If honour were profitable, everybody would be honourable.
–St. Thomas More
Envy was not green, as Paul knew perfectly well. It was a burnt purple, like the beached remains of a jellyfish, dead and dry in the light but lambent in the darkness, and he couldn't hide from it. Envy, specifically: Père Gilles had always defined that word carefully, and corrected Paul when he used it to mean jealous. "You can only be envious of what you don't have. Jealousy is a fear of losing what you do have. Jealousy is defensive, envy offensive."
Paul had always been envious before. He'd had friends once, and he lost them, and yes, he was envious thereafter when he saw them walking home from school. Ostentatiously crossing to the other side of the street when they passed his house. That was textbook stuff, even if he couldn't put a name to it at the time -- he wasn't even angry at them, or bitter, he just wanted very badly to be back there with them. He wanted what they had. He used to test himself: if you could be human again, and they asked you to, would you forgive them? If it meant things could be just like they were? Yes, yes, absolutely. And it wasn't because Paul was so very holy, just because he had nothing and needed them.
And in French envie had that meaning of pure want: J'ai envie d'être normal encore.
So this was envy, not jealousy, because he couldn't lose what he didn't have.
He felt petty, but he didn't want to deal with the shitstorm of Joel and Hodya sleeping together (finally) when their relationship was already shaking apart. They weren't in love; maybe once, maybe, but not now. Paul knew what real love smelled like. It was delicate and solid like tofu -- you could almost miss it, but it was there, a constant undertone. Joel and Hodya smelled like low tide, silty and dark, full of rot and minerals, maybe some bottle glass and clamshells there to catch the light but everything else washed out and waiting.
That was always the problem, that he could see and smell these things so clearly and yet he could never see the reasons.
He got up at seven, having slept only a little during the night, and found Joel in the kitchen with a cup of tea. The familiar yellow mug, Man Changes Into Thunderbird.
"Salut." Joel pushed the teapot closer to the centre of the table. Sugar and cream were already set out, although Joel always took his black, and Paul knew it was a sort of apology.
"So how was it?" Paul asked. He hadn't wanted to be crass about it, only friendly and curious like an ordinary guy (what the hell do ordinary guys do? do you even know anymore?). It came out as a taunt anyway.
Joel shrugged, turning the folded front section of the newspaper over. "How was what?"
"You and Hodya."
"Me and Hodya breaking up, you mean? It was super. Thanks for asking."
It was a piece of emotional data that Paul hadn't been expecting, for once. He could pick up the same old, rotted out bonds as last night, Joel and Hodya's connection like a banana peel in the final blackened stages of ripe and decay, somewhere between rubbery and brittle. But there was a flush of something fresher, something sweeter over that...and yeah, he'd mistaken it for sex. Relief, good pain, catharsis. It smelled like coconut water, clean and gentle, a little like a vacation and a little like the taste of the human body. "You broke up?"
Joel glanced up from the paper and smiled. "What, you couldn't tell? Do your powers need a tune-up or something?"
"Look, some things smell really similar -- you broke up?"
"It's not that surprising. We just..." He shrugged. "She's tired of the weird limbo we were in, and why not? We talked, we figured out that we're basically not..." He hesitated, then barrelled on through. "Not compatible sexually, okay, it happens."
Paul let out a long breath, shaking his head as he opened the sugar box to drop a few cubes into the bottom of his cup. His mutation made him honest, but it also made him blunt; there was no way to make people believe him if he said tactful things while his real emotions were coursing all over his skin. It meant that he wasn't so quick to find the conventional phrases, even when he did feel bad for people, but he said to Joel, "That's gotta hurt. We all knew it was coming, but it...still really sucks. Sorry, man."
"Yeah. It's the right way for things to go, though. I can be a better friend to her without this hanging over my head," said Joel. "And vice versa, probably. I'm off the air, where that stuff is concerned. People who like each other without touching each other are friends, that's it. I should have broken it off long ago."
"Don't say 'off the air,' you sad-sack," Paul said, pouring the tea over the sugar cubes and watching their slow dissolution. "You're not broken."
"I didn't say broken. Asexual people exist, they're not broken."
"Right, but is that actually your label? Or are you just trying to score a point off me?"
Joel thought about that for a minute or so and then said, "No, that's probably not my label. I don't know what the right one is."
Paul let him off the hook. "Well, you'll figure something out. You're still my favourite person in the whole kitchen, you know that?"
"Out of all the people on the entire first floor, you're in my top three," Joel answered, smiling a little. "I would've come back up to our room to sleep, but I just -- wanted to be alone for awhile."
"Sure, yeah. Did you try the famous basement couch, with all its Persian pomps?"
"Nah, just went là-bas." Joel didn't usually use the Greek term aphanes in French, preferring vague euphemism. "But I checked that envelope that Prawn mentioned, remember?"
"Old neighbour in the holiday spirit?" Paul said sceptically. "What's it say?"
The card was on the kitchen table, the red envelope torn at the edge. Joel handed it to Paul, who read it. "So these people are watching," Paul said slowly. "But we're supposed to believe they're watching the watchers, is that it?"
"Looks that way."
"And who are they?"
"Dunno. British? Based on the writing style," Joel said. Paul's English was completely fluent, but if he couldn't hear the accent out loud he was inclined to miss other cues. "Lots of older anglo types phrase things that way too, but that might explain why they want to talk about Prawn."
"Christ, everyone wants Prawn, he's got the sun shining out of his ass," Paul said, propping the card up on the table. "Or maybe it's nuclear winter. Well, you want to go down the street and see them or not? Should I wear my bulletproof vest?"
"I should have got you one for Christmas. I knew there was some perfect gift idea that wasn't coming to me." Joel had been thinking about it since he came out of the whiteness that morning, wondering if it was safe (or smart) to go investigate. "I keep thinking every time you and I leave the house we'll come back and someone else will be gone. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don't turn your back, don't look away, and don't blink."
"Dork." Paul leaned his chair back, looking up at the kitchen whiteboard to see who was home. "Well, it's not like we're the mightiest protectors of the place. Prawn's here, we can let him know we're going. Arlette's here -- she has a way with people, as she likes to put it. Tell Nour to record everything, if it happens."
"That'll be good. I gotta work on getting everybody some kind of formal nonviolence training," Joel said, finishing his cup and getting up to put it in the dishwasher. "But as usual, with mutants, there's probably nothing specialised enough yet and we'll have to come up with a program ourselves. Professor Xavier must have info he can send me..."
"A lot of the mutant punks in St-Henri would show up for that. It's not that nobody could teach, just that everybody's been doing everything unofficially and under the table for the last five or ten years," Paul said. "People learned from each other, not from seminars. Think of it as getting everyone to pool the experience they've already got, and collate it, and it doesn't seem so daunting."
"Yeah, that's true."
"Anyway, first dibs on the bathroom, if we're going somewhere," said Paul, getting up from the table too. "Might as well skip the Dermacolor -- they damn well know what I look like."
* * *
Joel went to check on Hodya in the basement bedroom before they left. She had made a neat pile of crumpled tissues on the unused side of the bed, and he gathered them up to throw them away for her. She was curled up like a snail on the side of the bed nearest to the snow-filled window, deeply asleep. Joel couldn't bring himself to disturb her, so he just left a note for her on the table.
The house down the street was a limestone duplex just like St. John of God House, although the ground was lower on this side of the street and there was no wall around the ground level. A bay window gave the house a towered, castle-like look, with a wrought-iron fence around the basement window well. A nice old Milton Parc house, totally normal-looking.
Joel glanced at Paul, got a shrug in response, and they went up the flight of steps to the door, where they rang the bell.
The door opened, and a young woman in hijab answered. She was dark-skinned, with a megawatt smile and huge brown eyes, and her scarf was white with a border of little embroidered roses. "You came!" she said with obvious delight. They'd guessed right: she had a British accent. "I thought this was going to be harder. Please come in -- I'm Faiza Hussain, and...well, I already know your names, of course."
Joel and Paul came in when she invited them, taking off their shoes at the door. "Well, we can pretend," Joel said to her, although he didn't offer his hand, since sometimes there were religious issues there for Muslim women. "I'm Joel, this is Paul."
"Thanks for inviting us," Paul said, and if there was not a little irony in his voice, he smiled and offered her the box. "Bonne année. Sorry it's a cake full of booze, we didn't know."
"Oh, what, is it fruitcake? My field partner's probably happy to eat it for me, he likes that stuff," Faiza said, bringing them through the front hall to the living room. "But that's so sweet. Sit down anywhere you like and I'll get my partner so we can all talk. D'you want a cuppa, if I make a fresh pot? Lovely. Just a moment, please."
She pounded up the stairs with the thundering gait of a teenager -- she was probably a bit older than Joel, but seemed somehow more youthful, enthusiastic and cheerful and a little bit awkward. She came down the stairs again with an older man and then went off to the kitchen.
The man was in his late fifties or early sixties, with very white hair in a careless fringe over his forehead, but his eyes were dark and penetrating, like the demanding eyes of a Byzantine saint, deepset and shadowed under dark brows. He reminded Joel of the older hippie types he knew who'd aged out of it, barefoot in jeans with an old Triumph Motorcycles t-shirt whose Union Jack logo had almost completely flaked away from many washings. "You're putting the kettle on? You want me to start? Right. --I'm called Will. Dr. Hussain and I are MI13, which is officially the Extraordinary Intelligence Service for the U.K.," he said, sitting down in one of the chairs across from Joel and Paul.
"Mutant espionage?" Joel said, not even sure he had the energy to be mad about this. At least they were being nice. "Is that what 'Extraordinary Intelligence' is supposed to be?"
"Mutants and, well, whatever else comes up," Will said, as Faiza came in to join them again. "She's a full agent, I'm just a reservist; all registered mutants in the U.K. can be drafted if necessary. I've been on this mission awhile, but the situation's deteriorating so I got HQ to send Faiza in, keep things under control as best we can."
"'Deteriorating' sounds a bit pessimistic," Faiza said, curling up in a basket chair. The decor of the place was anonymously middle-class, comfortable but not personalised. Like a hotel. "But it's definitely heating up. We were originally meant to approach Francis Dudley -- not in a creepy way -- and just see how he felt about maybe coming home to England."
"We were interested in a few British nationals who were known to be in the city," said Will. His voice was a deep London drawl, picking slowly through a sentence and pausing in strange places, with a certain understated confidence that no one was going to interrupt or stop listening. "Not just Dudley. Nobody's going to put a bag over his head and toss him in the boot of a car. We know he turned down an offer from Department H, and he might well turn MI13 down too. Fine. Doesn't hurt to ask, does it? But a number of people above us are getting concerned by how Department H is doing business. So are you."
"We're on your side, we're so on your side," Faiza said earnestly. "I was afraid you wouldn't even talk to us, after the way Department H has been hounding you lot. Bothering you in the hospital is absolutely not on -- well, maybe if there'd been some kind of emergency, but there wasn't, it was just to show you they could."
"We're trying to be a bit less obnoxious," said Will dryly, as Faiza got up to answer the shrilling of the kettle. "You've also got a connection with the company Neurocherche, and MI13's very keen to have some more intel about them."
"Oh my God," Joel muttered, rubbing his temple with the heel of his palm, trying to ward off a nascent headache.
"Don't look so worried -- we've got biscuits if you want any -- honestly, just try not to worry about the parts that aren't your job, yeah?" said Faiza, setting the teapot down on the trivet on the coffee table, along with a bag of Fox's ginger cookies. "You're not with the government, you're not covert agents, you just do good things for mutants in the city. So keep on doing that. But the thing is...well, we know you've been involved with Neurocherche--"
"Doctor, I don't mean to be rude, but is there anything we can do here at all to keep your completely benevolent agents from watching us every minute of the goddamn day?" said Paul. "Like, if we give you information about Neurocherche, would you say 'thank you kindly' and fuck off back to England, or would you just keep watching our house like you have any sort of right to be in our business all the time?"
Faiza fell silent for a moment and Will answered. "She outranks me but I've been a spook longer, so I'll tell you. The two of you are political. Maybe you think it's just a house, but you also go to protests, you post bail and advocate for mutants who've been arrested, and in the past, you've interfered with police who wanted to arrest a kid by turning it into a tug-of-war with the Church. That means your own country has files on you, and they're watching. That's reality. The way to make them stop watching is to stop taking political action. They'll stop caring as soon as you do. Lead a compliant, obedient life, and the only ones interested in your data will be corporate algorithms trying to guess what you like to buy. Ideally, this all happens in the background and you don't even know."
"Well, there's more to it than that," said Faiza. "Yeah, governments watch activists and minorities. But Department H is new, and so far they're rubbish at covering their tracks. They're also trying -- this is my theory but I think I'm right -- to make sure you do know that they're watching. They want you to feel like the only option is 'if you can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em.' And that's not what this should be about," she went on, pouring the tea. "It should be voluntary, it should be people who really want to protect their country. Superheroes, not...miserable conscripts."
"But Britain has mutant conscription -- you're the only developed country that does, in fact." Joel accepted the tea and refused the cream and sugar. "If we had that law this whole thing would have been over weeks ago and we'd already be on the chain gang in Ottawa."
"The law's on the books, but it's really just a formality. The Director of MI13 doesn't believe in putting the arm on people to join," Faiza said, passing a cup to Paul after doctoring it for him. "MI13 should be for people who want to be there, people who earn it. The best of the best. Not to sound conceited. I mean, the registration law was passed when there was a real need for all the superpowered help the country could get. I don't love it either, but it's a de facto thing, not like sending every mutant to boot camp as soon as they manifest."
Will just raised an eyebrow as he set the creamer jug back on the table. "Would you two like to hear a story?"
Paul was threaded with sceptical dark green and indigo, flashes of irritable red, indications that he didn't like this but was going to listen. "Vas-y."
They were in way, way over their heads, Joel thought. "Yeah, fine."
Will opened a drawer in the end table and got out a locked box with a combination. He thumbed through the wheels and opened it, getting out a thick stack of ID cards that were bound together with a rubber band. He took off the elastic and laid each card out on the coffee table, one by one.
Joel leaned forward to look, but the cards seemed to have nothing much in common. A couple were for mutant registries, but most were driver's licenses or health cards. They came from different countries: Britain, the U.S., Spain, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Turkey, even the U.S.S.R. Different names. Different ages. Different faces. All men and no women, but that was the only commonality. Twenty-two of them. "What are we looking at?"
"Those are all mine."
Paul was frowning. "So you're what, a shapeshifter?"
"Not quite. I can't mimic anyone else. When I trigger a shift, it's a spin of the roulette wheel -- I don't know what I'll look like next. And I can't go back to a previous form. When it's gone, it's gone. And the third incredibly lucky break I got is that when my mutation first manifested, I couldn't control it." Will idly rearranged the order of the cards, perhaps in chronological order; the ones at the left looked more brittle and yellowed from age. "With a power like this, you wind up getting arrested a lot. Usually for trespassing. Break and enter. 'Who are you and who let you in here?' So I came to the attention of police, and then to the government."
Faiza was listening quietly, a gingersnap forgotten in one hand, as if she hadn't heard the story before. Maybe they hadn't, Joel thought; the two of them didn't seem to know each other well yet.
"Every nation that's rich enough has something like Department H," said Will. "Sometimes a couple of competing agencies. Sometimes a long succession of them. This has been going on since the Second World War, at least. Most likely the oldest ones began in the Thirties. Ours was just called The Department, at the time, and they told me they could fix my mutation. Stabilise it. At this point, I was changing uncontrollably every few days. I was in solitary confinement in Wandsworth because they didn't know how else to keep track of me. I was desperate and I agreed to let them try to fix the problem."
Paul's angrier colours had washed away, and he was a sickly greyish yellow. "What did they do?"
"They sent me to a facility -- that's the right sort of word, isn't it? On an island off the northern coast of Scotland. Here's the twist in the story: they actually didn't cock it up. Eventually they did find a way to stabilise my power. No more involuntary changes, and now I have a sort of base form...I wouldn't call it my real one, because it's definitely not the body I was born with, but it does me fine." Will shrugged. "So I'm probably the best case scenario. But now they've spent money on me and they effectively own me. They can track me -- they made sure of that when they were tinkering. Implant in the skull that persists even when I change."
"An implant -- why didn't you say something?" Faiza demanded, sitting up in her basket chair. A blue glow appeared around her right fist. "I could take that out--"
"No, thank you, please don't...do your thing," Will said with a vague slicing gesture. "The implant's the same thing controlling my power, I'd rather put up with being on call for MI13."
"Well, you shouldn't have to choose," Faiza said, but the glow around her hand dissipated. "Sorry," she said to Joel and Paul. "Talking over your heads a bit. I can take people apart and fix them and put them back together, like they're an anatomy model. Living cross-section. It doesn't hurt, but people find it a little unnerving. I'm not a surgeon -- after I manifested I thought, 'have I had it wrong, was I supposed to be into surgery?' But it just never...I'm talking because I'm uncomfortable, sorry."
"It was a long time ago," Will said, sweeping the ID cards back up and stacking them again. "But my point is that these laboratories are everywhere. When the very earliest mutations were showing up, governments all over the world already had plans to use and manipulate them. They've focused on the more difficult mutations. If they cause some disability, if they 'disfigure', in inverted commas. Poorly controlled, too intense, destructive. Anything that causes a problem. Those mutants get recruited first. What the labs learn from working on those mutants, they then apply to the pool of more desirable recruits -- people who could be useful. I fell into both categories; I'm not as good as a proper shapeshifter who can mimic, but I'm quite useful in the human intelligence field. They've asked you before, haven't they?" he said to Joel.
"Yeah. The RCMP asked me about it before Department H did," Joel said. His cup had gone cold so he topped it up from the pot. "So...what, do you think Neurocherche is the Canadian equivalent of the lab in Scotland where you were?"
"Probably not Neurocherche itself. We don't know for sure yet, but it's likely a kind of feeder facility that sends some patients on to the real place. Meanwhile it collects data on the local mutant population, both by taking patients and by using telepaths to keep tabs on everyone else in the area. That's a guess," Will said. "But I think we're on the right track with it."
"At the street-level, some of the staff probably think they're actually helping," said Faiza. "Your Dr. Gervais is duped, I expect. He goes in a few days a week and does office visits, some surgeries, and some of the patients just get sent someplace else for other treatment. He doesn't know, and that makes the operation look more legitimate. Legitimacy brings in more patients."
"That's fantastic," Joel said, slumping forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "I don't suppose you could recommend a good epileptologist then?"
"Don't know any in Canada, sorry." Faiza got up from the chair and came around to sit on the arm of the sofa. "Don't get too discouraged, guys. Better to know now before you sign the wrong form and get stuck in a worse situation, right? Department H is still new, and -- all right, Will's got his experience, but I refuse to accept that every country is just always going to have an inhumane program to experiment on mutants. I won't. Because if that's true then there's no point in even trying to shut them down."
"There's always going to be bugs in my garden but I can still try to get rid of the standing water so the mosquitoes don't breed," said Will. "There's an ecology to this stuff."
"What do you want from us, anyway?" Paul said. "Can we get off this amusement park ride if we just give you the data we got from Neurocherche?"
Faiza's eyes widened and her smile came back at that. "Did you get something? We didn't know how much you had--"
"Yeah, we went to Neurocherche last night to look," Joel said, too tired to hold back. Maybe that was their plan. Did it matter? "Just to look. My friend downloaded about 30 gigs of data from their systems, which we haven't looked at yet. I was able to talk to one of the patients. We took a few pictures, but visually the place doesn't look that bad, so it's not all that enticing for the press. If we found some good stuff on the USB drive, we were hoping we could leak it and make a big noise in public about the place."
"That's not a bad plan, but the goal is kind of diffuse," said Will. "The danger is that if you shine a light on Neurocherche, they might go to ground and you'd lose them. You want to get the patients out first, right?"
"Right, but the patients were actively helping us. Someone there has the ability to temporarily insert other people's memories in your head -- she was able to give Paul the information to find the computer room, and give the password to my other friend who was helping. The security guards wear some kind of disruptor that makes them immune to telepaths," Joel said. "The patient I was talking to said she just needs someone to get close and remove the disruptors. After that, the patients could get out by themselves."
"We'd really like to see whatever's on that flash drive," said Faiza, keeping her arms folded to look like she was still serious, even though she was bouncing slightly on the arm of the sofa. "This is -- that could be really great, I don't want to get too excited yet. Would you be willing to let us look? Have we convinced you we're all right yet?"
"I have no idea who to trust anymore," Joel said, sitting back on the sofa and looking at Paul. "What do you think?"
Paul gave him a familiar expression, the one that said seems legit, if that even helps us at this point. He was obviously tired, a dulled look to his skin, but whatever he smelled in the air seemed to have convinced him. "I'm not a lawyer, what do I know?"
* * *
"Yeah, we're just out of Gatineau now. I dunno, half an hour or so, maybe? Traffic's all fucked with an accident on Dalhousie. I know I should've taken the 417, I just thought this would -- I know. But it's been a long ride, I was thinking she should get something at Timmy's before we head in. Or do you want to...? You do. Fine. Twenty minutes, then. Later."
Aurora pushed her hair back from her face, rubbing at a print left in her cheek by the edge of the seatbelt. She peered through the window at the city. Dark. Snow was swirling through the headlight beams, and in the red and blue flashers of a couple of cop cars. A sporty little VW was crushed in the middle of the street, like a pop can, its occupants either dead or long gone. She saw no one, only a dark head inside one of the cruisers.
Langkowski glanced up at her in the rearview mirror. "Awake?"
"We're in Ottawa. Well, obviously. Almost home."
"I've never been here before," she said.
"Not much to see, really. Not this time of year. God, I hate winter."
She craned her neck as they drove past the Parliament buildings, the green roofs caked in snow. As usual, she didn't know quite what to think of them. They were handsome but stern, foreboding. Like churches. All up-and-down, square angles and sharp spearpoint ornaments, bells and steeples. She didn't know if anybody loved these buildings in particular, really, if anyone could love them the way Americans seemed able to love their symbols. But it reminded her of pictures of London, a bit of romance.
Jeanne-Marie had been taking out the garbage early on New Year's Eve when she saw a tall, broad-shouldered man at the gate, ducking under the low doorway in the stone wall. His blond hair was uncovered in the cold, cheeks and ears pink. She didn't recognise him, but he held up a wine bottle and smiled at her.
"Can I help you?" she had asked, a bit nervous. He was too old to be one of Prawn's friends.
"Peace offering," he had said in English, "for New Year's. Is McCree in?"
She shook her head dumbly.
"What about Paul Laliberté?" He pronounced it in the extreme English way, Lalliberty.
"They're both out." She realised, too late, that it might have been a mistake to say that. Although what protection were they, either of them?
"Oh. Too bad. Tough to make a good apology when the masters of the house aren't home. You know when they'll be back?"
"No." She caught herself. Don't tell lies. "Sometime tonight. I just don't know exactly when. They -- they could be back any moment. Are you, I mean, do you want to talk to someone in charge?"
"Well, we can talk, right? Why don't you let me in and we'll discuss the whole thing. If McCree gets back before I have to leave, I'll do my obsequies for him. Otherwise you can pass on the message. Once I explain myself."
Jeanne-Marie didn't like to get between two men who were fighting, blessed are the peacemakers or not. Being a go-between was a thankless job. Aurora always liked to be in the thick of things, though. "You should really talk to, um, probably to Arlette Truffaut instead. I'll get her for you."
"No, I -- wait." He smiled and rubbed his eyes. "I'm going about this all wrong. I owe all of you an explanation. Department H does, I mean, but I'm here to give you the message. The Director reamed me out good for the way I went about recruiting you, believe me, and they really want to make sure you know what's what. Can I please come in? This wine's not supposed to be chilled."
Jeanne-Marie hadn't known anything about Langkowski or Department H, but now she was clued in: she'd missed something, and Aurora was to blame. Blindsided again. She pursed her lips, turned around and climbed the icy steps up to the door, the big man tailing her. She went through the kitchen to the east side of the house, where the formal sitting room was empty, as usual. The man set the bottle down on the coffee table and wandered over to the picture window, on which the Catholic Worker logo and the name Maison St-Jean-de-Dieu were stencilled in white.
"Is Dudley here?"
"I can get him."
She went across to the back common room on the west side and knocked on the doorframe. Prawn, sprawled on the big sectional couch with two other kids, looked up from the TV. The tableau held for a moment, the beer bottles on the end table and the grey drift of newspapers on the floor—nobody had done chores in here today -- Requin and another kid lounging around with plastic cups of Pepsi and rum, Christopher Lloyd on the television with his time machine.
And as easily as that, her brain seemed to swerve as if across an icy road, and Aurora rose to the surface. "Hey, Shrimp Cocktail, there's someone here to see you."
Amid catcalls, Prawn stood up unsteadily, swaying his hips. "I am just in fucking demand tonight, lads."
"It's a man, sorry, but don't let that get in your way," said Aurora.
Prawn made an exaggerated face of disappointment and imitated a slide whistle. "But this is still a ploy to get me alone, right?"
"Of course it is," she said, patting his arm as she led him out. He did have bad teeth, but he had the English trick of smiling so that few of them were visible. He was cute, on the whole. Aurora liked him, even if he did look (and smell) like a wild pony -- she always had a soft spot for tall boys, the leggy and awkward ones. He would be enthusiastic in bed, she judged, if a bit too fast.
Prawn sloped along with her to the sitting room, but when he saw who their guest was, he stopped and seemed to sober up a bit. "What do you want?"
"It's fucking New Year's, mate."
"Perfect time for starting again, isn't it?" Langkowski smiled. "I wanted to make things right between us for the new year."
"Right, well, sorry I didn't ring up and let you know or anything, but I'm out."
"Out, you know. I'm not going to work for you."
Langkowski sat down. Not smiling now. "Why not?"
"Christ, you don't want to get into this. Because an insane pacifist paid me off, that's why not." Prawn picked up the bottle of wine. "Oh shit, it's that pink stuff. Pass."
"I assume you don't know any other insane pacifists besides McCree."
"None who have money, no."
"How much did he offer you?"
"Yeah, you're not going to get into a bidding war over this," said Prawn. "I'm a lazy, unreliable bastard and you're better off without me on your payroll."
Langkowski sighed and rested his forehead in his hands, then continued to droop forward until his head was between his knees, like he was feeling faint. "This is not good. Not. Good. Dudley, have you any idea what you're doing? You ever heard that thing about 'for want of a nail, the shoe was lost'? We need you."
"There's a whole passel of mutants in the other room. I'm sure one of them wants a job. Joel can't bribe them all."
"None of them can do what you do."
Prawn tipped his head back slightly and gazed down the length of his long nose at him, saying nothing.
"I realise that it could have been seen as threatening," Langkowski said, looking across at Aurora. It sounded like a prepared speech. "The way I approached the two of you, I mean. I'm sorry about that. The government of Canada does not threaten, does not blackmail. I used Dudley's S3 status to get your attention. It was a misuse of my authority as an RCMP official. I apologise."
"Did you need to scare my brother into going too?" Aurora asked.
Langkowski hesitated, staring at her as if he suspected something. "No," he said at last. "No, Jean-Paul was very interested in participating. I think he had some reservations about federalism and working for Ottawa, but he wanted to do something practical with his powers, something to help. But he wasn't living in an anarchist commune -- no one was trying to buy him off or pressure him into staying."
"So now it's us who were pressuring people?" said Prawn.
"It's you who were pressured. McCree is -- he's manipulative. We already knew that, from his file. He comes off like a space cadet, so I assumed he doesn't know what he's doing. But he does. There's a history on record." Langkowski sighed. "Anyway, that doesn't matter now. I'm asking you again, Dudley: help us. You have an incredible power and a chance to use it to protect other people. Don't let somebody else tell you what's right and wrong."
Prawn looked for a moment like he would cave in; he stood gazing down at the carpet, not moving outwardly but clearly experiencing some inward turbulence, visible only as the slow movement of his chest. "No," he said finally.
"So you drank the Kool-Aid after all?" Aurora said to Prawn. "Do you even have a reason of your own to be against this?"
"Yeah, my reason is I don't trust them. And fuck this guy, Joel's right about one thing. My powers are more than dangerous. I've already hurt people with them. You think I really want to see somebody else go down with a face full of radiation burns?"
"We wouldn't ask you to--" Langkowski said, but Prawn interrupted.
"You would. Or maybe it would happen by accident. I don't know what's worse. And that's all I'm going to say. This argument's boring my tits off."
Langkowski lifted up his hands and let them drop. "All right. Okay. I tried."
That had been that, more or less. Prawn wished Langkowski a happy New Year, sounding almost sincere. And he left. Aurora said, "You promised us someplace to stay?"
Langkowski looked like he was about to go home and drink his career problems away, but he brightened a little when Aurora addressed him. "Absolutely, still on the table."
"What if I came back to Ottawa with you tonight?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Did something happen here?"
"I'm not comfortable," she told him, because it was none of his business. And she wasn't comfortable. Nobody was, lately. Joel and Paul were a sealed-off unit, and even though there was a lot of talk about how the house was run by consensus and nobody was in charge, in practice there was obviously some unspoken hierarchy. Some people felt neglected or unappreciated, others felt like they weren't allowed to help with anything without stirring up drama and power games. Joel's girlfriend wasn't even a mutant, and although she was nice, there were some weird rumours going around. Aurora was bored and Jeanne-Marie was repelled.
And she wanted to have a brother.
She had a few blurry infant memories of Jean-Paul, or really only one: she was sitting on the floor, on a blanket, with Jean-Paul beside her. They were playing with (or tormenting, more likely) a placid, elderly white cat who allowed them to grasp handfuls of its fur in their tiny fists. That was it, and she was afraid to even recall that memory too often, worried that she would wear away the details and replace them with accidental fictions. She couldn't even remember Jean-Paul's face clearly, just a quiet feeling of being we.
She'd missed that feeling all the rest of her life. She knew it wouldn't be simple to get it back, but it had to be possible. He wanted it too. She knew he did.
So while the others dozed and fought in front of the TV, Aurora had packed her few things in grocery bags and put them in the trunk of Langkowski's car. It was only a couple of hours from Montreal to Ottawa, even with the traffic accident. Ottawa was grim and grey so far, but she didn't regret leaving Montreal: she didn't feel like an intruder or an imposition anymore. She was valuable.
Their destination was a tall, white building in a bland government neighbourhood, one with a lot of city planters and traffic islands. The building had sloped sides, and was dotted with many small, dark windows; it looked rather like a ship, poised as it was in an empty parking lot sea that swirled with white snow against the orange-dark sky. Langkowski slowed at the gate only long enough for the lot attendant to wave him through.
"Put your hat on, it's cold," he said as he got out.
They left dark footprints on the grey carpet as they walked through the halls. In the elevator, she asked, "Is Jean-Paul here?"
Langkowski sighed. "Not yet. Next week, or the week after. We're hoping. Things are very up in the air right now. I think Clarke was talking about pulling the plug on Friday, but now we've got you two, and Bridget and Niko. Kyle might still get back in the game. We've got Heather, me, and Hudson on staff. That's a good start. But I was really hoping Dudley would be on board."
"Wait, Kyle?" said Aurora, remembering. I gotta stay in my boss's good graces, I'm lucky to be there. Common name, but still. "Blond, long hair, teeth and claws?"
"Uhhhm." Langkowski scratched the back of his neck. "I guess you ran into him at some point? Small world. Well, in mutant circles I guess it is. Yeah, Kyle's on medical leave right now. We helped him with his mutation and for awhile he was doing great, but since then he's had a few problems. That's the short version, I don't want to violate his privacy."
"Is he okay?"
"He's totally okay." The elevator doors opened on a very bland institutional hallway, the air cool but stale. "We gotta fill in a lot of forms for security here, sorry..."
* * *
She was coiled in her bed with extra pillows cushioning her aching joints, between her knees and under her ankles. She was cold all the time, but she wore layers to bed not just for extra warmth, but so that if anyone came in the night to process her they would have to unwrap her first -- she would wake up during it, know what was happening.
So this time they came in the morning before breakfast and put the needle in her neck. They flooded her veins with silver, and it kept her from lying to them. Did she know anything about some missing files? No. Had anything strange happened last night? Yes. What?
"A guy was here," she said. Like being really drunk, her tongue slow, brain barely aware that she was talking.
"You saw him?"
"What did he look like?"
"What colour hair?"
"Too dark to tell."
"Was there something strange about his skin? Did it seem to glow?"
"You didn't see a girl?"
The two questioners looked at each other. They wore white, but they weren't doctors or nurses. Kathleen didn't pay attention to their faces; different people came in all the time to question her and her roommates. Ling was watching her from across the room, waiting to get the needle herself. Ling saw everything, all there was to see for miles around. Kathleen wondered why they bothered asking anyone else.
One of the women in white sighed. "Tell us more about the guy you saw. How old, do you think?"
"Young. Early twenties." It was hard to talk, hard to think. Her face felt numb.
"What was he doing?"
"He just...he just appeared. Standing there."
The man shook his head. "She was hallucinating. The cameras didn't show anything. We're wasting our time."
"They got in range. We don't know anything about their powers. It could be a telepathic illusion, astral projection. Or any number of things," said the other woman. "Did he say anything to you, Kathleen?"
"What did he say?" The man clicked his pen.
The woman pointed officiously at the file. "Specific questions only, remember."
"Will you just let me work? What did he say, Kathleen? Start from the beginning."
"The first thing you do remember."
"He said he was real." More was coming back to her. Like a hard exam question. "He wanted to know about us. What you do here. What you do to us. I told him, I told him everything. His name is Richard McBrien. He said he'd come back for us."
The woman checked her timer. "She'll be lucid in less than a minute, Mike. Directed information gathering, okay?"
"I think he was like a health inspector," Kathleen said. She felt dizzy. "He was interested in that stuff."
"But he was a mutant."
She blinked -- she could feel her chin again, the nerves in the tip of her nose. The back of her neck burned. "He was, yeah. If he was real."
The Neurocherche people packed up and moved across the aisle to Ling's bed, bent her forward and injected her. They didn't even do it privately, which was the worst thing -- no, she had to stop calling things the worst. You had to leave yourself someplace to go. It was hard to watch them question Ling, but they all would have known about it anyway: there wasn't much privacy on a ward full of telepaths.
Kathleen lay back on the pillow, which hissed slightly with a sound of escaping air. She took the yellow earplugs from their plastic box on the bedside table and blocked out the sound of the questions, although she could still feel a numbness where Ling usually was. Knowledge shaken loose like muffins from a pan. Ling was always high up in the layers of minds that surrounded Neurocherche, always quiet, like a gull sitting on a rooftop. She watched everything. Debriefing Ling always took a long, long time. Repeated injections.
The interrogators had no opinions about the information they gathered, of course -- they were technicians and nothing more. But Kathleen wondered if anyone would bother to tell her the answer: had she been hallucinating or not? She didn't know herself anymore.
* * *
"Well, I'll come see you another time and we'll do strictly fun things," Hodya said. "What about the Biodome, is that fun?"
"Yeah, kinda. We went there on a class trip in high school. They have lynx...es? Is that the plural? And penguins. I liked it when I was a kid, anyway," Joel said. "I always liked museums."
Hodya smiled out the window. "Me too. You remember when we were -- it was the second time we met, when I was still living in Ottawa. At my dad's house, that garden party, and I was staying inside being a sulky teenager about something. But you must have been having a good day because you talked to me a little, and I showed you my microscope."
"I was on loads of drugs that day, that's why I came off sort of normal."
"I wouldn't go that far," Hodya said, but she nudged his foot with hers. "Most of my friends didn't put up with my science stuff, they weren't interested. But you let me take a sample of your cheek cells from inside your mouth, and I put them on a slide. We looked at yours and mine, and you said mine were nicer, which was the dumbest compliment I'd ever heard, I loved it. Nice cheek cells."
"That was sincere," Joel said. "Your slide did look better, mine seemed kind of squashed and weird."
"I may have done a better job prepping the slide, but there's nothing wrong with your cells. I kept the slide for a few days because I liked that, having that kind of image of somebody I knew. A kind of picture of them that nobody else would take. Also I was wondering if maybe your cells would disappear when you did, but the answer was no, which is boring. You're right, though," she added. "It was a completely sincere compliment, because you always liked to admire me. I really liked that. It's not...that kind of thing isn't enough for a relationship, but being admired is still nice, at the right distance. I didn't think I was pretty, at that age."
"Yeah, I felt like 'interesting' was the best I had. 'Pretty' was for blonde Gentile girls or something."
"You weren't even an awkward teenager, though, you were gorgeous."
"No, I was really awkward."
"Okay, fine, what would I know about awkwardness? Obviously I'm not an expert on the subject..." Joel let her have the point. "I always -- this sounds bad, but I just...loved to look at you. I didn't want it to be this gross one-sided pedestal kind of thing, but yeah, I liked to admire you."
"It was a little bit pedestal," Hodya said, looking back up at him. "But only in person, somehow. On the phone you'd just talk to me like a human being, so it worked. We didn't quite work in person. It already feels better, doesn't it? More like being friends."
"I think so. I hope so."