Ontic awoke in the grey room and wondered what was wrong. After a few minutes of thought, she started to wonder what was right, instead, and finally concluded it was her. It had been twelve years since she had last thought this clearly, and she wasn't sure she could handle it. She remembered, and remembered not remembering, and she wasn't sure which was worse.
Twelve years ago, her first mission with the PPC had shattered her mind, sending her headlong into a pit of insanity from which she hadn't been able to escape, and hadn't wanted to. Now she was out, but still standing on the edge. The pit was there, waiting, and it would be so easy to fall in again, to surrender to its depths, to become again who she had been for nearly half her life.
There was a movement across the room, and Ontic the Black Cat whirled around to see what it was. Ontic the Guard stared at her sister, Elanor, the girl who she had lost her mind trying to protect, sleeping restlessly alongside their brother on an austere grey chair. Ontic the half-orphan, child of war-torn Paris, marvelled that the three of them were together in the same room and yet there was no shouting. And Ontic the woman without a home, without a job, possibly about to be put on trial for mass murder, curled up in her bed and wept.
She didn't know how long she lay there, as the tears streamed down her fact, but in the end she looked up to be greeted by a tissue in an outstretched hand, two worried faces which shared features with her own. No longer children but still her siblings, Steve Dimond and Elanor Laison looked down at their sister with nothing but love and concern in their eyes. It was so long since Ontic had seen eyes without fear or anger in them that she almost broke down again at the sight, yet she held together. She had to, for their sakes.
"Hello, Elanor. I tried to get you out."
Elanor nodded, golden hair falling about her shoulders. "You succeeded, Ontic. They found me the night I turned fourteen."
Ontic shuddered, remembering her own fourteenth birthday. There had been no PPC Agents to rescue her, not then. It had taken two more years, two years of continuous work, before she had gotten out. Had she known that Elanor had gotten out? She wasn't sure. She could work out, with her mind now in order, that it had been the year after the Cats had left the PPC. She didn't think she'd known.
"Steve," she said, looking at her brother. "You…"
Steve's eyes closed, remaining that way longer than a blink could account for. "I remember you in my first couple of years. I remember seeing you and wondering what had happened to my sister. I know now." His eyes closed again, this time staying shut.
Ontic nodded. "I didn't notice you," she said. There was no need for excuses or apologies. They both knew what she'd been through, what had happened to her, and at this time, it didn't matter. All that mattered was that they were back together at last. The family was together.
Not quite. "What happened to Mother?" Ontic asked quietly. Their mother hadn't cared for them after the War – that had been Ontic's task – but she had paid for their lives with her body, given them a roof to sleep under, and for that the three had always shown gratitude, if not love.
It was Steve who answered. "I went back to see her a few times," he said. "Left her some money, in the years where there was any. Two years ago, she wasn't there any more. They said she'd been taken away to the Camps, but they wouldn't tell me more. I don't know what happened."
Ontic nodded, accepting the news. It seemed appropriate, somehow, that both her parents were gone now that she had come of age at last. Her body was twenty-eight, but her mind, reassembled and forced to reflect on what it had done, was far older. In her own head, Ontic thought, she was probably older than the woman who had given birth to her.
Elanor spoke up quietly. "We could go back," she said. "We could go back and get her. Bring her here. If you need her."
"No. What's past is past. We can't change that. We shouldn't."
"Not even…" Steve stopped, unable to go on, but Ontic knew what he meant.
"Not even me. I deserved what happened to me, every bit of it."
"You didn't," said Elanor, blue eyes wide. "You did nothing wrong. You kept us safe…"
"I sold myself," Ontic replied flatly. "After all we were taught."
"So did I, almost," Elanor said. "Has everything since then been payment for that? Is that why I died?"
Ontic started, sitting up. "You died?" she said, stunned. "But I didn't…"
"It wasn't you. I was on a mission, and I just wasn't fast enough."
Ontic shook her head. "If I'd been there…"
"You couldn't have been, Ontic. It was a mission. You couldn't have protected me."
"If I had never come to the PPC…"
"Then we'd all be a lot worse off."
"You'd still be alive."
"I'm alive again."
"If I'd just killed myself…"
"Things would be different."
"Who are you to say if they'd be better?"
Ontic shook her head. "They'd have to be. All I did… all the deaths…" Imbolc, she thought, but didn't say.
Steve and Elanor exchanged a look. "You've forgotten who you were," Steve said, at last. "You've forgotten being our big sister."
"Being our protector, our guard long before you were a Guard," Elanor added.
"I can't help it. It's been so long. I don't think I could ever get that back. I don't think I could ever be that girl again."
"Perhaps not. But you don't know until you try."
"How can I try? Twelve years… I've forgotten how to be innocent."
"There's always a way," Elanor said intensely. "Innocence is not ignorance. But you need time."
"Do I have time?" Ontic asked. "I was their enemy. Will they let me live?"
"They had better," a new voice said, "or I'll be out of a job."
Ontic turned her head sharply to see a face from her past. "Agent Hyrax," she said. "I remember you."
"You'll remember a lot of things from now on," Dassie Hyrax assured her. "I promised you that when I brought you here. They've fixed you, Ontic Laison."
Ontic nodded slowly. "They've fixed my present," she said slowly. "That means my past is... past, and I have a future." She frowned, looking up at Dassie. "But why are you here, in the present?"
Dassie smiled and showed her his arm. The green armband around his bicep should have meant something to Ontic, and she was surprised to find that it did. "You're in the Medical Department," she said. "They took you back, too."
"The Flowers aren't holding grudges," Dassie told her. "But they do have a sense of humour. I've been assigned as your observer. I have to make sure you're recovering on schedule – and I suppose I'm meant to watch for signs of regression."
Ontic smiled thinly. "I'll let you know if I start feeling the urge to pull – what was it? - to pull the legs off flies."
"Sounds like a plan," Dassie agreed. He looked at her brother and sister. "Doctor Fitzgerald says Ontic can leave Medical any time she wants," he told them. "Does she have anywhere to go?"
"Always," Steve said, and Elanor nodded with him.
"She'll always have a home with us."
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