There had been nonstop activity since Sveta, Byron, Rain and I had walked through the portal to the Wardens’ bunker. Individual interviews with lie detectors, a large group presentation that summed up all of the bulk, need-to-know information that had come to light in the past day, and then a smaller group meeting to fill a select few in on more specific information that was more tightly controlled.
Victoria’s diary, The photos in Weld’s phone, Ratcatcher and Big Picture, and the attempts to push public opinion of heroes. The Case Twelve siphoning information from villains by feeding them bits of himself. Dragon, an AI so advanced that she had a passenger, and had triggered.
The closest I’d gotten to Victoria was across a table in the group presentation, where she’d given me a soft wave of her fingers. She’d looked troubled, and had to leave partway through. Sveta had followed her to make sure she was okay, motioning to me to stay. I tried to keep my attention on the presentation, but my gaze returned to the door they’d left by, again and again.
After the meetings, I searched for the pair of them while Rain waited for access to the tinker workshop. If anything, my hands had degraded after my trip outside - the left index finger was twitching, and there was a grinding sensation if I rotated my right hand too quickly. Worse, the dampening and focusing effect they were supposed to have on my powers didn’t seem to be as effective as usual. My power was a constant buzzing in my palms and the inside of my wrists, like an itch I couldn’t scratch.
“Sit still,” chided Rain as he picked at one of the servos that controlled my finger, “I’m bad enough at this as it is.”
“I could vaporize your head right now. Take care how you speak to me.”
He leaned back, glancing at me with an affronted look, then turned his eyes back to the task. “Okay, lady, whatever you say. I just work here.” He brought down a magnifying lens to get a closer look at the open mass of wires and mechanisms that presented itself when he opened the service door on my palm.
I sighed. “I’m sorry, that was … ill-done of me. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean I have to say it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve had way worse thrown at me in the dream room.” He shut the little panel. “Listen, I can work on the other one later. I’ll barter for time with one of the other Tinkers,” he made a shoo-ing motion with his screwdriver. “Get out of here.”
“Did you just … ‘Shoo’ me away?” I couldn’t believe the nerve.
“Go,” He said. “She’s over with Sveta near the cells.”
I pretended not to know who he meant. “Who is?”
“Listen,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “I have literally no place to be giving anyone advice in this area considering the clusterfuck that is my emotional and romantic life, but, just talk to her or something,” He pointed to my right hand. “Before you blow something up.”
I sat stunned for a moment. It was so obvious that even Rain had figured out something was up. Rain, whose upbringing had made him functionally oblivious. Rain, who could barely make heads or tails of the fact that he was attracted to both Erin and Lachlan.
I stood up and grabbed my bag with my left hand, slinging it onto my shoulder.
“I’ll consider it,” I said as I swept out of the room.
We didn’t get a silent moment until we were waiting for news about Sveta’s first operation with Mr. Bough. There was no real “waiting room”, per se, in the operating theatre at the Warden’s Bunker, so Victoria and I waited in a modest room not too far from the makeshift hospital that had been set up as a sort of casual meeting area. Lots of chairs, a couch, one or two low tables. All it needed was a vending machine or two to look like an office break room.
Victoria slumped on the couch, and I followed, sitting a safe distance away. Not so close as to be in her space, not so distant as to seem stand-offish.
Oh, the delicate balances we weave.
“I’m so tired,” She said. “Not physically, just like, everything else.”
“Understandable, frankly,” I said. “I imagine these last few days have been a harrowing experience.”
“More than just the past few days. It’s felt like everything has been piling up, or … like if I had a bag, and I put something inside it, something light like a piece of paper. And I tested the weight, figured ‘this is fine’, and threw in more and more pieces of paper. Now, I’m trying to lift the bag, and it’s so heavy I can barely get it off the ground.”
I nodded, and she continued.
“And I feel like I’ve been so caught up in my own shit that I’ve been a bad friend. A bad friend to Sveta, to you. I want to support you both as best I can, do good things for you.”
“You can start by using the white towels,” I replied simply. “Doing the dishes more often would be a plus.”
“Glad to hear you’re so easily pleased,” She said and slumped against me.
“Never,” I said. “I just meant that those would suffice as a beginning.”
She turned her head to me. “Is there something I can do, though? There are times where I feel like you might be mad at me, or that I’ve done something wrong but you’re not saying. Are we … Okay? You and I?”
I glanced at her, then closed my eyes, biting my lip. To her credit, she didn’t push me, she let me take my time. This was the best opening I could reasonably hope for, even if it wasn’t the greatest time.
“Victoria, I,” I started, then reset. “I need to know something.”
“Ask. We’re currently experiencing the worst-case scenario of what happens when people keep secrets.”
“I read a part of the diary. Kenzie sent it to me, or at least the message said it was sent from Kenzie.”
“Ash, the diary is-”
“A lie, I know,” I cut in. “Please let me finish.” I looked at her, and she nodded, so I continued. “She sent me the part about ... non-platonic subtext.” I held her gaze. “Is it true?”
She visibly paled. “Ash, the diary, it’s fake.”
“Ok, but what part is fake? Is all of it fake? Are there parts that are true, but twisted?”
She leaned away, back against the arm of the couch. “It’s complicated-”
“It’s not that complicated,” I snapped. I could feel pressure behind my eyes. “Is it true?”
“It’s like a funhouse mirror, Ash,” She replied hurriedly, hands out in a pacifying way, “It’s like someone twisted how I feel in the worst way.
“And how do you feel?” I could feel my entire body itching. “Because I have felt … things. From you. And I don’t know if it’s real, and the not knowing, the not having control over the situation, is driving me mad.”
“I, I ... It’s-”
I screamed in rage, and I gestured with my left hand. My power let loose, out of control, and a nearby coffee table half vaporized, the other half being ejected across the room in pin-sized splinters. “Just spit it out!” I screamed, jumping to my feet. This was my worst nightmare, rejection. Weakness.
“ I don’t know!” She screamed back, and I felt her push out with her aura. I rankled underneath it. I lashed out with my right hand, demolishing the far end of the sofa.
“Don’t you dare use that power on me!” I was seeing red. “I can tear you apart with a gesture, I can break you down into the smallest bits of matter and scatter you to the wind!” a table lamp was my next victim. “Just tell me how you feel! Say it!”
“How I feel?!” Victoria was hovering just above the ground now. “Right now, you’re pissing me off, and you’re scaring the shit out of me.”
The pressure behind my eyes lessened, and, breathing hard, I looked around to see the mess I’d created. I dropped to my knees. “I’m sorry.”
She floated over to me. “Ashley,”
I shuffled back, “I don’t know if I’m safe.”
“I trust you.” She came forward again.
“I don’t know if you should,” my head was bowed as my eyes swept the floor. “It’s no wonder you don’t feel the same way.”
“The same way?” Victoria asked. I nodded. Understanding filled her eyes, a switch being flipped on. “Ashley,” she knelt in front of me, and put a hand under my chin, making me look at her. “I really don’t know, but it’s nothing about you. When Amy, “ I saw her swallow, close her eyes for a moment. “She did things. Things that make me question every feeling I have towards another person. She broke me, and what she did makes me unsure of every step I take.”
“Victoria,” I said, but my words ran out. My body still vibrated with power, and there were intermittent sparks at my fingertips.
“So I told you I don’t know,” she continued, “because I don’t. I think every interpersonal relationship I have is going to be like that for a long time. But I’ll tell you one thing, right now.” She moved her hand to my cheek, which was wet with tears. My eyes stung as I kept her gaze. “I might not know, but I’m interested in finding out.”
She kissed me, and I felt the fullness of her lips crash into mine. I could taste her in every motion, and I could feel her hand move to the back of my head as I deepened the kiss.
For the first time in what felt like months, my body and mind felt gloriously silent.