Scene 19 – November 8th
Exterior Townhouse, Late Morning
A few days after the paintball game, it was time to officially move in to the Compound. While I had been living there since Holly and Simone had brought me there from the hospital, I hadn’t actually been back home in that time. My stuff was still there – my books, my clothes, all the little knick-knacks that build up over the course of a life. I had been avoiding going back – I knew myself well enough to be certain that seeing the place empty and lifeless wouldn’t be good for me – but the time off that UNV had given me expired tomorrow. I had to venture back there to get my notes for school, at least.
Simone apparently had a lunch date today – her and her girlfriend had been on a break for reasons she didn’t want to go into, but were now ready to give it another shot – so she wasn’t here to help. Holly was available just as she had promised, though, and she held one hand in mine to help me stay grounded as I climbed out of her car and approached the home I had lived in for 21 years.
I paused at the doorstep of the house, staring up at it. “It feels so empty already,” I said. She squeezed me hand, and I squeezed back. “Let’s… let’s get started, I guess.”
Scene 20 – November 8th
Interior Townhouse, Continuous
I had been doing better over the last week, but I found myself drifting in and out again as Holly helped me pack things into suitcases and cardboard boxes. I would be doing fine one moment, and the next I would remember wearing this shirt while out to dinner with dad, or telling him about what I had learned from this book, or how proud he had been when I drew this piece of artwork, and I wouldn’t be able to…
Each time, Holly patiently waited for me to come back to myself, sometimes nudging me gently or tapping me on the shoulder to bring me back. She seemed to have an almost uncanny ability to spot when I was drifting, and would resume speaking in the middle of sentences as though nothing had happened.
“How do you do that?” I asked her after one such occasion where I had spent who-knows-how-long just standing in my closet and staring at the first suit my dad had ever bought me.
“Do what?” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, busy taping a box of clothes shut.
“Spot it when I’m… drifting away from myself.”
She rested an elbow on the box and propped her head up on that hand, looking up at me where she knelt on the floor next to the box. “It’s hard to describe, really. But, well… I’m a pretty observant person, as a rule, and there’s a bit of a difference, although I’m not sure quite how to explain.”
“You explained magic pretty decently, give it a shot,” I said. “You might surprise yourself.”
“Alright. You have kind of a… I dunno… a presence to you,” Holly told me. “Like, you’re very there, at every moment.”
“Really?” I said, curiously. “I think I get pretty in my head, sometimes. You think I’m in-the-moment?”
She shrugged. “Maybe it’s just around me, I don’t know. But when you’re… drifting, you said? When that happens, something changes. Maybe it’s your eyes – they unfocus a little, I think.” Then she chuckled a little. “Plus you drift off in the middle of a thought sometimes. That’s pretty clear as well.”
I shrugged. “Maybe it is just around you. I mean, I don’t want to be wrapped up in my own head when I could be spending time with you, after all.”
Was that too far? Did I make them uncomfortable? Was this a bad time? This was definitely a bad time. I shouldn’t have said that. My eyes met Holly’s, searching for some sign that she approved or disapproved.
Her eyes weren’t on mine, oddly. They were a little downcast, and… was that a blush and a small smile? No, it couldn’t be, I decided as she looked up. The smile was there, yes, but the blush must have been a trick of the light.
“I like spending time with you too, Quinn,” she promised, and leaned forward to affectionately bump her head into my leg where I stood. “I know we haven’t known each other all that long, but I honestly feel like you’re one of my best friends already.” She stood, hefted the box in her arms, and carried it out of my room to join a pile in the hallway.
“I feel the same way,” I called, turning back to my closet and reaching for a few flannels. The MLED was going to be providing the ones I would wear as part of my costume, but those would have a kevlar mesh and I didn’t expect them to be very comfortable for normal wear. Besides, some of these had sentimental value, like the one that dad had…
Holly put a hand on the small of my band, and I turned to smile up at her. “Where was I?”
“I’m one of your best friends.”
“Right.” I began folding up the shirt that dad had passed down to me. “I don’t want to get too into it, but… I haven’t had any close friends since high school, just casual friends. But you’re becoming very important to me very quickly. I hope that’s not too much to say.”
“Of course not,” she promised me. “Didn’t I just say that you’re becoming one of my best friends, too?” She took the old shirt from me, then pointed to a suit bag in the back of the closet. “You should grab that suit. Most events the MLED holds will have you just in costume, or a formal version of it, but there are a few where heroes are supposed to go incognito, and you’ll want nice clothes for them,” she recommended.
“There’s this art show that’s coming up in January, I think that’s the next one. And there’s a regional gala thing every summer that heroes can choose to go to either in costume or civvies.”
“I’ll take the suit, then.” I grabbed it and passed it to her. “That should lie across the luggage, not get folded up, right?”
“Right.” She set it atop the boxes. “Back to the friendship thing… on my end, it’s similar, I guess. My parents never sent me to school when I was growing up – I had private tutors until university – so I never really had close friends until now. Some in the Journeymen, but just because you’re both heroes doesn’t mean that you’ll get along, especially since there’s a wide age range. I mean, I’ve been part of it since I was 14, but as recently as last year we counted Blue Phoenix in our ranks.”
I thought back. Blue Phoenix… “The guy whose powers came in when he was about to die of old age?” He had made the papers.
“Yup! 83 years old and suddenly his body is made of burning blue energy that can take on any shape he can imagine. He definitely needed the training.” Her expression soured a bit. “And the crash course on the modern era, too.”
“…he didn’t understand you being genderfluid?” I asked sympathetically.
“Not in the slightest. Never respected Molly’s pronouns, either.”
“What a dick.”
She sighed. “It’s not that complicated, is it?”
“I mean, I don’t think so,” I promised her. “Cis people have just never had to think about gender before, so it comes as a complete shock to them. Even 1+1 is tricky when you don’t understand the concept of numbers yet.”
Holly shook her head violently as though trying to dislodge the thought. Her hair fanned out for a moment before settling back in a perfect spread over her shoulders, as she said, “Lets talk about something more cheerful. Friendship! That’s a happier topic, right?” She grinned.
“Right, friendship!” I decided that I had pulled everything out of my closet that needed to come, and stepped out of it to head to the bookshelf instead. “Friendship is…”
I blinked. It had, I figured, probably been a few minutes – I was sitting between two piles of books, one that seemed to be schoolbooks and the other my own personal books that I wanted to bring. I glanced over at Holly, who had just closed the last box of stuff from the closet and was now looking at me with concern. I managed a smile and gave her a thumbs up.
“…you don’t have to pretend to be okay, Quinn,” she said after a moment. “I know you’re not. It’s fine.”
I sighed. “I’m… not okay,” I agreed. “It’s just… dad was such a big part of my life. There’s so many things that make me think of him, and…” I actually felt myself tearing up this time. That was an improvement of a sort, I supposed.
Holly knelt next to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Would you like to talk about it?”
I wiped the tears away. “No, I… I need to distract myself, that’s all. It’s just… really hard, right now.”
Holly bit her lip thoughtfully, and I restrained the sudden surge of attraction I felt. I wouldn’t be a good partner right now, no matter how wonderful Holly was – I couldn’t be nearly what she deserved. Besides, she had turned me down when we had had dinner a few weeks ago.
“I wish I could help,” she said after a moment, “but I don’t think I can. I mean, I could make everything look super generic so it wouldn’t trigger memories, but… you do need to see them, so you can decide what’s important and what can stay.”
“Everything is important, in some ways,” I said. “It’s all… it’s all him. That’s why I can’t live here anymore.” I closed my eyes, but the sense of my presence still filled the room. I could still feel the mattress that he had helped me pick out with the money from my first summer job and the computer we had struggled through building together and the desk that he had once written poems on before it he had gotten a new one and passed it on to me and-
Scene 21 – November 8th
Interior Townhouse, Continuous
“…Quinn. Quinn!” Holly said urgently. “You need to breath! You’re having a panic attack!”
I took a deep, gasping breath, my body suddenly covered in sweat. “It’s too much,” I whispered. “I can’t, it’s all so much, I can’t…”
She bit her lip again, seeming to know exactly what I meant. “I can’t block out your ESP. Is there something else that I can…”
“Something… something that dad and I didn’t…” I took another heavy, shuddering breath. “Magic!” I gasp in realization. “I had never known anything about magic, tell me about magic! Teach me something!”
She nodded decisively. “That I can do. Magic… Okay. I’m gonna try and teach you a spell. A really simple one – it’s one of the first that I ever learned, back when my parents were first teaching me magic,” she told me.
“You learned… from your parents?” I asked.
“Fuck, that… that won’t help you to know, that…”
“No… it’s fine,” I promised. “Your parents… not mine. Still not my dad. Keep going.”
“Okay. Okay.” She took a deep breath herself, then continued, “I’ve told you that everyone has their own style of casting magic, right? But there tend to be some similarities. Just about everyone uses some kind of physical motion associated with casting – I have hand gestures, Canaveral and Anima both use touch and physical motion in general. My father uses a flute, my mother uses hand signs just like me.”
“Is it like…” I took another deep breath, realizing I hadn’t in a while. “A focusing thing? I had to use hand motions when I first got my powers. I don’t need to anymore, but it’s still easier to use them. More theatrical, too.”
“The drama of it might be why some mages do it as well,” Holly agreed. “But it’s mostly for focusing, yeah. The important thing is that it’s something that you can put attention on, something you can focus your entire mind and soul on doing, because if your mind wanders the spell will go wrong. The more you practice the less focus you need, but especially at first, it needs to be something strong.
“And it needs to be something that works for you – everyone has their own style, remember. That’s why teaching magic is so difficult – what worked for the teacher may not work for the student, not unless their styles are similar enough.” Holly hesitated. “Whatever you come to may not be close enough to mine for my advice to help,” she warned me. “You probably won’t figure it out immediately, either. For some people it comes to them right away, but others have to try tons of different things before they find a focusing method that works for them. There’s a whole semester-long class on it as part of Magical Studies at UNV.”
I thought about it. Something that could occupy my entire mind, something that could get easier with practice… art was my first thought, but I discarded it after a moment. I was already pretty good at art, it was easy to autopilot. I needed something I still had to think about… something like…
“What about people with powers?” I asked. “Do powers ever fit into magical foci?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “A lot of mages start off with a trick of some sort – some minor magical thing that they can do that they expand into everything else. Canaveral’s thing with kinetic energy started as that, I think. The Magnificent Maxwell got his start that way too. Anyway, those tricks could be thought of as a power – especially Canaveral’s, he told me once he started with being able to sense kinetic energy and then began messing with it.”
“My presence, then,” I decided. “My ESP, that is – Dr. Anomnachi suggested a new name for it.”
“I like it. How would your presence be a focus, though?”
“I can mess with how I sensed things using it. Plug it in to my sight or hearing or whatever, or even narrow the scope to get more detail on a smaller area.” I hadn’t tried that yet, actually, but it seemed more than possible.
“Okay, that seems… yeah, I think I have a path to you casting from that,” Holly decided. “Just don’t… don’t hate me if it doesn’t work, okay?”
“I could never hate you.”
There was another one of those moments where I thought she was blushing, but an instant later it was gone. Was she…? No, she wouldn’t hide that from me, would she?
“Anyway,” she quickly said, “I want you to put a hand out, relaxed and a little open. Yeah, like that. Now just… focus in on the area in your hand. Cut out everything else, as much as you can.”
I did my best. My sense of presence began to shrink, the world around me changing from an extension of my own body to something separate from me entirely – a mildly disconcerting feeling, I hadn’t realized how used to it I had grown – until it was gone, just the dust in the air in my hand and my regular human senses.
I hadn’t realized how dusty the house was until now – my presence didn’t usually pick up particles that small. I suppose that without dad or I to…
“It’s okay, we can try again,” Holly said when I came back to myself. “Do you still want to?”
I nodded. “Yes, I do. It’s… it’s helping, I think. Making a new memory that has nothing to do with… well.”
“Alright. Focus back in on your hand, then.”
I did so with a little effort, the world sinking back into normalcy again. “I’m focused,” I whispered, worried that I would lose balance in the mental tightrope that focusing my presence like this seemed to require.
“If you have the mental capacity to speak, you’re not focused enough,” Holly gently scolded me. “Go deeper, if you can. Focus only on your hand and my voice.”
I did my best. I shut out the feeling of my clothes on my skin, the slight pressure of sitting on the floor. I closed my eyes and tried to set aside even the light that filtered through my eyelids. I tried to blot out everything there was, and… was doing so, with some success!
“When you have a perfect focus, your mind is like the tip of a arrow.”
I could still hear Holly’s voice encouraging me, but it wasn’t coming through my ears, now.
“The full power of your thoughts and will and soul all brought to bear on a single point.”
There were no ears, there was no body to bear them, there was no Quinn to use them.
“An arrow can pierce plate armor, with sufficient force.”
All there was was a small patch of space containing 0.01 pounds of air vibrating in patterns corresponding to the voice of my best friend
“When the force of your whole self is arrayed such, how could the universe not break as well?”
and that air was made of 1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and and trace amount of argon and carbon dioxide and
“So thrust your mind forward, pierce through all that says reality must be static…”
and Holly’s voice was layered over lesser patterns of shockwaves that matched up to the sounds of two people breathing and a radiator humming and a dog barking in the distance and
“…and let there be light.”
and there was light.
The sudden burst of light was blindingly bright and completely knocked me off the razor’s edge of my focus. Even through my closed eyes, it was incredibly bright – enough that I could feel an instant of warmth on my skin, enough that I was blinking and trying to regain my sight. Holly swore in pain, diving back and rubbing at her own eyes.
“Well, I think we can call that a success,” she declared when our sights had returned. “That definitely works for you. Maybe even a bit too well,” she joked, offering me a hand up.
“I think I might have gone too deep,” I agreed. “I may need to learn restraint.”
“Hey, it’s an effective flashbang,” she pointed out. “Well, the flash part, anyway. All you have to do is practice enough to pull it off without spending fifteen minutes build up to it.”
I paused. “Fifteen minutes?”
“Yeah. Lost track of time?”
“Completely,” I admitted.
“Pretty common when you’re putting together a new spell,” she promised me. “But you’ve clearly got a knack for this. Most people take way longer to find their method of casting.”
I shrugged. “I guess. How long does it usually take to get a spell to be quicker and easier?”
She shrugged. “Depends on how complex the spell is, depends how much you practice it, depends how much practice you have in general. I can usually put together a new construct in a day or two if it’s something simple, like… I dunno, a baseball… but the more complex it is, the longer it takes. The earpieces took two and a half years to get down to a usable 30 seconds, and I could probably cut the casting time further.”
“How long for me?” I clarified.
“For you? No clue, sorry,” she said apologetically. “But… probably a while. You’re not going to have a ton of time to mess with magic now that you’re doing school and heroing. And while you picked it up really quickly, you are a complete novice.”
“That’s true,” I said, deflating.
“It’s a pretty simple spell, though… maybe a month, if you find time to practice for fifteen minutes or half an hour every day? Whatever you pick next will probably come faster,” she promised.
“Great!” I grinned at her, feeling better. After a moment, I tried to school my face into something more serious. “I really do appreciate… everything,” I told her. “I know that… I probably seem like a bit of a shitty friend, putting all this on you so soon after we met-”
“Stop it,” Holly told me sternly. “Don’t worry about ‘putting this on me’ or whatever bullcrap. You didn’t ask for this to happen. You need support and I’m giving it to you, that’s all there is to it.” She smiled. “You’d do the same for me, right?”
I smiled back. “Yeah, of course,” I promised.
“Then don’t beat yourself up about it.” She leaned towards me a little then, as though changing her mind about something, pulled back and took my hand in hers instead. “Now let’s get this stuff back to the Compound.”
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