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“Hi, boss,” Kenzie said as she entered the room. Cute, but it made Ashley uncomfortable in a way she couldn’t quite put words to. 

“I’m glad you could make it, Ashley,” Mrs. Yamada said, and Ashley gave a respectful nod in return. Yamada, Jessica, was one of the very few people she’d allow that courtesy to, one of the very few people who deserved it by not being mind-numbingly incompetent. “I’ve spent the last minute or two going over the basics, reminding others about the aims of the group and how confidentiality works in a group session.”

“To fill in our guest?” Ashley asked. She’d noticed the new arrival upon entering, of course, but had avoided giving her a proper evaluation until she had a better sense of how Yamada viewed her. Another courtesy, rarely extended. The near-constant dryness in her throat flared up again, and she walked around to the water table on the side of the room, pouring herself a cup.

“Yes,” Mrs. Yamada replied. “Her name is Victoria. If you’ll take a seat, I’ll bring you anything else you need, but I’d like for everyone to be seated so I can continue.”

The coin spun in the air, but she caught it before it came down, and bit down on the instinctual reaction to being told what to do. Taking a sip of water to cover the moment’s hesitation, she walked back around the circle to her seat. Which, coincidentally, placed her directly opposite their guest. 

‘Victoria’ was a young white woman, maybe a year or two younger than Ashley. She was attractive, but not exceptionally so - heart-shaped face, button nose, clear skin and slightly rosy cheeks that didn’t appear to be the product of makeup so much as measured care and routine. Straight blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, parted in the middle, and framed a long, slender neck. Combined with her outfit (a white dress with a black hood that had been thoroughly soaked by the rain to hint at the black bra underneath), it was a look that would’ve normally fallen under ‘cute’, but the word didn’t quite apply. It was the eyes, Ashley decided after a moment, as her gaze travelled back up and found them meeting her own. They were a clear, piercing blue, but just under the surface there was something darker roiling, a storm just beyond the horizon. A weight that belied her appearance, belied her youth and beauty, the same weight that she saw in Byron’s eyes sometimes, in Riley’s.

In, she admitted, her own.

Victoria broke eye contact first, glancing over to Mrs. Yamada, but for whatever reason, the victory lacked its usual frisson. Perhaps it was the increasing certainty that the other girl knew who she was, the burgeoning awareness that she was at a disadvantage. 

Another coin flip, another last-moment save, and she settled for grinding her teeth. 

“Use your own discretion when deciding what to share,” Jessica continued. “You’ve all agreed to participate, knowing the risks and difficulties inherent. I’m hopeful this will be a positive set of exercises. I think that more or less sums it up. I suspect Victoria’s presence and the fact you’ve all had a week to think about what we talked about last session means you’ll have some questions.”

“It’s pretty late to be bringing her in,” Ashley said, and it felt like a tiny victory when Victoria looked back at her again. “Is she joining the group?”

“We hadn’t planned on her joining, per se,” Mrs. Yamada said. “I invited her because she’s exceptionally well equipped to address the topics that came up last session. We’ll build on it and you can decide what you’re willing to share here. During our next and final session, depending on your comfort levels and how much you want to carry on today’s discussion, she may or may not be in attendance, or not for the full duration.”

“Is it really an ‘issue’?” Tristan asked, making air quotes, and Ashley shot him a glare. Don’t undermine yourself by acting like a petulant teen.

“I think it could be. Victoria can expand on why, shortly.”

“Are we supposed to know who she is?” Ashley cut in, a little sharper than she’d intended.

Victoria didn’t react to the slight, simply glancing at Mrs. Yamada. Getting permission, Ashley thought with a sneer.

“I’m Victoria Dallon. If you study Parahumans, my family comes up, because it’s a literal textbook case of powers running in families. I… believe you’ve run into my family, Ashley.”

Flashes of an abandoned building, of a monster towering on the horizon. Then, later and clearer, red hands in a white room. “Have I?” Ashley lied, testing the waters. “I’ve met so many capes it’s hard to keep track.”

“Do you know New Wave?” she asked. “White bodysuits, symbols in colors?”

“I know a few people like that. I didn’t always pay attention to names.” 

“Would’ve been in Boston. The slang term in the ‘scene’ was the Boston Games.”

Ashley smiled for the first time. Maybe Victoria wasn’t a complete waste of attention after all.