Scene 1 – December 9th
Interior MLED Compound, Early Afternoon
I growled at the flashcard Holly held up to me, which read ‘infrapterospinatus muscle”. “Is it… fuck…” I groaned, and allowed my head to flop down into my arms. “Why did I take Abnormal Anatomy and Organic Chemistry in the same semester?”
“I assume because it fit your schedule,” Holly said. “And you didn’t plan to become a superhero and eat up all your free time and then some.”
I let out another plaintive moan.
“Do you want to make a guess?”
“Something to do with shoulders,” I mumbled into the table. “That’s all I’ve got.”
“‘A rotator cuff muscle which externally rotates the pterohumerus of a metahuman’s wing’,” she read from the other side of the card.
“That’s the part that’s the shoulder,” I declared, lifting myself from the table. “I’m counting that as a win.”
“I’m going to put it in the ‘come back later’ pile,” Holly informed me.
She shook her head with an amused smile. “Alright, next up…” She took the next card from the pile and showed it to me.
I stared at the chemical compound illustrated in neat sharpie on the card. “That’s a monophosphate,” I said. “Uh… adenosine monophosphate.”
“Are you sure?”
I hesitated. “…yes?”
She flipped it over. “Well done! Next up is Anatomy again.”
“Okay, but I get my reward first. That was the fifth that I got right.”
“No more than…” Holly glanced at the clock sitting on the table. “30 seconds, this time.”
I narrowed my eyes and focused on the area cupped by my hands, narrowing my sense of presence, and…
patch of space and 1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and
…and white light began to fill my palm – slowly, carefully, so it didn’t blind us like the first time I had cast this spell.
“Fifteen seconds,” Holly said, softly.
“Not good enough,” I muttered.
“You’re doing really well, Quinn,” she promised me. “It’s only been a month and you’ve already got it down to less than 30 seconds!”
“I want to be able to just snap my fingers and make light, like you can,” I insisted. “I want it fast enough that it can be useful if I make it as bright as I know I can.” I wanted it to be usable as a flashbang, not just a flashlight.
She sighed. “Okay, one more try. But just one!”
space and nitrogen and oxygen and
That time it only took 12 seconds, then Holly stopped me. “Back to studying?” I asked as my presence registered Abe entering the common room, wearing workout clothes.
She nodded, taking the next flash card and raised it to me. “Back to studying.”
“Actually,” Abe said, coming up behind me and clapping me on the shoulder in a way that would have startled me before I got my powers, “it’s time for some sparring practice.”
“Come on, Abe,” I whined. “I’ve got finals starting in just five days!”
“You’re a smart cookie, you’ll do fine,” he told me. “Besides, you’ve been studying that crap for a week already – not to mention the entire semester. Sparring you’ve only been doing for a month.”
I sighed. “Fine. Sorry Holly,” I said to her. “Apparently I’ve got to go.”
Scene 2 – December 9th
Interior Gym, Afternoon
My breath was driven from my body as I fell to the ground, gently pushing at it and rolling to soften the blow in a way that was finally, after weeks of training, starting to become instinctive. Abe reached down to give me a hand up and I grasped it, pulling myself to my feet.
“You’re getting better,” he complimented me. “It took almost five minutes to knock you on your ass that time.”
“It’s still pretty discouraging to be beaten so easily,” I said, breathing deeply to catch my breath. Abe bent to touch his toes, keeping himself limber, and I did the same.
He shook his head after straightening. “Easily? I think you’re forgetting that when we first started it took me barely a minute.” He put a comforting hand on your shoulder. “You really do have a natural talent, kid, and you’re getting better fast.”
“I’ve always been a quick learner, I guess,” I muttered. “I’m still nowhere close to winning against you, though.”
He chuckled. “Quinn, I think your perspective is a bit skewed. I’m a professional hero who’s fought in real situations on a weekly, if not daily, basis for seven years. I have a lot of experience on you – and I cheat like hell with my power. If you were sparring with a non-powered civilian, you’d do much better – probably even against one who’s been doing martial arts for much longer than you.”
“Great!” I said, putting on a cheerfully sarcastic tone. “I’ll just go challenge Molly, then, that’s sure to go well!”
Abe let out a full laugh that time. “Well, let’s not get too crazy yet. But remember when we bumped into Over and Under last week?”
We had been on patrol together and had gotten a call about Overshadow and Underlight, a pair of small-time supervillains who controlled darkness and light respectively, attempting to rob a bank. They had gone down relatively easily, as my presence had been able to see through both the decoys that Underlight created and the unnatural darkness that Overshadow relied on, and my talent for dodging had helped me avoid their surprisingly slow-moving lasers. We had taken them both in, but Overshadow had managed to escape by teleporting through a shadow before she had made it to a fully-lit cell. Underlight was now under careful watch in hope of blocking her inevitable break-out attempt, although it was probably impossible to stop her without giving him a way out using his own powers.
“That was just luck that my presence trumped their deception-based strategy,” I said.
Abe shook his head. “You also trumped their physical skills pretty easily. The thing is, Quinn, that most villains don’t bother to train in anything other than their powers, which makes you a cut above them already. Similarly, most regular criminals don’t have powers.”
“Yeah yeah, you’ve told me before,” I flapped a hand dismissively. “I realize I’m doing better than random street thugs, but I can’t help feeling kind of insecure compared to you and the rest of the pro heroes.”
“Yes, I’m aware that it’s a dumb anxiety, but I can’t help it,” I snapped. “There’s a reason I’m taking advantage of the MLED’s in-house therapist.” I glanced up at the clock on the wall and sighed. “Who I need to see in half an hour.”
“One more sparring match,” Abe offered. “I’ll hold off on my powers so you can better see how you’ve actually progressed.”
I calculated how long it would probably take me to be thrown to the floor and then shower clean before getting to my appointment. “…fine,” I said after a moment, falling into a combat-ready stance. “Let’s just try to make it quick.”
Scene 3 – December 9th
Interior Therapist’s Office, Late Afternoon
I had had to cut that last sparring match short to take an extremely abbreviated shower – just barely avoiding being trounced again in doing so – and was still two minutes late when I rushed into the therapist’s office, my hair still wet. “Sorry I’m late, Doctor Wagner,” I gasped, pushing against a wall to slow myself to a halt, then falling into a waiting chair. “Sparring practice ran a little over.”
“Quite alright, Quinn,” he absently said, looking up from a clipboard that I assumed held his notes from our last session. “And haven’t I told you you can call me Charles?”
“And I’ve told you, if we bump into each other in the cafeteria, sure,” I replied. “In here, you’re my therapist. Doctor Wagner.”
He shrugged. “Whatever makes you comfortable.” The rotund man glanced down at his notes once more. “Would you like to pick up where we left off last week, or do you have something you’d specifically like to talk about?”
I tilted my head, thinking back. “Where did we leave off last week?”
“We were discussing your history of anxiety,” he said, “and I was just about to bring up how it had contributed to your low self-worth.”
“…I was thinking of asking if you had any suggestions to help manage the anxious thoughts – other than pointing out to myself that they are just unfounded anxieties and trying to ignore them – but that sounds more interesting, lets go with that. You think I have a low self-worth?”
“That’s not a bad strategy, actually,” Wagner told me, “so I’m glad you’re making an effort to do so already. But yes, from what you’ve said and what I’ve observed, you don’t place a very high value on yourself.”
“..what do you mean?” I asked. “I know I have trouble thinking of myself as someone other people will value, but…”
“Yes, stemming from being rejected by your friends in high school after you came out, as we discussed. The thing is, that kind of trauma can have a lasting effect on how you think about yourself from your own perspective, not just what you think about other people.”
“That wasn’t trauma,” I told him. “Everyone deals with rejection sometimes.”
“On that level? No, not really,” he insisted. “And it would be traumatic even if it was common. Quinn, you lost your whole social circle, people who had been your friends for most of your life. Your only support was your father – it’s no wonder you’ve been feeling like you’re falling apart without him.”
“…I shouldn’t have told you that,” I muttered, crossing my arms. It had been the subject of our first session – the overwhelming sense of grief that had overcome me and the grayness that helped me power through it. Wagner had called it an unhealthy coping mechanism, shutting off my emotions so that I could still function, and had given me some strategies to actually work through and lessen the grief other than just avoiding thinking about it – as a result, I was slipping into that state a lot less than I had in those first days, although it still happened on occasion. It was embarrassing to be reminded how stupid I had been about it.
It occurred to me that that was the kind of thing that I might want to talk about with a therapist, and so I said it out loud.
“I’m your therapist, Quinn,” Wagner reminded me. “That means you don’t have to worry about sounding stupid – and no, you weren’t being stupid, even if you think it sounded dumb. You were working through things the only way you knew how to, at the time.”
I sighed. “I know, I know, it’s just…” I trailed off.
“…you have anxious thoughts about being rejected,” he continued for me, “and are afraid of being seen as anything less than perfect.”
“…yeah. I know, it’s a stupid anxiety…”
“This goes back to what I was saying about your self-worth,” Wagner told me. “You fear rejection if you’re anything less than perfect, which means you have anxious thoughts about appearing less than perfect, which means that you – knowing that you aren’t perfect, as no-one is – feel like you’re failing, all the time. And that makes you feel as though the rejection you fear is justified, because you think that you’re a failure. The whole thing is a self-reinforcing loop that makes you feel as though you’re worth less than other people.”
He sighed, then continued, “This is a particularly dangerous thought process for a hero to have. If you don’t value your own life, you’ll be all too willing to risk it, or to sacrifice it for any purpose.”
“…shouldn’t a hero be willing to sacrifice themself, though?” I asked. “To risk it for the greater good?”
“Yes, but not too willing. Sacrifice should be the absolute last resort. Risking your life should be something you do only when you must – after all, if you die, you won’t be able to help people in the future, not to mention that you will be dead, which no one wants. It should not be, as I fear it will be for you, something you do as the first option.”
“…why do you think it’s my first option?”
“Perhaps it’s just extrapolation guided by my estimation of you,” Wagner admitted. “But take a look at what you did with Legion came to town. Without any training at all, you tried to insist on helping, decided that you had to follow her after coincidentally spotting her, engaged in battle despite Canaveral telling you to leave, then spoke to Legion and attempted to pull information from her despite the danger.”
“There was a bit of freaking out in the middle there,” I pointed out.
“True, but your first instinct each time was to dive further into danger,” he said. “I don’t mean that you feel you have no value at all – it seems that outside of situations like that, you’re willing to view yourself as important. But whenever it’s a choice between you and something else – between you and what Legion might have done, between you and the chance you could help Canaveral instead, between you and the possibility of getting some important information from Legion – you always choose against yourself. Hell, even with that costume contest, you chose what people might expect from you over the fact that you didn’t really want to do it this year.”
I leaned back in the chair, considering. “…you might be right,” I admitted after a few minutes. “How do I stop that loop, though? You said it was self-reinforcing…”
“You have to break it by thinking of yourself as someone who has value and worth. My recommendation is positive affirmation. I know it sounds trite,” he said, holding up a hand to forestall complaints, “but it really does work. Look in a mirror in the morning or before you go to bed and tell yourself that you are important, and two other good things about yourself – it can be as simple as ‘my hair looks good today,’ or ‘I picked out an outfit I like.’ The important thing is that it’s something about you, not something that you have to offer to other people or something you did for someone else, but something that you’re proud of about yourself or that you did for you.”
I nodded. “Okay. I’ll give it a try.”
“Another thing that can help is doing things for yourself in general, rather than for other people,” Wagner continued. “Watch a self-indulgent movie. Buy a new video game or a book. Hell, go on a date! Do something for you, and don’t let yourself feel bad about it not being for anyone else.”
I immediately thought of Holly, then to ‘I’m not good enough for her,’ then to ‘she’ll stop being my friend,’ then to ‘’I don’t deserve her friendship anyway.’
“I’m beginning to see what you mean about thought loops,” I commented, then relayed that particular train of thought to Wagner – although I didn’t tell him that it was Holly I had considered asking out. Some things I wanted to keep private even from my therapist, particularly since he was also her therapist.
He nodded. “It’s insidious, but you need to break the loop,” he reminded me, then paused. “….actually, strike the dating idea off the table for now,” he recommended. “It’s probably not a great idea until you’ve built up a support system that you feel confident in.”
“It’s easy to get very wrapped up in a relationship, but it’s not healthy,” he said. “A strong relationship isn’t two people who look to each other for everything – they may look to each other first, but they have support systems of friends and family outside each other as well. You, however, have spent more than five years with only one person as your support system. While I’ve seen you getting better at trusting people and reaching out to them, I think you’re still at a point where it would be very easy for you to forget everyone other than your partner.”
“…and getting all your support from one person isn’t healthy,” I finished.
“Exactly.” He gave me a worried smile. “It’s wonderful that you had such a supportive father, but he shouldn’t have been alone.”
I sighed. “I know you’re right,” I said, “it’s just hard.”
“Everything that’s worth it is.”
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