"Trí cur trí. I mo ainm, scaoilteán mé tú ó do mionn."
Three by three. By my word, I release you from your oath.
The tattered remains of the geis that wound around our hearts, broken by Lisa when she killed Coil, loosened and vanished, and Lisa herself let out a sigh of relief, rubbing her chest with her off hand.
"That it, then?" she asked.
"That's it," I replied. "I…don't know if you've accrued any kind of karmic debt by breaking it, though, so…"
It was likely even Aife didn't know, although I'd check later. In the myths, no one ever attempted to release someone from a broken geis — to be fair, because no one had ever had reason to, since, you know, breaking the thing in the first place didn't generally endear you to the one who had actually bound you. It was entirely possible that it was all over with, and it was equally possible that there was some kind of karmic retribution waiting for her, even now.
"Right, right, play it safe, don't cross the street while the light's green, toss some salt over my shoulder before I leave the house, make sure not to walk and chew gum at the same time, got it," Lisa said. She let go of my hand. "I'll try to avoid taking any risks, for now. Definitely won't be going skiing or playing the lottery anytime soon."
"At least until I can take the time to make you a good luck charm," I added.
She stopped, frowning. "You know, I wasn't even sure you would. Hell, I wasn't sure you were even gonna deal with this thing. I kinda assumed not, when I pulled the trigger."
The accusation stung, even more so because a part of me had considered it. I'd been entirely willing to put it all off until I could sort all of my feelings out and deal with them. I was good at that, it seemed. Not dealing with stuff. Putting it off until later by saying I had more important things to do first.
But that had gotten me in a lot of trouble, these last few weeks, and with an upcoming Endbringer attack entirely possible, I wasn't willing to take the chances with Lisa's life.
"You thought I was just going to let you die?" I asked quietly. "After everything I did to save you?"
"Actively? No," Lisa admitted. "But you're a 'reap what you sow' kind of girl, Taylor. You're perfectly willing to give people a second chance — with just the amount of rope they need to hang themselves."
It wasn't untrue, when I gave it some thought. Immediately, my mind turned in the direction of the defenses I'd set up around my house, how they discouraged first, and then jumped straight to dangerous and outright lethal for those who were committed enough to abandon the chance to leave unharmed. I'd done much the same to Bakuda, too, because there were other methods of guaranteeing her silence, but the one I'd defaulted to was the one that would punish her for betraying my mercy.
I'd done the same to Lisa for betraying my trust and I'd been prepared to do it to Coil, too.
"You were my friend," I said. "I wasn't just —"
"Were?" she interrupted. "Past tense?"
I looked away.
"I…I don't know," I admitted. "I'm not even sure…about Amy. I just…Khepri…"
How much was her, how much was me. Three days, mostly spent dozing and worrying about Leviathan, were not enough to square all of that away. Three years might not be enough. Maybe, if I had Doctor Yamada to help me figure it out —
Damn it, there's another one.
It seemed like, every day, there was another person I didn't know, I shouldn't know, creeping into my thoughts, as though they'd always been there. More of Khepri, settling in, even though I hadn't touched her since that night in the Trainyard. More of the memories and instinctual biases that I never noticed until they jumped out at me.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Lisa asked.
I met her eyes and hesitated — because a part of me wanted, oh so very badly, to get back those moments in the coffee shop, those days in the loft, that trust and camaraderie, but the rest of me was afraid to give Khepri more of a foothold — and that seemed to be answer enough, because she chuckled.
"Figured," she said ruefully. "The more you interact with me, the more the lines blur, huh? Gets harder to tell where you end and she begins. The other Taylor."
And like always, Lisa's perception bordered on frightening. How easily she saw through me.
"You're taking this really well," I muttered. It sounded like an accusation.
She shrugged. "I had about a week to wrap my head around the idea. That's more than enough time to freak out and ponder the existential questions — like if free will is even a thing or if souls really exist or whether or not an alternate future version of myself became an immortalized hero, too. Don't answer that," she added. "I'm better off not knowing."
Before I realized it, my lips had started to curl into a smile, and then I ruthlessly crushed it and the warmth in my chest both.
"And everything else?"
"No side effects, if that's what you're worried about, but you already heard that from Amy, didn't you?" she said. She frowned, shifting at some memory she didn't share. "It wasn't pleasant. Saw things I never wanted to see again. That super bacteria was pretty nasty, too, but luckily, outside Noelle's body, it only had a lifespan of about five minutes."
"And the PRT?" I asked. "They're not keeping you here?"
I didn't necessarily trust Piggot, by the same token that I didn't necessarily distrust her, either, but if she was going to lie to me, the one more likely to get me to join the Wards was to say that Lisa was joining, too, so I was more inclined to think she must have told me the truth. I still wanted to hear it from Lisa's lips, though.
"They've got me tearing through Coil's assets, trying to pull up all the roots. Gotta say, I'm getting a lotta mileage out of ripping everything he owned apart, it's very cathartic." She grinned her trademark grin. "Officially, I'm an independent contractor hired to help them ferret out his moles and his shell companies and all of that. They were even kind enough to cut me in on twenty-five percent of his money, once it's all been liquidated and sold off. Sort of a finder's fee, you know?"
Because if my…if Khepri's experience with the PRT had taught her anything, it was that there were always two sides to whatever they did: the pretty, sugar-coated version that made them look like rainbows shot out of their asses, and then the gritty, unvarnished truth. There was a reason some people liked to joke that the PR in PRT stood for "Public Relations."
If you were a new hero joining the Wards or the Protectorate, you got the former. If you were a reforming villain, going straight after you got caught and had to face the alternative of rotting in a cell, you got the latter.
Joining the Wards didn't mean I had to agree with everything my new employers did. Just that I be willing to overlook their darker sides in exchange for the good they did — and would let me do.
Lisa grimaced. "Unofficially, the Undersiders were minor enough and relatively unknown enough that they're willing to look the other way, as long as I don't fall back into villainy. They won't throw the book at me, won't even make me join the Wards or whatever, as long as I keep my nose clean."
"What about the others? Brian, Alec, Rachel, Aisha…"
Something…indescribable curled in my belly. Anticipation. Anxiety. Something else that I couldn't put my finger on, reacting to Grue's name. To Brian.
Damn it, Khepri.
I didn't even know them, but Khepri's lingering feelings were strong enough that I had to ask.
"Aisha?" Lisa asked, surprised. Belatedly, I realized that she hadn't even triggered, yet. "Damn. Grue'll be pissed when that happens. If it happens, now, I guess." She sighed. "Well. I explained their situations as best I could, considering. Was part of the deal. Grue, they'll try to bring in, same way Coil got him. Get him a legitimate job, go to bat for him when he files for custody. Regent and Bitch, they're gonna be a bit quieter and a bit more cautious about. Comes with who they are and what made them that way."
"You don't know?"
"They don't know, yet," she answered. "They might try to employ Bitch as a dog trainer or something. That's what I told them: she doesn't really care, as long as she has what she needs to take care of her dogs. Probably helped her case that I told them about how badly her Trigger screwed up her mental state — a lawyer can literally argue insanity, since her moral standards are actually flipped around. As for Regent…"
"They suspected before, but I had to basically confirm that he is one of Heartbreaker's kids. That's… That's also a fucked up situation that they aren't sure how to deal with, since Heartbreaker's worst off victims are his kids. Since he's a runaway, a minor, and all of the worst things he ever did can very easily be argued under the case of duress…"
They were in a bit of a jam. Canary's case proved that the right judge, the right prosecutor, and an ineffectual enough defense attorney could get even a first time offender with a Master power a Birdcage sentence, so it wasn't like they didn't have the precedent and power needed to lock him up and throw away the key.
The problem was that Alec wouldn't go quietly. Even if they managed it, there was almost no way Lisa would let them get away with it. The details of everything he'd ever been subjected to by his father would be out and in public hands within hours, and Master or not, scary powers or not, a skinny, effeminate fourteen-year-old boy didn't look like a monster. There'd be outrage and protests almost immediately.
That kind of thing? That was the sort of scandal that ended careers.
"I'm…honestly not sure how they'll handle him," Lisa admitted. "They…might try and bring him into the Wards? I don't know. Piggot isn't really the kind to let him skip town and be someone else's problem, but he's also the kind of trouble I can see her wanting to avoid. They might just snatch him up, rebrand him, and send him to some other city. Let another division sort him out."
"And what are you going to do?" I asked. "Once you're done stripping Coil's businesses down to the bedrock?"
Lisa frowned, shrugging. "It depends."
"Where you are."
I blinked. What?
"Where…I am? I'm right here, and I don't plan on going anywhere."
Lisa waved her hand. "We. Us, I mean. I get it, you want some space to get your head back on straight, figure things out. Honestly, Taylor? I think you're right. I think you need a little while to sort out what's you and what's her and what any of that means. You've been sitting in Khepri's shadow for the past four months, and if I'd realized it sooner? If I'd known about it before? I'd…"
She trailed off, like she wasn't quite sure what she would have done. How she would have tried to help me. I didn't know how she would have done it, either. Khepri was something I could only overcome by facing her directly and not looking away. She was me, and the only way to move on from it was to accept it and that there was nothing, not the strongest wishful thinking in the world, that could be done to change that.
"I don't know," she said finally. "But I'd have tried to help, at least. So if you come out the other side of this thing, deciding we're still friends, then I guess I'll be wherever you are, even if that means sucking it up and joining the Wards, too."
Something in my chest resonated, a feeling of warmth and friendship. I didn't squash it, this time, even though I still wasn't sure whether it was mine or Khepri's.
I hadn't decided yet whether or not it mattered.
"You wouldn't rather be an independent?"
"Oh, hell yes, I would," she admitted easily. "I could do without taking marching orders from the government, for sure. But it'd be way too lonely, doing it by myself. I'd go mad — either with power or boredom — inside a week, and then where would I be? I'd rather be chafing under authority with a friend than be free alone."
That… That was actually really touching. And I wasn't sure I deserved that kind of consideration.
Without any warning, she pulled me into a sudden hug, and before I could think about whether or not I wanted to, my arms rose and hugged her right back, just as hard.
"So if this is it and this is the last time I get to talk to you," she muttered into my ear, "then…thanks, for being my friend."
Something in my chest shuddered and ached, and I let out a shaky breath.
Even after all of this, after everything that happened because of me, you still…
A moment later, she pulled away and let me go, smiling.
"Come and let me know, when you've got it all figured out, okay? For now, though, I'm not the only one you need to talk to. You have other places you need to be."
I took in another shuddering breath. Right. She was right. There were other places I needed to be, other people I needed to see. I couldn't talk to Lisa all day.
"I'll…see you later."
Her smile turned sardonic. "Honestly, Taylor? I'm hoping so, too."
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
I left Lisa to her dismantling and made my way back through the PRT building. There were probably several people here I should talk to, just to clear the air, and I'd probably be making several stops over the course of the next week or two — when I wasn't preparing for Leviathan — to touch base with my new…coworkers. Teammates? I suppose they were both, really.
There was one, however, that I thought I should probably talk to, first, now that I'd touched base with Lisa.
That was why I navigated my way through the building and up to the Wards section, into the chromed hallway. I'd slipped into my base costumed form on the way, and none of the security personnel stopped me, so I took that as tacit permission to keep going.
I only hesitated once I reached the retinal scanner, not only because I wasn't sure I'd even be in the system, yet, but also because…because this conversation was likely to be a lot less friendly than the one I'd just had with Lisa.
But if I was going to be working with these people, it was one I needed to have. There was no sense in putting it off.
Just me being nervous, with no swarm to push my reactions into, so that I could at least have the illusion of confidence.
And there's another one. Damn it.
A chime from my phone grabbed for my attention, and I pulled it out to look at the text I'd just been sent.
"Your credentials have been fast-tracked, so you should be able to enter the Wards area like normal. If you have any trouble or concerns, I'm more than happy to address them for you."
The return number was a 604 area code, and after a moment, the ID rewrote itself into "Dragon."
Of course. And now I had no legitimate excuse to avoid this conversation, did I?
I half-wished there was a security camera in this hallway, just to I could look straight at it and give Dragon my most spectacularly unimpressed look.
With a sigh, I vanished the lenses of my mask and leaned forward to look directly into the retinal scanner. A quiet beep later, the doors clicked and whirred open with barely a sound, and I stepped into the Wards base section of the PRT HQ.
Vista, it seemed, was waiting for me. She was sat down in the middle of the room, with her phone set on a nearby table. She'd probably been killing time with it, before.
She also had her mask off. After a moment, I got rid of mine, too. Just to put us on even ground.
"So," she said evenly.
"So," I repeated back at her.
Awkwardly, I couldn't quite figure out where to start, so I just stayed quiet.
"…I figured you'd be coming here to talk to me," she said at length.
"You did?" I asked.
She nodded stiffly. "We got the notice probably as soon as you finished signing all the paperwork." She jerked her head at her phone. "Letting us know you had joined up, were one of the Wards now. Figured, you and I are the ones who have the worst history together, now that…Sophia is gone, so one way or another, they'd want us to hash it out and make nice."
Well. I couldn't exactly fault her logic on that one.
"Piggot didn't send me," I told her. She twitched a little, like she hadn't expected that. "I…decided to come here on my own. Clear the air."
"Oh," she said. "Well. Oh."
We fell into another awkward silence. The air between us felt stifling, and yet also cold and sharp. Neither of us seemed to have any idea what we were supposed to say or how we were supposed to go forward.
Finally, I pushed forward and asked, "How much did they tell you? About… About Sophia?"
Vista grimaced. "Probably most of it. The bullying. The whole…hate-on she had for you, for no apparent reason. The…the thing about your best friend. Emily?"
"Emma," I corrected a little tersely.
The Trio… It felt weird, after everything, that I wasn't quite over it. So much stuff had happened, so many worse people had tried to hurt me or people I cared about, and even Khepri herself had just stopped caring about them, eventually. They really were small, in the grand scheme. Unimportant. Petty, really.
But there was an ache still associated with them. A sting to Sophia's name, a thrill of nervousness and hurt and fear to Emma's. They'd left an indelible mark on me, and I wasn't sure I could ever remove that black spot on my heart, that wound from my soul. Not right now, at least.
"Right. Her." Vista nodded. "And…that they caused your…your Trigger."
My lips thinned.
And that? That was the exact reason why.
"The Locker Incident. Your…having to spend a week in the hospital. They…didn't tell me everything, just that it was bad. Really bad."
Understatement of the year, Vista.
"How she died," she answered. "Or…their best guess, I mean. They didn't go into too many details."
Because they didn't have them.
"I never told them," I admitted. "It never felt like something I wanted to explain."
"They said she was cut in half."
It sounded almost like an accusation.
"She was," I answered. "She decided to ignore every warning given to her and tried to attack me in my home. The…defenses I set up around my house to protect me and my dad from villains who might want revenge are somewhat more…potent than a guard dog."
Another contender for understatement of the year. Me, this time.
"She decided she hated me enough to try and kill me, just because she couldn't take it as well as she could dish it out. If she'd just left when she ran headfirst into my bounded field, she'd still be alive."
"Bounded field?" asked Vista.
My lips pursed. "Read Harry Potter?"
Reluctantly, she nodded. I didn't know why. Harry Potter wasn't the highest form of literature, true, but it wasn't like it was bad enough that anyone should be ashamed to have read it, let alone enjoyed it. I'd enjoyed it, after all.
"Like wards, basically."
"Or a Shaker power," she suggested, which, okay, yeah, she was the Shaker in Brockton.
"One that can be set and left alone, yes," I agreed. "But Sophia ran straight into mine, ignored the warning, kept going, and hit the stuff meant for guys like Hookwolf or Oni Lee, and then kept on going. I woke up the next morning to find her cut into halves."
Vista grimaced. "She really hated you that much, huh?"
"She spent almost two years doing her level best to make my life as much of a living hell as she could," I reminded her. "With the help of the girl who used to be my best friend."
She clicked her tongue. "Yeah. Guess she was even more of a bitch in her civilian life than she was in costume." A pause. She arched an eyebrow. "Aren't going to scold me for swearing?"
I'd honestly been hearing worse for the past two years. I was the poster child for how people could make you feel like dirt without using a single swear word.
"Wait til you get to high school," I said instead. "That's tame."
She snorted. "Yeah. I bet."
She leaned back in her chair.
"I guess that's the whole story, then?"
"All of the important bits, at least," I confirmed.
"None of us liked her all that much," she admitted. "Like I said, Sophia was a bitch in costume, too. I…kind of admired her, for how little she seemed to care about toeing the rules? It felt like it let her actually get stuff done, rather than the PR shit the rest of us have to deal with, but… At the same time? Anyone who was partnered with her got an earful anytime she went on one of her 'solo' patrols."
"She shot Grue, once," I said quietly. It was something Khepri had been told, way back when. "With one of the broadhead bolts she wasn't supposed to be using, anymore."
Vista blew out a long breath. "I… Yeah, I can't say I'm surprised, anymore. If it was Hookwolf or something, maybe… But the Undersiders are… Well, I guess were, now, right? They were small time. Petty crooks. None of them deserved lethal measures." She sighed again. "But I guess Sophia didn't care about that, so much as she just needed…I don't even know."
"Does it matter?" I asked.
I didn't think the exact psychology behind Sophia's psychosis really made a difference, in the end. I'd long since stopped caring about her reasoning, only that whatever it might have been, she was a horrible human being with a black heart.
Khepri might have found a use for her. Me? I was just glad to be rid of her.
"No," she agreed. "I guess it doesn't. I don't know that she deserved to die, either…but I guess she did because it was her own fucking fault."
I let out a breath of my own.
"All right," I said. "So where does that leave us, then? You and me? Can we work together, as Wards?"
She snorted, smirking.
"We're not suddenly besties or anything like that, if that's what you're asking," she told me. "But…I'm willing to give it a shot. Working with you, I mean. Blank slate. Start over from scratch. Think you can deal with that?"
I felt my lips curl into a tiny smile.
"Yeah. I think that would suit me just fine."
Especially since I had come down here fully expecting a belligerent little girl, refusing to even look my way without glaring.
"I look forward to working with you, Vista."
"Same to you, Apocrypha."
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
I make no promises about the accuracy of that Irish at the top. I didn't even try to step it back to Old Irish, either.
The first half felt stronger, to me. Vista's section feels like there needs to be...more to it.
Anyway. We'll have a few chapters of socializing and planning for the fight, one interlude, and then we'll get to Leviathan and I get to have fun and let Taylor off the chain for real.
For those interested, the wedding was nice and I enjoyed most of it. But the chairs that were used should be counted as a crime against humanity.
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As always, read, review, and enjoy.