John brings the non-judgemental manatee that Alexander gave him to today’s session with Dr. Suriyaren. He curls up in the armchair, clutching at it.
“I need to stop punching guys who make homophobic remarks.”
“Good idea,” she says gently, uncapping her pen and starting on a fresh page of notes.
“And I need to stop ducking and covering whenever there’s something that sounds remotely like an explosion.”
“I think that’s more of an overreaction than inherently bad.”
“It’s caused some embarrassing moments, though.”
Dr. Suriyaren actively listens to the silence.
John clears his throat. “I’d like it if I could like it if Ned touched my face.”
“We can talk about that if you want.”
“I’m sick of triggers.”
“You’re not alone. Do you want to talk about it?”
He squeezes his eyes shut and nods.
“Hi, is this Dr. Angelica Schuyler-Church, clinical psychologist employed by Vernon Psychiatric Center?”
“This is my cell phone number.”
“Don’t worry, nobody else would be able to get it. I’m good at computers, in the sense that the Arctic is a little chilly. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, Dr. Schuyler-Church, but nobody at Vernon is hearing me out.”
“Are you safe?”
“Are you not about to harm yourself or others?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m safe. I’m just crying.”
“You can call me Angelica.”
“Okay. My name’s Ada. Hi.”
“Uncle Franklin - he’s not really my uncle - told me that you might be the most sympathetic. He didn’t tell me to do this, though.”
“Ah. Sympathetic to what?”
“My dad went to Vernon years ago, and I know hardly anything about him, especially that, and everyone’s said that because of confidentiality I don’t get to hear anything, even - even when…”
“Ada, I need you to breathe with me. Can you hear me breathe?”
“My mom’s not a bad mom. She’s brilliant, too, and - and I know why she hates my father so much, she’s got a lot of reasons - but he had bipolar disorder, Angelica, on top of him being a cheating alcoholic drama queen with a temper, and every time I acted out even a little bit my mom would be all, no, you’re not going to be like him, stop that. Aunt Harriet - not really my aunt - wrote, like, essays on how much my dad sucked. And published them. When I was interested in anything he was interested in, it was all like, no poetry, Ada, no art, go do your calculus homework. And I mean I like calculus? But you know?”
“I get the picture.”
“And today I had an argument with my friend Charles over something dumb about our ongoing kinda extra Comp Sci project, and he said you could really tell I was from a family of whackjobs, and he apologized profusely, like, immediately, but I walked away and I started calling people again, like I’ve been doing for years, and I just need to know what my dad was like, Angelica, because Uncle Franklin said he was a genius and he loved me, and so he can’t have been all bad? And Dad’s friends Mary and Percy are really cool writers, she writes sci-fi and he’s a poet and they also write screenplays together, and if they liked him and they’re cool - her mom's named after the same ancestor a university's named after - he can’t have been bad, and…”
“Cold calls aren’t gonna endear you to people, Ada.”
“I can give you some names of therapists who I can make an educated guess would gel with you. Give me a few hours and I can text them, if you like. I don’t do outpatient at the moment.”
“But you can’t tell me about my dad?”
“I didn’t work with him personally - before my time - but my coworkers who did have a lot of stories about George "Lord" Byron, and they are not overwhelmingly negative.”
“Okay. I’m breathing. I’m safe.”
“I think I’ll go inform Google of some more bugs I found in their algorithms.”
“Thanks, Angelica. Sorry to be rude like that. Let me know if you ever need help with trolls or pesky firewalls.”
Missy and Phyllis have developed a fun secret handshake for the nights when it’s Phyllis who takes over for Betsy, not Hercules, regardless of whether it’s Cato or York taking over for Missy.
She and Phyllis has just started it when Button, off to the side, says jokingly, “Maybe suck in your gut so you’ll look good on Facebook, Phyllis.”
Missy whirls around and sees that their Button is filming them on his phone. She snarls and rips it out of his hand. “Did we give you permission? Huh? And how dare you say that to her? Her body is her business and isn’t something to be commented on as a performance or object for someone else’s amusement, and especially if you’re putting her on YOUR social media, like she’s some kind of artifact of your social life, what the hell, Button, what the fu-”
“Martha. Giving him his phone back is mandatory. Getting a hug from me is optional.”
Oh God. Missy holds it out to him, ashamed, and doesn’t look at him. She apologizes to the floor and lets Phylls fold her close and safe. “My father’s a politician, and I hate him,” she says, and hopes that explains it well enough. She mumbles something about props, and trophies, and bile, but it isn’t coherent.
Phyllis makes Button apologize, too, and makes sure that Missy sees the clip get deleted. Next shift she finds a note in her locker.
To open up can bruise and tear
You have to talk, you have to care
Far easier to shut, to close
In ramrod-straight survivor’s pose
But fear not what cracks I saw within
You gifted me with who you've been
“Sorry to interrupt you, Jay. This isn’t about your expose, though I am looking forward to it.”
“Yeah, sorry it’s taking so long. I keep finding stuff to add. Imagine. Me. Writing more than I intended to.”
“It’s a blessing.”
“Then what’s going on?”
“I watched a Doctor Who episode with a friend in which a character has a timeline-warping evil alien insect stuck on her back and other people vaguely notice from time to time, but she never notices, and it’s feeding on her potential. From her back. Stuck to her back.”
“I only have a few phone numbers for people who were there that day, and you made the most sense out of them to call. Timing or otherwise.”
“What would you like to do?”
“Please tell me about your book in excruciating detail.”
“That is something I can manage.”
Alexander gets back to Ned’s apartment - he doesn’t really think of it as his and Ned’s, since he’s only here for a few months and he just knows in his bones that it will eventually be Ned’s-and-John’s - and the place is empty. That’s fine.
There’s a lone post-it note on the table. That is not fine.
It just says, “Sorry, not your fault.” That is extremely not fine.
Ned comes into the apartment less than ten minutes later to find Alexander clutching at the table and mutely shaking. He puts down the roll of duct tape he brought with him. “Alexander Hamilton. It’s Ned, it’s 2016, and we’re home.”
Alexander slowly turns to look at Ned, his pupils dilated. He puts a hand on Ned’s chest. “You’re alive.”
“I broke the, the thing, on the wall. Over there. You sometimes blame yourself for random things. Just ran out for a sec. To borrow tape from a neighbor.” It takes a moment. Then Ned winces. “Oh shit, was your cousin’s note like that?”
After a silence, Alexander says, “Sit with me and hold my hand.”
What possessed Mr. 15 to send a green trainee like themself to go deliver a message to Ching Shih, notorious Chinese crime boss, Chev doesn’t know. All the other members of the Agency say Reinette has 15 wrapped around her finger, though, despite not sleeping with him as many claim, and Reinette wouldn’t let 15 send them to their doom. At least without saying goodbye. Friedrich has advised Chev that you should never question Mr. 15, though once you’ve earned it you can tell him you’re annoyed, in increasingly colorful language. Then again Friedrich’s retired from the biz and mildly resents Chev putting their mutual partner Pierre in unknowing danger with this job, so. Grain of salt.
Nobody gets killed when they make an appointment with Ching Shi, as long as they keep it and behave courteously throughout the meeting. (However, sometimes messengers who seriously displease her are sent back to their superiors in a thoughtfully provided wheelbarrow, with a note listing the body parts the doctors might want to take a look at in order for them to make a full recovery.)
Chev was instructed to present as female and to accept and consume all refreshments offered. They’re in the back of one of the bubble tea shops the “Pirate Empress” uses for money laundering.
It’s really good bubble tea, actually. Chev takes a demure sip as Ching Shi purses her lips and drums her long fingernails on the tabletop. Ching Shi’s bodyguard, standing two paces behind her, is staring into the middle distance most of the time but occasionally flicks his eyes to Chev.
“So your people are offering a pact of mutual non-interference while I remain in the country.”
She half-smiles at that. “This is predicated on the notion that I consider you any sort of challenge. Why should I limit my fishing on the basis of minnows’ requests?”
“You catch bigger fish if you don’t waste your time getting minnows out of the way, Empress.” She outright laughs, and Chev takes a bite from one of the small cookies also on the table as a tiny celebration.
Then the taste hits their tongue. Their throat constricts. All finesse, decorum, sense, even the concept of time is forgotten and Chev retches. Chev chokes. Chev almost throws up.
Ching Shih’s bodyguard’s hands are on them, but to support them rather than in any form of restraint. He offers Chev some water, and Chev drinks it gratefully. The rest of the cookie has fallen to the floor.
“Young miss, are you ill from almonds?”
The other instruction: don’t lie to Ching Shih in peaceful negotiations. About anything. Don’t volunteer information, but don’t lie. Apparently nothing would enrage her faster.
“No, Empress. I had a bad experience with them. Thank you for your concern.” Chev tries more bubble tea. It helps.
“Oh?” She clearly wants more.
Chev inwardly shrugs. Why the hell not, by this point? “My ex-lover and his new lover imprisoned me for several days and gave me nothing but energy bars to eat. Vanilla almond flavor.”
Ching Shi hums thoughtfully. “I hope they got their due.”
She ends up signing the agreement, and calls in someone else to wheel in a scanner/photocopier because what, don’t you have one of those at all times? “Take care, young miss. I advise telling others you are allergic, and mastering your reaction when it is not possible to avoid.” She doesn’t bow when Chev bows to her, of course, but she declines her head slightly, which is notable.
When Chev is at a safe distance, they contact their cell’s base, and the call is quickly forwarded to Mr. 15. “Ah, Mx. Cavalier. I hope you have good news.” Mr. 15 insists on using everyone’s codenames.
“She signed it. Sir, did you know she habitually serves almond cookies when she has covert agents of gray-area secret organizations over for tea?”
“I was counting on it. They’re her favorite. You’re a very good actor, Cavalier, but she gets very upset if she thinks she’s being manipulated, so I didn’t tell you. I needed your reaction to be authentic.”
“But what was the point of that? Sir?”
“She’s known to have a soft spot for victims of any form of domestic or sexual violence. Within her ranks, it’s harshly punished, and rapists are outright executed. She has been known to be especially merciful to survivors of such things, whether or not they were at the hands of anyone who works for her. Some say she used to be a sex worker, but I don’t really care. Your femme self inspires strong protective instincts when showing genuine distress. Insurance against if the Empress was in a mood today.”
“I'm feeling a little resentful about this.” Chev does something daring for someone who's been an employee for only a few months, and doesn't add an honorific.
All that happens is light sarcasm. “You’ll get the standard ‘waaah my boss lied to me so that the mission would be successful’ bonus, Cavalier, and remember that I’m giving you the week before exams off as well as exam week itself, plus graduation, and, oh yeah, all summer off for you to enjoy France to your little heart’s content.” It would look weird for Chev to back out of a summer job they'd worked very hard to get before the Agency recruited them, but sometimes Mr. 15 acts like letting Chev go to France is a huge favor.
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“No. Well done. This is what we do, you know, hire people with very specific attributes to fulfill very specific needs, our own or our clients’.”
“Sometimes you can aim a trigger before you pull it.”
Chev rolls their eyes and ends the call. They make another call.
(Pierre never tastes like almonds. Nor is he vanilla in any way.)