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P&&1>IhO2`ZrFlj*t5CKDZcp6z^`P^@`^`^`^`^`^`^`^`P GTimes New Roman5Symbol3&ArialiLiberation SerifTimes New RomanO$Bitstream Vera Sans=Droid Sans?Lohit HindiS&Liberation SansArial?Lohit HindiBhBklG""' 0 0M 0Caolan80 2 4Lb[:bF^2:The Silence of the Sirens
A Venture Brothers fanfiction by Christina Nordlander Dawson
Written for a Christmas request by Missy.
The Venture Brothers and all major characters in this story are the property of [adult swim].
*
The silence of the sirens is better for humans than their song. (St. Isidore of Pelusium)
God, no!
I'm broken, but I'm still alive
And slowly
I will feel my soul revive
With time, I'll find a way to right this wrong
If it takes my whole life long
Lord, I'll fight my battles all alone.
But make me strong!
( Prayer , The Scarlet Pimpernel)
1. Thirteen Texts
Half of Sirena's kingsize was covered in articles of clothing: slacks, haltertops, sheer stockings, dresses, dazzling fabrics halfhiding one another and mingling on the dazzling duvet. She'd got them out of her wardrobe to pick something for today and then couldn't find the energy to hang them up. Now she sat on the unencumbered edge of the bed in her frilled strawberrypink pajamas, facing the windows. She was too high up to see anything from this angle other than the other towers, obsidian against the dull grey sky. The snowfall had stopped. The view over to the VenTech Tower was unimpeded.
If he was going to come, he would have come by now. Yet she couldn't take her eyes off the window, in case he was going to show up on his hoverbike the second after she gave up.
Her smartphone was lying an inch from her hand, hidden like a porno mag under the pink cakelike dress Dad had bought for her Sweet Sixteen party, in case she was under surveillance. The henchmen had never cared about her being on the phone before, but it wasn't before any more. All it would take was the little shhping of the message alarm, and she would have the phone in her hand and unlocked within the second. She'd run the sound through her brain so many times, for seconds at a time it felt like she'd already heard it, as if her brain was tired of the stress and had decided to give her what she wanted.
Was she dozing off? She looked down at her hands and bare arms: a bit chunky, freckly, with some transparent scars left from digging out tracking devices. When her hands were close to her face, she could smell the soft soap she always used. The scent was a bridge that took her mind back to before that, as if she could go back and do things differently this time.
She ran down her vital signs. She was a bit flushed, had some slight trouble breathing, though her gills looked pink and healthy in the mirror. Your body's not built for the cold, Tadpole. It had taken her minutes to recover just from the walk from Rocco s car to the tower, the cold slicing into her flesh from every angle. Other than that she felt all right, her arms and legs were straight and strong, no aches. She was starting to feel the dryness in her mouth and mucous membranes; a swim would straighten her body out.
She reached for the phone, checked the messages in case she'd left it on silent. There were no messages and she hadn't.
Hank,
I'm not going to excuse my actions. All I ask is to see you again, so we can talk about it. If you want to break up, I tot. understand, but please, just give me a chance to explain.
Towards the end her fingers were slipping off the letters and she had to blink to be able to see clearly.
She pressed Send and let the phone sink. She remained sitting like that, shoulders drooping, as if this was the message that was going to get through and any minute now she would hear the alarm. Her gaze was stuck on the screen. Stupid, he needed some time to get his phone out and type a message at the least. Maybe he was holding it right now, hesitating whether to read it. She couldn't blame him at least he knew that he wasn't going to be blamed. And maybe he didn't have the phone with him, he might be in the gym or have left it when he went into town.
It wasn't going to be any of that, was it?
Sirena got up and walked across the fleecy carpet to the window. The air was fairly clear, under the dome of dirty grey sky. The VenTech Tower looked close enough to touch, close enough that if you flung yourself out across the gap of the street you might actually make it. (He had done once.) She fixated on the glassy black squares of the windows and couldn't see any movement.
She padded back to the bed and got the phone again. No message.
Please, Hank. If you want to break up, I won't stop you. You deserve better than me. You don't owe me a second chance. Just, please, let me see you and tell you how sorry I am for what I did. Then I'll be out of your life, if that's what you want.
She sent that message to join the rest of them.
After a few minutes, Sirena got up and started hanging the clothes. That would kill at least ten minutes. After that she would go for her swim, but even that wouldn't take up more than one or two hours, and emptiness loomed after it.
*
It was easy to say that she couldn't remember why she'd done it. Wrong, but easy.
Because Dean had stood up for her in the hostage situation, when Hank had been miles away. Because he was cute, with his narrow face and skinny body, his rustbrown hair that smelled a little of some dark strawberryflavoured shampoo. (Even after all this, he still attracted her.)
It had been fun, having two hot guys fawning over her brothers, no less. She hadn't been doing anything wrong, it wasn't as if she was dating him or making out with him, except for that one quick kiss on the cheek. (So she'd strung him along.) In fact, it was almost her duty to be nice to him after he'd saved her from a Guild member.
But when he'd invited her up to his dorm room in the blizzard, she'd known, and she'd gone anyway.
*
Nightfall brought her spirits up a bit; New York lost everything that was dirty or depressing in daylight and turned into a pure jewelled grid stretched out below Tophet Tower. But dinner came around and Hank hadn't replied.
She had her meal taken up to her suite; she didn't think she could trust her face before Dad. The meal was salmon pt starters and baked seabream. Any other day she would have wolfed it down. The phone lay in front of her while she ate.
She wasn't going to sleep like this. She ripped a page out of her college notebook and scratched down a few lines. Maybe she repeated some of the things she'd said in the texts, that was almost unavoidable. Maybe seeing how chaotic her handwriting had become would get through to something in him.
She called for one of Dad's henches, Wade. Sirena didn't know her too well, she was another of the guards standing around the hallways of the Tower like menacing pillars, but it felt as if a henchwoman would be better trusted with something like this. Certainly not Rocco, she didn't want him anywhere near Hank. The thought of how much worse Rocco could have made things just made her sick, and in this state she couldn't shake it. She sat in the bed staring stupidly at the duvet fabric when there was a knock on the door.
Miss Sirena? Wade's voice, slightly hoarse.
Sirena darted out of bed, grabbed the letter and pressed it in her hand. Wade took half a step back and looked down at her.
Miss Sirena, you look frightful! Would you mind telling me what happened?
She felt frightful. She hadn't been to the pool since before lunch; the drink she'd had with dinner had staved off the dehydration for about as long as it took to drink it. Almost with every breath she had to sniff to stop her nose running, and she could feel the paperiness of her skin, the last stage before it would start flaking. She kept her chin up and met Wade's gaze.
It's about a man.
Fortunately, that was all that needed to be said.
Take this letter to VenTech Tower, she went on, and deliver it to Hank Venture. Use a middleman if you have to... here, I'll get you cash to pay them...
She dove over to her desk to get her purse, rushing as if Wade might get bored and walk off. Wade didn't waste time on trying to comfort her; she left with professional promptness.
Sirena went to the window. It was impossible to see people in the street, beyond the lampposts, but she was trying to calculate how long it would take for Wade to take the elevator down, go outside, find some teen or kid who wanted to make some cash, send the message up, get the answer...
The door slid open.
Miss Sirena, your boyfriend is in hospital. I was unable to deliver your missive.
Sirena turned around.
I understand. Are they keeping him overnight?
In all the other chaos she had nearly forgotten Hank collapsing. He had been hypothermic, caught out in the blizzard. She d assumed the infirmary doctor would take care of him, that he'd just need something warm to drink and a ride home.
Wade was just a black outline against the light in the hallway. It cocked its head.
Miss Sirena... Hank Venture is in a coma. They said his condition is not stable.
And like it was the most important thing in the world, Sirena wondered if she had positioned herself there so that her face would only be a shadow when she said the word.
She didn't remember when Wade left. She must have closed the door.
Sirena went to the lightswitch and hesitated a ridiculously long time before flipping it. All decisions required effort now. Her bedroom fell dark; the only light was the icelolly coloured one falling in distinct strands from the street. She went to the window, but unsteadily, like someone who'd been shot. She hadn't been shot. Her body was strong and Hank was lying somewhere, in the light of a hospital ward, struggling under the weight of the dark.
Hank's face, flushed and shiny as if he d been suffering from heat rather than cold, fragile. His helpless gaze. Perhaps it wasn't her fault. She couldn't have known that he would go outside in the blizzard, she couldn't have predicted that he would do something so stupid if not for her, he wouldn't have come to the dorm.
If he died, it would be her fault as well.
Hank?
If you get this, I am so sorry.
2. Teach Me to Hear Mermaids Singing
As she sat up that evening looking across the street to the VenTech Tower, she became aware of something going on in there: freak flickers of light, like neurons lighting up in a seizure. It took her ludicrously long to realise that it wasn't just reflections of TV flickering or something, that there was a fight going on. Her bedroom windows weren't openable. Without sound, it was surreal.
Hank wasn't in the building, and she didn't care about the other Ventures. If anything, they were her enemies by default: Dr. Venture was arching her father. Dean, did she want Dean to die? There the thoughts fell silent. Venture was a Level 10 protagonist, he was bound to have good security. (If Hank had been in there, perhaps she would have gone storming in like a badass and carried his unconscious body outside, Piet style, or gone down in a hail of bullets. Easy to imagine elaborate fantasy sequences when it wasn't going to become relevant.)
Watching started feeling macabre after a while, like a gladiatorial game. Sirena pulled the heavy darkred velvet curtains and turned away from the windows, but then she had nothing else to do. She tried reading and playing video games, but her brain had given up trying to take in new memories.
*
She hadn't been meaning to sleep, but the dull pain knocked her out like a mallet.
The dreams were better than reality. She zipped across a snowscape, sharpcurved, permafrosted under a grey sky. It struck her how off this was: she was into water, all right, but not in solid form.
Maybe the thought threw her out of that dream, because next she was standing on the tiled edge of the penthouse pool. Everything was as normal, except that the ceiling light was out. The only lighting came from the windows and the ectoplasmcoloured LED strips below the surface. She knew then that it was okay, her prayers had been heard and she had been sent back to before something hideous. Now all she had to do was to prevent it. In a few hours, she was going to walk out of Professor von Helping's biology class and Dean was going to ask her to come up to his dorm room while the blizzard was raging, and she was going to say no but how could she remember what was going to happen if it hadn't already...
When she opened her eyes, dull grey snowlight fell in. She got up and almost keeled over again from the nauseous headache. She had a sudden conviction that he had died while she was asleep. It felt like it took minutes before she realised that he had been alive last time anyone had checked. It was just a different dream.
The realisation even if it was just the realisation that there was still uncertainty made her recover enough to go to the window. The VenTech Tower stood glossy and dark against the greywhite clouds. One window high up had been blown straight out of it and left a black hollow. It made her sick to look at. Other than that, the tower didn't look damaged.
She called the security office and asked for Wade, but the guy there young, judging from his voice told her she'd gone on an away mission. He seemed too keen to find out what Sirena wanted her for. Sirena hung up without being able to come up with a plausible excuse or conversation closer. A moment later she wanted to hit herself for not thinking of sending someone else to check the hospital.
The water from the tap glittered as she washed her face. It evaporated on her skin as if it was feverhot, and a second later she needed more. Her mouth tasted as if something had swelled and burst in it. She avoided her reflection.
She put on the clothes she'd worn yesterday. Her gaze went to the sky outside.
Wade hadn't told her which hospital he had been taken to, but she could guess that it was Stuyvesant University Medical Center: proximity and his family's position spoke for it. She got a jolt of energy when she thought of putting on her coat and hat and going there they weren't going to let her see him. (She wasn't his wife, she might not be his girlfriend any more.) Would they tell her what his state was? She'd never been in this situation, but privacy must prevent it. She turned to the door and back again. Get some other hench don't bother with Wade to hack the hospital records, they had got to have someone with those skills. If nothing else, tail the Ventures, if they were still alive. Her father had an entire system for stalking Dr. Venture, they must at least be able to find out if he was mourning his son or not.
As if all she needed to do was to expend enough energy and she would somehow be able to drag him back from the coma, as if it were a physical place. As if she could barge into the hospital reception and ask them to hook her up to Hank so that he could suck up her lifeforce.
She went out into the carpeted hallway, still buttoning her blouse. Her hands looked horrendous: skinny like those of an old woman, the skin rising off them in scales.
The buzzer outside her Dad's office shone Occupied. Sirena pressed it and counted a hundred and twenty seconds until he unlocked.
She padded across the thick deep purple carpeting and sat down in the chair facing Dad's desk. It wasn t a particularly hefty or ornamented desk, but undoubtedly fine workmanship. She d always wondered if it was actual wood or some woodlike substance, coral maybe, harvested from the nightbound deep sea. Being in the room for even a moment made your mouth taste like smoke. Even though the windows were large, the left side of the room was always in gloom, and in that gloom you would look up and face Wide Wale, enthroned in his shadowy might, New York City's number one villain, and not Dad with his kind, baggy eyes and head like a slightly sad pudding.
She ached to look up at him. She didn't, because she might see a new skintag or a new burst bloodvessel, another little sign of the spoils of time, and then she might cry.
She did look at his hands as they flopped down on the smooth surface of the desk.
Tadpole, what have you done to yourself... How long has it been since you had your bath?
The bath isn't important. She put her hands on the desktop as well, very pale against the black slab. Her skin soaked up the chill. It soothed her a bit. Father, I want to talk to you about something. I think you will be able to help me...
Out of the question, Tadpole. Dad's index fingers locked together. Have your bath, then perhaps we'll talk.
Sirena clenched her jaw. The toxic anger was something fresh after the last twentyfour hours. It felt like it gave her a bit more strength.
Dad, please help me out with this. I'll have my bath afterwards.
She heard the creak and click as Dad's big index finger pressed the button on his desk.
Julie, Emil, we have a very obstinate little lady in my office... No, but I think her temper needs cooling off. Take her up to the pool and make sure she stays in at least ten minutes.
No. Sirena's cheeks heated as she got up. She heard the henches' marching steps approach outside. Call them off, I'll go willingly.
Nuhuh. Dad shook his heavy head. You had your chance. I want those chestnut locks to be damp next time I see you.
The door slid open. Dad's henchpeople came in and clapped their hands on her arms.
She went with them through the corridor, making a point of walking as if they just happened to be going the same way.
She didn't like it, but the water did make her feel better. Her skin drunk up fluid and returned to its fullness and elasticity, her gills rustled back into their old springiness when she breathed. A poisonous gnawing that she hadn't been aware of until now started to fade from her guts.
She dove down and let the surface close over her.
If only she could stay like this. The lighting strips in the pool walls gleamed ahead. She felt her eyes morph back to underwater mode. (Their true mode.) It was a disorienting feeling, not quite painful. The tiles below the glowstrips gleamed as if each of them were a jewel.
The memories came more easily when she was underwater.
Mom had used to splash with her off the beach at their summer home in California. If Sirena had been an average child, perhaps she would have been the one to teach her to swim. White sand and turquoiseglowing surf. Mom had long silk hair and wore a long silk bathrobe when she was out of the water. She washed Sirena's gills for her and smiled afterwards.
But up on the beach, she had been yelling at Dad. Sirena had been underwater, darting to and fro, sometimes showing her back like a porpoise. They must have thought she couldn't hear anything.
Of course I love her! Mother's voice behind curtains of water. She's my daughter, Chester. She was silent for so long, Sirena wasn't expecting her to keep talking. But... there's so little of me in her. I love her, but she's not even human...
It wasn't the last time they argued, but it was the time Sirena remembered.
She broke through the surface and the memories faded. When she looked out the floortoceiling windows, she saw pillowy snow on the ledges. Reality was back. If Hank had still been alive when she went into the pool, maybe he wasn't now.
She was sitting on the visitor's chair in Dad's office again, freshly hydrated, almost swollen with moisture. Her head felt thick as if she had been crying.
Dad steepled his flippered hands. So, you were saying?
It was actually admirable. That level of... she didn't know what to call it, of bending the universe around yourself, to the point where you could have a visitor dragged out, thrown in a pool for ten minutes, brought back, and then resume the conversation as if they'd never even left. That took practice. She had to collect herself for a couple of seconds, but her thoughts flowed more easily now that the headache had died down.
She looked him in the eye.
If I can, I want to join the Guild. I know you are able to tell me what I need to do.
That did take Dad aback. Then he put his head on the side.
Tell me who has broken my little girl's heart.
Sirena swallowed a great deal.
That isn't what this is about. Her voice sounded rational, like it belonged to someone else. I've done something... I'd rather not talk about it, not right now, but it's time for me to do something with my life. If the Guild wants me...
But there the sobs caught up with her voice. She was still struggling to talk and wipe the tears on her sleeve, but Dad came over and hugged her, and that broke her. She was just a lump of shivering flesh in his arms. If the Guild wants me, she'd tried to say. What use could she possibly be? There was no strength in her.
So you lost your head over a pretty boy, big whoop, Dad's voice rumbled above her. When your Frank comes to, if he really loves you, he'll forgive. And if he doesn't, well, that's his loss, isn't it? Plenty more fish in the sea.
No, you don't understand. His words wanted her to be warm, to nestle up, to sink back to the age where everything could be forgiven.
She struggled out of his grasp. The stinging at the back of her throat was like how she imagined it felt like to drown.
If I hadn't... done that... Hank wouldn't be in hospital. And I don't know if they can save him. And if he dies, it will be my fault. She straightened up, sniffling, blinking frantically to keep her eyes clear. He might be dead already.
A small, sharp noise as Dad breathed in.
That is undoubtedly serious.
Then he started comforting her with the usual clichs: it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known. He was foolish to go outside in a blizzard to look for you. Sirena sat and listened to him and didn't object. Like the temperate pool water, it made her body relax, regardless of how her mind felt about it. In the second before he opened his mouth, she had already started to believe that he had some superscience method for curing Hank, like what he'd used on himself and his brother. Maybe the method would be able to bring Hank back, but he would be forever a bit removed from the world of humans, like Dad and she, and he would have noone except her she didn't even realise that she was thinking it until long after it had become apparent that there was no such thing.
But I can't blame him, Dad said when she came back to his words.
Sirena jolted. Dad was leaning across his desk, one hand extended, gazing at her as if she were a painting and he was putting on the finishing touches. His eyes were glittering in the crag of his face.
You really have a most remarkable effect on men, he went on. It's about time that you learned that.
Sirena felt as if she had been transported a little bit to the side of herself. Her gaze was fixed on the door.
Uh, Dad? Majorly weird.
Dad straightened up, bones creaking, and focused a more normal gaze on her.
You see now, Sirena. You've always been aware that you were, ahem, not cut from the same genetic cloth as other girls. But the difference runs deeper than just your visible traits. To put it briefly, the clue is in your name. You have a certain organ in your brain that gives off a supersensory signal that makes everyone attracted to you. Everyone who would ordinarily be attracted to women.
Sirena looked down at her arms and torso. Everything about her felt strong and revived after the swim. Dad's words didn't make her feel anything different.
He was speaking again:
Think about it. How did you and your beau meet?
It took her too long to remember, with everything else on her mind. Going back in her memory to that warm spring night was almost a physical jolt.
I... he jumped through the window to the pool. Or... rather, he tried to, nearly fell to his death and had to be rescued by a protagonist. He'd, uh, seen me from VenTech Tower and thought I was drowning because I wasn't coming up for air.
After finishing she felt dizzy, as if she in actual fact wasn't getting enough oxygen. She looked up at Dad. She had no idea what her face looked like.
Does that sound, Dad said, like the actions of a rational person?
She was barely aware of anything more, because the memories were mobbing her. Hank's feet scrabbling for purchase on the carpet as Dad's henchmen dragged him towards the entrance. Dean's skin flushing with feverish heat under her lips. Dean flushing Hank collapsed on the dorm floor, in a hospital bed, Hank, Hank, Hank.
Anyway, Dad said, back in the real world. I ll email you the link to the Guild s information pack, if you re still interested. If you want to join, you ll be best off taking on a role as a Number 2 for a more experienced antagonist that is way more forgiving at your age than trying to find a sponsor and strike out on your own before age twenty. But the entrance people will handle the research and whom to pair you with.
Shortly after that she took her leave and got up. On her way through the corridor she felt lightheaded, as if she needed the pool again. Dad had promised to send her the Guild's URL, but the Guild and Hank felt distant now. She'd clenched her fists so hard, her fingernails had left little dark pink marks in her palms.
There was a message on her phone. She'd set it to silent before she went to meet with Dad and she hadn't felt it buzzing.
Miss Sirena,
He has been discharged.
It took a stupid amount of time until she was able to parse the words and understand what it meant.
3. It's About a Girl
The highceilinged rec room in the VenTech Tower living quarters was a castle of warmth against the greyish cold outside, with high pillows of snow on the windowsills. Hank was stretched out in the couch, propped up with cushions all around him, with his legs up on the coffee table. Pop wasn't complaining; he'd even brought him homemade hot chocolate with spraycan whipped cream on top. Dean could smell the chocolatey steam from here. While Pop bustled about, putting a hotwater bottle in the microwave or asking Hank if there were any DVDs he wanted to watch, Billy and Pete had come up from wherever they lived. They were sitting on either side of him, Pete was showing him a new video game or something on his tablet.
Dean was hovering in the archway. He wasn't joining them. He was sort of hiding, but not well enough that they wouldn't be able to find him.
And Billy, get me my tabletphone, Hank called. I need to call Dermott about this.
He was back in full Rich Douchebag mode, like the first few days after moving in. More than anything, that meant things were back to normal. Hank was back to normal, maybe a bit battered, but tough, invulnerable. Evidently, Pop and the others thought so too, because they let him boss them around. It wasn t funny as such, but it made Dean want to laugh and fold himself into the skinny white couch with them and be in that little bubble of warmth and invincibility...
He d already made a move towards them when he became aware of how greasy and tepid his clothes felt on his skin. They were the ones he d worn while sitting up next to Hank, and they smelled accordingly, but they were also the ones he d been wearing at his classes and when he d gone back to his dorm with Sirena.
She d gone along with it, she d halfrun behind him up to his room even though she must have known. At that point, how did you back out? (He hadn t wanted to back out.) He hadn t even been in love with her. Did that make it better somehow? At least if he d been in love, he could have decided that she was worth it, that your beloved had to come before your brother. There had been something he guessed it was attraction. The way the Earth s core attracts you when you step on an icy slope and there is no friction.
He was going to his room. He was going to stick the clothes deep in the scratchy plastic laundrybasket and get some clean ones.
Dean turned back into the shadowy hallway, so abruptly it made him nauseous. There was a cold draft from the broken window. He needed a shower, too. The grease on his skin and hair still smelled of Sirena, and the scent pulled up memories
and in the memories she was better than anything, worth anything, worth losing Hank over
and he tried to stop breathing through his nose.
He rushed off along the corridor. What did this remind him of? His body dysphoria after finding out he was a clone, when it d seemed like he couldn t move without touching some of his skin or smelling some secretion, and all he wanted was out. He hurried his steps, as if he could outrun it.
*
Hank was hunched over his tablet, but he heard a noise from the doorway. When he glanced up, they were gone, but he could still hear the footsteps.
You okay, Hank? Dermott said on the video call. You re not in need of OSI assistance again?
No, it s all good... The steps had almost faded.
Hank got off the couch. Sorry, Dermott. I ll speak to you properly later. Gotta go.
As he put the tablet on the coffee table, something caught his gaze. His old Batman mask lay on the cushion next to him. It reminded him of something he thought he had forgotten.
No time for that. If Bruce Wayne'd had a brother, he would have dropped everything for him, too.
He caught up with Dean just as his brother was about to head into his room, shoulders a bit hunched. Hank reached out and halfgrabbed his arm.
Dean, wait!
Dean waited, turning around after a second. And of course, now he didn't have any words.
Hank rocked back slightly. It was okay, he should wait for Dean to talk. Dean was the one with things on his mind.
Dean was staring at his shoes, his face almost switched off. I almost killed you.
Oh no, this was worse. Hank patted Dean's back and managed a grin.
You didn't! I was the one who chose to go out in that, wasn't I?
Dean at least lifted his head, even though he still looked as if someone had hit him. Hank felt his shoulders sag. The ball was in Dean's court, all this time. Dean just had to feel awful and apologise. What could he do?
But I forgive you, he said.
It sounded weird and brash. Dean's expression picked up.
Everything, Hank went on.
He'd almost expected Dean to break down there, but instead the guy nodded and smiled, almost a grin. The whites of his eyes were still a bit pink.
And then they could hug each other. Hank leant his face on his brother's shoulder. For a moment he couldn't see anything other than darkness, where memories flickered white wastes of snow, aurora skies. He opened his eyes and saw the steelcoloured corridor wall.
Dean disentangled himself. I'm sorry, I was going to have a shower...
Hank scrunched up his face in an exaggerated wince. You need it.
Dean burst out laughing, and Hank laughed too. Not at his own joke, of course, but because it felt like something had healed.
And then, he said, maybe we can find some place to go snowboarding.
Dean was shining through the tears. Are you okay with that? I mean... seeing how snow almost killed you an' all?
Hank had thought of that, but the thought was just hanging around his brain, without any fear to go with it. When he glanced out the window back in the rec room, the sky was already taking on the deeper tone of winter evening.
I'll wrap up warm, he said. Besides, I won't be alone this time.
Dean was actually flushed with pride, looking at him. He turned into his bedroom and held the door open.
Fifteen minutes! he told Hank through the doorway. And then when we come home, Dad can make some of his hot chocolate. Maybe we'll watch a movie or something.
Maybe we will. Hank nodded, even though the door was shut. Or see if Pete has any games we can borrow.
The shower started running. He went to get his jacket and quilted trousers, hurrying as if Dean was going to change his mind.
But they still went snowboarding in the bright orange lights of the park, surrounded by yelling and joking groups of other teens. After a while, he stopped worrying about whether Dean was happy. Maybe Dean stopped worrying, too.
*
Sirena made it up to her suite, in a haze, almost like she d been whacked on the head. Hank was alive, he was going to make it, but even that almost dwindled next to the revelation. If she had the ability to attract all men, that meant that the whole maelstrom around her hadn t been anything she had done consciously and Dean hadn t hurt him. She was innocent and safe again, and now she could go to him.
She slowed down. She should have realised it already, but it took many long breaths until the thoughts were moving the right way up. Yes, Dean was innocent, just like any little unprotected human body going down a maelstrom. That meant that it had been her choice, and she had made her choice. She put her hands around her face and squeezed almost hard enough to damage things.
OK. OK. Calm down, Sirena. So she hadn t been absolved of guilt. Hank was alive. She could go to VenTech Tower now, first thing she did. Dangerous? There would be security guards, but she was a lone civilian, they were unlikely to take any measures more severe than preventing her from entering, and she would ask them to call Hank. He would want to see her. Even if he hated her, even if he just wanted to yell and scream at her, he would want to see her. All she wanted was a chance to explain.
Now that she had what she'd been praying for, she was delaying. She switched on her laptop and saw that Dad's mail with the Guild's address and PDFs had come through, even though she couldn't have been less interested in checking it now. She opened a wardrobe and rifled through a couple of sets of clothing. She would need to get changed before she went over. The magenta polkadotted blouse, maybe? It was nothing fancy, but Hank had seemed to think she looked extra good in it.
She stopped, hand sinking, wardrobe door still standing open.
She still had the power of charm. It wasn't going to be any less powerful because she knew about it. And the moment she saw Hank, it was going to get hold of him again.
So what? Could she help that she had been born with such a power? Sirena straightened up, one hand on the ornate wardrobe door. A few tresses of auburn hair had fallen in front of her eyes. She just needed to use it to win him back, to regain a bit of what she'd lost by failing him. Wasn't that what a villain would do, use all the means at her disposal? He'd loved her before, she just needed the extra boost that the charm would give her, and maybe please, maybe he would return to loving her for her own
Did she think he had loved her for her own sake before?
She turned around, expecting to totter. She looked out the window, but from this angle she couldn't see the VenTech Tower.
She needed to get in touch with him in some way where she wouldn t be able to infect influence him. Write to him? He would have got her texts by now, if he d bothered reading them. That was just more chaos in her thoughts. Could he reject her any more? Had she rooted herself in his brain like some emotional herpes virus? (Perhaps she could rush over to the tower, perhaps it was cruel to him to try to stay apart.) No, from the way Dad had talked about it it sounded like the influence, the charm, didn t have a lasting effect after she left. She wasn t sure. Did she have to hope that he was going to reject all her messages now?
She was going to ask Dad more about it, if he knew more than he d told her. Did she even have time?
Phoning Hank was out of the question; her voice might be enough to set it off. A siren, after all. But if she wrote to him and explained, he would almost certainly be safe. Almost certainly she was born with whale DNA but had gills, biology was nowhere near as logical as Professor von Helping made it seem.
She switched on her laptop and placed it on its stand on her bed. That helped: the mindless hand motions, the little whirr as it booted. She opened her email account. There was no new mail of relevance, just rows and rows of Hank s name from before yesterday. Her body stalled again as she sat staring at the unwritten letter.
She could write him a letter explaining about her power and telling him how much she hated the thing she d done. Sure. And then what? If there were a chance that she could win him back and there had to be a chance, she loved him too much to give up now, other people had forgiven infidelity and worse , were they going to spend the rest of their lives communicating online?
So she was trapped. She would have to see him at some point, and the moment she did, her power would get its claws back into him.
Could she learn to control it, modulate it? Sirena pressed her arm over her eyes so that there was actual darkness inside her eyelids. How could you control a body part that you couldn t see or feel? Maybe she could train herself to power it down, maybe get one of the male henchmen here it was a repulsive thought, and she still didn t know how to do it.
Dean had had no choice, or far less choice than any other guy or girl in that situation. She had had a choice, and guess what she d done?
Sirena wormed her way under the bedspread and forced herself to sob. It didn t make anything better. She could cry until her eyelids were swollen and she felt hung over, but if she went over there, Hank would still be attracted to her.
Perhaps there was a way. She pushed her face out of the pillow. The air felt chilly in her lungs, now that she could breathe more easily. If she dehydrated herself enough, perhaps that would wear her power down. It was the only chance she had left.
*
The first few hours had been rougher than she remembered, but towards midnight she was just dull and sniffly. She wasn t sure whether it was safe to go to bed in this state, but all that happened was that she dreamed about oceans.
When she woke up, her head was throbbing, her fingernails felt brittle, the works. She didn t want to look at her face. Perhaps it wasn t going to get any worse than this, but she forced herself to wait until half past nine before calling for Wade. Wade was in.
Please escort me out of the building, Sirena said. Her voice was firm, it just didn t sound like it should. I don t want Dad to stop me.
Wade nodded; Sirena didn t need to tell her where she was going. The henchwoman escorted her down the corridor and into the elevator, never looking straight at her.
Out the elevator and through the lobby and still noone had stopped them. Wade halted by the glass doors. The white world of the street was visible outside.
She gave Sirena a pat on the back.
Godspeed.
Sirena turned her head and smiled at her. There was nothing more she could do. She felt on the verge of crying, but perhaps her body was storing up her last moisture.
In this state, she felt the cold strongly even through her furlined cape. She felt the eyes of the other pedestrians and drivers on her. She pulled her hood forward, aware of how little it concealed, and leant into the wind that slipped its blades into her cuffs and along her cheeks. From their tower to VenTech was only half a block. If she couldn t even do this for Hank, she might as well give him up.
And if he did take her back, was she going to live out her life like this? No, she would learn to subject it to her conscious control. She would have the organ removed. Even if it would take a decade, she would do it, if only he was at the other end.
She stepped into the gargantuan greenmarbled lobby. Warmth came back to her brittle body almost instantly. There was a stale, thick silence, like the start of some infection in her eardrums. It took a moment for her to notice the receptionist behind the counter across the giant pitted V insignia.
Sirena clacked up to the counter. It took almost twice as long as normal, having to crisscross between cordonnedoff craters. The guy was familiar: middleaged, with a ginger buzzcut and almost certainly a beer gut. She made herself smile at him. His eyes widened a bit, showing more white.
I m a friend of Hank Venture s. Could you call him up, please?
Time stretched out as the guard faced her down. She held her hands palms out to show that she wasn t a threat; she tried to hold in her lower lip as if it were going to tremble. At least her charm clearly wasn t working, but what was the point if she wasn t getting further than this?
Well, where s the harm in it, he muttered at last and tapped in a code.
Tell him it s Sirena! she called. Tell him I need to speak with him, only once.
More dead time as the guard waited, then delivered her message. Sirena scraped at a chip in the counter edge with her nail. Some of the glass panes above her were boarded up. She couldn t feel any cold. She was burned up with fever now.
A moment later, Hank s voice:
Let her through.
Again she stood in an elevator shaft, steelcoloured and plain. She was starting to wish she d had breakfast, because she was getting nauseous.
It was always going to be too early when the elevator doors slid open to show white light. Hank s silhouette resolved itself out of the brightness. Sirena closed her eyes.
What the hell is that? Hank s voice called out. Brock! Something horrible s coming through the elevator... A brief pause. Holy crap, is that you? What happened? Running footsteps. No, Brock, it s okay, it s just Sirena.
She opened her eyes again, because his voice was from before the catastrophe. They were still alone in the hallway, though one door off to the right was open. Nothing more to stall this. She breathed in. She breathed out.
I heard you had recovered, she said, so I came here. I m not asking you to stay with me, or forgive me, just to accept my apologies& I m sorry.
And if he was going to embrace her, there was no lie and no force that she wouldn t use to keep him, but he didn t embrace her. Not yet? He wasn t angry. His round face was so soft, his lips a bit parted. She knew how downy his crewcut hair would feel under her palm.
Dizziness took her. Her field of sight dwindled to nothing and she had to grab on to the wall to stand up.
You have to come through, Hank said, hustling her to a set of double doors. His hands touched her back and upper arms. Sit down, are you feeling all right?
They came out into the blinding white rec room. Dean was there, but he took one look at her and made for the door. Sirena let Hank manoeuvre her to the couch and sit her down. And now it was time to talk, again.
I slept with Dean, she said without looking at him. That was a choice. I made it of my own free will. If I could relive my life, I wouldn t make that choice, but& I can t change it now. You can only choose to forgive me, or not. Another breath. But I don t want you to blame Dean, because it wasn t his choice. He wasn t acting by his free will. I have this power...
There she had to look up, to see his reaction. He sat plastered to the back of his chair.
I didn t know about it! She forced her voice back down. Dad only told me about it yesterday. But& I was using it whether I knew about it or not. It attracted Dean to me, and I think it attracted you to me, too. I let myself get dehydrated before I came here. So maybe it wouldn t attract you again.
A long pause. But I fell in love with you.
Was that in the past?
I want to believe you, Sirena said. Her weird leprouswhite hands flopped back onto the cushions. But if you d been charmed by me, wouldn t you feel the exact same thing?
She couldn t look at him, and she had to keep talking:
I still love you, and I totally understand if you don't forgive me for what I did. I can't forgive myself. If you want me back... I'm here. If you'll want me back a year from now, I'll still be here. But if not... Her gaze had skipped to the blue and white depths outside the window. ... at least accept all my apologies.
Okay, Hank said.
He was still smiling, an odd halfwaythere smile, as if something hadn't started hurting yet. If he d still been her boyfriend, she could have held him in her arms and cuddled him until she knew he was better. She couldn't do that now. He hadn't told her she had to leave, but she did, didn't she? Before she made it worse again.
He had his hand stretched out. She shook it as quickly as possible. She didn't want to find out if he was going to be repulsed by touching her skin.
As she left the room, she was about to walk into Dean. She'd seen him, all the time, but her brain was understandably not quite in synch with her eyes. He stepped aside, looking like he were in some haunted place, and she stumbled and just avoided him.
Hey, Dean! she said. Wait!
She'd been about to ask him to follow her out so they could talk onetoone, but that would have been the worst thing she could do. She stayed. Hank was a white pillar at the edge of her vision.
I just wanted to say, she began, raising her voice so that it would carry to Hank. I have a... you know about sirens, from Greek myth? Well, I kind of am one. I use my charm on you, on all men, I can't switch it off, and you... you couldn't resist. She squeezed her eyes shut until all she saw was flashing blackness. What happened wasn't your fault. You're not to blame.
Dean managed a smile, as if his face had partially cracked. His eyes were glittering with tears. She didn't stay to hear if he said anything.
The long swoop down the elevator, and through the echoing void of the lobby, and towards the glass doors until she was close enough to see her reflection, holloweyed. If this had been a romantic Hollywood film, he could still have come hurtling after her, or called for her on the P.A. but she already knew that he wasn't going to.
The doors opened and closed around her. When she stepped into the street, the winter sun was shining.
*
The printouts from the Guild were spread across her bed when she got back from the pool. Sirena picked them up, looked at them for a while, then deposited them on her chest of drawers. She pulled up her laptop, opened up the internet and typed in: CHARITY MODELING JOBS.
Epilogue: Or to Keep off Envy's Stinging
It was only a few days until she got her first call back, a swimsuit calendar audition with the proceeds going to a charity for unaccompanied immigrant kids. A henchman drove her up to the front of the model agency; Dad had given his blessing, just. She still didn't know whether her ability would translate through photos, but she was fairly attractive even without it, when hydrated. Even if her picture would only sell one extra copy, that was still a difference.
She got out of the car into the black winter cold, fingers clutching the satin bag with her bikini.
Her skin unfroze as she walked through the lobby. Two girls with identical high ponytails passed her in the carpeted corridor. When they were behind her, Sirena heard one of them hiss to the other:
Lol, is she here for the shoot? Whale.
Sirena turned her head and flashed the girl her best smile.
When she got to the waiting lounge, someone was already sitting there. It was Hank. His head flew up when he heard her footsteps. The unforgiving fluorescent lighting made his face look pale.
I came here to wish you luck, he said. Well, there was a notice about it on NYT Online. They had a list of all the models names.
He was tilting back and forth on his seat, as if some part of him were hurting but it wasn't pain, he was trying to figure out whether to keep his distance and be awkward, or hug her and still be awkward and maybe hurt her as well. She knew, because she was feeling that too.
She sat down in the seat next to him. It didn't quite solve the problem, but it was a compromise.
Thank you for coming here, Hank. It wasn't enough, so she smiled at him, and his face lit up in that grin.
As she got up to face the changingroom doors, Hank raised a hand and pressed two fingers against hers.
The fleshiness of his fingers. A toothshining grin. Before she knew what she was doing, her face responded to it.
Go Team Venture, he said.
THE END
28X * B
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