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Cygnet 1.1

{Name for a young swan.}

My session ended in five minutes and I was not ready.

It was funny. I had deliberated this, waffled back and forth, looked forward to it and dreaded it and spent days crippled with anxiety. Now that it was happening I had no idea what to feel. I fidgeted, fiddling with my pen, doodling in the margins of my journal. My eyes drifted to Doctor Yamada's wall clock and back down to her and back again. She was reading something on her clipboard.

We'd tried talking for the first ten minutes, but it'd lapsed into silence that just stretched on and on. I couldn't help but feel rotten for that. It wasn't like I disliked Yamada. Our sessions were usually the highlight of my week. Doctor Yamada had been in my corner since day one.

At least I didn't need the straightjacket anymore. That had been awful- the feeling of complete helplessness; or, worse, the certainty when my control slipped that I could free my arms whenever I wanted. That I could get loose whenever I wanted, and just wasn't acting on it. I had graduated from the straightjacket to a band around my ankle. I had graduated from talking across a phone separated by glass in a twenty by twenty cell to a white padded room with a couch and a chair, a room that at least pretended to not be a cell.

Doctor Yamada was in a red blouse and khaki pants today, casual. She was a woman of about thirty with average height and a particular and calming air that couldn't help but settle you. In those first few weeks; in the padded room, in the straightjacket, alone, I had felt like an insect under a magnifying glass sometimes. But I had never felt like that when Doctor Yamada spoke with me, she treated me with nothing but dignity. I had found myself imagining her in the same context as Mom, always accompanied by a warm smile and a lifted mood. No matter what kind of bad day it had been.

It hadn't been a bad day for a while now, I'd come a long way from the straightjacket. She had stopped wearing the reinforced protective danger suits and now we were sitting in the same room together, it felt… nice.

There had been things I wanted to ask her, ways I'd thought about going about this, but that had been yesterday, now I couldn't remember a thing. I just couldn't think of anything to say; and that was a guilty hole in the pit of my stomach because this was supposed to be a major milestone, something I'd been carefully working towards for weeks. Doctor Yamada had insisted I could do it, and Doctor Selmy had backed her up- and now it almost felt like I was backsliding.

"Taylor, are you feeling all right?"

Doctor Yamada's voice made me jump. She was looking right at me, smiling slightly. I'd been so distracted I hadn't even noticed when she'd looked up. She was gently concerned, and just slightly worried.

She cares about my progress and is worried my fears will be self-fulfilling; putting up a strong front, but means it more than she realizes.

"Yeah. I'm just… thinking."

Doctor Yamada leaned back a bit. "It is okay to be nervous, Taylor. This is a big step for you."

I tried to smile, but it came out a bit shaky, I think, "It's… I'm fine."

Doctor Yamada nodded. "Good." She tapped her clipboard with her pen, then set it aside. "It's a shame Geoffrey is out of town; I know he would have loved to be here to see you off."

Geoffrey, he was Doctor Selmy. He was pretty cool too. Stepping out of isolation for a trial run and mixing with the residents had been his idea, he had encouraged me to take charge, have a stake in my own therapy.

If Doctor Yamada was the nurse, helping me heal and forget that I had been hurt, then Doctor Selmy was the coach- helping push me to do better and take charge of my own life.

I chewed on my lip a moment, debating. "Here-" I handed her my journal, open to the most recent page.

Doctor Yamada took the notebook and carefully read what I'd written.

"Interesting." She quirked an eyebrow at me. "Are you asking me a question?"

I shrugged one shoulder and pulled my knees up to my chin. It was difficult to put into words, and I was kind of afraid of what she'd say. I'd told myself I was crazy. It sounded crazy.

Doctor Yamada read what I'd written, then handed my notebook back to me, "Taylor, it isn't uncommon for parahumans to have some kind of vision, or an out of body experience when they trigger. Most don't remember the details, though a very small percentage do retain a clear memory of the event." She gave me a significant look. "Most often, parahumans with Thinker powers, though there are exceptions."

I blinked back at her, "So…"

"I don't think we know enough powers to rule anything out. We do not understand powers, and what we don't understand is frightening. It is perfectly understandable to be apprehensive. But I do not think you were hallucinating, no."

I took a deep breath. That… meant a lot to me, to actually hear that from someone. To hear someone say I was not crazy for once. My eyes stung. Doctor Yamada offered me a box of tissues.

I accepted with a wet sniffle and I blew my nose.


"Taylor, are you ready for this?" Doctor Yamada asked earnestly, "If you aren't ready to take this step, you can wait."


No, that felt weak. I tried to imagine Mom there with me, cheering me on. Emma. Doctor Selmy.

To get the impossible, you have to make it want you back. I remembered, one of Doctor Selmy's favorite truisms. I straightened and looked her in the eye. "I'm ready. I can do this."

That got a smile. Doctor Yamada stood up. "I think we're done here, are you hungry?" I stood up and we both walked to the door. She opened it for me and we stepped out into the hall.

I could do this, deep breaths.

At the end of the hallway we entered the elevator kiosk and security checkpoint. A uniformed PRT trooper in riot gear took Doctor Yamada's pass- we turned left, into the medium security residences. The walls and ceiling were all painted in soothing cream tones and the floor tiled in black and white- a throwback to Alchemilla's history as a hospital for patients less dangerous than I was. Relaxation benches that lined the halls sporadically, making the hallways a little less empty in the absence of framed pictures or windows. I did not miss the security cameras tucked unobtrusively into corners.

I loosened my control and let the voices in, just a little. The nudge filling in cones of line-of-sight for the cameras, like spotlights in a thick fog.

It was not a switch; nothing was turned on or off. It was a bit like being in a noisy room- tuning out all the other voices, all the other people talking. And using my power was paying attention to them and trying to pick out that one conversation I wanted to listen to. And sometimes the conversations were in languages I did not understand right away.

Dr. Yamada and Doctor Selmy wanted me to aim higher, to try for active control, and not just that but control in a social environment with a few controlled stressors. Hence, leaving my room under guard, but not in restraints, and eating in the cafeteria with other patients.

I desperately hoped this was not a bad idea. I could feel my palms prickling. Over the course of the month, after Doctor Galand had raised the possibility of eating in the cafeteria, I had anticipated this- looked forward to it, even. But now that I was here, I did not know what to do. I had built a routine, one that worked, one that was safe- one that left me firmly in control of myself and felt something approaching normal now.

The Pa chimed overhead.

"Attention Doctor Resch, please report to Doctor Young's office at your earliest convinience."

At the end of the hallway were the cafeteria and another security booth, Doctor Yamada showed the officer on duty her pass, and then turned to me.


"Last chance to back out."

I smiled back, I felt… determined… to try, at least.

"I can do this."

She gave me a reassuring pat on my shoulder, and stepped back. "Enjoy your lunch; one of the residents has volunteered to show you around, I'll introduce you afterwards."

This next bit was something I would need to do by myself.

The cafeteria itself was strangely… mundane. I don't know what I expected, actually. The kitchen and food line had a glass divider separating the cafeteria servers from the line of patients. I joined the line, shuffling along with them and kept my head down. The tray I picked up was made of something light and pliable, like Styrofoam, probably so it could not be used as a weapon.

I received a hunk of garlic bread.

"Move along."

The cafeteria cook dispensed a scoop of what was probably canned spaghetti on my tray.

"Move along."

I slid my tray to the end of the line and collected it, took one step away from the line, and immediately felt lost.

The cafeteria color scheme was hospital-soothing white and blue. I was faced with four long tables with benches, with a total of ten patients in blue seated with trays. Three staff in green scrubs moved between them, talking to them quietly. I could see one at the back talking to a girl. She stood out because she was not wearing blue. Her jumpsuit was bright warning orange, and seeing that made my pulse quicken.

I thumbed my own by the waistband, also orange, and felt myself shrink in on myself a little. I glanced up.

There was also armed security patrolling on the gantries above the cafeteria floor- at least two that I could see without turning my head. I averted my eyes and tried not to look.

A man on the front row stared across the table, rocking slightly whenever his attention wandered, occasionally and fretfully poking at his food. I skipped over him. Another, a woman, ate while quietly conversing with another patient, and served as perch to a vast blue eagle. Or falcon? I didn't know. Whatever it was it looked positively lethal, and huge, it probably had a wingspan of more than ten feet. It snapped its beak lightly at her conversation partner twice while I watched.

Every table edge was gently rounded and padded to prevent injury, probably in case someone fell because medication made them dizzy and split their head open on a corner. Or fell because they were pushed or shoved, or because they picked a fight with some telekinetic. Or something.

I swallowed.

Someone elbowed me sharply, growling under their breath, and I stumbled another step. It was a large, heavy woman with frizzy brown hair and a thunderous scowl. She didn't give me a second look as she shouldered past with her tray.

"Hey." I protested feebly.

A corner of my mind noted she limped heavily with every step on her left heel. My power supplied the cause: an old break imperfectly set and complicated by her weight. It affected her balance. An angle was supplied; a shove just so behind her left kidney, just so, would send her sprawling on her face with hardly any effort at all.

I clamped down on that, hard. And then I swallowed even more nervously and loosened my filter.

Controlling it, guiding it, without letting it guide me. I tried to channel Dr. Yamada, and it only kind-of worked. I focused on the woman, and asked 'who is she'?

Her skin was very, very pale. My power latched on and expanded- following the thread.
Her skin was very, very pale. She had not seen sunlight in a long time. Years. She had been in the hospital a long time, decades maybe. She had been institutionalized even before she got powers.

Her trigger had made what she had before worse.

And what she had before- there it became less clear- the impressions got confusing and I couldn't interpret what I was being told. My head hurt.

I blinked and pulled back, tuning out the voice. And thus I was paying attention and saw what happened next. A girl darted out and tagged the huge woman on the shoulder. The touch was light- only a slap, but there was an exaggerated effect from the blow, and the big woman stumbled.

The girl laughed and darted along the table. By the time the bigger woman swung around, she was already reseated. The woman huffed angrily and looked for the perpetrator, but no-one volunteered her.

The woman turned away, muttering darkly- regular occurrence, I guessed immediately. I wanted to feel sorry for the woman; it seemed the right thing to do. But, she wasn't making it easy to sympathize with her.

I glanced across the cafeteria again.

One step at a time. I didn't need to jump into the deep end of the pool right away, right? Right? Right.

There was an empty space along the back wall; the last bench was almost unoccupied. Except the other person sitting there was the girl wearing orange. After a moment of hesitation I steered myself towards it, I threaded my way down the aisle, towards the back, head down not looking at anybody. There was someone whimpering and muttering under their breath nearby, but I didn't look to see who it was. I sat down in the corner, then stared at my tray and tried to think of a way to eat without a fork.

"Please- I- I just…" I lifted my head to see. It was the girl in the orange. She had her legs drawn up under herself, hugging her knees. The orderly knelt, talking quietly to her on the other end of the bench. I looked away quickly.

"Burnscar," the orderly said, "You know visiting hours, and you've used all of yours this week."

"I… I just. Can you ask the Doctor?"

It was a little strange- Burnscar was the one cringing and hugging her legs, but looking at them I got the impression it was the orderly who was frightened. He was crouching a few feet from her, almost out of arm's reach. "I can ask Doctor Werneck, he's the floor Doctor today, but you need to wait until the lunch period is over."

Burnscar nodded, fretfully pressing her face into her knees as the orderly stood and walked away.

I went back to my lunch and tried not to look at her. I only had my hands to work with, no forks. I pinched a mouthful of spaghetti and stuffed it in my mouth.


I hadn't had much of a chance to read up on any current patients, or well-known parahuman cases. The name didn't sound familiar though. I'd need to look her up. I remembered seeing a computer lab or something in my orientation pamphlet, I hoped I got a chance to look at that.

I risked a glance at Burnscar.

She had a tray, but it was empty, and pushed away from her so she could rest her arms on the table and her head on top of them. Her shoulders hitched in a motion that looked suspiciously like crying. That… struck a chord in me.

Her hair was black, and cropped short. She might have been a few years older than me, in her early twenties, but she looked very thin. Not beanpole-skinny like me, just… thin, like she needed to eat a bit more. My eyes were drawn to her arms. There were 'ladders', cuts trailing up her arms.

Not recent, they were old scars

That gave me pause. I remembered what my first day had been like, crying into my hand because I was so scared I didn't want anyone to hear, not even the Doctors. Doctors I knew were listening, through the microphones in the walls. Trying to keep my eyes close all the time and not touch anything because I didn't want to feel it in my head, and I couldn't control it.

I blinked, and then I felt a sliver of steel. Maybe it was my conversations with Doctor Yamada, but I picked up my tray and slid down the bench.

What I was doing was probably something very, very stupid. Anyone called 'Burnscar' was probably not a hero. But nobody was a hero here and I knew how it felt to be alone. "H-hey."

She reacted dramatically to my voice, head jerking up to stare at me. I was right, she had been crying, her cheeks were red, and down each ran a tear track of neat, round burns. She scrubbed at her eyes with the heel of one hand.

"I… um, are you new here too?" I asked, then stuck out my hand.

"No… I've been here a while." She said, and stared at me with watery eyes. I let my hand drop limply.

"Oh." I floundered, "How long?"

"Four years." She said.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. What was I supposed to say? 'What are you in for'?

Burnscar. I wracked my brain trying to place the name the orderly had used, Burnscar did not sound familiar.

Her face fell at my hesitation, she looked away, back into her knees.

"Are…" I stopped, "Have you been an orange patient the whole time?"

Burnscar's face jerked up again, "Nobody ever stops being an orange. I mean, most. Usually they put you in isolation, if you're dangerous." She stared at her knees morosely. I got the impression she was in and out of isolation a lot. "I tried so hard. It's never enough. Nobody ever gets out of orange. Not unless they're heroes, really big names. Sometimes not even then."

The silence stretched on.

Nobody was here for a good reason; I did not want to know if she had killed anyone, or how crazy she was. It… it wasn't something I liked to think about either. I did not want to ask why.

'Hi, I'm crazy too'? I cleared my throat uncomfortably, and then had to do it again because my mouth was too dry and it felt like my whole throat was a desert too.

"What were you talking to the orderly about?"

She flinched away, somehow she tried to shrink even smaller in her seat, rubbing her arms like she was cold, looking at the floor. "I wanted to visit Elle."


"My friend, the Doctors call her Labyrinth."

"Oh." That was another name that rang no bells. Maybe they both got sent here before they did anything? I'd heard that many of the patients were not dangerous as much as they were uncontrolled. But she was wearing orange, and patients given an Orange designation were actual physical threats at least some of the time, or under specific conditions. Also, the orderly called her Burnscar.

"I… I just…" she mumbled, "I need to talk to her. I- I hate it here and I can't think straight. Because of the pills. I just need to talk to her and they won't let me!" she raised her voice, "I hate it here. I hate it so much!" She slammed her hands on the table. Her eyes flared with an orange glow.

There was shuffling as the cafeteria moved to give us more space.

Security personal were moving on the catwalks in the corner of my eye. That niggling sensation was back, my palms were prickling and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I could feel my power working- whispering, and I let it.

Dangerous, an orange patient. They designated her Burnscar, something to do with fire? A pyrokinetic. There was more, something to do with emotion. Or… movement?

The orderly that had talked to her stepped forward and tried calming her down. A big black man with pleasant features and broad shoulders.


"That's not my name!" She snapped.

She was up and pacing now. Her eyes glowing orange in flashes, she was crying and shouting in turns.

"I understand- miss, please, calm down." He moved slowly, calmly like he was trying not to startle her. His voice was soft; the tone was the kind you might use when talking to an injured animal- soothing, level, placating. Sweat beaded lightly on his forehead and my voice was screaming that she was dangerous now.

The security personnel were moving overhead, more of them, I could hear one talking over a radio. I experienced a moment of clarity, I knew what was going to happen, there was some kind of peak coming. Burnscar was growing more and more agitated by the moment- gesturing and shivering and rubbing her arms.

I realized at that moment that unless I acted immediately Burnscar was going to end up doing something regrettable. Somebody was going to get hurt. Probably the orderly, maybe Burnscar. Maybe someone else- me, I was pretty close to her.

The stream of data continued: Emotions, her power did something to her emotions, building to peaks and lows. It drove her to using them and rewarded her by releasing the pressure. She was in a negative spiral. Chemical changes, emotional highs and lows, followed by deadening of all emotions, and an addictive compulsion to seek the reward.

Derail the spiral. Distract her and diffuse her.

"What's your name?"

She whipped around and looked at me.

"…Mimi." She looked a little stunned.

"I'm Taylor," I said.

I immediately regretted it. Was she a villain? But, no, she'd told me her name first. She could have been lying, but, no, the impression surfaced that she was being truthful.

It was hard to adjust my expectations to the idea that it was different in here. I had grown up with the idea that heroes and villains looked different, sounded different, acted different. Every kid thinks about what they'd do if they got powers. But here it was… not what I had expected when I had imagined becoming a parahuman.

Doctor Yamada always addressed me by my name, once she knew I preferred it, and I liked that about her. I wondered if anyone here addressed Mimi by her name in those four years. One of the doctors had to have... right?

"Are you hungry?" I asked, "You didn't have anything on your tray." I gestured loosely to it, where it lay abandoned and empty in front of her.

"I- no." Mimi blinked again, "I wasn't hungry," She mumbled, and frowned a little. Like she was trying to figure out where this was going. Her eyes were not glowing, at least.

I picked it up, and it was like the whole cafeteria was holding its breath. "Well, even if I'm not hungry I know I feel better if I eat something. Come on." I took one step forward and grabbed her elbow, and tugged her towards the cafeteria counter. I glanced at the orderly out of the corner of my eye as we passed, he looked about as stunned as Mimi. Maybe more.

Mimi remained silent as I tugged her through the cafeteria line. We were the only ones in line now and I was not surprised. The cafeteria was… not silent, but very quiet. When I sat her down again she had the same limp green beans, canned spaghetti, and garlic bread I did.

After I sat her down with it, though… Mimi stared at the tray like she didn't know what to do with it. Instead of prodding her, I grabbed my tray and tried scooping some more spaghetti up with my hands. It was pretty messy, using the bread helped a little. After a minute she began to do the same.

I tried not to think about where I would be in four years. It frightened me too much. Instead, I finished my tray, and there didn't seem to be anything else to do.

"Thank you." Mimi blurted, as I picked it up. She couldn't meet my eyes, but I think I understood.

I tried to give her a smile, but I think it came across a little tired. The meds made me drowsy. "No problem."

Mimi looked up, and I wondered if it had meant more to her than I had thought. Her eyes were glassy and moist.

"You going to be okay? I need to go."

She jerked her head in a quick nod.

I left my tray at the drop off counter and headed back to the nurse station. Doctor Yamada had explained that one of the patients was going to be giving me a tour of the common rooms after lunch.


I was actually looking forward to it. Eating with Mimi had reminded me that I wasn't the only one here with problems. I felt a little less alone and lost.

The PA chimed overhead. Cheery.

"Alchemilla is one of New England's oldest and most prominent medical and psychiatric establishments. Dedicated to improving mental health since its inception in 1914 by Doctor Charles McNider."

"Today Alchemilla is proud to operate as New England's premiere rehabilitation center, research facility, and parahuman specialty clinic. Alchemilla has a long and storied history as-"

There was a mixture of orange and blue in the hallway, in Blue Ward, Block B, Alchemilla Memorial Asylum.