QUARANTINE HIATUS

I’m sorry to place Paternum on hold, particularly at such a dramatic point in the narrative, but I’m afraid I have to. The quarantine has been very hard on me creatively, and as the months went on I’ve found it more and more difficult to write until now, I have nothing left. While I normally keep myself months ahead of what’s published, right now I have nothing written ahead – the queue is empty, and so, sadly, is my creativity. On top of that, I’m returning to college for a second degree, which is taking up a great deal of my time and leaving me without the mental energy to write even when I can muster up the creative energy.

This does not mean that Paternum is dead and gone – far from it. I have every confidence that once the pandemic has passed, this creative block will too, and I’ll be able to write once more. At that point I’ll build up a queue and begin posting on my normal weekly schedule again.

For now, however, I sadly have to put Paternum on hold. I can’t give an estimate of how long this hiatus will last, because, well… but I promise, it is only a hiatus. Paternum will return – Quinn will return – Holly and Abe and the Round Table will return. I have the entire story planned out, and I will see it through – I just need a little extra time.

Thank you for understanding.

J. C. Weston

3.1. Intermission (Scenes 1-2)

Scene 1 – 23 Years Ago
Exterior City, Evening
Morgan Longfellow

 

“…that arrogant, sanctimonious, overbearing, stifling piece of moldy old parchment!” I swore as I stamped down the streets of the city, still furious with Arthur even hours after stomping out of our… his… house. What right did he have to cast a shadow over the world? To hinder the progress of magical research by his very presence? We weren’t like other people, he and I – we shouldn’t be interfering in the affairs of ordinary men and women!

Our argument had been building for years, almost since the day that he had taken me on as his apprentice, but it hadn’t exploded until last week, when he yet again turned down a request for collaboration from a Doctor Black due to lack of time, who yet again expressed a hope that he would be available next year. It was the same interaction they had had the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that, but his time I had finally burst that if Arthur said ‘no’ instead of ‘later’, Black would probably have finished his project by now.

We had argued for hours, harsh language and strong emotions rising quickly, followed shortly thereafter by magic. We didn’t quite come to blows, but it was a near thing… and, in the end, it was over. My apprenticeship was over.

It was probably for the best, I knew, as I used the wormhole gate I had created to send myself to New Venice, where I had family. I didn’t plan on staying with them, of course, not for more than a week or two while I found my own apartment and a job to support myself, but it was a safety net that I would need.

Because I certainly didn’t want the to live in the apartment that Arthur had offered to me, the smug fossil of a man. It was over. He didn’t owe me anything, and I didn’t want his help.

It was on thoughts like these that I was angrily musing as I walked to my parent’s place when someone grabbed me around the shoulders and pulled me into a nearby alleyway.

“We’re boyfriend and girlfriend, and we’re taking a nice stop in the alleyway for a little fun,” a voice growled in my ear, and I felt the edge of a knife against my throat, the blade concealed in the mugger’s hand. “Don’t scream, or your wallet won’t be the only thing I’ll be taking.” I felt a body press against mine. “…your wallet and your virtue.”

I knew I should probably be frightened, but to be frank, I was wearing an invulnerability charm that could certainly stand up to a measly little knife. Besides… “You wouldn’t,” I said confidently. “This is the Mountain King’s town – he doesn’t allow that kind of thing.”

“I’ve done it before, bitch,” the mugger hissed. “Don’t get mouthy and maybe I won’t do more than use your mouth. Now drop that backpack.”

I rolled my eyes and did as he said – while I had a few magical weapons, I wasn’t actually wearing any of them, and I wasn’t confident enough in on-the-fly-evocation to use it against a normal man. Besides, using them against this guy would probably draw attention from the MLED – even here in New Venice – which meant Arthur would hear about it, and I didn’t want to him to know where I was, even if he could probably guess. “You’re making a huge mistake.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes,” said a deep, resonant voice from the mouth of the alleyway, and I smirked. “Really.”

The mugger blanched and released me immediately, backing away in horror. “Your… your majesty! I, I’m sorry, I was just-”

Tendrils of stone wrapped around his feet and crawled up his legs, freezing him in place, as the Mountain King slowly, menacingly walked forward. “You were just?” he inquired mildly.

“I was… I was just trying to scare her! I wasn’t actually going to do it!”

“‘I’ve done it before,’” the supervillain quoted. “I don’t think I believe you.”

“I swear, your majesty, please-!”

“As you are by your own words a repeat offender, I think I should make an example of you,” he said as calmly as though he was discussing the weather. “Pardon me, my lady,” he commented to me.

Then he made an example of the man.

 

“I’m sorry you had to see that, my lady,” the Mountain King said to me after he had finished, golden mist swirling around him as he walked away from the remains. “But a king must be firm.”

“It’s fine,” I told him, following behind. “I’m honestly just surprised you’re so hands-on, to personally save people like that.”

“Normally I am not – it’s unnecessary and counterproductive to be too much so – but I happened to be passing by. And how could I could leave a maiden in distress?”

I rolled my eyes. “A maiden in distress? I was fine. I didn’t ask for your help, I didn’t need it, and I didn’t even want it.” I gave the armored figure a smile as he froze, seeming stricken. “…but thank you anyway.”

He relaxed slightly as I thanked him. “You’re welcome, my lady.” Then he chuckled. “You had me there for a moment, I admit. I was afraid that I had offended you with my protectiveness, that I had overstepped by boundaries with such a lady.”

I shrugged. “It’s your city, you can do what you like. Besides, you don’t do anything that anyone else couldn’t.” Unlike me. The Mountain King was arguably one of the strongest metahumans in the country, yes, but he didn’t stand out even above the strongest like Arthur and I did.

“Not technically my city.”

“It is, in fact if not in legalities, and everyone knows it.”

He chuckled again, and I couldn’t help but smile – he had a nice voice. “Perhaps so,” he admitted. “But it’s gauche to say it myself.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t want to seem like you think a lot of yourself, your majesty,” I teased.

This time he flat-out laughed. “You are a delight – may I have your name, my lady?”

“Morgan Longfellow.”

“It has been a true pleasure to meet you, Morgan Longfellow,” the Mountain King told me, offering me a hand. “Might I ask if we could meet again, someday?”

I tilted my head. “…would it be a date?”

“Ideally.”

“I like your boldness, but I have to decline,” I said, smiling to soften the blow. “I won’t date a mask.”

“If that is the only problem,” he began, reaching up to his helmet.

My hands shot up and grabbed his before he could remove it. He could overpower me easily, of course – even if he wasn’t taller and more powerfully built than me, he had significant levels of superstrength – but he allowed me to halt his action.

“My lady?”

“We literally just met,” I reminded him. “Do you ask out and offer to unmask to every woman you save from a rapist in a dark alley?”

“…no,” he said. “I realize this is somewhat uncharacteristic, but… if you’ll forgive me for saying so, something about you struck me, and I couldn’t bear to not at least ask.”

“Forgiven,” I said immediately, curious. “What struck you?”

“…one of my lesser-known powers is a sort of precognition. Hazy and difficult to interpret, so not usually very useful… but the moment I heard you speak, I felt a remarkably certainty that you would be very important to me.”

I snorted. “That’s cheesy as hell, your majesty.”

“And yet true.”

“…I won’t date a mask,” I repeated. “But who knows – maybe we’ll meet out of costume. Ask again then.”

“Something to hope for, then.”

“Indeed.”

The Mountain King nodded. “Farewell, then. Until that lucky day.” He vanished in a blur of motion, too fast for my eyes to follow.

“Good night,” I said into the empty evening. It was true what they said – he really was the nicest supervillain out there.

 

Scene 2 – 23 Years Ago
Exterior April Park, Afternoon
Morgan Longfellow

 

“We have a few other candidates to go through for formality’s sake,” the interviewer told me, “but as far as I’m concerned, you have the job. We’ll call you in a few days to give you the official offer.”

“Thank you,” I said, offering him a handshake. “I’m looking forward to working here.”

He shook with a nod. “And we’re looking forward to having you. You’ll be a real asset.”

My lips pursed in hidden distaste at being called an asset, and I decided to go. I rose from the picnic table that we had held the interview at, slipping the folder that had held my resume into my bag, and bid him farewell.

And almost immediately ran face first into a blonde, bearded man in a Hawaiian shirt who had been passing by. “Oof,” I exhaled, stepping backwards. “Sorry about that. I’m afraid I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“It’s quite alright,” he said with a smile, his voice deep and low and making me shiver for some reason. “What had you in such a hurry?”

I sighed and began walking in the same direction he had been going, jerking my head for him to follow. “I just finished a job interview,” I told him.

He winced slightly. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Ha! Thanks, but it went fine. Well, even – I have the job, pending the last few interviews finding someone better. Which they won’t.”

Blondie raised an eyebrow. “Confident, are we?”

“I’m ridiculously overqualified for the job,” I said with a smirk. “The interviewer was practically begging to have me on board from the get-go.”

“May I ask what the job is?”

“Magical technician at the hospital. They have some healing artifacts that need maintenance at unpredictable times, and want to have someone on retainer to fix them when to happens. And there’s literally no one better for that than me.”

“You’re a mage?” he asked, clearly impressed. “I’ve heard that magic is incredibly difficult, you must be a real genius.”

“Yes, I am,” I agreed, not seeing any reason for false modesty.

“No modesty here, hm?”

“Not when I have no reason to be modest.” I offered him a handshake with a smirk. “Morgan Longfellow. You may have heard of me.”

Instead of shaking, he bent over my hand and kissed it, and I found myself giggling at the chivalry. “The name does ring a bell,” he agreed, “but I must confess, I can’t say from where.”

“I just left a position of twelve years with a man named Arthur, if that helps.” God… could it really have been twelve years? The time had just flown by…

Blondie’s eyes were sympathetic. “Divorce?”

I shook my head. “No, it’s been nearly as long since I wasn’t single.” No time to think about romance while working with Arthur – it wasn’t long after taking the position that my girlfriend and I had had to part ways because of it, and I had never found another partner. “I was apprenticed to Arthur Peregrine.”

His jaw dropped. “The Arthur Peregrine? Well… I can see I’m out of my league here. Beautiful, confident, and no doubt one of the most intelligent and powerful mages on the planet.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” I smirked, pleased by the compliments. “So yeah, I literally invented the artifacts they’ve got, no one else is going to be able to fix them even half as well.”

“They’re very lucky to have found you. Of course, so am I.”

“You’re lucky I like cheese,” I laughed, “because that was almost as bad as a line I heard a few nights ago. What’s your name, anyway?”

“Arthur Könberg, if it pleases you.”

“It’ll do,” I teased.

He laughed again, then a ringtone came from his pocket. “I’m terribly sorry, Morgan, but I have to take this,” he said apologetically as he slipped the phone out. “Hopefully it’s nothing, because I’m really enjoying talking to you.”

“And I you. But go ahead, take the call – just don’t take too long.”

He gave me a grateful nod, then took a few steps away and began to speak quietly into the phone. I, meanwhile, leaned against a nearby tree to think.

Arthur – this Arthur – had certainly caught my attention, although I wasn’t sure at what point in the conversation he had done so. He was certainly attractive – I always liked muscles on a man, and that voice – and kind as well. Chivalrous, too, which I hadn’t thought I would enjoy – the concept had always struck me as somewhat sexist, but somehow I could tell that it wasn’t sexism, in this case. Arthur would treat anyone just the same way – that protective, courteous, manner which said that he considered it his duty to protect everyone around him. And, of course…

I was brought out of my musing when he turned back to me with an apologetic look. “It’s important, I’m afraid. I have to go deal with something, and it’s rather urgent. But I truly have enjoyed this chat, and I would very much like to talk more sometime. Perhaps over coffee?”

“Of course,” I told him with a smile. “Do what you need to do, your majesty – we’ll find each other again.”

The Mountain King blinked in surprise. “…you know?”

“How could I not recognize you?” I reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “After all… if I’m going to be important to you, you’re going to be equally important to me.

He blushed. “I can’t possibly deserve you.”

“I think you can. And I’m very much looking forward to find out.”

“And me.” He smiled down at me. “I know it’s too soon, but… might I ask for…”

I stood on my tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Go get ‘em, your majesty.”

Previous Chapter | Act 2 | Next Chapter

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3.1. Scenes 21-23

Scene 21 – June 19th
Exterior April Park, Evening
Dominic Könberg

 

“They’re almost here,” Viv said as we stood in the park, Percy glaring at bystanders to keep them well away. “I’ll let her know it’s time to send the manifesto.” This time, she had a hidden pocket in her armor to carry her phone – she slipping it free and sent off a pre-written text message before replacing it.

“Good,” Percy said, crossing his arms. “I’ve been looking forward to getting a second crack at these fuckers.”

Tristan glared at him. “They aren’t fuckers!” he snapped. “They don’t know about the whole situation anymore than we did last year!”

“They work for a corrupt system,” Percy countered, “that makes them just as bad.”

“Not the time, kids,” mom said soothingly, nodding to where the Journeymen were approaching. “Show a united face, please.”

We all turned to face the heroes, and Viv raised an eyebrow. “No illusions, Loki?” she asked, with a faint note of uncertainty that I doubted anyone but me could detect in her voice.

“No point trying to hide things when you can see through them,” he pointed out. “This leaves me more concentration for…” A gesture caused a wall of fire to surround us, the sudden heat causing me to step back in surprise.

“Thought you would remember…” Viv began, then started rattling off a spell. Her words of magic were cut off halfway through, though, and the flames leapt higher, another rush of heat causing us to flinch back.

“Thought you would remember,” Loki shot back, “I know you need to speak to use your magic.”

“And you need to concentrate to use yours,” I muttered, stomping my foot and channeling power into my cape. The ground rose up around Loki, and unlike Newton, he was unable to dodge in time, finding himself locked in place, the wall of flames faltering, just as Viv had predicted it would in our earlier planning sessions.

Loki glared at me. Sequoia, the wooden guy behind him who was built almost as heavily as me, began to break him free, roots growing from him into Loki’s earthen cage, even as it began to vibrate under the force of Loki’s magic.

Tristan shot forward, zooming towards Referee – his job, one he had come up with himself, was to get her out of the way. Viv had approved, saying that Referee was the one who had turned the tide last time – although since the Journeymen now lacked Newton and seemed to be without Journey herself as well, I thought we would have been able to handle them regardless.

He scooped her up, the redheaded girl squeaking in surprise as he ran, and a moment later they were gone. Good – he would keep her occupied.

In the meantime, Percy ran forward to tear Sequoia away from Loki, and mom went for Hypnos. I, on the other hand, continued to reinforce the stone I was building around Loki’s lower body.

He met my eyes, then his crinkled, as though he was smiling below his mask. “Found the frequency,” he taunted, and snapped his fingers. The instant he did, the stone around him shattered into sand.

“I can control sand too,” I said, and did just that, flying it in a cloud towards his face to try and blink him.

He blinked, apparently unbothered. “You should pay more attention to Acumen,” he said, and vanished.

I gaped. When had he gotten out? And how? I hadn’t even noticed! I glanced at Viv, who I belatedly realized had been trying to get my attention for a while, but with her rendered speechless I hadn’t noticed. “Um… sorry?”

She glared at me, then rolled her eyes and waved her hands. “Acumen, I didn’t take ASL, I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“She says that you’re an idiot,” Sequoia said, pulling me into an armlock. Viv nodded in agreement as the hero pushed me to my knees.

“You lost the moment Acumen was muted,” Loki said from wherever he was hiding, his voice echoing sourcelessly from around the park.

“Help me!” I growled at her, struggling against Sequoia. I took control of the metal of my armor to fight against him, pitting the force of my earthbending against his own magical muscle, and managed to escape by the skin of my teeth, stumbling away from him on my knees.

Viv crouched in front of me and gave me a patronizing smile. “Don’t you get it?” she said, but her voice was Loki’s. “You’ve already lost.

I saw red. “GET AWAY FROM MY SISTER!” I roared, and reached for Excalibur.

 

Scene 22 – June 19th
Exterior April Park, Continuous
Holly Koval

 

Everything had been going well – the plan I had laid out had worked perfectly. An instant after muting Dame Acumen, we had all scattered, and I had put down a set of illusions over each of them to replace what each was seeing and hearing. It had been tricky to monitor what they were each experiencing, but the separation had been worth it.

Sir Alacrity had gone down quick – he had rushed after where he thought Referee was, and been tripped and bound by Hypnos. Acumen was next – she was about to pull Amethyst out of the illusion, but Sequoia had made it to her in time to encase her in magical wood.

Dame Adamant went easily, Referee stepping up behind her unnoticed and pulling the woman into a submission hold, and Ardent was the closest to causing a problem – he was more cautious than the others, and hadn’t seemed to trust what he was seeing – perhaps he had figured out that with Acumen unable to call out my illusions, there was no way to know what was real or not. Still, Hypnos and Sequoia had made short work of him, especially as I bent his perceptions to distract and confuse him.

It had seemed to be working on Amethyst, too – he had been occupied by trying to keep ‘me’ contained while we dealt with his teammates. Sequoia had tried to get at him, but he was somehow able to fight back against the dryad’s strength, so I continued using Acumen’s image against him, hoping to convince him to surrender…

It backfired, badly.

He pulled out a golden-hilted dagger, which burned with light and shifted forms into a cruciform longsword and could only be Excalibur. Before we could respond, a flood of blazing violet fog poured from Amethyst and spread across the park, and farther still. My images shattered under the mystic weight of that mist, revealing the truth of things to him.

“Disarm him!” I shouted, shooting a concussive beam of sound at him, but he just raised Excalibur and blocked it. “As fast as possible!”

Sir Amethyst stepped forward, and tendrils of earth rose from the ground across the park, breaking Acumen free of her wooden cage, snapping Alacrity and Ardent’s bonds, and separating Referee from Adamant. “No,” he said flatly.

Referee rushed for him, obviously pushing her aura as far as it can go to get him in it and repeat the power-boost we had used against Anima when she had lost herself to the blade, but she was tackled out of the way by Sir Alacrity.

Sequoia and Hypnos tried next, a two-point attack, but the knight simply stomped his foot and Sequoia was encased in stone. Hypnos, likely guided by his precognition, was able to dodge the first cage, but the second caught him.

I slammed a concussive wave into the cage around Sequoia, weakening it enough that he began to break free himself. “We have to retreat!” I ordered.

“Amethyst, do it!” Dame Acumen called to him. “The message is sent and received, wall off the city!”

My head snapped to her. “Wall off the what-

He raised Excalibur again.

 

Scene 23 – June 19th
Exterior Highway, Late Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

We were silent for a few minutes as the van sped down the highway, the siren continuing to blare. It was faster to travel over rooftops in New Venice, which was known for how poorly-laid out its streets were, but until we reached city limits, a car was faster.

Eventually, Canaveral leaned forward, propping his chin up on an arm. “I didn’t encounter the Round Table personally,” he quietly said, “so I’m going to ask for, and trust, your assessment of them. How high of a threat rating should they get? Low, medium, or high?”

I thought about it. The MLED’s threat ratings were a loose guideline on how to respond to metahuman villains, based on how dangerous it was to fight them. A low rating meant that the villain either was incapable of seriously harming someone or actively avoided doing so, a medium rating meant that there was a risk of serious harm but that death was unlikely, and a high rating meant that serious harm was nearly a guarantee, and there was a high risk of death as well. Villains in New Venice tended to rank low, going all the way back to the Mountain King – we had only a few mid-level threats, and just one high threat villain, Rube. The Round Table had only been assigned a low rating, but it was clear that Canaveral feared that might be inaccurate.

“Low, I think,” I finally answered. “I’m pretty sure they were holding back, when they attacked the Compound, and no one got hurt. The worst injuries we got were Anima draining Loki when we tried to confront her. I think Loki concurs, since Journey said that they were going to go fight them.”

He sighed. “That’s good to hear. I don’t know how much attention you were paying to my talk with Emilia on the way here but…”

“I heard, and… I understand your fear, but I don’t think it’s the case,” I told him. “The impression I got from the Round Table is that they have some reason – I don’t know if it’s valid or not, but they clearly think so – to distrust either the DMO as a whole, the MLED specifically, maybe even just some specific aspect of it the MLED. If not for that, well… maybe they just wanted Excalibur for themselves, maybe not, but they did help us get to Anima – without them helping, we would have been swarmed by golems before we could get into the museum and talk her down. That’s worth something, don’t you think?”

He slowly nodded. “I suppose it is.”

More time passed as the van sped onward, overtaking cars and trucks as the agent ignored the speed limit. Before long we were approaching city limits.

“Newton…” Canaveral began,

“Boss?”

“Do you think that there’s any possibility of convincing the Round Table to become heroes?”

I bit off my instinctive reaction of ‘hell no’ and tried to actually think about it. Was there a possibility? I supposed anything was possible. But was it likely?

“I think…” I slowly said, “that if they wanted to be heroes, they would be. Even if they didn’t trust the MLED, they could act as vigilantes – it’s technically illegal, but there are loopholes in those laws big enough to drive this van through, as long as they were doing good. But they’re not doing that – they aren’t going on patrol or taking on villains.” I shook my head. “Anything’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely. You once told me that people should only become heroes if they actually want to – and I don’t think they do.”

“Then I think I know how we should-”

He was cut off by the van suddenly screeching to a halt, nearly going into a tailspin before the agent regained control and stopped it behind several other cars, several of them crashed into each other and smoking.

“FUCK!” I swore as I was jerked to the side, the seatbelt catching me painfully before I left my seat. I instinctively reached out with my presence to hold myself safely in place, holding Canaveral and the driver in a loose telekinetic grip as well. “What the hell?”

Canaveral slipped out of his own seat, his own kinetic powers allowing him to brush aside my loose grip as he moved to get a better look out the windshield. “What on earth is that?

I looked outside and saw what had brought the highway to a standstill – a metallic wall climbing upward from the ground, the material spinning itself out of midair in a fractal pattern of latticework. It had already passed the height of the nearest buildings and seemed to be curving inward, rapidly forming a dome that covered the whole city.

“…I think the Round Table’s threat rating may need to be revised.”

Previous Chapter | Intermission

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3.1. Scenes 18-20

Scene 18 – June 19th
Interior Convention Center, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

Canaveral clapped me on the shoulder. “That one could have gone better,” he informed me, “but Rekha’s about as nice a person as politicians get.”

I sighed heavily as Anima and Zookeeper began to drift away. “Thanks, boss,” I said tiredly, already feeling worn out. “Any advice on handling this kind of big event?”

He tilted his head to the side a little. “Nice to know that you’re still willing to take my advice, after…”

I raised a brow, tilting my own head as well to signal it to him. “After what?”

“Well, after I misjudged your anxieties about this event. And after the thing in the car, too.”

“You’re still my mentor,” I reminded him, reaching up to pat him on the back. “Sure, we don’t agree about everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or that I don’t trust you to give me good advice. The occasional screw-up isn’t going to change that, not when you always try to do better the next time.”

It took Canaveral a moment to respond, and when he did it was by pulling me to his side in a half-hug. “You’re a good kid, Newton,” he whispered, sounding a little choked up.

I returned the hug for a moment before asking, “So… that advice?”

“Right.” He straightened and scratched the back of his head, putting his thoughts in order. “I think your best bet is to think of it as a game.”

“A game? What do you mean?”

“I think you mentioned once that you used to play Dungeons and Dragons, right?”

“I haven’t played since high school, but yeah,” I confirmed.

“And I’ve heard that you’re a pretty good impressionist, too. You’ve certainly got me down pat, judging from the security footage that Keeper showed me.”

I blushed under my cheeks and shifted uncomfortably, remembering the evening he must have been referring to – I had been playing a game of charades with the Journeymen and had been given ‘Cape Canaveral’ as a prompt. “It was in good fun?” I tried.

He laughed. “I know, I know! What I meant is that you should think of this kind of event as something like that. Remember Luke’s theory about heroic personas?”

I thought back to the meetings I had had with the MLED’s leading ‘strategic consultant’, a PR person’s term for ‘PR person’ if I had ever heard on. “Sure, I remember. A sort of character you play in costume, that the public will trust and also buy merchandise of.”

“Right,” Canaveral agreed, smirking at the merchandise comment. “What I suggest is drawing a mental line in between your civilian identity and Newton. It doesn’t have to be a thick line – it shouldn’t be, really, making a stark distinction causes problems of its own – but just enough that you can think of yourself as yourself, and of Newton as a mask, just as much as the actual mask you wear is.”

He gestured to the party. “All of this? This is something that you personally are uncomfortable with and are nervous about. Newton, on the other hand… Newton can be cool and confident in social situations. Newton can chat with unfamiliar people easily. Newton does do that, every time you comfort someone who’s been through a mugging or had to be rescued from a burning building. You are yourself. Newton is a character – and when you’re playing a character, you can hide behind them, a little bit.”

I nodded slowly. “I think I can do that. Thank you. Is that what you do?”

“It used to be,” he agreed, “back when I first started. Over time I got used to it – ‘we are who we pretend to be’, as Mark Twain said.”

“That was Kurt Vonnegut, actually.”

“Ah, close enough.”

We laughed, but were distracted yet again by a voice approaching from behind us. This time, however, it wasn’t a new voice.

“Canaveral!” Journey cried, shoving through the crowd. “The Round Table’s back!”

 

Scene 19 – June 19th
Interior Convention Center, Continuous
“Penelope Page” (Fancypants)

 

Sometimes I disliked being so loyal to the company that had saved my life. Various iterations of me had died for the Ambrosia Company so many times, falling in battle or sacrificing themselves to recreate a fallen hero as part of a trade or deal with the government. With the task I had been given, I was likely to join their number – but I didn’t have it in me to break away from my mission, to turn against those that I owed my life to.

At least, that was what I had thought when I was created and ordered to capture Loki from the East Coast DMO Convention. It was the largest collection of heroes for a thousand miles in any direction, and that wasn’t counting the even larger swarms of unaffiliated metahumans and even villains who would be in attendance. At least Aegis was in Antarctica right now – small mercies.

Fortunately for my survival prospects, my target didn’t seem to even be in residence, so I wouldn’t have to expose my presence – I could remain in the the guise of a waiter I had absorbed and shifted myself into. I had been eavesdropping on the New Champions as Newton met Maryland’s senators, and Newton had mentioned wanting to be at home with Loki. No point in me remaining here any longer.

Except… one of the Journeymen, the teleporter, had shown up and was telling Canaveral what little she knew about a situation unfolding back in New Venice, the reappearance of the Round Table. I knew a bit about them – another Legion had told me that they were one of the Ambrosia Company’s biggest targets at the moment. Each of the five members held a piece of the Mountain King’s Armor – which Madam Thornhill had wanted since before the company had even found me – and they also held a powerful power-amplifying artifact called Excalibur.  Loki’s capture had been part of some plan to ultimately draw them out, although I didn’t know how.

Perhaps I could perform my mission more safely, I thought, still idly listening to Canaveral and Anima arguing over whether or not all four of the New Champions should return to New Venice or just a few, but how? Should I approach Canaveral in the guise of a hero attending the convention, offering to join them? There was no way that anyone could be familiar with every hero attending, after all. On the other hand, it would be tricky to find a place to shapeshift without someone seeing – again, the hoards of metahumans made it impossible to know what esoteric senses might be in play.

I could travel on my own, shifting into a flock of birds, but that would mean moving more slowly than the Champions themselves. If they arrived and drove the Round Table into hiding again, the attempt would be wasted. It they captured the villains, it would still be possible, but robbing the MLED was a tricky proposition. Not an impossible one, of course – versions of me had done so before – but not easily.

I could, I supposed, call on Canaveral’s last favor – he owed Ambrosia three, from the deal he had made when he purchased his power from the company. But it was a relatively small thing to ask, and I was reluctant to waste it – particularly after a version of me had already wasted his second favor.

The birds, I decided as Canaveral and Newton began rushing out of the building, Anima and Zookeeper remaining behind. It was the safest choice.

 

Scene 20 – June 19th
Exterior Highway, Late Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Alright,” Canaveral said as the van began to speed off, the agent driving turning on a siren as we went. “The Round Table. What do we know?”

“Five people in medieval-style armor, wearing color-coded tabards and producing color-coded smoke,” I began. “Their names are… Dame Acumen, Dame Adamant, Sir Alacrity, Sir Amethyst, and… Sir Ardent, I think.”

He nodded. “That sounds right. Each seems to have one of the powers that the Mountain Kind had – invulnerability for Adamant, strength for Ardent, speed for Alacrity, and Terrakinesis for Amethyst.”

“That’s only four. What power does Acumen have?”

“…enhanced senses?” he speculated. “She saw through Loki’s illusory constructs, right?”

“Yeah. Seems like a decent guess, at least.”

“Their powers come from the armor they wear,” Canaveral continued. “Based on where they produce mist from, it’s the cape for Amethyst, the gauntlets for Ardent, the greaves for Alacrity, the breastplate for Adamant, and the helmet for Acumen. Now, most of that isn’t easy to disarm, but…”

“We could maybe pull off Amethyst’s cape, or Acumen’s helmet,” I said, nodded. “They’re the most dangerous of the group too, I think.”

“Acumen, not Alacrity? Superspeed should not be underestimated,” he pointed out. “Sir Ardent, too – strength is surprisingly versatile, if you’re creative with it.”

“Alacrity had speed, but not maneuverability,” I told him. “I don’t think he had the perception speed to use it to its fullest – Hypnos was able to dodge him with precog, but that wouldn’t have been enough on a real speedster.”

Canaveral nodded slowly. “They’re splitting up parts of a set – if that perception speed is part of the helm’s powers rather than the greaves’ speed… that would seem to support the enhanced senses theory.”

“That’s what I was thinking. As for Ardent, well… I wasn’t up against him myself, but from what Sequoia said I don’t think he was all that creative about it. Acumen, though? She was the leader, and she was smart, too,” I explained. “I’ve seen how much a good leader can contribute even without actually taking the field – I’m not counting her out just because her powers don’t seem that great on their own. Besides,” I added, “Holly said that she had at least some magical skill.”

“Hmm. Narrow mage or broad mage?”

“Not sure. She did some transmutation – I think that’s what Holly called it – which she implied only worked on objects, but she’s also presumably responsible for the stealth effect they used to escape…” I shrugged. “Hard to say.”

“So, unknown capabilities.” Canaveral sighed. “Better to overestimate her than underestimate her, then. A broad mage and the leader… she should be our first priority, and Amethyst second.”

“Agreed.”

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3.1. Scenes 16-17

Scene 16 – June 19th
Interior Convention Center, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“This is the worst,” I quietly grumbled as I stared out at the mass of people that crowded the convention floor – not just heroes, but politicians and businesspeople, too – the movers and shakers of the East Coast. There were even non-hero metahumans – I recognized Jamie Walters, who made holograms that big-budget movies used as special effects, White Rose, who used her plant-control powers to grow eave buildings out of trees… and was that Motael chatting with Droideka? The armor certainly looked right, but how could he have gotten in? Waiters floated through the press of people, carrying trays of drinks and appetizers, and the constant buzz of conversation pressed on me from all sides.

It was overwhelming to my sense of presence in a way that I hadn’t really felt since the first month or three I had had my powers, a migraine already pressing at me from the sensations. Too much information…

Zookeeper put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Breath, Newton,” she murmured. “In… out… in… out…”

I focused on breathing, setting aside the information and the outside world as best as I could.

In… out…

I used a trick I had learned when Holly had first started to teach me magic and directed my sense of presence at a single thing, reducing its breath and increasing its depth to get all the information about just one object rather than being overwhelmed by the world.

In… out…

the jacket of my formal costume was simple enough that its information wasn’t overwhelming, not as I shoved it to the back of my mind. Yes, I could tell you exactly how many threads made it up and how many molecules of what went into those threads and how many of what elements went into those, but that information was more static than the constantly shifting crowd.

In… out…

Once, just doing this was enough to occupy my entire mind, and attaining this razor’s-edge focus took long minutes. Once, collecting my mind into a state to perform magic was all I could do. Now, however, I was able to find this focus and leave myself there almost comfortably – not easily and not pleasantly, but better than the panic attack I had been having before.

In… out…

When I returned to the present, Zookeeper was murmuring something to Canaveral while gently rubbing my back. I didn’t catch what she said, but I heard his response.

“Yeah… you’re right, I shouldn’t have made them come. I thought they were just playing up their social anxieties for a laugh – they had done fine in previous gatherings, so I didn’t expect a panic attack…”

“I was just playing it up,” I said, still taking deep breaths, and they turned to face me properly. “Earlier, I mean, not just now. I didn’t expect a panic attack either, it was just…” I gestured to the crowd. “A lot more than I was expecting. Sensory overload.”

Anima, who had also hung back – although Vulcan had wandered off – nodded understandingly. “It’s not uncommon among metahumans with enhanced senses. I used to have similar problems, certain people with immense stores of life energy or big enough crowds would overwhelm my ability to sense lifeforce. Starling was always vulnerable to sensory attacks as well.”

“How did you get over it?” I asked.

The older hero sighed. “I got used to it, mostly. Learning to focus more on my regular senses and letting the life sense fade to the background rather than relying on it helped, but… yeah, it was mostly just getting used to it.”

“…and Starling?” While I hated to the man and was very glad that he had been transferred to Houston a few months ago, I had to admit that he was a very accomplished hero. And our powers were similar enough that I couldn’t turn down potentially useful advice just because it would have come from him, even secondhand.

“He build lenses into his mask to normalize things somewhat,” she said apologetically. “Earplugs too.”

“Well…” I frowned. “I guess I’ll just have to get used to it, then. And get used to what I’m doing now, if these big events are going to continue.”

“They won’t,” Canaveral promised. “In New Venice, we just have this and the winter showcase, which you already went through fine, it’s not nearly as large. And I won’t make you go next year, I promise.”

“Thank you.”

“Ah, there’s our newest heroine!” I glanced up to see the face of Senator Malcolm Daly.

 

Scene 17 – June 19th
Interior Convention Center, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Senator!” Canaveral said cheerfully, instantly shifting into public-facing mode. “A pleasure to see you again, as always.”

“Senator Daly.” Anima greeted him with a polite smile, inclining her head slightly. Zookeeper smiled and bobbed her head as well, although she didn’t say anything.

Daly was a tall, barrel-chested man, with think, graying hair and an incredibly deep voice. It rumbled when he spoke in a way that, I had to admit, was very pleasant. He was taller than I was generally into, and more masculine than I usually liked in men, and also old enough to be my father. But his voice very nearly made up for those shortcomings.

“Uh… hi,” I belatedly said. “Nice to meet you.”

He reached out to shake my hand, and I took his. “Always good to see more heroes. It’s a real pleasure to meet you, young lady. How are you?”

“Not a lady, but I’m fine,” I lied. If he had been able to see my face I’m sure that he would have seen right through it, as I still felt a little pale and shaky, but fortunately my costume include a full face mask. “How are you?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” he said airily. “Glad to be taking a night off from politics, you know? I got into this business for the law, not the PR that takes up so much of my time.”

Isn’t this whole ‘meet the new hero’ spiel all about PR? I thought but didn’t say. Instead I just smiled widely, so that it would come out in my voice, and told him, “Yes, I feel much the same. It’s not that I don’t like meeting people, but it feels like a waste when I could be out keeping people safe.”

“Exactly! You understand.” Daly clapped me on the shoulder and, finally, released my hand. “And if I may say so, this is quite the costume! I quite like the subtle patterning.”

“Thanks! You know, I actually didn’t realize that it had a pattern at first?” At some point in the last six months or so, I had begun to be able to make out a subtle, neuron-esque pattern on the fabric of my suit, finally confirming for myself what Canaveral and Holly had both commented on. “It took me a while to be able to pick it out.”

“Really?” Daly asked. “How odd. I wonder why? In any case, it was wonderful to meet you, but if you’ll excuse me, I think I see an old friend I have to say hello to.” He slipped away and jogged slightly to catch up to a slender woman wearing metal gauntlets up to her shoulders. “Ferrous! It’s been far too long!”

Zookeeper patted me on the shoulder. “That was well-handled, Newton.”

“Thanks,” I said, grimacing under my mask. “I still don’t like it, though.”

“I know, kid, but you just have to make it through the night,” Canaveral promised. “You can go home tomorrow.”

I sighed in relief – or anticipation of relief, at least. I still had the rest of the party to get through, after all. “Thanks, boss. I still wish I was back at home with Loki, but… well, cutting this trip short is better than nothing.”

“No problem. What did you think of Senator Daly?”

“Hmm…” I rubbed the fingers on the hand he had shaken. “How do you spell ‘unctuous’?”

Canaveral laughed. “I know what you mean, but keep that quiet, yeah?”

“Yeah, obviously.”

“Well handled indeed,” said another new voice, this one high, feminine, and with a faint Indian accent. “It is Newton, correct?”

I turned to see Senator Rekha Solanki – an inch or two shorter than my own 5’4”, wearing a white pantsuit and with her hair pulled into a loose bun. “Evening, Senator,” I greeted her, automatically offering my hand.

She shook with a smile. “A pleasure to meet a promising young…” The senator tilted her head thoughtfully. “Should it be ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’?”

“‘Hero’ is gender neutral enough for me, thanks for asking. Although I do have to wonder why so many important people seem to have heard of me,” I mused. “I haven’t really done much worth noting.”

The senator shrugged. “You caught my eye with your appearance on the Ryder Report – my child was watching with me and was inspired to come out to me as nonbinary, after seeing you do so with such nonchalance. By the way, I have to ask on their behalf for an autograph – they’re a rather big fan of yours – although please don’t feel pressured if you’d rather not.”

I didn’t feel pressured at all – I felt quite flattered, and was one again thankful for the full-face mask that, this time, hid my reddening cheeks. “Of course! Do you have a pen and paper? And who am I making this out to?”

Solanki produced a stack of index cards and found a pen in her pocket, offering them to me. Instead of signing physically, I did a trick that the PR department had insisted I learn – I took them with my presence and signed telekinetically. “They’re still searching for a proper name, I’m afraid – at present they’re going with ‘Jay’, but I have a feeling they won’t stick with it.

To my biggest fan, Jay, I wrote. Shoot me a message when you settle on a name, and I’ll do you a new signature to celebrate! And don’t forget, never be afraid to be yourself – Newton. I added my username on HeroWatch, and made a mental note to keep an eye on my messages On the site.

“Thank you,” the senator said, scanning my message before pocketing it. “I’m sure they’ll love it. In any case, that’s how you caught my eye, and your other accomplishments convinced me that you have a great deal of potential. You stood up to Legion and survived-”

“Which was very stupid of me, I didn’t have any training at the time.”

“You helped talk Anima down when she was overcome by Excalibur during that incident-” She gestured to the heroine in question, who frowned slightly.

“That was mostly Referee,” I pointed out.

“You helped capture no less than twelve supervillains-”

“Half of that was Overshadow and Underlight, repeatedly, because I happen to have powers that counter their strategies,” I insisted, biting back annoyance at how easily they escaped from capture after being apprehended. “And the other half weren’t supervillains, they were just garden-variety powered criminals.” Honestly, taking down someone like a bank robber who could hover a foot of the ground wasn’t anything an unpowered officer couldn’t do.

Solanki exchanged an amused look with Canaveral. “I see your humility is no act.”

I crossed me arms. “I’d be happy to take credit for my accomplishments if I had actually done anything worth being proud of as a hero.”

She let out a rather giggly laugh. “Newton, just being a hero is worth praise in this day and age. So many metahumans turn their talents to commercial ends, or simply let them languish, unused. And that’s not even getting into those who are drawn into a life of crime. Having powers and using them for good is worth celebrating in and of itself.”

I decided not to mention that I had originally decided against becoming a hero. “You have a power of your own, right?”

She nodded, and reached out – her arm stretched like taffy through the crowd to reach a waiter, returning with a prawn in hand. “Yes indeed. I tried being a heroine in my younger days – I was a member of the Young Valorous, which is DC’s trainee hero team. Unfortunately, my power has few combat applications, and I decided I could serve the public better through pushing policy.”

“That makes sense,” I admitted. “Not every power is suited to hero work.”

“Indeed. So, for having a hero-suitable power and choosing to use it for such, I commend you. And besides, I like to think that I have an eye for talent, and that’s something you have in spades. Perhaps you have yet to find the challenge that you and you alone can solve, but I have faith that you’ll get there.”

“Well… thank you, I guess.”

Solanki chuckled. “You guess. You know, Newton, it’s quite refreshing to meet someone who’s not constantly trying to push an agenda or promote themselves.”

“Hey, what are you trying to say here?” Canaveral asked, putting on a tone of mock-hurt.

“Not you of course, Canaveral,” she assured him with a smile. “Newton, I’m afraid I’m a busy woman, and I have several other people to meet tonight, so I should say my goodbyes.” She popped the prawn she had snagged into her mouth, waved with her pinky, and walked off.

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3.1. Scenes 13-15

Scene 13 – June 19th
Interior Mansion, Late Afternoon
Dominic Könberg

 

We began to assemble in the entrance hall of the manor, each clad in our respective armors. Leather undersuits, varying levels of plate armor above it, and, of course, we each bore a piece of our father’s own armor, granting us one of the abilities he had once used as the Mountain King.

While we hadn’t gone out together as the Round Table in six months, we had continued practicing in the privacy of the manor’s grounds, safely hidden behind the Kovals’ wards, and so it felt almost mundane to throw dad’s cloak on over my full plate, a rich purple color bleeding into the naturally dull gray fabric as it attuned itself to its wearer’s soul. Awareness of all the earthen materials around me flooded into my mind as it did, and I sighed in pleased relief at the familiar feeling as the ability to command the earth settled into my soul once more.

“God, get a room,” Viv teased, approaching with dad’s helmet under one arm. She had spent only the bare minimum of time with her own piece of dad’s armor – since Morgan had learned from Arthur Peregrine that the intelligence-boosting power of the helm had accelerated the onset of his dementia, we were all a little wary of the thing. Still, she would wear it from the moment before we left until the moment we got under the wards again.

I raised an eyebrow at her – she wouldn’t be able to see it under my considerably less-magical helmet, but my twin knew me well enough to read my expressions even without being able to see my face. “Don’t get on my case, Viv,” I said mildly, “having super-sense feels nice, and you know that as well as I do.”

“Yeah, but I don’t moan when they come online like a virgin with her first-”

“Hey guys!” Tristan said brightly from behind her.

Fuck, Tristan!” Viv yelped, jumping aside and almost dropping her helm. “Where the hell did you come from?”

“I just got here.”

I glanced behind him at the empty hallway. “You’re getting better at not leaving a trail behind,” I noticed, remembering the long trails of green mist he had left anytime he used his greaves’ granted superspeed the last time we had went out.

“Yeah, turns out if I extend the speed to the mist it vanishes almost instantly. I think that’s how dad did it back in the day, but, uh…” Tristan trailed off into silence.

“…he didn’t remember, did he,” Viv said quietly.

“…yeah. I asked him a while back and he had no idea. When I figured it out, he just shrugged and said that it sounded familiar, but he didn’t seem sure.”

I hugged him as best as I could. It’s not easy to give a good hug when both of the people involved are wearing plate armor, but I tried, and Tristan hugged me back almost desperately.

“It’s gonna be okay,” I promised him. “It’ll all be over soon, and then dad will be safe. Once we don’t need to worry about the Ambrosia Company hunting him down or stealing his armor, then-”

“Then he’ll still have late-stage dementia,” Viv pointed out sourly. “Mother hasn’t been able to do anything. Devon-” her voice didn’t even catch of the name of dad’s doctor, the crush she had once had on them long since forgotten in the face of dad’s worsening prognosis, “couldn’t help either, not even with spells directly from Peregrine.”

“Peregrine himself couldn’t help,” Tristan said under his breath.

“What?”

“He visited around Christmastime,” my little brother explained. “I don’t know why exactly he came, but I know he spoke with mom – Morgan, not Jenny – and met Dad, too. I figured that mom had finally called in a favor from him, but… well, Dad didn’t exactly get better after than, now did he?”

“…no,” I admitted.

“I want to protect dad as much as the rest of us,” Viv promised. “But… don’t tell our moms this, okay?” I nodded, and so did Tristan. “Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s worth it. We can’t leave Holly in danger,” she clarified, “but everything else… I mean, dad barely even recognizes us anymore. He can’t eat properly. He…” My sister sighed. “I just don’t know how much of him is left. Do you ever wonder if the dad of five years ago would want this?”

“He wouldn’t,” I said, “he would have wanted us to stay out of the whole super-everything. But we have to.”

“I’m not sure that-”

She fell silent as Percy entered, adjusting one of his gauntlets. “Hey Viv, can you give me a hand with this?” he asked, waving it at her. “One of the hinges in the little finger is stuck.”

Viv spoke a word of power, one of those magic phrases that utterly failed to register in my brain as anything other than a sound, and the gauntlet repaired itself.

“Thanks. Still waiting on moms?”

“No need to wait, we’re here,” Jenny said, entering just ahead of Morgan.

 

Scene 14 – June 19th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

 

“Alright everyone,” Morgan said sternly as she walked to the front of the room, “remember: you’re just getting attention so that the manifesto I’ll send out is taken seriously. Once the heroes show up, Dom, you put up the wall, and then you come home.”

I raised a hand. “So, uh… we’re sure that I can actually put up a wall like that?”

“Arthur put up similar walls before he retired, although never on such a large scale,” Jenny told me. “He might have been able to, but he never tried it.”

“It’s something the armor can already do, on a very large scale,” Morgan agreed. “That falls in line with what Excalibur let Anima do – the same thing, but more so.”

I nodded, still a little uncertain, but willing to go with it. “Okay. I’m just worried because I haven’t used Exalibur before.”

“I’m sorry you haven’t had a chance to practice, but I don’t want anyone the be exposed to it more than necessary,” Morgan explained. “The enchantment I created insulates the wielder from its mental effects, but there’s still some leakage.”

“I understand. Speaking of that enchantment…? I know you were just maintaining it yourself when you use the thing, but I can’t exactly do that.” Morgan was a ridiculously good enchanter, and could maintain enchantments without actually anchoring them if she wanted to. I, on the other hand, couldn’t cast the simplest spell in the world no matter how hard I tried – Viv was the only one of us kids to have any talent for magic.

Morgan tossed me a pair of thin gloves that would come up to my elbows. “Wear those under your gauntlets,” she ordered, “and hold Excalibur in both hands when you use it, it should help spread the load between the two gloves.”

A wave of violet mist spread from my cape, and the steel gauntlets I was wearing peeled themselves away from my hands at my mental command. I slipped the gloves on, taking a moment to admire the craftsmanship – although they looked gray at first glance, at closer inspection they were actually white, but with an intricate  pattern of interlocking runes in black – before rebuilding the gauntlets over them.

“As for the rest of you,” my mother continued, passing me the gold-hilted dagger that was the magical blade’s current form. I took it by the blade, not wanting to draw it until I had to. “If Dom loses Excalibur, remember not to touch it by the handle. Only lift it by the blade, and put something between it and your hand if you can.”

“What if one of the heroes gets a hold of it before we can retreat?” Percy asked. “Should we fight to get it back?”

Morgan hesitated before answering. “We can’t let the Ambrosia Company get Excalibur, but… but your safety is more important,” she finally said. “If one of the heroes gets it, particularly Newton or Canaveral, you retreat.”

“Again, I don’t think Newton is one of their agents,” I said.

“They weren’t on the list of buyers we compiled,” Viv agreed.

My mother shrugged. “It wasn’t an exclusive list. And they clearly have some connection, based on their supersuit being of the type that Ambrosia sells. I don’t want any of you to risk it, understood?”

“Yes mom.”

“Yeah.”

“Sure.”

“Good.” Morgan glanced at each of us. “Any questions?”

I glanced at Viv, who opened her mouth, then hesitated. After a moment, she said, “are you sure this is the only way, mother?”

She sighed. “Sure? No, I’m nowhere near sure. I’m not even sure it’s the best way. But all the other ideas we’ve had are worse.”

“I just… I hope…” Viv stopped. “Never mind.”

I hope it’s worth it, I silently finished for her.

 

Scene 15 – June 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Holly Koval

 

“Fuck!” I swore. “You traitor!”

“You turned on me first,” Simone teased. “You know you deserve this.”

“Yeah, you kind of do,” Molly Madigan lazily agreed from where she lay. “You brought this on yourself, Holly.”

I sighed in defeat. “Fine, fine. I accept my villainy and the consequences thereof. Do what you will.” Simone tapped a button on her controller, confirming that she wanted to steal a star from me, and I crossed my arms in annoyance as my character on screen made a sad pose. “I hate this game. It destroys friendships.”

“I’m still your friend,” Jack Forester said.

“And you’re also not playing.”

“Fair.”

“Hey guys, we have an alert,” said Nic Mellas’s voice, echoing through the speaker system from the console he was manning. “The Round Table just showed up in April Park and called out the Journeymen specifically. Dame Acumen said, and I quote, ‘I’m itching for a rematch with Loki’.”

I growled. “Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this. That bitch is going down.”

“We’re taking them on?” Forester asked, raising an eyebrow and transforming into his tree-like form – wood grain spreading across his flesh and his naturally red hair becoming a leafy green as he became Sequoia.

“We sure are.” I brushed my fingers against each other, a construct of light and sound forming around my body as I put the appearance of Loki as easily as breathing. “Volunteers only, of course.”

“Come on,” Simone said eagerly, “like any of us would turn down a rematch with those asses.”

“Actually, Simone, I-” The teleporter vanished in the middle of my sentence, and I frowned. “Damn it, I thought she was getting better about that.”

“You want me to come too?” Mellas asked.

“Yeah, grab an agent to put on console and mask up,” I told him, finding my pager and sending an alert to Canaveral and the other Champions. “Your combat precognition is still the best option against their speedster.”

“Got it. Gimme a sec.”

“What’s the game plan going to be?” Sequoia asked. “We won’t have Quinn along this time, we’ll be outnumbered even if you fight.”

Which I hadn’t, last time – I had acted as overwatch, which had worked fine until Acumen began interfering. This time around, though, I knew she was coming, and wouldn’t be distracted – I had no intention of getting anywhere near her.

“I’ll explain once Nic and Simone are changed,” I answered. “No need to go over it more than once.” In the meantime, I began casting a set of magical earpieces – I had gotten the casting time for the spell down to only ten seconds, so it didn’t take long. I tossed one of the glowing green orbs to Forest and another to Madigan, then paused. “…Molly, you seem quiet – more than usual, I mean. Is something wrong?”

“Ah… no, nothing’s wrong,” the redhead claimed, but I was pretty sure she was lying. “I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure? You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” I reminded her. “Perks of being a Journeymen instead of a Champion, you can turn down your assignments.”

“No, I’ll come. I remember last time, the Round Table are no joke.”

“They certainly aren’t,” I agreed, remembering Armstrong’s fears – that the Round Table had killed the Mountain King and stolen his armor, that they were willing to be far more lethal than most villains in New Venice. I had disagreed, but I also hadn’t expected them to show up again, and he had been right about that… “but we’d manage.”

“I know, but… I should be there,” she said. The youngest member of the Journeymen dug in her bag for a moment before producing the black and white shirt that, when pulled over the armored bodysuit she was already wearing, was her costume. She donned it, before saying, “I just don’t want to…” She trailed off.

“…to what, Molly?” Sequoia asked her.

Referee bit her lip as she put on a domino mask. “…I can’t say.”

“You know you can tell us anything,” I encouraged.

“No, I really can’t say. It’s not my secret to tell.”

“…secret identity stuff?” I guessed, and she nodded. Did she know something about the Round Table? Not the time to interrogate her. “Alright, keep it quiet then, just don’t let it get in the way.”

Journey reappeared a moment later in full costume, Hypnos stepping in a moment later. “Ready, boss!” the muscular girl said cheerfully, and Hypnos echoed her less enthusiastically.

“Journey, do you have enough distance to get to the gala?” I asked her.

“Yeah, but not back. But won’t I be ferrying Molly around?”

I shook my head. “No, I need you to go and make sure that the Champions got the alert. None of them have acknowledged their pagers yet,” or at least, the console hadn’t received the acknowledgment – I had an image of it playing in the corner of my vision so I could monitor it myself, as I usually did when I was in the compound, “so they might not know.”

“Aw… fine, I’ll go,” Simone agreed, and reality shattered around her as she teleported again.

“As for the rest of us,” I said to the remaining members of the Journeymen, “let’s go get a jeep and an agent to drive it. We’ve got some villains to fight.”

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3.1. Scenes 10-12

Scene 10 – June 19th
Interior Townhouse, Afternoon
Alessandra DeVitto

“Hmm…” I hummed thoughtfully as I stood in front of the mirror, holding a crimson dress against my body. After a moment of consideration, I replaced it with a dark pantsuit and a red blouse. Then I went back to the dress, and sighed. “Dear?” I called.

“Yes, love?” my wife’s voice floated back from the other side of our house.

“Do you have a moment? I need a second opinion.”

Maria was there instantly, her arms wrapping gently around my waist and her chin resting atop my head. My heart skipped a beat as I saw her appear in the mirror, as it did every time I saw the most beautiful woman in the world – her lips curved ever so slightly in a faint smile, tiny crinkles at the corner of those beautiful dark eyes, her luxurious hair falling to her shoulders in loose curls.

I couldn’t resist tilting my head and twisting around to kiss her, loving the way that Maria’s hands slipped from my waist to my ass as she eagerly responded. The outfits fell from my hands in favor of slipping one into my wife’s hair and the other up her shirt, both of us moaning in pleased unison.

We didn’t separate from each other for a few minutes, both of our faces flushed and unable to stop smiling, and just sat where we had fallen to the ground and grinned at each other like teenagers in love – a common state of affairs in our household.

Eventually, Maria took a deep breath and exhaled. “So,” she asked, “what was it you needed an opinion on?”

I blinked at the apparent non sequitur, then cast my thought back to before our impromptu make-out session. “Oh yes!” I spun back around to face the mirror and picked up the two outfits I had assembled, rising so that they would hang more correctly against my body. “I’m trying to pick an outfit for the east coast MLED gala. Suit or dress, do you think?”

Maria stood against me again, just as she had when I had first asked her to come help. “Hm… you know that I always like you in suits,” she murmured into my ear, and I shivered slightly at the feeling of her breath. I resisted the urge to kiss her again – if I did, we’d probably go further than just making out, and then we would never make a decision.

“I do know that,” I agreed, holding the pantsuit against me, and Maria made a soft, happy sound. “But I almost always wear suits, don’t you think it’s time for a change?”

“Then wear the dress.”

I displayed the dress instead. “…I worry it might be too low-cut, though.”

“Do you have any other dresses that shade?” Maria asked.

“None that will go with the necklace I want to wear quite as well.”

“Then wear the suit.”

I made a face. “You’re no help, dear.”

“You don’t have to decide now, love,” Maria offered. “The gala isn’t until… when is it again?”

I met her eyes in the mirror and raised an eyebrow. “I reminded you just this morning, honey, and the invitation came weeks ago.”

“Did you?” she asked. “I suppose I must have been…” her eyes roamed down my body even as her hands shifted upwards from my waist. “…distracted,” she whispered, then pressed a kiss behind my ear.

I couldn’t hold back a soft moan. “Maria…”

“Essa…” Another kiss, this one at the base of my neck.

“Dear…”

“Love…” Another at the top of my spine as she began to sink to her knees behind me.

I reached for my power and vibrated three times, low and powerful, and Maria paused at our standard safe word.

“Red or yellow?” she asked.

“Red,” I said firmly – as firmly as I could, with how much I wanted to give in to her seduction. “Dear, we don’t have time right now, we have to go in only an hour. The gala is tonight!”

Maria blinked in surprise. “Tonight, really?” she asked, releasing my breasts.

“Yes!”

“Shit.” She let out a long, slow breath. “I’m sorry, love, I truly forgot. With today being inspection day for the gambling houses, it’s been something like a subjective week since this morning for me. Between that and how good you look in that lingerie…” Then she sighed. “But that’s no excuse. I’m sorry.”

I put a hand against her cheek even as she hung her head, lifting my wife’s gaze so I could meet her eyes through the mirror again. “It’s alright, dear. Just pick one of these outfits for me, and then get ready yourself.”

“The suit,” Maria decided.

“The suit it is,” I agreed, stepping out of her arms so that I could hang the dress back up in my closet. Even though I knew we didn’t have much time – well, I didn’t have much time, Maria had all the time she could ever need – I couldn’t resist wiggling my ass at my wife as I did, teasing her and hopefully getting her at least half as worked up as she had gotten me.

We would have a fun night when we got back from the gala. I was looking forward to it.

“…what’s wrong?” I asked as I sat down on our bed to put on the blouse, seeing that Maria was hesitating.

“It’s nothing,” she said, “just…”

“What?”

My wife sighed, sitting on the ground and leaning against my legs. “I don’t really want to go. You know I’ve never enjoyed the political games as much as you, and I’m starting to get fed up with people’s confusion about our apparent ages. One more ‘and is this your younger sister’ and I swear…”

I nodded in understanding. Maria’s power over her personal passage through spacetime meant that she hadn’t aged since she was 25, leaving her looking at least a decade younger than me despite actually being two years older. “I know. It used to be amusing, but…”

“Yeah. It’s a lot less funny the tenth time. And the looks will only get stranger.”

“…have you thought about letting yourself age?” I asked after a few moments. “It won’t help immediately, but after a few years, an apparent 30-year-old will look more normal next to a 40-year-old. By the time I’m 50 and you look 40, no one will think twice about it.”

“I have,” Maria admitted. “But it would make me less able to protect you. Not just by aging out of my prime, the freeze on aging is also the same effect that makes me invulnerable – if I don’t circulate my timestream constantly, then a surprise attack could take me out.”

“It would have to do so in one hit for you not to just undo it, though,” I pointed out. “And you would turn your invulnerability back on if it didn’t.”

“Given that without my power I’m just a physically fit 25-year-old woman, taking me out in one shot isn’t that hard. Particularly if my attacker is expecting the invincible supervillain La Borda, not just Maria DeVitto.”

I thought about it for a few minutes, absently playing with Maria’s hair as I considered the ramifications. “I think you should still do it,” I eventually said. “We haven’t been attacked out of costume in years, so it should be safe. And it’s more important for you to be comfortable than for me to be perfectly safe, anyway.”

“Nonsense,” Maria disagreed. “You’re far more important than me.”

I leaned forward and pressed a kiss into the top of Maria’s head. “Agree to disagree.”

She made a happy sound, and began to stand. “If I accelerate my timestream instead of holding it back,” she mused, “at least when we know it’s safe, like now, then I’ll be able to catch up to you faster.”

“I always thought it would be nice to grow old together,” I admitted. “I had resigned myself to you outliving me, but…”

Maria smiled, then leaned forward to give me a soft kiss, this one briefer and more chaste than our previous indulgences. “Then I’ll make it happen,” she promised me in a whisper after pulling away just enough to speak, her forehead now pressed against mine.

After a moment of gazing into each other’s eyes, she stood up straight again. “I’ll let you get ready,” she said,  “and go pick out an outfit myself.”

“You don’t have to go, dear,” I offered.

“You know you’d be miserable without me, love” she pointed out as she turned to walk to her side of the room.

“Yes, but you still don’t have to.”

“I will, though.”

“…maybe I’ll stay home too,” I suggested, making a decision.

“…really?” Maria asked, turning to face me again.

I lay back, spreading myself on the bed and displaying my body, still clad in only my underwear – the nice, lacy lingerie that I had picked out to make me look as good as possible for the gala. “Really,” I confirmed. “Let’s make it a night in.”

A slow smile spread across Maria’s face, and she knelt on the bed, straddling my legs. “Oh?” she murmured as she began to lean forward. “That’s a shame. I was hoping we could eat out…”

Scene 11 – June 19th
Interior Laboratory, Afternoon
Nicholas Dreyfus

“Hey dad,” Sara’s voice echoed to me out of the shadows under my workbench, “mail’s here.”

“I’ll get it in a few minutes,” I responded, more focused on the magical shard I was analyzing. I had sold a minor villain some gadgets in return for some enchanted artifacts he had stolen in the past and had no more use for, and was slowly working through them to try and find similarities and attempt to work of some sort of scientific system for magic – the beginnings of one, at least.

Progress was slow, as many of them seemed to work along entirely different lines, using different energies and operating principles. Even some of the items with similar functions worked very differently, like a digital watch vs mechanical watch vs an hourglass vs a sundial. It seemed as though there was no single energy and system for all that was labeled as magic, but rather an enormous variety of differing energies, each operating on their own unique system and interacting with the others in their own ways.It could easily be the work of a lifetime – perhaps several lifetimes, as Arthur Peregrine had been performing similar research for two centuries. Still, I was optimistic about my chances to, if nothing else, begin the work, and perhaps share the results more widely than Peregrine.

“I think you might want to check it out,” my daughter cajoled me. “One of the letters looks to be time-sensitive.”

I paused. “Time sensitive? How so?”

“It seems to be an invitation that got lost in the mail for a while, but the event starts tonight.”

Well, there was no harm in reading the invitation, I supposed. “Alright, let me see it.” I reached into the darkness and, thanks to my daughter’s command of the shadows, my hand closed around the mail that had been left in my home’s mailbox, some hundred feet above the underground lab I currently sat in.

I pulled it free and slid my chair along the table to a clear spot to take a look at the letters. Bill, magazine, political ad, bill, ad, credit card offer… invitation. I could certainly see why Sara had told me to look at it, the letter looked quite official.

I was wearing the gauntlets of my costume at the moment, having been using them as welding gloves, so a moment’s thought was all it took for to flash-print a small knife, thermoregulators bleeding off the heat of the magnetically-shaped molten metal to solidify it and recover some of the energy spent on the forging. I used the knife to open the letter, and read it.

The DMO had apparently sent me an invitation to the MLED’s east coast convention, which began with a formal gala tonight and would continue with various metahuman-focused events and panels for the next three days. It was sent to me as Nicholas Dreyfus, but reading between the lines, it was obvious that they had somehow discovered that I was Motael. How irritating, I thought with a frown, – I had believed that my identity had remained a secret. I had never been held long enough to be identified on the few occasions that I had been captured, with my children both happy to assist me whenever I allowed them to. Or I had though that was the case, at least.

Still, it seemed they had found me out, because the invitation promised freedom from ‘unprovoked harassment’, which was clearly code for ‘we won’t arrest you as long as you don’t start trouble’, and offered me a slot to host a panel as well as a booth to sell technology on the convention floor.

It was, I had to admit, a tempting offer. I rarely had the chance to speak to other inventors on my level – there were few of us to begin with, a decent portion were heroes, and the remainder weren’t the most stable people. Graviton might be an unparalleled genius in the field of gravitic technology and manipulation of the Higgs field, but the mass-murderer wasn’t the kind of person you could invite to a poker game.

There were no technologists at anywhere close to my level in New Venice – Starling was no slouch, but while he had been the closest around before his transfer to Cleveland, he still couldn’t really keep up with me. But there was a hero in Charlotte, Droideka, and I had heard of a villain from Boston who went by Doctor Proton… if either had been invited as well, speaking with them would make even having to attend a formal party worth it.

And my current work wasn’t particularly time sensitive – I had no particular goal in mind, yet, it was just for the pleasure of the science. No reason not to put it aside for a weekend.

The decision was easy, really. I wanted to go, and there was no reason not to. I activated a small drone, directing it to clean up my workbench, then began ascending from my laboratory into my home to get changed into something formal.

Scene 12 – June 19th
Interior Warehouse, Afternoon
Saige Sanders

“-how dare you speak of me that way! Your mother-”

“-you see the whites of their-”

“-over 300 casualties in the latest incursion from-”

“-is for friends who do stuff together-”

I sighed and just turned the TV off, not finding anything interesting on right now. If Ridealong would just get a streaming service set up, alleviating my boredom would be so much easier, but the man was paranoid about our hideouts being found. Hell, I had never actually met him in person, only while he was possessing one of his goons. Well, our goons, I supposed.

I glanced to the other side of the warehouse, where Robin was playing some kind of card game with today’s designated possessee, a short but muscular black guy who was a favorite of my boss for his friendship with Robin.

“…tap, tap, tap, swing for 18,” Robin said, turning several of the cards in front of her 90 degrees. Then she looked up at Ridealong – her back was to me, but I was certain that the Buff Boys’ resident psycopath was giving him a sadistic grin. “And I believe that wins me the game.”

Ridealong’s host scowled. “I don’t know why I play with you, prick,” he muttered, beginning to gather up his cards. “I swear, your fucking luck aura is cheating.”

“You know I don’t have full control, Isaiah,” she insisted, sweeping her own cards back into her deck, “and I hold it back as much as I can.”

“So you say,” he shot back, “but I had to mulligan twice to get a hand worth playing with, and you-” Isaiah cut himself off and sat up straighter, reaching up to the electric blue scarf around his neck that labeled him as Ridealong’s host and tugging it absentmindedly, as though checking it was still there.

“Got something for us, boss?” Robin asked, leaning back in her chair.

“‘Nothing for you, Rube,’” Isaiah quoted, relaying the words that Ridealong was projecting into his head. “‘Brewer,’” he said, looking over Robin’s shoulder to me, “‘I want an update on the shipment for next week.’”

I turned my mind briefly to the current target of my powers, the batch of Brawn I was cooking up in the basement of this hideout. It was a pain, sometimes, that my powers could only work on one thing at a time, but at least they worked from any distance, once they had been tagged – it meant I could monitor their composition and the progress of their transformation from simple chemical reagents into alchemical drugs that granted temporary superpowers. Yes, the powers I had purchased might not be the flashiest, but they were perfect for chemistry.

“On schedule, boss,” I assured Ridealong, my eye closed as I examined the mixture. I telekinetically nudged a handful of molecules that were stubbornly refusing to circulate to get them in the convection current as I said, “it’ll be simmering for another nine hours before I can adjust it for the client’s measurements.” The components of Brawn were surprisingly simple to brew, at least when you had a power like mine and close to a year of practice – mixing them for optimal effect was the only tricky part.

“‘Good. Anything to report?’”

“Not from me,” Robin said, shuffling their deck of cards in one hand.

“We got some kind of invitation in the mail,” I said, pointing to where the unopened letter sat on a table. “Thought you might like to check it out.”

Isaiah rose and walked over to it, giving Ridealong a look through his senses. “‘Where was it sent to?’” He opened it and began scanning through it. “Dear sir or madam,” he read, “congratulations! You have been randomly selected to receive an invitation to the 53rd Annual East Coast DMO Convention. This invitation may be exchanged for three tickets to all three days of the convention. ‘Suspicious,’” Ridealong finished.

“I think it sounds fun!” I disagreed. “I’ve heard of that convention, it opens with a big party and has tons of metas, not just heroes. Could be a good place to make contacts.” I had always wanted to go to that convention.

“‘Where was it sent to?’” Ridealong asked again. “He also says something that’s not polite to repeat to a lady,” Isaiah added.

“Tell me, and I’ll pass it on,” Robin said with a smirk, coming up behind Isaiah and resting her elbow on his shoulder.

I crossed my arms. “It was in my mailbox yesterday,” I told him. “Three tickets – I thought I might as well invite you two, but maybe I’ll just grab some other friends.” I had wanted to bring the other members of the Buff Boys along, but maybe I should offer them to Essa and her wife instead? No, they probably had tickets already – the woman was more than well-connected enough in her civilian identity to get them herself if she wanted them. Besides, I wanted to do something fun with these two for once – I wanted to bring them along.

“‘You don’t have any friends,’” Ridealong said through Isaiah, who winced even as he repeated the words. “‘Why you of all people?’”

“Random selection,” I repeated. “I figured it was Robin’s fault.”

“‘His aura only affects those within a short radius,’” he pointed out. “‘Unless he was close to you when the drawing occured…’”

“I spend enough time here, it’s possible. Who knows when it actually happened? Look,” I said, “you don’t have to come, but I’m going. It’ll be an excuse to wear a nice dress.” I wanted to go.

“‘Rube,’” Isaiah turned to address to person still leaning on his shoulder, “‘What are your thoughts?’”

“Sounds like a fun time to me,” Robin said, and I flashed her a grateful smile. Multiple-murderer or not, she was on my side here – and it paid to be nice to a person who could kill you just by wanting it enough. I still hadn’t forgotten the meteor that her powers had aimed at Legion last year.

“Boss,” Isaiah added, “I don’t see the harm in it. If it really was a random drawing – ‘I don’t recall asking for your opinion, Isaiah,’” he interrupted himself, faithfully conveying Ridealong’s words. “Sorry boss, I just – ‘Stop interjecting and just relay my words. Understood?’ Yes, boss. ‘Good. Now, Rube.’”

“Boss?”

“‘Toss a knife into the air.’”

Rube obediently produced a knife from… somewhere… and flung it haphazardly into the sky, clearly not aiming. Wherever it came down would inevitably be lucky for her – it was a trick that Ridealong often used to pick locations for deals and sales, having Rube fling it at maps.

The knife came down on the letter still held in Isaiah’s hand, piercing right through it and tearing it out of the man’s grip, leaving it pinned to the floor.

“‘That settles it,’” Ridealong declared. “‘Brewer, you  aren’t going, and that’s final.’”

“…yes, boss,” I submitted, turning away from Isaiah to scowl.

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3.1. Scenes 8-9

Scene 8 – June 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Afternoon
Abraham Armstrong

“Alright,” I said, observing my troops as they arrayed themselves before me – scattered across the New Champions’ common room in various states of preparation. “Everyone ready? Because it looks like I’m the only one.”

Holly, the only one not in fancy-dress costume, rolled her eyes. “Come on, boss, it’s just a party – no one’s going to be fighting villains tonight. Or for the rest of the convention. Why are you being so strict?”

“I only wish I was fighting villains tonight,” Quinn joked from where they lay with their head in her lap. They were wearing their dress costume – which was just their normal costume with a formal jacket instead of a plaid shirt – but had their mask off so that she could play with their hair. “It would be better than,” they shuddered, “meeting people.”

“It’s not that bad, Quinn,” Emilia told them, looking resplendent in a black and green dress styled after her usual trenchcoat. “You know you’re good with people.”

“That’s what you think, but I’m on the inside and I know that I’m a mess.”

“You don’t have to meet many people anyway,” I assured the kid, leaning over the back of the couch. “It’s a party which will include almost every hero on the east coast. That’s close to 1500 people -”

“That doesn’t help,” Quinn commented dryly. “I’m good in small groups, not massive parties.”

“- which means that no one is going to be paying attention to you personally. All you have to do is be nice to the people seated at your table each night, and otherwise you can enjoy the wonders of a convention catering to superheroes.”

“Do I really have to be there all three nights?” they asked. “Aren’t Vulcan and Zookeeper going back after the first day?”

“Yes, but you have never been before,” I said. “You’re not getting out of this, kid. You’re going to go to a giant super-powered party and you’re going to like it.”

“What about Holly?” they asked. “This is her first summer as a New Champion too.”

“Yes, but I’ve been to the convention before,” she pointed out. “I got to go last year as part of being on the leadership track in the Journeymen.”

“Which this year means that you get to stay behind babysitting the Journeymen,” Quinn noted.

“Well, the city can’t go entirely without heroes, even for a night. Anything could happen.”

“I wish anything would happen,” Quinn complained morosely. “Then we could rush back home and deal with it.”

“Don’t jinx us, Quinn,” Vulcan said, trying to adjust his collar and failing. Not having a specific costume, he didn’t have a specific dress uniform either – instead, he was just wearing a suit, and would be transforming into his metallic form as well. Unfortunately, it looked like the suit was the same one he had worn last year, and he had added enough muscle that it was a little tight.

“Seriously,” I agreed. “I’ve got a bad enough feeling about this convention without you tempting fate.”

Emilia glanced at me. “You think something’s going to happen?”

I shrugged. “Just a feeling, really. We can talk about it on the way.”

“I’ll make sure to call you if something does come up,” Holly promise. “You’ve all got your pagers, and if nothing else, I think Journey has enough distance to make it to Washington – although probably not back.”

“That girl really eats through her distance,” Anima said, shaking her head. Her outfit wasn’t too far from her normal costume – dress shoes instead of high boots and a finer fabric, but not very different. “She ought to conserve it better.”

“The point is,” I said, “that even though it’s just a gala and convention, I do want to make sure that everyone’s prepared. There are some things we should all know, about the major people attending and about the heroes we’ll be sharing tables with. So, pop quiz time!”

“I thought we left these behind when we graduated,” I heard Quinn whisper, and Holly giggled.

“Quinn!” I said, smirking at them, “Both of Maryland’s senators are attending for at least one day of the convention. Since that’s where we live, I certainly hope you can name at least one of them?”

“Sure,” they said, “Rekha Solanki. Liberal Party, known for her proposal to abolish the death penalty across the country and her work to reform prisons in general. Has a minor shape-shifting power that lets her stretch her limbs a dozen feet or so.”

I nodded. “Right. Holly, you know the other guy?”

“Senator Daly – Malcolm Daly, I think,” she answered. “Conservative Party, expert in metahuman law. Speculated to be planning a presidential campaign for the next election. And…” she frowned. “I think he has a power as well, but I can’t remember what it is.”

“He can control his voice,” Anima said. “Pitch, volume, timbre, etc.”

“Must be a great public speaker,” Quinn commented.

“He is. I may not agree with his policies, but the man knows his job.”

“Good,” I said. “You’ll probably get to meet them both at some point – Senator Daly likes meeting new heroes, and Solanki likes competing with Daly.” They pulled a face. “It won’t take long, I promise.”

“If it does, you owe me ice cream.”

“Fair enough. Other than that, we’ll be sharing space with the Philadelphia team. Vulcan,” I said, turning to the bigger man, “what can you tell me about them?”

He blinked in surprise. “Uh…”

I raised my brows. “Come on, I’m waiting.”

“Well…”

Scene 9 – June 19th
Interior Highway, Late Afternoon
Abraham Armstrong

We piled into one of the mini-busses that the MLED used for troop transport, giving cheerful nods to the agent assigned to drive us and spreading out among its seats and benches. I made a beeline for bench in the far back and sat with a heavy sigh, Emilia sitting next to me and leaning against me. I wrapped an arm around my girlfriend and pressed a kiss into the top of her head as she did so.

“An hour to Washington,” she murmured as Deputy Director Blackmire’s wheelchair was loaded into the bus and locked in place. “That’s not enough for a nap, is it?”

“Maybe a short one?”

“Nah… I’ll just suffer.” She glanced up at me, her lips twisted in a wicked smile. “It’s a shame – you know I like napping with you. And ‘napping’.”

“There are four other people in this car, dear,” I reminded her.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t tease you.”

I chuckled. “You tease me enough already.”

“Fair enough.” She sat up. “You said we’d talk about your ‘bad feeling’ later?”

“Yeah, this is probably the best time,” I agreed, letting her shift so that she was no longer leaning against me. “It really isn’t anything specific, just… well. You know how things go. The big stuff usually happens every six months or so.”

“It hasn’t been that long though, has it?” Emilia asked. “We had Overshadow and Underlight trying to break Max out of the asylum back in April. Did anyone ever figure out why, by the way?”

“No clue,” I said, shaking my head. “I asked Max myself, and it wasn’t something that he had set up. But that’s small potatoes, really.”

She rubbed her chin. “…Voltage had that skirmish with the Crows?”

“Come on, Emilia,” I rolled my eyes. “Like anything involving Voltage counts as big.”

“Fair point,” she admitted. “I guess the last really big event was…” She trailed off. “…huh.”

“December,” I finished, “when the Round Table hit the Compound on the same day Max stole Excalibur.”

“Not to mention how it affected Anima’s mind when she disarmed him,” Emilia added. “Yeah, that… that was pretty big.”

“And it happened six months ago today. I know it’s not much of a reason to be on edge, but…”

She took my hand and squeezed it gently. “You’ve been heroing for what, seven years now?”

“Closer to eight.”

“Eight years. I think your instincts are pretty good by now. I trust you when you say you think something might happen.”

“Thanks, dear. It’s not just that, though.”

“The convention is well-known enough that attacking while most of the heroes are out of town might be tempting,” Emilia guessed.

“Exactly. The Round Table hit the Compound while we were out dealing with Max, it would seem to be their style.”

“Nothing usually happens during these conventions, though,” she noted. “At least, nothing’s happened since I joined.”

“Yes, well…” I sighed. “In New Venice, at least, and most of the state as well, it goes back to the Mountain King.”

“As with most of our city’s oddities.”

“It does seem that way sometimes, doesn’t it?” I agreed. “One of his rules was mutual respect. Don’t hit your enemy while they’re down, let them take their vacations, send gifts to their weddings…”

“A real gentleman.”

“Yeah. And, like a lot of his rules, most people in this area still follow that.”

She tilted her head to the side. “So if we announced our engagement, you think we’d get gifts from the villains?” she joked. “Villains other than Essa and Maria that is – they had better give us presents regardless of what the Mountain King said.”

I laughed. “You say it like it’s a joke, but yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean. Maybe not from the Buff Boys, but I suspect Motael would send us something. Voltage too, although it probably wouldn’t be much. Overshadow and Underlight as well.”

Emilia chuckled. “I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense, it just seems strange. I mean, we’re not friends with any of them outside of Essa and Maria.”

“Well, I’m not actually from New Venice, so I might be misunderstanding it,” I prefaced, “but I think the Mountain King thought of it as us all being in the same business. Co-workers, in a sense. Heroes, villains… just because you fight while you’re working doesn’t mean you have nothing in common.”

“I still think it’s weird as hell!” Quinn called from farther down the van, where they were sitting with a large sketchpad on their knees, drawing something I couldn’t quite make out. “Villains are villains!”

“Oh, come now,” Emilia protested. “Didn’t Max save your life on your first night out in costume? And Essa and Maria were perfectly nice when you met them!”

They lowered their sketchpad and eyed us. “Max saved my life, yes,” the younger hero agreed, “and I can’t really say anything of Maria, because I didn’t exchange two words with her. But Max didn’t do anything for my sake, he was just helping out a friendly ex-”

“Hey,” I protested weakly.

“-and as for Essa?” they continued without stopping. “The woman threatened to use my secret identity to destroy me, and made that threat with a smile on her face. She’s not wrong that the Crows are a better option than the Buff Boys, but that doesn’t mean I like her. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” I said quietly. “You’re just being honest.”

Quinn sighed. “I don’t mean to speak ill of your friends,” they said, glancing from me and Emilia to Anima, who was even closer to Essa in particular, having known the villain since college, well before either’s powers had manifested. “I understand that there are degrees of villainy – sometimes you have to work with the lesser evil against the greater. I get being respectful, too – everyone deserves a certain level of dignity and respect, regardless of who they are. But sending wedding gifts? Pretending to be friends, just because you’re ‘in the same business’?” they quoted. “That goes a step too far, in my view. Even the lesser evil is still evil. A villain is still a villain. There’s a difference between them and us, we chose different paths.”

The bus was silent for a few moments.

“I’m sorry,” Quinn said again. “I was kind of blunt, there, and it was uncalled for. I’m just… still not happy about having to go to this convention thing.” They lifted their sketchpad again and returned to whatever art piece they were making.

“What I was saying, I think,” I quietly said, deciding to simply return to my conversation and give Quinn some time to cool off, rather than start an actual argument, “is that the Mountain King’s rules mean that villains in New Venice don’t really take advantage of this kind of thing. But… well, the Round Table are new. I don’t have a handle on how they’ll act, yet.”

“Didn’t we agree that they were probably the Mountain King’s family, making use of his armor?” Emilia pointed out.  “Wouldn’t they follow his rules as well?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. But there are still a lot of questions about them. Like… why are they using his armor? Why isn’t the Mountain King taking action himself?”

“…you have a hunch, don’t you.”

“I don’t have any evidence for this, you understand,” I began, and she nodded. “Even less than the general bad feeling I have about tonight. But… well, if the Mountain King is dead, that could explain how the Round Table has his armor, rather than him acting himself. But… the Mountain King would only be in his late 50s, at this point. That’s pretty young for a natural death, especially for someone as rich as he must have ended up.”

“…you’re suggesting that the Round Table found him and killed him…” Emilia realized.

“In which case, we couldn’t expect them to follow his rules,” I finished. “And given their perfect timing six months ago…”

“…Holly knows what to expect, right?”

I nodded. “She doesn’t agree with my worries, but I warned her all the same.”

“Good.”

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3.1. Scenes 5-7

Scene 5 – June 16th
Interior Mansion, Evening
Dominic Könberg

“I can’t believe it’s been six months,” Vivian murmured as she joined me on the couch, curling her legs underneath her and leaning against my side.

“Since…?” I asked, putting an arm around my twin’s shoulders as we waited for the rest of the family to arrive.

“Since we attacked the MLED Compound,” she said. “It feels like we’ve been doing basically nothing since then.”

“Haven’t you and Morgan been searching through the infodumps you got away with?” I pointed out. “That’s not nothing.”

Viv shrugged. “I mean, yeah, but it didn’t really feel like much. We’ve learned a lot about what the Ambrosia Company has been doing and even have an idea of how to stop them, yeah, but… I mean, that deadline is coming up soon. If we don’t do something about it, then Holly…”

“She put together a plan in time,” I said confidently. “I trust that it will work.”

“I trust mother too,” she agreed. “But it’s still a pretty fucked up situation, you know? Having to be supervillains to protect our father and our family, trying to take down an evil corporation-”

“That’s redundant,” our younger brother Percy noted as he entered the room and sat in an armchair near the couch.

“Yes, but still. We’re hoping to take down a corporation to protect not just dad, now, but also our childhood friend, who’s one of the superheroes that will try to stop us!”

“Yeah, well…” I sighed. “We tried to get in contact with her and warn her, but she’s completely incommunicado. Even her parents can’t get to her.” The Kovals had been brought into the plan last month, after Morgan had discovered that the Ambrosia Company was considering targeting their daughter in order to get at the Kovals and force them to break down the wards they had placed to protect dad from the company’s notice. “We don’t exactly have many other options.”

Viv started to respond, but was distracted by mom entering. “Hey mom,” she said, shifting a little against me to sit up straighter. “How… how’s dad?”

Mom sighed heavily and leaned against the wall. “I put him to bed and he’s asleep, but…” She closed her eyes and swallowed with some difficulty. “It’s hard.”

“We know, mom,” I said quietly, “but you do a great job.”

“Thank you, Dom. It’s just… he’s gotten so much worse in the last few months. Sometimes he doesn’t even recognize me…”

Percy stood and went to her, hugging her close, and she clung to him almost desperately.

As she did, Morgan, our other mother, entered. Her eyes widened as she saw her partner’s state, and she raised an eyebrow and me and Viv. Viv mouthed an explanation, and Morgan nodded.

She gently took mom from Percy’s arms and turned her so that she could hold the taller woman herself, pressing a gentle, loving kiss to mom’s cheek as she did so.

“Thank you, Morgan,” mom whispered after a few moments

“Any time, Jenny.”

They released each other after, and Morgan tapped the side of the TV, turning it on and beginning to magically project her thoughts into it. She turned to face the rest of us, then paused. “Where’s Tristan?”

“Finishing his nightly call with the girlfriend,” Percy said. “He’ll be here soon.”

“Still the same girl he went to the beach with?” mom asked.

“Still Molly, yes.”

Mom managed a small smile. “I’m proud of him. She sounds like a lovely girl. Maybe we could have her over for dinner, soon?” she asked Morgan.

The other woman shook her head, the snow-white hair that I and Viv had inherited falling in her face as she did so until she tucked it back behind her ears. “It’s still not safe, dear, you know that.”

“I just…” mom sighed. “I just want this to be over. It’s been so long since we had anything like a normal life.”

“Dad’s a retired supervillain, one of our moms is the greatest mage in the world maybe after Arthur Peregrine himself, and we live in a mansion that no one can notice without being told about,” Viv said dryly. “When did we ever have a normal life?”

“Touche.”

Tristan, our youngest brother, stepped into the room, slipping his phone into his pocket as he did. “Sorry I’m late,” he said apologetically.

“No you’re not,” Viv denied. “You would much rather still be on the phone with your girlfriend.”

“Okay, I’m not sorry, but I’m here, at least.”

“Settle down,” mom ordered. “Morgan needs to brief us.”

Scene 6 – June 16th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

Morgan sighed heavily, shaking her head a little. “I want to apologize ahead of time for this, because the plan is… loose, at best. There just wasn’t enough time to put together something as firm as I would have liked, but… well, with Holly in danger if we don’t resurface by the end of the month…”

“I babysat for that girl,” mom said quietly. “It’s been far too long since I’ve seen her, but… we can’t let her be in danger when we can do something about it.”

“Exactly.”

“So what’s the plan?” Percy asked.

“In short, we give Ambrosia something bigger than us to worry about,” Morgan said. “The information you stole from the MLED served as a starting point for my scrying, and with Viv helping me put the pieces together, I’ve managed to compile a list of almost 2500 heroes and villains across the country who purchased their powers from the company.”

I whistled softly. “That’s what, around a percent of all heroes and villains in America?” 15% of the populace had superpowers of some sort, but only a fraction of a percent had both the power and desire to put them to violent use.

“A hair over two percent, actually,” she corrected. “It’s better than expected in some ways – I feared that they would have a hold over far more of the country’s heroes. But in other ways, it’s worse. Their heroes tend to be in high positions, well-trusted and influential. We know that Canaveral is an agent of theirs here in New Venice, of course, and Starling was as well before he was transferred, but they were also behind names like Widowmark and even Nanoblade – not to mention Legion.”

Tristan shuddered. “I’ve heard about her,” he whispered. “She sounds scary as hell.”

“She’s their most reliable and prolific agent, for obvious reasons,” Morgan said, and I nodded. Along with powerful, unbounded shapeshifting and the ability to absorb organic matter to empower herself, Legion could also duplicate herself as much as she pleased, thus the name. “But they have many others. Despite the small size of the company’s core membership, their tendrils seem to be everywhere. Including,” she gritted her teeth, “the presidential cabinet.”

“Wait,” Viv interrupted, “are you saying that-”

“Yes,” our mother confirmed. “Susan Thornhill, the Secretary of Metahuman Affairs, the woman in charge of the DMO as a whole, not just the MLED, is a member of the Ambrosia Company.”

“I suspected, with the bill she’s been pushing for,” Viv commented, glancing at me – she had been complaining about it earlier today – “but I hoped it wasn’t actually true. And she’s not just any member though, is she?”

Morgan nodded miserably. “No, she isn’t. She’s nothing less than the CEO herself.”

“…can we prove it?” Percy asked after a moment. “That’s a massive conflict of interest.”

“Yeah, if she’s selling superpowers and pushing for the explicit legalization of doing so, that seems like a pretty clear case for corruption,” I agreed.

“And no wonder, I always said the corruption in the MLED went straight to the top.”

“I… yeah, actually, I guess you were right all along,” Viv admitted, and Percy grinned triumphantly.

“We don’t have clear-cut proof,” Morgan said apologetically, “as half of it relies on scrying that’s not considered legally reliable. But, well, politics is all about optics. Even without certain proof, it can still hurt her reputation and force her to focus on the politics for a while.”

“So we leak it to the media, then?” mom asked, but Morgan shook her head.

“That alone wouldn’t be enough. Any reputable source would take too long to verify it, and even if it was released immediately it doesn’t cost Thornhill much to send a single Legion to track down Holly in secret.”

“Unless her intention to do so is part of the leak,” Viv suggested. “She would avoid that, because it would give legitimacy to other parts of it if it laid out a plan for Holly – well, Loki, since we don’t want to reveal secret identities if we don’t have to – to be kidnapped, and then it happened. She could use another agent, but it would still look suspicious”

Morgan bit her lip thoughtfully. “…yes, that might help. I’ll amend the release to include that plan of hers. Good idea, Vivian.”

“Thanks.”

“You said that leaking it to the media wouldn’t be enough alone,” I observed. “What else?”

“It needs to be a huge political scandal, one that will consume all or most of the company’s resources to deal with,” she explained. “Something that will draw the eyes of the entire country.”

“Thornhill writing a law to enrich herself won’t do that?” Tristan asked.

“That’s just garden-variety political corruption, if that’s all it is,” Viv said dismissively. “What about the kidnappings?”

“Kidnappings?” I blinked in surprise. “Plural?”

“Many of the workers at Ambrosia – all three of the top minds, and a number of the lesser scientists working under them – were kidnapped and forced to work for the company under various threats,” my sister explained. “There was nothing making that explicitly clear, but mother and I are pretty sure of it anyway.”

“The kidnappings will be in the release along with their other crimes, but no,” Morgan said. “Nor will them selling to villains along with heroes be enough. The assassination of various heroes and reporters who discovered this would help, but… well, again, that just puts whoever we sent it to in danger.”

“So send it to multiple news agencies,” Percy said.

“Legion could hit all of them simultaneously,” Viv pointed out, and again, they have other agents as well.”

“I think what Morgan is getting at is that we need to find a way to make sure it gets released immediately,” I observed. “And I think we all know what that means.”

“Put it out as a manifesto when we make another appearance as supervillains,” Viv said, sounding rather annoyed at the prospect. “Our appearance resets the clock for Holly, and would guarantee that it gets released a lot faster. Do something big to attract attention, then publicly lay the blame for it at the feet of Susan Thornhill and the Ambrosia Company…”

“Exactly,” Morgan agreed.

“How are we going to pull off something that big?” Tristan asked.

“That’s the easy part, isn’t it?” Viv said with a smirk that didn’t reach her eyes. “After last time, we have Excalibur. If it was strong enough to make the Magnificent Maxwell a threat to the city and nearly ruin Anima’s career, it’s strong enough get one of us on national news.”

“Viv is right, as usual,” Morgan agreed. “Although I’m not sure I would call it ‘easy’. I may have designed an enchantment to use it relatively safely, but, well. The keyword there is ‘relatively’. The longer you hold it, the more it will affect you.”

“Then we’ll have to hope that we won’t have to use it for long,” mom said. “Which of us is to carry it?”

“Well, the obvious choice is Dom,” Viv said, and Morgan nodded again.

“That was my thought as well. The terrakinesis that Arthur’s cape grants you is the showiest power that any of you receive from your father’s armor,” she explained to Tristan, who still seemed a little confused.

“Why not you?” my youngest brother asked, tilted his head curiously.

“If I were to appear as a villain, Arthur Peregrine himself would be certain to stand against me – and even with Excalibur in hand, I’m sure sure that I could hold him off. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s not unbeatable, and he has far more skill and practice in battle magic than me.”

“What will Dom do with it, though?” Percy asked, glancing at me. “And when?”

“This weekend, most of the New Champions will be out of town at an event,” Morgan told us. “The only one remaining will be Holly herself, watching over the city as Loki, as well as lead the Journeymen if they’re needed. I enlisted the Kovals to help, and we’ve arranged for invitations – or what will appear to be invitations – to be sent to many of the other villains in town as well.”

“Getting everyone possible out of the city,” Viv said approvingly.

“Precisely. And then…” Morgan turned to me. “I was thinking a wall.”

Scene 7 – June 16th
Interior Mansion, Late Evening
Dominic Könberg

We all bickered for a while, arguing over details of the plan and various contingencies, before we were all finally satisfied – or equally dissatisfied, at least. We were all unhappy with various aspects of it – Percy wanted to go farther with the manifesto, throw in accusations that even Morgan and Viv weren’t sure of rather than just the ones they were certain were true. Tristan wanted to do the opposite, worrying that the MLED as a whole might collapse if we went too far. Mom, of course, was concerned about us all being safe, and Morgan was trying to make the outcome as certain as she could. I, meanwhile, was worried about whether or not I would be able to handle Excalibur for as long as I might need to.

Viv, oddly enough, hadn’t said much, only putting forth a few comments, and more serious ones than usual. I knew my twin better than to think that was normal – normally she had opinions on everything, with half of her contributions being insightful and brilliant and the other have being jokes and hilarious asides to me. Today, however…

As everyone began to leave, heading for their various rooms – mom and Morgan walking off together for dad’s – I caught my sister before she left, keeping her pressed against my side until everyone else had gone.

She raised an eyebrow when I did, but didn’t object, instead just yawning a little and waiting patiently. After even Percy had ambled his way to bed and we had privacy, she asked, “What is it, bro?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you,” I countered. “Last time we were planning this supervillain thing, you were a lot more cheerful. You were joking, having fun. This time…”

“Last time was before I found out that my childhood best friend was fighting for the other side,” she snapped. “Last time, I didn’t think anyone would actually be in danger. Last time…” Viv trailed off and sighed, letting her head fall into her hand, her snow-white hair falling to hide her face. “Last time,” she finished, “I didn’t really understand the consequences.”

I furrowed my brow, confused. “What do you mean?”

“We were using the Magnificent Maxwell – a man who has never caused serious injury to anyone – as a distraction. We ourselves did nothing worse than minor concussions that Anima could heal – that she did heal, the minute that she got hold of Excalibur. And even when she had the sword, the danger wasn’t what she would do it it, but what would happen if Ambrosia took it from her. It never really felt like anyone was in danger,” she explained. “But this time… this time, if we don’t get it right, Holly might… might…”

She swallowed. “I know it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen her. I know that she’s probably forgotten all about us, that she would probably hate us for what we’re doing if she knew. But… I couldn’t stand for her to be hurt, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, hugging her tightly. “I know.”

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3.1. Scenes 1-4

Scene 1 – June 14th
Exterior City, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

The teenager was obviously terrified as the mugger held a gun to her face, practically trembling as he spoke. “Give me your fucking wallet, bitch,” the mugger snarled, his voice low and harsh, only audible thanks to the enhanced senses my expanded presence gave me. “And don’t make no sudden movements, ‘cause my finger’s feeling real fucking itchy right now.”

I stepped off the rooftop with a gentle push, slowing my fall into the alleyway with a simple application of telekinetic pressure. I landed soundlessly, my knees flexing ever so gently, then went to work.

With my presence extended and focused on the mugger and his gun, it was the work of only a moment to switch the safety on. Then, satisfied that there was no chance of anyone taking a bullet to the head, I telekinetically broke the man’s trigger finger.

FUCK! he swore, stumbling backwards toward me and doubling over his gun hand – and, unfortunately, putting his body between me and the gun, which meant that I couldn’t just pull the gun from his hand as I had intended to do with his grip loosened by the break. Well, no plan survives contact with the enemy – not even one as pitiful as this.

“You know that there are other swear words, right?” I cheerfully asked him, using more telekinesis to spin him around so that he was facing me. “You criminal types should really be more creative, otherwise it’s gonna get boring. I mean, I’ve only been one of the New Champions for two weeks and already it feels routine, and it’s unimaginative punks like you who make it that way.”

“You piece of shit, I’ll fucking kill you!” the mugger threatened, shifting the gun to his other hand with another yelp before raising it at me and pulling the trigger. Nothing happened, and he blinked in stunned shock.

“See, I could have guess you’d say that,” I lamented. “Honestly, it’s always the same. ‘I’ll kill you, Newton!’ or ‘you’ll pay for this, Newton!’ Why is it never ‘how are you doing, Newton?’” I shook my head sadly, and tore the gun from his hands with my mind. “And going from assault to attempted murder, too. Ah well, at least you established intent, which should make things easier on the jury.”

He tried to take a swing at me, but with a broken finger to distract him, it didn’t take someone with my skill as a fighter to parry the blow and counter with a palm strike to the head, dazing him for a few seconds. I used that opportunity to drag his arms together and zip-tie his thumbs together. “I’m gonna stop you here and put you under arrest, sound good?”

I read the mugger his rights, then left him sitting on the curb nearby while I checked on the victim, who had sat herself and hadn’t stopped trembling. “You alright there, miss?” I asked her. “He didn’t manage to actually do anything before I dropped in, did her?”

She shook her head. “No, he just… just pulled me into the alley and started… you showed up before he could do anything. Thank you, Mr. Newton.”

“Not a mister,” I automatically reminded her with a pang or irritation that I tried to hide – honestly, I had made it clear that I was nonbinary in my first ever interview, people had no excuse to get it wrong. “You’re still shivering, though. You sure you’re doing alright?”

“Sorry… it’s just, I was so scared,” she whispered.

I slipped off the plaid shirt I wore over my supersuit and crouched to drape it over the poor woman’s shoulders. “Yeah, this kind of thing can be pretty scary, even when you don’t get hurt physically. Meeting with a therapist might help, if you’re still feeling shaken in a day or three. The breast pocket of this,” I tapped the shirt I had given her, “has the cards of some good ones.”

“I… I’ll look into it. Thank you, Newton.”

“Just doing my job,” I told her as I rose, then turned away to keep an eye on the mugger himself. Well, a physical eye – my presence was omnidirectional, so I hadn’t lost sight of him while I was checking on the victim. Still, it was good to point my face at him so he wouldn’t forget and try something stupid.

“Console,” I said quietly, “how long until the police come to pick this guy up and take her statement?”

“Should be around 90 seconds,” Vulcan, tonight’s designated hero-on-standby, said, his deep voice rumbling as it came through my earpiece.

I nodded, and leaned against the wall to wait.

 

Scene 2 – June 14th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Hey there, kid,” my mentor greeted me as I reentered the compound. “How’d it go?”

“No trouble, boss,” I told him. “Didn’t see a soul in the Crows territory, broke up an argument in the Buff Boys’ area – not connected to the gang itself as far as I could tell – then stopped a mugging on the way back in.”

“And used up your flannel again, I see,” he observed.

I rolled my eyes, letting my head roll with them since my mask covered my face. “That’s what it’s for, Canaveral.”

“How many times have I asked you to call me Navi, Quinn?”

“Your actual name will have to do, Abe,” I said.

“Not when I’m in costume,” he protested.

“Then put on your mask.”

He pulled the cowl of his costume over his head, covering the upper half of his face but leaving his mouth and jawline exposed. Something about appearing more personable if you could see his face, as he had once explained to me. Personally, I thought he had wanted to leave some skin exposed so that no one would ever forget that he was black, the way people so often forgot that I was nonbinary. “Happy now, kid?”

I patted him on the shoulder as I removed my own mask, along with the hairnet that kept my hair – long enough to fall in loose waves to my shoulders, these days – under control while I wore it. “Couldn’t be better, bossman.”

“Now, I know that’s not true.”

I raised a brow. “What do you mean?”

“You’re always happier around Holly,” he teased. “You prefer her to me, don’t you? The man who taught you everything you know?”

“Teach me everything you know, and maybe I’ll reconsider,” I joked. “Until then, I’m gonna stick with my best friend.”

“Oh, like she’s just a friend to you,” he laughed.

“Look, we agreed not to talk about that until we were in a better place…” I paused. “Which… I think we might actually be, now. I clapped him on the shoulder again, a grin spreading across my face. “I think it finally time to talk about it. Thanks, boss!”

 

Scene 3 – June 14th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

I checked the common room that lay between the New Champions’ wing of the floor and the Journeymen’s half first – since Holly had only turned 21 the previous month, it was where we usually hung out together, since we were each stuck in different halves of the age-segregated floor. I didn’t see her, but I did see most of the Journeymen – Nic, Jack, and Simone.

“Hey guys,” I said, leaning over the back of the couch that Jack and Nic were sitting on and playing a game on the large TV.

“Hey Quinn,” Jack said, pausing the game and turning to face me better. “How was patrol?”

“Uneventful. Looking forward to retiring?” I asked Nic.

The teen nodded. “Oh yeah. It’s not that being a hero isn’t important, but…”

“I know, it’s not what you want to do. And now that you have a handle on your powers, no reason to stay.”

“Well, maybe one reason,” he said, his eyes flicking to Jack’s.

“Aw, babe,” Jack said, grinning, then leaned in to kiss his boyfriend.

“Get a room, you two,” Simone said, walking over from the kitchenette with a bowl of ice cream. “What brings you here, Quinn?”

“Looking for Holly, have you seen her?”

She shook her head as she took a seat and picked up a controller herself. “Not tonight. Have you tried her room?”

“That’s where I was heading next,” I said, and pushed off the couch to stand up straight again. “You three having a game night? Why wasn’t I invited?”

“Just the Journeymen, sorry,” she smirked.

“Then where’s Molly?”

“Out with the boyfriend,” Jack told me.

“I said he was welcome to come as well,” Simone said, “but apparently they had reservations to something.”

“Ah. Well, I’ll leave you to it, then,” I said as I began to leave for the dorms. “Enjoy!”

 

Scene 4 – June 14th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Hey Holly, you in there?” I asked, knocking on her door.

“Yeah, come on in!”

I swung the door open, and was struck, as always, by my best friend’s beauty. Curly brown hair which she had recently cut into a short undercut, chocolate-colored eyes, freckles pasted across her cheekbones, and a single dimple that was revealed as she smiled at me from the chair in front of her desk.

“Hey there, stranger,” she said, her voice warm as her eyes met mine. “What brings you ‘round these parts?”

“Well, little missy,” I responded, mimicking the ye-olde-west accent she had put on and pretending to hook my thumbs into a gun belt, “I was doing some reckoning, and I reckon you and I are due for a talk.”

Holly giggled at my impromptu cowboy impression, then raised an eyebrow. “A talk? What about?” she asked, dropping the accent.

I used my presence to pull her spare chair out from behind the desk and unfold it so that I could sit backwards on it, stacking my arms on its back and resting my chin on them. “You remember a few months ago, when we said that we both wanted something more than just friendship, but we weren’t ready for it yet?”

She nodded. “I remember. Between your dad dying and my parents being…” She paused for a moment, thinking of how to sum up how they have behaved on the night she had effectively disowned them. “…my parents, we decided we should wait until we were both in a better place.”

“Yeah. Well… no pressure, but…” I gave her a soft, hopeful smile. “I’m in a better place now.”

Holly’s eyes sparkled as she leaned forward, pressing her forehead to mine. “That’s good to hear. You’re sure?”

“Yes,” I promised, my eyes flicking down briefly to her lips, “I’m sure.”

A wide smile spread across her face. “Me too,” she whispered.

My grin widened. “I’m glad to hear it. So are we…”

“I think we should go on a date, soon,” she suggested, “before we say anything about what we are or aren’t. Just to make sure it goes as well as we hope it will.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I said, reaching up to cup her face. “May I…”

“Not before the first date,” she scolded me in a teasing tone, “you scoundrel.”

“On the cheek?”

“I suppose that’s acceptable.

I pressed a soft kiss to her cheek, just barely missing her lips. Before I could pull back, she turned her head to kiss me on my own cheek, and as we separated I could still feel a pleasant warmth where her lips had touched my skin, and my own seemed to tingle.

We grinned at each other, our foreheads still pressed together, and found that our hands had caught each other without our notice.

“That first date had better come soon,” Holly mused, “or I might not be able to wait for it to kiss you properly.”

“Soon,” I agreed. “This weekend?”

“No, there’s that gala, remember?”

“Oh god, don’t remind me,” I groaned. “You’re lucky you don’t have to go.”

“Staying behind to babysit the Journeymen while the rest of the Champions are out of town sounds more fun to you?”

I pulled a face. “Ugh, no way. You can keep your leader-y duties, thank you very much.”

Holly laughed. “I will, thank you very much! It’ll have to be the week after, then.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I promised.

Intermission | Act 1 | Next Chapter

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