Scene 37 – December 22nd
Interior MLED Compound, Afternoon
A few days after the incident, I stumbled into the common room with a groan of pain, collapsing onto the couch where my head landed neatly in Holly’s lap. “I want to die,” I declared.
“Don’t be so dramatic!” Abe laughed, following behind me and leaning over the back of the couch. “They’re just sore because I kicked their ass in training today,” he informed Holly.
“You kick my ass in training every day,” I shot back. “I’m sore today because you kicked my ass in a new and exciting way, which,” I told Holly, “was that he made me fight him while defending a crash test dummy.”
“Oh, wow,” she said, sounding impressed. She began absently running her fingers through my hair, and I let out a pleased sigh as she played with my curls. “It took me way longer to get to defending others when I was doing my initial combat training.”
“Quinn’s got a real talent,” Abe said.
“Lies. I haven’t won once.”
“You’re not expected to win, you’re expected to improve. And that you’re doing, and very quickly indeed.” He turned to Miriam, who was sitting in the other armchair, her knees curled underneath her and a book on her lap. “Don’t you agree, Miriam?”
The healer nodded. “Quinn’s been picking up first aid just as fast.”
“That’s no great achievement,” I denied. “I’m a premed student, I should hope that I could learn basic first aid.”
“You’re a little past basic, you know, and showing no signs of stopping.”
“Anyway…” Abe tilted his head towards Anima. “We haven’t really gotten a chance to talk. How are you doing?”
She sighed. “Stressed as hell, mostly. Dealing with the bureaucracy and media out for my head is bad enough, but the withdrawal symptoms on top of that…” She shivered. “Thank god that Arthur Peregrine is coming to check on me soon. I don’t know how much longer I can deal with this.”
I sat up, shifting to lean against Holly instead of lying in her lap so that I could see Miriam better. “I didn’t realize you were dealing with withdrawal. What’s it like? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“It’s like…” She paused, thinking. “When I was low on energy, before, my body temperature would drop and I would get shivers, as well as being exhausted, and I’d get these urges… to drain whatever I could, to get up to full again. It’s one reason I tried not to use too much of my own energy. But now, after having had so much power stored up… even though my tank is full, I’m getting… echoes of that feeling, I guess.” She held up a hand, and I realized it was trembling a little. “I hope Peregrine can fix it.”
“I’m certain he can,” Holly assured her. “It sounds like you recalibrated what full was while using Excalibur, so now you feel almost empty. I bet he can just…” She twiddled her fingers. “…reset that. He’s an incredible healer, for the mind as well as the body.”
“I wonder if we’ll get to meet him?” I mused. “I know there’s no way he’ll be impressed by my meager magical talent – one spell does not a mage make – but I’d still love to meet the guy.”
Canaveral shrugged. “He likes to meet other heroes, usually briefly, but he’s a very busy man. It depends on if he has time to spare.”
“Have you ever met him?” I asked Holly.
“Twice,” she answered. “Once when I was fifteen – he was passing through New Venice because – what was it?”
“When you were fifteen? Five or six years ago… I think that was when Motael made his first foray into magic, and accidentally created Overshadow and Underlight,” Miriam said.
“Thank god he he’s stuck to tech since then,” Abe muttered. “He’s enough trouble without breaking the laws of physics.”
“Anyway, once then,” Holly continued. “He asked me to show him my best spell, which was invisibility at the time, and then gave me some advice on how to improve it. The next time was when I had just turned 18, and he asked me to come interview for an apprenticeship with him.”
“Whoa!” I cried, shocked. “That’s super cool!”
She nodded. “It was pretty cool, yeah, even if I later found out that he interviews a lot of magic-using heroes for it. I didn’t get the gig, so…”
“Why not? Surely he couldn’t have missed how brilliant you are.”
Holly laughed. “No, he didn’t miss it! But our casting styles weren’t compatible enough for him to teach me properly, he said. I used hand signs, and he uses…” She tilted her head, trying to remember. “Actually, I’m not sure what he uses.”
“Magic just kind of… happens around him,” Miriam said. “I’ve never seen him actually take any action to cause it.”
“I’ve heard him say that his style is very rare,” Abe added.
Holly shrugged. “In any case, I haven’t met him since, even though he came through New Venice again last year.”
“That was when Blue Phoenix manifested,” Abe remembered. “His fires were magically interesting for some reason or another.”
“He wanted to look at their regenerative properties,” Miriam reminded the other hero. “Peregrine hoped to make eternal braziers of them that people could step into to be healed. It didn’t work, unfortunately, but…”
“Anyway,” Abe said, “circling back to checking in on Miriam. How are you two doing?” he asked me and Holly.
“I’m… managing,” Holly said. “I had a chat with Dr. Wagner, and that helped a little bit.”
“Whoa, why’d you need to see the shrink?” Abe said, surprised and worried.
She took a deep breath. “It’s kind of personal, but…”
“You don’t have to share if you don’t want to,” I reminded her, remembering that she had alluded to this shortly before we confronted Anima. I wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders.
She leaned her head against mine for a moment before saying, “it’s alright, Quinn. I talked to Wagner about it, like I said, and he thinks sharing will help me.”
“Then don’t let me stop you. Just…”
“I know.” She took another deep breath before saying, “It’s my parents. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how often I end up sleeping here at the compound…”
“More often than anyone else, by a pretty wide margin,” Miriam said. “Not counting Molly and Quinn, who both live here. I always assumed you lived too far away…” she seemed a little distressed at what Holly was implying. “I can’t believe I missed…”
“It’s fine,” Holly promised. “I never told anyone, after all.”
“Go on,” Abe said encouragingly, although there was still a note of worry in his voice.
“My parents are this weird combination of emotionally-absent and neglectful, and overprotective control freaks,” Holly explained. “They hide away in their research for months at a time, a year or more sometimes, and never think twice about me or anything else outside their labs. Then they emerge and suddenly everything needs to be perfect and just as they envision it, exactly as they desire, or else…” She shuddered.
“It’s never physical,” she assured us as we all bristled, imagining what her parents had done to her, “never anything more than words. But, well… it’s easier to stay out of their way and hope they don’t notice me, sometimes.”
Miriam’s eyes were watering as she said, “And when I had the sword, I… oh, Holly, I’m so sorry!”
“It’s fine, I promise!” she said, trying to reassure the emotional heroine. “You weren’t in your right mind. And if anyone is going to be overprotective of me, I’d rather it be someone actually who cares about me as more than a thing. I mean, honestly, you’ve been more of a parent to me than either of them have, since I-” She was interrupted by Miriam flying across the room to enfold her in a crushing hug. I shifted over a little so as not to intrude.
“We had no idea,” Abe said apologetically. “I’m sorry we never realized.”
“Like I said, I never told you guys,” Holly said, her voice muffled by Miriam’s shoulder. “Um. Could you let go, Mom? I can’t breathe.” The heroine gave one more squeeze before releasing her and retreating back to her armchair. Holly took a theatrically deep breath before continuing, “Honestly, I’m going to be fine. Wagner says I need to confront them, and it might take me a little to work up to that, but that’s all a personal problem – let me worry about it. We should be more concerned about Excalibur, honestly.”
Miriam sighed. “You’re probably right. The thought of what it did to me – of what I could do with it…”
“It’s scary to imagine it in the hands of bad guys,” Holly agreed. “And we have no idea what they’re going to do with it!”
“Hold on,” I protested, “the Round Table didn’t seem all that bad, as bad guys go. They seemed to be trying to keep casualties low, and they were just as worried about Excalibur being misused as we were.”
“And then they stole it,” Abe pointed out. “If they were worried about the sword being misused, why not leave it to the MLED? We would have kept it pretty far under lock and key, no one would have been able to get it.”
“I got the impression that they’re very suspicious of the MLED,” I told him. “I couldn’t tell why for sure, but… I think maybe they think we collaborate with villains, somehow?”
“Like when we worked with them to get Excalibur?” Holly pointed out, crossing her arms. “They’re pretty hypocritical, if that’s their problem.”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “that’s just the impression I got from Amethyst.”
“I think,” Abe put in, “that they were worried about the thing being out of their control in general, not about the MLED having it. The timing of their attempted infiltration of the Compound was exactly when we left to go after Max – they were obviously using him as a distraction. They only flipped when Excalibur left his control – I bet they pointed him at it somehow, and intended to reclaim it from him.”
“How did they know exactly when to strike, then?” I asked. “Do they have a source in the MLED?”
“No reason to jump to that conclusion,” Miriam said ruefully. “We left in the roc – it’s not exactly subtle transport.”
“Still, they seemed to be expecting the Journeymen alone, and knew that all available Champions would be busy,” she admitted. “Based on what I saw, at least, they had a strategy prepared to counter you guys, although it didn’t seem to cover Referee.”
“The PR page’s site on Referee includes her tournament schedule,” Abe pointed out. “Still publicly available information. It implies preexisting familiarity with MLED policies, maybe, but I don’t think there’s any reason it has to be a spy.”
“Familiarity and experience is probably all it is,” Holly agreed. “You must have noticed the similarity in powerset to the Mountain King, right?” Abe and Miriam nodded. “He vanished over 20 years ago, sure, but what if he didn’t die like some people think? What if he just retired?”
“And… what, these are his kids?” I asked. “Seems a little far-fetched. I mean, why does one of the most successful supervillains of all time just retire, anyway?”
“How old were the Round Table members?” Holly pointed out. “Having kids could easily convince someone to retire, especially since he almost certainly had more money than anyone would ever need.”
“There’s always been a theory that that’s why the Maestri retired, around the same time,” said Miriam. “They were a pair of supervillains that worked with the Mountain King a lot,” she told me. “Mages who specialized in trickery, illusions and mind control and the like. I fought them a few times and they were definitely a couple – Maestro would call Maestra ‘beloved’ and she always called him ‘dear’.”
Holly seemed a little uncomfortable for some reason, shifting a little beneath her illusory form. “Yeah, that… seems pretty plausible. Especially since Dame Adamant – the oldest – seemed to be about the right age to be his wife, I think.”
“I suppose it’s possible,” I admitted. “But if he retired for his family, why would the family then come out 20 years later?”
Abe shrugged. “Maybe there’s something they need, or are afraid of, that the Mountain King himself can’t go after. What did they seem to be going for, when they broke in?”
“I asked Sir Amethyst that,” I said. “His response, and I quote, was, ‘not important – we couldn’t get into the storage anyway’.”
“Hmm. Maybe the secure storage that we keep confiscated relics and technology in?” Miriam speculated. “Thank god they couldn’t get in.”
“I’m not so sure,” Holly said with a sigh. “That could easily have been misdirection – especially since Acumen had the run of the place for who-knows-how-long, under that stealth spell. I mean, they were far from incompetent – why would they mention what they were after?”
“You think that them setting off the alarms was a distraction from Acumen going farther into the Compound for something?” Abe asked.
“We’re already suggesting that they were using Max as a distraction,” she pointed out. “It fits their modus operandi, if so.”
“What confused me,” I remarked, “was that he also said that I was ‘the most dangerous one to them’ – not the most dangerous Journeyman in general, specifically the most dangerous to them. What about me would have been dangerous for the Round Table in a way that no one else would have been?” I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “Especially since he seemed to change his mind about me to a degree when I told him that I fought Legion. Or tried to fight her, rather.”
Holly tilted her head thoughtfully. “Acumen did the same thing. Like, they assumed you would have worked with Legion, for some reason.”
“I don’t know what idea they have about me,” I said, crossing my arms in annoyance, “but I don’t like it.”
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