I flew around the area before settling down. The others were already there, but Erin was just arriving now, her beater of a van rattling down the dirt path towards where the team was assembled.
I landed next to Sveta just as Erin pulled up, a small bit of intentional timing on my part. Sveta smiled at me, and I gave her hand a quick waggle.
Kenzie was practically bouncing as the engine shut off, but one of Ashley’s hands on her shoulder kept her in place - not physically restraining her, just as a reminder.
After a moment of silence, the driver’s door opened and Erin half-fell out of the door.
I had to suppress a wince. She was alone, and looked like she’d been beaten to within an inch of her life. One eye was completely swollen shut, the other not looking much better off, and there was a quality to her gait that made me think moving was causing her pain and she was trying to hide it. For the first time, she wasn’t wearing oversized, baggy clothes, but a burgundy tank top and shorts, leaving her skinned knees and the numerous tiny cuts and scabs over her arms and legs exposed. They weren’t all fresh, either - there was no way she hadn’t had the majority of them the entire time I’d known her.
“Hey,” she said, a bit croakily.
“You’re hurt,” Kenzie said.
“I am?” Erin joked.
Kenzie shook her head. “That’s not funny.”
“You get jumped?” Chris asked.
“Yeah. Not by my cluster,” she clarified, “but- yeah.” She glanced over at Tristan. “Same as usual.”
“Usual?” I couldn’t help but speak up. “This has happened before?” How had Jessica not known, how had she not done something?
“Well, the face thing is new,” Tristan said. “Usually, it’s all stuff that’s hidden by clothes. Classic fifties housewife bruises, y’know?”
Erin chuckled at that like it was a running joke, then winced in pain. “Oh, don’t make me laugh, I think one of my ribs is bruised.”
It was hard, to pull back and watch. I’d tried for the call with Dido, stepped back to observe, letting Tristan take point with directing the others. He was good at it. Sveta being the one who had struggled had pulled me in a bit.
But here, now, seeing this? I was increasingly unsure that it was the right approach in the first place.
Sveta looked grim, but not surprised. Erin had said she knew some of the story. “Have you seen a doctor?”
“Not yet. That’s the next stop after this.” There was a barely-perceptible growl, which got a laugh out of Chris. “Okay, next-after-one stop.”
I was there, but I also wasn’t. That line of thinking, about objectivity, had lead me down a dark path. My sister, and the sick, hollow, angry experience of being betrayed, of the lies.
I stood across from Erin and I felt like I had in the bank. The bank had been dusty, partially my fault, the floor scratched up by the passage of giant dogs, littered with discarded pieces of paper and dropped belongings. It had been dark, the rain pattering outside.
Much like Erin stood by the front of her van, hurting, my sister had stood a distance away from me, a knife to her throat. Like Erin, she’d put on a face, making threats and jokes, albeit bitter ones.
I was really hoping she wasn’t like Erin in other ways.
It wasn’t that I held Erin close to my heart or anything. It wasn’t even that I particularly trusted her. In fact, I didn’t trust her - I trusted that Sveta trusted her, and even that was starting to stretch a little thin. But I recognized the pattern.
“No point in drawing this out, huh?” Erin said, leaning back against the hood of her van.
“That would be best,” Ashley said.
“We’re all caught up, right? Byron and I?” Tristan asked.
Erin nodded. “Only new thing is this.” She pointed to her face.
“Good. The bits I know are bad enough on their own, I don’t know that I could handle there being more.”
“You seem cheerful,” Ashley observed. It was a bit of a non-sequitur, but at the same time, I was pretty sure I could follow the train of thought that lead her to it.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s a bit of… nihilistic cheer, I guess? The landslide’s started now, so there’s no more stressing about trying to stop it, just- trying to ride it out.”
“Is telling us the ‘landslide’?” Sveta asked.
“Some. Some other things, including the injuries. Some new stuff.”
I was silent. I could only see the parallels. I held my tongue because I didn’t trust it. If this was an echo of that situation in the bank, I had no better idea on how to handle it now in the present.
No rain, no enclosed area. We were at the edge of a park. It was sunny out.
No knife to anyone’s throat, and Erin was relaxed and almost happy.
“You’ve been hiding with powerful people,” Ashley said. “Capes, probably.”
“Less ‘hiding out’, and more ‘living’, but yeah.” Erin turned to me. “Victoria, that bit that I told you about my parents, back at the training exercise? It was... almost entirely true, I just left some parts out.”
I had the suspicion I knew where she was going already. “Such as where they ran to?”
“Yeah. Or, you know. Who they ran too.”
She let me be the one to say it out loud. “The Fallen.”
Erin nodded. “Yeah.”
At that, and her subsequent confirmation, I could see a ripple run through the group. Tristan looked resigned - he’d already known, of course. Sveta, too, didn’t look surprised, exactly.
“Oh,” Kenzie said. She was utterly still now.
“I kind of connected the dots already,” Sveta said. She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder. “There was the church thing with Tristan.”
“Church thing?” I asked.
“My parents were looking for a new church,” Tristan explained. “Erin was kinda sleep-deprived, she made a joke that I didn’t realise was a joke, and she ended up having to explain the whole situation to avoid a really bad misunderstanding.”
“We’d already talked a bit outside of the group,” Erin added. “Me and the two of them, power stuff messing with your self, sticking people in your head. I was probably going to tell them anyway.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Tristan said, amused but with an edge.
Erin sighed. “No, I probably wouldn’t have. Like I said, though, powers messing with your head.”
I could connect the dots, to borrow Sveta’s phrasing. Power-related emotional shifts, the way she and Tristan had described her emotion power, her general twitchiness. “They make you more paranoid?” I asked.
She raised her hands up weakly before letting them flop back down. “Life made me paranoid. The powers make me panicky - paranoia is just the only semi-productive way I can channel it.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“You didn’t see Erin when we first met her, Victoria,” Tristan said. “To be blunt, she was an absolute wreck, no offense.”
“None taken,” Erin said. “I was.”
“So yeah, trust me when I say this is the better alternative.”
“But you’re not Fallen?” A non-sequitur, but judging from the almost plea-like tone, it had been weighing on Kenzie while we were talking.
“No, chipmunk. Never.” Kenzie physically sagged with relief, leaning against Ashley slightly. “It’s… My parents. My little brother. They got Rain when he was little, but he isn’t anymore.”
“He’s trying hard,” Tristan cut in.
“I sort of figured that one out,” Kenzie said quietly. “He flinched the first time he met me.”
“Yeah,” Erin said. “But I’m here to make excuses for myself, not him.”
“That’s not funny.”
Erin sighed. “I’m only half joking.”
“Don’t joke,” Tristan agreed. “I’m on your side, Erin, but… don’t joke.”
She nodded silently, composing herself.
“How does your cluster fit into this?” Ashley asked.
“It’s- complicated.” She realised what she’d done and chuckled, doing the ‘card’ gesture. “They want to wipe out the Fallen because of what they did at our trigger, which I would be on-board with if they also didn’t want to wipe out me. I’m- my hands aren’t clean, but they seem to view me as almost wholly responsible for- our trigger, for everything else.”
“Everything else?” Sveta asked.
Erin took a deep breath. “I said the visions, the memories in the dream room, were subjective, right?. And they are, but it’s- it’s not just that. Everyone else, it’s the same on their night, right from the beginning. Mine are the only one that changed.”
“What do you mean, changed?”
“They… update.” She laughed bitterly. “Make sure everyone’s getting their regular fix of the Erin Show.”
I wasn’t fond of how often she was leaving things to us to explicitly state. “It wasn’t just the mall, was it.”
“No,” Erin said, staring down at the ground. “It wasn’t.”
“You’ve been working for them as an enforcer,” Ashley said, “in exchange for protection.”
“Not quite an enforcer, but yeah. And not the whole time. The last few months I’ve managed to get out of it by convincing-” she winced, “-certain people that I need to deal with my cluster, but I could only do that because I’d been… useful.”
“Define ‘useful’?” Chris asked, sounding far too amused for the situation.
It wasn’t him Erin looked at, though, or even me, but Sveta. “Maywater span, the synagogue. New Rochester, the cinema. Berwith. Tarotroot.”
At the final one, Sveta stiffened.
With the Fallen as a point of reference, I was pretty sure I knew what the incidents were. In Maywater, a synagogue had been boarded up from the outside, and feces and other sewerage thrown in from windows and holes punched in the walls. New Rochester, a group of Fallen had taken a cinema essentially hostage, forcing anyone who wanted to leave to perform some kind of blasphemy or hurt another patron to ‘prove their faith’.
Tarotroot was a Case 53 who had been brutalised and left on the steps of Berwith city hall. Up until now, the culprits had been unknown.
“You were there?” Sveta demanded.
Erin nodded, staring at the ground. “Yeah. I could say I didn’t have a choice, but I don’t really think that matters, does it?”
“Why not?” I asked. It felt like a slight betrayal, to not immediately take Sveta’s side, but I was trying to be a good friend in a different way, and make sure she had all the facts.
“Willing ones. Even after everything, they’re still buying into the party line.” She sighed. “At this point, I’m just about ready to let them lie in the bed they’ve made, but- Bryce is eight. He doesn’t deserve to suffer for their mistakes, or mine.”
“We can get them out.”
Erin shook her head furiously. “No, no, you can’t, there’s-” she winced again. “Please, just trust me that you can’t. Besides, they don’t want to go.”
Was there a power effect, preventing her from speaking, or harming her when she did? I glanced over at Tristan, who was clearly thinking the same thing.
“So you’re going back,” Sveta said.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, but yeah. I don’t really- I don’t have options, right now. I have to help my brother.”
“Just the one brother?” I noted. “You told me you had siblings, plural.”
She winced. “Ah, yeah. That was… a lie. I’m sorry, it’s- I won’t blame it on the powers, but it’s become a hard habit to break.”
Was someone more or less trustworthy when they told you that they weren’t?
“What did you do?” Sveta’s voice was as cold as I’d ever heard it. The same way she sounded when she talked about the people she’d killed.
“...stood guard, mostly. Kept people from running, knocked them around a bit.”
“Did you kill anyone?” Chris asked casually.
For some reason, I’d expected an immediate dismissal, and the moment of hesitation caught me off guard. “...not for them,” Erin said. “But yeah.”
“As the person who’s known the details for the longest,” Tristan interjected, “it would be manslaughter at worst in a fair trial.”
He kept doing that, I’d noticed, interjecting to divert things when Erin was starting to get too dejected. It was a good example of the worry I’d had, about the group protecting itself even when that might not be a good thing. Right now, Erin needed that protection in a physical sense, but in a moral, legal one?
I still wasn’t sure.
“...don’t trust them to not just hand me over in exchange for getting the rest of my cluster on their side,” Erin was saying.
“They wouldn’t do that,” Sveta replied.
“Sveta, you know I have a lot of respect for Weld, but Weld isn’t the Wardens.”
Erin looked at me, with something almost like hope in her eyes.
“Victoria,” she asked. “Are you...”
“Yeah,” I said. A disconnected answer, but I was feeling fairly disconnected right now.
I was aware of the silence that followed my statement.
“Snag’s army. They’re after the Fallen first,” I said.
“Fallen and I are tied for first, I’d say.” Erin always looked nervous, but it felt deeper now.
“Because of the kids, and the others you killed. Because you stuck with the Fallen.”
I nodded. “I’m going to go,” I said. I was aware of the looks I got. “Tell Kenzie everything’s cool. I’ll be back. I just need to think on this.”
No actions out of instinct. I’d think, piece everything together.
I flew away from the scene before I could say or do something I’d regret.