The Many Tales of Blackjack: Jokers Wild

"Some of that is them pretending." Hammond said, coming back to the table and putting a steaming mug of hot chocolate in front of Erin. "But people learn to cope or adjust or just not think about it."

"Rook and Cheshire keep each other sane, I think. Rook was almost as bad as you when she first came out. I still remember it, she'd lost her memories and was barely human, talking to ghosts. But she pretends very well. The pretending is what keeps her going." Hammond said, taking a sip of his own hot chocolate and making a face as he burned his tongue. "You'd think I'd know better. Where was I... Cheshire is tough. A little slow, but most things slide off her, so she's a good person to have when everything is falling apart. She just keeps going, and Rook needs that to keep her tethered to life."

"Squick didn't have as long a Durance as you did, by a long shot. Two-three years. And his wasn't the worst, though it was terrifying in its own way. But being around people helps him cope." Hammond said. He had been around for a while, and the film industry was a good teacher of human psychology. "We're all a little fractured here, but we help each other and we put up a brave front of normality."

Erin picked up the hot chocolate, then frowned, a big, wobbling frown that spread slowly across her entire face. "I don't feel like them," she muttered. "I don't like it," she whined, hunching up.

She was forced to rescind that in a moment, though, slumping over and drooping. "They're nice. I like them," Erin said, a mess of contradictions tonight. "I don't trust them." She trusted Hammond, at least, or she never would have said it. Even now she glanced nervously around, as if she might be watched or recorded or spied upon.

"Why do we bother?" Erin asked, sounding lost, still clutching at her hot chocolate like a life-line. "It just hurts. You pretend you're something good and then fail everyone who loves you in the end. Because you're not."

"I disagree." Hammond said shrewdly. He looked at Erin, lips pursed, eyes dark and sad. "Because the more you pretend to be something, the more you become it. Or do you think I'm wrong? You smile, and pretend everything's alright, and pretend everything's fine, and get involved in a life, get a job, friends, a home, a lover. And you keep pretending, and then a few years pass and you're not pretending any more. You've been doing it so long, that's who you are. Not normal, but closer to it."

"And who said you're not good in the first place?" Hammond said, smiling. "You are good, if a bit odd. One pretends to be less odd, that's all. You don't pretend to be good."

"Good?" Erin sounded angry, saying the word as if it had offended her. She turned her back to Hammond. "Don't you say that. You know. You know about them..." Erin whirled again in a paranoid haze, scouring the frozen room for hidden tricks, that would steal her words and tell them to another. She would not name names in the Winter King's sanctum, she would not let her secrets be swallowed up by this room.

"They deserve to die," Erin said, her fists to the window, eyes darting feverishly about. "They all should die, or should have been left dead. It's the only way for there to be justice in this world. But the little angel knows better than justice." She nearly spat the last word.

"If anyone hurt my friends, I think I'd kill them. But I guess people like Colin aren't important enough to care about like that." There was definite instability behind her words when she said it. "Good? Good? I deserve to die too." She set her mug down, her fingers splayed over her face in an agonized gesture.

"A wise man once said that the most hideous thing God could do would be to give everyone what they deserve." Hammond said quietly. "You're talking about Justice, but what about Mercy..."

"If someone hurts your friends, pray that you can show them mercy as well." Hammond said, sipping from the mug of chocolate. "If you can do that, then you will be a better person than many."

"Besides." Hammond said briskly, moving on past the awkward moment. "Corporeal punishment was obsolete when I was young. If you want Colin to have justice, force his killers to make amends. That would be a better tribute to his memory than more deaths."

"I try," Erin whispered. "But it feels wrong. It feels wrong. It's all so confusing, Mr. Hammond. Everything that's right is wrong, everything that's wrong is right. People say I am beautiful, but I know they are wrong. People say I am good, but I know they are wrong. I know it in my heart. I thought what I did for the Mistress was wrong, but people say they like me. But the Mistress made me. So it was... good, what was done to me? It was good, what I did to others?"

"I don't belong here," she said, sipping her own chocolate. "There might have been a human by my name once, but nothing about her matters anymore. She might as well have never existed. I'm from Arcadia. I was never human." Erin trailed her fingers on the window glass. "My friends keep me here. They're my conscience. If something happened to them... I don't know if I'd know right from wrong enough to do the right thing anymore."

"I love it here, but I'm so afraid they'll be taken from me. I don't deserve friends, and we don't keep what we don't deserve. They don't deserve my love, I don't deserve theirs."

"No. You grew up good despite the Mistress." Hammond said. Now was neither the time nor the place to get into a nature-versus-nurture argument. "You spent years with your own parents, and then grew up into someone strong enough to escape Arcadia despite the Mistress's best efforts. And you did escape. The Mistress was gone, but you escaped."

"You're still a human being, and that never changed." Hammond said, smiling a little. "A pair of wings doesn't change that. You were born human, you have a human soul, and you're reacting as any human who spent half her life in Arcadia would. But you're free now."

"I never escaped! I was looking for her..." Erin covered her eyes. "Don't talk about souls. It just makes it worse. It makes it so much worse. I feel like I'm becoming her. Too ugly to ever be her, but like her. I've broken people. I want to make them better. I stole a man's faith, once. It was making him hurt people, but I stole it. And I'd do it again. How is that better? How is it better?"

"I forgot my parents," Erin half-wailed. "They aren't mine anymore. They were never mine. I've lost them."

"Stop it." Hammond said sharply, his words a dose of cold water. "Erin, if you want to be miserable about your decisions, nothing I say or do is going to stop you."

"But you just said, you took a man's faith, but what was he using it for? To hurt people. That is how it's better." Robert continued, voice colder now. "And if you think a flicker of memory from when you were a little girl makes them any less your parents, or you less their daughter, then you're doing both yourself and them a disservice."

Erin stopped talking, but mostly out of shame. She was still sulking.

"Thank you for the chocolate," she said, sipping it and staring out the window.


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