It felt like they should be frozen, like their images should have been captured for all time. A painter should have been here, setting oil to canvas in depiction of Haunter and Preventer, their enmity in the open at last.
Preventer stood motionless, slumped against the back of a fancy chair in her living room. The ruin of her mouth glistened red and white, air hissing in and out in a distracting near whistle. Her eyes didn’t seem like they’d blinked since that man had died, didn’t seem like they’d left his killer’s face.
Jane, by contrast, sat easily. She was knitting, pushing thread through her jacket as she strove to mend it. She was slouched in careless grace opposite Preventer, working busily along without reacting to the woman’s unrelenting stare.
Indulger hadn’t been able to take this tension, he’d bolted an hour ago following a whispered conversation. From what I’d gathered he was returning to Her, reporting our arrival. Someone had to do it, I supposed, and their relationship made him the man for the job.
It still felt cowardly to abandon Dale to that task, but accompanying him wasn’t going to make things work out any better. It was calculation, not caution, which kept us from his side. She’d react better to him on his own, be less likely to punish the object of Her affections if he wasn’t surrounded by expendable associates.
At least, that’s what we told ourselves our motivations were. If I was being entirely honest, there was probably at least a little bit of selfishness mixed in there.
Betty’s Lure had left my side, and was sitting in the chair that Preventer was leaning over the back of. Her shadow lay in a dark line across the floor to where her Hook looked over Haunter’s shoulder.
I smiled, pleased as always by Betty’s careful pragmatism. It was a placement that didn’t exactly scream that she was making sure to separate the feuding couple, but accomplished the task anyway. She was near enough to bear either of them aside if violence threatened, but not directly in their line of fire.
“You weren’t hurt?”
Preventer’s voice, still bearing that slight lisp, broke the silence.
She was talking to me.
“Oh, no. Nope. I’m fine. Didn’t take a scratch. First Fist just looked at me, and backed right off. They didn’t want any part of this, no sir.”
It wasn’t the tension of the confrontation that had me babbling. I’d been in fights before. I could handle that.
What was making slurry of my sentences was the strange immediacy of the moment. The contrast between the joy that flooded through me every time my heart beat without summoning my other self from the depths of my consciousness and the balking awkwardness that came from striving not to mention the fact that Haunter had hurled Thui into Remover’s beam was something I’d never experienced before.
I felt like grabbing the two by their arms and shouting at them to talk it out, and also like never mentioning it again.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Jane.
Her voice was even, conversational. She didn’t have a shred of tension about her. She spoke like she was complimenting me on losing a few pounds.
“You are glad?” asked Preventer, stressing the last word.
Jane looked up from her knitting.
“Yes, Preventer. I’m glad that Nirav wasn’t injured. Is that a problem?”
It couldn’t be kept quiet anymore. I squirmed uncomfortably as the two faced off.
“I don’t know, what kind of problem could it be…” Preventer scratched her chin like she was deep in thought. “How about you killing Thui?!”
Haunter aped a shocked expression, raising her eyebrows in an exaggerated display of innocence.
“Do I have this right? Is Preventer telling me that there is something wrong with Ultras killing daggers? Did no one tell me that today is opposite day?”
“Bitch,” snarled Preventer. “Don’t act like Thui was just another guy. Did you do this just to get at me?”
“Are you trying to say that there’s something wrong with that?” asked Haunter, still keeping her tone dangerously innocent. “That future Andy’s shouldn’t get shopped to the goddamn Pantheon?”
Preventer’s head snapped back like she’d been slapped. Actually slapping Preventer would just break your hand, but apparently you could get the same effect with words.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Preventer. “What the fuck do you mean by that?”
“Isn’t it surprising, almost too surprising, that the instant that the two of us found out what Andy could do the Pantheon made a play for him? Almost like someone told them? Someone who has been known to communicate with the Pantheon in the past?”
“Wait, are you saying-“
I tried to interrupt their argument, but got overridden.
“If you’ve got an accusation to make,” snarled Preventer, “then maybe you should just fucking make it. I didn’t tell the Pantheon shit about Andy. Why the fuck would I do that?”
“Sure, you didn’t.” said Haunter, evenly. “Like I said, just a coincidence.”
The silence returned for a moment, but it definitely wasn’t going to last. Fisher shot me a glance, eyes silently pleading for me to do something.
One of the few real threats to a Fist was a sustained interpersonal conflict. Returning to life every day was all well and good, until you just killed each other in the morning. If you really couldn’t stand one another, then the Link’s protection was something of a mockery, as it bound you to the very people who were your biggest danger.
“Betty, hey, you want to go for a walk?” I asked, trying to keep my voice as bright and casual as possible.
It wasn’t perfect, but the best thing I could think of was to get us away from the two of them. If there wasn’t the complication of looking bad in front of the rest of us, maybe they could hash this out.
Betty grunted, got her human form up and across the room. Jane and Rebeccah looked daggers at one another as we started leaving.
We slipped outside, grateful to leave the stagnant atmosphere of the house. I looked guiltily at the Lure.
“Let them take care of it. Worst case scenario, Jane loses a few shades and it is all out in the open.”
Muffled shouting emanated from Preventer’s house, and I started walking away down the street.
Betty caught up, took my hand.
We walked in silence for a few moments, trudging down the road away from the argument. I tried not to stare at the skulls that First Fist had been mounting on the walls, tried not to think about the fact that they might be watching me on Her behalf.
“What’s it like?” she asked.
I took my time about answering, let our steps carry us along while I mulled it over.
“It’s like if you had a toothache, but every day. Every day your teeth just hurt. They hurt when you wake up, and they hurt when you go to bed. The pain in your jaw is just a fact of your life.”
She didn’t jump in, just let me take my thoughts to their conclusion.
“Then one day your tooth just… doesn’t hurt anymore. You are overjoyed, and it just keeps on coming. Every day is a new delight. Now I’m waking up and it isn’t hurting. Now I’m listening to Prevailer and Haunter fight and it isn’t hurting. Now I’m…walking down a street with the most beautiful girl in the world, and Condemner isn’t here!”
“No, I’m serious. It still just keeps hitting me. He’s gone. He’s really gone. Since Preventer killed him I haven’t felt Condemner even once. I am free.”
She elblowed me in the ribs, playfully.
“Not what I was dawwing about, Nirav!”
“I don’t even get that little pang of guilt when people call me that anymore. I don’t have to feel quietly ashamed that they think they are talking to a person, when I’m really just Condemner’s mask. I’m finally me!”
I wasn’t quite as convinced of this as I was letting on, actually, but I felt really guilty that my other self had apparently put everyone through some really intense shit with in Redo, and it was driving me to overcompensate.
We came to a checkpoint, and they waved us through. The Knights dropped into the Posture and the Ultras knuckled their foreheads respectfully. It was good to be in a Fist.
“Really you, huh?” asked Fisher, thoughtfully.
“Yeah. Not like I’m a different person or something, but like I’m finally truly me. Like, up till now I’ve been an imposter, but now I’m the genuine article.”
I wasn’t sure if I was getting it across, but she nodded anyway.
“I had something like that happen recently, too.”
I glanced at her, curiously. She squeezed my hand.
“You remember our first fight in Redo, when I lost my Lure?”
I wasn’t about to forget that.
“Yeah, you went feral on Dale, tore the shit out of him. What about it?”
She gave a half smile at that. Betty liked to tear things.
“Well, this time around I lost the Hook. Pantheon bastard just flat out destroyed it. Left me folded down into the Lure.”
I hadn’t heard the details about that fight, so this was news to me.
“Shit, that must have sucked. Was it Condemner’s fault?”
Normally I’d say ‘my fault’, but Betty got after me for trying to take the blame for Condemner’s actions. She felt like that was some kind of fake martyrdom or something, so I tried not to do it around her.
“Yeah, in a way. And yeah, it did suck. But the thing of it is, I’m kind of glad that it happened. That’s what I meant by a similar thing to you getting rid of him.”
She was definitely leading us towards the Lair’s main section now, which was worrisome, but I didn’t want to interrupt her. More guards, more Knights, the occasional Ultra…security was tight.
“Why are you glad?” I asked.
“It is hard to put into words…I dunno, I guess living without each of my bodies gave me more of an appreciation for what part of my thoughts are ME, as opposed to just reflexes, you know? Does that make any sense?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s actually kind of fascinating. If we ever see Andy again you might want to get with him, compare notes or whatever. I’m sure he’d be interested in knowing how each of your bodies interacts with your soul.”
I wasn’t actually sure of that, but it seemed like a decent guess.
“Yeah,” she said.
We moved in silence for a bit, then. I was content to do so.
The sun was warm, there was a little breeze, no one was bothering us, and Condemner was gone.
It was a good day.
“Can you remember any of it?” she asked.
“I…” I hesitated.
“I can’t really, bits and pieces, words and images. But they don’t have any context, you know?”
Betty reached her other hand over, took mine in both of hers. We came to a stop for a second.
“That must be so frightening. Losing time like that. I…I’m really happy that that monster won’t be taking you again.”
I could never really be sure, with Fisher, whether she was acting or not. A long time ago I’d made my peace with the idea that she might be fooling me, might not have any interest in me at all.
At the time it had been an easy decision. I was a virtual orphan, a man with only a few months of real past, and an uncertain future. Easy to roll with a comfortable proposition, even easier when it was Betty. Who cared if I was fooled when I wasn’t even real?
But now I found myself wondering, for the first time, really, whether Fisher actually had any feelings for me.
I looked into her eyes, moved in for a kiss.
As we separated and began walking again the question refused to leave me. Did she really feel anything, for me? For a guy who was a half a year old, one whose memory wasn’t even necessarily his own on any given day? One who might have hurt her…
I shied away from the thought. She’d have told me if Condemner had done anything to her. I had to believe that.
She pulled me to a stop, pointed at the ground. We were about as deep as we could get without an official reason for entering the Lair.
“I wanted to come back here.”
I looked down at the ground where she was pointing, but there wasn’t anything to see.
“Back to where She imprisoned me, where She left me to rot with only one of my bodies in the world.”
I hadn’t realized that the underground prison Betty had told me about was beneath the Lair. That meant…
“Torturer…is right beneath us?” I asked, nervously. I almost rose up on my tiptoes, recoiling from even the idea of drawing near that creature.
“Maybe, I don’t know. I’m just using Her Lair as a kind of talisman. If I can come back here without being afraid, then I could go wherever.”
Betty’s voice was a bit colder now, and she pulled her hand from mine.
“She took something from me, you know. Same way as Condemner took something from you. I don’t have any…connection, to whatever I was before the Pit. No…”
She reached out, made a grasping gesture in front of her, then let her hand drop.
“I get it. You weren’t real, then. You weren’t the you that you are now. She’s destroyed your past.”
“Kind of…it’s more like she has hidden it away from me. I get, like you said, flashes. Images and sounds without the stuff that should be around them to make them meaningful. Like dreams.”
“That bitch,” I said.
I didn’t shout, didn’t make a big production out of it, but Betty seemed to know how much I meant it. Her grin turned into a real smile.
She brought the Hook out on the other side of me, and I immediately leaned against it.
“I’m a wall now?” she asked.
I had pressed myself between the hooks and such, into a comfortable spot that I’d discovered a while ago. I stretched up on my toes, scratching an itch on my back with one of its lumps.
“Nah, just my girl.” I said.
“You lean against all your girls, Mr. Nirav?” she asked.
I shook my head, made a smoking gesture with my free hand, like I was taking a drag on an imaginary cigarette and tossing it away.
“Just the ones that support me.” I told her.
She looked into my eyes for a long beat, then snorted.
The Hook stepped aside, letting me take a tumble.
She said it without heat, fondly.
I reached up, let her help me stand.
“But seriously, fuck that bitch. Fuck Her for doing that to you.”
The Hook indicated one of the nearby skulls. I couldn’t make myself care.
“I never really had the passion that Haunter has. Never knew any other way for the world to be. But if She wants to fuck with you…I’ll…”
Betty rolled her eyes, and we started to head back.