you took on here.  And if they’re hearing from outside sources that you’re unchecked and imbalanced then that impacts everything.  Like Vista said, we get dragged in to put out your fires.”

“I have it handled.”

There it was.

“What is it?” I asked.  “You don’t get to not tell me.  Out with it.”

She hated hearing that, which was why I kept going back to it, to hammer in at that idea she was clinging to as a safety.  If I didn’t penetrate that safe ground she could go back to it endlessly.

With each repetition, I could see the emotional pain reach her face, her hands.  Tattooed hands, with two fingers left untatooed, replacements for what she’d apparently lost in her fight against the Slaughterhouse Nine.

I wondered if there was a meaning there.  She’d tattooed blood onto her hands, either consciously or not, but that little addition was like a ‘but not here, not with this excuse’.

I looked again to Sveta, to Vista, to Ashley, to Tristan.

Nobody was telling me to back down.

Okay.

She explained, “After I was done with the capes I started on other people.  Victims of capes.  People like, um, like the people at the Parahuman Asylum.  There’s a facility in your Earth’s Europe.  Not really like the Asylum, more like a big farm, where they do their best to get everyone set up to contribute to society and give them therapy, medical care, and anything else they need.  For some it’s just somewhere warm and clean with animals to cuddle.”

“Please tell me that you didn’t do what you did because of me, or for me.”

Amy didn’t answer.  She couldn’t meet my hard stare.

My dad spoke up, “When someone regrets their actions to the extent that I think Amy regrets hers, I think everything they do ends up being affected or colored by it.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I said.

“I helped a lot of people,” Amy said, still not meeting my eyes.

It seemed to take difficulty to get through it and explain it.  Fucking good.

“But you hurt someone.  Who?”  I asked.

“A young teenager with control issues,” Amy said.  “I did too much in one week, I was adapting to new roles and trying to handle interpersonal stuff with people who had been loyal to Bianca, who knew I’d been an… acquaintance of hers.  I didn’t listen to the little voice in the back of my head that said I shouldn’t do delicate work, and I made a mistake.”

“What mistake?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.

Amy.

“I’m fixing it.”

“What mistake?”

It was Chris who spoke up, “You know when you’re drawing, and-”

“I want to hear it from her.”

“-it’s very detailed work, and you sneeze mid-drawing, and draw a big zig-zag across the picture?”

“I want to hear it from her,” I said, again.

“It’s that,” Chris said, “Except it was someone’s mind and power.”

I might never forgive him for denying me the ability to make her admit it.

“What’s the damage?” I asked, my neck stiff from tension.

Amy answered, eyes downcast.  “Altered personality, memories not connecting.  She came over with a friend and he said she was different after.  There was a gap and the passenger wedged itself in there.”

“When the passenger butts in, it saves over your work, and the the undo button on the metaphysical keyboard stops working,” Chris said.

“She,” I said.  “At least tell me it’s not some blonde girl-”

I saw the way both of my parents looked at Amy, how Amy seemed confused for one second, then processed what I’d said.

Holy shit.  I’d guessed right.

I’d have been lying if I said I didn’t feel some justice in seeing the pain in Amy’s face.

“-that you’re not being that redundant while you’re repeating old mistakes.”

Unnecessary.  Maybe the only thing I’d regret saying so far.  Words just to cause her more pain.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with anything,” Amy said it in a hollow way, with no energy or emotion backing the words.

And I really hadn’t wanted to be right, to have any character trait to put on this victim – not yet.

“Suddenly I’m really glad I didn’t ask her to look after my battle scars,” Vista said.

“That’s not-” Amy started.  Her expression changed.  Wounded.  “I thought we got along, Vista.”

“A long time ago,” Vista said.

“You guys are making this out to be like I haven’t changed, like it’s a repeat incident, and it’s not,” Amy said, and her voice was firmer, almost angry.  “I’m handling this, okay?  It was one mistake-”

“That erased a person’s personality?” I asked.

One mistake, and I have a support structure in place.  I’m not spiraling out.  I recognized when it started to affect my work, I stopped, took a break, stepped back, got centered again.  It’s why progress with mom is slow.”

The word ‘mom’ sounded so alien from her mouth.

“It’s affecting your other work?” I asked.

“It was.  So I stopped,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world, like she was explaining things to someone who wasn’t listening.

“Affected it how?”

“Minor slip-ups.”

“Slip-ups like minor personality erasures, or-”

“No.  Things in my subconscious crept in, or I got placements wrong, or I… colored outside the lines a bit.  But I recognized the pattern, I stepped back, recovered, and fixed the superficial errors.”

She’s not well, my mother had said.

Every time Amy elaborated on her supposedly simple ‘it’s handled’, on ‘minor slip ups’, or just about anything about this, she added new details, raised new questions, painted a fuller and scarier picture.  One where I wasn’t sure she was being entirely forthright, especially when I stood in this long greenhouse, staring down its length at my ex-sister, and that image was a picture framed by my mom on my right, my dad sitting at the aisle to the left, Marquis and Chris near Amy.

None of those people looked like they felt it was ‘handled’.

I looked away from that scene.  I didn’t want to get carried away.

No ear-pull from Sveta.  She just looked horrified.

I wasn’t horrified, I decided.  I realized I had a pressure on my chest like someone was sitting on it, but it wasn’t horror.  A person didn’t feel horror if a steamroller was left to inch forward while unwitting people sat in its path, and they later heard those people had died.

Amy was looking at her dad, who’d said something quiet.  She nodded, unsmiling.

I spoke, which cut Marquis off, “When you say it’s handled, tell me, Amy, well first, start by looking me in the eyes.”

She looked up, locking her eyes to my hard stare.

“Tell me, while looking me in the eye, that you can fix her.  No slip-ups, no minor ‘coloring outside the line’ casualties, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”

“I’m pretty sure I can,” she said, her eyes meeting mine, but even from a distance, I could see them moving by fractions, her gaze moving from one of my eyes to the other.

Even now, I could be reasonably certain when she was telling the truth.  I could tell when she was confident and not confident, and I knew the patterns she could fall into, at least when she got into arguments.

“I believe you,” I said.  Amy smiled and I looked away.

“I’m happy we were able to talk,” Amy said, a haunting voice from the far end of the greenhouse patio.  I didn’t look at her, instead staring out at the storm beyond.

“We’re not okay, Amy.  We’ll probably never be okay.”

“I’m still glad we could talk.  Open lines of communication.”

I continued to look away, to ignore her, because the alternative was that I’d open my line of communication, and tell her exactly how I felt, and I was pretty sure the only people who needed that were me and her alone.  For everyone else, it would spell disaster.

“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.

I folded my arms, shifting my footing, as I leaned back against the window.  I exhaled slowly, trying to control my breathing.  “Yeah.”

No.  I knew my ex-sister too well.  I knew how she would want something so badly she would believe it was so, and she would lie to herself.  She’d then tell that lie to others.  Promises to mom and dad about maintaining after school activities in addition to the hero stuff, training, visits to the hospital, and grades.  Three straight semesters across ninth grade and the start of tenth grade, she’d steadily declined, had maintained the illusion, until they’d forced her to cut back.  Pledges about diets, pledges to me about making friends beyond my friend group.  She would believe it.

“That’s a relief,” Sveta said.

“Not really how I’d put it, if I’m honest,” I said.  “What about you guys?  Any objections?  You okay with this?”

“No,” Rain said.  “No objections, I mean.  I’m okay with it.”

“I’m worried about Chris, but I trust you when it comes to your family,” Ashley said.

“I’m good if this is good,” Kenzie said.  We’d told her about the signals.  If anyone on Breakthrough would see the little things we’d told them to pay attention to, it would be Kenzie.  Our Lookout.

So many things worried me about her, but her not picking up on information wasn’t one of them.

“No issue,” Sveta said.  “You’ve been way more fair about this than I expected.”

Most of my attention was on Tristan, though.  I willed him to get what I meant, where I was going with this.

“You really want my opinion on this?” he asked, picking up on my quiet intensity.

“I want your opinion especially.  We’ve talked about sibling stuff.  I want your take on this.”

“Then okay.  Yeah.”

Yeah.

We’d talked about it.  Permanent solutions, if we had to.

He was in agreement.  It was in the cards, at the very least.

“I’d rather the Wardens had more oversight here,” I said.

Chris spoke, “Separate world, separate nation.  The Wardens have no responsibilities here, no role.”

“Then I’ll rephrase.  I want Amy, at the very least, to make trips out to the Wardens, for checkups, talks with a therapist we trust.  Let’s get to where none of us have to worry about mistakes.”

“No,” Chris said.  “That’s probably not going to work out.”

“Why not?” Rain asked.

“They don’t like us doing the back and forth thing.  Makes it too easy to pass on information, makes us harder to keep track of.  If you come here and you go any further than this little city hub here, the checklist of things you have to do gets long.  Not to mention it’s a hell of a trip to even get here.”

My mom’s hand tightened around my shoulder.

Was that it, then?  My mom’s request for help in escaping?  Parahumans that stayed were expected to remain in their island chain area?

“He’s not lying,” Marquis said.  “I think the trip could be managed.  Long but I suspect Amy is willing to endure long trips if it mends bridges.”

“We’re not mending anything,” I said, harsher than I’d meant to sound.

“If-” Amy started.  She flinched when I turned her way, stopped talking.

“If what?”

“If you’d be open to the opportunity, if you’d at least talk to me when I went, I could pull strings, maybe get an escort they trust to come with me and watch what I do, I know they want me to do certain healings of famous people here to prolong their lives and enrich their cultures, and I’ve been refusing on principle.  If I bartered that healing, I could get permission to come.”

“On the condition you see me?” I asked, my voice hollow.

“On- I’m not doing that or asking for that for me, Vicky.  I want you to feel reassured.  I want you to not be afraid anymore.  I want you to be okay.  I will go to whatever lengths it takes to do that.  Really.  Seeing you would just let me know it’s not making things worse.”

I closed my eyes.

Was it okay to say whatever, if it meant we could get her to Wardens Headquarters?  Get her into that building, up to the stairwell, and then have a portal open.  Push her through as we’d done to Tattletale, but without any humor in the action.  Maybe using one of Rain’s mechanical hands, to avoid touching the dangerous striker-class cape.

And after that just… not open the door again.

“We can talk about it,” I said.

“That’s all I wanted,” Amy said, and the hope in her eyes was naked.

We left the conversation at that.  Chris said something to her that she didn’t hear, which prompted her to move closer, and from that point they were huddled.

I fidgeted.

“You did good,” Sveta said.

I nodded, fidgeting more, glancing at the huddle.

“They’re talking about which strings they’re going to pull to get her to listen,” Kenzie said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Keep me informed?”

“Will try.  I can only listen to two things at once.”

I nodded.

In the other room, one of the scribe-boys was standing closer to the center, reading from his little notebook.

My mother put an arm around my shoulders, squeezing.  She leaned in closer.  “I’m proud of you.”

I smiled, and the smile was a lie.

Amy, too, smiled.  I couldn’t reconcile that.  I couldn’t make peace with it.  She’d done it earlier, while chatting with her dad, and it bothered me.  She was in a good mood and it was largely because she’d succeeded in lying to herself and thought she’d succeeded in lying to us.  She’d broken someone and I wasn’t confident she was confident in fixing that someone.

She had her little lie, and so did I.

She entertained a world where what she’d done was fixable, to this blonde girl, to me.  She’d tried to convince us.

I offered a middle ground.  Not forgiveness, but talks, a balance, and acceptance of what she was doing.  That was my lie, because I couldn’t bring myself to.

We’d run it by the Wardens at the next opportunity.  It wouldn’t be my team’s biased take on it.  Other hero teams would hear the situation, listen to Kenzie’s recordings, and then decide if it was appropriate, to dispose of my ex-sister, and cast her into another world alone, with no plans to retrieve her.

Would there be pushback?  Probably.  A lot of this hinged on my knowledge that Amy had been lying about how certain she was.

If there was pushback, maybe a test.  If she couldn’t fix this person she’d altered, she was too dangerous.  If she could, I’d back down.

We’d have to give her a chance first, use every resource to get her to a stable place, for this person’s sake, and for absolute fairness.

After that, if it came down to laying down the ultimatum and what was at stake, then I couldn’t imagine a world where she rallied and performed better, fixed this girl and saved herself.  She didn’t handle pressure well.

There was a knock on the door.  Guards moved to either side of the doorway, parting the way.

“If you’d rejoin us?” Luis asked.  “We have some things we’d like to address.”

Slowly, the room filed out.  I was relatively close to the door, so I followed Tristan.  My mom came with me.  I glanced back, in part to check that Amy wouldn’t try to touch me while my back was turned, like she had at Breakthrough Headquarters.

Again, that fucking smile.

I stopped, pulling to one side and letting my mom walk on.  The rest of the group filed out, with the middle section mingled between Ashley, Marquis, my dad, and Chris.

Amy was at the rear, escorted by Spruce.  She saw me, stepped closer- and I stepped back, maintaining a safe distance.

I knew it looked bad.  That we were trying to massage a peace.  But I wasn’t insane.

“What?” she asked.

“Just- don’t move, or I might kill you,” I said.  “Private question.”

I looked at Spruce as I said it.

He checked with her, then with Marquis, and then he backed off.

Just me and my ex-sister.

“What?” she asked.  No smile on her face now, but that light of hope in her eyes.

“Her name.”

“Her- oh,” she said.  “Hunter.”

A punch in the throat.

“I know Hunter,” I said.  I was pretty sure, anyway.  After the community center attack, before Breakthrough, I’d worked with Ms. Yamada to get Hunter sent to the Asylum-like spot in Europe.

“She knew of you.”

Chilling.

“Did you use my name?  Your relationship with me?”

“Did I-”

“Did you convince her that you were legitimate or that you were safe by using the fact we’re related?”

“No,” Amy said.

Not quite a lie like the other, that was something she desperately wanted to believe.  This… a half truth.

I stared at her, and she broke eye contact.

I drew closer to her, fully ready to hurt her if I had to, if she moved a muscle.  True to her word, she didn’t.

I got so close I could smell her, and the smell stirred up memories that Engel had shaken loose.

I might have lost track of what I’d meant to say, but I saw movement.  Nestled in the mane of brown curls that really needed more conditioner, Amy’s little imp Dot was curled up against the back of her neck, face pressed against the side, peering through the strands.  She bared needle teeth at me.

My voice was barely audible when I spoke to Amy.

“Next time, if you want to insult me to my core, try going straight to spitting in my face, instead,” I told her.  “It’s not quite as bad, and at least there’s only some chance you hurt innocents with the collateral damage.”

She stepped back as if I had hit her.  I saw emotions cross her face.  Then that faint light of shaky hope I’d hoped to extinguish appeared once again.

“I’m handling it,” she said.  “I can do this.  I’ll show you.”

I believed her even less this time.

Maybe it was better I hadn’t extinguished it, if it got her to the Warden’s headquarters.

Could I count this as one demon slain?

No.

But I could handle it.  I could see a possible light at the end of this tunnel.

Back to the arena.  To our group, which stood clustered at one segment of the circle.  Natalie was there, her forehead creased in worry.

“How are we?” I asked her.

“Not great,” Natalie answered.  “You?”

“Some resolution.”

“Great.  I hope you won them over.”

The murmur of conversation in the room sounded different from one end than from the other.  Our group spoke in one tongue, other groups spoke in another.

All went silent as Luis stepped forward.  Sleek figure, black, with a braided tie.  His movements were dramatic and echoed our own Earth’s, but they made me think of a showman, not a statesman.

“We stand at the crux of two solutions,” he stated.  “In one hand, we hold a breaking of ties.  We would send you home, keeping only a select few, and we would end all trade, all promises, and retract all contracts.”

That was still on the table.

Miss Militia was tense.

He held out his right hand.  “On the other hand, Miss Militia offers us assurances, and we are not assured.  We don’t trust you as a whole, and as things rest in this hand, we can’t come to a resolution.”

No contract or no resolution?  What?

“By a showing of hands?”

Some raised extended both hands, as if out for a hug.  Some raised their right hands.  Only one held out left hand only.

“Can I comment?” Miss Militia asked.

“You have,” Luis said.

A woman wrapped in loose cloth stepped out of Yosef’s group.  Her hair was braided at the sides, straight along the top.  “By the deal and compact we formed with you, Red Queen, Marquis, Cryptid, in exchange for your freedom to settle and our cooperation and support, you are to protect us against any and all transgressors.”

I looked at Miss Militia.  Her weapon wasn’t changing. What she’d said about being ready to use our powers, was she signaling we shouldn’t use ours?  That we shouldn’t fight this?

Her back was ramrod straight, and her focus was wholly on the other group of parahumans.

Ah.  There it was.  That annoying sliver of hope in my ex-sister’s eyes wasn’t there anymore.

We outnumbered them.  We could win.  And we probably would.

But at what cost?

“Arrest them,” Luis said, indicating us.

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Breaking – 14.5

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Miss Militia stood straight, one hand behind her back, the other extended forward, like she was going to shake their hands.  They couldn’t though, because we were all arranged in a loose circle that put the nearest members of Shin’s government about four long strides from Miss Militia’s position on the floor.

“Miss Militia.  Warden.  If I may?”

Her words were followed by an echo, the translators speaking in muted tones to respective groups.  Only two groups had translators, it seemed.

“Luis, Founders.  I think you might,” one of the men with braided ties answered, his English without even an accent.  “I’ll wait for my colleagues to reply.”

I recognized Luis.  His skin was black, his clothes fine, and his expression a constant kind of warm that might have been politician fake.

Many sat at chairs with tables built into them made me think of student’s desks in a high school.  Difference was that cloth draped from the arm that held the table up and surrounded the legs like a skirt, and the makeup of chair and desk both were ornate, almost throne-like.  At the foot of maybe four or five of the thrones, and there were maybe fifteen in total, I could see young men, fourteen or fifteen, sitting on cushions or mats, writing constantly.

I hadn’t expected the gap in culture to be something so oppressive.

I was put in mind of attending a mosque service, having little idea of the process, and trying to not embarrass myself or disturb the regular attendees.  The difference was that barely anything was happening, nothing specific was expected of me, and yet we were so much further from the familiar.

Except for Luis, who seemed uncannily ordinary.  I could remember seeing him back when we’d first met Goddess, holding her umbrella.

And underlying it all was Miss Militia’s warning.  That we might need to use our powers.  Guards and soldiers in various colors were arranged around the room, and a pretty good number were arranged right behind us, weapons put away, but still a lot of people with guns and short spears.

The others seemed to come to their consensus.  Luis said something in another language, and then smiled.  “You may.”

Miss Militia moved her hand, holding it so both hands were clasped behind her.  “I come bearing reassurances.  For their role in stopping the Blue Empress, you afforded Amelia Claire Lavere and Chris Elman some privileges and assurances.  Today I’ve brought the other members of that group that played a role in stopping her, they played a lesser role, yes, but they ask for nothing but goodwill.  We have a Natalie Matteson, unpowered, to speak for them.”

“Saying they played a role may be overstating it,” Chris said.  His voice was surprisingly deep.  A man’s voice, and I’d even suspect it was deeper than an average-

“Don’t make this harder,” Amy rebuked him, while interrupting my observation.

How could I have missed the sound of her voice and find it so deeply unsettling at the same time?

The translators repeated even those lines.  A short statement, like a rock thrown into a pond in a cave, and then the resounding, distorted echo.  A response, another series of voices filling the room.  My heart was beating with a speed that surprised me.

Luis conferred with others in the other language before saying, “Would Natalie Matteson be willing to step into another room?  My colleagues feel it would allow her to share her truth, and we could see how the stories line up.”

Natalie, nervous, looked to Miss Militia for input, then said, “If necessary.”

One of the people who had been translating and one of the people from the boxy-robed group stepped away.

I liked Natalie.  In the paranoia of the moment and the tension of this scene, I had to wonder how much I trusted her interpretation of events.

“Not all of my colleagues agree that the Laveres and Elman should have received any favors,” Luis said.

“They don’t ask for much.  Goodwill.”

“Will is easy, good is free, yet goodwill can be the hardest thing to give,” he said.

“Winter climate affords bridges,” Miss Milita said.

“Is it winter?  Ignore the weather.”

“It’s chilly in here,” she told him.

Luis laughed.  After the back and forth, it was the only sound without its ‘echo’ of translation.

Fuck me.  They were speaking English and I wasn’t sure I understood what they were saying.  Others from Shin seemed to.  A few smiles.

“Yosef, Lone Sands.  I like you, Militia,” one of the men in flowing clothes said.  A woman I presumed was his wife was dressed in patching colors, her clothes wrapped around her.  He did have an accent.

“I like you too, Yosef.  I would also like assurances of my own to start,” Miss Militia said.

There was a pause.  A distortion in the echo of translators speaking.

Something wrong?  I tensed.

“You confused the translators,” Luis said.  “I like this, I would like that, but… hard connection to draw while maintaining the small poetry.  Let me-”

He said a single word.

With that, the translation finished uninterrupted.  I didn’t feel more relieved.  It created a sensation like they had more power, because they controlled the language.

Miss Militia  was as unflinching as she ever was.

“What assurances?” Yosef asked.

“I would like to know why governments have changed from this morning.  The Coalition is gone.”

“They were made to abstain.  Just in case,” Luis said.  “We’re deciding what to do about you, about them-”

He indicated us.  Breakthrough.

“And about them.”

My mom, dad, Amy, Chris, Marquis, and Marquis’s underling.

What to do?  My thoughts were caught between wondering what they even could do and what they were capable of.  Did they think they could mass-execute us, or were they coming in from another angle?

“Can we make an appeal?”

“Wouldn’t an appeal eat it’s own tail?”

“What’s the tail?”

“Some would say you’re too dangerous to even talk to.  Some of you can change minds with a word, or kill with a whistle from wet lips.”

“You have teeth, but I would get within arm’s reach of you without worrying about my throat.”

“Don’t be deceptive, it’s not like you,” Luis said, and his tone had cooled.  “Every last one of you have bigger teeth.”

“I know you, Luis.  I know Yosef, and I know the rest of you who haven’t yet joined this conversation.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have threats of your own.”

“Right now we’re supplying enough food to feed two million of your people and we’ll continue doing so through the winter.  Amy Dallon pledged assistance and cooperation to increase that amount to five million, possibly to ten.  That’s food.  Shelter.  Clothing.  Chemicals.  Industry.  All deals end now.  With her, with you.  You get nothing and millions may die.  I’m sorry.”

My own surprise at the statement was redoubled when I saw movement in the periphery of my vision, looked, and saw it was Amy hanging her head.

Chris said something to Amy.  From what I could catch, it was an ‘I told you so’.

Vista might have looked agitated, because Miss Militia put a hand out.

“We negotiate from that point forward,” Miss Militia said.

“Can we?  Do we?” Luis asked.

“No and we don’t,” Yosef said.

“Yes we do,” Miss Militia said.

My breath was hard to regulate as I went from considering the implications of even just Amy’s apparent deal falling through, which I knew people had been planning around, went to considering outright cancellation of any deal whatsoever, and then realized this was just maneuvering.

Well, ‘just’.  It was a lot of weight to be throwing around.  Threatening to scrap the deal as a show of power and an indication of what was at stake.  Attacking us directly wasn’t the only tool in their toolbox.

Miss Militia found her footing.  Her appeal was as emotional as I’d ever heard her be.  “You know me, you like me, you know I’ve never wronged you.  These young people deserve your goodwill.  They did right by you, I believe you were at least partially in their thoughts when they took the actions they did.”

“We were debating about them earlier, among ourselves.  If I may?” Luis asked.  He made a beckoning gesture.  “We’ll talk to them, and we’ll see if a revisit of our deal is a discussion worth having.”

“Antares?”  Miss Militia started reaching back for my shoulder.

“For now, we would rather talk to Swansong.  She made a dramatic gesture and got our attention.”

They planned this.  They knew they’d do this before we stepped into this room.

I met Ashley’s eyes and I tried to read if there was something black still residing there.

Please be goodPlease be your best self.

Miss Militia made a small motion with her hand, for Swansong to approach.  At the same time, she held up her other hand to tell us to stay.

“If you would step back, Militia?” Yosef asked.

“I would like to stay by her side and counsel her and anyone else.  She doesn’t know the small customs.”

“We’ll forgive any small breaches.”

“In your minds maybe, but not in your hearts.  This is best for everyone.”

“I agree,” Luis said.

“Conceded.  Stay,” Yosef added.

What I was getting now was that this was a formalized debate, in a sense.  The ‘floor’ was a subtle thing, with everyone gathered in a circle and then people stepping forward as they had permission to engage.  Luis had had to ask, but Yosef hadn’t.  Because he was powerful, or because he’d stated something everyone could agree with.

Which left me to assume that taking stances everyone could agree with would be important, or… you’d get challenged.  Maybe even ejected.  It also left me to wonder if it was possible to step even closer to the middle.  Was there a progression, a series of levels of authority?  Did other movements matter?

Ashley stepped up, holding her hands much like Miss Milita did, clasped behind her back.  Her chin was more raised.  “Thank you.”

“We start by introducing ourselves, before any statements,” Miss Militia said.  “Name first.”

“Swansong,” Ashley said.  “Ashley Stillons.  Breakthrough.”

“I’m Luis, that’s the name the Blue Empress gave me,” Luis said.  “My true name is Amil.  I was young when I worked for her as a servant, I made it a goal to learn her tongue from her, and when she tired of my presence, from her subordinate powers, who she tried to keep near.  Now I’m someone who speaks for those who were most affected.”

“Custom,” Miss Militia’s voice was quiet, joining the murmur of translators as she advised Ashley, “Is if you overshare, you invite others to do the same.”

“Who overshared?”

“You did.  You gave your full name.  It may be rude not to engage in the back-and-forth, but it also tends to turn debates into something self-aggrandizing or about gathering the information to tear others down.”

Oh great.  It had to be Ashley who was front and center for that particular lesson.

“Perfect,” Ashley said. “That’s fine.”

“Mirror him, match what’s being talked about.  If he shares about his work you talk about yours.  If he talks about war stories, you talk about yours.  Questions are too pointed and rude unless you have a good relationship.  Then you expand and invite them to mirror or compare themselves to you, or you wind down the personal side of the conversation.”

“Wind down how?” I asked, my voice quiet.

“Compliments are a good way of winding down the thread of discussion and getting back on topic,” Miss Militia said, to all of us, then to Ashley, “I suggest complimenting, it’ll help ease tensions.”

Ashley looked a bit annoyed, but she addressed Luis, “I don’t speak for anyone but myself, though I once considered myself one of the leaders for my team.  I still do, in a way, but only for certain things that need my skillset.  I respect the work ethic and the approach you talk about, the planning.”

“It wasn’t easy.  I think if I did not have the scars I have now, the other people in this room wouldn’t trust me,” Luis said.  “My family was… ravaged.  There were people with powers who were free to be their worst selves and one of them chose my siblings as a target.  Now she does not speak.”

“If you saw the video of us talking to Nieves, you know I was ravaged myself,” she said.  “They took my voice, too.”

“My parents grieve constantly.”

“My parents-” Ashley paused.  She’d mirrored and realized the trap late.  “I killed them.  It was an accident.”

“With your power?” Luis asked.

Miss Militia had said a question was supposed to be pointed, incisive.  Was that an end to civility?  The back-and-forth just a way to maneuver the other person into a point where they could be attacked?

“Yes.  With my power.”

“Powers are dangerous.  Unpredictable.”

“They can be,” Ashley said.  She floundered. I could see tension in her neck and shoulders as she stood there, effectively skewered after having been invited to share something personal.  Was that a trap?  If she hadn’t shared enough, would they paint her as deceptive?

I wanted to fault Miss Militia for throwing us in the deep end of this pool, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t expected this to be this, and I got that there wasn’t a great way to fill a bunch of kids in on what looked to be a very subtle and complex form of debate.  There were probably a lot of sub-rules and points of decorum.  She’d committed us to their custom by advising us, at least to a small degree, but she had to think that doing the alternative would hurt more.

“Yosef was a soldier,” Luis said.  “he saw a lot of that ugliness.”

“I earned some prestige,” the other diplomat said.  “We don’t see much war, we’ve seen its price, but when she arrived, some of us fought back.  She beheaded us again and again, until we had no leadership to speak of.  We thought it was a victory if it took thirty of us to kill one of their kind.  I killed one, a girl younger than her-”

He indicated Kenzie.

“-but with the losses we incurred, it was not a victorious day.  It was only a personal victory and a release for me to put my shoe-heel to her head until she died, after all I had lost.”

Sveta put her hands to her mouth.

“The poor child,” Miss Militia said.  “She was enraptured by the Blue Empress.”

“She was what she was,” Yosef said, to Miss Militia.  To Ashley, he said, “That is why I stand here with the station I have, talking to you.  I killed one and I played a part in killing another.”

Ashley answered, “I stand where I do now not because of what I did, but because I put distance between that self of mine.  I tried to gather a small army of thugs beneath me and claim a share of a city for myself.”

“That would be your Slaughterhouse, then,” Yosef said, and I was ninety percent sure he knew it wasn’t as he jumped to his conclusion.

“No,” Ashley said.

“A violent word, Slaughterhouse,” Yosef said.

So this was the rebuke, if someone tried to be slippery or dodge a topic and got called on it.  I wondered about the extent to which it mattered.  Was there a point system?  Were their cultural attitudes the sort to call out this sort of thing?

The statement was an invitation, a question without being a question, demanding elaboration.

“They were a band of killers.  If the Blue Empress’s worst were monsters, then I’m sure they were similar to the Slaughterhouse.”

“A roving band of killers,” Miss Militia said.  “They suffered losses in the city I was protecting and went recruiting to replace their own.  The prospective recruits who didn’t cooperate were made to cooperate.  Swansong included.”

“Thank you for the clarification,” Luis said.

It almost sounded like that was another rebuke, not a pleasantry.

“I was thrown into battle against one of Miss Militia’s colleagues.  He killed me.  I was brought back from death, thrown into more danger.  The hardest head could be softened by that much dying.”

Chris spoke up, “You say that, but there’s another you out there who got harder, not softer.  You reveled in those days you spent with the Slaughterhouse, and she still does.”

“What are you doing?” Ashley asked him.

“Commenting.”

He sounded like some blend of irreverent and resentful as he made his ‘comments’.  It jarred with how everything else seemed to be an ongoing dance. I could see tension and betrayal across my team.  Kenzie smiled.  Even Vista looked bothered.

“You reveled,” Luis said.

“Not quite that.”

“It’s good,” Luis said.  He smiled.  “We’re always hungry to get insights about how your kind think and operate.  We study you voraciously, even now that we aren’t being ordered to, we compile records, we send ambassadors to talk to your experts and we pay them.  But a simple, brief explanation helps.  You reveled.”

“A simple brief explanation from him is going to be misleading.”

“So we can’t trust them.  You’re here to warn us, not to reassure?”

Ashley clenched one of her hands.

This is a charade.  A dangerous charade with the lives of millions who were counting on food and shelter may not get that.

“Why do your kind want things like kingdoms, island chains, or pieces of cities?” Yosef asked.

“Do you know how we get powers?” Ashley asked.

“We know.  As well as you do, I think.”

Right.  Goddess had mentioned they’d studied powers at her behest, with labs that rivaled Bet’s own, just with a hell of a lot more focus and motivation, and possibly a few more eureka moments.

…Possibly a little less massaging of data or focus on what was more palatable.

“We come from places of powerlessness.  Hold someone down at the floor of a lake, and they fight to come up for air, but the fight doesn’t stop there.  We put distance between ourselves and the water.”

Luis smiled.  “She told you we like our proverbs.”

“She didn’t.”

“We do like them.  You were powerless once and now you want power.  You need it, a dare say?”

“I dare say it depends on the person,” Ashley said, defensive.

“Dare say,” Luis said, and he winked at Ashley.  “The little prizes you learn when you pick up a tongue.”

“Will you chatter or will you step back, Luis?” Yosef asked.

“I’ll make an offer, let her answer, then gauge if others are willing to sign the deal,” Luis said.  He was lively, shifting his footing, his eyes bright.  “Swansong, we do not like things being hidden from us and we feel Chris Elman and Amy Dallon Lavere hid things from us.  We would punish them.  Moderate them.  Do you like them?”

“One betrayed me, one betrayed my friend, but a truce could be made.”

Not really helping to smooth things over, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure being dishonest would have been better.  Being diplomatic and choosing words more carefully would help.

“That might be ideal,” Luis said.  “We could give you a share of what we’ve agreed to give them.  Islands, people if those people are willing to live under you, and some people do want that security.  There is a servant class that is cloned, smart enough to obey orders, too stunted to have an identity or personality beyond the surface level.  We don’t know what to do with them.  We would give you some, Chris Elman would feel their absence, and you could barter with him for what else you needed.”

Chris could be heard chuckling.  “Assholes.”

The epithet was translated in a selection of languages from beside or behind every other group, including the guards behind us.  Luis could speak our language, but people in his entourage couldn’t.  The word was spoken, brief, and the tenor of things changed slightly.

Him being here and giving so little of a shit in a formal setting wasn’t making things better.

And because I looked his way, I could see Amy’s face, pale enough the freckles stood out.  I was reminded of Presley on the train, looking at me in my peripheral vision.  Except this time the reason for my skin crawling was real.

“If I could-” Miss Militia started.

“Miss Militia,” Luis interrupted, with unusual gravity.  “This is an offer between me and her.  We don’t need custom.”

“She needs counsel.”

“Your counsel would slap me in the face.  We would thank you for bringing the guests here and we would escort you out so we could talk to our guests.”

“There’s no need,” Miss Militia said.  I saw the weapon at her hip flash green-black, as if it almost changed forms.

Okay.  Shit.

“This feels too generous,” Ashley said, her head turning.

“We believe in making debts right.  As Miss Militia said at the outset.  She asked for goodwill but this would be goodwill and solving a problem in one fell stroke.  It would also itch at my curiosity, would this satisfy the part of you that went to a city and collected thugs to take a part of it?”

Ashley.

“I think so.  But I’d miss my team.”

“It would be yours to share, or for one of you to take with the agreement of the others,” Luis said.

It’s too biased an offer.  There’s a catch or a trap here.

“You saved our world, you get something.  Good acts are rewarded.”

“And we sign deals of cooperation that keep us out of your way?  Thank you, it’s a kind offer, but no.”

“You should take the offer, Ashley,” Chris said.

“No,” Ashley said, more hostile now.

Luis spread his arms.  “That’s fine.  We’ll figure something else out.  Thank you, Ashley Stillons, Swansong.”

Was that an official dismissal?  We announced ourselves with our names and we were asked to leave with the same, like a parent rebuking a child with their full name?

Either way, Ashley backed off.  Kenzie put an arm around Ashley’s waist.

“You’re maneuvering aggressively, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Miss Militia said.

“These are aggressive times,” Yosef said.  “We thought we had an ally we could work with, and now we hear she’s unreliable.  She did something in the past and she’s done it again.”

“If I may-” Amy started.

“You may not,” Luis said.

Again, that light in the eyes, the intensity, like someone riding a high.

Luis was supposedly on our side, but… he’d been close to Goddess, acting as a bodyguard or accompaniment, there’d been a hint that he had powers, by the way he’d held himself, and now he was aggressively maneuvering, as Miss Militia had put it.

“You chose to speak to Swansong,” Miss Militia said.  “I would suggest you speak to the others?”

“No need,” Yosef said.  “Amy Dallon Lavere made her attempt at explaining herself to us before you arrived.  She failed.  We spoke to Swansong because she had the potential to be the worst of you.”

Ashley rankled visibly at that.

“We will speak to you because you’re the best of them,” Luis added.

“Then tell me, we were talking trade, you wanted to ask some questions of Breakthrough and get some perspective before moving forward.”

“We did.  They have our goodwill.”

“Then can we talk about trade?”

“We can.  I’ll start with the term you’ll find most objectionable.  Whatever we agree on, the people we send to you with supplies, materials, or anything else will stay in Gimel.”

“Stay.  As residents?”

“As residents.  It should be only a team of five or ten per shipment.  We only have so many that can comfortably speak your language.  You get far more in the way of housing than you’d see occupied.  More in food than they could ever eat.”

Chris spoke, his voice low.  “They want to send you people who’ll keep an eye on parahumans, keep them in their sights-”

He mimed picking up and holding a gun.

“That’s insane,” Miss Militia said.

“Parahumans unchecked is insane,” Yosef replied.  “We desire a measure of security.  If you’re good and just, you have nothing to fear.”

“This is why the Coalition is gone?”  Miss Militia asked.

Luis answered, “It is.  They felt they had no room to speak here, so they abstained at our request, in exchange for some room on a trade deal we’re working on.  Internal, nothing to do with you.”

“If I may,” Miss Militia said.  “This is more formal and more serious than I expected.  Could I excuse my guests and speak with you in private?  I want to bring up things you have shared with me in private.”

There was some discussion, much of it in a language that wasn’t translated back to us.

Miss Militia turned around, and she smiled.  I hadn’t seen her face in some time, not since my stint in the Wards.  She looked about as stressed now as she had then.  But she looked more tired now.

I didn’t miss her gaze slipping from me to Sveta, and then to the guards behind us.

“They may take a recess and rejoin us if they desire,” Luis said.

“Go,” Miss Militia told us.  “Be careful.”

Again, that flicker of a glance at the guards.

Be careful.

Guards escorted us from the room.  What we’d seen was preliminary, a setting of the stakes, a testing of the guests by challenging a volatile member and making an offer, probably a trap.  And then the real terms.  What they wanted.

I left that scene behind, as Miss Militia stood alone against five nations.  This was where she had been, and what she’d been working on.

The guards that followed us into the adjacent room blocked my view of her.

Be careful, she’d said.

She’d said it in a way that made me think trouble was imminent.

I didn’t want to do this.  To have this conversation.  The room we entered was like a greenhouse patio, with tables and chairs set against the wall.  Snow was piled against the glass.  It was warm.  I could see Miss Militia if I looked past the guard and through the window into the meeting space.  As the guard moved, though, my vision obscured.

Tristan was keeping an eye on the window too.  He looked at me, then back to the window.

Yeah.  We were on the same page.

I so didn’t want to do this.

Amy sat on a table.  My mom sat on a chair beside her, my dad beside her.  Marquis was a distance away, closer to Chris.

A good fifteen feet separated us from them.  A gulf.

“Hi Chris,” Rain said.

“Hi,” was the deep-voiced answer.

“Missed you, believe it or not.”

“I didn’t miss you.  Sorry.”

I couldn’t ignore Amy’s face looking at me from the sidelines.  Silent, staring.  The hands tattooed with my metaphorical blood.

“You put on some weight,” Kenzie said, still smiling.

“Puberty and changer powers, you know.  It’s a thing,” Chris answered.

Changer.  He still pretended.

“Yeah,” I said.  She’d moved when I talked, like she was stirred out of a daze.  I avoided looking.

“Same for Case Fifty-Threes.  The mutations tend to get worse,” Sveta said.

“Yeah, but your new body isn’t from that, is it?  Otherwise Weld would be in big trouble.”

Sveta looked away at the mention of Weld.

“You stepped up your game, huh?” Chris asked.  “Better body.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She smiled.  “I’m pretty happy with it.”

“It’s okay.  You could’ve gone with a supermodel body and you went with that.”

“Fuck you,” Sveta said.  “You’re better than that, Chris.”

“Am I?” he asked.  “Why would you think that?  Name one thing I’ve done that’s ‘better’.”

“You were our friend.”

“Sorry, but that doesn’t count for anything.  I used you, that’s all.  No hard feelings.”

“Some hard feelings,” Tristan said.

Chris snorted.

“We need to instill you with some manners,” Marquis said.

“How long have you tried?” Chris asked.

“If I try for just a short while longer, I may strike on a success.”

“Ever the optimist,” Amy said, her voice pitched funny.  Nervous.

Tristan didn’t take his eyes off the window.  I looked.  Miss Militia was standing in the center of the room now.  I wished I knew the context.  Natalie had rejoined her, but looked so intimidated I wasn’t sure what she could add.  I worried, by the look on her face, that she had detracted more than she added.  This wasn’t her world, it wasn’t her fight, and we’d pulled her into it.

Guards stared me down as I looked past them.  I didn’t flinch, turning back to Breakthrough.  The others.

This warm space was crowded despite the unoccupied swathe of patio between the two factions.  The guards were arranged in two rows of five by the door, hands on their weapons.

Yosef had talked so casually about killing a parahuman child.  Would he do something?  I had my aura.  I could hit the glass above us and bring snow and glass down on their heads.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.

A face loomed in my peripheral vision.  I was worried I was going to lose it if I didn’t distract myself.

“Mom.  Are you okay?”

“Better,” was her response.

“I sent you messages.”

“I got them,” she said.

“I read them to her,” my dad said.  “We couldn’t reply.  Nothing nefarious, just… difficult.”

In looking at him, I glanced at Amy.  It was a punch in the gut.

I hated having feelings that had nowhere to go, and with no air in this hot box of a room, with everything on the line, things were worse.

“Are you going to fully recover?” I asked.

“Yes,” my mom said.  “Mark and Amy are looking after me.  We’re moving slowly, but we will get there.  We’re being treated well.”

“You’re moving slowly because dear daughter fucked up and now you’re both scared.”

“What did you do, Amy?” Sveta asked.

“It’s being handled.”

“What happened?”

“It’s handled.”

“Leave it,” Rain said.  “It’s not worth it.  Even if it’s not handled, there’s nothing we can do.”

“It’s eating me alive to imagine what happened and I can only imagine what it’s like for Victoria.  The unknown is worse.”

“And it’s all we get.  Accept the things we can’t change,” Rain said.

“It’s handled,” Amy said, repeating words that would echo in my head for weeks now.

I couldn’t.  I could have swung a punch if there was someone in range.  I almost punched the glass.  That would have been dramatic.  Instead, I turned, and I saw Sveta.  Ashley stood beside her.

I couldn’t breathe, so I started simpler.  I couldn’t not have a heartbeat, and the heart gave my lungs oxygen.  I couldn’t not be feeling the humid warmth in the air of this room, see the blue hue of snow piled up against the glass, with parts left snow-free for sun to shine through.  I couldn’t not hear the muffled echo of translators speaking in their crisp, foreign tongues.

I wanted to say I couldn’t not stand up straight, stay centered with my own sense of balance, but the reality was that I could see a world where I toppled, bowled over by the sheer unpleasantness of all of this.

Nobody was talking.  There was so much to say, and there was only silence and tension.  Bitterness.

I reached out for the exterior window, touching glass that had snow on the far side.  I traced a finger along and drew in the moisture.  A circle.  I blotted out the interior.  The cold, moisture, and the touch helped ground me.

I’d wanted to come because I had to face my demons, like Sveta had faced hers.  Like Ashley had done when she threw down the gauntlet for Gary Nieves.

In my desire to be anywhere else I looked at the window.  No escalation, no changes.

I wanted to see, to hear, to-

Instinct told me to look at Kenzie.

Her head bobbed slightly like she was listening to music.  But it wasn’t music.  I could time the motions to the cadence and rhythm of speech in the other room.

I put my hand on her head to stop the bobbing.  The motion made my injury twinge.  Her hair pressed close to the scalp by a hairband, left open and hanging free at the back of her head.  She wore a hairpin as part of the hairband, that was a ‘club’ from the deck of cards.  I wanted to ask why.  I didn’t want to try to speak and fail.

Kenzie moved her head, my hand still atop it, and leaned against my side.

With the way the discussion was going in the other room, I wasn’t sure we’d be invited in to talk trade deals or testify on my family’s behalf.  I was worried.

I was avoiding breathing more often than I breathed, holding my breath like I was trying to minimize exposure to poison gas.

Or pathogens.  The thought lurched into my mind and made me ten different kinds of scared, my mouth drying up, my hand moving involuntarily, streaking against the glass, collecting moisture and cold in the webbing between index finger and thumb.  My other hand rested on Kenzie’s head, still, moved suddenly, and made her look up.

“Sorry.”

She shook her head and smiled.

I leaned my head forward to rest forehead against glass.  Sveta moved, putting herself between me and Kenzie and my family, her back to that same glass.

Tristan watched the other room, arms folded, and in doing so he faced down the guards.  Rain was caught between watching them and watching Chris.  Ashley was more focused on Carol, my dad, and Marquis, with Amy a distant fourth.

Amy.

I’d wanted to face my demon and I’d put myself in a glass cell with it.

“You don’t have to move, I’ll go back to where I was standing.”

“I’m stiff, that’s all.”

Marquis’s statement.  My mother’s response.

With some unsure movements, a shuffling footstep or two, she crossed the distance.  Sveta looked back at me to double check, and I pulled my head away from the coolness of the window, wiped the moisture from my forehead, and nodded.

Sveta let my mom past, taking Kenzie with her.

Tristan watched.  Kenzie listened in.

My mom stood beside me.

The guards to my right.

My mom pulled me into a hug.  I let her, answered it.  I squeezed her tight.  I hadn’t hugged her since- had it been the barbecue?

Disturbing, somehow.  All of this was.

We broke the hug.  My mom touched the window for balance.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  “I really am.  It was bad strategy, it was unkind when you were going out of your way to help- my power is-”

“Amy told me.  Her interpretation.”

The words I’d had died.

She turned away, looking out past the glass at the storm-swept landscape of foreign buildings.  Towers extending up from one of a building’s four faces.  Another squat building had no third and fourth floor, a stone figure curled up within, holding the fifth floor up.

My mom drew a circle in the window, then drew her own icon within it, using a long fingernail for the details.

“I’m sorry,” I said, again.

“Me too,” she said.  She drew another symbol.  Fingerprints formed the sizing templates for individual segments of my dad’s grenade shape, and she used her nail to create corners.

She was apologizing for-?

“She’s not well,” my mom said, quiet, wiping away the image, where it wasn’t perfect.  She breathed on it to restore some life to the canvas.

In the background, Rain was talking to Chris again.

The words rocked me, stole away all rational and ordered thought.  My mom ignored the impact of it, continuing to draw on the window.

I looked.  I fixed my gaze on Amy, and I studied, pulling from memories of four years ago.  Memories of two years ago, when she’d come to Victoria the Wretch, stole away all emotions, false and otherwise, and made her offers.  Gave me her warnings.

She looked back, locking eyes with me.

The discomfort of me being present, her own shame, and the awkwardness of being between my dad and Marquis with Chris and Rain’s chatter in the background set aside… I couldn’t see it.

I one hundred percent believed it, but I couldn’t see it.  I looked away.

A part of me desperately wanted to.  That part of me wanted to see the illness, see a sign that would warn me, and in equal measure it would condemn me for not seeing it back then.

A part of me wanted this, wanted to not see, because it absolved past me to some degree.

“What tea?” Ashley asked.  Part of an ongoing conversation I’d tuned out.

“Believe it or not, I’m not much of a snob,” Marquis answered her.  “At this point I’ll drink what I can find.”

“You’ve lost standing in my eyes, Marquis.”

“Deservedly so.  In my defense, the world did end, and I’m a long way from home.”

“Even so.”

“Yes.  Even so.”

Kenzie wasn’t acting alarmed.  Tristan still watched, still kept his back to Chris, his arms folded.

The guards remained hostile.  The people in the other room were still arguing that their anti-parahuman soldiers should get freedom to act, or they’d cut off support we desperately needed.

All of this, the talk with Nieves, a pretext, I was guessing.  An excuse.

I felt like I was dealing with frying pans and fires.  A suffocating room, the fate of millions, tensions between old friends.  My mom and my guilt there.

I turned my eyes back to my mom’s work.  Letters.

‘We need help’, she’d written.  She started on the next word.  A vertical line-

A guard moved from his spot.  Casually, my mom wiped the message away.  She met my eyes for a moment, then focused her gaze intently on the snowstorm outside.

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Breaking – 14.4

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Cue the damage control.  Theirs and ours.

Theirs was the Warden’s.  A series of terse messages telling us to wait at a set location.  I sent them messages and mentioned the texts from Shin, which got us a reply with only a repeated ‘Wait there’.

Ours was an eleven year old girl.

As much as I would have liked to have the backup and convenience of Kenzie arriving first, a part of me was secretly glad that the Wardens’ response time would be better than that of an eleven year old who needed to ask around for a ride.  It took us five minutes to get to the building specified, a storefront that was available for lease, that was more than a little too close to the mess of the portals in the city’s heart to find anyone willing to invest.  The key to get in was inside a mini-safe attached to the door, the Wardens supplied the four digit code.  It got us out of the cold and it gave us some privacy.

Natalie arrived with the Wardens.  A part of me wondered if they’d sent recognizable faces because Breakthrough had achieved the special status of needing specialized, practiced handling.

I felt okay with how that had gone, all considered, but okay was a far cry from perfect and I felt like we needed a lot of perfects to get things back on track.  I was tense, even considering the positive emotions of seeing Vista, Golem, and Miss Militia.

The Wardens settled in a short distance away, while Natalie hustled across the divide to our side.  I put my arm on her shoulder and murmured, “Thanks for coming.”

“They called, said it’d help,” Natalie said.  She was wearing her puffy jacket, and her hair, which was normally cut in a pixie style and kept combed very close to her head, was even more close to her head with the moisture of the wet snow.

“Okay,” I said, my eye turning toward Miss Militia.

Vista had a heavy scarf draped over the parts of her costume which exposed skin, and wore what looked like a very thin jacket for the cold weather.  The visor hid the details of her eyes but showed light and shadow, and the heavy eyeliner was still a thing, apparently.

Miss Militia wore her outfit in her red white and blue, form-fitting and color-swapped version of military fatigues, a flag scarf covering her lower face, and something between a hood and a scarf covering her head.  When she pushed her hood back, snow fell to the plain, unadorned floor of the store.

Golem, I saw, had removed or hidden away the kind of silly looking fans or ‘fins’ that were part of his costume, a series of different common materials.  Nice looking armor that was obsidian black with hands and arms etched in it in a way that only showed in the right light.  Each panel was trimmed in silver.  He wore a serious-looking mask.

Vista and Miss Militia wore armbands.  Golem had the emblem marked out on one bicep.

“It’s good to see you, Victoria,” Miss Militia said.  “Long time.”

“Long time,” I said.  “Wish it was under better circumstances.”

“I’m glad you’re doing as well as you are,” she told me.  She turned her head.  “You too, Tress.”

The comment to Tress sounded like it had come from further away.  Ever since my run-in with Engel had… I wasn’t even sure how to put it.  I hadn’t been at rock bottom, only for something to reach up from below and drag me further down, but I’d been reminded what that something reaching up had felt like, and that had shaken things loose.  I’d remembered small details that had previously been hidden away under the cloak of altered memories, and slivers and fragments of those memories kept coming up to the surface.  Now one loomed, like a threatening person in my peripheral vision.  I ignored it.

“Have you talked to the mayor?” Miss Militia asked.

“No,” I told her.  “Should we?”

“We tried and her phone line is busy.  We sent someone over to have a chat with her.”

She met my eyes.  That vague shadow loomed closer, and I looked away.

“I have no idea if we did the right thing,” I said.  “It didn’t feel right, defending her.”

“In terms of maintaining the peace overall, it may have been best,” Miss Militia said.  “But people like her have a way of making others make those compromises on their behalf.  Be careful.”

I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet her eyes again, which annoyed me.  I wanted to sound confident and I wasn’t confident, but it was for completely different reasons than she was likely to expect.

It wasn’t like Sveta where she got stuff in dreams and then digested it over the course of the day.  It was a more haunting, incoherent edge to thoughts, where I started thinking about negative things and got into vaguer territory where I couldn’t place faces or line up events, but where the negative emotion was ooze-thick.

Miss Militia had been there.

“Miss Militia was kind enough to explain things while we walked over,” Natalie said.  “I’m not sure what my role in this is.  It’s not criminal law, and criminal law has… kind of ceased to apply to supervillains, as far as I can tell.”

“It applies,” Golem said.  “But it applies in a narrow window between the threats and chronic offenders we have to take severe action against, and the moderate to minor offenders who get off with slaps on the wrist because the courts don’t have the resources to process them.”

“But this isn’t that,” Natalie said.  “You want me to be a secretary.”

“No, not a secretary.  An ambassador,” Miss Militia answered.  To the rest of us, she explained, “Earth Shin was mentioned, and if we are dealing with Earth Shin, then we’ve found it helps to have non-parahumans as intermediaries.  This is the world that Goddess ruled for several years.  She divided it into fiefs and gave control of those fiefs to people with powers.  A good number abused the power they had.”

“Abused how?” Sveta asked.

“In just about any way you could imagine.  They accepted the reintroduction of parahumans as a purely passive, hands-off involvement, with stipulations.  The parahumans would keep to themselves, but they’d act to protect Shin in the event of any disasters or invasion.  In exchange, they would be free to settle the Alleghenian Ridge.”

“I have no idea what that is,” Rain said.

“Landmass cutting diagonally through their Atlantic Ocean,” Sveta said.  “It allowed earlier settling of their North America.”

“They’re spooked,” Miss Militia said.  “They saw video of your debate with Mr. Nieves and they’re very agitated by what was mentioned about your sister.”

That horrible feeling pressed in.

“Is there a way you’d prefer me to refer to her?  Her old cape name?  Her old name, her name that she goes by when with her father?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “But thanks for the option.”

“Amelia Claire Lavere negotiated the peace but neglected to mention any problems or issues in controlling her power.  She was presented as a healer in good standing who played a role in averting the end of all worlds.  Now they’ve heard other stories, they’re asking questions.  Your parents got in touch with you?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “My dad did.  He wants me to smooth things over, and he said there’s a good amount of evidence that this could blow up.  Ties back to the job you assigned us, keeping tabs on the anti-parahumans.”

“You mentioned this, but text only conveys so much.  It extends to Shin?”

“To Shin and back.  I only got so much info myself, but it sounds like certain factions in Shin are pretty angry at capes- which is understandable.  You don’t tend to feel warm and fuzzy about people who take over your world.”

“Understandable,” Miss Militia echoed.

“But they’re violent, and my dad thinks they’re getting information and other stuff from us, and our more dangerous anti-parahuman types are getting resources and manpower from them.”

“How bad is this?” Tristan asked.

Miss Militia answered, “With mutual control over the portal and cooperation with three of the five major governments in Shin, we don’t think there’s been too much damage, exchange of weapons, or manpower.  There are strict rules about passage through.  Vaccines, diet prior to passage through, allowed gifts, ID…”

“Diet prior?” Tristan asked.

“They don’t want seeds or other contaminants from foreign worlds getting crapped out, taking root, and becoming invasive,” Sveta said.  “You go to the bathroom in a bag and bring the bag with you until you go home or they can dispose of it in a careful way.”

“Oh no,” Tristan said.  “Please tell me this isn’t a thing.”

“Or you don’t eat for a certain number of hours prior and flush your system,” Miss Militia said.

“Uh,” Tristan said.  He looked at me and I nodded.

“Best option is to keep your visits short,” Vista said.

“Thank you for saying the first sane thing.  Short visits are doable,” Tristan said.

Miss Militia looked us over as she talked, “I talked it over with Warden leadership, and we’re looking to bring Breakthrough over for a short duration stay.  Vista, Golem, and myself would be joining you.  Natalie’s presence will help temper their fears.”

“To make apologies for my sister,” I said.  “Like we were just talking about people forcing us to compromise on their behalf.”

“That’s true,” Miss Militia said.

“Right now, what I want are solutions.  Not mitigating the damage, coping, making do, and just trying to get through today and reach tomorrow.  I want lasting answers.  We’ve got Teacher looking over our shoulders and I’m still holding out hope that we can find a way to deal with him, because the constant meetings that go nowhere are wearing on everyone’s sanity.  But I also want to deal with the criminals, I want to deal with the other worlds.  I want to get out ahead of what happened to Dauntless and to the broken triggers.  Can you tell me that this is that?”

“A permanent or long-term solution?”

“My sister,” I said, “Nieves said she was still unbalanced.  Cryptid kept secrets that have me pretty nervous about what he’s up to now.  They’re surrounded by parahumans that they have some measure of control over.  I want you to tell me that this situation isn’t a fragile one.  That if there’s a fix today it won’t break tomorrow.”

“I can’t tell you that,” Miss Militia said.

She’d always been straight with us.  I’d run into her a lot while patrolling, given our schedules.  I’d run into her more when I was part of the Wards, for that brief span of time.

I could only nod, absorbing that.

“Are you saying it is fragile?” Sveta asked.  “Or-”

“I don’t know,” Miss Militia said.  “I don’t know how fragile or secure she is because I don’t know her.   I don’t have a good read on Amelia Lavere.  I’ve been over there interacting with their leadership for months, but that hasn’t extended to any interactions with Amelia.”

“What about Cryptid?” Rain asked.

“Some.  Very brief.”

“I’m not saying I’ll say no, or that I’ll tell my team to say no,” I said, carefully.  “But if our actions here aren’t going to fix things, is there a possibility we can look into other answers?  Answers that don’t leave this as a fragile mess to handle tomorrow?  More long-term answers to my sister or Cryptid or anything else?”

I shifted my footing.  The signal I was thinking about Teacher.  The operation to infiltrate his base of operations.  I didn’t want Amy and the Shin situation hanging over our heads.

“You’re thinking of the prison.”

“I’m thinking of anything.  If you trust me enough to have me, have us get involved, then I want to know you trust me enough to listen if I say that I know her and she’s too dangerous to be left alone.”

The door of the store opened.  Ashley stepped away from our group to go greet Kenzie, as she pulled her helmet off.  Kenzie hugged her friend as soon as her arms were free.

“The Wardens have been debating the subject ever since Goddess attacked the prison and Amelia Lavere went to Shin.  We’ve been on the fence, and depending on how this goes, we may find ourselves unilaterally on one side or the other.  If you have an opinion on the matter it will be taken under serious consideration.”

I nodded.  “Then I’m fine with this if my team is.”

“I’m a little worried about you talking about permanent solutions for dealing with a sibling,” Tristan spoke up from behind me, prompting me to turn around.

“I’m not thinking of that kind of permanent,” I said.  “And it’d be a group decision.”

“Still sounds uncomfortable.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m always up for new places,” Sveta said.  “And anything that unites the different worlds.  Exploring what was out there was the happiest I’ve ever been and I want that happiness for everyone.  I think this makes a lot of sense to do, especially if we can find out more about what the anti-parahumans as a whole are doing.”

“And Chris.  He feels like he’s our responsibility,” Rain said, bringing up the elephant in the room.

“He’s his own responsibility,” Ashley said.

“But we should check on him, right?” Kenzie asked, gripping Ashley’s sleeve.

“Yeah.”

“I agree we should get what info we can on the anti-parahumans,” Tristan said.  “Deal with Victoria’s family stuff.  Check on Cryptid.  I’m just worried this is going to blow up.”

He blurred.

“Yeah,” was Byron’s contribution to things.

“Do you have other obligations?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m done my obligations for the day,” Kenzie said.  “Found the kidnapped kid, told the authorities, gave them all the info, camera feeds showing where the crooks were, and where the kid was.  They let us in on the raid.  Aiden didn’t get to do much, and Darlene just hung back, but Candy messed one guy up so bad.  I don’t think the cops minded.”

“Concerning,” Byron said.

“It’s fine.”

“No other obligations,” I told Miss Militia.  I shifted my feet again.  I saw her nod to herself.

“Have you all had your shots?” she asked.

“Shots?” Tristan asked.

“For going between worlds,” I said.  “I got some while with the Patrol.”

“I got them when out with Weld, for all it mattered.  I rarely got sick, before.”

“If you don’t have them, we have a single shot we can give you that will boost your immune system for a while,” Miss Militia said.  “The doctors debate its effectiveness but it can’t hurt.”

“Can’t hurt,” Tristan said, chuckling a bit.  “But that’s good to know.  I can deal with one needle.”

I wondered if I should let him entertain his delusion.  Instead, I decided to give him advance warning, just so he wouldn’t be upset or bothered.  I told him, “The kids in the Patrol block would get told to get their shots, get their shots, you’re going to be expected to go to populated worlds with their own diseases.  Gotta do it if you want to do this seriously.  Then some wouldn’t, thinking getting one needle once in a while was better than getting ten over the course of a couple of months.”

“Isn’t it?” Tristan asked.

“It’s a huge needle, and it feels like getting kicked by a horse after.”

He chuckled.  “Great.  That’s hilarious.  Poor kids.  Poor us, not knowing we should prep for this kind of thing.”

I’d figure something out for Tristan.  But that would happen at the portal.

We stepped outside, and Miss Militia locked up the store while Vista did her thing, lowering the roof of a derelict building toward the ground.  I could hear the groan and pop of the construction material, and saw Kenzie and Natalie both looking anxious.

“I should fix my coat so my power doesn’t run into itself,” Vista said.  “Sorry to disturb the illusion.”

Her jacket went from being thin and compact to expanding out, heavy and thick, covering just a bit more of her upper body, as a full-fledged coat.  While small it would have the same effective insulating properties, I was pretty sure.

We stepped up onto the roof.

“What do we need to know about Shin?” I asked.  “Ettiquette, rules, standards?”

Miss Militia explained, “Be nonthreatening.  One hand behind your back while you shake hands, but keep it open, not clenched.  Outside of that, I don’t think it’s too difficult.  They either know our customs and speak our language, due to Goddess’s enforcement of English as a universal language, or they speak their own language and the translators know us and will adapt.”

“Universal language?” Sveta asked.  “Ew.”

“It’s convenient, if nothing else.  Divergence was ages ago but the world progressed along fairly similar tracks.  They had a very war-torn past that leaves them conflict averse.  Wars in their approximation of Europe saw multiple groups fleeing across what our side has termed the Alleghenian Ridge.  To them it’s the Spine or the Bridge, in various dialects.  Many groups fled, then either conflicted with or mingled with previous refugees and settlers at the end of the long journey.  The coalition of nations that resulted is going to be who we’re spending the most time talking to, if we talk to any Shin governments.”

The roof was gradually returning to its normal height.  Vista had trouble manipulating terrain that was occupied, so she was just leaving it to revert.  She pulled out her phone, and punched in some things.  I knew from experience that she was making sure air traffic controllers knew which areas were no-go.  We were covering some ground.

“They like Miss Militia,” Golem said, while Vista fiddled and the building we were on returned to its normal height.

“They appreciate the ‘wields a big stick and walks softly’ approach,” Miss Militia said.  “I wield a very, very big series of sticks and I try to be gentle, and that seems to be something they respond to.”

Vista began to distort space across the rooftops, closing the distance between us and our destination.

“Do we need to worry about Teacher here?” I asked.

“It’s a consideration, but it may always going to be a consideration,” Miss Militia said, and her voice took on a darker tone.

“I want to think we’ll find a way,” Rain said.  “I’ve spent too many years under the thumb of people who wanted control.”

“That may be something to bring up in conversation.  Try not to volunteer or force information.  They’ll have questions about what came up.  They may have questions about the Lady in Blue, too, but don’t bring her up.  Be human.”

“The Wardens that have been dealing with them have been taking off their masks,” Golem said.  “But we’re hearing about this sketchy underbelly of Shin where they have the rabid anti-parahumans and now those people are talking to people in our world.  They might end up getting descriptions or photos there, then using them against us here.”

“It’s up to you,” Miss Militia said.

Vista was working to close the distance for us.  With the way the sky was distorting and pinching together, the station was visible and looming closer.  The world warped in a rough donut shape around the clear picture  of the destination.

Fuck, a part of me had hoped that there’d be a long train ride or car trip, that I could get my head sorted out and come to grips with what we were doing.  That I’d be seeing Cryptid, my mom and dad, my sister.

That I might be seeing Amy sick-

Again, that sliver of a memory.  Not anything coherent, but a vivid and complex tapestry of feelings without anything to map to.

Like how Miss Militia staring into my eyes made me think of a scene where I was still in that abandoned house, partially covered with a sheet, while the Protectorate tried to figure out what to do.  Feeling vulnerable, wounded, scared, and hearing Amy’s voice in the background.

Thinking of seeing Amy sick and lost in her own head felt like its own similar thing, but I didn’t want to dwell in that memory.  At least the memory of Miss Militia could be excused away as her being compassionate in her own stoic way.  Meeting my eyes when my own mother couldn’t.

I wasn’t ready for this and we were being thrust headlong into it.

I turned my thoughts elsewhere: got to deal with the anti-parahumans so we can act against Teacher without things burning down in the meantime.  Or this is their busywork while they procrastinate.  I don’t know.

We’ve got a looming mission and I don’t feel like we’re getting more ready for it.

“I built your thing, Capricorn.”

Some eyes turned to Kenzie.

“The camera that should show the hidden twin in real-time.”

“Just like that,” Byron said.  “I thought it would be weeks or months.”

“It’s kind of been weeks, but I didn’t have the scans and stuff I needed to puzzle it out.”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  He paused, then added, “Thank you.  I don’t really have words.”

“You don’t need words.  I’m happy if you’re happy.  Maybe mess up my hair or punch me in the shoulder or give me a hug, I dunno.  You know, after, if it works.”

“No,” Swansong said.

“No?” Kenzie asked.  “Huh?”

“Only if you can say you didn’t work yourself to the bone and stay up nights.”

“I didn’t.  I really didn’t.”

“Good.”

“I was working on other stuff.”

Ashley grabbed Kenzie’s ear, giving it a mock shake.  Kenzie laughed, her head ducked down where I couldn’t see any smile or lack thereof.  Ashley was smiling a bit, which told me it was probably fine.

“I’m not much of a hugger, or a hair-messer-upper, or an arm puncher,” Byron said.

“It’s okay, that’s-”

Byron reached out with one arm to pull Kenzie against his side, giving her a bit of a squeeze.  Her head bonked against Byron’s armor.

“Thank you.  Whether it works or not, I appreciate it.”

“Yep.”

“Not much of a hugger, huh?” Vista asked.

“Special moments and people, I guess,” he said.

“That’s fair,” Vista said.

Kenzie bounced a bit with her excitement as Byron ended the hug.  “It didn’t really take that much.  It was something I did eighty percent of the work for a while ago, while I was trying to figure out how to do it.  Then I got info when Cahoot’s power worked on the Capricorn brothers in a funny way, and I scanned the data from that.  Not positive on the voice, but we’ll try it out, yeah?”

“Cahoot,” I said.

“Like saying you’re in cahoots with someone!  It’s Darlene.  It was Chicken Little’s idea.”

“You need to stop letting him name things.”

“I thought it was okay.  And Darlene sorta likes it because Chicken Little came up with it.”

“It doesn’t suit her at all.”

“But-”

“It really doesn’t,” Ashley added.

“Don’t do that to that poor girl,” Sveta said.

“But-”

“Cahoot makes me think of a guy,” Golem said.

“That’s sexist,” Kenzie said.

“And someone wearing those masks that were really common in the late nineties, where there were smiley faces, or cyrano masks, or other wacky, leering faces for masks,” Golem said.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“The Crowley Fallen wore those masks even after they fell out of style,” Rain said.

“I could see it working,” Golem said, in a tone like he’d seen how upset Kenzie was and was trying to pacify.  She responded positively to it.

But no.  Not ‘cahoot’.

“You have pictures of her on your phone.  Show him,” I told Kenzie.

“You keep track of what she has on her phone?” Golem asked.

“No.  I’m betting she has pictures of everyone on her phone.”

“Not everyone,” Kenzie said, before pulling off a glove with her teeth so she could manipulate her phone.  Her mouth obstructed, she muttered around the glove, “mof eepl.”

She showed Golem a picture of Darlene.

“Oh.  No.  Absolutely not.”

She turned to Vista, who was already shaking her head.

In vain, she turned to Miss Militia.

“A girl that pays that much attention to costume-”

“Those are everyday clothes.  She likes the kind of fashion that’s expensive and timeless, like pretty dresses you could see a girl wearing today, or twenty, or thirty, or fifty years ago.”

“Don’t call her Cahoot,” Miss Militia said.  “I can’t think of a name less fitting.”

“Other options were like, Hookup, right, that-”

“No,” Vista said.

“We already vetoed that.”

“But Candy liked it and-”

Kenzie saw the heads shaking, the looks of disapproval.

“Intertwine?”

“I’m guessing that’s another Candy nickname,” Tristan said.

“Yeah.  No go?  Um.  Syndicate?  That came up.”

“A little overdone and a lot villain-sounding,” I said.

“I like that one,” Ashley said.

The landscape in front of us continued to pinch together, the ‘donut’ getting bigger, but the picture got bigger too.

Vista lowered us down through the ‘picture’ of the destination to the street level, stretching things out so the ramp-like extension of the rooftop didn’t get in the way of traffic.  Cars still slowed, wary, and we hurried to cross so we wouldn’t be interfering with their routes.

Lookout pulled her helmet back on before we got too close to the people on the ground.

Putting us at the foot of the station.  The station had American and other Gimel flags flying from poles along the left side.  To the right were standards, flags that draped down, each with its own iconography, colors, and shape at the end, whether it was two triangular tails or something rounded off.

I’d actually seen some of the images on clothing, and I hadn’t mentally connected to them being anything like flags.  I’d figured it was from a game.

Vista fixed her coat, compacting it and adjusting the fit while we filed indoors.

The interior was red and black checked floor, and elaborate wooden fixtures that looked much like a bank’s setup, with people behind terminals.  The place was desolate, with ten staff members standing by and waiting for work while there was nobody in the terminal.  They looked at us with interest and wariness.  Everyone had a nametag, and the tags came in yellows and red.

We had paperwork to do, and Sveta and I were processed quickly, because we’d been regular travelers through the portals.  For the others, there were forms to be filled out, white pen on red paper, and then they had to sit and wait for their shots.  Those shots would boost their immune systems and help them endure any disease or communicable illnesses, but they’d also kick any allergies into overdrive.  It was like a horse kicking you in the arm and giving you a light cold, at a minimum.

Still, it was better than dying.

“How do you want to do this?” Sveta asked.  She hung out beside me, with Vista and Golem hanging nearby.  Miss Militia was talking to people who looked like administrators.

“I have no fucking idea.  A lot depends on how she is.”

“What about your parents?”

“My dad messaging me was the most I’ve really heard from them, and it was all business.  I think they’re mad.”

“I have your back.”

“Thank you.  But go easy.  As nice as it would be, we don’t want to scare the locals.  This is about making a positive impression and reassuring.”

“I’m worried about you,” Sveta said.

“I handled things when Nieves brought her up.  I can hold it together while we’re there.  She probably wants to play nice, maintain good relationships with Shin.  If it gets ugly, I walk away.”

“Alright.  Can we have a signal, in case I need to nudge you to walk away?”

“Touch your left ear?”

“My left ear.  That’s the signal that you need to back off or check yourself?”

I nodded.

“Alright.  Thanks.”

Costumes were awkward to put on and take off at the best of times, and getting the necessary shots meant pulling off the upper body of costumes.  Byron had to unstrap his armor around his arm, get the shot, and then switch to Tristan.  Kenzie and Rain had to unzip and pull an arm free of their sleeves.  Ashley had to remove her coat, which wasn’t so bad.

I nudged Vista.  “Do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Shrink those huge needles down for my teammates?”

Vista smiled.  “This is for Tristan, right?”

“I think everyone would appreciate it.”

“He got super talkative and chuckly when the subject of needles came up.”

“Go,” I said.  I was sitting on a railing, and I twisted around, sticking the toe of my boot into her ass cheek to prod her forward.

She went.

“Looks like Precipice and Swansong are getting expedited,” Golem observed.

“I’m betting they got a bunch of booster shots before going to prison.”

“I wanted to ask,” Golem said.  “Precipice was Fallen, before?”

“Yep.  Open secret,” Sveta answered.

“You think he’d mind talking about that kind of stuff?”

I exchanged looks with Sveta.

“Can’t say for sure,” Sveta answered, “But I think he could use a friend who ‘gets it’.”

“That’s it, isn’t it?  Getting it.  Cuff’s the best, but I can talk about stuff and I feel more lonely than before I brought it up.”

“Tell her,” Sveta said.  “Communicate that.  Don’t freeze her out.”

“I’m not.  That’s not it.  She can be understanding if I’m really clear or even if I’m really blunt about, hey, this is a big deal to me, right?  But it takes work and reminders that, y’know, this thing wholly outside of her experience is a thing that’s pretty profound to me.  Sometimes you don’t want to constantly put in that work and you want to get straight to figuring it out.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She sighed heavily.

“They’re bringing out the stethoscope for Kenzie.  Deep breaths,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Golem asked.

“I’m guessing all the Wardens who’ve been through this process were in pretty good shape.”

“Kinda gotta be.”

“They’re worried about allergens, allergic reactions, lung capacity, and other issues.  Which means that if they’re not sure she can handle it, she gets filtered air.”

“Oh,” Golem said.  “Someone did mention that.”

Sure enough, they brought out the little tank, with the plastic tube stretching up to the face.  Kenzie would get the tubes up her nose, and she’d get the schpiel about how to breathe and what to watch out for.

“She’s going to die if she gets talking and can’t breathe through her mouth,” Sveta said.

“Being unkind isn’t like you, Sveta.”

“I’m not trying to be mean or bully her.  It’s a real concern.”

“Hm.”

Everyone wrapped up.  Needles done, Kenzie got her air filter and nose tube, and with Swansong’s help, fixed the filter to her belt.  She then fiddled with her phone, and the nose tubes were filtered away, hidden by the projection.

“Don’t suppose you could hide our identities?” Rain asked.

“I would if I could, but I didn’t bring complicated projection boxes or anything today.  Shuttling things back and forth is such a pain.”

“It’s no big deal,” Rain told Kenzie.

“You know what’s a big deal?  The air that comes through the filter is super cold,” Kenzie said, with a hint of nasality.  “I’m getting brain freeze just by breathing.”

“It’s about to get colder,” Miss Militia said.  “Ready?”

No.

No I wasn’t.

I didn’t want to face anyone on that side of the portal.

Earth Shin.

But we went.  I didn’t voice my protests.

The station was a nice one, with crenellated pillars and every wall having some kind of decoration or mural.  Earth Shin had constructed it, and that should have been a prelude.  We passed through, and we found ourselves in the other side of the station, and from there, walked past desks where we showed our paperwork, permits, and records of our shots.

They also had guards on their side.  Men and women with guns draped in cloth, to the extent the weapons looked more decorative than functional.  Each had what looked like a praying mantis limb folded up over one shoulder, steel and gleaming, and a narrow blade that attached to their right legs, like a rapier without a handle.

When we left, guards followed us- two of them for every one of us.

Into Shin.  Once Goddess’s earth.  Now Amy’s.  The temperature was easily ten or twelve degrees lower than it had been in the Megalopolis, and the sky was filled with snowdrifts.  It didn’t take away from what was a pretty amazing view.

Skyscrapers, but modified, augmented, and decorated.  The Wardens’ old headquarters had included a giant statue as part of it, but it was the norm here.  A skyscraper with a castle built into one face of it.  A tower was crowned with statuary of what might have been a hawk.  Red was a dominant color.

“How advanced are they?” Kenzie asked, her voice still nasal.

“They lunged ahead of our Earth a long time ago, but they also had two near-extinction events that slowed them down.  That’s not counting Gold Morning.  Let’s walk and get out of the cold.  The meeting hall is this way.”

It was only a few minutes of walking to get there.  Vista didn’t use her power.

Five standards hung over the entrance.  When we entered, there were five groups.  I saw the flicker of Miss Militia’s weapon, going from sword to nebulous blur to the sword again.  A signal?

I hadn’t expected warmth.  I didn’t get it, but I didn’t get it to such a surprising degree that it left me a bit off guard.  Yes, these were people who had been conquered by parahumans once.  But they were also people who had invited us.  The atmosphere was cold.

Two of the five groups had styles that resembled our own back in the Megalopolis.  Outfits that resembled suits, with simple braids instead of ties.  Braids for belts, the ends left dangling.  I liked it more than what we had back home.  It was similar enough to home, though, that I had to wonder if Goddess had had any influence, or any culture had leaked through.  This world had been her plaything.

The other three groups favored clothing that flowed more.  I could see where a history rooted in some distant commonalities and practical sense had led to some things occurring over here that coincided with what we had back home.  One of those three groups seemed to like clothes that made them look very boxy, with an almost straight line down from armpit to ankle for tunic and pants.  The other two wore clothes that wrapped around them.

Miss Militia lowered her hood, which was the cue for those of us that had been wearing helmets and hoods in the blistering cold outside to remove our headgear, to expose faces.

I fixed my hood, draping the front portion around my shoulders, and checked over the others, making sure they were okay.

When I looked up, I saw my mother, intact, leaning on my dad.  They were in the company of Marquis and one of Marquis’s underlings.  Spruce, I was pretty sure.

Following behind, my sister was in the company of Chris, who had done his best to grow up early and hadn’t quite hit the mark.  He was distorted, his torso stretched out, his arms stretched down, legs roughly the right proportions, but there was an uncanny issue in there, a rounding error in calculations, or the sum total not adding up to parts.  His hair had grown in rather long considering it hadn’t been that long since he’d left, and he still slouched, despite being tall.

No transformation here.  Just… riding the side effects of past transformations.  He barely reacted as he saw us.

But my sister?  Amy?  Her reaction mirrored mine.  Stopping in her tracks.  Quiet horror or unease.  Then resumed motion.  She looked away before I did, but I did look away too.

The tension was palpable, and I wasn’t sure it had anything to do with us.  If Gary Nieves could see how Chris and Amy were right now, or if he could see how my parents were, he’d be quickly disabused of any notion they were in charge.  To look at them, they looked like they expected the guillotine.  Chris seemed most at ease, but he was still tense, muscles on his lanky limbs taut.

“Something’s up,” Tristan said, quiet.

“Feels way more hostile than the last few times I came,” Vista added.

“They were three-two in favor of working with us and one of the three got replaced,” Miss Militia said.

“Why?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t know,” Miss Militia said, under her breath.  “But be ready to use your powers, and tell the others to be ready for the same.  Nonlethal if you can help it.”

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Breaking – 14.3

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There were no big television cameras to capture us, no news crews with their own setups. Just the people with laptops hooked into masses of wires that seemed to weigh more than the laptops themselves, those wires threading their way beneath seats to the big screens at the back.  But there were people with phones out.

The thought crossed my mind that we could have Kenzie intercept anything too crippling.  It was a fleeting thought, and one that sat uncomfortably in my head after it had fleeted.

“You don’t sound surprised,” Gary Nieves said.  Rain’s statement had thrown us all for a loop, and whatever else he was, slimy fearmonger, a scarier kind of politician than even Citrine, a stubborn asshole, he was used to this battlefield, under the withering stares of uncountable eyes, where every word mattered.

I could see Rain hesitate.

My own thought was on how to handle the link to Citrine.  And it wasn’t an easy route to take, because I wasn’t at peace with the choice to work with her.

“It sucks,” Rain said.  He reached up to touch his hair or his face and he seemed to realize, belatedly, that he still wore his mask.  Rather than stumble, he jumped into his next statement as if invigorated.  “All of this is scary, and what you describe doesn’t sound good, but I’m- we’re living it.  It’s scary to think about capes taking over worlds, but I’ve seen it.  I saw the woman who used to rule Earth Shin take steps to reclaim her throne, and I.”

He stopped there for just a bit longer than a fraction of a second.

“We saw her die,” Tristan filled in.  “She tried to take over, but the Wardens were watching her, her enemies were watching her, and when she made an attempt she was killed.  Imprisonment and trial would have been nice, if I’m being honest, but… no choice.”

She was throwing buildings around.

“And now others step in to fill the void.  Her sister.”

My sister.  Amy.

It was tough to hear, but I had kind of anticipated that line of attack.  I felt irrationally pissed off, which was a lot because I had a right to be pissed that he was picking at my scabs.

“We don’t talk,” I told him.

Shouldn’t you?  Putting aside the fact that you’re family, you grew up together, you seem to be implying you’ve taken on the responsibility of watching and handling the dangerous ones before they get too far.”

“Not my team.  All heroes.  Even some of the villains.”

“How good a job can you do if you live with one for most of your life and you can’t even see that she’s deranged enough to dismantle human beings and put them back together wrong?”

I flinched.

“How good of a job can any of you capes do policing any of the others?  You’ve missed some pretty big stuff.  Even among your families.”

“I can’t speak for my teammates or the other heroes,” Tristan said, “But there are others watching what’s going on in Shin.  The last I heard, they were keeping parahumans contained to one area and letting the rest of that world get back into its own rhythm.”

“That-”

“But what I can say,” Tristan added, with more vigor, bullying his way through, “sorry to interrupt, but I wasn’t done.  What I can say is that people are watching out, and I think we’re doing okay.”

“To go back to the topic of her sister-”

“Why?” Swansong asked.  She was incensed enough to make me worry.  “To poke at old wounds?”

“Easy,” I said.  “It’s my wound and I’m not getting heated here.”

“Your sister, Antares, who is supposedly being watched, apparently just did to someone else what she did to you four years ago, when she put you in the hospital.  She was sick then, she’s sick now, and no, I don’t think anyone’s watching closely enough.”

Ashley took a step forward before I could even process that mental image.  I did a full one-eighty degree turn, my hand going out to almost punch her collarbone more than I put my hand out to stop her.  The heel of my hand rested against bone, while my eyes dropped down, my expression tense.  I was sure I was giving the crowd a good show- I turned away a bit and let my hair fall down into the way to hide my expression.

“Stop,” I said, my voice a whisper.

“I’m sure people are looking after the situation,” Tristan said.  “We might not catch everything, but we don’t want any of the bad stuff any more than you do.  We watch because we have to.   Like Precipice says, this stuff you’re bringing up can be scary, our own lives are on the line when we go out there to stop despots and monsters, and we can’t afford not to keep an eye on the dangerous ones.”

His voice was confident, steady.  I focused on it.

Misinformation, I told myself, and I willed it to be true.  Misinformation that Amy had done something anything like what she’d done to me.  A teacher plot, aimed at making this worse.

I had a feeling in my throat like I wanted to groan or to throw up.  I swallowed it, doing my best to logic it away with the mantra of misinformation.

Gary was saying, “Yet our current mayor, tell me, should I call her Jeanne or Citrine?”

“Call her whatever you want,” Tristan stated.  Which- shit.  Sounded combative.

“Call her Jeanne Wynn, I think,” I told Gary.  I couldn’t afford to let the others stumble through this, with their own worst traits being highlighted.  I couldn’t let myself sink into my own worst mires of thought.  That was what Teacher wanted.  More confident, I turned his way and said, “The amnesty where we said ‘your past crimes don’t matter unless you commit more’ came into effect as a combination of deals we had to make to get people on our side to stop the end of the world-”

“The world ended,” Gary said.

“To stop it from being worse.  So people struck deals, and to some degree, all of this was a wake-up call for an awful lot of… awful people, and there was a lot of room for second chances.”

“We’re still talking about Jeanne Wynn?”

I had more vigor as I talked.  Citrine was a safe subject.  Not an easy one, but a safe one.  “I’m talking about a lot of people.  Mayor Wynn’s power doesn’t change how she leads.  It doesn’t influence her decisions.  Am I happy about it?  No.  She was a member of one of the groups that had a stranglehold over my hometown.  But they kept the peace, and that’s better than some.  If she wants to be a regular mayor, use her experience with capes to make decisions in a city where cape stuff is pretty major?  I think I can make peace with that.”

“If she’s lying about who she really is then can we trust her in anything else?”

“I think to make that decision for yourself, you need to look at how she’s done.  Again, I’m not dancing with joy given past history, but I’m personally giving her her second chance, and objectively speaking, I think she’s doing a good job.”

“It’s the face she shows us.  She was second in command of a crime syndicate, until the leader died, at which point she assumed control.  Protection rackets, pressuring politicians, sheltering and hiding villains on the run from law enforcement, kidnapping, ransom.  She has murdered people.  You’ll jump in here to talk about amnesty, I’m sure-”

He let the statement hang, pausing to give me room to do just that.  I didn’t take the bait.

Be calm.  Process.  Think about the fact that he’s a vehicle for Teacher’s weaponized information and misinformation.

“-But we didn’t get a say in that.  No vote or referendum was held, none of the unpowered were counseled that I’m aware of.  We weren’t asked if we wanted to make this deal-”

“You’d rather Scion have killed every last one of us, unpowered and powered alike?” Ashley asked.  “It took every last bit of strength we had, including the assistance we had to barter for, you insipid dolt.”

“Easy,” I said, even as my heart rate tripled.  Damn it.

“I’ll let your outburst pass without comment,” Gary said.  “Even if we accepted the amnesty, we have to limit it to not punishing people for crimes committed on Earth Bet.  That’s it.  It doesn’t mean we can’t look at what she’s doing as a politician and wonder just what it is she’s doing behind the scenes, knowing how she’s operated in the past.  Is she making threats?  Is she using her power to hold people hostage?  Is she killing people who get in her way?”

“Is she?” Tristan asked.

“It would explain a lot of things,” Gary said.

“Can you clarify what those things are?” Tristan pressed.

“How easy it was for her.  How people never seemed to be in her way for very long.  How she always seemed to have funds.”

I could have imagined a less seasoned politician stumbling when pressed for details.  It was a thing my mom had done when I was a kid that I’d picked up and done myself until friends in early high school told me to quit it.  ‘Name one instance’.  It worked great to shut down arguments until someone answered and you were quibbling over whether the instance counted.  My mom had been surgical with when it was applied, picking instances where she knew it would frustrate any arguments.  Tristan wasn’t surgical.

I jumped in with, “Jeanne Wynn was a candidate because she invested heavily into things on this side of the portal.  She planned, and that’s why she’s so well set up.”

“With illicit money.”

“I don’t like it either, but in retrospect?  A lot of the important buildings and infrastructure we’re using now are because she thought the world might end, and she planned around it, investing.  She was right, and we’re all better off for her planning.  I’d rather she did what she did than us not have the community centers, power, trade deals, concrete, prefab building parts, and food that we have.”

“If she knew about the end of the world then why didn’t she stop it?” Gary asked.

“Do you really think she knew about Scion and didn’t stop it?” Tristan asked.  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “At this point you just sound like a sore loser.  Things were bad with the Endbringers and other incidents.  People everywhere were thinking about their options, prepping for disaster.  She was just smart about it.”

Thank you, Tristan.

I knew what answer I might’ve given if I were Gary.  I would have said yes, yes, she could have known and she could have been calculating enough to hold her tongue.  I knew enough details that I didn’t think it was the truth, but it would have been a decisive attack on her character.  Thing was, Tristan was good at speaking.  He had a forceful and combative approach that didn’t come across in his tone, but made people listen, gave him momentum, and let him drop questions any opponent would be happy to answer, and even drop in casual insults like ‘sore loser’ and then string it all together in a way that made it hard to combat.  Gary couldn’t answer the question with an attack on her character without being the sore loser, couldn’t answer the sore loser comment without sounding like he didn’t have an answer, and the audience came away with what Tristan wanted.

Funny thing was, I was realizing that Gary had all the answers, he was ready, he’d probably gone through a hundred mental recitations of this debate or similar debates since getting the material he’d shown from the slides.  He’d already shown himself to be quick in answering the tough, accurate questions.  But when Tristan came at him with his own unique approach and a less stellar argument, Gary seemed a little flat footed.  Rain had done something similar, but without the raw presentation.

“You’re devoting a lot of effort to defending her,” Gary said.

“Because you’re devoting a lot of effort to attacking her,” Tristan said.

I followed up.  Bring things back to center.  Rain established our thesis, whether I love it or not.   “Precipice said this all sucks.  He’s right.  The world ended, things aren’t great.  This cape stuff?  People taking over worlds?  You’re right to be upset and angry.  He’s right in agreeing to that.  I don’t think you’re right that every world is taken.  Not Shin, probably.  Mayor Wynn has given us no indication she’s using powers to rule us.  She was elected.”

“Somehow.  And she did get there using her advantages.  As you said, money that came from caped villainy.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Probably.  But as much as I don’t like her or her role in what happened to my hometown, I do think she wants the same thing we all want.  She wants us to get through this winter.  She wants us to thrive.  My team?  We want the city to thrive.  The best of us are getting bloody, injured, and traumatized fighting the worst of us.”

“The best of us,” Gary answered, his voice taking on a different tone.  “Do you really think you’re better than us?”

“The best capes, fighting the worst capes,” I told him.  To balance my answer, I added, “I can’t think of any non-capes I really dislike, let alone qualify as the ‘worst’, and I can think of a lot I love.”

“And here I hoped I was getting a refreshing bit of honesty from you all,” Gary said.  “Too bad.  It’s interesting, though.  The ‘best’.”

Fuck me, he was really seizing on that.

“I think the sorts of people who have fought Endbringers a dozen times, dedicating their lives to helping others, they deserve the title of ‘hero’, or of ‘best’, just as much as any soldier who fights for our country, Bet or Gimel,” I told Gary.  I took a page from Tristan’s book.  “The therapists who kept them sane through it, Patrol leaders, lawyers, I know them and I consider them among the ‘best’ too.”

“PRT directors who keep an eye out for those who need help,” Ashley said.

“Friends,” Rain said, barely audible, certainly not audible to Gary.

“The people you’ve listed off are all cape-related,” Gary said.

“It’s the life I’ve lived,” I answered.  “I was a cape from the beginning.”

“And it consumes everything,” Gary said.  He stared at me, his eyes level, not even wavering.  “I’m here because I don’t want it to consume us.”

His arm swept out to incorporate the crowd.

Rain had his thesis.  This was Gary’s.

Rain shifted position, like he was about to speak, and then stopped.  Maybe nervousness.

I tried to fill in for him.  “We don’t want it either, and believe me, we’ve seen and survived some of the worst of what’s out there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gary said.

“I’ve pulled an actual human baby out of my throat after someone tried to implant it in there.  I’ve seen people cut into fist-sized cubes and have to live through it.  Some of my teammates got similar treatment.”

Rain touched my arm, and I thought at first it was support or solidarity.  Then I felt the fingers of the small arm that gripped me down by the elbow tighten.

“I grew up with the bad, all-consuming stuff too,” Rain said.  “The isolated scary stuff is bad, but there’s good stuff too.  Good people.  People who are trying to help and fighting on the exact same side, for the same things you’re fighting for.  I don’t think that’s ridiculous.”

Right, we’re not trying to scare them.  That’s why he stopped me.

“I said you’re being ridiculous because you talk about surviving the worst when you represent it,” Gary said.

What the fuck, Gary?

“I’ve researched the various teams.  I know who you are, though it took some reminding.  You had an attempted murder charge for apparent fratricide while they were trying to figure out how to charge killing someone you share a body with.  You were Fallen and were directly complicit in the mall fire that killed over a dozen people-”

Each statement was punctuated by a shift in the tone of things, reactions from the room.  I could hear his voice echoing, a half-second late, as the speakers outside carried it to the crowd beyond.

“-Your own mother just went to Earth Shin for medical care because you struck her so hard you took part of her head off and damaged her spine.”

I dropped my eyes to the ground.  Gary apparently knew the fucking particulars better than I did.  Fuck.

I wanted to retort but the mental picture took my breath away.  I’d left the hospital wanting to keep anyone from ever having the same kind of fate I had, and then I’d hurt my mom that badly.

And they’d taken her to Amy.  Who had allegedly done something.

I didn’t want to connect those dots.

“And you were Slaughterhouse Nine,” Gary finished.  His capstone.

“So stupid,” Ashley told him.

I reached out, my hand on her shoulder.  She looked at me, and her eyes- white from corner to corner, black wisps of smoke curling out from the edges of the eyelids, exaggerating black eyelashes.  Her eyes were empty, blank.

“We should go,” I said.

She batted my hand away from her shoulder.

“Stupid, small man,” Ashley said.  She took steps forward, and I flew a bit to keep more or less in front of her.  I was ready to tackle her to the ground.  My wariness and tension seemed to be reason enough for Gary to back up.

I spared a glance, and saw Sveta was pushing past the crowd that was standing around the rows and columns of chairs.  Ashley took advantage of that glance to step around me.  I didn’t spare another look for Rain and Tristan.

“You have all of these facts but you.  Know.  So.  Little,” she told him, making each of the last three words its own punctuated statement unto itself, accusatory, hissed, and pejorative, in that order.

People were standing from their seats, backing up.

“Swansong,” I said, my voice stern.  I used my aura, the radius just wide enough to catch her and none of the audience.  She snapped her head around.  “No.”

“Yes.”

“Ashley,” I said, shifting my tone.  I spoke to her more as a friend,  “Please.”

I noticed blue motes.  Not many, but some.  Byron was using his power, keeping it ready.  A blast of water, in case she lunged for Gary?  I hoped it wouldn’t come to that, because it implied I wouldn’t be in a position to tackle her out of the air.

She reached out in my direction, and it wasn’t a warning or a threat of a blast aimed at annihilating me.  Just- a hand extended, relaxed.

I grabbed it, and I felt her shift her grip, her fingers interlacing with mine.  She half-turned, reached for the wrist of the hand I held, and undid something before twisting it, partially using my grip to help the twist.  When she pulled her hand free of mine, the movement was ginger, gentle, and careful to keep everything from elbow to fingertip pointing up.  It required my cooperation, to let go of her fingers, and I gave it.

Her fingers were stiff in their movements and slow as she touched her other wrist.  She didn’t keep her left hand upright, and instead let her arm swing down.  The swinging motion coupled with the hand being unattached saw it sliding out, flying in Gary’s general direction.  Pale and slender, each nail was done up in black and white polish.

It hit the ground like a lead weight, landing halfway between herself and Gary.  Fingers twitched as they curled up like the legs of a dead spider.  Nail polish splintered off.

Her other arm didn’t swing down, but simply lowered.  I saw the hand slide free, striking the ground near her foot.  The pipe that extended out from the bottom end of the wrist stuck up for a moment, before it toppled and hit the ground with a sharper sound.

“They took my hands,” Ashley said, staring at Gary, extending her arms partially up and out.  The stumps were capped with metal discs with circular holes in the center for the hands to slide into, slick with blood and lubricating oil in equal measure.  “They held me at knifepoint when they made me join.  They took my hands, they took my ability to speak, and they made me act like one of them.  I wasn’t an angel before, but the fact they had to make me says I wasn’t really Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I relaxed, dropping the six inches to the ground.  With that, the tension of others in the room began to dwindle.  One or two people sat.  Others remained standing but didn’t look ready to bolt.

“Wherever you’re getting your information, you’re not getting the full picture,” Ashley said.  “You’re attacking us for things that are far more complicated and unpleasant for us than you’re aware.  I hope so, in any event.  Because if you aren’t ignorant, you’re malignant.”

I bent down, picking up he hand by Ashley’s foot.  When I looked up, Gary was bending down to pick up her other hands.

Rain’s voice was low and quiet, “Be gentle with it.  I know she dropped it to make a point or something, but if you actively tamper with it it or touch the sensors near the metal bone, it might muck with the settings.”

“I’m not a brute,” Gary said.  He weighed it in his hand, and he seemed surprised at how heavy it was.  “I’m not the bad guy here.”

I wondered if the implication was ‘but you are’.

“My brother isn’t a villain either,” Byron said.  Right, they’d changed to have water available.  The motes were gone.  “He was a scared teenager and I’ve forgiven him for what he did to me.  I feel like that’s where things should end.”

“From my experience with law, there’s a reason victims can’t rescind charges.  It’s up to the prosecution, because you need that objective observation and involvement.”

“Victims can testify, though,” Byron said.  “If there’s a jury, victims can make their statements.  If he’s on trial, this is my statement.”

“You’re not on trial,” Gary said.

“Aren’t we?” Rain asked.  “Aren’t we always?  We’re being judged and condemned every damn day we’re out there.  I was damned for being powerless before I got my powers and damned for being broken after I got them.  Family judges us, friends judge us, and it’s usually harsh judgments.  You’re being judged and assessed by your audience, Mr. Nieves.  They’re always doing it.  That’s just how people work.”

“I don’t think you capes are on trial nearly enough, considering the damage you can do.”

“I agree,” Rain said.  “It took too long for the Fallen to be stopped.  I saw a lot of people get hurt.  I’d have liked to see more justice, during that period of time.”

The conversation and its tone had shifted.  We’d moved forward, around Ashley, and Gary had stepped forward to pick up the hand.  There was an audience, but our tone and our volume was more conversational now.

I spoke up, matching my tone to the conversation, despite my anger and anxiety.  “I want to get to a place where there is more justice, where the courts are equipped and able to act against parahumans that cross the line.”

“Even if those parahumans smash their own mothers’ heads into a wall?”

“Even,” I said.  I didn’t flinch.  I stared him down instead.  “It was a miscommunication, me not telling her enough about my power, maybe a bit on her, for not letting me be in a position to tell her.  That sounds a lot shittier to say than I think it was.”

“It’s complicated,” Rain said.  His old catchphrase.

Ashley wasn’t asking for her hand back, and she wasn’t lifting her arm up to indicate for Gary to give the hand back.  I felt like it would be forcing the issue to take the hand I held in my own, cold and otherwise human, like the chunks of the Navigators had been, and give it to her.

She wanted him to offer, and he wanted… I wasn’t sure.

“I’ve seen so many people die,” Gary said.  “If we don’t take a harder line now, then I’m going to see more die.”

“A lot of us were there, face to face against Scion,” Byron said.  “We saw deaths firsthand.  We were there for outright warfare against the Fallen.  Dozens died.  I don’t want to one-up you, sir, but I think we’ve seen more die than you have, and it doesn’t hurt any less.”

Byron shifted back to Tristan.  Gary looked wary about the blurs, as every small difference in detail between the two brothers was bridged by a brush-stroke smear of shadow, before consolidating in the new form.

“I think we want everything you want,” Rain said.  “But we can’t be debating you or defending ourselves against allegations while we work toward that end result.”

“Vastly, painfully simplified allegations,” Tristan said.

“Well, if you wanted to derail my speech and the promotion of Mrs. Darleet’s book, I think you succeeded.”

“No,” I said, and my voice was harder.  “Swansong just laid herself bare, showed you her disability.  You’re holding the evidence in your hand as we speak.”

“You used me for ammunition,” Ashley said.  “I get to say something back.  Isn’t that how a trial goes?  If I don’t get to, it’s something else entirely, and you might as well have the common decency and the feeble trace of courage to follow through and either hang me or burn me at the stake.  Let me go out in a dramatic way, but don’t you dare misrepresent me.”

“I’m not going to lynch you.  You’re being ridiculous.  We’re asking questions.”

Ashley answered, “Without us here to answer them.  When we do answer them, we’re accused of derailing.  The difference between us, Gary, is that you have a kind of power here, and you haven’t even tried to be just, kind, or fair.  But in my experience with Breakthrough, I’ve seen that no matter how rocky the road gets, and it’s rocky right now, it feels like we’re losing or we’ve lost… we still try.”

Gary still held Ashley’s hand, and he seemed lost in thought for a minute.  No retort, no response.

Then he looked at the base of the hand, where what Rain had called the ‘pole’ stuck out, to be threaded into the hole in the stump and root in the forearm, he looked at Ashley’s arm, and he seemed to realize how weird it was that he was holding a girl’s dismembered hand.  He extended his hand, holding the hand by the wrist.

Ashley put her arm out, hole pointed at him, and he had to turn the hand ninety degrees to stick the pole out and put it into the hole.  There was a faint sound like something sliding into a sheath, Ashley pushed out to help the final connection pop, then twisted her arm around to rotate the hand before something caught.

“Thank you,” she said.  She flexed her hand, forming a fist, then moving the fingers.  She turned to Rain.  “Feels wrong.”

“You threw your hand down like someone throws down a gauntlet in a duel.  It’s going to screw up the fine tuning.”

“Guys,” Tristan said.

Gary glowered.

“You might have really hurt relations with Shin or Cheit,” I said.  “I don’t know what happens to the mayor, but if this leads to her being ejected or removed, I think it hurts all of us.”

“We can disagree on that.”

“We’ll see how it goes.  In the meantime, if you need help with something else, if you have questions or if you want to meet us halfway?  You can contact us.  I think there are better ways to use the listening ears you have.  If you get tired of tearing things down with no plan to build them back up, I have ideas about how you could educate and inform people, or broaden what we have in the way of the Patrol, that lets people have more involvement.”

“Something else,” he said.  “In other words, you think I need help with what I said about the mayor, Cheit, or Shin, but you won’t give it.”

I thought about it.  That had kind of been my intended implication.  There were so many toes to step on.  Territory I didn’t want to get into.  Like my sister.

“If it does turn out that that’s the case, reach out.  We’ll see what we can do.”

Mr. Nieves didn’t nod or shake his head.  He turned to the table where the two and a half pounds of laptop and twenty pounds of cabling were, motioning for them to wrap things up.  I heard the blip of the speakers being disconnected as wires were undone.

And that somehow felt like the end of the conversation.  I backed away, Ashley turned.  I spotted Sveta in the crowd, looking relieved.

That was it.

“Want a book?” Mrs. Darleet asked, as we went to go.  When everyone had backed up, she’d stepped away from her podium and into the edges of the crowd.  Now she was back at it.

“Read it,” Ashley said.  “I was talking to my team about it earlier.”

“That’s great,” the woman said.

Probably a publicity stunt, or a chance to make us look bad when we refused, or pure irony.  I didn’t have a read on her.  But whatever.  I held out my hand, took the book, thanking her.  People would interpret our taking the book however they wanted.

The crowd got out of our way.

We left it behind, and I hoped that even if we hadn’t defused it all, we’d at least raised questions or broken their stride.  I hoped the video wouldn’t look as bad as I worried it would.

“He played dirty,” Tristan said.  “Bringing up the shit he did.”

“Swansong called him small.  He kind of is.  He’s using the only tools he has to try to effect change.  I remember what it was like, being unpowered in a powered family, how little it felt like anything I did mattered.”

“Pretty generous of you,” Tristan said.

Sveta exited the building, making her way through the crowd and crossing the street.

“I dunno,” I said.

Sveta joined us.

“I think you’re going too easy on him, offering help, bending the knee,” Ashley said.

Rain answered her, “We’re on the same side.  We want the same things.  It’s a… minor difference, I guess, but an important one.”

“A distinction,” I supplied the word.

“That.”

“What distinction?” Ashley asked.

“He’s anti-parahuman, except, my experience says he wouldn’t call himself that.  He’d say something like ‘I’m aware of how dangerous parahumans are’ and he’d have some stats to back it up.  Thing is?  So are we.  We’re very aware of the threat posed.  We’re more aware.  The dif- distinction is that he’s focused on the overall threat.  We’re focused on specific threats, the worst of them.”

Ashley stared int the silvery-white lenses of Rain’s mask.

“It’d be nice to work together or whatever when it comes to dealing with the worst capes.  Focus energies,” I said.

“Exactly,” Rain said.  “There’s overlap, common interest.  We all want certain capes that are abusing their powers, abusing the system, and abusing others gone.  Maybe we can loop Gary into that.  Get him on board.”

“It’s not that easy to change someone’s mind,” Ashley said.

“I know it’s not, believe me.  I’ve dealt with my share of bigots.  But I think there’s a chance,” Rain said.

“It’s not simple,” I agreed.  I still had anxiety and dark thoughts pushing in at the edges from what had been brought up.  I wanted to move, to act, to go punch bad guys, just to keep that stuff at the edges from creeping in enough to matter.  Move fast enough and that kind of thinking would have to cling on for dear life.

“It’s complicated,” Rain said.  “It’s the kind of complicated I’ve been wrestling with from the beginning.”

“Speaking of complicated,” I said.  “Ashley.  You’re…”

“You’re backsliding,” Tristan said.  “That was bad.”

“I thought I made a good point.”

“You’re backsliding.”

“We’re all backsliding, if you haven’t noticed.”

“I know you,” Sveta jumped in, joining the conversation.  “You were on the edge.  You could have blasted him.”

“I could blast anyone.  I could blast you, right here and right now.  But I don’t because I don’t want to.  I didn’t blast him because he’s a goblin of a man without even a single testicular smudge’s worth of manliness, who attacks people behind their backs.  He’s not worth it.  Does he redeem himself somewhat by giving me my hand back and listening to us a little?  A tad.”

“You thought about blasting him and you held back,” Sveta said.

“I held back,” Ashley said.

“We need to discuss this.  This pattern of behavior isn’t good,” I said.

“A pattern where I hold back?”

“A pattern where you need to hold back,” Sveta said.

“This is me.  This is who I am.”

What was?  I felt like I’d gotten to know her, that she’d let her guard down, dropped aspects of the self-imposed image she’d built up around herself, and become more comfortable.  I’d liked the Ashley I’d gotten to know.   Now… I wasn’t even sure about any of it.

People who broke down tended to reveal raw and vulnerable parts of themselves, and I’d thought that in the past events where Ashley’s facade had cracked, I’d seen glimmers of the Ashley who cared deeply about Kenzie and who could care deeply about others.  The Swansong.  Now I felt like the Swansong facade was cracking under the strain of keeping up the act here and it was revealing a Damsel beneath.

White with black beneath the surface or black with white beneath the surface, just endless beneath-the-surfaces.  Always with a few limited constants.

There had been vulnerability here, though.  Showing the missing hands in front of watching eyes.  Declaring she wasn’t Slaughterhouse.  Still, there was something I’d call darkness.

“Do you need to hang back?  Take a break while we look after other stuff?”

“No,” Ashley said, sounding offended.

I was frustrated, and with how Ashley tended to ramp up when she got agitated, and the way my own frustration seemed to mirror that right now, I backed off, letting Sveta take over.

My phone was ringing anyway.  I pulled it out and I checked the screen, and then I went very still.

“What’s wrong?”  It’d been Rain who noticed.  “Teacher attack?”

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

“What, then?”

“Someone caught some of what Gary was saying when he named names.  It got out to Earth Shin.  They want to meet.”

I didn’t want to do this.  I was happier telling myself Gary had been wrong than I was putting myself in a position to know one way or the other.  Knowing that she did what he’d alleged, or that she didn’t and that I had to wrestle with the word ‘innocent’ linked to her name.

“Family they?” Sveta asked.

“Family they.”

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