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somewhere in the stratosphere

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“Wait,” said Ballad. “He’s working for you?”

Echo was so tired that it was hard to notice when they didn’t understand something; it took them almost a minute of frowning at their hands to be sure that the question had come out of nowhere. “No. What? I didn’t say that. I said he went to get coffee. He’s taking a really long time.”

“I heard what you said.”  Ballad had on that expression he got when he thought someone would make a fool of him if he tried to be patient. Clearly, he was trying anyway, which was quite the gesture—for Ballad. It didn’t count too much in Echo’s books. “And I heard what he said. And I heard—” He seemed to remember, all at once, that he wasn’t still trapped on a moon-sized casino, surrounded by dickheads. “Look, I just want to get things straight. If he was spying for you all along, why didn’t you tell me that?”

“He’s not spying for us. He’s Grand Magnificent, he doesn’t know how to file a report—I had to do his reports for him when we were an ex-con and an artistic visionary, back on Quire. He used to bribe me with… Actually, what the hell did he bribe me with? Werewolf lore?” Echo came back to themselves with a start; Ballad was listening, they could tell, but also struggling to keep awake. They had the uncomfortable feeling that Ballad, for once, was right to be suspicious of delay. Between the blood loss, the shame, and Echo’s own fund of strength, they could always wait him out. They didn’t have to answer.

“He’s really not on the Coalition’s payroll. At least, I think. That’s not why I saved him. I told you, I’m done losing things.”

“I believe you,” said Ballad, eyes shut. “But why did he let you save him? And—” a little halting now, before the killing stroke “—how come he keeps rubbing your back?”

“Uh.”

It was too late anyway. Fatigued by triumph, Ballad slept.

*

Grand came back with a cardboard drinks carrier, loaded down with three cups of differently-colored foam, and thank God one black coffee. “I decided to try all the breakfast flavors,” said Grand, sitting next to Echo, and didn’t offer them any of the interesting cups. Echo sipped their coffee—it was lukewarm—then wondered why they were sipping anything, and chugged it. There was no normal waste receptacle in the medbay. They got up and left the room, trusting that Grand would follow. And he did, still mid-stream: “So far, egg’s ahead.”

The hallway felt better. Less fogged with guilt. “‘So far’?”

“Sure. Flavor isn’t a matter for naive impressions. It’s about robustness. Have you read those Coca-Cola studies?”

“What’s Coca-Cola?”

“Eh, ancient fetish object, you probably won’t have heard of it.”

“I just said I hadn’t, didn’t I?”

“See?”

Echo kneaded their forehead. “Can you not touch me in front of Ballad?”

“Oh. Oh, shit, of course. I’m sorry.” To his credit, Grand did look a little panicked, which was as close to ‘contrite’ as he’d ever gotten where Echo could see. That wasn’t fair either. Sometimes he’d been very panicked. “I wasn’t thinking. No one wants to see that with their little sibling.”

“Wh—that’s not it.” Echo’s grip slid back into their hair, and tightened. “Is it? Maybe that’s it. He was never good with PDA. No, goddamnit, that can’t be it. He thinks you’re an agent for the Qui Err.”

“Ah,” said Grand, and licked foam off his mustache. Then he rubbed his lip. He hadn’t done a bad job of peeling off the tar, once it cooled, but his hair still hadn’t dried from the shower, and his skin was pink in weird patches—probably not from the shower. Maybe. Echo didn’t know anything anymore. “I could be? Should I talk to your—is Iota Pretense your boss, maybe? Or your colleague? Every member of the Advent Group is considered eligible for leadership positions, which, let me tell you, is a pain. What is the Coalition’s command structure?”

“You know, sometimes…” The funny part was, Echo could feel their hands relaxing. It was a problem. Everything they’d ever trusted, they still trusted; even to the sound of Grand’s interminable voice. All that talk about confidence, but their body had never lost faith.

Which was how they ended up pinning their brother to the safehouse wall like a specimen. Because they had trusted him, too: to be better.

Grand wasn’t talking. He was listening, it seemed like, but not in the way that Ballad listened, as if by waiting imperiously enough he could summon the answer he needed. He seemed more afraid than expectant, but still the whole weight of his attention was there, strangely, as though Echo were the most important thing he could be thinking or learning about. It wasn’t comfortable. It made Echo feel overfull, like they might at any point spill out and ruin more. Grand on Quire had spent his time learning from nightmares. So far as they knew, that was still true.

“I don’t hate you. I take it back, we can hold hands in front of him, I don’t care if he freaks. I like the back rubs. But it’s hard—you make it hard. Why didn’t you call it off? At the safehouse. You could have told him to go.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” said Grand. “One, I forgot to set up the intercom system, and by the time the Rapid Evening descended it would have taken too long to instill loyalty. Alexa is very flaky. Two, I… I’m not spying for you, that I know of, but I am spying on Advent. At least, I might be? I have some information. To be honest, what I had in mind was a little more hands-on, but I’m happy to help… however I can. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.”

“I didn’t want your brother to know that I didn’t want him to rescue me, because then he would have known I didn’t want Advent to rescue me. Which, in fact, I didn’t. That is, I did! I wanted to be rescued. I would have been fine letting Advent do it, given a sufficiently brisk turnaround. But then you came.”

“He wouldn’t have gone anyway,” Echo admitted. “I think he thought he needed you. To keep his job.”

“That sounds about right,” said Grand, tentative. “He wasn’t very popular with the higher-ups.”

Echo shuddered. “Why not tell me? ‘Echo, go home. I love working with bird fascists, and, and collectors, because this is a place where I can really cultivate my art—’”

Finally, a hint of frustration crept into Grand’s face. To a stranger he might still have looked like an innocent confounded; he bit his lip, smiled, and the smile hung there even as his expression darkened. “I didn’t,” he began, and then went on, gently: “I thought that might blow my cover too. If I said, ‘Hey, Echo, I’m okay. I’m doing what I love, melting legos and shredding duvets, and since I know you care more about my enrichment than winning this war—’”

“I didn’t go there because it was my job to!” Echo forced themselves to speak softly. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.”

“Sure,” agreed Grand, “which is why that might have worked. If the intercom had been on. But also, it also would make you sound like the spy.”

“Whatever.” Echo was thinking about the journey back. Even then, Grand hadn’t been subtle. In the safehouse his fussing could probably have passed for urgency, but once aboard Echo’s ship he had become a meek, attentive shadow, going where Echo pointed him, doing what Echo wanted—laughing at Echo’s teary jokes as if helpless to disagree. “You could have let him in before me. You didn’t even disable any of the traps until he was on the ground.”

Grand was silent now. “I guess I thought it was time I showed you my hand,” he said at last, mildly. “It’s a crap hand. I’ll admit that. I’ve witnessed some poker, and I’m fluent in ‘cards.’ But you deserved to know. And once you arrived, I don’t think a—a lighted exit sign could have pulled Ballad away. You were really convincing! For a while there I was sure you had it.” He had been leaning against the railing, and sank further with an enunciated groan. “You have a point, though,” he said. “I got distracted watching you fight. I forgot that there was something I could do. And, you know, I don’t want to do that anymore, I don’t want to forget—there’s no scenario where there’s nothing I can do.”

That sent a chill down Echo’s back. Maybe because he said it to himself, as an afterthought, despite his captive audience. He was as vain as ever, but had discovered how to aim his arrogance; he brought it out the way you would a gun, to polish and maintain when not in use. And the mustache really was not flattering. Echo plucked away the cup Grand had been nursing. “I’ll drink to that,” they said vaguely, already forgetting the words, and trying to lick egg-flavor out of their mouth as soon as it appeared. Grand replaced the first cup with a second, which turned out to be pomegranate. “—How is pomegranate a breakfast food?”

“It’s an homage,” said Grand, absently, and absently brought their hand to his mouth and kissed the back. Gross.

“Hey, Grandmag.”

“Yeah?”

“Will it blow your cover if you shave?”

“Definitely.”

“What if I shaved you? To humiliate you, while you were held prisoner here?”

“Is this still a hypothetical?”

There had to be something they could do other than kiss him. Or pick him up. There was the temptation to pick him up, but Echo didn’t want to walk anywhere, in case Ballad woke up again. Eventually, they settled for wrapping him in a hug. If his third shirt of the day got all fucked up from them crying on it, that was the least Echo could do.

*

“I’m not ‘going to freak,’” said Ballad, the next day. Echo had actually slept a little, which had made them tireder. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“That’s the freaking.”

“It’s not. I don’t care if you’re—getting laid. Look, now who’s embarrassed?” Still you, Echo wanted to protest, but the temptation to hide behind a hank of hair was stronger. “I care about you putting your trust in Grand Magnificent. What’s there to trust?”

“You trusted him, didn’t you?”

“I trusted him to protect himself. My mistake was to think that meant protecting Advent. I trust water to find its level, I don’t trust it to take off and fly.”

“We’re in space, though.”

“You know, I used to see him at the Catapult—we were rivals. I led an entire faction, and he was one engineer. But I could feel him… sizing me up, and the way he did it, soon everyone did it. Like: ‘That one. That one isn’t secure.’ Once someone like Grand Magnificent sees the world in a certain way, it's impossible for no one to join him. It’s an infection.”

“So?” said Echo. “That’s art, I guess. Or it’s being a rich asshole in a crowd of rich assholes. Annoying, I know.” 

Ballad looked at them. Echo started to worry. They’d been too harsh, they’d been fervent and then flippant, and Ballad lay there with a hole in his gut shaped like the sword he’d helped them choose.

But he said, “You do it too.”

“I do what?”

“Art, I guess. Unless you came into some money I don’t know about. You show people what you saw and they can’t see anything else. You did it to him. That’s the first time I’ve seen that. Grand Magnificent taking cues from some other person? It’s like if a rat got the plague.”

“Huh.”

“In a nice way, though. Nicer than that. Creepy, but that’s his fault, not yours. Where does he get off, echoing my little sib?”

“Fuck off. It won’t last,” said Echo, realizing as they said so that they no longer believed it. Against all reason, they thought Grand would probably stay. “He’s just suggestible. He has these phases, then he goes and finds a new muse.”

“And you?”

“He’s not my muse.”

“Yeah. But is this a phase? Or do you think you’re about settled?”

There was no replying to that. There was no calm, no hope it didn’t sicken them to feel. Here, in the middle of getting all they’d wanted, the truth was still too awful to admit. Ballad would recover. But the war dragged on.

Ballad pinched their arm.

“You’re the worst patient,” Echo complained. “You’ve got the bedside manner of a—of a crab.”

“You’re the one who’s supposed to have bedside manner.”

“I’m not! I’m the one who stabbed you.”

It was hard to know how to stop feigning indignation with someone you couldn’t punch in the arm. Or anywhere else. Echo did their best, though, covering their head and laugh-sighing; and when they checked from under their fingers, Ballad was smiling too. He looked thoughtful. Their brother was such a planner, although he wasn’t very good at it.

“If he wants to go back,” he said, “he can use my disappearance. He should say it proves what he was always saying, that I was hotheaded, I didn’t have my priorities right. Ask him what he thinks about that.”

“Okay.”

“Maybe he can volunteer to take over the Volunteers. That should bring more people over, anyone who might be tempted to go with Kitcha Kana’s crew at first.”

“Um…”

“It should work. Every member of the Advent Group is considered eligible for leadership positions.”

“Ugh, god, don’t say that. Did you have to go to orientation?”

“Don’t be such a baby. You might be planning orientations yourself, someday. Someday soon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The smile spread to a grin. “I’m through with Advent. But I wouldn’t trust me with my kids,” said Ballad, coldly. “Legato is due for her rebellious stage. Who do you think is going to be running the school?”