Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus)

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Darkness.  Almost a physical presence, bearing down on her as though she were deep underwater and the weight of all of the water above her was pressing against her head and shoulders.

Some of that was fatigue, some of it was hunger, some was thirst.  She had no idea how much time had passed.  She might have been able to guess from her period, but her body had decided such would be a waste of precious resources.  It hadn’t come, and she had no idea how many weeks or months it had been.

Darkness, so absolute she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed.  As she breathed, it almost felt like the dark was pressing down on her, making exhaling harder with every breath.  It didn’t help that the room smelled like an open sewer mingled with body odor.

Reaching out, she fumbled, felt the dim warmth of skin.  An arm so thin she could wrap her hand around it, middle finger and thumb touching.  Her hand slid down the arm and her fingers twined with those of a hand smaller than hers.  The physical contact seemed to put the physical sensations of air on her skin into a kind of context.  The sense of pressure faded.

“I’m hungry,” the girl beside her spoke.

“I am too.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know.”

There was the sound of a key in the lock, and her heart leapt.

The light felt like knives being driven into her eye sockets, but she stared anyways.  A man, tall, tan and long-haired, entered the room, a lantern in one hand and a plate of food in the other.

He set down the food and then turned to leave.

“Thank you!” she called after him.  She saw him hesitate.

The door slammed shut after him.

“You thanked him?” The words were accusatory.

She couldn’t justify it.  Her heart was pounding.  She stared at the plate.  Soup and bread: enough food for one person, barely enough for two.  She could have said she did it in the hopes that he would feed them more often, but she wasn’t sure she would be telling the truth.

“Let’s… let’s just eat,” she spoke.

“I knew you were here when I was a block away,” Alan spoke.  “The number of lights on in these offices is asking for troublemakers to notice and come by.  And the doors were unlocked.”

Carol looked up in surprise.  Composing herself, she answered, “I’m not concerned.”

The man laughed, “No, I imagine you aren’t.”

“You’re back?”

“For a little while, at least.  The partners asked if I could come by in case we had to close up shop in a hurry.”

“In case the city is condemned?”

“That’s it.  What are you doing?  Are those the files from downstairs?”

Carol nodded, glancing at the crate of paperwork marked ‘1972’.  “We’ve been saying we would copy them over to digital format the next time business got slow.  It won’t get much slower than it is now.”

“The idea was that everyone in the office would pitch in,” Alan answered.

“Everyone in the office is pitching in.”

“Except you’re the only one here,” Alan said.  His brow creased in worry, “What’s going on?  Are you okay?”

She shook her head.

“Talk to me.”

Carol sighed.

He sat down on the corner of her desk, reached over and turned off the scanner.  “Talk.”

“When I agreed to join New Wave, Sarah and I both agreed that I’d keep my job, and I’d strike a balance between work and life in costume.”

He nodded.

“I felt like I had to keep coming, even after Leviathan destroyed the city.  Keep that promise to myself, keep myself sane.  This filing helps, too.  It’s almost meditative.”

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to stay in the city, with everything that’s gone on.  I heard things in the news, but it really didn’t hit home until I came back.”

Carol smiled a little, “Oh, it hasn’t been pretty.  Addicts and thugs thinking they can band together to take over the city.  The Slaughterhouse Nine-”

Alan shook his head in amazement.

“My husband was gravely injured in the attack, you might have heard.”

“Richard mentioned it.”

“Head injury.  Could barely feed himself, could barely walk or speak.”

“Amy’s a healer, isn’t she?”

“Amy has always insisted she couldn’t heal brain injuries.”

Alan winced.  “I see.  The worst sort of luck.”

Carol smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “So imagine my surprise when, after weeks of taking care of my husband, wiping food from his face, giving him baths, supporting him as he walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, Amy decides she’ll heal him after all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.  But we can’t ask Amy, because she ran away from home while Mark called to let me know he was okay.”

“Something else happened?”

“Oh, quite a bit happened.  But if I got into the details of the Slaughterhouse Nine visiting my home, the ensuing fight destroying the ground floor, Bonesaw forcing Amy to kill one of her Frankenstein mutants and inviting her to join the Nine, I think that would derail the conversation.”

Alan opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it.

“This is strictly confidential, yes?” Carol stated.  “Between friends?”

“Always,” he replied automatically.  After a moment’s consideration, he said, “Amy must have been terrified.”

“Oh, I imagine she was.  Victoria went looking for her after she ran away, returned home empty-handed.  I think she was even more upset than I was, with Amy taking so long to heal Mark.  She was almost inarticulate, she was so angry.”

“Your daughters are close.  The sense of betrayal would be that much stronger.”

Carol nodded, then sighed.

“Quite a lot to deal with.  I can understand why you’d need some quiet and routine to distract yourself.”

Carol fidgeted.  “Oh, that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Victoria’s been flirting with the notion of joining the Wards, and she went out to fight the Nine just a few days ago.  Apparently she was critically injured.  She was carried off for medical care and nobody’s seen her since.”

“Carried off by who?  Or whom?”

“The Undersiders.  Who have dropped off the face of the map, in large part.  I’ve tried finding them on my patrols, but all reports suggest they’ve spread over the city in an attempt to seize large tracts of territory.  It’s a big city with a lot of stones to overturn and dark corners to investigate.”

“So Victoria’s missing, now?”

“Or dead,” Carol said.  She blinked a few times in rapid succession, fighting the need to cry.  “I don’t know.  I was patrolling, searching, and I felt my composure start to slip.  I feel like shit for doing it, but I came here, I thought maybe if I took fifteen minutes or half an hour to center myself, I could be ready to start searching again.”

“I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it.”

“She’s my daughter, Alan.  Something’s happened to her, and I don’t know what.”

“I’m sorry.  Is there anything I can do?”

She shook her head.

“I could call some people, if we organized a search party-”

“Too dangerous when you’re talking supervillains and the numbers of armed thugs on the streets.  Even civilians are likely to attack first and ask questions later, if confronted.  Besides…” she picked up her cell phone from the corner of her desk.  She showed him the screen, “Cell towers are down.  No service.”

He frowned.  “I- I don’t know what to say.”

“Welcome back to Brockton Bay, Mr. Barnes.”

“Carol, wake up.”

Carol stirred.  She was sleeping so much of the time now.

There was a man in the doorway.  Her heart leapt in her chest.

Then he moved the lantern.  A stranger.

“Time’s up,” he spoke, his voice heavily accented.

“Don’t understand,” Sarah spoke, her voice thin.

“Where’s… where’s the other man?” Carol asked.  She felt almost ashamed she didn’t have a better name for him.

“Quiet,” the man snapped.  He moved the hand that wasn’t burdened with the lantern, and Carol could see a knife.  She gasped, or maybe moaned.  It was hard to tell what it was supposed to be, because it was involuntary and her voice caught, making the sound come out more like a yelp or a reedy shriek.  She shrank back.

“No, no, no,” Sarah squeaked, shaking her head.

Time’s up.  Sarah had to know what he meant, now.

They’d spent so long in the darkness, in their own filth.  They’d eaten so little, grown so weak, and now they’d die.  And the thing that upset Carol most was that they would never understand why.

“No!”  Sarah shrieked, her voice raw.

The light was so bright it momentarily blinded Carol.  She covered her face with her arms.  When she looked up again, the man was on his hands and knees.  And her sister… Sarah was standing.

Except standing was the wrong word.  Sarah was upright, and her legs were moving, but her toes were barely touching the ground.  She wasn’t supporting her own weight.  She advanced on the man, raising one hand.

Again, that blinding light.  It didn’t burn the man, nor did it cut him.  He reacted like he’d been punched instead, stumbling backward through the doorway.  She hit him again, over and over, wordless cries accompanying each attack.  Carol saw only glimpses of the man’s bloodied body in the split-seconds the light hung in the air.  He was being beaten, pulverized.

She couldn’t bring herself to protest.  For the first time in long weeks or months, she felt a flicker of hope.

Darkness reigned over them for a few seconds as Sarah stopped to catch her breath.

Carol tried to stand and found her legs were like spaghetti noodles.

She was so busy trying to maintain her balance that she almost didn’t see.

The man who’d brought them the food.  He stepped into the doorway and raised one hand.  A gun.

The report of the handgun was deafening after such a long time in the quiet room.

But they weren’t hurt.  Sarah had raised her hands, and a glowing, see-through wall stood between them and the man.

He’d tried to attack them?  Carol couldn’t understand it.  He was the one who’d taken care of them.  When he’d appeared, she’d been happy.  And now it felt like that had been ruined, spoiled.

She felt betrayed and she couldn’t understand why.

Again, the gun fired.  She flinched, and not because of the noise.  It was like she’d been slapped.

Then silence.

Silence, no hunger, no pain, no sense of betrayal.  Even Sarah and the wall of light she’d put together were gone.

A flat plain stretched out around her, but she had no body.  She could see in every direction.

A crack split the ground.  Once the dust had settled, nothing happened for a long time.

More cracks.

It’s an egg, she realized, just in time to see it hatch.

The egg’s occupant tore free from the crack, unfolding from a condensed point to grow larger with every moment and movement.

Others were hatching from the same egg, spreading out like sparks from the shell of a firework.  Each unfolding into something vast and incomprehensible within seconds of its birth.

But her attention was on the first.  She felt it reach out and connect with another that shared a similar trajectory.  Still more were doing the same, pairing off.  Forming into trios, in some cases, but most chose to form pairs.

A mate?  A partner?

Each settled into a position around the ruined egg, embracing their chosen companions, rubbing against, into and through one another as they continued to grow.

The egg vibrated. Or did it?  No, it was an illusion.  There were multiple copies of the egg, multiple versions, and they each stirred, deviating from one another until subtle double images appeared.

Then, one by one, they crumpled into a single point.  The egg at the center of the formation of these creatures was the last, and for the briefest of moments, it roiled with the pressure and energy of all of the others.

Then it detonated, and the creatures came alive, soaring out into the vastness of the void, trails of dust following in their wake, each with a partner, a companion, traveling in a different direction.

And she was back in the dark room, staring at the man.

The betrayer.

The memory was already fading, but she instinctively knew that whatever had happened to Sarah had just happened to her.

His gun was spent, which was good, because Sarah had fallen to the ground in the same instant Carol had, and the wall of light was gone.

Carol advanced on him, her emotions so wild and varied and contradictory that she’d seemed to settle into a kind of neutrality, a middle ground where there was only that confused sense of betrayal.

A weapon appeared in her hands, forged of light and energy and electricity.  Crude, unrefined, it amounted to little more than a baseball bat.

When she struck him in the leg, the weapon sheared through without resistance.  That’s good, her thoughts were strangely disconnected from everything else, because I can’t hit very hard right now.

He screamed as he fell to the ground, his leg severed.

She hit him again, then again, much like Sarah had with the other man.  Except this wasn’t simply beating him to a pulp.  It was more final than that.

When she was done, the weapon disappeared.  Sarah hugged her, and she hugged her sister back.

When she cried, it wasn’t the crying of a thirteen year old girl.  It was more basic, more raw: the uncontrolled, unrestrained wail one might expect of a baby.

There was a knock on the door.  She looked up.

It was Lady Photon.  Sarah.  “What are you doing here?  I’ve been looking all over.”

“I needed a few minutes to myself to think.  Get grounded.”

Lady Photon gave her a sympathetic look.  She hated that look.

“Why did you want me?”

“We found Tattletale.  In a fashion.  We made contact with her and struck a deal.”

Carol didn’t like the sound of that, but she wouldn’t say that out loud.  It would bother her sister, start something.  “What was she asking and what was she offering?”

“She wanted a two-week ceasefire.  The Undersiders won’t give any heroes or civilians any trouble, and we ignore them in exchange.”

“That gives them time to consolidate, get a firmer hold on the city.”

“Maybe.  I talked to Miss Militia about it, and she doesn’t think they’ll accomplish anything meaningful in that span of time.  The Undersiders have their hands full with white supremacists and some leftover Merchants, the Protectorate and Wards aren’t part of the ceasefire and they’ll be putting pressure on the Undersiders as well.”

“I’m not so optimistic,” Carol commented.  She sighed again.  “I would have liked to be part of that negotiation.”

“We didn’t know where you were.  But let’s not fight again.  The important thing is that Tattletale pointed us in the right direction.  We think we know where your daughters are.”

Daughters?  Plural?

Carol couldn’t put a name to the feeling that had just sucker-punched her.

“Give me thirty seconds to change,” she said, standing from her chair.

“Stand down,” Brandish ordered.

“Now why would I want to do that?” Marquis asked.  “I’ve won every time your team has challenged me, this situation isn’t so different.”

“You have nowhere to run.  We’ve got you where you live,” Manpower spoke.

“I have plenty of places to run,” Marquis replied, shrugging.  “It’s just a house, I won’t lose any sleep over leaving it behind.  It’s an expensive house, I’ll admit, but that little detail loses much of its meaning when you’re as ridiculously wealthy as I am.”

The Brockton Bay Brigade closed in on the man who stood by his leather armchair, wearing a black silk bathrobe.  He held his ground.

“If you’ll allow me to finish my wine-” he started, bending down to reach for the wine glass that sat beside the armchair.

Manpower and Brandish charged.  They didn’t get two steps before Marquis turned himself into a sea urchin, bone spears no thicker than a needle extending out of every pore, some extending twelve or fifteen feet.

Brandish planted her heel on the ground to arrest her forward movement and activated her power.  In an instant, her body was condensed into a point, surrounded by a layered, spherical force field.  It meant she didn’t fall on her rear end, and she could pick a more appropriate posture as she snapped back into her human shape.

Manpower wasn’t so adroit.  He managed to stop himself, slamming one foot through the mahogany floor to give himself something to brace against, but it was too late to keep him from running into the spears of bone.  Shards snapped against his skin and went flying.

Lady Photon opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late.  Flashbang fell to one knee as a shard bounced off the ground near him, reshaping into a form that could slash across the top of his foot.  Brandish caught only a glimpse of the wound, primarily blood.  She didn’t see anything resembling bone, but Marquis apparently did.

There was a sound like firecrackers going off, and Flashbang screamed.

The needles retracted.  Marquis rolled his shoulders, as if loosening his muscles.  “Broke your foot?  How clumsy.”

Lightstar was the next to go down, as one splinter that had embedded in a bookshelf branched out to pierce his shoulder.  Fleur caught him before he could land on top of more of the bone needles.

Brandish shifted her footing, and the slivers of bone that scattered the ground around her shifted, some reshaping into starbursts of ultrafine needle points, waiting for her to step on them.  She knew from experience that they would penetrate the soles of her boots.

Lady Photon fired a spray of laser blasts in Marquis’ general direction, tearing into bookshelves, antique furniture and the rack of wine bottles.  Marquis created a shield of bone to protect himself, expanding its dimensions until it was taller and wider than he was.

He’s going to burrow, Brandish thought.  He’d done it often enough in the past, disappearing underground the second he’d dropped out of sight, then attacking through the ground, floor or rooftop.

“Careful!” she shouted.

Lady Photon spent the rest of the energy she’d gathered in her hands, spraying another spray of lasers at Marquis’ shield.  Then, as they’d practiced, she prepared to use her forcefield to shield Flashbang, Fleur and Lightstar.  Brandish and Manpower could defend themselves.

A barrier of bone plates erupted around one corner of the room, rising just in time to keep some of Lady Photon’s salvo from striking a closet door.  Marquis emerged from the floor a short distance away, driving a spike of bone up through the ground and then deconstructing it to reveal himself.

“What are you protecting?” Lady Photon asked.

“I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me.”  He glanced around, “I don’t suppose we could change venues?  I’ll be good if you are.”

“Seems like we should take every advantage we can,” Manpower said.

“If you’re talking purely about increasing your odds of victory, yes.  But should you?  No, you really shouldn’t.”

This isn’t his usual behavior, Brandish thought.  His power let him manipulate bone.  If it was his own, he could make it grow or shrink, reshape it and multiply it.   It made him, in many respects, a competent shapeshifter.  His abilities with the bones of others were limited to a simple reshaping, and there was a nuance in that the longer his own bone was separated from his body, the less able he was to manipulate it.  Every second he was wasting talking was a second that the bone splinters he’d spread over the area would be less useful to him.  He was putting himself at a disadvantage.

Well, only in a sense.  They still hadn’t touched him, and two of their members were out of commission.  Three, if she counted Fleur being occupied with a wounded Lightstar in her arms.

But the fact remained that Marquis wasn’t pushing his advantage.  The way his power worked and his very personality meant he was exceptional when it came to turning one advantage into another.  Or turning one advantage into three.  It was in his very nature to trounce his enemies, to grind them into the ground without an iota of mercy or fair play.

Was he distracted?

If he was, it was barely slowing him down.  She felt something clutch her from behind, covering her eyes.  When she tried to tear it free, she found it hard, unyielding.

She dropped into her ball form and then back into her human form, taking only a second to break free of the binding.  She caught the offending article in one hand before it could hit the ground.

It was a blindfold of solid bone, but it had been a skull of some sort beforehand.  Probably something that had sat on a bookshelf behind her.  Stupid to overlook it.

In the seconds it had taken her to deal with the blindfold, Marquis had trapped Lady Photon, binding her in a column of dense bone that had likely sprung around her from the floor or ceiling.  From the glow that was emanating through the barrier, she was apparently trying to use lasers to cut her way out.  She was strong enough to do it in one shot, but she couldn’t do that without risking shooting a teammate if the shot continued through.

That left Marquis to duel with Manpower, striking the hero over and over with a massive scythe of bone that extended out from his wrist.  Manpower was strong, and he was durable thanks to his electromagnetic shield – sparks flew as the scythe hit home over and over.  Even so, the hero didn’t try to fight back.

It took her only a moment to realize why.  Each swing of the scythe was calculated so that if the movement followed through, it would strike either the crippled Flashbang or Lightstar.

And Flashbang can’t shoot because Marquis will just armor himself before the sphere detonates.  Lightstar is injured, Fleur needs her hands free to strike, and Lady Photon’s incapacitated.

“Brandish!”  Manpower shouted.  “Same plan, just the two of us!”

Right.  Their battle plan wasn’t useless, now.  Just harder to pull off.

This would take some courage.

She charged forward, manifesting energy in the shape of a lance, driving it toward Marquis.

He cast a glance her way and stuck one foot out in her direction.  His toes mutated into a jagged, uneven ripple of bone that stretched out beneath her.  Unable to maintain her footing, she had to cancel out the lance, using her hands to brace her fall.

Spikes of bone poked out of the ground in a circle around her, rising to form a cage.

She created twin knives out of energy, slashing out to cut through the bars.

The hardest part would be what came next.  Brandish threw herself in the way of the scythe’s swing.

Marquis’ weapon virtually exploded into its component pieces, blade, join and shaft flying past her.

“Careful now,” Marquis chided her.  “Don’t want to get decapitated now, do we?”

No longer on the defensive, Manpower charged the villain.

Marquis surrounded himself in plates of bone that resembled the petals of a flower blooming in reverse, and sank into the ground.

Any other day, Brandish would have followed him into the room below.  A wine cellar, it seemed.

Instead, she turned and charged for the closet, creating a sword out of the crackling energy her power provided, slashing through the plates of bone that had surrounded it, then drawing the blade back to thrust through the wooden door-

Marquis emerged between her and the closet door.  She plunged the sword into his shoulder without hesitation.  She could smell his flesh burn, the wound cauterized by the same energy that formed the blade.

“Damnation,” Marquis muttered the word, sagging.

She let him fall, and then pressed the sword to his throat.  If he gave her an excuse, she would finish him.

She stared down at him.  That long hair, it was such a minor thing, but there was something else about him that stirred that distant, dark memory of the lightless room and the failed attempt at ransom.  Her skin crawled, and she felt anger boiling in her gut.

It took some time for the others to recover, getting their bearings and ensuring their wounds weren’t too serious.

“What were you so intent on protecting?” Manpower asked.  “This where you stash your illegitimate gains?”

Marquis chuckled.  “You could say that.  The most precious treasure in the world.”

“Somehow I missed the news report where you stole that,” Lady Photon replied.

“Stole?  No.  It would be better to say a devoted fan and follower gave her to me.”

Her?”  Brandish asked.  But Lady Photon was already reaching for the door, pulling it open.

A girl.  A child, not much younger than Vicky.  The girl was brown hair, freckle-faced, and clutched a silk pillow to her chest.  She wore a silk nightgown with lace at the collar and sleeves.  It looked expensive for something a child would wear.

“Daddy,” the girl’s eyes were wide with alarm.  She clutched the pillow tighter.

“Brigade, meet Amelia.  Amelia, these are the people who are going to take care of you now.”

Brandish was among the many faces to turned to stare at him.

He chuckled lightly, “I expect I won’t last long without medical care, so I’ll hardly be turning the tables on you and making a break for it.  You’ve won, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by taking care of her?”  Lady Photon asked.

“I have enemies.  Would you like to see her fall into their hands?  It wouldn’t be pretty.”

“They don’t have to know,” Manpower spoke.

“Manpower… do try to keep up.  The dumb brute stereotype persists only because people like you insist on keeping it alive.  They’ll always know, they’ll always find out.  You put that girl in foster care and interested parties are going to find out.”

“So you want us to take her?” Brandish asked.  She couldn’t keep the incredulity off her face.

“No,” the girl said, plaintive.  “I want you!”

“Yes,” Marquis said.

“The motherfucker has a kid?” Lightstar muttered the question, as if to himself.  “And she’s, what,  five?”

“Six,” Marquis answered.

Six.  Vicky’s age, then.  She looks younger.

“She’ll go to her mother,” Lady Photon decided.

“Her mother’s gone, I’m afraid.  The big C.  Amelia and I were introduced shortly after that.  About a year ago, now that I think on it.  I must admit, I’ve enjoyed our time together more than I’ve enjoyed all my crimes combined.  Quite surprising.”

His daughter, Brandish thought.  The resemblance was uncanny.  The nose was different, the brow, but she was her father’s daughter.

The idea disturbed her.

She couldn’t shake that dim memory of the nameless man she’d killed on the night she got her powers.  She hated Marquis in a way she couldn’t articulate, and if the memories that recurred every time she crossed paths with him were any clue, it was somehow tied to that.

She wondered if it was because she liked him on a level.  Was her psyche trying to protect her from repeating her earlier mistake?

“Little close for comfort, Brandish dear,” Marquis spoke.

She looked down.  She’d unconsciously pressed the blade closer.  When she lifted it, she could see the burn at the base of his throat.

“Thank you kindly,” he spoke.  There was a trace of irony there.

That cultured act, the civility that was real.  Marquis was fair, he played by the rules.  His rules, but he stuck to them without fail.  It didn’t match her vision of what a criminal should be.  It was jarring, creating a kind of dissonance.

That dissonance was redoubled as she looked at the forlorn little girl.  Layers upon layers, distilled in one expression.  Criminal, civilized man, child.

“You can’t take him away,” the girl told them.

“He’s a criminal,” Brandish responded.  “He’s done bad things, he needs to go to jail.”

“No.  He’s just my daddy.  Reads me bedtime stories, makes me dinner, and tells me jokes.  I love him more than anything else in the world.  You can’t take him away from me.  You can’t!”

“We have to,” Brandish told the girl.  “It’s the law.”

“No!” the girl shouted.  “I hate you!  I hate you!  I’ll never forgive you!”

Brandish reached out, as if she could calm the girl by touching her.

The girl shrank back into the closet.

Into the dark.  She felt as if she was separated from the child by a chasm.

“Let’s call the PRT,”  Manpower said.  “We should get Marquis into custody stat.”

“Wouldn’t mind some medical treatment, if you could rush that?” Marquis asked.

“…And medical treatment,” Manpower amended his statement.

Brandish walked away.  The others would handle this.  She would wait outside to guide the responders into the manor, past the traps Marquis had set in place.

She was still waiting when Lady Photon came outside, holding the little girl’s hand.  Lady Photon seated the girl in the car and shut the door.

Lady Photon joined Brandish on the stone stairs.  “We can’t let her go into foster care.  It’s not just the danger his enemies pose.  Once people found out she was Marquis’ child, they’d start fighting over who could get their hands on her.”

“Sarah-” Brandish started.

“Then they’ll kidnap her.  They’ll do it to exploit her powers, and she’s bound to be pretty powerful if she inherits anything like her father’s abilities”

“Then you take care of her,” Brandish replied, even as she mentally prayed her sister would refuse.  There was something about the idea of being around Marquis’ child, that uncanny resemblance, having those memories stirred even once in a while, even if it was just at family reunions… it made her feel uneasy.

“You know Neil and I don’t have that much money.  Neil isn’t having luck finding work, and all our funding from the team is going into the New Wave plan, which won’t happen for a few months, and we have two hungry mouths to feed…”

Brandish grasped her sister’s meaning.  With a sick feeling in her gut, she spoke the idea aloud.  “You want Mark and I to take her.”

“You should.  Amelia’s Vicky’s age, I think they would be close.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

“Why are you so reluctant?”

Brandish shook her head.  “I… you know I never planned to have kids?”

“I remember you saying something like that.  But then you had Vicky.”

“I only caved to having Vicky because Mark was there, and I had to think about it for a while.”

“Mark will be there for Amelia too.”

Brandish could have mentioned how Mark was tired all the time, how his promise had proved empty.  She might have mentioned how he was seeing a psychiatrist now, the tentative possibility of clinical depression.  She stayed silent.

“It’s not just that,” she said.  “You know I have trouble trusting people.  You know why.”

The change on Lady Photon’s face was so subtle she almost missed it.

“I’m sorry to bring it up,” Brandish said. “But it’s relevant.  I decided I could have Vicky because I’d know her from day one.  She’d grow inside me, I’d nurture her from childhood… she’d be safe.”

“I didn’t know you were dwelling on it to that degree.”

Brandish shrugged and shook her head, as if she could shake off this conversation, this situation.  “That child deserves better than I can offer.  I know I don’t have it in me to form any kind of bond with another child if there’s no blood relation.”

Especially if she’s Marquis’.

“She needs you.  You’re her only option.  I can’t, and Fleur and Lightstar aren’t old enough or in the right place in their lives for kids, and if she goes anywhere else, it’ll be disastrous.”

Brandish decided on the most direct, clear line of argument she could muster, “I don’t want her.  I can’t take her.”

Brandish glanced at the kid that they’d stowed in the team’s car.  The child was standing on the car seat, hands pressed against the window.  Her stare bored into Brandish as though little girl had laser vision.

The window was open a crack, Brandish noted.  The girl could probably hear everything they’d been saying.  Brandish looked away.

Lady Photon did as she’d so often done, ignoring reason in favor of the emotional appeal.  “You grew to love and trust Mark.  You could grow to love and trust that little girl, too.”

Liar.

Brandish stared at the teenaged girl.  Amy couldn’t even look her in the eye.  Tears were streaming down the girl’s face.

“Where’s Victoria?”  Brandish made the question a demand.

“I’m so sorry,” Amy responded, her voice hoarse.  She’d been crying long before anyone had showed up.

Brandish felt choked up as well, but she suppressed the emotion.  “Is my daughter dead?”

No.

“Explain.”

“I- I don’t- No-” Amy stuttered.

She could have slapped the girl.

“What happened to my daughter!?”

Amy flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Carol-” Lady Photon spoke, her voice gentle.  “Take it easy.”

They stood in the mist of a ruined neighborhood.  Amy had stepped outside within a minute of their arrival, blocking the door with her body.  There was no resistance in the girl, though.  It was more like the obstruction was a way of running, of forestalling the inevitable.

The girl hugged her arms against her body, her hands trembling even as they clutched her upper arms.  Her teeth chattered, as if she were cold, but it was a warm evening.

Was the girl in shock?  Carol couldn’t muster any sympathy.  Amy was stopping her from getting to Victoria.  Victoria, who she’d almost believed was dead.

“Amy,” Lady Photon spoke, “What’s going on?  You won’t let us inside, but you won’t explain.  Just talk.”

Amy shivered.  “I… she wouldn’t let me help her, she was so angry, so I calmed her down with my power.  She’d been hurt badly, so I wrapped her up.  A cocoon, so she could heal.”

“That’s good.  So Victoria’s okay?”  Lady Photon coaxed responses from Amy.

Of course she’s not okay, Brandish thought.  What about this situation makes you think she could be okay?

“I… I had to wait a while before I could let her out, so I could be sure she had healed completely.  I-“

Amy stopped as her voice cracked.

“Keep going,” Lady Photon urged.

Amy glanced at Brandish, who stood with her arms folded, stone-faced.

If I change my expression now, if I say or do anything, I’ll lose it, I’ll break, Brandish thought.  Her heart thudded in her chest.

“I didn’t want her to fight.  And I didn’t want her to follow, or to hate me because I used my power on her again.”

Again?

“So I thought I’d put her in a trance, and make it so she’d forget everything that happened.  Everything that I did, and the things that the Slaughterhouse Nine said, and everything that I said to try to make them go away.  Empty promises and-“

Her voice hitched.

“What happened?” Brandish asked, for the Nth time.

“She was lying there, and I wanted to say goodbye.  I- I-“

Something in Amy’s voice, her tone, her posture, it provided the final piece, clicking into place, making so many things suddenly come together.

Brandish marched forward, fully intending to walk right past Amy.  Amelia.  His daughter.  She could never be my daughter because she’d never stopped being his.

A cornered rat will bite.  Amy realized what Brandish intended and reached out, a reflex.

A weapon sprung into Brandish’s hand.  Not so dissimilar from the first weapon she’d made, an unrefined bludgeon of raw lightstuff.  She moved as if to parry the reaching hand and Amy scrambled back out of the way, eyes wide.

Where to go?  Brandish glanced to the rooms to the left, then down the hall in front of her.  She looked back and saw Amy with her back to the wall.  She moved toward the staircase, glanced back at Amy, and saw a reaction.  Fear.  Trepidation.

Before Amy could protest, Brandish was heading up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

“Carol!”  Amy shouted, scrambling up the stairs.  There was the sound of her falling on the stairs in her haste to follow,  “Stop!  Carol!  Mom!

Only one door was still open.  Brandish entered the room and stopped.

She didn’t move as Amy’s spoke from behind her.  “Please, let me explain.”

Brandish couldn’t bring herself to move or speak.  Amy seemed to take that silence as assent.

“I wanted to see her smile again.  To have someone hug me before I left forever.  So you wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.  I- I told myself I’d leave after.  Victoria wouldn’t remember.  It would be a way for me to get closure.  Then I’d go and spend the rest of my life healing people.  Sacrifice my life.  I don’t know.  As payment.”

Lady Photon had made her way upstairs.  She entered the room and stopped just in front of Brandish.  Her hands went to her mouth.  Her words were a whispered, “Oh God.”

Amy kept talking, her voice strangely monotone after her earlier emotion, as if she were a recording.  Maybe she was, after a fashion, all of the excuses and arguments she’d planned spilling from her mouth.  “I wanted her to be happy.  I could adjust.  Tweak, expand, change things to serve more than one purpose.  I had the extra material from the cocoon.  When I was done, I started undoing everything, all the mental and physical changes.  I got so tired, and so scared, so lonely, so I thought we’d take another break, before I was completely finished.  I changed more things.  More stuff I had to fix.  And days passed.  I-“

Brandish clenched her fists.

“I lost track.  I forgot how to change her back.”

A caricature.  A twisted reflection of how Amy saw Victoria, the swan curve of the nape of the neck, the delicate hands, and countless other features, repeated over and over again throughout.  It might even have been something objectively beautiful, had it not been warped by desperation and loneliness and panic.  As overwhelming as the image and the situation had been in Amy’s mind, Victoria was now equally imposing, in a sense.  No longer able to move under her own power, her flesh spilled over from the edge of the mattress and onto the floor.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Betrayal.  Brandish had known this would happen the moment Sarah had talked about her taking the girl.  Not this, but something like it.  Brandish felt a weapon form in her hand.

“Please tell me what to do,” Amy pleaded.

Brandish turned, arm drawn back to strike, to retaliate.  She stopped.

The girl was so weak, so powerless, a victim.  A victim of herself, her own nature, but a victim nonetheless.  A person sundered.

And with everything laid bare, there was not a single resemblance to Marquis.  There was no faint reminder of Brandish’s time in the dark cell, nor of her captor.  If anything, Amy looked how Sarah had, as they’d stumbled from the house where they’d been kept, lost, helpless and scared.

She looked like Carol had, all those years ago.

The weapon dissipated, and Brandish’s arms dropped limp to her sides.

“I’m sorry,” the digitized voice spoke.

Carol watched Amy through the window.

Amy seemed to have changed, transformed.  Could Carol interpret that as a burden being lifted?  Relief?  Even if it was only because the very worst had come to pass, and there was nothing left for Amy to agonize over?  There was shame, of course, horrific guilt.  That much was obvious.  The girl couldn’t meet anyone’s gaze.

“Everyone’s sorry,” Carol spoke, her voice hollow.

“You were saying something about that before,”  Dragon said.  “Are you-?”

She left the question unfinished, and the fragment of it on its own was a hard thing to hear.

Carol stared as Amy shuffled forward.  The cuffs weren’t necessary, really.  A formality.  Amy wasn’t about to run.

“It’s your last chance,” Dragon prodded.

Carol nodded.  She pushed the door open and stepped into the parking lot.

Amy turned to face her as she approached.

For a long minute, neither of them spoke.

Prisoner 612, please board for transport to the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center,” the announcement came from within the truck.

The armed escort would be waiting.  No court- Amy had volunteered, asked
to go to the Birdcage.

Carol couldn’t bring herself to speak.

So she stepped forward to close the distance between herself and Amy.  Hesitant at first, she reached out.

As if she could convey everything she wanted to say in a single gesture, she folded her daughter into the tightest of hugs.

She couldn’t forgive Amy, not ever, not in the slightest.  But she was sorry.

Amy swallowed hard and stepped back, then stepped up into the truck.

Carol watched in silence as the doors automatically shut and locked, and remained rooted in place as the truck pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared down the road.

Numb, she returned to the office that looked out on the lot.  Dragon’s face displayed on a computer screen to the left of the door.  The computer chair was unoccupied.

“That’s it?” Carol asked.

“She’ll be transported there and confined for the remainder of her life, barring exceptional circumstance.”

Carol nodded.  “Two daughters gone in the blink of an eye.”

“Your husband decided not to come?”

“He exchanged words with her in her cell this morning.  He decided it was more important to accompany Victoria to Pennsylvania.”

“I didn’t realize that was today.  If you’d asked, I could have rescheduled Amy Dallon’s departure.”

“No.  It’s fine.  I prefer it this way.”

“You didn’t want to see Victoria off to the parahuman asylum?”

“Victoria is gone.  There’s nothing of her left but that mockery.  Mark and I fought over it and this was what we decided.”

“I see.”

“If it’s no trouble, could I watch?”

“What are you wanting to watch, specifically?”

“Her arrival?  I know the prison is segregated, but she’s still-“

“It isn’t.  There’s a bridge between the male and female sections of the Baumann center.”

Carol nodded.  “Then I have to see.  Please.”

“It’s going to be the better part of a day before she arrives.”

“I’ll wait.  If I fall asleep, will you please wake me?”

“Of course.”

Dragon didn’t venture a goodbye, or any further condolences.  Her face disappeared from the screen, replaced by a spinning logo, showing the Guild’s emblem on one side and the Protectorate’s shield on the other.

Carol waited patiently for hours, her mind a blank.  She couldn’t dwell on the past, or she’d lose her mind.  There was nothing in the present, and the future… she couldn’t imagine one.  She couldn’t envision being with Mark without Victoria.  Couldn’t imagine carrying on life as Brandish.  Perhaps she would continue filing.  Something simpler than criminal law, something lower stress.  At least for a little while.

For an hour or so, she occupied herself by reading the pamphlets and the back covers of books.  Reading a novel was too much.

Somewhere along the line, she nodded off.  She was glad for the sunlight that streamed in through the window, the glare of the florescent bulbs overhead.  Recent events had stirred her old fears of the dark.

It didn’t feel like hours had passed when she was woken by Dragon’s voice.  “Carol.”

She walked over to the screen.

It was a surveillance camera image.  The camera zoomed in on a door.  An elevator door, perhaps.  It whisked open.

“Would you like sound?”

“It doesn’t really matter.  Yes.”

A second later, the sound cut in.  An announcement across the prison PA system: “-one-two, Amy Dallon, AKA Amelia Lavere, AKA Panacea.  Cell block E.

Carol watched as the girl stepped out of the elevator.  She pulled off a gas mask and let it drop to the floor.  A small crowd was gathering around her, others from her cell block checking out the new resident.

How long would it take?

She would have asked Dragon, but her breath was caught in her throat.

He appeared two minutes later, as a woman who must have been the self-imposed leader of Cell block E was talking to Amy.

He looks older.

Somehow Carol had imagined Marquis had stayed as young and powerful as the day they’d last fought.  The day she’d met Amy.  But there were lines in his face.  He looked more distinguished, even, but he looked older.

Not the bogeyman that had haunted her.

And that’s Lung behind him.

Was Lung an enforcer for Marquis?  It was hard to imagine.  Or were they friends?  That was simultaneously easier and harder to picture.  But it was somehow jarring, as if it instilled a sort of realism in an otherwise surreal picture.

Lung and Marquis moved forward, and the women of the cell block moved to block Lung’s advance, letting Marquis through.

Marquis stopped a few feet away from his daughter.  Their hair was the same, as were their eyes.

The day I cease seeing her as his daughter and see how she could be mine, he takes her back, she thought.

“I’ve been waiting,” he spoke.

That was enough.  She had the answer she’d wanted, even if she hadn’t consciously asked the question.

She left the office, stepping outside into the too-bright outdoors, leaving the reunion to play on the screen.

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