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Nereid knocked hesitantly on Citizen Pain's door. It was a little late, but she hoped he'd still be awake. That is, if he even slept.

The door was opened by Brainchild, who was wearing a stained lab coat over a t-shirt that read "I LOVE THE WORLD MACHINE" and jeans worn thin and pale at the knees. She had several lenses dialed down in front of her left eye, which didn't improve the scowl she aimed at Nereid. "What do you want?"

Nereid took a step backward. "I... just wanted to talk to Pay."

The scowl lightened infinitesimally. "He's not really in any shape to talk right now." She jerked her head to the left and back, and Nereid, standing on tiptoe, could see Pay lying on the bed behind her. He was wearing a tank top and a pair of shorts and was lying very still. The left half of his head was open, with various small wires and thin, straight pieces of metal protruding from the opening. A thick ochre substance oozed from several sites along the edge of the artificial flesh of his face onto stained rolls of gauze.

"Oh," Nereid said in a very small voice. She felt a little queasy.

Brainchild looked at her for a moment, then sighed. "I'm about to finish up for the night," she said. "If you want to come in and wait for him to come back online, you can. Sit in that chair and be quiet." She pointed to a chair on the far side of the room.

Nereid said, "I won't distract you?"

"Not if you shut up," Brainchild said, turning back to her work.

Nereid tiptoed into the room, shutting the door very softly, and crept to the indicated chair.

Brainchild spun lenses in front of her right eye and bent over Pay. She worked with quick, precise movements of the miniscule tools she held, and frequently consulted a palmtop that appeared to be wired into Pay's head.

Nereid watched her work, then realized that her gaze had drifted to the cleavage visible down Brainchild's shirt. She yanked her gaze away to the bare, blue-gray walls of Pay's room.

"Done," Brainchild said after a while. Nereid looked at her just in time for the heaving of Brainchild's bosom as she stretched backward, her back making tiny popping noises. Alarmed, Nereid looked at Pay. The bandages were restored to the left side of his face. "It'll take him some time to wake up," Brainchild said. "Startup is always slow, but he likes to have someone with him while he does it. Since you're here, I can go get some sleep."

"Oh," Nereid said, caught off-balance. "Um, thanks," she added, feeling obscurely like she needed to say something else.

Brainchild snorted and rolled up her very shiny metal tools in a strip of leather with pockets in it. She tucked the roll in the pocket of her lab coat. "Did you try to kill yourself today?" she said. "I haven't heard an explosion from either of our fearless leaders today."

"I'm not..." Nereid began heatedly, but stopped. "No," she said.

"Three whole days without a fine," Brainchild said, turning to the door. "Keep this up and, who knows? In a year or so, you might even get an official invite." She went out before Nereid could say anything.

Nereid bit her lip and looked at the floor.

"Buh-buh-buray," Pay said several minutes later. "Buh-ray-en-child?"

Nereid hopped to her feet and stood awkwardly at Pay's bedside. "She's, um, she's gone to bed. I'm here, though."

His visible eye flicked open and scanned as if reading something written on the ceiling. He inhaled deeply and carefully, then exhaled. Then his eye moved to look at Nereid. "I am guh-glad t-t-to s-see you."

"She said that your startup takes a while, but you like to have someone here, and I came to... to talk to you, so she left me here." Nereid tried to shove her hands into her pockets, forgetting that her new costume lacked pockets. She needed to fix that.

"Wuh-was she n-n-nice t-to you?" he said, scowling a bit over the stuttering.

Nereid shrugged. "As nice as Brainchild ever is. She let me in. I didn't expect that."

"I d-d-don't un-der-stand why they c-cannot b-be nice to you," he said. He was getting more motion in his lower face, and he managed to tilt his head slightly to look at her squarely.

She shrugged again. "I'm new, and my parents aren't as rich as theirs. And, I guess, I'm kind of stupid."

"N-no!" Pay's shoulders shifted as if he were trying to push himself up. "Not stu-stupid. J-just..." He paused, his eye visibly scanning his memory for a word. "Mis-un-der-stood." He smiled with the half of his mouth she could see.

"Hah!" she said, smiling back.

"Y-you are no more stupid than I am," he said, carefully enunciating. "Ind-deed, I worked for a villain. I did things they c-could call stupid."

"But he was like your father or something," she said. "He made you, then told you to do things, and you did them."

"I n-n-nearly killed the Midnight Mask," he said, "b-because I wanted t-to impress my creator. Not because he t-told me to."

"Weren't you controlled or something?" she said.

"No," he said emphatically. "I w-was an experiment in free will."

"And brainwashing?" she said.

"I suppose," he said, twitching his right arm. "But I am a member of the team, and they h-have never said things to me like they have to you."

"You didn't get public disturbance fines for the team," she said, looking away.

"Better," he said, "I destroyed part of the Government District."

She looked back at him. "Really?"

"Yes," he said, finally managing to haul himself up onto his elbows. "Indeed, I caused months of construction traffic jams."

She smiled ruefully at him. "Thanks, Pay."

"I do not like how the others treat you," he said, frowning. "Indeed, I do not like it. I will speak to them about it."

"You don't have to do that," she said. "Every team needs a... a scapegoat. Someone no one really likes. That's what my dad says, anyway. And he'd know."

"I do not admire that sentiment," Pay said. "Your parents were members of the Liberators for less than a year. They did not stay to be abused. If no one speaks for you here, you will leave. And I would not like that." His left leg thumped the bed.

"Thank you, Pay," she said. "I... thanks."

Pay smiled and turned the conversation to her schoolwork. Nereid chattered about her classes and professors, and he seemed honestly interested, even when she became self-conscious of how much she was complaining about her "Great American Literature" class. Their conversation was punctuated for the next hour by his muscle twitches as the various nerve fibers came back online.

"I am nearly fully functional again," he said at last. "If you want to go now, you can. I am grateful that you stayed with me."

"I... I... sure," Nereid said. "Let me know next time she works on you, I can come then too," she added diffidently.

"Indeed, I will," he said. He walked her to the door and squeezed her shoulder as she went out.

Once safely back in her room, she flung herself onto the bed and went over the entire conversation again. She smiled herself to sleep.


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