Another person had entered the room. A girl, white, short black hair with a longer swoop at the front and the slightly-misshapen ears of someone letting extensive piercings heal closed. She was wearing baggy cargo pants, a faded dark green bomber jacket, and an oversized shirt from the same memorial line as my Brockton Bay dress. She was from New York, it seemed, or she wanted to represent. Her work boots looked old and worn, but sturdy, stained with what was presumably mud or some other agriculturally-related substance. Her nails were painted a simple black, chipped with wear, but the right thumbnail was completely clean, and in noticing that I couldn't help also noticing that it was the only one of her digits to be covered in tiny pockmarks and scars.
Despite an air of weary gauntness, and what seemed like an active effort in her fashion choices to work against it, she was still stunningly pretty. There were women where someone’s first thought might be ‘they could be a model’ and there were women where the first thought was ‘they have to be a model, it’s not fair if they aren’t’. She was the latter, although presumably some lifestyle changes would have to be involved first.
“But yeah, damn, I don’t look good enough in a dress, so I have to concede. Hey Erin,” Tristan said.
“Heya,” the girl who was apparently called Erin said. She took the empty seat next to Tristan, sitting very carefully and deliberately. Almost immediately, she had raised one hand on her mouth, and the source of the scars became evident as she started to absently gnaw on the thumb. “Why are you wearing a dress?”
“Just joking around.”
“Ah, shame. You could pull it off.”
There were still two empty seats. One would be Jessica’s. There’d be one more, then.
“You made it here okay?” Tristan asked.
“Yeah. Rain came with, he's off getting some stuff.”
“How are things?” Kenzie asked Erin. She gestured at her head in a way I didn’t see, with her head blocking my view of the hand on the other side.
Erin gave a haggard smile. “I'm getting by, chipmunk.” I couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes kept darting towards the door and windows, as if anticipating someone bursting through one of them.
“Better or worse than last week?” Kenzie asked.
“Let’s save the therapy-relevant stuff for the session,” Mrs. Yamada interrupted. “Small talk and catching up for now, please. We don’t want to get started before everyone’s here, and I want to go over ground rules and expectations before we ask anything too personal.”
“Alright,” Erin said. She turned her attention to me, inasmuch as that was possible in between her routine of glances. “You’re the heroine?”
“Ex-, kind of,” I said. “But yeah. Victoria.”
“Hi. I’m Erin. With an ‘E’, not two ‘A’s.”
She’d said it with exhausted humour, as if it were a common, worn-out joke she’d received, despite it being a pretty big reach. I threw up my hands in mock surrender, my mouth firmly shut.
“You said ex, but...” She trailed off, and I saw a glint of recognition in her eyes. “Victoria as in Victoria Dallon? Glory Girl?”
I couldn’t quite manage a smile, so I settled for a nod. “From New York but you recognise another city's local hero?”
“I used to be a bit of a cape geek.” She didn’t seem so much embarrassed about it as… sad, or regretful.
“If only. It’s… not really about being a geek anymore, with my situation being what it is.”
“I can relate to that, I think. It’s always been front and centre for me, but there was definitely a shift.”
“Yeah,” she said, as if I’d said something very heavy, and she’d felt part of that weight. “I’ve… it’s very much a ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ kind of thing.”
“You’ve had powers for a while, then? If I can ask?”
“Just under a year,” she said. “I’m the- novice, I guess. Or, me and Chris are.”
Post-Gold Morning. That helped put things in context.
Chris, too. By process of elimination, he’d be the boy roughly Kenzie’s age.
“Family thing. You said that once,” Kenzie said. Erin acknowledged that with a tight little smile.
“Second gen?” I asked. I wondered if I had any kindred on that front.
“You’re a veteran, right?” I winced a little at the word choice, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Of cape stuff, I mean. The answer to most questions you can ask is ‘it’s complicated’.”
“That’s fair,” I said. “For a while now I’ve thought that parahumans should get a membership card, materialising in our hands when we trigger, or arriving in the mail at the first opportunity. A warning on one side, ‘handle with care’, and then on the other side, ‘shit is complicated, don’t ask’. Something that we can flash now and again, like a get out of jail free card.”
“Ha. I’d like that, I think. Even though it’d probably get so much use I’d have to replace it every few months.”
“I could get good mileage out of the ‘shit is complicated’ side,” Tristan said.
“Now I feel left out,” Kenzie said. “I’d like to think mine would be nice and neat, stored away as a just-in-case.”
“Really?” Tristan asked. “Really?”
“Ruh-heally,” Kenzie said, with exaggerated emphasis and a roll of the eyes. Tristan mirrored her pose some.
“I do like the idea,” Erin said to me, a little distractedly. “The card.”
Some of the nervous energy had dissipated as she’d engaged in the conversation, but her eyes continued to dart around at irregular intervals. It made me think of saccades, for whatever reason; the uneven jerky way human eyes move before our brain smooths it out.
“Weld was there for a lot of it,” Sveta said, backing me up. “I’ve heard some of what happened. Things got scary.”
In all fairness, as fond as I was of her, I did find something amusing in how it was Sveta saying that last bit. “Scary’s a good way to put it.”
“But you’re still wearing the shirt,” Erin observed. “You’re attached to the city?”
“Sure. It’s my city. I grew up there.” That got a knowing nod, one of her hands absently picking at her own memorial shirt. “The city isn’t defined by what happened to it. Just like we aren’t the bad experiences that happen to us,” I said.
“Aren’t we?” Chris asked, leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees. “We’re the sum of the things that have happened to us, good or bad.”
“We aren’t,” I said, firmly. Then, on a moment’s reflection, I added, “We can’t be. There’s a lot of other things going into it.”
“Oh gosh, what was it called,” Erin said. “I liked science in school, but it’s completely escaping me now. Nature or nurture?”
“Nature versus nurture, yeah,” Chris said.
“That’s it,” Erin said. “Versus, I should have remembered that. Are you all about the nature, then?”
I thought of my family. I’m not sure that’s much better.
Amy had agonized over that one.
“We’re getting into territory that’s close to being therapy again,” Mrs. Yamada said, rescuing me from the line of thinking. “So I’m going to interrupt. But it’s a good point to keep in mind for our discussions later today. I’m keeping an eye on the clock, and we’re ready to start.”
“It’s not my intent to change your minds,” I said. I could see some sceptical looks on some faces as I looked around the circle. “I’m here to give another perspective, and maybe to equip you guys with knowledge. If you change your minds because of that- and I think Mrs. Yamada might be hoping for that, then that’s fine. If not, then I’d hope you were all going into this with your eyes more open about what you’re doing.”
“I’ve addressed my feelings with the group,” Mrs. Yamada said. “At the end of the session where the topic first came up, and for a portion of the last session. We had other things demanding our attention, so we weren’t able to cover it in any depth.”
Erin raised a hand. “Me, I think. Sorry.”
“And,” Tristan said. Again, that one word, almost a pronouncement, volume and emphasis shifted just a bit to get attention. “On the topic of rounds and games, I feel like Mrs. Yamada is up to something, so I’m going to play this on a meta level and I’m going to shut myself up. I recognise I’ve been trying to win this conversation with Victoria and I’ve been monopolising things by jumping in every time there’s an opportunity. I’m supposed to be listening more and trying to ‘win’ social interactions less, so I’m going to shut myself up. The others should chime in, I trust them to say what needs to be said.”
“I’m proud of you, Tristan,” Mrs. Yamada said.
Erin said, “Me too, but also I’d like to point out that you took, what, ten seconds? Ten seconds to go from ‘I need to try to win social interactions less’ to ‘this is a meta-scenario I can win’.” Her tone wasn’t malicious, but it wasn’t quite ‘friendly banter’ either.
“What, did I?”
“And the fact he used so many words to say he was going to shut up,” Chris said.
Tristan frowned at Chris. “You guys are harsh.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I do want this to be a chance to share what I know and for you guys to gain, if that’s possible. Maybe there are places where you might realise there are gaps in your knowledge that you could then take time to brush up on. There isn’t a rush.”
“There is a deadline, though,” Erin said
“I’ve mentioned this before, a bit. I have people after me, out for blood, and there are factors that mean I can’t really do anything except try and stand my ground. Having a team is the difference between doing that alone and dying, and maybe having a chance of surviving without… the other factors coming into play.”
“People are after you?” I asked.
Erin held up her free hand, two fingers close together, like a showy, flashy dealer might hold a card. “It’s complicated.”
I smiled despite myself. “And these guys are okay with taking the risk involved there?”
“I’m not scared,” Ashley said.
“I’m breaking my vow of silence again,” Tristan said, “But I think I’m doing it for the right reasons here. I like, respect, and/or trust each of these guys who would be my teammates. But in particular, I consider Erin a friend. I’m already willing to throw my helmet into the ring and do what it takes to help save her life. We’ve got some similar garbage going on with… people we can’t get away from, and she’s had my back in the past when it came to my issue.”
“Yeah,” Erin said. Without removing her thumb from her mouth, she extended her pinky finger and tilted the hand upwards so it tapped her forehead.
“People?” I asked.
“I’m a bit out of date - is the term still mosaic powers?” Erin said.
“Oh,” I said. I paused, taking stock of that. “I can see where that warrants playing the ‘complicated’ card, yeah. And it’s usually cluster or multitrigger, these days.”
“You were motioning toward your head before,” I said, to Erin. “Are you referring to bleed-over, kiss and kill? That sort of thing?”
“Huh,” Erin said. "I knew who you were and I still kinda half-expected you to not know this stuff, for some reason.”
I’d pulled my hand away from Sveta’s at one point, and I only realised it because she reached out and took my hand again, placing her hand over mine and giving it a congratulatory squeeze.
“Is it part of it?” I asked.
“I’m not being evasive when I say I don’t know,” Erin said. “Probably, maybe, possibly? I’ve changed since triggering, they’ve changed even more, but it was kind of a big deal, and all of our lives have been pretty wildly different since then. People change plenty without alien supercomputers hooked up to their brains, you know?”
“We like to give things hard labels, but sometimes they’re blurry around the edges,” I said.
“If your own cluster is coming after you, I’d say you could chalk it up to kiss and kill. Again, blurry, might as well throw it in that bucket.”
“Sure, end result doesn’t change.”
“And while I’m on that subject, I’d feel compelled to stress that the term uses the word ‘kill’ for a reason.”
“I know,” Erin said.
“People die. Friends of people die. I’m still figuring out what you guys are doing, but… you want to bring kids into that?” I asked. I looked over to my right, at Kenzie and Chris.
“No, absolutely not,” Erin said. “Tristan is saying he’d help, Ashley is offering a hand, and Sveta might do what she can? That’s a hell of a lot better, compared to the same circumstance with me alone.”
“There’s more peace of mind in talking to legitimate authorities,” I said.
“I don’t know if I’d agree, honestly,” Erin said. “I’ve sounded some stuff out, I’ve found some points of contact, I have some precautions set up if things get to a point where I think it’ll be worth it, but only then. I don’t have a lot of information, they’re not quite villains in the sense I could point heroes at them. Once I’ve got a claw buried in my throat, sure, they’ll help out, but I’d rather not get to that point.”
“Everyone’s busy,” Tristan said.
“Claw?” I asked. “Tinker claw?”
That got the room’s attention.
“You’re thinking of the man with the tinker arms you ran into at the community centre, Victoria?” Mrs. Yamada asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
She explained, “Victoria mentioned that she took him for a multi-trigger, given the powers he displayed and the common links to a woman with claws she’d read about. I was going to bring it up at the end of the session, to avoid the lengthy digression like we had last session, and I hoped to extend it to a discussion in another venue, possibly with less people.”
“I derailed us early, it seems,” I said.
“Small world, apparently,” Erin said. She didn’t seem very pleased, for whatever reason. “What did he look like?”
“Big guy, beard, heavy coat.”
“Long hair, hood, smoker’s cough,” Erin said, “and a hellfire glare? Uh, figuratively speaking, I mean.”
“No hood, glare… I don’t know. He wore a mask with a built in glare, but he seemed like the scowly type. Definitely on the voice.”
“Mm,” Erin said, pulling out her phone. “When was this?”
“When?” I asked. “Um. Thirteen days ago. First Monday of September. High school had just started.”
Erin held up a finger, focused intently on the screen.
“Why?” I asked.
“Timing matters.” It was Tristan who had replied, while Erin was busy.
“He would’ve been strong then,” Erin said, slipping the phone back away.
“He was a bit of a bastard, if I’m being honest,” I said. “Not fun to go up against. He’s one of the ones who was after you?”
“What did you need to check?”
“We have a carousel,” Erin said. “Complicated, obviously. I have a spreadsheet, keeping track of who got what and when. He would’ve had a lot of everyone’s power but mine, a little bit weaker than normal with his own.”
“Right,” I said. “Which is yours?”
“Blaster power, nothing special. It’s a thick beam, about yea big.” She gestured with her hands, making a circle about the size of a basketball. “It basically acts like a water cannon, pushes things back. Pretty mediocre.”
“Mediocre is sort of the name of the game when it comes to clusters,” I said.
“There’s a tinker power as well. My version is hands and digits, fingers and thumbs, but they’re pretty shoddy, tend to break or fall apart. I think it was why I was added to the group, though.”
“It was,” Mrs. Yamada said. “We thought there was a chance of insights across designs.”
Sveta would be one, obviously. Ashley raised a hand, slender, with black-painted nails.
I couldn’t tell that her hand was prosthetic.
“Didn’t end up amounting to much, because of the aforementioned shoddiness,” Erin said. “The big guy has a mover power; my version is basically just like the thing you do as a kid, running and sliding across floors on your socks.”
“Wait, his power was the mover power? The arms and emotion power were his secondaries?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Erin said. “He should’ve had about 30-40% less strength on his own power that day, compared to normal. My last one is an emotion power, but it’s pretty much useless. An aura that builds up to very mild panic over time. Not from mild panic, mind; to mild panic. At best.”
“We’ve tested it out some,” Tristan said. “‘Mild’ is about right. Feels like the moment you realise you forgot your keys at its absolute strongest.”
“And it waxes and wanes, you said?” I asked.
“My power, the beam, can get a bump some days, but the rest are pretty much stable. The others change it up more, they’ll act on days they’re strong.”
“We may be getting distracted,” Mrs. Yamada said. “I might suggest you carry on this discussion later. Victoria can fill you in on…”
“Snag,” I said. “Sorry. This is actually really interesting though. I’d be happy to talk it over another time.”
“Mm. It’s good to have one name, at least,” Erin said. “If we’re getting back on topic, though, then I’ll fully admit to having selfish reasons for doing this. Wanting to improve my own chances of survival.”
“We all need people to have our backs,” Kenzie said.
“It can be selfish without being wrong or bad, I think,” Erin said. “It’s… well, I’m not going to say complicated again. It’s messy. And I’ve spent a lot of time being selfish but at least now I can maybe leverage that into helping other people. Or at the very least, righting some of the other stuff it’s caused.”
“This is me,” Erin said, gesturing to vehicle parked further up the road. I got a better look at it as we approached. It wasn’t a pretty vehicle – a van with rust around the right headlight. “We have a long drive to get back. Victoria, nice to meet you.”
“Good to meet you, Erin,” I said. I was about to question the ‘we’, when I saw the person leaning against the front of the van.
A boy, Caucasian, with shoulder-length brown-blond hair. He had a cut under one eye and another cut on the bridge of his nose. His jeans were ripped at the knee and his shirt was baggy, a size too big for him. The sleeves were long, red where the torso was white, and they had been rolled up to the elbow. His sneakers had seen a lot of abuse, by the looks of it. The white parts were brown and grey in a way that made me suspicious that even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t get them purely white again. He looked sixteen or seventeen.
“Rain,” Erin said, “you remember Kenzie and Sveta?”
‘Rain’ nodded. “Hey.”
“And this is Victoria. The group is talking about her maybe being a coach for us.”
“Hi,” Rain said, pushing off the front of the van and turning to face us, briefly looking like a deer in the headlights as he looked at Erin for the first time. “It’s cool you’re doing this.”
“I’d like to think so,” I said. “Sorry, but- Rain?”
“Yep,” he said miserably. “Spelled like the water that falls from the sky. I know. It’s unusual, I’ve heard the jokes.”
Like I had with Erin before, I raised my hands. “Not a word.”
“We good to go?” Erin asked Rain as she unlocked the van. For some reason, I’d expected her to pass him the keys, but she headed around to hop into the driver’s seat.
“Yep,” Rain said, taking the passenger seat.
Erin started the car, then gestured at Rain to roll his window down. “You want a ride somewhere convenient, chipmunk?” she said, looking at Kenzie.
Kenzie climbed in behind Rain, giving us a wave before the door was closed.
Just Sveta and me left.
We watched as the van pulled away.