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Mercury

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The ping had a quality, Claudia remarked, that suggested the artifact was particularly happy to be used.

Helena was clearly the only one who found this a completely reasonable thing to say. This was probably because she and Claudia had, over the past several months, developed their own strange language for talking about artifacts, as if they really did have feelings and moods and practically even, Myka thought, hobbies. Like the appropriate collection of artifacts would kick back together and play canasta. (Myka thought canasta was the most adult game in the world. The game must have gone through some vogue in Colorado when she was a girl, because her parents spent a whole summer and fall going to canasta parties, and holding canasta parties, and she and Tracy had spent a lot of time with their babysitter. Of course artifacts would have canasta parties. But they wouldn’t let the newer artifacts join them—Myka’s parents wouldn’t even teach her how to play. She went into a tiny pout just thinking about it now.)

Helena saw the pout. (Helena saw almost everything. So unnerving.) “What is it?” she asked. “Do you know something about the artifact?”

“No,” Myka said. “And I don’t know anything about canasta, either.” Myka knew it was a comment from nowhere, but she just got so distracted when Helena and Claudia were doing their extra-special geek thing…

Helena had taken to filing these non sequiturs away for later inquiry; Myka knew this because she’d often find herself back in the middle of a conversation she thought they’d concluded hours or even days before, as Helena would start quizzing her, with no preamble at all, about whatever it was she’d said. Note to self, she thought now, google “how to play canasta.”

“Reports from the area,” Claudia said absently, “are… huh. Interesting. Actually, really interesting.”

“Something’s happening?” Pete asked.

“Obviously something’s happening,” Claudia said. “What’s interesting is the way people are talking about it. There seems to be… well, there’s no non-weird way to say this, so I’ll just say it: there seems to be an outbreak of belief.”

Artie seemed to raise his antennae at that. “Belief? What kind of belief?”

“Well, there’s this fair or expo or something like that going on, and right at the beginning the emcee was joking around and said that there was some kind of fight between grannies over apple pies. And people broke all speed records trying to get to where the pies were and see the fight.”

“Yeah?” Pete said. “So why were they fighting? Over whose pie was best? And who won? I like the kind with the two crusts, but some people really dig the crumble topping. I think they’re nuts, but in the end, when you put the ice cream on, it’s all good.”

Claudia snorted, and Myka couldn’t tell if she was disagreeing with him or just making fun. “No, see, there wasn’t actually a fight. And the only reason it made the news is that some people got hurt in the stampede. And finally, you don’t put ice cream on apple pie. You put cheddar cheese on apple pie.”

Pete intoned, “You are a demon sent from hell to corrupt the youth of today with your pagan pie-eating ways. Or something like that. Cheese is just wrong. I could maybe allow whipped cream, but that’s it.”

“That’s some serious discrimination,” Claudia said. “You’ll allow ice cream and whipped cream, but not cheese? It’s all dairy underneath, man. Not to mention, cheese is better for the lactose intolerant. Why do you want to do them, and the cheesemakers, so wrong?”

“Why do I let you people talk?” Artie asked. Myka couldn’t tell if it was meant to be rhetorical.

“Because you need to hear what I have to say,” Claudia told him. “Pete just talks. It’s like the Muzak we live our lives to.”

“I don’t know what anyone is talking about,” Helena said.

Myka reached over and chucked Helena’s chin, just a brief little nudge. “And here you thought you’d been getting so up to date, too. Take notes; I’ll explain it all later.”

“Canasta,” Helena muttered darkly. “Muzak. I am so exhausted of taking notes.”

“Enough,” Artie said, but he didn’t appear particularly perturbed. “Be happy, Helena. You, Myka, and Pete get to go to the fair in wherever it is.”

“Kenosha, Wisconsin,” Claudia said.

“Aha!” Pete crowed. “No wonder you’re all about cheese!”

“I haven’t been to a fair in quite some time,” Helena remarked.

“I bet they’re actually not that much different now,” Myka said. “Is it the kind where they have rides?”

“I’m looking,” Claudia said. She clicked and swiped around for a while, then said, “Not really fancy rides. Just your typical carnival. Oh, hey, but as, like, the culminating event, there’s a demo derby. Who doesn’t love a demo derby?”

“That is something like a dream come true,” Pete agreed. “Artie, if we bag the artifact in time, can we stay for the derby?”

“Let me get this straight,” Artie said. “You want to stay in Kenosha, Wisconsin longer than is absolutely necessary just so you can watch a demolition derby?”

“What will be demolished?” Helena asked.

“Cars,” Myka told her.

“And they will be demolished how, exactly?”

Pete enthused, “By banging into each other! Until they can’t go anymore!”

Helena cocked her head at him. “Really. Cars colliding with each other is the culminating event? I suppose it does help to clarify why the idea of a fight over pie was so enticing to the crowd, at least.”

“I wonder,” Myka said, “why that was so enticing. I mean, even if you accept that they believed it was happening, why would they be so desperate to see it?”

“Not much goes on in Kenosha?” Claudia offered. “I can totally see that happening in Univille. If there were ever a fair here, which there isn’t, because an event including a bake-off would be way too exciting for this place. And a granny fight over the bake-off? OMG. People would lose their minds.”

“Univille should totally have a demo derby,” Pete said, but tentatively, as if he were putting a lot of thought into it. “How can we make that happen? Maybe we could set it up and say the IRS was sponsoring it, and then people would like us more.”

“People like me just fine,” Claudia said. “And Myka and H.G. don’t care.”

“Hey!” Myka said, “I care!” She turned to Helena. “And you do too, don’t you?”

“Not really,” Helena said mildly. “I would rather the townspeople not curse my name or throw things at me, of course, but other than that, their feelings about me…” She trailed off as it seemed to strike her that Myka was offended. Which she was—how could Helena not care what people in Univille thought of her? And then Myka answered her own (internal) question: because she’s H.G. Wells, fool. (This was in Claudia’s voice.) She cares what history thinks of her. But then Helena said, making Myka’s heart swell because she knew it was for her benefit, “I could make more of an effort, certainly, to overcome the natives’ quite natural response to my foreign-ness. Perhaps I could be one of the drivers who bangs a car into other cars?”

Pete quickly said, “If H.G. gets to drive in it, then so do I.”

Claudia piggybacked, “If Pete and H.G. drive, then so do I also. Too. In addition.”

“Guys?” Myka said to all of them. “I think we have to go to Wisconsin before this even starts becoming an issue.”

Artie added, “And I don’t think—I know—that this will not in fact start becoming an issue at any point in time! Pete, if you’re so desperate for car crashes, then fine, stay. But it’s on your dime—not the Warehouse’s dime, not the IRS’s dime. And the IRS’s dime will also not be used to sponsor any kind of Univille community activity, because yes, strangely, I do think that would draw unwarranted attention to the Warehouse. Have you lost your minds?”

A pause, and then Pete said “yeah, probably” as Claudia said “most likely.” Helena wisely didn’t contribute, and Myka kept quiet too—she was pretty sure she hadn’t lost her mind, but she thought that saying “no” might come off as disloyal. And she already had Pete casting wounded glances at her whenever she took Helena’s side in any kind of dispute. Not that there had actually been all that many disputes lately; everyone seemed pretty happy just to be alive and walking around. (Particularly Steve. Myka had thought he would be more freaked out by the whole situation, but he was strangely accepting. So accepting, in fact, that he was doing normal things like taking vacation time. Artie had seemed thoroughly disinclined to deny him anything. That was a little out of character, but understandable.)

“Let’s go pack,” Myka suggested. She tried to tell herself that the Wisconsin situation could actually be less than bad , and maybe even fun; Helena was sure to have some of her (pretty funny) interactions with strange (to her) customs of today—although at the Kenosha County Fair, they were more likely to be customs of yesterday. But even Kenosha’s yesterday was probably still later than Helena’s previous today, which… now Myka was confusing herself, mostly because she didn’t care enough to get unconfused. She sighed.

Helena reached over to Myka and echoed her earlier chin-chuck. “There, there,” she said. “We’ll locate the artifact in no time. Pete will then be free to watch cars destroy one another, and you and I will be free to… well, to do whatever else one does at a fair these days.”

“Aw, H.G., why would you want to skip a demo derby?” Pete whined.

“I have had enough of destruction,” she said, but not as seriously as she might have. Myka smiled; she was clearly trying to get Pete’s goat. “However, if you do at some point manage to convince Artie that Univille should play host to such an event, then by all means, sign me up. You certainly never tire of suggesting that my driving has less to do with transportation than with demolition.”

“How true that is,” Claudia agreed. “What your driving has to do with, we should all be wearing helmets, harnesses, and fireproof suits.”

“Look at what I have learned: that is a reference to car racing, and is it my fault that I find the idea of speed so fascinating?”

Claudia chuckled. “Yeah, okay, but if you could make a rocket, why couldn’t you make yourself a Ferrari Testarossa?”

“I don’t know what that is. It sounds like a food item of some sort.”

“A fast car, H.G. It’s a really fast car.”

“Well, I was rather occupied with the rocket, the time machine, and various other oddities. But now that you mention it, it is a bit odd that I was never much interested in the speed of the rocket.”

“But it obviously had to reach escape velocity,” Claudia said, getting her serious expression on, “so you had to be interested in it at least going that fast.”

“Yes, but I wasn’t preoccupied with the idea that someone could be in the rocket, if you see my point. It was simply meant to be a projectile.”

“So you don’t even like guns,” Pete said, “but you basically were making a big bullet?”

Helena paled. “And now that you mention that, the whole enterprise sounds ever so much worse. I should have anticipated that there would be problems. Had I thought of it that way, I would have most likely realized that what goes up must come down. In a predictable path. As a bullet does.”

“Nice, Pete,” Myka said. “Thanks.”

He shrugged. “Don’t blame me; I didn’t make the thing.” And there it was again, the tension bubble that liked to materialize as a special surprise at times when Myka least expected it to—and usually, when she least wanted it to, when things seemed to be going as well as they had any right to, there it would be, usually because of Pete’s goading, but even sometimes between her and Helena: a poorly chosen word here, an apparently damning inflection there, and it was off to the self-flagellation races for someone.

She supposed that it was like that for most people with sufficient history… but most people’s history wasn’t so huge, so literally world-shattering. (She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about the fact that the word literally was appropriate so much more often, in the context of the Warehouse, than it was in real life. It used to tick her off when people would use it when it wasn’t what they really meant; now she just envied them their naiveté.)

Relations were back to détente by the time they left for Kenosha—they had to hurry, because the fair was scheduled to last only three more days. That left not much time for jabs and jibes; they spent about twenty minutes throwing their stuff into roller bags and then dashed for the airport. Pete wouldn’t let Helena drive, which she said made no sense at all, given the time constraints. Myka would have been perfectly happy for Helena never to get behind the wheel of a car again; it was clear that she was going to get them all killed someday, and it would have absolutely nothing to do with rage and malice and artifacts and everything to do with her bizarre fondness for speed. Outside of rockets. If that hadn’t turned into a problem, Myka would still have been doubled over with hilarity at the idea of H.G. Wells making the world’s biggest and fastest bullet.

They flew into Chicago because it was cheaper than Milwaukee. That meant more driving, and at the car rental counter, Pete made a show of handing the keys to Myka. “Because I’m tired,” he said with an ostentatious yawn.

“What if I’m tired too?” she demanded.

“I’m wide awake!” Helena chirped.

Myka turned to her. “Seriously, you have got to let this go,” she said. “You aren’t driving. That’s final. At least until you show us that you have honestly turned over a new leaf about it.”

“How can I do that,” Helena asked, in her most reasonable tone of voice, “if you never let me drive? I can’t prove my driving has changed until you actually experience it.”

“Which I do not want to do today,” Pete said firmly. “Maybe back home. We’ll have a little test run, and if you pass, I’ll consider letting you take the wheel maybe one morning a week on the way to the Warehouse. Anything more than that, it’s going to take years, lady, so get used to sitting back and enjoying the ride.”

“If you force me to sit in the back, I refuse to enjoy the ride,” Helena told him. Myka stroked her arm, and Helena melted. She usually did, when it came to things that didn’t really matter. “All right,” she said. “But only because you ask so nicely.”

“She didn’t even ask you anything,” Pete said.

“Oh, but she did,” Helena said with a smile.

“You guys should be spies or something. Your little code. La-la means I love you.” He rolled his eyes.

“Pete,” Myka said. He kept rolling his eyes, so she snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Pete!”

“What? I hate it when you snap!”

“Pete,” she said, even though she knew it was pointless, “we are spies or something.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess we are. Not real CIA spooks, though. I couldn’t get into the CIA. I tried, but they like to grow their own, if you know what I mean. The Marine thing wasn’t really what they were looking for.”

“I never really wanted to be CIA,” Myka said. “You don’t get to carry your gun as much. And too much undercover. I hate being undercover.”

“I know. Which makes it so much funnier when we have to do it. Now, H.G., on the other hand, I bet undercover is right up her alley.”

Helena said, “Well, I—”

Pete interrupted, “Except for the part where you would suck at it, because first of all, your American accent is crap.”

“Who says I would have to be undercover as an American? Or even in America? It may surprise you to learn that very few people in the world, as a percentage of the whole, speak English with an American accent.”

“Well, if all your accents are as bad as your American one, you’re still gonna be pretty limited. Because I bet there’s even less who have a hoity-toity British accent.”

“Fewer,” Myka said immediately.

“Fewer what?” Pete asked.

“Fewer. Not less. You can count the people who have a hoity-toity British accent.”

“No I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. There’s a specific number of them.”

“Yeah, but who’d have the time? I sure don’t.”

Now Helena stroked Myka’s arm. Myka felt the warmth through her sleeve. She said, “Okay. You’re right. Uncountable. And since nobody’s going undercover on this particular job, I don’t think it really matters who likes it and who doesn’t. You’re going to get a demo derby, and Helena’s going to get to try funnel cakes, and I’m going to try to keep from standing next to the cotton candy, because I once had to run a cotton candy machine and I inhaled some of the fibers and I think they’re sort of like asbestos. So don’t be surprised when I die of lung cancer in a few years. And get in the car.”

“Don’t be surprised when you get in the car?”

What? “When I... what? Why would you be surprised when I get in the car? Obviously I’m getting in the car. I’m telling you to. Do that, I mean. Get in the car.” Myka was starting to worry a little about her tendency to confuse herself (not to mention everyone else), but she decided it would be best to blame it on Pete. And possibly endorphins, or oxytocin, or whatever the being-in-love chemical was, because she really was finding it hard to look at Helena these days without feeling her face collapse into a goofy curve.

“Now I’m wondering if you’re actually okay to drive,” Pete said. “Because isn’t it my job to be the one who doesn’t make any sense? According to you, that is. I think I make a lot of sense.”

Her Farnsworth then made its presence known, and Myka was thankful. Anything to get off the topic of whether Pete, or she, or even Helena, made sense. Not that Helena ever really didn’t make sense: only when she was talking about something historical that none of the rest of them had ever bothered to pay attention to in history class. Or when she and Claudia went off on one of their technology rants. Myka did find it funny that despite their almost complete lack of familiarity with each other’s tools, the tech geeks managed to maintain a cross-century fraternity. Or sorority, in this case.

Claudia was the one calling. “Guys,” she said, “hurry yourselves over to ye olde county fair. The thing’s happening again.”

TBC

Chapter Text

“Great,” Myka said. Not just an artifact situation, but an active one. “What now? Another pie fracas?”

Claudia continued, “People apparently got all convinced that the 4H rabbits were actually creatures from Night of the Lepus.”

“Oh, man, that movie!” Pete yelped. “Scared the crap out of me when I was a kid!”

Claudia’s face on the screen was skeptical. “Seriously, man, bunnies scared the crap out of you? How big of a wuss were you? Or maybe you were actually channeling Anya from Buffy? It could be bunnies?”

“But they were huge bunnies!” He paused. “Okay, I just realized what that sounded like. No, it didn’t scare me at all.” He shuddered. “But I gotta say, those teeth.”

Anyway,” Claudia said, “Pete and his vengeance-demon tendencies aside—”

Helena nudged Myka. “Do they matter, these things she’s saying?”

Myka shook her head. “It’s okay. The only part that matters is that people think the rabbits are huge monster rabbits. Unless… Claud,” she said, more loudly, “it is just that they think the rabbits are big, right? We haven’t stumbled onto some rabbit-growing artifact too, have we?”

“Um, no. But that would be kind of cool, wouldn’t it?”

Pete said vehemently, “That would not be cool in any way.”

“Okay, Anya. If you say so.”

“Quit calling me Anya!”

“Quit freaking out about bunnies, and you’ve got a deal. But in the meantime, Anya, Artie says go. Figure out what was going on when this mass delusion took hold. Except it’s only partly mass, because not everybody at the fair had the delusion; it was just the people in the livestock tent.”

“So,” Myka said, “this time people didn’t go anywhere? The delusion happened right where they were? That’s weird. What’s the connection between that and the pie thing?”

“I believe that’s what we’re here to figure out,” Helena said, quite reasonably, but Myka couldn’t keep from developing another prickle of a pout.

“That’s why we’re goin’ to the fair!” Pete exclaimed.

“I’m sure there’s a song about that,” Myka said. She sighed and got behind the wheel of the car.

Helena practically leapt over the hood to get to the front passenger door while Pete was busy with the Farnsworth. “Hey!” he shouted. “I thought I called shotgun!”

“Too late,” Helena told him as she slid smoothly in beside Myka. Myka grinned at her. It was fine for Pete to ride in front, but when Helena did, she would almost always put a hand on Myka’s leg, completely casually, as if it wasn’t even happening. That was what had kept Myka wondering, before, on tenterhooks really, about who exactly had known what was going on between them—Helena was so casual, so offhand, that if Myka hadn’t been the object of all of it, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t have known that anything was happening.

Now everybody knew. And yet, still, the nonchalant hand on the leg, the delicate brush against the arm. And Myka thrilled to it every single time, both the idea that it was happening, and that it could happen at all.

They had talked, in the beginning haltingly, then heatedly, about the hologram, and Emily Lake, and the implications. Myka had tried to say, to act, like interacting with the hologram had just been like Skyping, but even after she’d explained that to Helena, Helena had said no, not for either of them had it been like that, absolutely not for her, and, she wagered, not for Myka either. Myka had conceded that Helena’s experience probably couldn’t be likened to anything else, since she was the one who wasn’t really there, the one who couldn’t touch anything at all. Myka could touch everything except Helena. Helena had said, “Don’t think I can’t imagine the frustration of that. You were the one who was haunted by this… ghost.”

“And you weren’t haunted?” Myka had asked, very quietly.

“I was… not there. Not anywhere. How could I have been haunted? It was both easier and more difficult than the Bronze. At least in the Bronze, one could think. One could… make one’s nefarious plans.” She said this last part as if she wanted it to be funny, realized it could never be funny, and regretted having the thought at all. All at the same time. Then she shrugged her shoulders, as if simultaneously glad she could and worried that she might be doing it wrong. Clearly, in Helena World it was everything-at-once day. “I must say, it was strange—it is still strange—to be re-embodied.”

“Because you… weren’t used to it? Because of being able to touch things again?” Myka groped for the right answer.

“Yes, those things, but… no. What I meant, what I think I meant, at any rate, was that my body was… is… different. A year older. Softer? She…” Helena didn’t say Emily’s name, Myka had noticed. “She,” Helena said more firmly, “did not maintain the body in the way I would have preferred. I have no idea what she ate.” This last sounded a little more like the H.G. Wells who didn’t like it when things didn’t go her way.

“She probably ate what most people eat. What Pete eats—no, scratch that. Nobody eats what Pete eats. But her apartment didn’t look like the place of somebody who had a taste for the finer things. Or even who could afford the finer things. Teacher’s salary, after all.” But she was beginning to understand, now, why Helena might be upset. “Do we… need to find out some more about her? So you can. I don’t know, put your mind at ease?”

“This mind?” Helena said immediately. “At ease?”

That made Myka laugh, as it was clearly intended to do. “About certain things, maybe. Because if what you’re thinking about… it was a year. A lot can happen in a year.”

“That is not reassuring.” Helena sighed. “Do you think I’m being foolish?”

“I think somebody else was running around in your body for a year. I think anybody would want to know what happened. If only so there aren’t any surprises later.”

“Surprises?” Helena practically screeched, which was completely unlike her. “What surprises?”

Myka, startled, said, “Oh. God, no, I didn’t mean that kind of surprise. I meant, like, if she smoked. Or if she’d… broken her, broken your, arm. Or had your appendix taken out? I guess there’d be a scar. And your arm would ache before rain, for the other thing. Maybe. Do formerly broken bones really tell you about the weather?” She had to physically shut her own mouth to stop the babbling. “I’m sorry,” she said out of the edge of her lips. “I’m just making it worse.”

“I believe,” Helena said, “that we should speak plainly. So as not to have to have this roundabout conversation again.” She squared her shoulders—and Myka noticed that they really were less substantial, less visibly strong, than they used to be—and said, “My question is whether this body was… well. The word I would use is ‘violated,’ but that seems incorrect, given that she most likely consented to anything of that nature that may have occurred during the absence of my consciousness from—” This time, Myka physically shut Helena’s mouth. She would have done it with a kiss, but given what they were talking about, that would have been completely inappropriate, so she used her fingers. Helena blinked. Myka let go. “All right,” Helena said. “I see your point. And yes, I have been giving myself fits about this, because I can’t tell. And I have no way of finding out. I can’t very well go to Wyoming and begin asking the local population if they have had… if they have had relations with… with her.”

“No,” Myka agreed. “You can’t very well do that.” Then she considered. “Maybe she kept a diary! Would somebody have that? Don’t you figure the Regents went and got her stuff?”

Helena blinked affectedly. “I haven’t thought about it,” she said.

Myka didn’t need Steve to tell her that that was a lie. “Okay, so you’ve clearly already tried to get your hands on her stuff, and they said you can’t have it. For whatever reason. Which doesn’t make any sense, because technically, isn’t it yours?” And then Myka gasped. “Oh my god! What happened to Dickens? It’s been ages!”

“Well,” Helena said, with a wave of her hand, “he’s a cat. They’re resourceful creatures. Horrible, but resourceful. I’m sure he’s catching mice and scrabbling about in the rubbish, as they do.”

“Dickens never hunted a day in his life,” Myka said, “because Emily took very good care of him. I doubt he’d ever even been outside.”

“A cat that doesn’t go outdoors?” Helena asked, as if about a rare variety of lemur.

“It’s dangerous out there. Like here, with the coyotes. I wouldn’t let Trailer out by himself.”

“You people are so hermetically sealed,” Helena said, “that it should come as no surprise that you keep your pets that way as well. And yet, here I am, surprised. Well, then, Mr. Dickens either has learned to fend for himself or has met his maker. Who doubtless asked him when he was intending to become a cat instead of a lap dog.”

Helena said this with more venom than Myka thought was really warranted. “Okay, this is about something other than Dickens. Even though I’m still going to feel bad about him for at least a little while. So, what’s really wrong? Is this… related to the body thing, or it something entirely different?”

“It’s all of a piece. The softening of this body, the softening of the little predator… I do not wish to become like this. And yet now that it seems I’m here to stay, is it inevitable?”

“So that’s what you think of me?” Myka asked. “That I’m hermetically sealed, and I can’t fend for myself? I’m soft, in this way that you can’t even stand to imagine becoming? Are we that different?”

“Do you really have to ask me that?” The expression on Helena’s face said that yes, in fact, that was what she thought of Myka.

“I thought,” Myka said, and she’d felt for a second that she was hurt and would cry, but that impulse morphed almost instantaneously into anger, “that we were alike. I thought that you had even said we were alike. I thought that you had not been lying to me when you said that. But I guess that was back in the day when you lied all the time, wasn’t it?”

Helena, to her… credit? absorbed this without evincing any angry spark of her own. “I deserved that,” she said. “I lied to all of you. Repeatedly. Did I try to worm my way into your confidence by emphasizing our similarities? Of course I did. You would have done the same.”

“No,” Myka said immediately, “I don’t think I would have. Since we’re so different. Since I’m this meek and mild, just this Eloi house cat, and you’re the one with all the toughness and predatory instincts that haven’t been leached out of you. Making you a Morlock, I guess.”

Now Helena had set her jaw. “I am making an observation—a not unwarranted observation—about a salient difference between now and a century ago. I don’t think it is appropriate for someone who purports to love me to make jokes about my ideas. Which were not entirely mistaken.”

“And I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone who purports to love me to say that I’m so soft and cut off from the real world that I’m someone she would never want to become like.” Helena’s sigh in response to this was overdramatic, and it made Myka think that they were starting to say things to each other that they weren’t going to be able to come back from. She was surprised and appalled (but also a little pleased?) by the fact that she didn’t feel at all compelled to rush to apologize, or back down.

“In this sense, we are different,” Helena said. “You cannot deny that.”

Clearly, she intended to stubborn this out. Myka said, “Yes, in the sense of we were born in different times with different… I don’t know, zeitgeists, yes. I’ll concede that point. We are different.”

“And you must see that if I become like you in this sense, I give up a significant portion of… myself.”

“Is that what this is about?” Myka asked. “You becoming somebody else? Like… like your body, as Emily, got adjusted to it, to this time, but you didn’t?”

“In a way, yes, I’m feeling somewhat mismatched. I had thought, before, that I could at least rely on my own body to remain mine, even if the feeling of being in time was not right and the surroundings were not right.”

“And what about me?” Myka asked, because she couldn’t stop herself. “Was I not right either?”

At this, Helena smiled. “Of course you were not right. With your height and your gun and your privilege. I had never met your like.” She cocked her head. “I still haven’t met your like, despite the fact that I’ve now met many women of this time.”

“Are you flattering me so I’ll stop bugging you?”

Helena’s hand snaked through her hair, Wells-speak for “I am unsure of how to respond.”

Myka sighed. “Oh, skip it. We can just stop here. I know you feel how you feel, and I know that wishing you were more tactful about it is ridiculous. Yes, I’m sure we are softer now; it’s true that we have all kinds of fancy creature comforts. But you like some of those creature comforts, you know.”

“Of course I like them! I never said I didn’t like them. Indoor plumbing is miraculous! Central heating! Air conditioning! Google! I am simply saying that I can feel myself becoming accustomed to these things, and that makes me… nervous, for want of a better word.”

“It’s like you don’t want to live in the everyday world at all, sometimes. In this time period or any time period. It’s like you want everything to be inventions and time travel and space aliens. There’s toothpaste too, you know. Which you could start remembering to cap, by the way. It’s easy: you just flip the top back down.”

“But I do want everything to be inventions and time travel and space aliens. And so do you. If you thought otherwise, you would have left the Warehouse long ago. And yet here we both are.”

Myka had to concede that point. “Okay, but still. The toothpaste. And the thing is, there are always tradeoffs—you get accustomed to the corrupting hot showers, but you also, you have to admit, have a lot more freedom. As a woman, I mean. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s certainly better.”

“Tradeoffs,” Helena echoed, but she was beginning to smile again. “Clever.”

“Yeah. For example, I get called a hermetically sealed softie, but I also get to sleep with you. For another example, the whole Warehouse thing, trading the comfort of normal for the… for the I-don’t-know-what of ‘endless wonder.’ And I’m willing to admit it: some days, that one’s a trade I’m not entirely sure is worth it.”

“Some days I’m entirely sure that it is not worth it. As are you, I suspect. Other sorts of trades, those you are making me consider in a new light. So I thank you for that.” She inclined her head: her little almost-bow. 

You also get to sleep with me,” Myka reminded Helena, because that tiny formality had made her heart do its customary flip. She wanted to lean over and kiss her, but really, they hadn’t fought often enough yet for her to feel like she had a good read on what would be received well and what wouldn’t.

“So I do,” Helena said. “The idea of which is, I believe, in some way how this whole conversation began.”

“Hm?”

“The idea that embodiment has its advantages. That I’m genuinely happy to be re-embodied. But that I have misgivings about the body into which I have been re-embodied. Yes?”

“Yes,” Myka said. “I know. And I would say that I’m sorry about how your misgivings arose, but I keep thinking that if it hadn’t been for all of it, we wouldn’t be here now, so… if maybe I’m a tiny bit more at peace than you are with what happened? I’ve got the mental space to be. And, I guess, the bodily space to be. Nothing happened to my body.”

“Oh, things happen to your body all the time,” Helena said, but in such a way that Myka was hard put to figure out if she meant it as salaciously as it sounded. As it turned out, she didn’t (disappointing, but still), because she followed it up with, “This is the Warehouse. If something strange is not happening to one’s body, then one must be on holiday.”

“You’re a little bit clever yourself,” Myka told her.

“A little bit? I suspect you’re trying to distract me.”

“Maybe a little bit.”

And this was how it was. Myka was fairly certain they were going to have to confront Emily Lake’s life at some point, but so far all they had were vague ideas about how to do that, and no time to put them into practice. Myka knew, though, that the longer they waited, the worse it was probably going to be. It wasn’t wise to let Helena stew for too long about anything—her being bronzed should have taught the world that, if nothing else.

Helena did go to therapy regularly, as mandated by the Regents, and while she used to take on a brittleness, one that she would almost invariably cover with exaggerated nonchalance, that sense of hardened fragility was almost completely gone now. She was softer, whether she liked it or not. It made Myka wonder about who Helena had really been before all the tragedy and rage, all the seemingly interminable time. It made Myka wonder whether that Helena would have chosen her, and vice versa. There was something to be said for right place, right time.

This place, this time, driving a rental car, leaving Chicago behind—and Helena did, as gloriously anticipated, let her hand drape across Myka’s thigh, as something that could just happen because she felt like doing it. And Myka could, and did, cover Helena’s hand with her own, with Pete snoring in the back seat—but even if he hadn’t been asleep, they still could do this. He’d roll his eyes and make a comment; they’d comment back, and it would be… normal. As normal as anything could be when you were driving toward a county fair where people were rioting about pie and running from imaginary giant rabbits.

TBC

Chapter Text

An outbreak of belief, Claudia had called it at first. Myka knew that plenty of malevolent people would certainly rub their hands in villainous glee at the thought of making people believe them, which could turn into a real problem if whoever was using whatever artifact knew what they were doing. This malevolent villain (was that redundant?) might make her and Pete and Helena believe that they didn’t really want to neutralize the artifact, along with anything else struck their fancy, such as… well, Myka couldn’t think of anything more outrageous than alien bunnies at the moment, and she didn’t want to spend a lot of time on new ideas, lest she call them into being.

“Helena,” she said, just to confirm what she pretty much knew, “you don’t have any earplugs, do you?”

Helena didn’t ask why Myka wanted to know; she just said, “Not that I’m aware. Not unless you slipped some into my bag.”

“Nope,” Myka said. “But maybe I should have, because I’m thinking that belief is pretty dangerous, and if it’s caused by something everyone’s hearing…”

“You think we ought, like Odysseus, to lash ourselves to the mast? Figuratively speaking, of course?”

“Yeah. At least one of us should take some kind of precautions, so that person could talk the other two out of the alien bunnies being real. If that’s even possible, which of course we don’t know yet.”

“But you are thinking ahead, and it seems perfectly reasonable. I’ll volunteer to stop my ears, if you like. Don’t you have cotton wool somewhere?”

“At home, where it isn’t doing us any good… but we’d most likely need professional-grade earplugs, or maybe even headphones. You know, like for shooting—but that’s right, you don’t go shooting. I don’t know why I keep forgetting that.”

“You think I need to practice. I don’t.”

“I don’t see why you don’t. If I don’t practice, my shot goes off like crazy.”

“You—what is the term?—yes, you ‘psych yourself out.’ You believe that your practicing has an effect, and so it has the effect you wish it to when you do it, and without it, you cannot achieve the effect. I, however, despise the practice, as well as the guns themselves, of course, so it would have little positive effect on my efforts.”

“But then why aren’t you bad at it?” Myka asked, even though she already knew the answer.

“Because it is a simple physical task, and I excel at simple physical tasks.”

“I’m going to have that embroidered on a pillow for you.”

“That will be a delightful addition to the sitting room, will it not? Leena will simply adore it.”

“Although I don’t guess we can really walk around a fair in ear protection, can we?” Myka asked. It wasn’t just Helena; they tended to fall into and out of conversations like that, picking up threads that had seemingly been dropped, sometimes after minutes, sometimes after days. More than once, Claudia had had to raise her hand and ask “just what is anybody talking about here,” and Myka or Helena would have to explain that yes, it was last Thursday when Myka had raised the question of how to interpret a particular notation in a file, and Helena had needed to think about it, and now she had, and she was at last able to give Myka the answer she sought. Which in turn caused Claudia to raise both hands. In surrender.

“I don’t know what constitutes fashionable attire at fairs today,” Helena said. “Perhaps ear protection is all the rage?

“Doubtful,” Myka said with a smile. “You’ll probably see some funny hats. Oh, and some face paint.”

“Face paint? As in… savages?”

“Wow, sometimes the difference is really Kipling and everything. You probably don’t want to use that word anymore, because somebody’s likely to get the wrong idea. And in answer to your question, no, not like that. For some reason, kids get stuff like rainbows and butterflies painted on their faces. Sometimes, like, cat whiskers.”

“So perhaps a bit like savages.”

“More like KISS!” Pete said from the back seat. Myka glanced in the rear view mirror in time to watch him roll his body up to sit. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. “She doesn’t know who KISS is, does she?”

“I’ve always considered a kiss a what, rather than a who,” said the “she” in question. “So, in my notes for today: don’t call anyone a savage, and a kiss is someone in particular?”

“No, see,” Pete began, and he seemed to be genuinely thrilled to have woken up just so he could start talking about this, “KISS is a band.”

“Not a band of savages?” Helena asked, twinkling.

“You’re just getting the word out of your system now, aren’t you,” Myka said.

“Yes. It had several uses left in it, so I thought—”

“Anyway!” Pete poked Helena in the shoulder, and she obediently made a half-turn to look at him more directly. “KISS is a rock band that started in the seventies. And they needed a gimmick, and their gimmick was, they made up their faces in mostly black and white. And they never appeared without their makeup, so nobody really knew what they looked like. It was a huge deal when they finally took the makeup off. Paul looked pretty much like you expected him to, but Gene? Man, that was a surprise.”

“And I need this information because…?”

“You need it because… I guess you don’t, not really, but come on, it’s KISS! Here, I’ll show you.” He rummaged in his bag, withdrew his phone, and almost made Myka wreck the car when he lunged to plug it into the stereo system. And that was how they ended up rolling into Kenosha: windows down, heads banging (even Helena was moved to nod along, albeit in that genteel way that was clearly mostly a comment on how crazy everyone around her was), roaring about partying every day.

Their noise was no match for the fair, which assaulted them even before they reached the acres-wide parking lot. They weren’t even a match for the car next to them, which was booming something that, when Helena asked about it, Myka could identify only as “rap? of some kind?” And Pete sighed, which she knew was an editorial comment on her wretched lack of pop culture knowledge, and said, “That is old school Beastie Boys! Which, props to the kids for knowing their history. Unlike you, Mykes. Sad. Just sad. Sometimes I think Claud and I need to sit H.G. and you down for some long overdue lessons.”

“That’d be great,” Myka said. “Because we have so much spare time, what I want to spend it on is seminars about the Beastie Boys. And I know who they are, by the way.”

“You couldn’t recognize ‘Shadrach’ if somebody had a gun to your head. Which, that would probably be H.G., given you two and guns and everything, but she wouldn’t do it because she couldn’t recognize ‘Shadrach’ either.”

Helena said, “I wouldn’t do it because I have no intention of holding a gun to Myka’s head ever again, thank you. Nor an intention to attend a seminar on these beastly boys.”

“Beastie. It’s just the Bea-stie-boys!”

“Whatever!” Myka and Helena shot at him in unison.

“Geez, lighten up, you two. We’re at the fair! Where there are rides and food and people having delusions!”

When they entered the fairgrounds proper, however, no one seemed to be having delusions. Myka looked disappointedly around, hoping for some evidence that the thing had happened again, but finding nothing other than the expected level of activity. And food. Pete was already looking longingly at booths full of things that Myka wouldn’t put in her body if her life depended on it. Rather, she’d put them in her body only if her life depended on it, like if she were stuck on a desert island and the only food were cotton candy. Or, as one sign had it, deep-fried cheese curds. She shuddered.

“Deep-fried cheese curds,” Pete chose that moment to sigh, as if it would be the fulfillment of his life to get his hands, and more importantly his mouth, on some. Sometimes it really was like he could read her mind, but in a completely contrary bizarro-world way.

“Get your cheese curds,” she told him. “Go on. I’m sure Helena would love to try them too.”

Helena raised a brow. “Yes. Of course.”

“Sure, I’ll share. And it’ll help me blend in, if I’m carrying food,” Pete said cheerfully. “That’s what small-town America likes to do, is eat.”

“Deep-fried cheese curds,” Helena said experimentally.

“Anything they can get their hands on,” Pete countered.

“Sad to say, we should probably split up,” Myka told Helena as Pete made a beeline for the counter.

“Alas, I agree. One of us to the rabbit location, one to the pie site, and one… generalist? Who can simply ask around?”

“That would be Pete,” Myka said. “Do you want bunnies or pies?”

“Pies, please,” Helena said. “I had a rabbit once as a child. Horrible, dirty creature. Repeatedly attempted to bite me. Although I did rather like it at the start. I was very young, and so was it, and the appeal of soft fur was simply insurmountable.”

“I can sort of see you with a rabbit,” Myka said. “But they don’t seem responsive enough for you. But then again, I’d think a dog would be too responsive, and that you’d end up in the middle with a cat, but you hate cats. How do you feel about iguanas?”

“That they should be admired from a distance, a great distance in fact, and left undisturbed to waddle about or sun themselves or do whatever it is iguanas do when they are at home, or not at home, as long as they are not in my home,” Helena said, without even so much as taking a breath.

Myka chuckled. “No iguanas. Check.”

“I’ve never felt much of a need for a pet at all, really. Don’t you find the ferret to be more trouble than it’s worth? We not have sufficient responsibilities without adding on worries about whether Trailer or Dickens or the iguana, god forbid, has been fed or groomed or—”

Myka was tempted, as she so often was, to shut Helena up with a kiss, but the job of stopping the disquisition on pet ownership was accomplished for her by a blond woman who ran to Helena, threw her arms around her, and shouted, “Emily! Oh my god, Emily!”

Helena turned white. Myka felt her own mouth fall open. Pete chose that moment to lope up, a cardboard cup of cheese curds in each hand—and then his mouth fell open. “Who’s that?” he squawked, once he got his jaw working again.

Myka yanked him toward her. “Somebody who knows Emily Lake,” she whispered. Somebody who knows Emily Lake pretty damn well, she went on in her head, because the woman showed no inclination to let go of Helena.

Helena herself was awkwardly patting the woman’s back and widening her eyes at Myka, as if to say, What now? Myka shrugged. “Act like you know her,” she mouthed. Helena rolled her eyes, thus indicating she had decided to do exactly the opposite. Myka could hear the plummy British voice in her head already, haughtily intoning “I beg your pardon.”

It was Pete, of course, who started to make it all a little better. He tapped the blond woman on the shoulder and said, “Hi? Have we met? I’m Pete, and you are…?” Which meant she pretty much had to let go of Helena and turn around, and as she did, Myka watched Helena consider and reject the idea of ducking and running away. Not that Myka would have blamed her for doing that, not at all. Because if there was one thing Helena hated more than being prevented from doing what she wanted to do, it was being forced to do something before she was well and truly ready to do it. And Myka was completely certain that Helena was in no way ready to deal with the Emily Lake problem as a problem.

TBC

Chapter Text

“Who am I?” the woman demanded. “Who are you? And Emily!” She whirled around to face Helena again. “Why are you in Wisconsin, of all places? How could you just disappear like that?”

Helena took a breath. “I’m terribly sorry,” she began, and she was in fact employing the most plummy, posh voice she had in her vocal arsenal (at least, that Myka had ever heard her use). “I’m afraid I am not this… Emily.”

“But I… but you… but it’s you! Emily, it’s me! How can you not recognize me?”

“But I don’t,” Helena hurried to say, “because as I told you, my name is not Emily.”

Myka saw Helena get something from that statement, and she wondered if she should be worried that Helena needed to say that, needed to reaffirm that she wasn’t Emily at all? Now Myka was thinking that they should have spent a lot more time talking about it, talking about her, regardless of how uncomfortable it might have been or how many fights they might have had.

The blond woman peered at Helena. Then, quite unexpectedly, she poked Helena in the chin. Helena reared back, as a spooked horse might have done; Myka wanted to soothe her and offer her a piece of apple, or whatever one was supposed to do, but Helena wouldn’t have noticed anything she tried. She just stared at the woman. “Whatever did you do that for?” she asked, but in such a way that now Myka was the one brought up short. Helena knew. Or maybe, she didn’t know, but she knew something about it, and that was almost as bad. And Myka began to look more closely at the woman, and she didn’t at all like what she saw. Now Myka was starting to feel something that she didn’t particularly enjoy feeling, something that she had always known would come up in relation to Helena. That much smarts and beauty already attracted plenty of attention, and apparently Emily Lake had attracted some of her own.

Myka tried, in that moment, to resolve to keep it to herself; jealousy was about insecurity, and she had no reason to feel insecure in relation to someone who wasn’t even a part of Helena’s real, remembered past. But then her mind jumped to the idea that she might be a part of Helena’s body’s past, and that made Myka want to body-block her away from Helena. She is mine and that is the end of it! she wanted to shout. Go away! She could feel a disaster taking shape; what form it was taking, she couldn’t quite tell, but it was looming. Like a funnel cloud. And you thought it would be funnel cakes instead. You fool.

Helena and the woman were still locked on each other. Helena reached up and touched her own chin. “I repeat,” she said, “why did you do that?” But this time, she asked not indignantly, but as if she really wanted to know.

“It’s you,” the woman said. “That’s your sharp chin. How can you… why are you pretending not to know me? And,” as if it were just dawning on her, “what’s with the voice?”

“This is… this is simply my voice,” Helena said, but a bit weakly. She looked at Myka, possibly for help, but Myka found herself unable to move or speak or do any of the things she would normally have done. She was transfixed by the tableau of Helena and her… girlfriend? Emily Lake and her girlfriend? She had no idea what she was looking at. She herself had never thought of Helena’s chin as particularly sharp, but she supposed that that was because she’d never particularly thought of Helena’s chin at all. Did that make her a bad girlfriend? For not noticing?

“Ma’am,” Pete said, “I think we’re dealing with a case of mistaken identity here. Her name is Helena, and as I mentioned I’m Pete, and this is Myka. We’re pretty sure Helena doesn’t know you. Right, Helena?”

It was beyond weird to hear Pete say Helena’s actual name like that, over and over, instead of “H.G.,” though Myka understood why he was doing it: as much to remind and comfort Helena herself as to make that woman stop calling her “Emily.”

“What?” said the Helena in question. “Oh. Yes. Indeed. I really don’t know you. I’m so sorry. This Emily… you must know her well?”

She squinted at Helena. “It’s a good act. What you’re doing, I mean, it’s really good. I still don’t know why, and I don’t know why you left, and I don’t know what any of it has to do with me—the pretending now, the leaving then. I thought we… well, what I thought doesn’t matter, does it? It clearly doesn’t matter to you, because you left without a single word. I know we hadn’t exactly been shouting anything from the rooftops, but I really thought…”

“You thought?” Helena prompted gently.

Myka could see it then. All in a flash, she could see it: that nice Emily Lake, this woman who was probably very… nice, meeting wherever they met, getting to know each other, taking their time, figuring it out… and Myka thought that if she were not a trained Secret Service agent, she would have collapsed on the ground and started sobbing.

Pete chose that moment to put his hand on Myka’s shoulder. She blinked gratefully at him, and he nodded. “It’s okay,” he said softly. “I see the problem. Well, sort of. Generally. But it’ll be all right.”

“I thought,” the woman said, then glanced at Myka and Pete. “I thought,” she went on, stepping closer to Helena, speaking more quietly, “that we had something. Something real.” She smiled, and Myka got another flash, a flash of how Emily would have looked, smiling back. Or was it Helena? “I’m sorry about your chin. That was silly. I was just so… you really don’t remember how I teased you about that?”

Helena touched her chin again. “It is rather… firm,” she agreed. Then she seemed to snap back to herself. “As it would be, if I resemble this Emily as closely as you suggest.”

“You can’t have been in another accident,” the woman said slowly, as if hypothesizing, “because what are the odds of losing your memory in an accident twice? And why would you turn British all of a sudden?”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “Why would she? So that pretty much shows that we’re not, you know, making this up or anything..”

“No.” The woman now wheeled fully around to face Pete. Myka was seized with the same urge she’d seen in Helena earlier, the strong impulse to just run away. She’d grab Helena first, though. They could both run. “That isn’t what it shows at all. She could just be doing an accent for some reason, although I don’t think it’s a very good one.”

“There is something about you and accents,” Pete said over the woman’s head—she was only about five foot three—to Helena. Then he looked down at her and said, “You should hear her American one. It’s just awful.”

Myka and Helena both immediately said, “Pete!”

“What?” He looked between the two of them. “Oh… right. Lady, you really shouldn’t hear her American one. It’s that bad. The British one’s real, though, because if there’s one thing we know, it’s that H.G.’s British. Am I right?”

At this, the blond woman swung back around to Helena. “Now I know something’s up. H.G.? Like the writer, H.G. Wells?”

“Something like that,” Helena said. “But what does that have to do with—”

“Like the writer, H.G. Wells, who was Emily’s—your—favorite? I never understood what you saw in that guy’s stuff, but if that’s what you like, then it’s what you like. Too boring for me, but after that argument we had about it, I’m perfectly happy to back off and let you have your opinion. I can’t believe you’re acting like you don’t remember that fight.”

“I can certainly imagine having such a fight,” Helena said, not at all smoothly. Myka wanted to smack her; this was one of those times when her enormous ego about those books was going to get her into trouble. She just could not let it go when somebody took a whack at them, and particularly not when anyone compared her unfavorably to Jules Verne. Myka wanted Claudia to invent earplugs for Helena that would block out the words “Jules Verne” and the title of anything he ever wrote. Because even when it didn’t turn into a matter of life and death or make a disaster of an artifact retrieval, Myka was always later subjected to the same disquisition, the one she’d privately entitled “Why I Am Brilliant and Jules Verne Was an Idiot, by H.G. Wells, Starting But Not Ending with the Fact that I Am Still Alive and He Is Not.” Because it always started with that, with how she had traveled through time, both ways, but he never made it to the moon or under the sea, did he, no he did not. The first time, Myka had tried to say that Verne probably had made it under the sea, maybe not twenty thousand leagues, but it wasn’t as if Helena herself had exactly time-traveled forward either. Helena hadn’t spoken to her for two days—and to get the silent treatment from Helena was in fact pretty frightening. She wasn’t being entirely serious about it, really (because apparently saying “I am not speaking to you” and a collection of other sentences, not all of them utilitarian, didn’t count as speaking) but it was enough to keep Myka from ever venturing an opinion about the topic again.

The woman nodded. “Yeah, I bet you can. If you’re using his initials as some kind of alias, you’re a bigger fan than I thought.”

“I am not a fan,” Helena said sternly. “What a ridiculous idea. Rather, I am—”

“Helena!” Myka said, with more than a little desperation. This was quickly turning into something she had no idea how to deal with—and why was Helena letting this woman push her buttons like this, anyway?—but they still had an artifact to find and deal with. She decided it was time to take control of the situation. She touched the woman’s shoulder and put on her best Secret Service voice. “I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to leave you now. We’re here on sort of a… security issue, and we need to get back to work.”

“Eating cheese curds?” the woman said skeptically. Pete’s mouth was full again.

“Iss thFAIR,” he protested. Myka noticed he was trying to be “polite” by keeping his mouth almost closed. That was oddly sweet of him.

The woman shook her head. “I don’t care about your security issue. Come on, Emily. I want to know what you’re doing here. I also want to know why you disappeared. I think you owe me that much, don’t you?”

Helena sighed. “If you and Emily did enjoy a somewhat… intimate relationship, then of course she would owe you an explanation. She apparently also still owes you a convincing lecture on the literary merits of H.G. Wells’s work—”

Myka looked to the heavens. Helena noticed: she smiled a little. It was the first time she’d acknowledged Myka’s existence in a while, and it comforted Myka a little. Not enough. But a little.

“—but perhaps we’ll leave that for another time,” Helena finished, in a much more level tone. “And I am terribly sorry, but I cannot provide the explanation you seek. Because I am not Emily Lake.”

Myka realized the enormity of the mistake a nanosecond after Helena said it. She tried to steel herself and not betray it.

Pete had clearly caught it too, but he wasn’t as circumspect: he clapped a hand over his mouth, then tried to cover the move by coughing, then started really coughing, and Myka had to pound him on the back while looking at Helena and the blond woman and hoping to god that neither of them had any idea what Helena had just done.

It was a vain hope.

“If you don’t know anything about Emily,” the woman asked—and Myka saw a stilling in her, a readying, and she could see instantly how any version of Helena would recognize and be drawn to that quality—“then how do you know her last name is Lake?”

TBC

Chapter Text

Helena narrowed her eyes, and Myka recognized that look. She’d seen it directed often enough at herself, for it had something to do with “there are right words that can be said, and if I can find them instantly, they will fix everything.”

The problem, of course, was that those right words almost never existed. Even when Helena thought she’d come up with them, had defused the argument or mitigated some thoughtlessness or even just provided reassurance, she was almost always wrong. So, now, what Myka wanted to tell her was, “Just don’t try.”

But Helena didn’t have a chance to try, for the woman was pointing at her again—not poking her in the chin this time, just pointing with a tense finger, a clenched fist. “You know perfectly well I never said it. Jesus, Emily, if you would just tell me! I swear I’m not trying to… I mean, I don’t think we… well, obviously, because you left and you didn’t come back, but what am I supposed to think? What did you expect me to do?”

Helena paled. “I don’t know,” she said, and Myka could feel what really seemed to be something like anguish radiating from her. “And you will think I am saying that as a dodge, as some sort of attempt to put you off, but I genuinely do not know. You suggest that the odds against there having been an accident—another accident, that is—are too great for it to have happened. But odds are odds because you cannot be certain that such events would not occur. And in truth, there has been, in a sense, another accident. I did not plan what happened, no more than I planned the circumstances that led to Emily Lake’s tenure in Wyoming. But the fact of the matter is, I do not remember that tenure. I do not remember you. And I have nothing more than regret—and it is regret—about that to offer you now.”

Okay, Myka thought, if I didn’t already love her, I’d have fallen in love right about the point where she repeated “regret.” And then she realized that the woman was looking at Helena in exactly that way, as if she’d forgotten all about Emily. Well. At least Myka could be jealous in a different way now—a more straightforward way.

“So there’s nothing left?” her rival said. She sounded more curious than heartbroken.

“I’m afraid not,” Helena said. “I was told some things. About the cat, for example.” She glanced at Pete. Then, clearly for Myka’s benefit: “Do you by any chance know what happened to the cat?”

To Myka’s surprise, the woman snorted. “Do I know what happened to the cat… of course I know what happened to him. I scoop out his litterbox every day.”

Helena looked at her without comprehension.

Myka supplied, “She’s got him. Dickens.”

“Oh,” Helena said. “Well. That is a relief, of sorts; Myka did ask after him. I myself am not particularly fond of cats, but apparently Emily—”

“I kept thinking you would just show up one day, you know? You’d show up and say you’d just gotten home, and you couldn’t find Dickens, and you immediately knew that I would have taken care of him for you. Because you would know. If it was you. Which it isn’t anymore, because you loved Dickens so much, but I just don’t see how there isn’t anything of you… of Emily, I mean… left!”

“And yet there was nothing of me, when Emily. Was there. Other than,” and here she smiled a smile that made Myka’s blood boil, because it was clearly meant for the other woman alone, “this rather pointed chin.”

And she smiled back at Helena. Myka had to fight to keep from moving or talking; it didn’t help when Pete nudged her and said, unfortunately a little too loudly, “Uh, maybe need a leash on your girlfriend there, Mykes?”

“Wait,” the woman said. “Wait a minute. She’s your girlfriend now?”

Helena, inexplicably to Myka’s mind, chose to be honest. “Not simply now,” she said. “For quite some time, actually, though we neglected to name it as such, and I neglected to behave in such a way as to—”

“Helena,” Myka said. “Stop it.” Because the woman was going to cry, and Myka had in the past cried for extremely closely related reasons, and Helena just never seemed to be aware of problems like this. Emily Lake probably would have understood, though.

“Quite some time,” Emily Lake’s girlfriend choked. “Quite some time? So when you were with… I mean when Emily was… so, what, you were on some kind of break? Is that it? And what does that make me?”

“We were indeed on some kind of break,” Helena said.

That made Myka roll her eyes. The most understated understatement of all time—“on some kind of break.” Scary Regent pokéball prison, not even in her own body, world-destroying… yeah, some kind of break. And if Myka did not want to lose her mind, she needed to put a stop to this. “Helena,” she said. “You have got to shut up.”

“Shut up?” Helena said, and a split second behind her, the other woman said it too.

Lovely. Now Myka had managed to ally them even more strongly with each other, and now Pete was eyeing her funny too, like she’d really stepped into something awful. Why couldn’t they, all of them, see that this was going nowhere good? And why, also, couldn’t she just rewind time to before the woman saw and recognized Helena, or even to before Artie decided to send Helena along with her and Pete on this stupid retrieval anyway?

“We have work to do?” she said, lamely.

Pete, for once, huffed and said, “Yeah. Actually. I hate to agree with her on this—and everybody knows that’s true—but we really have got to get to… work. You know. Work. H.G.? Could you… I don’t know, deal with your Emily Lake business later on?”

“I am not,” the woman said, “her ‘Emily Lake business.’”

“You kind of are. But you’re pretty much her only Emily Lake business, if that helps any.”

“It doesn’t.”

Myka, watching this, found herself baffled by the alliance-shifting. When Helena said, very softly and very close to her ear, “What am I going to do?”, she nearly shrieked in surprise.

“How should I know?” Myka asked her. “I’ve been in this situation exactly as many times before as you have, which is zero.”

“But I don’t wish to hurt her more than she has clearly already been hurt, and yet I obviously cannot give her what she wants. Even the explanation she wants.”

“Can’t you come up with something? You’re the creative one. Aliens changed you into a different person, then they changed you back, and then they all got the flu and died.”

At this, Helena smiled her “Myka” smile. “You will simply never let that go, will you? It was the only solution I could think of at the time, and I will remind you, it had not been done before.”

Myka realized that the others were watching them. “What?” she said. “I’ve never liked how War of the Worlds ended!”

The woman said, “Wait a minute.”

Pete said, “Ixnay.”

Myka realized that she’d done the exact same thing Helena had earlier. Well, not the exact same, but close enough to mark her as every bit as careless. So she tried to play it off. “It’s just a… it’s like a joke between us,” she said. “We act like she wrote H.G. Wells’s books, because she loves him so much. Don’t we.” She directed this last, sternly, at Helena.

Helena looked like she was wrestling with the idea of having none of it. Finally, she said, strangled, “Yes. Because I love… him… so much.” She looked at the blond woman again, giving her a slightly conspiratorial smile. “As, apparently, Emily did as well. I did not know that, so I thank you for the information.”

“How can you not know that?”

“I told you. I know almost nothing about Emily. She was… a teacher? And fond of a cat? That was all I knew until five minutes ago, and now I know about her feelings about H.G. Wells.” Myka almost laughed at how Helena sounded, saying her own name but trying to say it like she’d say “William Shakespeare.” Then Myka didn’t feel like laughing at all anymore, because Helena went on, “Her fondness, that is, for… him. And also, clearly, her fondness for you.”

That made the woman blush and Myka grit her teeth. Helena could be so damn charming. The charm just dripped from her, from her voice and the tilt of her head and everything.

“I have an idea,” Pete said.

Great, Myka thought. What the world needs now. Then she backtracked; that was nasty. Pete hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Here’s my idea: Helena, why don’t you and your… friend… go talk a little about Emily Lake. Myka and I can go and get some, you know, work done, and then we can meet back up with you in a while. How’s that?”

He hadn’t even looked at Myka, and she suspected that that was because he knew exactly how she felt about that idea. But it did make a certain amount of sense, even though the idea of Helena alone with this woman made Myka want to throw herself physically between them.

Helena opened her mouth, then closed it again. She raised an eyebrow at Myka, who didn’t respond. “That does seem,” Helena said, “like a reasonable suggestion. If you’re sure you and Myka don’t mind my shirking my duties for a short while.” She looked openly, expectantly, at Myka.

Who turned her eyes to the cheese curd stand. Then to the Ferris wheel. Then to random people walking by. Anything to keep her from having to look back at Helena and be reasonable about this. “It’s fine,” she said. “Come on, Pete.” And then she walked, very purposefully, in a direction.

She heard Pete say to Helena, “Call me when you’re done. Or I’ll call you if we need you, okay?”

“Fine,” Helena said, but her voice was getting fainter due to Myka walking as fast as her long legs would carry her.

TBC

Chapter Text

“Hey!” Pete huffed as he caught up with Myka. He grabbed her elbow to stop her and said, “Look, I know you’re mad, but don’t take it out on me. You know I can’t keep up when you run, plus I just ate a lot of cheese curds.”

“I am not running,” Myka told him. “I am walking. I am walking with purpose, and that purpose is to find an artifact, in case you forgot.”

“Well, in case you forgot, your girlfriend went through a pretty traumatic thing not too long ago, and I know she’s been wondering about Emily Lake, so you might want to just back off a little bit. You looked like you wanted to gut both of them, and how is that cool?”

“How do you know she’s been wondering about Emily? Have you been eavesdropping on us?”

Pete looked pained. “I’m gonna ignore that, because it’s a mean thing to say, and I would never eavesdrop. Except accidentally, because you guys can get… loud. But I wasn’t, accidentally or on purpose. I know because she asked me all kinds of questions about what Emily’s apartment was like—what kind of stuff did she have, even what color was it painted. I felt bad for not remembering much about it, so I told her to ask you. Then she got a look kind of like the one you have now, like you’re extra-ticked but also extra-gloomy, and she said something about it being a sore subject.”

Myka sighed. “It is a sore subject. Sort of. We tried to talk about it once but got into an argument about something else.” She kicked at a rock. She kicked at another. “I should have backed off, and more than a little bit. You’re right.”

“And I know how much you hate that. When I’m right, I mean—and even worse, when you feel like you have to say I’m right.” He was teasing, but then his face softened. “I get it, though. I really do. That blond chick’s right there, looking at your girlfriend like she owns her. I mean, I wasn’t even married to Amanda anymore, but seeing her with her new guy really messed me up. Looking at her like she’s his. Not that a woman belongs to her husband, I don’t mean it like that, but we all get possessive, right?”

“Right,” Myka said softly. “And it goes both ways. What if this had played out in reverse? What if we’d gone to Wyoming and seen Emily with her, and I’d gone up to Emily and acted like she was Helena? I know it wouldn’t have been quite the same, since Emily really wouldn’t have had any idea who Helena was, but I would have been… hurt.”

“Hurt?” Pete said. “That is a tiny little word.’

“Probably like never-get-over-it kind of hurt,” Myka admitted.

Pete crossed his arms and made his “deducing” face. “That’s why you sounded like you did.”

“What, just now?”

“No, when we were in that high school. I remember, because I’ve never heard you sound like that before. When you first told me you found her, and then when you said ‘she doesn’t know me.’ You just seemed so… I don’t know. Lost, is the only word I can think of, but that’s a tiny little word too.”

“I was,” Myka said. “Completely. Because, obviously. We had no idea what was going on, right? And when she looked at me, and there was nothing? Like Helena wasn’t even there? Which of course now we know she wasn’t. But I couldn’t… you know I need to process things. And I couldn’t. There wasn’t even anything to process.”

“See, you say these things, and I realize I had no idea about anything. That was going on with you two, I mean. I knew that you were sort of, you know, about each other, but I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know you were married,” Myka said, trying to make him feel better—because it wasn’t his fault for not understanding how much Helena meant to her; she hadn’t even known, not really, not fully. She wasn’t entirely sure, even now, that she knew; she was certain only that if Helena was taken away from her again, she could not see how to live through it. Which meant that Helena meant everything? That was far too large to think about. “Maybe that makes us even.”

Pete looked skeptical. “Not really even. Because mine was in the past, the drinking past. Yours was—”

“Mine was in the past too. I thought it was, anyway. Maybe that was part of what confused me so much—I never expected to see her in the flesh, walking around, ever again. And yet there she was, but she wasn’t. I had all these feelings, but nothing to do about them.”

“And she didn’t even recognize you. Yeah, I get it. Because what would you want, more than anything else at that point? To see her, and to have her see you. And you got one but not the other. It’s like a soap opera, isn’t it, like an amnesia plot. Hey, maybe that’s what H.G.’s coming up with for her, some old-fashioned twisty-turny amnesia plot. It’s kind of up her alley, right? Because it’s all clichéd now, but it’s not like H.G.’s been watching a whole lot of General Hospital.”

“Does this mean you’ve been watching a whole lot of General Hospital?”

“Not lately, but I used to. With my grandma. She loved General Hospital, and Guiding Light, and Days of Our Lives. Aren’t they all gone now, anyway? Or most of them?”

Myka had watched one episode of her college roommate’s favorite soap—she didn’t even remember which one it was—and then decided that this was absolutely not for her. She remembered saying something about how she would never ever waste her time on something like that again. It served undergraduate-Myka right, then, that she was now living in an enormous soap opera, complete with twisty-turny amnesia plots and conveniently repeating appendectomies and all kinds of shocking revelations that you could not see coming. The justice was absolutely poetic. “The TV soap operas might be gone,” she said to Pete, “but the real ones are here to stay.” She picked up her pace, trying to scan the area for anything suspicious.

“Real ones?” Pete started trotting to keep up. “What real ones?”

“The ones we’re always in,” she said. “The ones where people think giant bunnies are coming after them.”

“See, that’s your problem. You don’t know the difference between a soap opera and a horror movie. I think your life would instantly improve if you understood movie and TV genres a little better. Or just, even, a little in the first place.”

All right, maybe she’d been wrong about the part that was poetic justice. It was poetic justice that she, who’d always dismissed most of the world as unsuitably nonintellectual, had landed a partner who was proudly nonintellectual and used that to his advantage. To their advantage, she had to admit. “If people are hallucinating the giant bunnies, it isn’t a horror movie,” she said. “Right? It’d be horror only if the bunnies were actually there. But I’ll give you that it probably isn’t a soap.”

“Depends on why they’re hallucinating,” Pete said, as if this were a real problem they had to work out. “If it’s because a serial killer’s decided that the best way to go after them is to make them hallucinate? A horror movie. But if it’s because they all ate the same bad borscht, then it might turn out to be just some gross-out comedy.” Then he looked at Myka. “Which it will absolutely not be, because I know you hate those.”

“Thank you. Now could we please figure out whatever this artifact is so we can get out of here?”

“So we can get H.G. away from her ex, you mean.”

“Yes, Pete. Because I have no actual interest in finding the artifact or going home.”

“Don’t be mean. Man, remind me to just tesla anybody else who ever runs up and says they know Emily Lake, okay? Because I really don’t like you like this, and I figure that if you’re like this, H.G.’s gonna be all messed up in some other bad way, and there I’m going to be, stuck with the both of you. So I’m just going to make it all go away next time.”

“If there turns out to be a next time,” Myka said darkly, “then I will tesla both of them.”

“What, H.G. too? Because there’s no way that could make a bad situation worse. Or have you forgotten that she gets the drop on you half the time? With my luck, you’d tesla each other, and the ex and I would just be standing there trying to make small talk. Although, judging from this girl? Emily had pretty good taste, if you know what I mean, so maybe that could work out just fine.”

“Except for the part where she would be into women instead of you, I’m sure you’re right.”

“You never know. Emily might subconsciously be looking for somebody like H.G., somebody who swings both ways. Clearly Emily was looking for H.G. in some way, if she liked his—I mean her—I mean her own—books enough that she and her girlfriend had a fight about it.”

“Well,” Myka said, “Mr. Kosan did let her keep—what was it?—her love of literature. And don’t you figure that since it’s Helena, the literature she loved best would be her own?”

“Egomaniac!” Pete coughed.

“She kind of is,” Myka agreed, “but isn’t it justified? Not that stupid War of the Worlds ending, of course, but, you know, time machine. Rocket..”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re both supergeniuses, it’s destiny, whatever.” He paused, pointed at the plastic and metal structure that loomed on their left, and said, “That’s gotta be the livestock barn there, so let’s go find us some bunnyphobes.”

Myka looked around for someone official and found an older woman wearing a bronze medallion that read “JUDGE.” “Excuse me, ma’am… are you one of the livestock judges?”

The woman seemed startled, and startleable. As if, maybe, she’d recently been scared by giant rabbits. “What? Yes, I am. Or I was. After this morning, I don’t think so.”

Myka glanced at Pete. “Are you talking about the… incident? We’re from… from the newspaper,” she improvised, “and we were trying to get some eyewitness accounts, now that things have… uh, died down a little. I’m Myka, and this is Pete.”

“I’m Ida Thatcher. I’d say I’m pleased to meet you, but since you’re here because of that, I’m not at all pleased. It was horrible. Rabbits… they aren’t my area of expertise, but in the past I’ve always liked them.”

Pete said, in an obvious attempt to bond with her, “Yeah, they’re generally pretty cute. Fluffy.”

Ida Thatcher looked at him like he had suddenly turned into a giant rabbit monster. “I meant to eat, of course,” she said, “not for their… fluff.”

Pete shook his head. “Sorry. Forgot where I was for a minute there. So you were in the tent when it happened? What did you actually see?”

“The head of the livestock committee, Paul Leland, was up on the platform giving some remarks to open the competition. He was saying funny things about the animals, you know, the chicks being extra-downy this year—and they did seem particularly soft; I know because I was standing right next to a hot box when he said it, and they just had this look to them—and then he said what he said about the rabbits and that movie—and then the next thing any of us knew, they were all just there, just huge and awful, and we were doing all we could to get away. I think most everyone made it out all right, and they bolted the door to keep them all in. Then some of the other staff who’d rushed over to help us got brave a little while later and peeked in, and they didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. One of them got on the PA and told us it was all right to go back in, that it was probably some kind of hallucination.”

Pete asked, “Did everybody maybe eat the same thing? Or did you all smell something weird?”

“It’s a livestock barn,” she said.

“Right,” Pete responded. “You know what? I like you.”

“Well, you seem like a very nice young man yourself.”

Myka sighed, but quietly. Pete’s ability to bond with people was useful and frustrating in equal measure. “So,” she said, wanting to make some contribution, “Paul Leland? Does he just do this for livestock, or is he in charge of other areas too? Anything to do with baking?”

“Heavens, no. If you saw him you’d understand. If he knows the first thing about how to use an oven, I’d be surprised. That’s his wife’s domain, and if we’re talking about baking, hers is just exceptional. I know it sounds so traditional.” She looked Myka up and down, as if she expected her to start reciting The Feminine Mystique. “But that’s just how they are.”

Myka tried to keep her tone neutral, for a variety of reasons. “And does his wife participate in the fair too? The baking? Does she run a committee, is she a judge?”

“Oh, no. She wins the pie competition almost every year. Except when Agnes Rawlston’s sister in Florida sends limes at the right time—then it’s Agnes’s key lime pie. You literally can’t beat it.”

Well, she did know how to use “literally” the right way, which Myka was always happy to hear. Myka would have thrown out a Pete-esque bonding attempt, but she’d tried that once, ages ago, and the person had clearly used it correctly by accident, and everyone ended up feeling like an idiot. Except Pete, who’d defused the whole thing by saying “Oh yeah? Well, I’m literally starving, so where’s the best place to get a quesadilla in this town?” He’d saved the interview, and probably the entire retrieval.

She decided to stick to business. “So is this a key lime pie year?”

“It is,” their subject affirmed. “Paul’s wife, Ginny, made a peach/apple that, as I heard the judges tell, would have lapped the field any other year. For Ginny it’s a point of pride not to do the same pie twice, and I know she does resent that Agnes sticks with just the one. But I say, if it works, then why not?”

Pete looked at Myka with his “this is significant” face, to which she usually wanted to hold up a sign that said, “I know.”  He asked, “So do they get along at all, these ladies? Or do they leave all this hostility on the field—no, I guess, in the kitchen?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know them that well. But I think they’re in the same book club, if that helps at all.”

“I don’t know about that,” Pete said. “I’ve heard that discussions at some of those things can get pretty, you know, heated. Maybe they disagree about all fifty shades of gray, too.”

Sometimes Myka really did want to strangle him. This nice little old lady was being so helpful, and then he had to go and bring up that not-even-good-enough-to-be-actual-pornography caricature of a book, which would probably offend her because it was porn or, best-case scenario, offend her because it was bad—

And then the nice little old lady in question started laughing her head off.

I need a refresher course in human behavior, Myka thought. And psychology. And probably everything else that has to do with talking to normal people. And then I would like to meet some of those normal people.

Myka figured that if she was going to be in some kind of poetically justified soap opera horror movie, then it was most likely appropriate on some level of which she had not yet become aware—some level that she would have to unlock, in some video game way, given her obvious longstanding adoration of video games—that hilariously bad porn would be involved too. All of which, she decided, every single last ironic bit, she would be blaming on Helena, despite the fact that there were no readily apparent ways in which this, at least, could possibly be Helena’s fault. They probably had to be unlocked too.

Ida was still laughing, and now Pete was guffawing right along with her. Clearly, Myka had missed a joke. Or several.

“Fifty kinds of pie?” Ida suggested now to Pete. “Oh, but only one kind for Agnes. Should we say that she isn’t very experienced?”

“You are my absolute favorite!” Pete howled.

Yes, Myka thought. Meeting some normal people would be very nice right now.

TBC

Chapter Text

Myka tried to tune out Pete and Ida’s Fifty Shades of Grey comedy routine. Tuning that out, however, led her all too easily to tune into an imagined scene of Helena sitting with Emily Lake’s girlfriend, a scene in which they were sitting close to each other, as they would have to, here at the loud and boisterous fair, if they wanted to hear each other as they talked. A scene in which they were sitting close, talking, with Emily Lake between them but not really between them at all… because Myka was willing to bet that Helena’s body remembered a lot more than it was letting Helena’s mind in on.

And of course it couldn’t have been something simple like an appendectomy that that body remembered. Of course not. No, it had to be some blonde. Some blonde who was right now sitting with Helena and remembering, and prompting Helena’s body to remember, and maybe even letting Helena’s mind in on it now, because nobody knew what really happened when Janus-coin memories were put back into a body, much less the body from which they had originally been drawn. What if Helena’s… Helena-ness?… had only been imposed on her Emily-ness?

Claudia would have some computer-based analogy, Myka was sure, but all Myka herself could think of was a palimpsest, incompletely scraped of Emily Lake, with Helena rewritten on its surface. And if that layer of Emily were indeed still there, what would she be? What would she seem to be, to Helena, or even to herself? A ghost? They’d been thinking of the hologram of Helena as a ghost, but Emily Lake was certainly now haunting Helena, always both there and not-there. A self without a body, a self without access to the body it had been—would it have been less cruel if there could have been a swap of some sort, putting Helena’s self back in her body and Emily Lake into the coin? Either way, someone would have ended up being a self without a body, an essence without a form, an identity without a manifestation… a grin without a cat.

Not until she heard Pete say, in a tone of apology but also confidentiality, “I think it’s just generally a weird day,” did she realize that she must have said the latter words out loud. She was thankful that Pete let her off the hook by saying to Ida, “Anyway, I think it might be a good idea for us to talk to the Lelands. If you had any idea where I could find them, it would really help us out.”

“With your story?” Ida asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Pete said.

“For the local news?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Pete said again.

“And yet before, she said you two were with the newspaper,” Ida informed him.

“Aauugh! First H.G., now me!” he lamented. “Did I say it was a weird day? Also, a bad day. For the talking.”

Myka resisted the impulse to interject that he could, in the interest of accuracy, have stopped at “bad day.”

Ida shook her head. “I don’t know who or what an H.G. is, but I never actually believed you were reporters. You look too official. I watch a lot of television, and I like to think that by now I can tell when people are the sort to carry badges.”

Pete grinned. “You win. I knew I liked you. The thing is, you got it, but the catch is, we can’t tell you much about the investigation.”

“That’s all right. I just can’t believe that anyone who isn’t from here really cares what happens in Kenosha, even if it does involve giant rabbits. But I have to tell you, there’s also something I think is a dead giveaway.”

“How can you tell? Lay it on me, Sherlock,” Pete challenged.

“Oh, do you watch the Sherlock Holmes show on PBS? It’s very enjoyable, although I do think he gets a little short with Watson, who in turn really ought to stand up to Sherlock more. But of course I also watch Elementary. And it’s her clothes.”

“Whose clothes?” Pete asked. “Lucy Liu’s? That’s why you watch Elementary?”

“No, it isn’t, although I do think her little ankle boots are darling. I watch Elementary primarily because I’m of a certain age and it’s on CBS. I mean her clothes.” She pointed at Myka.

This startled Myka. “My clothes? What about my clothes?”

“Not all your clothes. Just your jacket. It’s too big. That’s due to one of three things, most likely: one, you’ve lost weight recently, which… well, if you had, your face would show it, but it doesn’t. Two, you think you need to lose weight and you’re trying to disguise it, which doesn’t seem right, because your pants would be too big in that case too, and also you’re such a tall, skinny thing. No, it has to be three, which is that you’re carrying a weapon of some sort. And there isn’t any local plainclothes operation, and there aren’t any concealed weapons permits to be had. So you’re some kind of out-of-town law enforcement. This charming young man here probably also has a weapon, but men’s clothes fit them so differently, don’t they?”

Myka stared at the “nice little old lady” and felt like a complete fool. She had been making all the generalizing assumptions that she’d been trained not to make, and worse, she’d been paying insufficient attention to the woman herself, who was clearly a fount of information, if they had the brains to ask the right questions.

She pressed her mental reset button—wishing she could do that for everything—and said, “Ma’am, you are stupendously right. So let me ask you this: what deductions have you made about what happened in the livestock tent?”

Ida Thatcher smiled with a radiating glee that reminded Myka of Claudia. “I was hoping you’d ask. All right, here’s what I think. We most likely were hallucinating, because if there had been giant rabbits—which I realize are impossible, but let me talk it out—there would have been some physical trace of them.”

“Meaning big poop,” Pete put in, clearly for Myka’s benefit. “She means big poop.”

Myka fixed him with a glare, both for interrupting and for what he said. “I know she means big poop.”

“You two are just adorable,” Ida Thatcher said. “You should have a television show. I would try that out for an episode or two.”

“Just an episode or two? That’s it?” Pete gave an affronted huff.

“I don’t keep watching if I think I’ll get tired of looking at the actors. They have to have interesting faces.”

“Does Mr. Leland have an interesting face?” Myka asked.

Ms. Thatcher seemed to consider this seriously. “I think he does. I think that’s part of why people choose him to chair committees and stand up in front of us and tell us what’s happening. He does so much public speaking! And he projects his voice so well, too. Which is why I found it a bit odd that he was using the microphone earlier today, and then again in the barn..”

“Okay,” Myka said, “something odd. Can you draw any conclusions from that?”

“At first, I thought he might have a cold, or a touch of laryngitis… but he didn’t really sound any different than usual. My best guess is that he was using it for historical reasons, because it looked old-fashioned. But everything old does seem to be new again, and I don’t know technology particularly well.”

“You might not,” Pete said, “but we know some people who do. Can we get into that barn? Now that everything seems to have died down? I want to get a look at that microphone.”

Myka’s ears had pricked just as Pete’s had, and she was itching to get into the barn for scene-of-the-crime reasons anyway.

Ida Thatcher said, “I do have a key.” She smiled. “All you had to do was ask.”

“You are my new best friend,” Pete announced. “Sorry, Mykes, you’re second in line now.”

“Thanks,” Myka said. “I’ll make a note. For your benefit. Because you might lose track of who’s where on the list.”

“I might watch three episodes,” their informant said, digging through her purse as she led them to the barn doors. “Is there any possibility that you two are…”

“That we are…” Pete echoed. “That we are what?”

“There’s just no way to say this without being far too nosy, so I’ll just say it and be nosy: any possibility that you two are involved?”

“Involved in what?” Pete asked.

Myka was not overjoyed with the direction this conversation was likely to take, but she went ahead and said, “I think she means, involved with each other. Romantically.”

“Oh my god, no!” he said. “Where would you get that idea?”

“It happens so often on the shows,” their little old lady explained. “The partners become partners, if you know what I mean.”

Pete said, “Unfortunately, I do. Except for, I’m not her only partner. And she’s more into the other one for that kind of thing.”

Myka generally loved being right, but she wasn’t thrilled at having pegged how this was going to go. “I’m sure Ms. Thatcher doesn’t want to hear about that,” she said, as brusquely as possible.

The lady in question turned a brilliant smile on Myka. “I would love to hear about that,” she said. “This day was already just about the most dramatic of my life, and it keeps getting better—now I’m basically in a TV show!”

Pete said, “Except for the sad lack of cameras. And high salaries. And don’t you think Wardrobe would have given me a better shirt than this?”

“They might have made you change into one that you hadn’t dripped cheese curds all over,” Myka told him.

“They’ll need an endless supply, then,” he said solemnly.

Ida said to Myka, “Are you sure, dear, that you prefer the other fellow? I like this one.”

“The catch,” Pete confided, “is that the other fellow is not a fellow.”

“Oh,” Ida said. Then it registered. “Oh. Well, this television show just got much more interesting. Now I might watch half a season.”

“Really?” Myka said, though she was starting to wonder why she bothered being surprised by anything about Ida Thatcher, who was clearly determined to bust any and all ideas Myka might have had with regard to little old ladies from Wisconsin.

“Of course. You so rarely see that portrayed on television—and, as my dearest niece has explained to me, even more rarely portrayed well—even in these supposedly modern times. And by ‘well,’ I suppose she means, as people actually live. This, I don’t have any real experience with, but she does have a girlfriend, and they’re as sweet as can be.”

“Yeah,” Pete said. It came out as a sigh. “So are Myka and H.G. It’s incredibly annoying, but what are you gonna do?”

Ida’s brow furrowed. “That’s a funny name.”

“It’s a long story,” Pete said. “I can’t really tell it. Takes too long. Sounds too ridiculous. Lots of sighing and pining, and also uh-oh, the world might literally end, plus a rocket and a cat and an explosion and then everything goes backwards, and… anyway, they ended up sweet. Which would probably make them too boring for TV these days.”

“Well, perhaps after viewers became accustomed to the idea, but until then—as I understand it, they can be very good for ratings.”

Myka wanted to be able to tell someone about this conversation that was being had about her, about her and Helena, someone who would really get the fully insane comedy of it. Helena certainly wouldn’t… maybe Claudia. Probably the best bet. “Because what I want,” she said, feeling strangely disconnected, “is to be good for ratings. That is the whole point of my relationship, isn’t it, Pete?”

“Now, now,” Ida said, “I didn’t mean it like that. But wouldn’t you rather that viewers were interested, instead of having them change the channel?”

“Ms. Thatcher,” Myka said, “you haven’t known Pete very long, so you’re going to have to just go with it when I tell you that I would be over the moon if he would change the channel sometimes. And, honestly, if everyone else would too. Because interested viewers are not high on the list of things I want.”

“Oh,” Ida said. “I suppose I do see what you mean. But it would be different if you were on a show.” She said this last with absolute certainty.

Myka wasn’t so sure. In the first place, she obviously wouldn’t want to be on a show, but in the second place, she figured that if she were on a show, she certainly wouldn’t want her relationship with Helena to be any part of it. Her relationship—if that was even what it was anymore. The sliver of doubt that she always carried in her heart was working its way further in, drawing a line of fear after it: that talking to the girlfriend would somehow prompt that ghost of Emily Lake to make her presence known in all its fullness, and once Helena could really know what Emily Lake knew, could really feel what Emily Lake felt, she would want that—for its simplicity? for its relative ease?—more than she wanted Myka. It wasn’t a realistic fear, of course. Of course it wasn’t. Of course not. But the fact that she could imagine Helena saying “I have to try this,” that she could picture it at all, made her doubts grow.

And if she were on a show, that was exactly what would happen, because it would make for all kinds of drama. But Myka had had it with drama. The Warehouse was always about drama—big, world-shaking drama—and she found herself wishing, on an increasingly regular basis, that she and Helena could shake themselves free of it, just for a little while. That they could wake up in the morning and go to jobs that involved spreadsheets and presentations and nothing else, and then come home and eat dinner and go to bed and not have to jump on a plane and go somewhere like Kenosha with Teslas under their jackets and purple gloves in their pockets.

And if Myka wanted some measure of simplicity, of ease? All the more reason to believe that Helena would want that too. Want it enough to jump at it, if the opportunity arose?

“Yes,” she finally said. “It probably would be different if we were on a show. Although,” she said as Ida found her key and unlocked the barn door, “I bet the giant rabbits would fit right in.”

The door swung open, and they all peeked into the dim space. “They wouldn’t fit in here,” Ida said. “I don’t know why any of us thought they would.”

Pete said, “Maybe everybody took a little bite of some bad mushrooms.”

This, out of all the things, garnered the disapproval of the little old lady from Wisconsin. “Psychedelics are dangerous,” she told him.

“I know. So are giant bunnies,” Pete said with seriousness, “but which would you really rather tangle with?”

Myka said, “I don’t see a microphone.” She was having a hard time seeing much of anything, given that dusk had begun to deepen outside, but the stage-like platform that stood at the opposite end of the barn was empty. “And do you know what else I don’t see?”

“Stuff that’s invisible,” Pete said. “Ooh! Or stuff that’s been cloaked. With a cloaking device!”

“I was going to say, anything to plug an old-fashioned microphone into. But your answer is just as relevant.”

Pete told Ida, “I think we’re definitely going to need to talk to Paul Leland.”

But Paul Leland could not be found. He didn’t answer his cell phone, his wife didn’t answer hers, and no one answered the Lelands’ home phone. Myka called Claudia and asked her to track the mobile numbers, but, “They’re off,” Claudia reported. “Or dead.”

“I need you to look at microphones for me,” Myka told her.

“Look at them how? Look at them funny? I could do that. I could shoot ’em the side-eye.” Myka’s only response to this was a frustrated exhale, and Claudia exhaled a sigh in return, asking, “Are you okay? You seem more you than usual.”

“I’m fine,” Myka snapped. “Microphone artifacts. Please.”

“Chilly front coming in from Kenosha. But roger that. How’s the fair, anyway?”

“Fine,” Myka said.

“Okay. The fair sucks, roger that too. I bet Pete and H.G. like it better than you do, Artie junior.”

“I bet they do,” Myka muttered. “Cheese curds and some blonde.”

Claudia must have heard “no trespassing” somewhere in those words, for she said, “Microphones. Gotcha,” and disconnected.

“I’m sorry, Claud,” Myka said to the air. She saw Pete looking at her.

Ida, who had been occupied with calling as many people as she could think of who might have seen Paul Leland, informed them that “not since the… incident” was the unvarying response. She then took Pete’s number; texted him a picture of Paul and his wife “so you can canvass more effectively”; said that obviously they would want to split up in order to conduct an efficient search; determined that she would take the Kiwanis booth, the school exhibit, and the Pasta House; and struck out on her mission.

Pete sighed about having to look for a needle named Paul in a haystack called the fair, or Kenosha as a whole, or maybe the entire world, and why couldn’t he be the one to ask around at the Pasta House—all this before Myka registered what he was doing, which was in fact calling Helena to say, “Hate to break up your reunion or whatever, but all hands on deck, Emily. Meet us at the livestock barn ASAP.” He then turned to Myka and said, “C’mon, partner. Take it down a notch, or whatever it is your species does. You always make things more complicated than they need to be.”

“Really? I’m in love with someone who’s over a hundred years old who invented a time machine and tried to start a new ice age and died to save us and lived in a coin for a while and just met somebody else’s ex-girlfriend who’s actually her own ex-girlfriend and you say I’m the one making things complicated?”

“Yeah. Stop that sentence at ‘I’m in love.’ That’s plenty complicated right there.”

“I’m not saying it isn’t, but—”

Pete put his hand up in front of her mouth. “But ssh. H.G.’s gonna show up, you’re gonna be cool, we’re gonna find this dude and his magic mic, and in the end you guys’ll be all right and I’ll get to spend some quality time watching cars hit each other. Okay?”

“Okay, but—”

“What’d I just say?”

“Cars hit each other okay.” She kicked a rock. She was tired of feeling like she needed to kick rocks.

“Okay then.”

And when Helena did show up, wearing an expression that Myka thought could be described only as “inscrutable,” Myka tried. She said, in what she thought was a very reasonable, measured tone, “So how did it—”

“Not now, Myka,” Helena said.

The speed of the interruption, its clipped tone—“not now” seemed also to contain a strong hint of “not ever.” Myka hardened. “Fine,” she said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t. Please, don’t.”

And if there was real pleading in that “please?” And if that pleading had to do not with “not now” but with the tone Myka’s voice had taken on? Myka wasn’t inclined give in to that. “Fine,” she said. “I won’t.”

TBC

Chapter Text

After hours of asking around, showing the photo around, all Myka had been able to find out was that half the people at the fair seemed to know the Lelands personally, and a good portion of the other half nodded in recognition at the picture. But no one had seen them. No one. Pete had proposed, then rejected his own proposal of, flashing their badges and getting fair administrators to issue some kind of grounds-wide bulletin, “because if he’s a bad guy, we don’t want to tip him off that we’re onto him.”

“But how can it even be true,” Pete asked when he, Myka, and Helena met up again, just prior to the fair closing for the night, “that people wouldn’t be, you know, on the lookout for some guy who’s just made everybody believe in giant Night-of-the-Lepus bunnies? Does he turn invisible too?”

That hit Myka in a way that made her think… “Well,” she said. “Belief.”

And Helena made a small noise of inhalation—clearly also of realization—and said “Oh.” It was the first syllable she’d issued in Myka’s direction since the livestock barn. Granted, they’d been covering different parts of the fairgrounds, but even so… a text wouldn’t have gone amiss. Then again, Myka would have been in no mood to text back.

“La-la,” Pete said. “What are the actual words? And don’t tell me they’re ‘I love you,’ because I know you two are pissed at each other, because you’re on this side of me”—he pointed with his left hand at Myka, who was on his right—“and you’re on the other side of me”—now at Helena on his left, with his right hand, such that his arms were crossed—“and usually there’s no space to slide a credit card between you two, and I’ve got a great bod but skinny jeans aren’t my best look. So just tell me what you’re talking about, because if you’re having ideas even when you’re mad? Probably they’re about the case.”

“You’re the one who said cloaking device,” Myka told him. “And how do those work?”

“They cloak things,” he said immediately. Myka waited, and he offered, “They cloak things in cloaks.”

“Try one more time,” she advised.

“They cloak things in cloaks of invisibility.”

She sighed. “They make people believe they’re seeing something other than what they’re actually seeing.”

“Oh. Oh!” Pete considered. “So do you figure that really does mean he knows what he’s doing? That he was maybe just testing out the artifact, and now he’s planning to twirl his moustache and get his criminal on?”

Helena said, “I beg your pardon.”

“C’mon, H.G., like you’re the only moustache-twirling supervillain in the world? Step aside, let somebody else have a turn.”

Myka found it just basically inappropriate for Helena to pout, even minimally, at that idea.

When Ida Thatcher joined them shortly thereafter, she was clearly thrilled to be reporting on having questioned people: so thrilled, in fact, that she seemed relatively unconcerned that she had nothing to report as a result of having questioned people. She was also thrilled to meet Helena. “The other fellow?” she asked Pete, apparently pleased with herself, and Pete nodded. Myka was standing as far away from Helena as she could—letting Pete take up plenty of non-skinny space between them—and Ida physically removed him, taking his hand and pulling him out of the way, and pushed Myka next to an incredulous Helena, so that she could look at “my two stars in the frame together.”

“I beg your pardon,” Helena said, which made Myka think she really should have been keeping a tally of how many times Helena had been moved to utter her haughtiest version of that today. It was the kind of information Claudia would enjoy having.

Pete said, “Don’t sweat it, H.G. It’s for the TV show.”

“Now I beg your pardon once again. The TV show?”

As Pete gave a garbled explanation, one that Ida enthusiastically attempted to clear up, Myka just stood there and let herself be assessed. She figured anything she said would extend this night, and all she wanted at this point was to be asleep and away from all of it: murderous rabbits, elusive men with microphones, Ida Thatcher, any and all TV detectives, Pete, and even Helena.

Once Ida got over the idea of promotional photos featuring Myka and Helena (she begged, “Could you stand back to back and hold your guns? Like Charlie’s Angels?”, in response to which Helena added to Myka’s tally for Claudia, and Pete volunteered to be both Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith “because obviously you both are Kate Jackson,” in response to which, Helena added to Myka’s tally again), Ida seemed to realize how little progress had been made. “Is this how law enforcement work usually works?” she asked. “Because on television it does seem more entertaining, or at least more productive.”

Pete sighed. “We need better writers. Or some writers in the first place.”

Myka heard Helena make a little “hmph” noise.

Which Pete heard, and he told her, “I’m pretty sure you don’t have a write-it-and-it-comes-true pen on you.”

“Oh, but wouldn’t that be useful!” Ida said. “Guaranteed success!”

Pete said, “Then again, we could’ve ended up with a lot more monster bunnies.”

Ida allowed as how she hadn’t considered that, following up with, “Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre.”

Helena made her “hmph” noise again.

Before they could make their escape, Pete had to promise to include Ida in tomorrow’s continuation of the investigation. In the car—he was driving, with Helena beside him in the front seat, because Myka had, when places were being allotted, suddenly been opposed to the idea of Helena in the back, watching, for the twenty minutes it would take to get to their hotel—he said apologetically, “It’s not the worst idea; she knows everything about everything that goes on here, not to mention, she really is a smart cookie.”

“Perhaps she’s the criminal mastermind then,” Helena said, voicing an idea that had occurred to Myka briefly. She’d mainly discarded it, but… she knew that was the reason for Pete’s apologetic tone as well, that they all should be on their guard, because small towns could seem so innocent, but she’d already made one mistake with Ida, and she was absolutely not going to make another… but she would, if she didn’t get some sleep. Some sleep that didn’t involve thinking about black hair and blond hair, sharp chins and soft, joking about iguanas one minute and confronting an apparently inescapable past the next.

She heard Pete say, “Plus she’d watch at least half a season of you and Myka on your show.”

“We do not have a show.”

“Duh, H.G. But you could, is her point. And mine too. I’d watch it. Two hot chicks, running around solving crimes or finding artifacts or whatever? I mean it’s basically Rizzoli and Isles, but you and Myka’d do better, because you’d be real action heroes, like bow-chicka-wow-wow, if you know what I mean.”

“Sadly, your sound effect makes your meaning all too clear. But I’m not certain I understand why that means our nonexistent show would attract more viewers.”

Pete shook his head like a dog, all jowls and ears. “Everybody wants to see two chicks together. And I mean everybody.”

“How many times today must I beg your pardon? That is inaccurate. I am fairly certain that there are several organizations dedicated to preventing anyone from seeing, as you so charmingly put it, two chicks together.”

“They’re just covering up how much they want to see two chicks together. Or two dudes. Or more than two. Don’t you figure?

Helena did not turn to look at him as she said, “I am trying with all my might not to figure at all.”

I don’t believe you , Myka thought. You’re sitting there figuring out some kind of show, but it isn’t our show. Some show you, or somebody who looks like you, used to be on, where everybody was happy all the time and nobody ever heard of a Warehouse or a trident and I hate television anyway.

Pete said, “Well, if you and tall-dark-and-jealous in the back seat keep fighting, then I guess they’ll miss out, anyway. Or that can be the big complication: can the nutso ex-supervillain and the gloomy-gus Warehouse agent patch it up by the end of the episode? Or will you have to wait till next week for them to get all mushy and sweethearty again? Oooh, the suspense!”

Myka somehow found the energy to thump the back of his head. “Pete, this is not your business.”

“I didn’t say it was my business,” he protested.

Then Helena decided to jump in with, “Now that, unlike your earlier statement about two ‘chicks,’ is true. You did not say it was your business.”

Myka did not thump the back of Helena’s head, but not for lack of wanting to.

Pete turned around as far as he could as fast as he could, apparently just so he could, for a split-second of hazardous driving, say to Myka a triumphant, “Ha.”

But Helena went on, “However, given that it is not your business, perhaps you could refrain from commentary.” Her tone was less teasing now; instead, it matched the impenetrability of the expression she’d worn when Pete called her away from talking to… talking to… Myka realized that she didn’t even know the woman’s name.

Pete said, “Can’t give you a hard time when you’re fighting, can’t give you a hard time when you’re not fighting… when’s a guy supposed to give you two a hard time?” He paused. “Don’t answer that.”

Helena said, grandly—back to her usual poking-at-Pete tone—“I don’t believe any answer is required.”

Myka could see herself, under normal circumstances, laughing—and, even more, being pleased that Pete and Helena had been teasing each other for over five minutes with no spark of tension… she supposed, though, that she was tense enough for all of them. It also didn’t help that she knew she deserved the “tall-dark-and-jealous” jibe.

Pete escaped the minute after they checked in, with a brief “see you at the breakfast buffet in the morning not too early okay unless there’s a ping bye” and Myka and Helena went to their room, saying only the most functional of words to each other: “Room 315, he said?” and “Right.” Then, in the room: “Do you want the bathroom first?” and “No, you can have it.”

Myka would never have been able to say which was worse: the hot sharp words of an engaged fight, or this chilly facsimile of real interaction.

She did know that what happened when they got into bed was truly awful, and she knew that it was her fault. They turned out the bedside lamps at the same time and breathed into the not-quite-full dark with its slight parking-lot illumination, until Myka felt Helena move. She was inching toward Myka’s side of the bed, where Myka lay on her back, inching until she was beside Myka, until she could place her arm across Myka’s body. Ordinarily, Myka loved the possessiveness of that touch, the presumption that it would be welcome. Ordinarily, it was welcome, and she would grasp Helena’s arm with her own, pull the arm and the rest of Helena’s body closer, turn for a kiss, turn further for more than a kiss. Ordinarily, those movements would be instinctive and right. Now, though, still instinctive but not at all right, she could not stop herself: she said, “Who are you thinking about touching.” And at those words, Helena froze. She jerked her arm away, then got out of bed, pulling the topmost blanket with her, and it took Myka a minute to realize that she was stationing herself in the room’s one armchair, sideways, facing the window, her back to Myka.

Myka turned over, toward the wall, away from her.

****

She hadn’t expected to sleep. She’d anticipated just listening to Helena breathe aggrievedly all night long… but she must have slept, because she woke up. Very early: 4:30am, according to the glowing numbers on the clock.

The room was dark, but not too dark to see: there was Helena, still in the chair. She had dragged only the blanket with her when she left the bed, but now she had a pillow too. She had curled into herself, around the pillow, nesting in the blanket, on that small chair, a chair that Myka would have overspilled completely. Helena performed herself far larger than she actually was, seeming through self-assurance to take up more space than her slight body—her now Emily-slighter body—genuinely filled.

Poised, confident, uncompromising: but she’d needed a pillow. Myka wished she had just come back and lain down instead of stealthily taking that pillow, but she knew perfectly well that if she herself had made the drastic move of leaving the bed, she wouldn’t have let discomfort prompt her surrender at any point in the night. Certainly not if Helena had said similarly bitter words to her… Myka regretted what she’d said, of course she did. But at the same time she felt that she could not have kept from saying them, because everything was complicated, and there had to be room between them for all of it, the harsh words and the soft.

Trying to be as quiet as Helena must have been when she retrieved the pillow from the bed, Myka found her workout gear and dressed. She put a key card in the pocket of her shorts, and as she touched the door handle, she turned for one last look at the woman asleep in the chair.

In sleep, she might have been Helena Wells, might have been Emily Lake, might have been any animal, breathing in and out. If Emily Lake’s girlfriend were standing here now, would she have recognized this body, recognized it and felt as much tenderness and love for it—and for what it housed—as Myka did?

The workout—a punishing session in the “fitness center” instead of a run, because the desk clerk had been extremely unhelpful about decent routes—shook something, or some things, loose, and jumbled them together: the resentment of last night, the loving certainty of the early morning, the painful past, the provisional present. She returned to the room exhausted, muscles shaking, head in tumult, and it didn’t help that she found Helena still in the chair, but now showered, dressed, and fully composed. The blanket and pillow were back on the bed as if last night had never happened, as if this were a normal morning in a hotel room, as if they had done what they usually preferred to do in hotel rooms, which were far more private than the B&B tended to be.

Helena didn’t say anything. She sat there, serenity restored, and looked at Myka.

And Myka retreated. “I’m going to shower,” she said.

****

When Myka emerged from the shower, she had a plan: she would make herself a cup of coffee, and then she would begin to deal with things. There was no question in her mind that things that had to be dealt with would be much more faceable with a cup of hotel-room-coffeemaker coffee in her hands. The small coffee station was clean and well-stocked, and she unwrapped a cup, thinking, Yes, okay, progress. She filled the coffeemaker with water, ripped open a coffee-filter packet. Then she stopped. She looked around the station. She cast her eyes everywhere, taking in everything, including Helena, who seemed not to have moved at all. Myka said, not necessarily to Helena, “Where’s the coffeemaker’s filter basket?”

Helena was the one who answered, however, with a calm “I don’t know.”

“It isn’t here. Did you move it somewhere?”

“I did not move it anywhere.”

“Well, how am I supposed to make coffee?”

“I don’t know.” Helena’s tone was now infuriatingly calm.

Myka tried to match her. “Look, if you’re messing with me, if this is some kind of retaliation, I wish you wouldn’t. Just tell me where you put it.”

“I did not put it anywhere. I have touched no part of the coffeemaker.”

“I just want a cup of coffee, okay?”

“Then have one.”

“I can’t!” How Myka hated to hear herself sound like this.

But more than that, she hated to hear Helena sound like this, like she had everything under control and nobody else did and she was amused about it, as she said, “Because this is the only machine in the world that will produce coffee?”

“Don’t try to be funny!”

“I’m not trying to be anything.” She stood, and if Myka usually loved the way Helena moved, loved the grace and precision and elegance that seemed to characterize her every motion? Right now, Myka hated the way she did everything like that. “I will go downstairs to the lobby, and I will find you some coffee. Would you like anything else.”

“To go back to yesterday morning.” She paused, waiting for a response. “Well, that figures.”

“Oh, what figures?” And that was the first ripple in the still water.

“That you wouldn’t want to go back too. That you’re somehow… pleased with this.”

Helena’s posture straightened. Her voice sharpened. “Pleased with this. Pleased with this? No, I assure you, I am not at all pleased with this.”

“Pleased with her, then.” Provoking Helena was not a good idea. Myka knew this, had always known it, just as instinctively as she knew and had always known that she would, in episodes of anger or frustration or resentment, be completely unable to refrain from provoking Helena, over and over again.

To Myka’s surprise, Helena didn’t escalate. “I am pleased with nothing in this scenario. I am interested in ascertaining the facts, however, as you are very much aware. As you, if I am recalling correctly, encouraged me to do. You yourself suggested that she might have kept a journal of some sort, in which we might have found information of precisely this nature. Did you not even consider how you might feel if we did? Because I imagined it. I imagined it, and I could not imagine how to address it. And so here we are, and look! I cannot imagine how to address it. Yesterday, last night, this morning. Oh yes, I am so pleased with this.” She sat back down in the chair, heavy, slumping, and Myka was sorry, but not that sorry.

“You could’ve said something like that yesterday,” Myka told her. “Not leave me feeling like…”

“Like what? Like you made me feel last night? Honestly, Myka, that was extremely low. What do you take me for?”

Myka felt like kicking rocks again. “I don’t know.”

“You were concentrated on your feelings, and whatever comfort I might have needed did not matter, did it?”

“You wouldn’t talk to me!”

“Perhaps I was not ready to talk to you.”

“You were certainly ready to talk to her.”

“Yes, I was. For all the reasons you already know. And the information I received was as troubling as we imagined it might be.”

“Troubling? What did you do? Shoplift? Rob banks?”

“Yes, Myka, and she was my partner in crime.” Helena said this with a lip-quirk.

It wasn’t quite a smug smirk, but it was enough to enrage Myka again. “She was your partner in all kinds of things, I bet. And I bet most of them are illegal in Wyoming.”

Helena shook her head. “Don’t think like that.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t been doing that already, thinking like that. Thinking about you with her.”

“This will undoubtedly sound strange to you, but: yes and no.”

That “yes,” no matter how balanced it was with “no,” cut deeply into Myka. “Fine. Go ahead then. You want to know what happened to your body? Fine. Go find out.”

“Stop.”

“No.”

“Myka.” Pleading.

Myka turned away from her. “What’s her name?”

“What?”

“What is her name?” Myka asked it of the basketless coffeemaker. “What name did that mouth of yours say, the way you say mine?”

“You have to stop.”

“I don’t have to do anything, anything except think about you with somebody else.”

“Don’t pity yourself. It isn’t attractive.”

“Well. Thanks.” And Myka decided she would pity herself if she felt like it, regardless of whether Helena thought it was attractive. Regardless of whether Helena ever again thought anything about Myka was attractive.  “Did she touch you again?”

“Yes,” Helena said. “She hugged me as I left. She asked if I would kiss her, but I declined.”

“Well. Thanks again.” She braced herself for another comment about how unattractive she was being.

That wasn’t what she got. Instead, she heard Helena say, softly, “You seem to be forgetting a quite salient point.”

“What point?”

“I don’t want her.”

“Obviously you did.”

“It was not me.”

“I know, but—” She did know. She knew it wasn’t Helena; she knew it. But she couldn’t convince herself, couldn’t explain to herself in a way that her jealous lizard brain would understand, that she knew it.

And then Helena made it worse. She said, “What if Emily Lake had said to you ‘Oh Agent Bering, I find myself inexplicably drawn to you,’ and she had—”

At the sound of that hated accent, Myka whirled around. “Stop it. Don’t use the voice, don’t pretend like that. It was awful. You don’t know.”

Helena nodded. “Exactly. I don’t know.”

“Apparently I didn’t know either. Because I thought I knew what had happened, but now… all I see is her touching you.”

“Well, that’s fine, Myka. I don’t see her touching me, because I didn’t see her touching me. Because I wasn’t there.”

“I don’t care who saw what! I just found out you slept with someone else!”

Now Helena stood again; she threw herself from the chair. “I just found out I slept with someone else! But no: we just found out that my body slept with someone else.”

“It’s your body. How often have I said that I love your body? If I’d known your body was walking around out there… I wouldn’t have let you sleep with anyone.”

“Anyone but you, you mean?”

Oh Agent Bering echoed in Myka’s head. “I… I don’t know.”

“Then you would have been the one sleeping with someone else.”

“I don’t know what any of this means.”

“I don’t either.” Helena pushed her hand through her hair; Myka had not seen her do that since yesterday. “I do know that everyone involved was mistreated. In one way or another. Well. Not myself. Not myself as myself; I was being punished, and rightly so. But my punishment, whatever form it took, should not have had such a terrible impact on other people.”

“Your punishment had a pretty sweet impact on Emily Lake and her girlfriend, at least for a while. They got to be happy. I was miserable, but they got to be happy.”

“But where are they now, Myka?”

“I don’t care! Why is it that I’m not allowed to be happy? I understand why you think you aren’t. But why me? Is it because I let you dupe me? Is that it? Will I keep on being punished for that forever?” A question, but not a question: usually she knew the answer was yes, but she knew that the reward she received alongside the punishment was of far greater value.

“We will never make our way past this, will we? Never.”

“We were starting to. I was, you were. And then this happened.”

“I’m not sure I have any right to move past it. You should, of course you should, and if I am holding you back from that… you should move past it, but I set it all in motion, and I have no right to move past it.”

“No, no, no. Not this again. No.” Myka wanted to scream at her about tradeoffs, about debts and paying them and having paid them and what was supposed to come next, but Helena wouldn’t listen, Myka knew it, because Helena was sending herself back down a very familiar track, one that Myka had hoped she would never take again.

“Consider this, Myka: she said she found me… found her… pure,” Helena said, with heaviness.

All Myka could do was repeat it: “Pure.”

“Yes. She was pure. All I can think of, now, is my own… impurity. And those upon whom I inflict it. You. Primarily, you.”

“Me.”

“Yes. She was the better part of me, the part unpolluted by… history. Transgression upon transgression. Sins, violations. The uncorrupted part.”

“No,” Myka insisted. “The blank part. You are your history, Helena. She wasn’t any part of you that mattered. I’m an idiot who can’t see past your body, so get mad at me for that, but she wasn’t any part of you that mattered.”

“Ah, but. That is where you are mistaken, because that is what I learned yesterday: that as it happens, she was… not unlike me.”

“Please. Helena. She screamed when Pete drew his weapon. She had a cat!” It was stupid, to call attention to that cat, but it had provided such a point of distinction.

“The cat is unimportant. Or rather, strangely, the cat was important, for I clung to the cat as evidence, evidence that she was not me. But do you know why she had the cat?”

“No,” Myka said. She did not see how this could be revelatory. Because he was a stray? Because Emily Lake had a soft heart? Because someone gave him to her as a gift? God, yes, probably because he was a gift from the blond girlfriend…

“Because the cat despised her.”

“No he didn’t. Are you forgetting I saw her with the cat?”

“The cat initially despised her. She took the cat on as a challenge.”

Myka did not like this direction, not at all, so she tried to say, “I really don’t see how that—”

“How did you initially feel about me? How did Artie? How did Pete?”

“That isn’t the same thing. That is in no way the same thing,” Myka warned.

Helena shrugged. She ran her hand through her hair again, and she blew out a breath. “If that’s what you feel you must believe. But I beg to differ.” She might as well have been a hologram, standing there across the room, touching nothing, resolving to touch nothing. Resolved, and touching nothing.

And yes, like a hologram: Myka wanted to touch her but knew she would never be able to. All she could do was say, “You know perfectly well I never despised you. Don’t remake history just because you’ve decided to martyr yourself all over again on the altar of Emily Lake. Pure, sainted Emily Lake.”

TBC

Chapter Text

“It’s a real tossup,” Pete remarked as he walked between Myka and Helena, “whether it’s worse when you’re all over each other or when you’re on the outs.”

Their arrival at the fair that morning couldn’t have presented a clearer contrast to that of the day before: The distinct lack of rocking and rolling all night, as well as the sad absence of partying every day, made sure of that. The drive from the hotel had featured only functional words, mostly between Pete and Helena, and Myka found herself yearning for Helena’s floridly non-silent silent treatment instead. She could have used the low-stakes exasperation she felt when confronted with it to begin to grope her way into feeling that this problem, too, could be set back onto an established track, so an eventual reconciliation would be inevitable.

A disagreement over Helena’s displeasure with Jules Verne, and with Myka’s words about Jules Verne, though... that was barely skin-deep, while this went all the way through, like a bullet, one with both their names on it. A really big bullet. Myka struggled to keep herself from believing that this one was also of Helena’s invention. What goes up—into the stratosphere, into something like happiness—

No , Myka had told herself firmly, halting that line of thought just as Pete was looking at his phone and reporting, “Ida texted. She’s at the barn. Says to meet her, but that there’s no new intel on the Lelands.”

“Still at square one,” Myka grumbled. “Great.”

Pete rubbed his hands together. “It is great. We have to go right by the Pizza Pagoda on the way.”

As they’d walked (and walked and walked), Myka stewed at the fair both in its particulars—had these people never seen an actual pagoda? couldn’t they correctly identify the structure in which money was being exchanged for pizza?—and in its entirety: People were happy. Having a good time. Eating pizza. Wearing smiles.

She didn’t want to kick a rock; she wanted to hide under one. Or send all of those pizza-eating smilers to hide under one so she wouldn’t have to see how unaffected by this situation they all were. How dare they be so unscathed.

Helena had a unique ability to push her to this kind of resentment. After Yellowstone, Myka could hardly bear to look other people in the eyes, in their unknowing, unaffected faces; after Pittsburgh, the same. After, after, after. After Kenosha?

Then again maybe they would never get to the after; maybe they were doomed to trudge through this fair forever with Pete, who was now shaking his head and repeating, “Real tossup.”

Helena, walking on his right side, radiated nonresponse. He looked expectantly to the left, at Myka.

“I’m pretty sure it’s worse right now,” she said. She considered kicking him under a rock.

“Well, for you,” he fake-pouted. “You never think about me.”

“Right. Never. Who just bought you that slice of pizza at that Quonset hut they didn’t even bother putting in a pagoda costume?”

“The pizza fairy. Hey, you could be her twin!”

And that, surprisingly, made Myka smile and shake her head. She twitched an involuntary glance rightward and realized that Helena was having the same response.

Helena looked up and leftward, met Myka’s eyes, and clearly came to the reciprocal realization.

The atmosphere shifted.

One look didn’t reverse the effects of the past twenty-four hours, not nearly. But Myka was self-aware enough both to understand how that one look softened the air between them, and to resent how smoothly and easily it had done such work.

How dare you, she said to herself. How dare you knuckle under. If you’re going to be angry and jealous and unreasonable, you could at least have the rank obstinacy to stay that way.

And Helena had this unique ability too: to make everything Myka did, everything she felt, seem right and wrong at the same time.

This nonsense at a fair might have been a particularly egregious example of Myka tripping over Helena and stumbling into that state, but it wasn’t the only one.

She remembered, as a paradigmatic case, a time when she had been trying to hide an injury. “I’m on the way!” she’d yelled from the bedroom as she quickly dealt with changing the dressing on her wound. Just a flesh wound, nothing serious, certainly not life-threatening, and barely even blood-supply-threatening: a cut on her abdomen. Nobody reasonable would have called it a gash or a slice or anything like that. She’d made Pete promise not to tell anyone about it, post-retrieval, because sure, it hurt, but it didn’t matter.

Judging from the horror on Helena’s face when she barged in and realized what Myka was doing, though? It mattered to her. And the potential for that horror was a large part of why Myka had tried to hide it—but Helena’s face was now shouting that Myka had failed. She’d made Helena feel the horror, and maybe worse, she’d rendered Helena unable to hide that she was feeling it.

“Don’t get like this,” Myka said. (Because warning Helena off always went so very well.)

“I am not getting like anything.”

“Okay, okay,” Myka then said. (Because placating Helena also always went so very well.)

“I am reacting, as a human does, to another human’s injury.”

“And don’t play it off either! You wouldn’t be getting like this over Pete.” The latter, Myka said because it was true, but even as she said it, she saw that pointing it out wasn’t going to be any sort of positive contribution to the situation.

“You want my reaction to be entirely because of you, yet you also want me not to have it at all.”

Under other circumstances, Helena might have smiled as she said something like that, and Myka, with an admittedly unreasonable hope that the smile might still be forthcoming, said, “Yes.”

It wasn’t. “But you knew I would have it,” Helena said, unsmiling and prosecutorial. “You were trying to hide this from me.”

When Helena got prosecutorial, Myka got defensive. “Okay, yes. I didn’t say it made sense.”

“Good, because it doesn’t.” Stubborn.

Which Myka could match: “I know that. I just said that.”

“I want to care for you.”

Helena didn’t mean “take over a mundane first aid task,” and Myka knew that too. Yet she snapped, “I can take care of myself.” Even as another part of her was prodding her with You want her to care for you and How long did you really think you could hide the need for this mundane first aid task from her anyway.

“I’m certain you can.”

That was raw hurt, shivering under an inadequate coat of dispassion—and Myka responded wrong to both: “Right. Just like I assume you can.” And that was out-and-out perjury. Helena’s fragile body, so tenuously and lately re-housing the soul it should… Myka was absurdly protective of that body, but Helena shouldn’t have felt the same way about Myka. Shouldn’t have had to feel the same way, and certainly shouldn’t have been boxed into showing that she felt that way.

They’d papered over that confrontation somehow, but Myka couldn’t remember the resolution, which had to mean that it had been something as simple as what had happened just now, on a graveled pathway at a fair in Kenosha with Pete standing between them talking about a pizza fairy: mutual recognition of a shared response. Some reminder of commonality of feeling, of purpose. Surely that was the wrong way to handle conflicts in a relationship… but just as surely, it was right, too.

However: They still hadn’t said a meaningful word to each other by the time they reached the barn. Myka was still perversely attempting to work her resentment back up, and Helena was clearly avoiding looking at her, maybe just as perversely, maybe to avoid creating another moment of fellow-feeling, and Myka tried selling herself an even more unreasonable story about that: It’s because she knows she’ll bust out laughing when she sees my face working to stay surly, and—

“I realize I’m being a busybody,” Ida said, first thing, “but I’m sensing some tension between my leading ladies. And not the kind that keeps people tuning in.”

Pete said to Myka, “She means UST.” To Helena, he said, “They tune in for UST.” Both of them must have looked baffled, for he gave up on them and said to Ida, “It was like that with them, for basically ever. Before they R’ed the ST. But you can keep that going only so long, you know?”

Ida nodded. “So many shows get it wrong.”

“For what it’s worth,” Pete said, his voice conspiratorially low, “I think Myka and H.G. got it right.”

Mere moments before, Myka would have had to struggle to keep from saying, irritably and out loud, that Pete should shut up. But the shift—it kept happening, Pete’s words helping it along, despite Myka’s attempts to wrestle herself angry. She and Helena had certainly not apologized, or compromised, or exchanged more than that single glance, but between them there was a tuning, like the manipulation of a radio dial: static, then the beginning of decodable sound, the tiny twist calling music, voices, a signal more and more clearly into the receiver from the ether. Any errant twitch of fingers on the dial, however, might cause the transmission to be lost again.

Myka didn’t want it lost. She looked, with purpose, at Helena, and Helena looked back. Still no apologies, no compromise… but the signal strengthened.

“You’re very sweet to them,” Ida told Pete.

Now Myka rolled her eyes, but she tried to keep the motion as small as possible.

“I know, right? You’d think they’d appreciate me more.”

You need a love interest,” Ida said.

“I double-know that. But the fans, I think they’d still be all about Bering and Wells.”

Ida looked at Myka, then Helena, then back and forth again. “Which one is which?”

Pete put on a boxing-announcer voice: “In this corner, you got your tall, dark, and broody: that’s Bering. Across the ring from her, there’s Wells: not quite so tall, also dark, also broody, but with epic, extra fallout.”

“Isn’t that funny,” Ida said to Helena.

Helena crossed her arms in defense. “What? ‘Epic, extra fallout’? That is not funny.”

Might not be funny, but it isn’t wrong , Myka thought. Then Helena turned a quick, overbright glare on Pete with a mutter of “and I know what ‘fallout’ means now, thank you very much,” which made Myka think, But maybe also a little funny

“It’s funny that you’d show up here,” Ida said.

“Here?” Pete asked, and Helena echoed, “Here?”

Before Myka could do the same—because that didn’t seem funny at all—Ida followed up with, “And I just now worked it out: H.G.! I see why that’s your nickname.”

“It isn’t my nickname,” Helena said. She’d uncrossed her arms, but now she crossed them again, and Myka wondered whether any photographs existed of Helena as the sulky, impossible child she must have been, when she wasn’t otherwise occupied with charming everyone into treating her as the miniature adult she had no doubt considered herself to be.

Pete gave Helena a quizzical look. “But it kind of is your nickname. I mean, those are your initials, so… wait. Here. Ida, you are brilliant and so am I, because I know exactly what you’re thinking. And now I got it: I also know exactly what we’re looking for.” He looked at Myka, then at Helena. “Because who’s from Kenosha?” To Ida, he said, “Don’t give it away; they think they’re so smart, but we’ll see.”

“Who’s from Kenosha?” Myka repeated. “Probably almost everybody at this fair. Except us.”

“But who else is from Kenosha?”

“Probably almost all the other people who live in Kenosha?” Myka looked to Helena for help, but Helena shrugged.

Her own look, followed by Helena’s shrug, and immediately it struck Myka: that was their first real, intentional communication since the morning’s argument, and it did figure that it was about not knowing what Pete was getting at. Myka wasn’t yet ready to admit to anyone, including herself, that Pete was actually being very helpful today.

“Plus?” Pete pushed.

Myka tried, “Plus people who moved away?”

“Exactly. And who moved away?”

“A lot of people. Probably.” Myka knew she was being uncharitable, but small towns really weren’t her favorite. She figured living in Univille was most likely a karmic punishment… for what, she wasn’t quite sure, but she certainly hadn’t spent this life, or probably any other, being as perfect as she’d intended to be, and small-town-South-Dakota purgatory was undoubtedly the result. “Maybe,” she softened, ideally defraying some of the spiritual cost.

Pete snickered. “Not a lot who used a microphone and people believed it.” He stopped and waited, mouth a bit expectantly open, like a dog waiting to be rewarded for chasing a ball. “Really? No ideas? How about you, supergenius? Kinda up your alley, there, Agent Wells.”

Then Myka got it, and so did Helena, for they said in unison, “War of the Worlds?”

Pete exhaled an at-last noise. “That’s right: Orson Welles, Kenosha boy. Hated the place, but still.”

War of the Worlds. Of course. Myka sighed, because it really had to have happened sooner or later. “You’re saying you think this is the microphone from the War of the Worlds radio broadcast?”

“I’m saying it loud, and also proud, because I’m the one who thought of it, with the fabulous assist from my best friend Ida. I could say it through the thing, so you’d believe me like all those radio listeners believed Martians were attacking, but I don’t think I’m gonna have to.” He fiddled with his phone and turned the screen to Ida. “It looked pretty much like that, right?”

“Just like that. And that’s funny too: I’d forgotten it said ‘CBS’ on it, but it did. What a terrible witness I’d make in a courtroom drama.” She looked at all three of them in turn. “This TV show I’m running around like I’m on, it isn’t a CBS one, is it?”

Pete shook his head. “Not so much. Maybe Fox? Lower budget, though, so probably Syfy; FX if you’re lucky. But don’t tell.”

Myka couldn’t find it in her to be angry at him for saying too much, particularly not when Ida said, with real regret, “No one would believe me anyway.”

“Well, no,” Pete said, but he put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “On account of you don’t have the microphone.” He held a sssshhh finger to his lips.

“But that leaves us still at square one,” Myka pointed out.

Pete frowned. “And not on the way past pizza this time either.”

“I have an idea,” Ida said.

Pete now flung his arm around her fully. “Like I said, you’re brilliant. From the start I knew I liked you. This idea, is it about pizza?”

“It’s about knowing, not pizza. Knowing, and believing. Ginny knows she’s going to lose the pie contest, because of Agnes and key lime. But what if she happened to win instead?”

He wrinkled his brow. “What if she… oh, I get it. She’d be very into being there. You think that’d override their supervillain plot, whatever it is?”

“I think it would override her grandchildren. And the fact is, she does believe in herself—she always holds out a little hope in these key lime years. Dreams the impossible dream.”

“So we flush her out, assuming she’s lurking, by making sure she wins? But how do we do that?” Pete asked.

Ida smiled. She looked very proud of herself. “I’m going to make Agnes’s pie disappear.”

“Poetic,” Myka said, and she couldn’t help herself; as she said it, she looked at Helena.

“Ironic,” Helena countered, directly at Myka..

Poetic, ironic… and then this struck Myka: those were the first real, intentional words they’d said to each other since the morning’s argument.

An ironic, or possibly poetic, twist of lip from Helena acknowledged that she, too, knew the exchange for what it was.

Pete said, “I personally am an expert in making pies disappear, so maybe I should be the one who sticks his neck out on this one.”

“You’re so sweet,” Ida told him, and Myka had to concede that it was actually true. (Except when it wasn’t.) Ida went on, “But if I’m going to be on a show, no matter what network carries it or who I can tell about it, I’m certainly going to see it through. Plus, in a very CBS way, I’d like everything back to normal.”

Myka thought, Sing it, sister. Not that I know what normal is, but I know what it isn’t.

Yet she and Helena walked side by side as their little team crossed the fairgrounds, the air between them unheavy. It wasn’t a normal walk by any means… but it wasn’t a march to be endured, as she’d begun the day thinking all their walks would be. She might have turned to Helena and said normal words. She didn’t, but she might have—and that was progress. Reparative progress.

The pie-judging location was not, Myka was pleased to find, a named pagoda, pavilion, patio, or promenade, but rather a large and simple tent, with no sign designating it the Pie Tent, probably because it was also the bread, pickles, and jam tent. She could feel Pete’s mouth watering as they entered the space.

Ida lasered in on the pies, which were clearly the main attraction, displayed like crown jewels on inky-velvet–clad shelving. “I’ve never tried such skullduggery before,” she confided. She looked at the pies, then looked at Myka and Helena in a way that Myka found immediately disconcerting. “I’ll need a distraction. Leading ladies, would you oblige?”

Pete snickered, but he applauded as he did so. “Oh, you’re good. You definitely watch a lot of the right kind of TV. My hat’s off to you, ma’am.”

“No,” Myka said. “Just no.” As if things weren’t bad enough, now she was supposed to put on some show for—

“Now wait,” Helena said, and her tone was her most “reasonable,” which at no time did Myka ever find to be actually appeasing, “Mrs. Thatcher has a plan, one that may very well succeed. Shouldn’t we contribute to that potential success? Agents don’t simply stand around and watch while other people make and implement plans to help them.”

“I really don’t see why not,” Myka said, deploying her own version of “reasonable.” “Or maybe Pete could stuff all the bread in his mouth. That’d be distracting.”

“Maybe I could,” Pete said, appraising the bread entries.

Helena did that little ironic, or poetic, twist of lip again, and now Myka knew perfectly well that she was being dared to think about Helena’s lips. The twist became a full smile as Helena said, “Won’t you kiss me passionately before the good people of Kenosha?”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with pie,” Myka said, knowing it was a nonsensical objection, not fully knowing why she was making it, because she did want to kiss Helena. But ideally someplace where they could work things out—which was emphatically not before the good people of Kenosha.

“That’s why it’s a distraction,” Pete explained, with seriousness. “Or you could have a slap fight. Your choice I guess; they’ve both got about as much to do with pie.”

Ida shook her head. “I’ve seen slap fights over everything in this tent, pie included. That wouldn’t even register.”

Myka raised eyes and palms heavenward in capitulation, because what choice did she really have, and Helena took that as her cue: “At long last,” she declaimed, “I declare publicly my love for you. Good people of Kenosha, you are my witnesses.” She gestured floridly to those witnesses, obviously to ensure that she had attracted, and would attract still more, attention. Then she turned back to Myka, displaying an impish facsimile of ardent sincerity. “Tell me that you reciprocate my ardor, so that I may live out my remaining days a happy woman.”

Myka began, “You are just too—” and she would have ended with “much,” but Helena took advantage of her mouth saying “too” to bestow one kiss, then another, and Myka had no choice but to play along.

“I know you don’t like to kiss me in front of other people, most days, and today perhaps not at all,” Helena murmured as they kissed and stopped, kissed and stopped. “I know it’s a hardship for you.”

“Hardship,” Myka sighed out. Why did Helena have to dig at her like this? “Are people watching?” she asked as they continued these strange, designed-to-be-seen kisses.

Helena smiled through one kiss, then another. “As if they were judging our worthiness for a ribbon in an osculation contest.”

“This is ridiculous,” Myka muttered.

“More so if you don’t participate. I myself want to win, not merely place.”

So Myka participated, to the extent that she could, given the still-unreconciled business of the day before, and the night, and this morning. She felt herself make a face as they broke apart minimally again—and then she made the break definitive, for she saw Pete give her a thumbs-up. “Pie achieved,” she informed Helena. “Thank god.”

“Myka,” said Helena, in mild rebuke.

“Helena,” Myka sighed in response. “Why do we do this?”

“Because we prefer it to the alternative,” Helena said. “At least, I do.”

And the challenge made Myka kiss her one more time, kiss her right. “I do too,” she said, making no face this time.

Helena shrugged her slim shoulders and said, with a tiny smile, “More than earlier today?”

“Exactly the same,” Myka told her, because it was true: she preferred every aspect of their relationship, even its most difficult terrain, to any alternative she could imagine… and for that response she was rewarded, because there was the smile, the precious one that graced Helena’s face at the best of times, the one that made Myka wonder how she had made it through decades of her life before this maddening presence swept in and made herself at home.

Myka hoped, given that the kissing seemed to have facilitated the pie-stealing as intended, that the proceedings would hustle their way to a conclusion… but no. The actual pie-judging was an elaborate affair, even unto the deployment of ceremonial utensils: knives of various sizes and sharpenings, serving implements with ornately sculpted handles, forks featuring equally silvered intricacy. Slicing, lifting, raising morsels with surprising elegance to judgmental mouths.

And speaking of judgmental mouths—and eyes, and pointing fingers—several of those continued to be directed at Myka and Helena. Helena, of course, settled into a showy preen, as if the attention obviously was entirely congratulatory, and Myka was as hard put as ever to understand how a literal Victorian could be more openly defiant of any given situation’s norms than someone who’d learned the world a century later.

But the century-later-learner in question was Myka, who labored to find and abide by every nuance of the norms governing any situation. And the literal Victorian in question was Helena, who would have defied norms regardless of when, regardless of whose. Regardless, Helena would have flown a flag that said Yes you should be looking, and you should be applauding my audacity, and as for anyone who fails to do so? I will spare no time or thought for those unfortunate fools.

But also: Look at me for my audacity. Not for the feral, fearful animal it hides.

And what about Myka, drawn to both those things?

Every nuance of the norms: of course, at the worst of times, she clung ever more tightly to those norms, begrudging Helena both the audacity and what it hid, condemning herself for finding all of it irresistible.

How handy, in those worst times, to have Emily Lake to wield as a cudgel. Or a scalpel.

Right, Myka thought, help them punish Helena, you and Helena, more: No, Regents, don’t trouble yourselves, no no no; I, Myka Bering, will take it from here. Because I am exactly the sort of dutiful idiot who would do that.

She didn’t want to be that sort of dutiful idiot.

So don’t , she told herself. Don’t do their dirty, punitive work. Make things better, not worse.

Myka deliberately caught the eye of a younger woman, one glaring a disapproval that belied the idea that that that demographic was wholeheartedly embracing change… Myka raised her eyebrows at her—not quite Helena’s flag-flying, but a challenge all the same. Then she moved so that her shoulder rested against Helena’s. Helena looked up in surprise, then let her own body lean, with the most gentle of pressure, on Myka. A whisper of relief. And all that mattered, in this moment, was Helena’s body, this long-lived body that had borne, and was still bearing, so much more than it was ever meant to. Myka was embarrassed by her own tendency to stagger under the weight, when what she should have been saying, and enacting, was I’ll carry you.

One clasp of Helena’s body, one breath into her hair; Helena turned once into the curve of Myka’s neck. These soft things didn’t reverse the past twenty-four hours either. But they allowed Myka, at least, to begin to pay productive attention to more-mundane problems.

Like a case to be brought to a conclusion. Slowly.

“What are those judges even doing?” Pete was asking Ida, and that earned him a tsk-tsk. They tasted the pies one more time, she told him, to make sure. “Even though they already basically know who won?” he complained.

“Without the second tasting, this plan wouldn’t work,” Ida reminded him, “because Agnes would already have won. Besides, you seem like the kind of man who’d feel a kinship with people who like having lots of opportunities to eat pie.”

“Yeah, but it’s taking them forever,” he groaned, and Myka was inclined to echo him.

“It’s important,” Ida told him.

To Myka’s surprise, Helena said, “She’s right.”

“Pardon?” Myka said.

“This… deliberation. Over something so seemingly small as the taste of a pie—it reminds me of the past. Not the harsh past, which I extolled to you, but its softer, slower aspect.” As Helena said this, her eyes weren’t misty, exactly, but they were looking at some fair that wasn’t this one. “I was wrong to maintain that the difference runs in only one direction. Forgive me?”

Myka’s impulse was to say “There’s nothing to forgive”—but they both had a lot to forgive. It also seemed to slight Helena’s… nostalgia? And her sincerity about that nostalgia. So Myka hesitated.

Helena then said, “From time to time I fail to acknowledge that a position should have nuance.”

As if Myka’s pause had meant she needed Helena to offer still more words of expiation. As if only then might Myka say “yes” in answer to a question about forgiveness.

It made Myka want to cuddle her. And shake a fist at her… but then again, she knew that she herself inspired the exact same push-pull in Helena.

So: “Me too,” Myka said.

And she was glad she’d got that out when she did, for then everything started happening: Ginny Leland’s peach/apple pie was announced the first-place winner “due to an unfortunate last-minute withdrawal,” and suddenly Ida was pointing, saying “There it is!” and Pete was rushing up to an ecstatic woman and a startled man, the latter indeed in possession of a microphone.

“I don’t understand,” said Paul Leland.

“I don’t care!” his wife declared. “I won!”

She rushed away to claim her ribbon. Her husband took a step as if to follow her, but Pete tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, sir, but would you mind letting me have a closer look at that vintage sound equipment you’ve got there? It’s from about 1938, if I’m not mistaken, which I’m not. Right?”

“You can see me,” said Paul Leland.

“Yes I can,” Pete said. “And just to make sure that keeps being true, why don’t you pass the mic to this nice lady in the fancy purple gloves… ha! For a fistful of truth!”

“I don’t understand,” he said again, and he did look utterly baffled. He didn’t resist when Myka took the piece of history from him.

“Beastie Boys,” Pete informed him.

Myka muttered a cautionary “Pete…”

“Yeah, sorry. I actually don’t understand either, because I’m sort of getting a vibe that you’re not a supervillain. But you know what I’m also sort of getting a vibe about? This maybe has something to do with how you don’t watch radio.”

“I didn’t want anyone to see me…” Paul Leland said slowly. “I didn’t want anyone to see me, and then they didn’t. Why didn’t I want anyone to see me? Ginny!” he called to his wife, then headed in her direction. Myka didn’t see any need to stop him; they had the artifact, and Pete was most likely right: he wasn’t a supervillain.

“Maybe that’s the downside?” she wondered to Helena. “Wanting to be invisible?”

“Then why his wife as well?” Helena wondered back. “If it’s simply a consequence of using the microphone, wouldn’t it adhere only to him?”

“You don’t know the Lelands,” Ida said. “How could anything happen to one of them and not the other? They’re inseparable. Adhering’s a good word for it… look!” She gestured toward the now-reunited couple, and indeed, as Ginny Leland glowed with pride over the blue ribbon she held, Paul seemed to shine too.

Pete said, “So we’re thinking that on account of him not wanting to be seen, they weren’t, then on account of her really really wanting to, they were? That’s… some kind of teamwork.”

And Ida mused, “It’s like that sometimes.” She looked, with intent, at Myka and Helena. “Isn’t it.”

“Isn’t it,” Helena echoed. She leaned once again on Myka.

Myka was still gloved, still holding the artifact, so she unfortunately couldn’t take much enjoyment from that lean, or do more than vaguely return it. “Let’s go behind the tent,” she suggested, and Pete whistled. “To bag the microphone,” she said, but her withering tone never had any effect on him.

Ida followed them behind the tent, and once again, Myka couldn’t see her way to objecting.

Pete had a static bag in hand; Myka tried to slip the microphone into it, but he insisted on putting on gloves himself and taking the artifact from Myka, and then he insisted on Farnsworthing Claudia before he did anything else. Myka didn’t understand why until he said, “And now here we go. All you lovely ladies are witnessing my very first literal mic-drop.” Myka heard this “literal” as a minor, if most likely accidental, miracle, while Claudia said an extremely dry “waited a lifetime for this” and “imagine my delight.”

“I’m starting to develop a theory about why you people bring up mushrooms,” Ida said, gazing at the Farnsworth.

“In my day we often suggested it was laudanum,” Helena told her.

Ida made a noise of speculation. “And I’m starting to develop a theory about why you said ‘H.G.’ isn’t your nickname.”

Pete held the microphone up and waved it. “Show’s happening right here right now! Come one come all to the center ring!” Before Myka could object that this was a fair and not a circus, he dropped it in.

Nothing happened.

“Here in Kenosha,” Ida said—gently, as if Pete’s feelings might be hurt—“we wouldn’t really call that a ‘show.’”

Pete shook the bag, seemingly encouraging it to work harder. “Claud, could we be in a defective static situation?”

“If so,” Claudia told him, “It’s one of those really random black-swan thingies. Not impossible, but—”

“I’ll try another one,” he assured her.

Nothing happened.

“I see what you mean about the low budget,” Ida told him.

Pete looked mournfully into the bag. “So I was wrong? Not an artifact after all… hey, waitaminute,” he said. He shed a glove, fished the microphone out, held it up, and said through it, “Sugar is nutritious.” His voice boomed even more than usual.

That’s a funny thing for him to have said , Myka thought, because of course—

“Hey, Mykes, how do you feel about eating sugar?” he asked.

And that was a funny thing for him to have asked. She gave him her best Pete you are insane look and said, “Well, it’s nutritious, so of course I feel pretty good about it.”

Did he look… horrified? “This is bad,” he said, and through the Farnsworth she heard Claudia shriek, “You broke Myka! You bet it’s bad!”

Myka tried to reassure them both: “No, sugar’s good.”

“Oh my lord,” Helena said, and Myka couldn’t understand why her voice clutched in a way that nearly matched Pete and Claudia…

TBC

Chapter Text

“This is very very bad,” Pete reaffirmed. “The thing works! So why didn’t neutralizing it do anything? People believe what you say through it, so it’s obviously artifacty, and it got that way because people believed what Orson Welles said through it. Right? What’s the problem?”

Helena’s eyes widened, her shoulders fell, and she tilted her head—clearly struck by something consequential. She drew in a huge breath, and her exhale was “But Pete!” Myka had never heard her say his name with that much enthusiasm. “They didn’t believe it. They didn’t. The press exaggerated—even, one might say, invented—the supposed panic. Charles himself said it, that in England no one imagined that the Americans would be so foolish as to fall for such a thing, and haven’t they ever heard of Halloween, because people know there isn’t a ghost. They pretend to believe in the ghost, but only for fun.”

Myka couldn’t hold back an eye-widened head-tilt of her own. “Wait—Charles said it?”

“I may have…” Helena cleared her throat. “I may have done a bit of research. Regarding myself.” She flicked her gaze to Ida, who closed her eyes and whispered “laudanum.” Helena cleared her throat again. “Myself, who of course was not myself as myself, but rather myself as represented by Charles. In this salient case, during a radio interview in which he participated with Mr. Orson Welles. “

“Egomaniac!” Pete coughed.

“My ego notwithstanding, he is—was—my brother. Hearing his voice. Ghosts… for some reason, I didn’t expect ‘H.G. Wells’ to sound like him, and yet… it was Charles.” She shook herself. “But listen to me, Pete: the microphone works as it does, with whatever downside it has, but there must be another component. Most people didn’t believe in the invasion. But they believed that others believed in the invasion.”

“You’re making my head hurt,” he complained.

“Wait, I read about that,” Myka said. “There really couldn’t have been any kind of huge panic, because almost everybody in the country was listening to the Chase and Sanborn Hour that night, not the Mercury Theatre.”

“About which I’m somewhat offended,” Helena said, but her tone was warm.

Myka smiled.  “You would be. Anyway, right, there was a lot of sensationalist newspaper coverage of the supposed panic, but it was really just a good story.”

“Oh, now you think it’s a good story?” Still warm. Affectionate.

“The story of the panic, not aliens with the flu,” Myka said, and that she could respond to that tone with these familiar teases was also movement in the right direction. “People like it when other people get overexcited. It makes them feel superior. ‘I didn’t panic, but the gullible people did.’”

Pete said, “I don’t feel superior right now. I thought I had it. I mean, I believe that you believe that there’s another part to the thing, but what would it be?”

“Something press-related?” Helena tried. “Newspaper-related? The papers sold the story to the public.”

Now Pete was the one with widening eyes. “Wait. Wait. Press, newspapers, Orson Welles. Seriously?”

“I’m speculating, but yes, I’m serious—”

“Ohmygodohmygod!” he exclaimed, then yelped at Ida, “Tell me, tell me, tell me! It’s gotta be here. I’ll bet a zillion dollars that it’s here. And I’m right, so don’t take that bet!”

“Don’t take what bet? What’s here?” Ida asked.

“Imagine me in a snow globe.” Then he said, low and slow, “Rosebud.”

“Oh,” Ida said. “I see. And that’s ironic, what with all that not-seeing, earlier.”

“Spielberg loaned it to ya, didn’t he? For the centennial, didn’t he? Good old Orson’s hundredth birthday. Rosebud!” His face was barely wide enough for his grin, and it occurred to Myka that this really was close to being Pete’s dream case. All it needed now was a few comic books and a stripper… a Pete-voice inside her head said, “That’s what every case needs.”

Outside Myka’s head, Helena said a confused, “A flower?”

“No,” Pete said, “no, no no!” His clear glee at being able to make this reveal stopped Myka from jumping it to do it. “Not a flower. A sled!” Helena’s expression indicated that she didn’t find the reveal very revealing. “Citizen Kane, Hearst, newspapers!” he shouted. “You’re five thousand percent right! Ida, what’s the key to everything in the movie?”

Ida nodded. “Rosebud.”

“Unlocking some next-level microphone mojo, I bet,” Pete said, and Myka had to admit that it made a certain amount of sense, at least from the usual inside-out-pretzel perspective demanded by artifacts, which, if he was right, really did get together for canasta parties, or their equally-arcane-rules equivalent, after all. “That’s what we gotta bag,” he said. “Do you know where it is?”

“Of course I do,” Ida said. “The Welles exhibit at the museum.”

“Then off we go!” He was gesturing with the Farnsworth, waving his other arm too, a windmill of excitement—obviously he wanted to see the prop even more than he wanted to bag it in any sort of artifactual sense.

Helena caught his flailing Farnsworth hand. “Wait. Before we do. As there’s been this… delay. I must ask a favor. Disconnect the Farnsworth.”

“That’s a favor to me too,” Claudia said from it, “because I’m getting seasick from the view.”

Pete said, “I was gonna hang up anyway, but if you want it to be as a favor, I—”

“That is not the favor,” Helena said, and she’d lost all her animation of moments before. She’d also formalized her voice, and that difference make Myka’s hands and feet chill with worry, even as fight-or-flight agitation heated her gut.

Pete closed the Farnsworth and raised his eyebrows at Helena. “So what’s the favor?”

“You used the artifact,” she said, and Pete gave her his “duh” head-shake. “Thus the first use does not result in some desperate desire to disappear.”

“Here’s looking at me, kid,” Pete agreed, and Helena gave him her… well, whatever the opposite of a “duh” head-shake was. “Sign you up for a seminar on everything Hollywood, check. So?”

“So,” Helena said, “I would like to. Also. Myself. Use it.”

Of all the things Myka might have expected to hear… “Use it?” she asked. “Why?”

Helena kept her eyes on Pete. “To resolve. A situation.”

“A situation…” he began, but then he snapped his fingers. “Got it. The bad kind of leading-ladies tension.”

“I refuse to let anybody say anything else to me through that thing,” Myka declared.

Now Helena did slide her gaze at Myka. “I don’t want to use it on you. I want to use it on her.”

“Me?” Ida said. It was the first time Myka had heard her sound genuinely alarmed. “Is it because I asked for the leading-lady distraction? I didn’t mean—”

“No, no,” Pete said. “Another her. I get it for real now. It’s an ex-girlfriend thing. Sort of. Somebody else’s girlfriend, when you really think about—”

“Not for personal gain,” Myka muttered, but that wasn’t even true. Pete played with artifacts all the time, and if that wasn’t—

“Now you don’t get it,” Pete said. “I’m pretty sure this is H.G. trying to be a standup guy, letting her down easy.”

“Seems like that would be for Helena’s benefit too,” Myka said, and now she was the one actively not looking at Helena.

Pete said, “It really isn’t. Or if it is, the Warehouse probably knows it owes her. Owes them both.” What about what it owes me, Myka wanted to say, but Pete was busy telling Helena, “My only problem with doing you this favor, which really isn’t even a favor, is the logistics. We don’t even know if she’s here at the fair anymore.”

“Or we do,” Helena said, with an apologetic wince at Myka.

The wince gave Myka impetus: “No matter what the Warehouse owes anybody, it isn’t ethical and you know it. You’d be doing to her exactly what they did to you.”

“It is in no way what they did to me. This would be to give her peace, not to punish her.”

“It’s you taking away her agency. Thinking you know what’s best for her. If that’s okay, why shouldn’t I use it on you instead?” That earned her the opposite-of-duh head-shake. “To give you peace. Turn you back into pure, sainted Emily Lake, because that would make both of them, Emily Lake and her girlfriend, feel a lot more peaceful. And you could go and be her. You wanted us to kill you anyway, and let her live.”

She shouldn’t have said that, and she knew it, viscerally, when Helena’s jaw froze. “You acquiesced to that plan,” she said, at her most cold, “and with only a token protest. Don’t blame me for that.”

And Myka hadn’t known how ready she was, how she had for some time been so very ready, to say cutting words about martyrdom and people who melodramatically wanted the last thing they saw to be the sky, but Pete broke her train of thought with a musing, “We do convince people that they did mushrooms all the time. We think we know that’s what’s best for them.”

“She deserves peace,” Helena pressed, her jaw still tense. “The punishment was never meant to be hers. It was mine.”

“Ours,” Myka threw, thinking of the sky and the martyrdom and what had and hadn’t seemed possible. Only a token protest… Helena wasn’t wrong. Myka had let herself be persuaded, and the memory of it haunted her, as did the thought that she’d given in as she had because Helena had been only a hologram. Only an idea. But that wasn’t good enough, because people took drastic steps to protect ideas all the time. Why hadn’t she taken such steps instead of offering her token protest? Burning down a library with a friend inside… as if the library were just as important as the friend… as if her use of the mealy, insufficient word “friend” hadn’t itself been cowardly.

“Ours,” Helena echoed, looking remarkably like her ready-to-be-martyred self. With that same nod, same set of lip, she continued, “I could eliminate your punishment as well. Make you forget anything you’ve ever felt for me. The ultimate pardon.”

“I don’t deserve it.” I believed in you and I was right, she had insisted, but she was a hypocrite. I believed in you until I couldn’t touch you anymore. Only a token protest. As if ghosts—all of them—weren’t real. “And what is it you’d tell me to make all that forgetting happen? What would I have to believe? What do you intend to tell her?”

“I intend to tell her what she would have, given the chance. The chance she was not given.”

“You don’t know what Emily Lake would have told her.” And then Myka braced herself for another apologetic wince from Helena, an admission of “Or I do.” It didn’t come. Myka, hugely relieved, said, “Besides, what if it wears off? And remember, Ida figured out the rabbits weren’t real. We don’t know how the coin really worked, and we don’t know how this does either. So it’s the easy, and maybe even temporary, way out: for her heart, but also for your conscience.”

Helena stiffened again at the word “conscience.” “My feelings are not material. How was she to know what she was letting herself in for, falling for a Wyoming schoolteacher, one so… unpolluted? One who nevertheless looked like me?”

“How’s anybody supposed to know?” Myka asked. A rhetorical question if ever there was one… “We fall how we fall, we get from that what we get; sometimes we keep it, sometimes we don’t. I didn’t think I’d ever get you back.”

“That’s the question, then: if you hadn’t, would you have wanted to remember it differently? Or, better, not at all?”

That wasn’t rhetorical, so Myka said the most explanatory thing that came to her: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made me literally ill.”

Helena’s face relaxed into puzzlement, and she began a slight smile, as if being baffled represented a reprieve. “I can make no sense of that utterance other than I know it ends with you in fact retching, because you are careful with language.”

“It’s a movie,” Pete said. “Myka’s talking about a movie.”

“There’s no need to be condescending. How was I to know that?” Helena asked.

“I’m not condescending to you, I’m condescending to her.”

“I have talked about movies before,” Myka told him.

“Never when I could hear you.”

“Our tastes don’t align, Pete.” She turned to Helena. “It’s about erasing memories. Felt like a twisted horror-movie version of the way my brain works—or I guess I mean the horror I’d feel if my brain ever stopped working the way it does. The idea that I might volunteer for it? I didn’t sleep for three days because I was terrified I’d dream about it and wake up screaming.”

Pete tapped her shoulder. When she looked at him, he crossed his eyes. “It’s about love, you dope. Toldya you didn’t know the difference between horror movies and soap operas.”

“Anyway,” she said, and she was tempted to cross her eyes back at him, but her father had always said that was dangerous, and now that she thought about it, maybe he’d been talking through the Welles microphone at her since she was born, “how was I supposed to know it was some kind of nightmarish foreshadowing instead.”

“Retching included?” Helena asked. Rueful: now her tone said We should not be fighting; we had stopped fighting, but here we are again, where we should not be.

“I don’t want to find out. Don’t make me.” And Myka hoped her own tone said You’re right. She tried to keep it that way as she continued, “How did you leave it with her yesterday? Never mind the artifact; you clearly aren’t done.”

“I don’t know what ‘done’ could mean in such a context. I listened far more than I spoke, and I left it, we both left it, as a situation of not knowing. One with an unknowable outcome.”

“Well, that sounds familiar.”

“Are you forbidding me to use the microphone?”

“Like that’d work. What I’m saying is I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Do you have a better one? I could simply disappear, as she did.”

Yes please, was Myka’s immediate thought. But she said, “That seems like cheating. Also mean. And you’re a lot of things, but I don’t think you’re mean.”

“Then what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to fix everything with a wave of your hand,” Myka said. “Because honestly, I’m human.”

Helena smiled: large, calm. “I did ask,” she said. “All right, what do you think I should do? Because, also honestly, I’m every ounce as human as you are, and this is about the two of us as well.”

What did Myka think H.G. Wells should do, in an impossible situation? She resisted a slightly hysterical urge to joke, Come down with a case of the flu. “I think you should tell her you’re sorry,” she said first, and slowly, “because I think that’s true—I think you regret that something you did helped to create the whole situation. I think you also should apologize for the cat being imposed on her.” That was edging the wrong way. She stopped, regrouped. “But I think you should do all of it as you, because you are you, and you shouldn’t presume to speak for Emily Lake. Because no matter how much you look like her, Emily Lake isn’t here.” She wanted to get this part right, and she probably wasn’t going to, but: “Everybody else’s body makes them who they are. They can rely on that; it’s basic and real. But the Warehouse stole that reality from you. Twice. First with bronzing, then with the coin. I think you should take it back and be yourself. That’s what I think you should do.”

Helena’s calm smile had dissolved as Myka spoke, replaced by an even softer aspect. Her eyes usually glittered like cut gems, their sparkle crafted, if not calculated. In this minute, however, they offered the random, gentle glints of sunlight on water. “All right,” she said.

And so Myka found herself—accompanied by Pete and Ida, because Pete had proclaimed, “If we don’t go with you, you’ll lurk,” and she thought he was probably wrong, but the sliver of doubt she felt about that herself made him just enough right—delivering Helena into the company of Emily Lake’s girlfriend. Girlfriend, or more? Myka was still desperate to know the specifics, even though at the same time she did, in fact, feel the appeal of Eternal-Sunshining, or Welles-microphoning, herself free of the very idea of her, of them, of all of it. Hypocrite, she accused herself again.

She and Helena spotted the girlfriend, still some distance from them, at the same time. The girlfriend then spotted them, and she raised her hand—a vague gesture, but clearly intended for Helena. Not for Emily: in that case, the wave would have been surer. Like the chin-poke, Myka thought, shaking jealous salt into her wounds, even as she recognized it as a stupid self-provocation.

Helena touched Myka’s arm and said, “Do you want to kiss me?”

Was Helena reading her covetous mind? “What? Why? Didn’t you get your PDA fix at the pie palace?” Pushing the covetousness onto Helena. Nice, Bering.

“To demonstrate ownership,” Helena said. She was matter-of-fact.

Myka tried to match her: “I’m not demonstrative.”

“But I am,” Helena said, and now there was something else there, something Myka couldn’t quite get her hands around.

“You’re the one who wanted to unpunish her,” Myka said. “Don’t twist the knife instead.” But then a possible “something else” hit her: “Unless this is like the hotel room last night? Something you need? Something it would be selfish of me not to let you have?”

“I meant it for you. Because she knows that I am—no, that she was. Demonstrative. So if I can demonstrate, in front of her, in this circumstance, that I would direct at you the same, or rather, more—”

“That isn’t what I need,” Myka said, and she meant it. Whoever Emily Lake’s girlfriend was, she wasn’t someone Myka needed to perform for, or to make Helena perform for. Yesterday, maybe; probably even this morning. Not now. “I’ll tell you what I need. Or I’ll try to.”

“So will I?” That was easy for Myka to get her hands around: it meant I did try, and it didn’t work.

“I’ll try to listen better when you do,” Myka said. “I promise. Now go be a standup guy.”

Helena gave her that soft sunlight gaze again. Then she walked away, toward Emily Lake’s girlfriend… toward a past, regardless of bodies, that was not her own.

Pete knuckled Myka between the shoulderblades. A big-brother gesture.

Ida didn’t touch Myka. But she did say, “I don’t understand exactly what’s happening, and I understand that I shouldn’t understand. But I do know you shouldn’t let it distract you. I lost my husband three years ago.”

A jolt. “I’m so sorry,” Myka said.

“We weren’t like Paul and Ginny—we had friction. Strife. I think you might know what I mean.”

“I apologize for not being able to keep it to ourselves. Our… strife.”

“I think I would have known anyway. Or maybe I’ve just convinced myself that I’m observant.”

That was either an obvious request for praise or totally unjustified self-deprecation. It didn’t matter which; Myka said, “You’re so observant that if I could personally offer you a job, I would.”

“I’m happily retired,” Ida said. But she smiled, practically Pete-wide.

“Someday I hope I get to say those words,” Myka told her. “Sincerely. Because right now, nothing makes anything else any easier.”

“Would you accept a piece of advice?”

“Faster than Pete would accept a piece of pie.”

“Doubtful,” Pete said.

“It’s really just another observation,” Ida said. “The temptation to say you’ve had enough… it’s tempting.”

Myka nodded. “It is. I try to, but it doesn’t take.” She sighed. “In fact I keep volunteering for more instead.”

Ida sighed too, a lovely, knowing sound. “That’s my show,” she said. Now she did touch Myka: she took her by the shoulders and turned her so that she faced away from Helena and Emily Lake’s girlfriend. Myka couldn’t help smiling, but Ida then turned businesslike.  “I have to leave you two for a little while—putting my own judge hat on.”

This perked Pete up. “Really? Is it something exciting? Something like food?”

“Something exactly like food. Fruit spreads: jams, jellies, marmalades, preserves, conserves, and butters.”

“I could be very helpful with that,” Pete told her. “If you needed any help.”

“Tell me the difference between preserves and conserves,” Ida challenged him.

He thought for a moment, then said, “One starts with pre-, and one starts with con-,” with a flourish, like he’d just solved the Riddle of the Sphinx.

When Ida didn’t respond immediately, Myka said, “You have to give it to him, on some level. He isn’t wrong.”

“I don’t think the spread-makers would appreciate that level,” Ida said. “But because of the spreads, I can’t take you to the museum now. You won’t go without me?”

“No way,” Pete assured her. “I don’t know why I thought we could just up and go; we gotta be sneaky. Wait till they close.”

“That won’t be till much later. Can you restrain tall, dark, and less-broody-than-she-was-this-morning by yourself for a few hours?”

Pete said, cheerfully, “Not a prayer. But I think she’s good. You good?”

“Define ‘good,’” Myka said. She kicked a rock, mostly for show.

Pete nodded. “She’s good.”

Once Ida had gone, Pete said to Myka, “So what’s the difference?”

“Preserves and conserves? How am I supposed to know? And don’t say ‘because you’re a girl,’ or I’ll—”

“I was gonna say ‘because you know everything’”—at that, Myka snorted—”but fine, I’ll look it up,” he said, and to Myka’s astonishment, he was in an instant reading aloud from his phone: “Conserves are a combination of fruits, usually citrus fruits and nuts, and sometimes raisins or coconut, with a consistency like jam. Traditional fruit preserves consist of small, whole fruits and uniformly sized pieces of larger fruits in a very thick sugar syrup and slightly jellied juice. Very thin slices of lemon or lemon juice may have been added.”

“I didn’t know any of that,” Myka admitted.

“Then this has been a really educational trip for both of us.”

“I wish that could’ve been the only thing we learned.”

“Don’t get all broody again!” he commanded. “It’s like you keep forgetting we’re at a fair! And don’t say you wish you could forget we’re at a fair, because you can’t, so let’s do some fair stuff. Besides, all that reading was hard work. It made me hungry. Also it was about fruit, so I’m even hungrier.”

So they did fair stuff. Or rather, Pete did fair stuff while Myka watched: primarily, he bought food and ate it, but he also dared Myka to get her face painted “so H.G.’ll call you a savage.” She declined. A while later, he dragged her to a booth that featured a game in which players shot water guns at ducks to drive them around a twisted river of a track; he challenged her with, “If you win, I’ll lay off you and H.G. for, like, a week.” Myka said a flat no, and he wheedled, “I’ll even make sure Claudia knows I’m supposed to give you a really easy time,” which was a slightly attractive kicker, so she asked him what he would win, in the unlikely event that he did. It took him a minute to come up with a decent forfeit, but he settled on, “If I win, you and H.G. have to come with me to the demo derby before we go to the museum!”

She reluctantly took him up on it, not because she really believed he’d knock off the grief even for a day, let alone a week, but because of marksmanship, and hers being objectively better, and she did like to prove it.

An hour later, she was still grumbling that both her water gun and her duck had clearly been defective, given that she had never lost a shooting contest in her life, and certainly never to Pete, given that she practiced, unlike some people, such as Helena but also Pete. “It’s a fair,” he said placidly. “Nobody ever said anything about the games being fair.”

“We shouldn’t have to go to the thing with you, though,” Myka said, “if the game wasn’t fair.”

“The bet was fair,” he told her. Then he whooped, “Look! Up in the sky!”

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane. Right?”

Pete took another slurp of a concoction that had been billed as an “Elvis milkshake” as he answered, “Iss th’pocalypse!” He pointed, and Myka looked up. She blinked. Blinked again. Couldn’t think of anything to say. “What?” he demanded. “I’ve always been pretty sure H.G.’s one of your fancy horsemen, plus she’s on the Ferris wheel, eating a corn dog. If that doesn’t say ‘end of the world,’ I don’t know what does.”

Myka sighed. “You have clearly not spent enough time with her when she’s hungry. The things she’ll eat…”

“Do you listen to yourself ever?”

“I gave that up. Nobody else listens to me, so why should I?”

“I’m pretty sure some ex-supervillain just went and did a thing she really didn’t want to do. On your say-so.”

“I can’t make any sense of how that happened,” Myka admitted, her eyes on Helena. “Of anything, really.” The ex-supervillain who inexplicably did things on Myka’s say-so was gazing contemplatively into the distance, over the fairgrounds, as her open cabin crested and then began to descend the wheel’s arc. She was eating a corn dog as if she had never had a nefarious thought in her life. She could have been Emily Lake; she could have been the historical H.G. Wells. At a fair. On a ride. Eating food.

They waited for her—waited for the ride to end—and Myka didn’t really know what to make of the fact that this was what Helena had done, after whatever conversation she had had with Emily Lake’s girlfriend: bought a corn dog and gone for a ride on the Ferris wheel. Myka did, however, find herself absurdly comforted by both the fact and the sight. Discomfited, a little, yet comforted.

Helena disembarked, discarded the corn dog’s stick. Saw Pete. Then saw Myka, whereupon her face lit up… but not fully. “I apologize,” she said.

“For what?” Myka asked, embarrassed at not being able to hide her slight panic at the restraint in Helena’s eyes.

Helena smiled. “I should have waited until you could join me,” she said, and just like that, Myka’s panic dissolved.

Pete mumbled, “Gotta throw this cup away and I think I better walk a little while to a place where they’ve got trash cans that isn’t here.”

Myka watched him jog-trot through the crowd, and she counted the trash cans he passed. She was up to eight when Helena said, “I should have contacted you, and I should have waited.”

“It’s okay,” Myka said. “I’m not a huge fan of corn dogs.”

“That wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I needed sustenance. In a physical sense, hence the food on a stick. But also… something from the distant past. My own basic and real past, much of which is distant.”

“Something like pie judging?”

“Mr. Ferris’s wheel was always similarly slow. Measured.” Helena paused, gave that light-up smile again. “But if I had waited, you could have sat beside me and held my hand. So I should have waited.”

If they had been in private, Myka would have kissed her. Leaned forward, taken that reward. Instead, she let her face relax into what she suspected was a light-up smile of her own. “Okay,” she said.

“And speaking of shoulds,” Helena said, with a set of jaw that wasn’t forbidding but nevertheless conveyed I feel compelled to say this, “I should never have taunted you in the hotel room this morning.”

As if it had been her fault. Myka said, “I deserved it. I should never have acted like you betrayed me. Like you wanted to.”

“Why not? It’s what I do,” Helena said, with a shrug that was not the Yes I was a supervillain dismissal she often threw at Pete; this one was more a shouldering of guilt. This one, she offered to Pete only when Kelly was his subtext.

“Not like that,” Myka told her, because that “slept with someone else” she’d flung so carelessly at Helena had been entirely inappropriate. “And besides, it’s not what you do, it’s what you did. We shouldn’t forget the past, but it doesn’t have to force us into anything. What happens next isn’t inevitable.” Well. Except. She sighed; she did have to say it sooner or later, and maybe it would help. “Except for we have to go watch cars hit each other in a little while.”

It did help: Helena laughed. “We have to?”

“I lost a bet,” Myka said. Helena grinned, and Myka went on, “But you know you want to.”

“I suspect you want to as well.”

“Maybe a little,” Myka admitted, and for that second, the tuning between them was crystal-clear.

When Pete rejoined them, he asked Myka a surprisingly quiet, “Better now?”

“Better now,” she agreed. And she knuckled him between his shoulderblades.

TBC

Chapter Text

“But this pie,” Myka said with her mouth full.

“Has rendered you ill-mannered and inarticulate,” Helena said. “Interesting.”

“And here I thought demolishing cars was gonna be the entertainment,” Pete added.

They all had to work hard to be heard over the soundtrack provided by the derby: the roar of engines, the sharp bang and crunch of metal colliding with metal at speed, the shouts of extremely invested spectators. Myka had been paying some attention to it before she embarked on this trip to pastry-girded key-lime paradise. She hadn’t had any idea that bliss was in fact a combination of citrus and… whatever other things it was combined with, here in this very-nearly-literal slice-of-heaven pie, but Pete was right: this had been a really educational trip.

Ida said, “This is closer to what I’d call a show.”

“Here in Wisconsin?” Pete asked.

“Anywhere. Is she always like this about pie?”

“I’ve only known her five years,” Pete said, “but I think it’s safe to go with ‘never in her life has she been like this about pie.’ Or maybe anything.”

“Well,” Helena began.

“Don’t say it,” Pete advised.

Ida temporized, “She doesn’t need to. Everyone understands innuendo. And subtext.”

Myka didn’t care, not even a little—not about the kind of show she was putting on, not about how innuendo-y and subtext-y Helena was getting with regard to what Myka might find heavenly in other contexts—as long as nobody took this miracle of a pie away.

She certainly hadn’t expected this to be the outcome when she, Helena, and Pete had taken the lengthy walk—thankfully, in their normal configuration, with Myka reclaiming her “run interference” slot between Helena and Pete—to the site of the demolition derby, some distance away from the fairgrounds proper, accompanied by what had seemed like an additional fair’s worth of people. Were these things really so popular? Maybe Pete was right, maybe “the IRS” should sponsor one in Univille. For purposes of general sociability, because for all Myka didn’t like the place, she did still care what its denizens thought of her, and if—

“Bet these’re cow pastures in real life,” Pete had said, interrupting her speculation. That prompted Myka to start taking careful note of where she was placing her feet during that long walk along not a path as such, but rather through grass that had been marked at irregular intervals with spray-painted arrows.

“You’re so prissy,” Pete said.

Myka shrugged that off. “Maybe. But cows. Or rabbits. Nobody with sense in their head want to walk in anything they leave behind.”

Helena said, to Pete, “Are you as unnerved by bovines as you are by lagomorphs?”

As a dig, it seemed mild, even polite, but Pete reacted as if she’d reached across Myka and slapped him. “Leave me alone! I’m not scared of anything unless it’s freakishly huge!”

They were passing the cars’ inspection area: the same spray paint had been applied to a piece of plywood, leaning against a fence enclosing those cars, to spell “INSP AREA.” It could have meant “inspiration area,” Myka supposed, but people with clipboards had seemed to be inspecting rather than inspiring, or being inspired… she tried to think of another word that began with “insp.” Nothing came to her.

“Size-wise,” she told Pete, “the bumpers on that Sable over there must be giving you nightmares already.”

Pete looked where she’d indicated. He did a cartoon double-take. “Are those even legal? I think I just found my horse.”

“I like the Pinto next to it,” Myka said.

He scoffed, “Nobody likes a Pinto.”

“The ponies enjoyed a brief vogue when I was a girl,” Helena mused, as if to herself. “Would that the car were painted like those…it’s a shame that a pinto—and, in fact, a sable—shouldn’t resemble their namesake animals in some way.”

Myka said, “I guess we can call my Pinto a Palomino, then. The color’s why I like it.”

“That’s not a good reason,” Pete said. “Not for a demo derby.”

“It’s a great reason. Look.” Myka pointed toward a corral ringed with bleachers. “There’s a lot of mud over there, where I assume they’ll do the demolishing, right?”

Pete nodded. “Mud slows ’em down. Safer, plus it’s a better show. Upset it’s gonna be such a messy show, Miss Prissy?”

“My point is, the Pinto’s yellow, so I’ll be able to keep track of it through the muck, while it does its demo-ing. Or gets demo-ed. As I watch it happen, because I’ve got a horse—almost literally—too. Do you want me interested or not?”

He glanced at the Pinto, then looked back at Myka. “Not sure,” he said, like he thought she was trying to trick him.

“You wanted us here so bad you won it,” she reminded him.

“Mostly wanted to make you suffer.”

“Then I think your win is more of a ‘win,’ because I refuse to suffer,” Myka told him. “Not about this.”

She was holding Helena’s hand. She had been, for the entire walk, “because I didn’t get to on the Ferris wheel,” she’d said when she first reached for the contact, her voiced reason in response to Helena’s questioning did-you-not-recently-express-objection-to-public-displays eyebrow, and it was true as far as it went. But what had compelled Myka to make the small display, really, was that she’d needed something, and this was simple. Uncomplicated. Something to bank against whatever was going to happen later, in the hotel room. Which she was, she had to admit to herself, doing some pre-suffering about. Because she didn’t know.

Helena declared, as if to assure Myka that she too felt both the simplicity and the need for it,  “I’m not suffering either. Not about this.”

She gripped Myka’s hand tighter. It did feel good. Myka echoed the pressure, and one corner of Helena’s mouth curved up.

Pete rolled his eyes. “You two are gonna wish so hard that Myka won that duck bet.”

“It was a bet that concerned ducks?” Helena asked.

Myka grimaced. “I’ll tell you later.”

“I wonder,” Helena said, jauntily, “whether the poultry competition might include a Rouen or two.”

“I’m gonna regret this, but: okay. That’s a…?” Pete prompted.

“Giant mallard,” Helena said, with even greater cheer. Pete groaned, and Myka found herself wanting to kiss Helena: for being clever, but also as yet another instance of that bankable, uncomplicated touch. She almost said that out loud—“I want to kiss you,” simple, like that—but she understood that if she did, she’d have to deal with Pete about it. Because of ducks.

“Well, I don’t see any of your probably-made-up freak-ducks around,” Pete said. He added a taunt of, “I do see the two of you practically sittin’ in a tree, though.”

“Mature,” Myka said.

“Water off a Rouen’s back!” Helena announced.

Her insouciance made Myka again want contact, like a kiss, but more than that—but still simple. Basic. The most basic.

Pete must have seen and read that thought as it crossed Myka’s mind, crossed her face, for he said, “Jesus, Mykes, just jump her and get it over with. Get yourselves behind the bleachers and take care of business.”

Nobody had taken care of any behind-the-bleachers business, of course, but Myka had kept on holding Helena’s hand, even as they sat on the uncomfortable aluminum of those bleachers and listened to engines rev in preparation for entering the corral. Pete had taken it upon himself to explain the derby’s rules to Helena: “…and they all go in and they have to hit another car every minute, or maybe it’s every two, but anyway if your engine bonks out you get a little while to try to restart it but if you can’t you’re out, and they break that piece of wood by your window to show that you…”

Myka listened with one ear, but mostly she concentrated on not finding a reason to loosen her clasp. The interlacing of their fingers had moved from “this feels good” to Helena’s barely fleshed bones pressing too solid against Myka’s, giving rise to an uncomfortable ache… but that ache was no reason to let go; rather, it was a reminder not to. Bodies, real ones, felt pain. So Myka sat on aluminum, listening to engines rev, not letting go. Banking it.

She’d been banking it, still, when Ida arrived, asking, “How did we ever live without the ability to text?” (Pete had said, as they sat down, that he would text Ida to join them, “because maybe she’s done with judgy-judge-judge and can bring us some leftovers.”) She’d looked at Myka and Helena—specifically, looked at their joined hands. “Well,” she said. “Another distraction?”

“Maybe,” Myka acknowledged. From something freakishly huge…

“How are you?” Ida asked Helena. “Did it go well, your summit?”

Helena smiled at the word. “As well as such a thing could. I suppose one might call the outcome détente,” she said. Myka, too, had smiled a little at “summit,” but as for “détente”… well, there was a lot to be said for that in the relations between several of her nearest and dearest. But she wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea of any relaxing of tensions between Helena and Emily Lake’s girlfriend. “It’s been a very strange two days,” Helena went on to say.

“That isn’t news to me,” Ida said, which prompted in Myka another Amen, sister. Ida added, “But I’ve got something that will make everything better.”

“Fruit spreads?” Pete asked, with great hope. He pointed at the small hamper she held. “That looks like something.”

Ida nodded. “Something. But better than fruit spreads.” From the hamper, she produced—with a “ta-da!”—the key lime pie. Pete gave a gasp that Myka judged both overdramatic and unwarranted; it was just a pie, albeit one that nearly matched her Pinto for color; if she’d thrown it at the car, no one would have noticed the spatter, not that she was in the habit of throwing pies at cars.

This pie hadn’t been thrown at anything, but it did look a little the worse for having traveled in close quarters: not show quality anymore. Given the crumbled edges of its crust and slightly dented surface, it might have been any pie at all. Ida then handed out plastic forks and paper plates, and if anyone near them in the stands around the fenced patch of mud recognized the picnic as larcenous, they kept it to themselves.

Pete took his fork up with his usual enthusiasm, dug in, took a bite, then closed his eyes. “This pie is freaking awesome. In an ‘I could literally die now’ way.”

“I told you, you literally can’t beat it,” Ida said.

While Myka had respected that particular “literally” when Ida said it yesterday, she wasn’t sure she believed it today in any kind of existential sense. Hence her astonishment when she found her own first bite to be… was “rapturous” outsize, as a word or an idea, to apply to the experience of eating pie? It didn’t matter what word she used, though; she wielded her fork with even more gusto than Pete, and she felt a niggling worry that this was, for her, unseemly, yet the combination of the unprecedented pie and the certainty that it was nutritious was irresistible. The mouthfeel alone was enough to knock her out—unctuous, yet with a sharp slash of lime-presence tanging on the tongue… she’d noticed Helena ignoring her own serving so as to watch Myka. “What?” Myka had asked. “It’s good for me.”

“I am prepared to offer to any and all attending deities,” Helena had said, amusement animating her face, “my prayer that your recently espoused belief does not wear off.”

I’m prepared to livestream it so everybody on the planet can testify later that it happened,” Pete had enthused. “Also so Claud’s head explodes when she sees it.”

And so it was that the only words Myka had managed to come up with in her own defense, “But this pie,” had caused everyone to express even more opinions in the matter.

Fortunately, however, they let her keep eating. “I feel like I’m somebody else, how much I’m enjoying this,” she now said, not bothering to pause before scooping up another forkful.

“Interesting,” Helena said again, and her tone told Myka that something was waiting to be interrogated there… but she was extremely unwilling to turn her attention away from the pie.

Meanwhile, the cars destroyed each other. None of it mattered to pie-intoxicated Myka, except the Pinto, a little, because she could in fact keep track of it in the muck. It was surprisingly agile, “her” Pinto. Or Palomino. And if the derby had engaged only her eyes, that would have been fine, but exhaust and mud and the crowd’s sweaty enthusiasm hung heavy in the air, congesting her nose and clogging her lungs; she resented that it interfered with her experience of the pie. Its rich citrus viscosity on her tongue was similarly condensed, but far more pleasurable… but wait, she thought, thickness… a dictionary-page memory… “fr. L in- + spissus slow, dense”: “Inspissate!” she exclaimed.

Pete and Ida both said “What?” and Myka looked up from her plate, ready to explain about “insp” and areas—but her neon pony caught her eye at just the right, or wrong, instant for her to witness its driver’s failure to recognize a danger for what it was: it received in that moment a dramatic T-boning from a seemingly unthreatening even-more-compact car. Myka yelped and upended her plate, which landed face down on the aluminum at her feet. It had held one last bit of inspissated key lime and… whatever else it was combined with, a last bit that she’d told herself she wanted to savor, but that she’d in all honesty been about to shovel into her mouth with abandon. She made a decision that was really no decision: she lifted the plate, scraped the spattered filling up with her fork, and willed herself not to think about dirt.

“Not one word,” she said, her mouth again full, to Pete and Helena. “Not one word out of either of you.”

Neither said anything. Myka chose to ignore their thunderstruck expressions, because she still had that precious morsel of pie in her mouth.

“Good choices,” Myka told them once she’d swallowed. She licked her fork. She took note of Helena’s expression as it shifted from shock to avid appreciation of her licking her fork.

TBC

Chapter Text

Having to go to the museum—having to do their actual jobs—was for Myka an anticlimax, post-pie. (She was trying very hard not to think about the implications of that.) She’d expected Pete to see it as a letdown, too, after the car massacre, because while the Sable hadn’t won, it was one of the last few vehicles managing to propel itself at the others, tires askew and engine asmoke. Myka had taken his continued investment in the proceedings as her opportunity to filch the remainder of his serving of pie. Helena had already handed hers over, wordlessly and unprompted. Myka hadn’t even had to look longingly at it. Okay, maybe once, but that was all it took.

But Pete clearly had not found the derby to be the pinnacle of the day’s excitement, and in the front seat of the rental, riding shotgun next to Myka as she followed Ida to the museum, he was extra-fidgety with anticipation at being in the sled-prop’s presence. The closer they got, the more his eagerness ratcheted up, which made Myka ask, “Do you think it’s affecting you?”

That got her the “duh” head-shake. “Well yeah. It’s Rosebud.”

“In a Warehouse-y way,” she clarified.

Pete squinched his face, the relaxed it. “Pretty sure I’d feel the same about something like… Peter Weller’s Robocop suit. Or Eastwood’s gun from Fistful of Dollars. You know, real movie stuff. I bet I’d pass out if I saw E.T. in person.”

Twilight was turning to real dark as they pulled into the deserted museum parking lot, right behind Ida, and the night hid them completely as Helena picked the lock on the “staff only” door. She did it matter-of-factly, with a mutter of “why did they bother.” Then Ida led them past exhibits that purported to tell “The Wisconsin Story”—the whole story, starting with the deep geological past, and giving pride of place to what had been unearthed from that deep geological past: two looming fossil mammoths, which Pete was fortunately too Rosebud-focused to register, for their size was giving even Myka the shivers. They were impressively tusked, but with comparatively delicate ribs, too-long legs, and strangely structured foot-bones that gave them the improbable look of walking on dainty tiptoe.

Myka had not expected mammoths. Again, an educational trip.

The Wisconsin story stopped, apparently, with Orson Welles, for the gallery was designed to culminate in that exhibit. Their approach of the sled was uneventful, aside from Pete’s actual hyperventilating; if Rosebud did this to him, there was no way he would have survived E.T., much less stayed conscious. Myka made him breathe into a static bag—she appreciated that Helena managed not to laugh too much at the sight—and when he finally calmed down, he declared, “I refuse to steal it. Because we’ve got the mic, so who cares? What’s Rosebud gonna do all by itself?”

“I don’t think Artie’s going to find that a convincing argument,” Myka said.

“Who cares about that either? Spielberg outranks Artie. And the Regents.”

Myka looked at Helena. Helena shrugged a “your call, not mine” at her. So Myka shrugged back at her a “whatever,” because what was Artie going to do about it anyway? Get in a fistfight with Steven Spielberg? Pete would be thrilled at the very idea. He’d sell tickets. Sell tickets, then probably pass out when Spielberg showed up.

He was still talking: “So I’m not messing with his stuff other than to neutralize it real quick and put it back. Then we bounce.”

“Don’t say ‘bounce,’” Myka told him. “You sound ridiculous.”

“Claudia says bounce,” he said, with a little whine in his voice.

“You’re almost twice her age.” Though the evidence for that was limited…

Helena joined in with, “I’m nearly six times her age. What am I permitted to say?”

“What I wish we’d all say—and do—is ‘depart with our dignity intact,’” Myka said.

Helena pointed out, “As Pete and also Claudia enjoy reminding us, with regard to many things: ‘that ship has sailed.’”

She was right, but Myka scowled. “I don’t like you.”

“Be that as it may,” Helena said, offering one of her most saintly smiles, “but somewhat pursuant to the dignity point, you seem to be far more invested in key lime pie than I imagined possible.”

“And demo derbies!” Pete added.

“Leave me and my dignity—”

“Or lack thereof?” Helena asked, still saintly.

“—alone,” Myka finished. With as much aggrieved resignation as she could muster.

Ida, who’d been standing back from it all, particularly Pete’s hyperventilation, now said to Myka, “You did seem to enjoy both of those. Couldn’t that be good? Given your clear devotion to duty, it all speaks to your being a very complex leading lady.”

Myka opened her mouth to say “thank you,” but Pete preempted her with, “Less complex than you’d think. Myka World’s a pretty stripped-down place. No concession stands. Seat belts and helmets for all the rides, which there aren’t even a lot of anyhow, because they cost too much to insure, plus you gotta bring carnies in to run ’em, and I don’t think Myka trusts the carnies.”

“Also,” Myka noted, “I’m not an amusement park.” One beat. Two. She thought she might actually get away with—

“I beg to differ,” Helena said, and Myka sighed, in response to which, Helena placed a hand on Myka’s back, then rollercoastered that hand up and over Myka’s shoulder. In response to that, Myka frowned at Helena, to forestall any thoughts she might have had of continuing the journey somewhere inappropriate, and Helena brought the hand-car to an obvious, abrupt stop.

And in response to that, Ida laughed at them, and that made Myka chuckle too.

As Pete prepared to neutralize the sled, Helena offered to hold the microphone for him. Myka thought she was being ostentatious about needing something to do with her thwarted hand, but as soon as she had it, she began apologizing to it for having to take away its fun. “You liked being believed,” she murmured. “I understand. But we’re conveying you to a place where our very sensitive colleagues will locate you perfectly. You’ll feel quite at home. And one day we’ll steal your sledge friend and reunite the two of you, so—”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Pete warned.

“I might do it tomorrow morning before our flight leaves. I’m not afraid of filmmakers. Those Lumière brothers were utterly unintimidating. Perhaps this Spielberg is outsize, which would account for your trepidation?”

Pete didn’t object; instead, he nodded. “Way outsize, Hollywood-power-wise. Lotsa people quaking in their boots, I bet. And as for quaking in your boots, I also bet that if I went back in time to 1896, I’d see you diving under your chair to get away from the train headed for the camera courtesy of those Lumière brothers.”

Helena said, with what Myka hoped was mock venom, “If you went back in time to 1896, you would clearly dive under your chair—what with trains being as large as they are, and seemingly emerging from an outsize screen to flatten your comparatively undersized innocent spectating self.”

“Oh yeah? Well at least I’d know what a movie was.”

“Do not condescend to me!”

You love both of these five-year-olds , Myka reminded herself. Out loud, she said, “If we could maybe stick to the business at hand?”

“At hand!” Pete enthused. “Orson Welles touched this with his hand and so did Spielberg and now I’m about to too! We’re practically related now!”

“Why are you never this interested in actual history?” Helena groused.

“Oh, you mean antiques like you?” Pete retorted as he slid the sled into an extra-large static bag.

Five-year-olds, both of whom you love , Myka reminded herself again, but it didn’t matter anymore, because at that moment, Ida and everyone else got what anybody anywhere would have called a show, as a garish display of neutralization fireworks pinwheeled and rocketed outward from the bag, Roman-candling as if the sled had brought all of its show-business knowhow to bear on the situation and planned its execution of this moment.

Then: “Oh my god,” Myka said, because—

“I agree!” Ida rhapsodized.

But Myka wasn’t appreciating the pyrotechnics. No, she was realizing, viscerally, that she’d recently eaten the greater part of an insanely oversugared pie. Which was not nutritious at all. Which was in fact more sugar than she’d eaten at one sitting in… decades. Literally. She had to instruct her digestive system—her entire nervous system—not to panic. Not to rebel. “Oh my god,” she repeated. “Why did I eat that? I feel sick.”

“Interesting,” Helena said, just as she had at the demo derby.

“Please stop saying that. I don’t want to be interesting when you say it like that.”

“No, you don’t,” Helena affirmed, and Myka could make no sense of that at all.

Ida sighed. “Oh, but the rabbits. I didn’t expect this… disappointment.”

“Thought you’d sussed that out already,” Pete said. “What with no cleanup on aisle three.”

“I knew they couldn’t have been real. But apparently I still believed in them.”

Helena exhaled, audibly, before saying, “Belief does make its home in a stubborn part of the brain.”

“That doesn’t sound very science-y,” Pete said.

“It’s far older than science,” Helena told him.

“Just like you,” he jabbed, but it was halfhearted. “Yeah, okay. But just as well you didn’t, then, with the girlfriend. Think how much worse she’d feel right this minute.”

“What are a few hours of reprieve worth?” Helena asked.

Was that rhetorical? Myka answered anyway: “Less than nothing, if you don’t know they’re a reprieve while you’re in them.”

Helena’s gaze might have been about to harden into a glare, but Ida said, “Reprieves are usually short. So is life. Or it’s long, but it’s always, always more precious than we pretend. Isn’t it, H.G. Wells?”

Helena blinked—unaccompanied by a head-tilt, so not her I’m quite surprised blink, but a cousin. “You are observant,” she said.

“I don’t need a job,” Ida said. She looked at Myka, who muttered, “Retirement someday for everybody.”

Helena blinked again; again, it was a surprise-cousin. “Then I won’t offer you one,” she said to Ida. “Will you accept thanks?”

“I will. And I’ll thank you back: it’s certainly held my interest, this show. With all its charming leads.”

Pete said, “You’re still my favorite. Even though I know Bering and Wells are your favorites.”

“Let me know when you get a love interest,” Ida advised. “Then we’ll see.”

He didn’t look at Helena, not even a glance; Myka was watching. “Will do,” he said. Of course his Helena-complicated past wasn’t fixed, just like Myka and Helena’s complicated-by-everything past wasn’t. None of that would ever be fixed. But it was better—it could be better—and Myka could see the difference, the better, there in his not-glance.

She said to Ida, “Thank you. For it all. Can you tell Mr. Leland a good story about where the microphone disappeared to? Make him believe it?”

“All he’ll care about is that Ginny’s pie won. What I really need to do is figure out what to tell Agnes. She’ll be so disappointed… not to mention confused.”

“Why wasn’t she there today, anyhow, ready to get crowned queen of the pies?” Pete asked.

“The rabbits gave her such a fright.”

“Tell her they ate her pie,” he advised.

Ida frowned at him. “First, won’t she have stopped believing in them? And second, rabbits don’t like citrus.”

“Ha!” Pete crowed. “Then they probably wouldn’t like preserves or conserves, would they!”

That got him a teacherly approving nod from Ida. “Very good. You can come back next year and be my assistant.”

“Look out,” Myka said. “He’ll take you up on it.”

“That would be fine,” said Ida. “In fact if you all wanted to come and do another episode next year, it would be fine. I could look forward to it. Like one of those reunion TV-movies.”

“These days they’d just remake the show, recast all the parts,” Pete told her.

She patted his shoulder. “I doubt even Meryl Streep could do justice to your appreciation for Rosebud.”

“The One Where They Go to the Fair! Starring Meryl Streep as Pete Lattimer!” he said, clearly delighted by the idea. “I mean, it’d take a Streep to really get a handle on the fullness of me.”

“Good luck, Meryl,” said Myka.

Helena said, “The Fullness of Pete Lattimer, A Play in Three Acts: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.”

“With snack entr’actes, right?” Myka asked.

Helena nodded, adding, “Plus midnight-snack envoi. Although that doesn’t really apply to a play, does it?”

Pete waved whoa-stop hands at her. “If it’s a snack, it better be part of that play. It’s a good scene for the TV-movie, though: Meryl, chowing down on S’mores Pop-Tarts in some night kitchen in South Dakota, remembering how sad she was when she said this line coming up right now.” He gathered himself theatrically, then gazed with mournful eyes at the sled. “Bye, Rosebud. You got mojo.” To Ida, he said, “I’m pretty sure you do too. We really could put in a word about a job.”

“Happily retired,” Ida said.

“Just as well. I’ve said it before, people doing what we do, they end up crazy, evil, or dead.”

“Is that an effective recruiting slogan?”

“Only if you’re Ms. Trifecta here,” Pete said, tilting his head at Helena. “She heard that and was all, ‘Sign me up!’”

“Quit it,” Myka told him, but milder than she might have said it, even two days ago. She took Helena’s hand again, though, to make sure she knew Myka meant it, no matter how mild. Helena rewarded her with an even more bone-cutting clasp than usual.

“Sane, good, and alive, that’s what you all seem to be right now,” Ida said. “Please keep it that way.”

They all hugged her goodbye. “I’m not a hugger,” she protested before each hug—but after each one, she again wore that wide smile.

“I’m not either,” Myka told her.

“I am!” exclaimed Pete, accurately.

“But human contact,” Helena said, like an apology, though Myka heard in it the echo of deprivation. And that was accurate too.

Ida seemed to agree, for she held onto Helena a second longer than she had Myka or Pete. “I told you I’m not a science fiction fan, and that’s true. But I liked Ann Veronica very much,” she said. “Particularly the ending.”

“Nobody got the flu,” Myka agreed.

“That was…” Helena cleared her throat. “Someone else’s work. Entirely.”

Ida said, “Someone else believed in happy endings. Entirely?”

“I suppose he did. I remember that. I remember arguing about sentimentality.”

“It’s important to remember what you do remember. What you said about that radio interview… I don’t have a recording of my husband’s voice. I’ve thought about that more than I expected to.”

Helena’s voice , Myka thought, I didn’t—still don’t—have it anywhere but in my head. It was a new thought, one that chilled her. If Pete had smashed the coin, then Emily Lake’s voice forever. It made her want to record Helena’s voice right that minute: Helena saying “good morning,” Helena reading aloud the placard in front of the Welles exhibit, Helena reciting “The Owl and the Pussycat”… anything at all. She suspected Ida would have said the same thing about her husband’s voice, given the opportunity, and as for what that suggested about how all-in she herself was with Helena? It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, and it didn’t. But the force of it did.

Helena hugged Ida once more, and this time, she was the one who clung an extra second. “Happy endings,” Myka heard Ida say: her closing argument. Helena nodded against her shoulder.

Yes, in more ways than Myka would have thought possible: a very educational trip.

TBC

Chapter Text

On the drive back to the hotel, Myka sat alone in the back seat, as she had the night before. She wasn’t quite sure how that had happened this time, but she had a sense of having been manipulated. By Pete, which was strange… but then he started talking. To Helena, in a very sincere tone of voice. Which was also strange.

“Hey H.G.,” he began, “I think it’s pretty sweet, how we figured out that Rosebud deal together.”

“Are you feeling all right?” Helena asked. Strange to her too, then.

“Come on, don’t hate on me.”

“I… don’t? Am not?”

“I’m trying to make nice, okay? Because now you know what I’m scared of, and I don’t want you getting any ideas.”

“You know what I’m afraid of as well.”

He snorted. “Nothing?”

“If that’s your pronunciation of ‘further revelations of a disturbing nature regarding what happened when my body housed a consciousness not my own,’ then yes.”

Pete didn’t answer immediately. Myka didn’t want to breathe, lest she distract him from getting wherever he was going, wherever he and Helena were going.

Eventually, he said. “Got it.” He paused again, then threw over his shoulder, “How you feeling back there, Mykes? Still got the upset tummy?”

So much for thinking something important might be happening. “I’m not a five-year-old,” Myka said. “My stomach is fine.”

He swerved, and she swallowed a wave of what was absolutely not nausea.

“Well, shave my head and call me Steve,” he said without glancing into the rear-view mirror.

Helena said, hurriedly—clearly to head off another swerve, which Myka appreciated—“On the topic of fear. Or an aversion, at the very least: why did it occur to you to change, of all things, Myka’s interpretation of sugar?”

“It’s like that time we told you about with the juggling and the hairbrush and all, how Myka knew we’d never in a million years have slept together,” he said to Helena, who responded with a muttered “thank god.”

“High five, right?” he enthused, holding up his hand. And Helena, who when she tried to high-five always looked like an anthropologist who found the idea of being a participant-observer intrinsically perverse, did in fact high-five him. “To check up on something for real,” he went on, “you go big. Little stuff might not matter. Might not show. We’d never sleep together. Myka would never think sugar was good for her.”

“I heard you just as loudly and clearly,” Helena pointed out. “Why didn’t it matter to me, I wonder?”

“You eat sugar all the time. Plus you sneak it. I’ve caught you raiding Steve’s secret stash of those S’mores Pop-Tarts, those ones Meryl-me would Method-midnight-snack her way through.”

“They aren’t secret. Everyone knows he keeps them in the leftmost cupboard on the far wall, middle shelf, behind the fondue pot, and he doesn’t mind others eating them as long as they replenish the supply. Which I did. Which everyone does.”

“Everyone?” Myka wondered aloud. Everyone was in a secret Pop-Tart snacking club? Including Meryl-Streep-as-Pete? Everyone?

Helena and Pete turned matching of-course-not-you eyerolls on her. “In any case,” Helena said. “My point is that I know—in fact, believe, for I fervently believe in science and its findings—that sugar has little to no nutritional value. So why didn’t I feel a difference, in terms of my beliefs?”

“Huh. That’s interesting.”

“My question?” Helena asked.

“No,” Pete said, and Myka was surprised when Helena didn’t react to what she normally would have taken as a slight. “What’s interesting is that Myka’s all science-y like you, but she didn’t figure it out, like how Ida sherlocked the rabbits.” He began to slap out a rhythm against the steering wheel—focused fidgeting. He was thinking. Finally, he said, “But also, maybe she really really really didn’t want to figure it out.”

Helena said, casually but not, as if she’d been waiting for him to reach this exact conclusion, “The enthusiastic consumption of pie would suggest.”

“Just to remind you both, I’m sitting here,” Myka said.

Helena shook her head. “Shh. Pete is doing philosophy.”

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “That’s why my head hurts. And I’m hungry again.”

“We’ll be at the hotel soon, where you’ll order a pizza and recover,” Helena assured him.

“It’s like you’ve met me.”

“Certainly met the pizza delivery personnel. Paid them, in fact, at times.”

Pete turned his head away from the road to look at Helena, and the look lasted a little longer than Myka was comfortable with, from a safety perspective. Finally, with his gaze back where it was supposed to be, he said, “It’s true that maaaybe I haven’t given you full props for that kind of thing.”

“It’s true that maaaybe,” Helena echoed—and there was that awkward anthropologist again, for Helena rarely said “maybe,” and never said it like Pete did—“I have owed you that and more.”

A pause. Then: “I’m tired,” Pete said.

Helena nodded. “Understandable. Nap until your pizza arrives?”

“No, I mean, of all of it. Let’s just not anymore, okay? Any of it.”

Now Helena was the one to pause. “It’s an idea,” she said, slowly.

“Yeah, but I mean it. We worked this one out together. Let’s just.”

“You’re certain?”

“Who knows. All I do know is, I know what I’m scared of. And it ain’t you.”

Myka watched Helena look swiftly at Pete, then turn her face back to the dark road. “Good,” she eventually said. “All right. Good.”

He smiled. “No pullback on snark, though. For Claud’s sake—she’d whine about us being boring, and I’m pretty sure the main ingredient in any Recipe for Disaster is Claudia Donovan thinking she’s gotta start manufacturing her own entertainment.”

Another glance from Helena, this time accompanied by an answering smile. “Fair. Agreed, and fair.”

The fair. Where it all just happened,” he said.

“It did.” She offered him a low five, and he patted her palm.

Myka was extremely unsure of how she was feeling about what she’d been witnessing… witnessing for most of this day, and now the nighttime too. It wasn’t quite a mirror image of yesterday and last night; instead a softening of those, through a Vaselined lens.

At the hotel, instead of dashing away, Pete said, “You’re both coming out of that room alive in the morning, right? Alive and together?”

Now the difference between yesterday and today wasn’t Vaselined at all; now it annoyed Myka. “What do you care if we’re together,” she said.

Pete did not take the expected exaggerated offense. Instead, he shook his head sadly at Myka, then said, “Look out, H.G. That sounds like a sugar crash, and it’s headed right for you.”

“I doubt she’ll be persuaded that mud makes everything safer,” Helena said, also sadly.

“Look at me not making a joke about naked mud wrestling. How’s this: make sure she gives you your two minutes to try and restart.”

“Comedians,” Myka said. Now she knew exactly how she felt: like she wanted to hit them both. And hug them, despite not being a hugger. The twinning of those impulses didn’t have anything to do with having eaten sugar—that, she knew, because it wasn’t by any means a new sensation.

“Alive and together,” Pete repeated. Then he said to Helena, “I’d add ‘sane’ and ‘good,’ like Ida did, but I don’t want to set the bar too high for you.” He applauded himself, two little claps. “See? There’s your snark.”

“Here’s one for you: don’t order an extra-large pizza,” Helena advised. “The size will give you nightmares. As will your consequently inflated waistline.”

“That’s actually not a bad one. Hang onto it for when we get home; it’ll make Claud laugh. We make sure to remind her about the rabbits, and she’ll call me Anya and I’ll get offended, and then you can go into the pizza bit.”

As he plotted, Myka realized she was unsure again: about whether she would be able to survive a long-term Lattimer-and-Wells strategic-improv team. Was that even a thing? Would Claudia eventually catch on? And if she did, would she insist on making them wear matching Lattimer-and-Wells T-shirts? Could the Caretaker dictate agents’ wardrobe? If so, Claudia would never stop at T-shirts, which made Myka’s mind, for reasons known only to refined sugar, leap to the idea of herself, Helena, Pete, and Steve done up as KISS. She determined to never let her mind leap that way again, given how immediately confused she got about who should be who.

But: “If I tell you you’re Gene Simmons, can we call it a night?” she asked Pete, who said a confused “If you tell me I’m Gene Simmons for what?”

“Reasons,” Myka told him. “Your-ego reasons. Obviously Helena’s the Paul Stanley, but then Steve and I fight it out, because I bet we both want whiskers.”

“This is not a sugar crash,” Pete declared. “This is some kinda episode.”

Myka said, “If so, it’s one where Claudia gets drunk on power—”

“Episode ending in Y,” he mumbled.

“—and makes us all wear leather outfits and platform boots,” Myka finished.

Pete looked to Helena, and she affirmed, “This is an episode. With an increasingly desperate tone that I am beginning to recognize, one translatable as ‘Helena, I know we will soon be speaking privately, but I am nervous about what that will entail.’”

Helena really was every bit as annoying as Pete. Particularly when she was right.

“Not your first rodeo,” Pete observed.

“Demolition derby,” Helena corrected.

Pete looked like he was about to return volley, but Myka preempted him with a quick, “Goodnight, Pete.” She grabbed Helena by the arm and pulled her down the hallway toward their room.

“Don’t be nervous, Mykes!” he yelped, but he stayed put, so his voice receded as Myka hurry-walked them away. “She’s actually kind of okay, once you get to know her! And so are you! So I really think alive and together is gonna be the…”

They rounded a corner, and Myka slowed. She said to Helena, “Sorry. I think I was a little overcome by the whole you-and-Pete peace treaty.”

“I don’t have any real purchase on why it happened, so I am as well. What is a Paul Stanley?”

“We can worry about it later,” Myka said, for they had reached the room.

The space was pristine, all evidence of last night’s estrangement tidied away. The chair was a chair again, not Helena’s self-imposed prison. The bed was a bed, a white-sheeted, blankly innocent canvas.

The coffeemaker still did not have a filter basket.

“Scene of the crime?” Myka tried, as they stood in the doorway, as the door then swung shut behind them.

“At the very least,” Helena said, “the scene of a disastrously unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.”

Myka gave in—to exhaustion, or the sugar crash, or whatever it was—and took the three steps to the bed, sitting down and then letting her length collapse back across the formerly inhospitable expanse. “The phrase ‘endless wonder’ makes me cringe,” she told the popcorn ceiling. “It’s practically Pavlovian.”

“In truth I can’t imagine a scenario in which endlessness wouldn’t be a burden. Wonder, torment… you know Charles wrote an essay on Pavlov. In 1927.”

Now Myka carefully told the ceiling, “I did not know that. I also didn’t know you’d been doing so much digging.”

“It was hearing his voice in that interview that made me determined. He used the word ‘jolly’… he did so often use that word.” She said “jolly” again, as if it were from a language she knew only phonetically. “I’d been so angry with him, but he turned back into my brother, if you see what I mean. A speaking human. With whom I had spoken. I wanted to know what he’d done. As it happens, I have relatives.”

“Do you want to find them? Meet them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Myka said, still careful.

“But—will you listen to the interview?” Helena asked, with a little inhale of… uncertainty? Insecurity?

Odd. Both the request and the inhale. “If you want me to,” Myka said.

Her unvoiced “but why do you want me to” might as well have been said out loud, for Helena responded, “Because,” and she looked down, up, down, up, “it’s the closest you can come to meeting him.”

She would have wanted me to meet her brother. “I think maybe he’s not the only Wells who’s sentimental,” Myka said, to stave off the idea that she herself was the sentimental one here.

“You might have liked him. I misled you on that point, early on. I was so dismissive of him.”

“You were angry.”

“But he was my brother. Was. My brother.”

Myka propped herself up on her elbows. Helena had remained standing, there by the door, in a pose—and with an expression—far too hologram-reminiscent. “Come here,” Myka said. “Please.” Helena nodded and moved to sit in the chair by the bed, and Myka said, “That’s not—” But she needed to be careful. “This day,” she settled on saying, and she laughed a little. “That pie. I really did feel like I was someone else, eating it. Enjoying it.”

“Well. You were. Someone else. You were a body, one resembling Myka, who was no longer in possession of a salient piece of information about yourself. Something constitutive of yourself, as you have historically ideated that self.”

She said it mildly, so Myka tried to do “mild” in return. “Okay. I get it. My sugar-sick body gets it. It’s not the same—it wasn’t my full self—but I get it.”

But no: she didn’t get it at all; in fact she’d got it wrong, for Helena near-snapped, “As mentioned earlier today, it wasn’t my full self either,” and Myka braced herself. But Helena backed off. Her tone lightened as she repeated Myka’s words: “‘Sugar-sick body.’ Pete was exactly right, you know.”

“He was?” This pact between them, if it held, was going to be… peculiar.

“You ‘really really really’ did not want to figure out—to understand—that your belief had been altered. Why did you enjoy the pie so much? For you did enjoy it so much.”

“I’d’ve licked if off the Pinto,” Myka agreed. That earned her a vaguely horrified “what?”, so she said, “Never mind. The color was the same, and so I… never mind. My honest best guess as to why? No slippery-slope problem. Complete freedom. In real life, I try hard not to start any kind of slide, because I’m so susceptible. You say a piece of pie’s okay one time, and then it’s all pie. Morning, noon, night.”

“Surely you’re exaggerating.”

“Am I? You say meeting H.G. Wells at gunpoint’s okay one time, and then…”

She’d said it without really thinking—because meeting at gunpoint was something they did joke about, gingerly—but saying anything without thinking was foolish here, foolish now. Helena slumped deep into the chair. “So you believe I am as unhealthy for you as you now once again believe refined sugar to be.”

It was true that Myka was susceptible to slippery slopes. It was also true that meeting H.G. Wells at gunpoint one time had launched her into a slide down such a slope, one of morning-noon-night want, and it was additionally true that as Myka was sliding, she’d tried to make herself believe that Helena belonged in the same category as sugar and other indulgences. Then, after Yellowstone, she’d tried to discipline herself back up that slope to recapture the morally high, self-denying ground.

But there, too, Myka had been doing the Regents’ work for them: punishing herself.

“No,” Myka said now. “It isn’t like that at all. I believed in you and I was right. I got it wrong for a while—the part about believing—but then I got it right. Nobody had to use an artifact on me. Unless at the very beginning you shouted ‘you’re in love with me’ through that microphone?”

Helena didn’t answer immediately. She moved her head mindfully again, not up and down, but as if she were trying to work a crick out of her neck. Then she said, “That isn’t as fanciful as you make it sound. Earlier, both Pete and Ida understood my implication that in intimate contexts, you could be said to be, at times, similarly… voracious.” Myka was about to concede that Helena wasn’t wrong, when Helena continued, “I like you that way.” She could have said this suggestively; instead it was simple.

If she’d been suggestive, Myka would have understood exactly what she meant, and would have dismissed it because of that. But simple? “Why?” Myka asked, also simply.

And Helena answered in kind. “Your being unashamed of your appetites is—please don’t take offense—somewhat out of character. I suppose it has to do with your slippery-slope problem… but that such rare lack of shame could stand in relation to me seems nothing short of a miracle.”

Only occasionally did Myka feel that she was granted access to something like the real, everyday texture of Helena’s distant past. Most of the time, Helena told smooth stories, making light of then-now differences, but the way she said “such rare lack of shame”—that wasn’t just about Myka. In those words were serrations, deep and old and yet still raw, and shame had been the knife, no matter who had wielded it, there in that distant past, whether Helena herself or someone else or everyone.

“It does stand in relation to you,” Myka said. “But more importantly, in relation to us.” She didn’t imagine it would counter any part of that past, but it was true.

Helena took her time. Then: “Surely you said that through the microphone.”

Myka turned on her side. Helena was small in the chair again, but her eyes were bright. They were quiet for a while, breathing. Two bodies performing respiration. Far older than science, Myka thought.

“I’ll tell you about the bet,” she said, when the silence threatened to become too meaningful. Then she reconsidered. “Except for now I sort of don’t want to tell you. You might hear it wrong.”

Dry: “That would not be new.”

Myka matched her. “This is nobody’s first demolition derby, is it? Anyway, plastic duck-boats and water guns, and obviously I lost, but the important part was, I was trying to win us a week free of stuff like ‘Wow, Myka, you sure enjoyed yourself last night’ and ‘Hey H.G., quit staring at Myka’s assets.’ Not because I’m ashamed. Because it’s Pete.”

“I understand.”

Myka appreciated that, but a loss was a loss. “Shooting,” she said, still frustrated with herself, with the game, and particularly with Pete. “Even water guns, I figured I’d win.”

“But you lost. Did you ‘psych yourself out’?”

Adorable anthropologist. Myka would have preferred to grimace, but the anthropologist made her smile instead. “Defective game. I wish it’d been those giant ducks of yours, and they’d made him run away screaming.”

“What do you want me to tell you?” Helena asked, and there it was.

“I honestly don’t know,” Myka admitted. “Nothing? Everything?”

“You wanted to know her name.”

“I wanted to torture myself with it. That was a really stupid thing to want.”

“Not stupid. Unproductive, perhaps, yet completely understandable. Are you happy with me?”

That seemed like a real question, so Myka gave it a real answer. “Not every minute, but a whole lot of the time.”

“There you are. We all feel a need to torture ourselves, because none of us believes we deserve to be happy. Rightly or wrongly. You didn’t believe you deserved a pardon, either.”

“Shame? No, that’s guilt. Anyway I’d probably really rather not.”

“Be happy?”

“Torture myself.”

Helena took another of those meaningful pauses. “No version of myself could have said her name the way I say yours. And she may know something of this body—some softer version, not the one that says your name—but she doesn’t know me.” She paused, began a smile. “For example, although she knew that I had an affinity for the historical H.G. Wells, as anyone with a love of literature would, she had no idea how fervently I despised that hideously bearded Frenchman Verne.”

“You didn’t like his beard?” Myka asked, smiling too.

“I didn’t like him. As the beard was attached to him, what do you imagine I thought of it?”

“I figured maybe you were anti all facial hair. You were really dismissive of your brother’s mustache.”

Helena crossed her arms and sniffed. “Well, who wouldn’t have been?”

“He did keep it though. Decades. I’ve seen the pictures.”

“I know. Every photograph I saw, I wanted to shave his ridiculously bewhiskered face. He was so handsome as a boy.”

“I’m partial to his handsome sister.”

Now Helena pushed her chin and chest forward a bit; she raised an eyebrow. “You certainly know what to say to me.”

“It doesn’t take H.G.-Wells-level genius to figure out that you’d like hearing you’re more handsome than your brother.”

“If only because I am clean-shaven?” she asked, running the fingers of her left hand over her upper lip, around her chin.

Myka shrugged against the bed. “Your call if you want a mustache.”

“Unlikely,” Helena said. She sat back, arms again crossed. “I can’t tell you everything, in the main because I don’t have your memory. I told you I listened more than I spoke. I told you: I wanted to know. What had… happened. As much an invitation to torturing oneself as your wanting to know her name, I suppose. I know you think I act the martyr. Not an unjustified accusation. But… they were kind to each other. I believe they loved each other.”

Myka should have expected such a dagger. “I changed my mind; I can’t hear this.” Was saying that—feeling that—a step in a bad, last-night direction?

“But you can,” Helena said quickly. “Or you need to? I certainly needed to. So as to ease my own mind about what she… did. And you certainly need to hear that some version of myself could be kind, could be genuine. That the guilt, the shame, both of those could be peeled away, and that at least some bodily decency remained. I hadn’t believed that could be true.”

A better direction: “I’ve been trying to tell you. I’ve seen it, felt it. I believe it. I don’t need Emily Lake for that, and I don’t need a microphone. Maybe you do. I don’t.”

“You certainly needed something last night, something this version of myself couldn’t give.”

“Last night was awful. I was awful.”

“I don’t see how it would have gone differently,” Helena said, an oddly gentle condemnation. “You felt what you felt, and why should you have had to pretend otherwise?”

That did nothing to mitigate Myka’s self-reproach. “You felt what you felt too. And there’s a not-so-fine line between ‘not pretending’ and ‘being an insensitive jerk.’”

“I didn’t know what I wanted. Needed.”

“Me to be there?” Myka tried. “As something other than an insensitive jerk, and I wasn’t.”

“I’ve made the same error in the past, of course. Not being any sort of beneficent presence for you.”

“In your defense, some of those times, you were a hologram,” Myka said, using her I am making light of things that can never be made light of voice.

In the same light-but-heavy-but-light way, Helena said, “My own fault. Due to earlier non-beneficent times.”

Myka shifted her tone only slightly to ask, “How did you leave it with her?” You will be fine with whatever the answer is, she told herself. You will be fine, and you will not cause more trouble.

“With a sense of finality,” Helena said, and her words carried that sense as well. Myka began, minimally, to relax. Helena continued, “I can’t imagine she and I will meet again. It’s astonishing that we met at all, isn’t it?”

Myka was about to agree, but a new, terrible thought stopped her—and reversed all release of tension. “Did you ask her why she came here, to the fair?”

TBC