Scene 1 – January 2nd
Exterior City, Evening
“…and then the bartender says, that’s not a bear, that’s my husband!”
“…is that the punchline?”
Canaveral sighed. “You kids just don’t get my humor anymore,” he complained, then ran for the next gap between rooftops. He dove for the edge of the roof, flipping over it and springing forward across Kasdan Boulevard.
I followed, an extended push against the street canceling out gravity and letting me take a nearly-horizontal trajectory. “You’re growing old, boss. Soon you won’t even know what third-wave meta-thrash punk is,” I quipped.
“…please tell me you’re joking.”
“Oh, hold on a sec.” I had caught a flash of something potentially suspicious in my presence as I landed, and wanted to double-check. Mindful not to stick my head – or even just my hand – over the edge of the building, I instead shifted my presence into my sense of hearing.
It was, as usual, a little overwhelming – more so now, as I wasn’t wearing the PA4 to help shield me from the backlash of my powers. Instead, I just wore padding underneath a mundane version of my costume that the gift store had had on hand. Still, I was getting better at shrugging off the headaches it tended to induce.
After a moment, I relaxed my mental muscles, allowing my presence to return, and pointed to the alley between the building we were on and the next. “Three muggers and possible rapists down there,” I quietly informed Canaveral. “They have a woman against a wall and are gagging her – I assume they spotted us and are trying to keep her silent.” Not silent enough, thankfully – her whimpers of distress had been quite clear to my expanded hearing range, as had the four elevated heartbeats.
“Zookeeper, you get that?” Canaveral asked, his voice equally hushed.
“I got it,” she confirmed through our earpieces. “Routing police now. ETA 90 seconds.”
“We can help her before then. You coming, Newton?”
I hesitated before, feeling guilty, I shook my head. “Not without my actual suit, sorry. I can’t safely throw around the kind of forces that will let me fight properly without it.”
“No worries.” He silently vaulted over the edge of the building. A few thumps, some grateful thanks, and a minute’s wait later, he was back on the roof with me, the woman having been handed over to the police officers who were now arresting her attackers and taking her statement. “Let’s keep moving.”
A few minutes later, we paused briefly on the roof of the Higgins Museum, and Canaveral said, “So… your suit.”
“Still messed up?”
I nodded. “Yeah, Anima burnt it out pretty good. Whatever power was making it work, it’s completely drained.”
“It’s been two weeks,” he observed. “Have you looked into fixing it?”
“I’ve read through mom’s notes, but… it’s pretty high-level, and I don’t know where to even begin. Anima tried pumping energy back into it, but it just animated.”
“Why haven’t you talked to Starling about it?” he asked.
I shifted a little uncomfortably. “I… I don’t know. I just haven’t.” That was a lie – I knew exactly why I hadn’t asked him. Starling was a dick – and more than just an anti-social asshole, he also refused to use the right pronouns for me – although he couldn’t settle on either ‘she’ or ‘he’, his inability to consistently gender me was small comfort when he still continued to try.
Canaveral took a breath, seeming to be thinking about something, then said, “I know that you don’t get along all that well with Starling, but… can you at least try? You’re in the same job, kid, and in a few months you’ll be on the same team.”
“Assuming I don’t get transferred out.”
“Right. But even then, sometimes you’ll have co-workers that are dicks. You still have to get along with them – especially when they’re the artificers or tech wizards who maintain your gear.” He gave me a patient smile. “It takes Ben a while to warm up to people – maybe that’s all it is? Spend a little time with him, it’ll get better. Ask him about fixing up your suit.”
It wouldn’t get better, but I didn’t bother explaining. “I’ll do that.”
He walked to the edge of the museum’s roof before pausing and looking over his shoulder. “Third-wave meta-thrash punk… please tell me you made that up?” I hid a grin under my mask, and didn’t answer. “Please?”
Scene 2 – January 7th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
I got my opportunity later that week, going on patrol with Starling. He was taciturn as usual as we walked through downtown – not a route which was ever expected to actually run into trouble, but one which was important to make sure that no one forgot that the heroes were keeping an eye on things. Or so Apollon had explained to me.
It was while we were cutting through an alley that I decided to get it over with. “Hey, Starling,” I said.
“What is it, boy?”
I suppressed a growl. “You know how my suit is fried right now?” He nodded. “Do you think you could take a look? Maybe fix it?”
“…probably.” He eyed me almost suspiciously. “Where did you get it, again?”
“My mom invented it, and left it behind before she was kidnapped. Or whatever happened to her, it’s not clear.”
“…hrm.” He furrowed his brows briefly – maybe focusing on his expanded senses. “…your name is Kaufman, right?”
“Hrm. I… never mind.”
“What?” I asked.
He seemed a little uncomfortable now, which I didn’t really care about. I was constantly uncomfortable around him, and according to Canaveral I just had to deal with it – he could do the same. After a momentary pause, he said, “I think I may have met your mother, once.”
I blinked in surprise – I hadn’t expected that. “Really?”
He looked away from me, but nodded. “Yes. It would have been… I suppose probably not long before she vanished. We spoke about… her project at the time, and it… inspired me in the creation of my own suit.”
Something about that didn’t quite seem to line up there, although I wasn’t sure what – whatever it was, I put it aside. “So you’ll probably be able to fix mine, then. Or be able to figure out how to from her notes, at least.”
“You have her notes?”
“Yeah, they were in the same case the suit itself was in.”
“…yes, I should be able to.” He opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it and began walking again. “Leave it in my lab. I’ll have it fixed in a week or so.”
That had had to have been the strangest interaction I had had with the man yet, I mused as I followed. Had he seemed… almost guilty about something?
Scene 3 – January 15th
Interior High Stakes Bar, Early Evening
“Hey, Quinn! Over here!”
I oriented on Abe’s voice, finally spotting him in the crowded bar, along with Emilia and – I wrinkled my nose – Ben. Still, even if he was here, I had agreed to hang out with Abe and Emilia – had been looking forward to it, even – so I pushed the dull ache of my presence being overstimulated aside and made my way over to them.
“Hey guys,” I said, slipping into the booth that they had claimed beside Emilia. “Are Miriam and Adam not coming too? Seems like this might have been more of a job outing than I thought,” I added, eying Ben.
Abe shook his head. “It’s more of an overlapping social groups thing than a job thing,” he promised me. “Two of Miriam’s closest friends usually come as well, although neither of them could make it tonight. Adam is always invited, but he tends to be even less social than Ben. And Max…” The hero swallowed.
“I’m just here for the beer,” Ben quipped before taking a sip, breaking the momentary tension raised by the mention of Max, who had recently had his trial and been placed in Derleth Asylum until he recovered his sanity.
Emilia gave a weak smile. “So how are you doing, Quinn? Are you excited for your last semester of school?”
“Dreading it, more like,” I said with a theatrical shudder. “I’ve got to write a thesis this semester.”
“Do you actually have to?” Ben asked. “You’re a biology major, right?”
“I don’t have to,” I admitted, “but I’m going to.”
“Hey, could I get a mug of the house draft?” I asked of a flagging waitress. “And a glass of water as well.”
“Certainly, sir,” she said, and I sighed. “Everything alright for the rest of you?”
“All good here.”
The waitress headed off, and Abe said, “Good choice. This is our favorite bar for a reason – among other things, the house draft is excellent.”
“I’m not too picky with alcohol, honestly. If it gets me drunk, that’s good enough for me.”
“Do you have an idea for your thesis yet?” Emilia asked, getting back to college as a topic. “And what about your other classes?”
“Not yet,” I admitted, “but I’m meeting my advisor tomorrow to talk about it. As for the other classes, they don’t start until the end of January – I’m just trying to get an early start on the thesis, since I have so little free time.”
“What classes are you taking?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want to be the only topic of conversation,” I said. “How is Miriam doing?”
“Well, she’s not on forced leave anymore, since Peregrine cleared her and so did Wagner,” Abe said. “But her job is still in jeopardy. She’s doing a PR thing at the hospital tonight as part of fighting for it – trying to get the public to remember what she’s like when she’s not being mind-controlled.”
“It’s not a PR thing,” Emilia scolded him. “She’s just volunteering to do a rotation as a healer.”
“I think it counts as a PR thing given the timing. I mean, Lucas helped her arrange it, right?”
“He got the hospital to agree to it, but…”
“I still can’t believe that the public turned on her so quickly,” I commented. “I mean, she’s been a hero for what, fifteen years?”
“Eighteen,” Abe corrected.
“Eighteen years – people have been born and raised with her as a member of the New Champions. Her career as a hero can vote,” I said. “And the first time that she gets mind controlled, suddenly her job is in danger?”
“What you don’t understand is that the public is fickle,” Ben told me. “They only like us as long as we live up to exactly the image they have of us – that’s why it’s important to take on a persona that you can live up to.”
“Is that why you don’t do much PR stuff?” I asked. “Less to worry about how the public will react?”
“Part of it. I’m not exactly a social person – but at least I don’t lie about who I am.”
The waitress returned and handed me the beer. “Here you are, sir.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking it and sipping. “Mmm. You’re not lying, Abe, this is good.” Then I eyed Ben, as she walked away. “You, on the other hand… what exactly are you implying?”
“I’m not implying anything. You’re pretending to be something other than you are-”
“And what am I, exactly?” I demanded.
“You’re a little boy who wants to feel special and-”
“Settle down,” Abe ordered, trying to calm us down. “You don’t have to have this argument-”
“No, I think we do,” I insisted. “You haven’t respected my pronouns once since we met, Ben. What the hell is your problem?”
“You didn’t seem to care when the waitress called you sir-”
“I did care,” I hissed. “It hurts to be misgendered – it hurts every time, no matter how trivial. But coming out to a stranger hurts too, and having this conversation hurts, and so most of the time I just let it pass. Because it’s not worth it to educate someone I’m never going to speak to again. Because it’s not worth it to risk my life – yes, Ben, my life – by coming out to someone who might react violently! But you,” I pointed at him, “are someone I have to work with. I have to see you and fight beside you and follow your instructions, and I’ll be damned if I do it any longer with someone who thinks I’m a spoiled brat that just wants to feel special!”
I realized that I was standing, that I had instinctively extended my presence to force the other heroes to remain in their seats while I vented. I slumped back into the booth, crossing my arms and looking away from the asshole. “You can’t even decide what you think my ‘real gender’ is,” I mocked as Emilia put a hand on my shoulder, trying to keep me calm.
Ben narrowed his eyes. “I don’t have to put up with this. Either she goes or I do.”
“Oh, it’s back to ‘she’ now, is it?” I sneered.
“Ben,” Abe quietly said. “I think you should go.”
The other man’s eyes widened as he spun to look at his boss. “What? But I-”
“If Quinn is telling the truth – and they quite clearly are – then you’ve been misgendering them for months. I know you’ve been through sensitivity training. I know you know how important it is to gender people properly – I know because you’ve never screwed up Molly’s pronouns,” he continued. “If you can’t respect Quinn’s as well, then you have no place on the New Champions.”
“Are you – firing me?” he asked incredulously.
“I don’t have the authority to fire you over this unless Quinn files an official complaint. But I can sure as hell get you transferred off of my team.”
Ben stood, clenching his fists. A moment later, he turned and walked away.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Abe blinked. “You’re sorry? What on earth do you have to be sorry for?”
“I caused that argument, and you’re getting rid of him for me…”
“You didn’t cause that argument,” he insisted. “You were right, you had to get it out in the air, and… I’m sorry, really, because I shouldn’t have tried to smooth it over. And I should never have let it get to the point where that argument had to happen – I should have noticed how he was treating you and put a stop to it, rather than asking you to just get to know him better. That’s my job as team leader. So really, I’m sorry – and I’m sorry for the times that I’ve misgendered you, too.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I never reported it, because I thought it wasn’t really a big deal. I don’t know that I quite realized how much he had been getting to me. And you’re fine, on the pronouns front,” I assured him. “When you misgender me, it’s a mistake, and you always correct yourself immediately. When he does it, it’s malicious. There’s a difference – that’s another reason I don’t usually bother when random people get it wrong.”
“I’m sorry too,” Emilia said. “I invited you out to join us, and clearly I didn’t realize how thorny things were between you and Ben…”
“It’s fine,” I told her. “Again, I never talked about it – except to Holly, and I made her promise to keep it quiet.
“Still, we should have noticed.”
“At least he fixed my suit first… are you really going to transfer him out?” I asked Abe.
He sighed. “I’ll try to convince Susan to let him go entirely, but that’s unlikely – not because she doesn’t support you, but because of the timing. Firing one hero shortly after the whole scandal with Miriam would be a pretty bad look. Between that and the fact that he really is a very effective hero, it’s unlikely that he’ll be let go. And I doubt he’ll let himself be pushed to resign, so… yeah, I’ll get him transferred somewhere else. That, at least, is within my power.” Abe gave me a smile. “Hopefully, with the Excalibur crisis passed – at least until the Round Table emerges again – and Ben sent to another city, the last four months of your time with us will be better than the first two.”
If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. You can even support me for free by voting for Paternum on TopWebFiction every week. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.