“I expect I’m not doing myself any favors,” the girl spoke.
“Remaining silent. You’re here to judge me, and silence is damning.”
“I’m not so sure I like the word ‘judge’. Evaluate is a better word. Listen is better still. I want to listen to you, because I can’t help you if I don’t understand you, and I want my understanding of you to come from your words,” Jessica Yamada spoke.
“Silence says a great deal, does it not? I recently heard a man speak to the people in charge about the homeless, the masses of refugees we are still trying to find homes. He spoke of needs, of women and children, and of families that have been broken because temporary shelters don’t allow the men within. He proposed a plan, then justified it with a diatribe on humanity and pity, leadership and the threat of unrest, the threat of people manifesting powers, and he talked of faith. He finished on that note. Do you know what point the canniest people in the room are left paying attention to?”
“You were talking about silence. Something the man didn’t say.”
“You are paying attention,” the girl said, sounding mildly surprised.
“It’s my job.”
“Then you’re already aware that what one leaves out is as telling as what they include. The void in our speech, if you will. The gaps. The man said nothing of resources, of food supplies, because he does not want to raise the topic, and he has no answers there. Silence can be louder than words.”
The therapist nodded. “It’s an interesting thought, and it’s one we could talk at length about, but, please excuse me for saying so, I think you’re dodging the question.”
“I was not asking for clarification, doctor. I was expressing indignation,” the girl said, stressing the last word. There was a kind of vibration in the words as she said it.
“Whatever else you are, you’re still human.”
“There was a time I’d have swiftly responded to that,” the girl said. “You would be dead, if you were fortunate enough.”
“…And you’re acting like I should be able to read something in your silence. The problem is that speech needs periods of silence to be intelligible, to separate the words and keep it from being a steady drone of noise. To frame it. The opposite is true. To find the meaning in what’s left unsaid, we need words to punctuate it.”
The girl opposite Jessica Yamada frowned just a little. Her deep green eyes didn’t move a fraction as she met the therapist’s. It held an intensity that suggested she could have faced down a stampeding elephant or an airborne missile. Very reluctantly, she said, “…Fair.”
The therapist relaxed a touch, sitting back in her chair. “What we do here is up to you. I’ve had patients who enjoy this kind of verbal jousting. Many walk into a first session with preconceived ideas, that they’ll be forced to lie on a couch and bare their vulnerabilities while I pry at them with questions. A debate gives them their power back.”
“It’s the approach that makes sense. The, er,” the girl stumbled uncharacteristically as she searched for a word, “parahumans… they tend towards conflict.”
“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that’s the case. Do you? Tend towards conflict?”
“No. Which is a good thing, I imagine. My other half was always more patient, more relaxed than most. Its duty was always at the end. For those who had duties at the beginning, it would be harder.”
“How do you define beginning and end, when it’s a cycle?”
“Beginnings and endings,” the girl mused. She smiled a little. “I’m tempted to say you just know. That it’s instinctual, you know what you are. But that’s something of a coward’s answer. More correct to say that you can distinguish the two when there’s a long, long journey in the middle.”
The therapist shifted her position, taking a glass of water from the table beside her and sipping it.
No doubt inviting me to keep talking, the girl thought. She turned her attention to her drink. It was cold. She exercised her power, reaching into the deep dark well within her, and withdrawing a single individual.
Põletama, the firesinger.
The individual emerged, coalescing from shadows. A woman, dark skinned, with skin painted in wild colors that had once hidden her features as well as any mask. Where it had once been paint and flesh, the barest minimum of cloth, the flesh ridged. Her eyes burned as she stared out from the shadows of her deep-set eyes.
The girl didn’t take her eyes off the therapist as the firesinger reached out and put one glowing fingertip into the water. It took a moment for the liquid to start steaming.
The other two shadows stood at different points in the room. One stared at the bookshelf, its lips moving as it murmured in a voice only the girl could understand. The other stood at the window, arms folded, his cape moving in a wind that wasn’t present, hood hiding his features.
The girl in the heavy leather chair, by contrast, wore only a sleeveless top and a knee-length skirt. Both the collar of the top and the skirt had heavy lace at the edges. Her blonde hair was braided. It made her look far younger than she had in previous appearances, and she’d looked young then.
“You were tempted to say you instinctually know who you are,” the therapist said.
The girl tilted her head a fraction.
“To be blunt, I’d say the vast majority of my patients don’t know who they are.”
The girl lifted the steaming mug to her lips. The smell of the heavily spiced mead flooded the room. The therapist didn’t comment, hadn’t commented. She was technically legal, however young she might look.
The girl swallowed, then said, “What, not who.”
“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” the girl responded.
The therapist spoke a little slower, as if she were testing her words in her head before she spoke. Exceedingly careful. “You seemed to know who or what you were, before, and you changed your mind.”
“People are allowed to do that. To change.” The response was dismissive, cavalier. All such a statement demanded.
“Do you consider yourself people, then? Just a minute ago, you said you would have taken offense to the idea.”
“You harp on. These are all variations on the same question,” the girl said.
“Yes. Who are you? How do you see yourself? Has that changed?”
“I am very possibly the strongest being alive on this planet, short of the remaining Endbringers.”
“In what sense?” the therapist asked. “One who has murdered, or one who murders?”
“Same thing, isn’t it? You don’t leave that behind you. Nobody lets you.”
“People can forgive and forget.”
“They might forget murder, they might forgive madness, but they won’t be so ready to make peace with a lunatic murderer,” the girl said. She sniffed a little, as if scoffing at the thought. “You wanted to know who I am? I was perhaps Scion’s greatest ally, until… I wasn’t.”
“Why weren’t you?”
When the girl spoke, an echo had creeped into her voice. A chorus. “You know, I could kill everyone, if I so chose? If I decided to stand, right here and right now, and kill you all, it would be fully within my power?”
The therapist didn’t flinch.
“Do you doubt me?” The chorus was there in full. A hundred voices from one mouth.
“To be honest, I don’t know enough about the combat side of things to say,” Ms. Yamada said.
“It’s cause for any sane person to worry for their welfare, and for the welfare of their loved ones. You pretend indifference.”
“I’m anything but indifferent. I’m genuinely more interested in the fact that you seem to be avoiding the subject. A subject you raised.”
“I grow irritated with this pedantry,” the girl said. She stood abruptly from the chair. Two of the shadows dissipated into smoke.
Prolapse, torturer’s son.
P̄hū̂ comtī, rider in daylight.
The two new shadows took their place on either side of her. Big individuals. Villains, once upon a time.
The therapist continued, “You’ve stopped calling yourself the Faerie Queen. When I asked for a name, you stayed silent, and you sat there for nearly twenty minutes before talking. You could have helped Scion and destroyed us all then. You didn’t. I’m asking you what happened. It’s clearly important to you.”
The girl’s eyes didn’t waver, but she lowered her chin a touch, and the angle of her head cast her features in deeper shadow. When she spoke, the choir of voices that came from her mouth was calm. “Do you have a preference, in how you’d like to die? I have a range of powers at my disposal. There are swift methods, but perhaps you’d like to go out more dramatically? If you beg for mercy, I could spare others.”
“You’re allowed to say you don’t know the answer, Ciara. If it comes down to that, then I can suggest an answer and we can explore it together.”
The girl had gone still. Her shadows were flexing, one cracking knuckles on a hand roughly the size of the therapist’s entire upper body.
The girl considered the visuals of crushing the therapist, the way flesh would pulp and seep between the shadow’s great fingers. It was a good alternative to dwelling on the feelings that had just stirred.
“Nobody has called me by that name in a very long time,” the words were more a threat than anything.
“It was in the records,” Ms. Yamada said, “I need to hear the answer from your lips first, before I can offer you my thoughts. But let me warn you, I’m only offering a suggestion. Food for thought. I read the transcripts from the debriefing you gave Chevalier. You talked about anchors. I don’t want you to… ‘anchor’ to anything I say. Use it to find your own answer, instead.”
“You claim to know me better than I know myself.”
“We’ll discuss that point if and when we get that far. For now, I need to know your thoughts on what happened.”
“But please sit down, first,” the therapist said. “We both know you could kill me at any moment, here. Having them here doesn’t change that, but it’s…”
“It is admittedly vulgar,” the girl supplied.
The therapist nodded. “We’ll go with that.”
The shadows dissipated.
Ampelos, the ill-fated. I was the ill fate.
Daimones, the lost.
The ones who replaced them were children. One, young enough to be androgynous, wore a long-sleeved shirt that hung down to its knees. It spun in place, skipping, then spinning again, a toddler at play. The other explored the room. The man with the hood and cape remained by the window, arms folded, staring out at the world beyond.
Ciara spoke. “He broke. He was strong, he was noble, proud. He was a monster, alien. They brought out the humanity in him, and then they broke him. I could have stepped in, but I didn’t. I don’t know why.”
The words were a challenge more than an admission. A demand for a better answer.
“Would you like to hear my theory, then?”
“As you wish,” Ciara replied. She didn’t quite manage to feign the indifference she was going for.
“You’re exactly what you appear to be.”
“What do I appear to be, doctor?”
Ciara frowned. “I had hoped for a good answer. I’m older than you.”
“Only just. Chronologically, I think we’re the same age, nine months apart.”
“You miss my point,” Ciara said, clearly annoyed.
“No. I got it. Chronologically, you’re older, and by those measures, your youth is only a mask you wear. By other measures, you’re still a child. You triggered at a very young age, you were no doubt isolated, as masters tend to be. No doubt surviving purely by your own methods. Somewhere along the way, something happened. You stole the wrong power, you fought someone and lost, or you found yourself in a bad situation. In the course of that event or in the wake of it, you unlocked stronger powers, and they eclipsed you as a person. Am I too far off track, here?”
Ciara didn’t respond. Her hard stare was a challenging one, now, a hard stare.
“You were still a child, and you needed rules and a foundation to define yourself by, as any child does. Your chose your anchor, chose Scion, and you formed your view of capes as faerie to distance yourself from a world you barely felt in touch with. You built up your persona as Glaistig Uaine, a name others gave you. It might have even played a role in why you turned yourself in and took up residence in the Birdcage. You craved structure.”
“You’re calling me a child?”
“I’m suggesting you were functionally a child until a very short time ago. You’re now an adolescent. Scion was a powerful figure in your life, owing at least partially to your power’s involvement in your day to day, minute-to-minute existence. Virtually every child goes through a phase where their parents are invulnerable, incapable of failure, strong, and beautiful. They grow out of that phase when reality challenges that assumption. If what I’m suggesting was true, well, reality never challenged the assumption because it was true, in Scion’s case.”
“Up until the moment he began to lose,” Ciara said.
“Many begin to rebel against their parental figures around the time they enter adolescence, around the time they start seeing their parent as flawed humans. In your case, it was a faster process. A moment’s decision. Whether I’m right or not, you were thrust into a new mode of thinking, a new mode of being, and it has to be bewildering.”
“Your theory, then, is that the most powerful cell block leader of the Birdcage was a mere child, however old she might have appeared? That the answer to my present crisis in identity is that I am a mere teenager?”
“For the adolescent, the greatest, most defining challenge is to find themselves. To seek out identity. For the unpowered youth, it’s often a question of what clique they fit in, what clothes they wear, how they express themselves, and what path they want to step forward on, in terms of possible careers. For powered youth, it’s about all of the things I just mentioned, as well as the villain and hero labels, their place on the team, their place in family, the bonds they form. These are questions you’re now asking yourself. Am I wrong?”
“I dislike being painted with such broad strokes, doctor,” Ciara spoke.
“There are always variations,” Ms. Yamada said. “I’d never approach a patient with the idea that it comes down to this and this alone. It’s a starting point. You need to find yourself, and you need to do it with the burdens of the strongest human being on the planet. I’m telling you, here and now, that this is something everyone faces at some juncture. It’s perfectly alright to define yourself as ‘someone who is looking for definition’.”
The girl smiled a little. She lifted her mug to her lips, then wiped her mouth with her thumb.
The therapist took another drink of water. “You’re smiling? I suppose I don’t need to worry about my impending death, then?”
When Ciara spoke again, her voice was normal. “What you said is… a thought. I was smiling because I was wondering what your superiors would think if they knew what you’d told me. A powerful parahuman, free to find herself? Perhaps I’ll follow in the footsteps of my ‘parent’.”
“I don’t have any superiors,” the therapist said. “The PRT is done. There are groups trying to cobble together a replacement, but it’s looking shaky at best. I’m here because I was invited, and because I want to help people. I’d like to help you. I think everyone would be much happier if we found you a path that isn’t following in his footsteps.”
“Did I ask for your help?”
“You’re still here,” Jessica Yamada said. “Y-”
She didn’t get further. There was a knock on the door.
The concern on the woman’s face, Ciara noted, was more than it had been when she’d been threatened with her own imminent death.
“Please excuse me.” The woman stood from her chair and crossed the room. She opened the door.
Ciara watched as the figure unfolded before her. A giant armored in the skin of a monster, a knight, a wisp of a figure, all at once. She could see his very presence tearing through the doorframe, the slightest movement tearing whole sections of the building to rubble. She could feel the vibrations, taste the dust in the air.
But that was only one version of the building, out of sight, out of mind.
As if she was squinting without moving her eyelids, she refined her vision, saw him as the therapist saw him. A man in gold and black armor.
His voice was barely audible. “Ms. Yamada. I’m sorry to int-”
“I’m in a session, Chevalier. An exceedingly important session.”
“I know. I’m really very sorry. I had a small opening in my schedule. I was hoping for just one minute to talk with you.”
“I’m in a session. You agreed to abide by any rules I set. This was a pretty big one.”
“If I didn’t talk to you now, I’d have to wait three days to get another chance. My hands are full.”
“I can imagine. But I’m in a session.”
“One minute. Trust me when I say I know how important it is that you stick to your rules. But this is important enough that I have to ask. Can I have one minute of your time?”
The woman hesitated.
The therapist turned, meeting Ciara’s eyes. “No, Chevalier, I-”
“I’ll manage on my own,” Ciara said. “In fact, I would appreciate having a minute or two in p