Dani Wyngarde punched Alley Amherst in the mouth. Immediately, the silver-haired girl took a step back and narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Alley smiled slightly. The other freshman had asked for help with basic hand-to-hand before Gym turned into combat and alternative training next semester. They’d taken to drilling a few times a week. It was a measure of Alley’s skill that the punch was the first Dani had landed by surprise. And it was a measure of Dani’s self-awareness that she’d realized it was an accident, that something had distracted her teacher.
The two girls backed off from each other, court shoes shuffling a little over the training mat. The gym facilities at the HCP were expansive and this ordinary sparring room was one of many such rooms tucked away, little more than mats, mirrors on the walls for studying form and a stand of weapons to practice with if so desired. Alley snatched up a towel she’d left hanging over the hilt of a sword and mopped her brow while Dani took a drink of water.
“Something’s come up. Let’s take a break for a couple minutes, okay?” Alley tossed the towel back over the sword stand and headed for the door. “I’ll be right back.”
The halls of the HCP training corridors were spartan. At times, Alley thought she was on a science fiction movie set. Everything was gunmetal grey, all weird angles and reinforced concrete banded with steel. It was the kind of place that encouraged you to pick up your pace, get where you were going and not loiter.
Alley chose a corridor and walked for a minute. Spotting a classroom door ahead, she opened it and drifted in, leaning against the archway. The actual room was empty at this evening hour. Still, it made surprise easier. Or at least more fun.
As if on cue, Dr. Sarah Amherst walked down the hallway. She wore her white medical lab coat, more ornamental than actual. Mom didn’t have a healing ability, exactly, and she certainly wasn’t a real medical doctor. But she faked it well. Even Alley had to admit, Mom had the look down.
Alley opened her mouth to speak. She smiled instead when Mom stopped shy of the classroom and looked her way.
“I saw you coming,” Alley said, somewhat unnecessarily.
“I know,” Mom said back. “I’ve already sat through several unpleasant minutes of you trying to talk about something and not saying anything. Can we skip it this time and you just tell me what’s on your mind?”
“So you’re admitting you can do that. Awesome. I’ll save you the trouble; I have Thanksgiving plans already,” Alley said. “Don’t bother inviting me.”
“If that’s really all you have to say, you wouldn’t have bothered with all of these games,” Mom said, waving her arm at the doorway and gesturing between them, as if illustrating their relationship with a rapidly moving finger. “You know everything I’m going to say and, in a way, I know everything you’re going to say. I just came over here to invite you to Thanksgiving. If you don’t want to talk about what’s on your mind, then don’t.”
Dr. Sarah Amherst looked faintly surprised by the end. It was the first time in a long time that Alley had let her Mom say what she wanted to without being interrupted. Of course, this time Alley had bigger issues on her mind than picking fights.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you were the Fortune Teller?”
The secret, laid bare, burned like starfire between them. Alley could feel it, could see it in every line of tension that suddenly carved its way across her Mom’s youthful face. Dr. Amherst looked more like an older sister than her mother. Of course, now that Alley knew who she was, it didn’t really surprise her anymore.
Mom opened her mouth to say something but stopped at the look on her daughter’s face. For Alley’s part, their conversation unfolded in a myriad of dizzying, impossible ways, revealing secrets she’d never suspected much less hinted at. The doorframe had been a spot to surprise Mom. Now it provided much needed support as Alley put her back on the frame and pressed her scalp against the hard, finished wood.
“Are you planning to tell me what I’m going to tell you?” Mom said at last, smirking wryly and no little pain.
“It’s a lot to process, Mom.” Alley took a deep breath. “Let’s start with time travel. I want to hear you tell me why you couldn’t save Iris.”
“Jesus, Alley.” Mom laughed shakily and shook her head. “It doesn’t work like-“
“Don’t bullshit me, Mom.”
“My ability works in one of two ways, as you figured out,” Sarah Amherst said, taking the opportunity to lean against the corridor wall herself. “As the Fortune Teller, I mostly used it to jump into the past, reversing a bad play, doing it over until we got it right. When I was arrested, convicted and sentenced to serve the Department of Variant Human Affairs, I used it the other way; pulling someone or something from the past into the present.”
“Yeah yeah, you didn’t get to campus until days after she died, and only because I murdered people. You said you couldn’t pull people from more than five minutes in the past. I didn’t know then that you could jump five minutes backwards in time, though. Why didn’t you? Just…a bunch of microhops?”
“Bad things happen when I’ve tampered with time like that, Alley,” Mom said. “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know and you’ll never convince me to tell you.”
Alley nodded once, knowing instantly that it was true. “You know I’m on campus to hunt the Ringmaster.”
“You’re…admitting it?” Mom looked surprised.
“Because you already know. What I don’t get is why you’re still working for her.”
“Him,” Mom said. “And it’s because-“
“You really think the Ringmaster’s a man, don’t you.” Alley shook her head, trying to process the contradictory information. “I mean, you believe he’s been a guy all along. I’m dying to know how you explain Nate. You know he’s the son of the Ringmaster and the Hypnotist, right? Only we know the Hypnotist…no, you’re kidding me, that’s disgusting!”
Mom grimaced but pressed on. “As far as I know, Ellis took over a woman and had a kid with the Ringmaster.”
“Ellis, huh? Thanks.” Alley pocketed the name away in her mind. “The thing is, Nate has some combo-ability of both parents. How’d he get the Hypnotist’s portion if the DNA wasn’t actually from the Hypnotist? Or are you really going to tell me that possession actually alters DNA?”
“I don’t know how it works,” Sarah said, plainly uncomfortable with the topic.
“It doesn’t. But maybe the Ringmaster’s made you think this way after all.”
“You don’t know that.” Mom smirked. “I know how your ability works, Alley. You have the same five minute window I do-“
“So, were you ever going to tell me that Major Isiah Diaz is my real father?”
Sarah Amherst’s smug, satisfied look instantly broke at her revelation borne on her daughter’s lips. “I hadn’t planned on it, no.”
“You did it for the Shadow Dance Directive,” Alley said, sighing and rubbing her temples. For once, her ability made her head hurt. “I get it. Take a time traveler with a five minute window, add a precog with a ten year window, see if you get the whole package. Too bad the Army didn’t get exactly what they wanted. I inherited your window though at least I inherited your control too. Still, it was worth a try. I just can’t understand why you didn’t tell Dad he’s not really my Dad.”
“He’s my Dad, to me, but you know it’ll make a difference to him. Fine, whatever. You’re the one who has to live with it.” Alley banged the back of her head against the doorframe several times. “Does the Major know?”
Mom shrugged and looked dismayed. “I…don’t really know. We haven’t spoken. With his ability, there’s no telling what he knows.”
“I know what I know, though.” Alley pointed at her mother as righteous rage awoke. “So, you’re still working for the Ringmaster. He’s got you locked down. None of the futures in my head hold an instance where you tell me anything about him, about what he’s planned, or why you’re still working for him. But I know one thing; you are still working for him. This isn’t just Domination. You’re in on it. You pretended to be innocent, dominated by a Dominator, but all this time you were in on it. You should be locked up, you fucking cunt.”
“Alley-” Mom’s face turned from defensiveness to rage. Her daughter didn’t care. She just turned and walked away.
Suddenly, Mom stepped out from the corridor ahead.
“You don’t want to do this,” Alley warned. “Same window, Mom. You can come at me from any point in the next five minutes and I’ll see it coming. Come at me in the past and I’ll have seen it then and reacted accordingly. Checkmate, like always. Go home, Mom.” She took a deep breath and hissed “Go home to Dad, go home to your waste of a life pretending that undoing a little damage here and there makes up for all the innocent Americans you’ve killed. Go home to the lie. Or not. But you will get the fuck out of my face or we’re going to spend the next thousand years of relative time with you trying and failing to keep me from beating the shit out of you.” The walk back to the gym sparring room did nothing to quell Alley’s rage. Emotion bled through her hotly, wetly, spurting out of her like a severed artery. Her family was a lie, Dad had never really been Dad. Though she still loved him, she knew he wouldn’t love her the same way if he knew. Mom could have saved Iris. She’d refused, for no good reason.
Oh, and her mother was a Villain. A secret, still active Villain no one knew about. The worst part of it? Alley knew she couldn’t turn her in. With a deception this big, they might not lock Mom up. They might just kill her. And her five minute limit on all future possibilities meant there was no way to know in advance what they’d decide to do if she turned Mom in. \
She had to hit something. She had to shoot something. She needed Iris, needed the love of her life to kiss her tears away until everything was bearable.
Instead, Alley reached the sparring room and couldn’t quite get inside before the tears came anyway. She pressed her back against the wall outside, fought for composure and only half-succeeded. When Dani Wyngarde peeked out, the silver-haired, white-eyed girl found her sparring partner crying but not sobbing.
“Alley, are you ok-“
Words were useless. Millions of possibilities blazed inside Alley’s mind, infinite futures unfolding until she found one bearable path, one way through that could quell those tears and escape the looming ocean of night-black depression crashing over her. As with most things, action was better than words anyway.
So she grabbed Dani by the shoulders and kissed her. Alley kissed her hard, her wet cheeks pressed against the other girl’s hot dry skin. The feel of her classmate’s mouth and the taut, rigid body below overwhelmed even a crying jag. Just as planned.
872 versions of Dani broke the kiss off, with various fractions of Dani’s complaining, getting angry or hitting her. Ten Dani’s actually responded, though, if Alley cupped the small of her back just so. Five Dani’s even started to kiss her back if she broke off the kiss long enough for Dani to once again see the tears on Alley’s face, to see the desperate need for touch. Only two Dani’s could be so moved by the second kiss that Alley was able to pull her into the sparring room, one with her face cupped and one with a bit of fingernail applied to the back.
An uninvolved future Alley pulled a coin out of her pocket and flipped it. Heads for the face, tails for the nails. The Alley here, in the moment, saw in her mind’s eye the coin land on heads.
And, after cupping Dani’s face tenderly, Alley pulled her roommate’s ex-boyfriend’s sister into the sparring room and took exactly what she needed.