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.”

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

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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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3. Act 1: Mighty to Defy

What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?
-William Ralph Emerson, 1847

Scenes 1-4, Scenes 5-7

Scenes 8-9, Scenes 10-12, Scenes 13-15, Scenes 16-17

Scenes 18-20, Scenes 21-23

Intermission (Scenes 1-4)

Dramatis Personae

Principal Characters

Quinn Kaufman, the young superhero Newton, who has telekinetic and extrasensory abilities. (they/them)
Holly Koval, the young superhero Loki and Quinn’s best friend, who creates illusions. (she/her and he/him)
Dominic Könberg, the supervillain Sir Amethyst, who commands all the elements of the earth. (he/him)

A Congress of Heroes

Abraham Armstrong, the superhero Canaveral and leader of the New Champions, who commands kinetic energy. (he/him)
Adam Abelard, the superhero Vulcan, who transforms into metal to create both ice and fire. (he/him)
Emilia Alvarez, the superheroine Zookeeper, who transforms into animals. (she/her)
Jack Forester, the young superhero Sequoia, who transforms into wood. (he/him)
Miriam Wright, the superheroine Anima, who commands the zoetic energy of life. (she/her)
Molly Madigan, the young superheroine Referee, who imposes fairness in an aura around her. (she/her)
Niccolo Mellas, the young superhero Hypnos and Jack’s boyfriend, who can project his senses at a distance. (he/him)
Simone Destrey, the young superheroine Journey, who teleports. (she/her) 

An Assembly of Villains

Albert Ford, the supervillain Ridealong, who can communicate with and access the senses of a designated target. (he/him)
Alessandra DeVitto, the supervillainess Hertz, who controls vibrations. (she/her)
Jennifer Könberg, the supervillainess Dame Adamant, who is invulnerable to harm. (she/her)
Maria DeVitto, the supervillainess La Borda and Alessandra’s wife, who can control spacetime. (she/her)
Morgan Könberg, one of Jennifer’s parters and an accomplished artificer. (she/her)
Nicholas Dreyfus, the supervillain Motael and a technological genius. (he/him)
Robin Goldberg, the supervillain(ess) Rube, who instinctively alters probability in their favor in an aura. (any pronouns)
Saige Sanders, the supervillainess Brewer, who can designate a single object to psychically observe and control. (she/her)
Percival Könberg, the supervillain Sir Ardent and Dominic’s younger brother, who has super strength. (he/him)
Sara Dreyfus, the supervillainess Overshadow and Nicholas’s daughter, who has power over shadows. (she/her)
Tristan Könberg, the supervillain Sir Alacrity and Arthur’s youngest son, who has super speed. (he/him)
Vivian Könberg, the supervillainess Dame Acumen and Arthur’s only daughter, who magically manipulates objects. (she/her)

Intermission | Book 3 | Next Chapter

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Arc 3: That Bright Crown

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

     -William Ralph Emerson, 1847

Act 1: Mighty to Defy

Scenes 1-4, Scenes 5-7
Scenes 8-9, Scenes 10-12, Scenes 13-15, Scenes 16-17
Scenes 18-20, Scenes 21-23
Intermission (Scenes 1-4)

Act 2: Sinking Sand

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4,
Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12
Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15
Intermission

Act 3: Glory to Decay

Chapter 1, Chapter 2
Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6
Chapter 7, Chapter 8
Intermission

Intermission | Act 1 | Next Chapter

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2.3. Intermission (Scenes 1-5)

Scene 1 – December 25th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Morning
Miriam Wright

 

“Merry Christmas,” Luke said as he entered the conference room, sliding his briefcase onto the table, sounding uncharacteristically tired.

“Happy Hanukkah,” I countered, even though it had been over for a week – my teasing response earned a small smile, but only a brief one. “…are you feeling alright, Luke?” I asked.

He sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and rubbing his temples. “I should be asking you that question. You’re the one who got mind controlled.”

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “It was rough at the time and for a few days afterward, yes, but… Peregrine healed me, and I’m feeling just fine now. Well,” I corrected myself, “a little anxious about the future, but I think that’s normal.”

Luke nodded, then straightened up. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

“What’s on your mind?”

He gave me a look. “Your case, obviously. It’s been the only thing anyone in the PR department has had time for since it happened. You haven’t made things easy for us, you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” He drummed his fingers on the table and frowned, irritated. “The public is fickle, and I knew that going into this career. I just wish…” He sighed again.

“So what’s the verdict? Have I been fired?” I asked.

Luke shook his head. “No, Shepard was able to protect you from that, at least, and Canaveral’s testimony helped as well. Between the two of them speaking for you and your years of service making you a New Venetian institution, you can remain on the payroll – assuming you want to.”

“Of course I want to,” I said immediately.

He grimaced briefly. “Wait until you hear about the conditions Shepard had to agree to first,” he warned me. “Number one is that you’ll be benched indefinitely.”

“Which, of course, means ‘for as long as Chief Director Redding says so.’”

“Which means ‘forever’, unless Secretary Thornhill decides to overrule him,” he sourly agreed. “No patrols, not even going out as backup, and no PR appearances on talk shows and the like. Strictly console work and healing. Supposedly it’ll only last until your PR issues clear up, but…”

“…but Redding is a petty tyrant who still resents me for not moving to DC and joining his department,” I finished.

“Exactly.”

“What are the other conditions?”

“Number two is that you submit to monthly psych evaluations,” Luke answered. “Because apparently Peregrine’s word isn’t enough for Redding. It was magic and you’re cleared, that should be good enough.”

“Well… Max seems to have lasting issues as a result of the magic,” I pointed out, feeling a pang of sadness at the reminder of what had happened to the younger man. “So it’s not entirely unreasonable.”

“The Magnificent Maxwell’s pre-existing psychological issues were exacerbated,” he countered, “and it’s likely in part because he refused treatment from Peregrine. You, on the other hand, have always been perfectly stable. There’s no reason to worry about your mental health now that you have the clear from both Peregrine and Wagner.”

“I can’t really blame Redding for being mad, petty tyrant or no,” I admitted. “I basically took over an entire city with that sword, and made it look easy. That’s the kind of thing that makes PR pretty difficult.”

“Worrying about PR is my job, not yours and definitely not Redding’s,” Luke snapped. “What he should be doing is letting me handle this, not tying your hands and mine! If he gave me free rein, you’d be on the Ryder Report first show of the New Year, a few more appearances throughout the month, and everything would be back to normal by February – instead, you’re bound to stay out of the public eye and not allowed to comment on anything, which gives off the impression that the MLED no longer trusts you! And if we don’t trust you, the public never will!”

“Maybe they shouldn’t,” I quietly said.

“Don’t talk like that,” he scolded me.

I sighed, and crossed my arms on the table, leaning forward to rest my chin on them. “It sounds like I’m basically being turned into a healing consultant and nothing else.”

“…yeah, basically,” Luke  confirmed. “You’ll still have the title, still be on the rolls of the New Champions, but there are some other restrictions as well, that… well, that’s the long and short of it, yes. I’m sorry, Miriam.”

“It’s okay,” I promised him. “I think it might be for the best.”

Scene 2 – January 15th
Interior Hospital, Early Evening
Miriam Wright

“Thank you for being here, Anima,” Doctor Yaffe said, shaking my hand. “I know you’re a busy woman.”

“It’s no trouble,” I lied – I had had to pass on going to the High Stakes Bar with my friends to be here tonight. But it was important work that I was glad to be able to do.

“Even if it’s no trouble, I know you’re usually on patrol and doing emergency response,” he said, beginning to lead me through the halls of New Vegas General Hospital. “I’m sure that all the patients here will appreciate your help tonight.”

“I’m probably going to be doing circuits of the hospitals a lot more often from now on, so the novelty might wear off before long,” I joked.

“Oh? Why is that?”

“I’ve been pulled from patrols,” I said, trying not to sound sour about it.

“Oh, because of the…”

“Yes. Instead I’ll be making rounds in hospitals, for as long as you’ll have me.” It was a loophole that Luke had found – the man was an angel, honestly. I had been spinning my heels until he got them set up.

Yaffe sighed. “Well… I’m sorry you’ve been benched,” he said, sounding genuinely sympathetic. “But hey, at least you’ll be able to heal some of the more difficult cases – I’ve heard your healing is a lot better than the spells our magical specialists learn.”

I waggled a hand. “Sort of? It’s a different style entirely, so it has different strengths. The standard spells that Peregrine invented are designed to be easily adaptable to anyone’s casting style, which is great for getting lots of people who can do magical healing. The problem is that in making them so easy to learn-”

“Relatively easy,” Yaffe corrected. “I’ve never been able to get any magic to work at all, myself.”

“-relatively easy, sure. But doing so makes them less effective than more individual spells.”

“That’s interesting – I never really thought about that.”

“The other big difference,” I continued, “is that standard magical healing uses the energy of the patient. Again, it lets one magical healer work on more patients than if they fueled it with their own energy, but it also slows down the healing, since sick and injured people don’t have a ton of energy to spare. My magic, on the other hand, actually results in the patient gaining energy.”

“So will there be a limit on how many patients you can help?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I agreed. I had topped off my reservoir before coming here – and I tried not to think about what I had done to do so – but while I could hold a lot of energy, it wasn’t infinite. “I should be able to heal at least 15 patients tonight, plus or minus a handful depending on how much they need.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Not unless you want to donate your own energy,” I joked. Yaffe tilted his head, clearly thinking about it, and I hastily added, “There’s no need. It’ll probably take me the full four hours of my visit to heal those 15 anyway.”

“Still… I wonder…” He hummed thoughtfully. “Your style healing gives energy to the patient, the standard style takes it. Perhaps if you worked beside one of our healers, you could mix the techniques? Use your energy to fuel our healing? Something along the lines of healing half of a patient’s ills, and then our healer uses the donated energy to do the rest – or whatever the optimal ratio turns out to be.”

I bit my lip thoughtfully. “That… could work. I don’t think tonight is the time to test it, though.”

“Our healers are all busy right now anyway,” he admitted. “But maybe next time.”

“Yes.”

“Anyway…” Doctor Yaffe stopped outside a door. “Here’s your first patient for tonight. Drew Palmer, he has severe arthritis in his hands and wrists.”

I nodded. “Thank you for guiding me, Doctor Yaffe.”

“Please, just call me Mark.”

Scene 3 – January 15th
Interior Hospital, Continuous
Miriam Wright

“Mr. Palmer, good evening,” I said to the man – a middle-aged man with gray hair and a scowl on his face.

“What do you want?” he demanded.

“My name is Anima, Mr. Palmer. I’m a licensed healer, and I’m here to help your arthritis,” I told him.

He glared. “…well?”

“I can’t heal you without permission,” I said as I approached. “May I?”

“Yes, yes, get on with it, girl.”

I hid my annoyance as he thrust his hands at me, right into my face. I took them in my own and pulled them away a little before I started.

A slow breath out as a trickle of life exited me and entered Drew, and I was able to see the patterns of life that made up his body. The pulsing core of his heart, the strong beams that were his bones, the intricate patterns of nerves and blood vessels… it was, as always, beautiful, even if its holder was unpleasant. He would be in a better mood once I fixed his arthritis, I was sure.

And… yes, there was the problem. The joints in his fingers and wrists were swollen, his life bent out of shape. I coaxed them into their proper shape, then fed a stronger stream of life into him, using it as fuel to heal his actual body.

A few minutes later, I was done. “How does that feel, Mr. Palmer?” I asked him.

Drew pulled his hands out of mine and flexed them experimentally. “Hm. Acceptable.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Just acceptable?” I was certain I had done a good job…

“Take it or leave it, girl,” he snapped. “Now get out of my room.”

I bit back my first response. “Of course, Mr. Palmer.”

Scene 4 – January 15th
Interior Hospital, Evening
Miriam Wright

“…and then he said ‘take it or leave it’!” I complained into the phone. “Can you believe that?”

“What an ass!” Essa agreed. “A man like that doesn’t deserve healing.”

I sighed. “It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be healed, it’s just… I don’t know…”

“You were expecting some gratitude?”

I nodded, then said, “I suppose so, yes. The thanks isn’t why I’m here, I’m here to still be able to help contribute to people’s lives, to heal, but… but it would be nice to feel appreciated.”

“You deserve appreciation,” Essa said soothingly, “and you haven’t gotten much lately – the public is fickle.”

“Yes…”

“You should come work for me! I’d appreciate you.”

I laughed. “Good joke. I know you would, Essa, but I’m not going to become a supervillain.”

“You don’t have to be a villain,” she wheedled. “I can just keep you on retainer as a healer for the Crows…”

“Thank you, but no. I’m happy where I am, even with assholes like that guy.”

“Ah well. I suppose I can keep focusing on my current target, then.”

“Who would that be?” I asked.

“Well, you’ve heard the rumors that the Buff Boys have a new meta, right?”

I bit my lip, thinking. “Abe has had a hunch for a while, but I didn’t really believe it myself.”

“Abe is right – they’ve got someone with powers that help them do precise chemistry,” Essa informed me. “It’s how the quality of their brawn has gone up so much. I don’t know the full details yet, but I want this new meta for myself.”

“So you can undercut their prices with a superior product, or to get a probably-young meta out of a probably-bad situation?”

“The first, obviously.”

I chuckled. “Never change, Essa.”

She giggled. “I promise. But honestly, Miri… you deserve better than how that guy treated you. Have the other patients been that bad as well?”

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. “Most of them have been perfectly pleasant. I suppose it’s just… he was the first person I was healing in one of these tours, you know? He… stuck with me, I guess.”

“Firsts do stick with you, it’s true. But so do lasts, right?” Essa pointed out. “Focus on whoever your last patient of the night is.”

“I’m heading into their room right after this call.”

“And I’m sure that they’ll be lovely, especially in comparison to him.”

“Thanks for letting me vent to you, Essa. I just… that man had my blood boiling.

“Anytime, Miri,” she promised.

“I’ll…” I sighed. “I was about to say that I’ll see you soon, but I’m probably not going to be able to make the usual meetups for a while.”

“It’s not like I was able to make tonight’s either – it’s crazy how much paperwork is involved in running a gang. And I have to leave town for a month or three soon for some corporate junk…”

“Maybe you should retire?” I suggested.

Essa giggled. “Now who’s joking? Paperwork or not, this is still by far the most entertaining thing I could be doing with my life.”

“I really do have to go, though.”

“Of course. Go save the world, Miri.”

“Bye.”

I closed the phone and slid it back into the inside pocket of my jacket, then nodded to Mark where was leaning against the wall, scanning through something on a tablet. “Ready.”

Scene 5 – January 15th
Interior Hospital, Continuous
Miriam Wright

He glanced up, then turned the tablet off and led me down the hallway. “The last patient is a Marissa Jackson. Paraplegic after a car accident, and it’s a bad injury – if she’s not helped soon, her legs will begin to necrotize and amputation will be necessary. Even if you can’t heal her spine entirely, preventing tissue death would be a great help.”

“I should be able to,” I assured him. “It’s just a matter of-” I paused as I saw her, and realized that she was young. She couldn’t be more than six…

“I really hope you can,” Mark said quietly. “The rest of us are at a loss. Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson,” he said at a more normal volume, and the two young men next to the sleeping girl – one sitting, one standing, both utterly focused on her a moment ago – looked up at us. One of them was tall, thin, and pale – the other was built more heavily, with darker skin and one arm in a cast. “Anima here is a licensed healer, she’s offered to try and help your daughter. Anima,” he said to me, “this is Paul and Malcolm Jackson.”

“Can you really help her?” Malcolm asked.

I nodded. “I believe I can, Mr. Jackson. I’ve healed worse injuries.” Not often, but I had been a hero for close to two decades. Things happened. “If you’ll give me permission?”

Paul nodded. “Please… help Mars. She…” He looked close to tears. “…she was always such an active girl. I don’t know how we would bee able to tell her that she couldn’t… that…” He began to sob gently, and his husband enfolded him in his arms.

I turned away from them, giving them privacy, and instead reached out to take one of the sleeping girl’s hands, sending a trickle of life into her.

Immediately, I could see the results of the car crash. Setting aside the medically-induced coma that she was in the late stages of, she still had a sprained arm, currently placed in a cast, a minor concussion, and… the spine.

It was entirely broken, all nerves severed and all blood vessels ruptured. The bones were intact – whatever had cut her spine had hit at the worst possible place, slicing right between two vertebrae to cut the spinal column itself. It was hard to look at, even in the beauty of life – especially since, as a result, her legs and pelvis were already fading, not receiving the life-giving oxygen that was sent by her heart. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been given the apparent location.

I started to fix the problem – as I said, I had healed worse – but immediately ran into an issue. Her body was rejecting my attempts to magically heal it, resisting my reweaving of its pattern. I frowned a little and tried again, to greater result.

“Dr. Yaffe,” I said, keeping my voice low, “what’s on the girl’s chart? Why have the hospital’s doctors been having trouble?” I had a suspicion, but I didn’t want to say it without confirmation.

“A broken arm, a severe concussion, and the spinal injury,” he told me. “The magical healers tried to help her, but her body resisted the magic somehow. We’ve been keeping her in a medically-induced coma until we can help her.”

I nodded. “I thought so,” I said, then looked at Marissa’s parents. “Misters Jackson, has your daughter always been a metahuman?”

Malcolm blinked. “I… say again?”

“How long has she had metahuman powers?”

“I… wasn’t aware she had any,” Paul said, exchanging a quick glance with his husband. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. “As sure as I can be. She’s resisting magical healing, and her chart says that she should have a broken arm – right now, however, it’s just sprained. She’s also not as deeply unconscious as she should be given that she ought to be in a coma.”

“Does… that mean you can’t help her? If she’s resisting magic…”

“It means that she’s in the process of helping herself,” I told them. “Along with the magic resistance, it seems that she has regenerative abilities – slow ones, but she’s definitely healing on her own.” I experimentally dumped a large quantity of lifeforce into her body, not trying to shape it but simply giving her more energy, and… yes, just as I thought, I could actually watch it happening now as, with more energy, her healing sped up. “It looks like she’s absorbing the magical energy, and using that energy to fuel her regeneration. Not as fast as it the healers were able to help her directly, but it’s definitely working, and she’ll be able to do it herself, especially as she grows and builds up her energy reserves.”

“Will she be all right?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes, she’ll be just fine,” I promised them. “Based on her current rate of healing…” I took another quick look. “Her spine is already fixed enough that she’s no longer in danger of losing her legs entirely. I would estimate that she’ll regain consciousness in about an hour – without a concussion or an injured arm – will regain feeling in her legs by morning, and will be walking by the afternoon. Just make sure that a healer checks on her energy levels every few hours,” I said to Mark, “and that she’s getting plenty of fluids-”

I was interrupted by Paul and Malcolm both enfolding me in a hug. “Thank you,” Paul breathed.

“Thank you,” Malcolm agreed.

I hugged them back, but said, “I didn’t do much, Misters Jackson, it’s all your daughter’s own ability-”

“You’ve given us hope again,” Malcolm told me. “That’s worth something.”

“Thank you,” Paul said again.

I smiled as they released me. It was nice to be appreciated. I wasn’t sure I deserved it, but… it certainly made up for Drew Palmer.

Previous Chapter | Book 3 | Next Chapter

The second book of Paternum, The Unforgiving Minute, will be available for purchase as an ebook or paperback on September 30th. Links to purchase from Amazon, or for a discount directly from me, can be found here. By purchasing the book, you’ll not only support me and allow yourself to read offline, you’ll also be able to read the exclusive arc In Letters Bold.

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2.3. Scenes 25-27

Scene 25 – May 30th
Interior High Stakes Bar, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

“Oh good,” Holly said with a lopsided smile as we entered. “It’s the same bar you took me to for my birthday! I really liked the drinks you recommended.”

I nodded, trying not to stare too hard – I found her smile captivating, but I shouldn’t stare. We had talked about this and we still weren’t ready to begin a relationship. Soon, though, I promised myself. Soon. “It’s Abe’s favorite,” I said. “I don’t know if he ever goes anywhere else.”

“There are reasons I don’t go other places,” Abe said, winking at the bartender as we walked to the usual table. “This is one of the only places in the city that we can hang out with Essa and Maria safely.”

“And the beer being good doesn’t hurt,” Emilia noted, wrapping her arm around her boyfriends’ waist.

“It sure doesn’t,” Abe agreed as we walked to the usual table.

“Wait, what do you mean that it’s the only place you can hang with them safely?” Holly asked.

“Wait. Essa… I’ve heard that name before,” I said, my brow furrowing.

“We wanted to introduce you to them back in January,” Emilia said to me, “but they couldn’t make it, and then they had a thing that took them out of the city for a few months. This was the first outing since they got back, so it seemed like a good time – and since Holly is 21 now as well…” she shrugged. “That’s probably where you heard us mention her.”

“No, that’s not it,” Holly dismissed. “Because I’ve heard it too. Essa…” Her eyes widened after a moment. “Essa is Hertz. Miriam mentioned her during the Excalibur incident!”

“Fuck,” I swore. “I had completely forgotten about that… and that must make Maria La Borda!

Abe raised an eyebrow. “Smart kids, aren’t you? Yes, that’s who we’re introducing you to, but keep it down, okay? This bar is a neutral zone for heroes and villain, but civilians come here too, sometimes.”

“Why the hell are you introducing us to supervillains?” I gaped.

“It’s a long story,” Emilia said, “but the short version of it is that they’re old friends of Miriam’s, from before any of the three got powers. Nowadays, we have… a working relationship isn’t quite the right word…”

“An agreement, let’s just say,” Abe interjected. “Part of it on our end is that we don’t go after them in their civilian lives, even though we know their identities. Part of it on theirs is the same. And they’ve never broken that agreement, so I think it’s safe for you to meet them, although I’m not going to force you to if you don’t want to.”

“It’s a working relationship that makes things safer for all of us,” Emilia summed up. “On top of them actually being quite nice people who’ve been good friends to us since we met them.”

Abe glanced at his phone. “They’re supposed to get here in a few minutes, but I can ask them not to come if you don’t want to meet them.”

I glanced at Holly. “What do you think?”

She hummed thoughtfully, furrowing her brow. “I think… I’d be okay with meeting them and getting to know them, but… I don’t think I’m okay with giving them my identity.”

“You can always put your illusion on again,” Abe offered, but she shook her head.

“No, I’m done with that. I have to be.”

I wondered if discarding her illusory form was one of the things that she spoke with Dr. Wagner about, but I supposed it wasn’t my business. Instead, I suggested, “What about that statuette thing that Molly’s boyfriend brought to the beach trip?”

“What about it?”

“That was some kind of mind magic that kept anyone from paying attention to us, right? Could you do that so they won’t be able to notice our identities?” Her face went pale, and although I had no idea why, I backpedaled. “Or you could just give us illusory masks, that would work too.”

She swallowed, then shook her head. “Yeah, no. I’m… not going to be messing around with mind magic. But the illusory masks should work.” Holly gestured, and the bottom of her face was covered by the same type mask that Loki wore, her hair and features shifting into his as well. A gentle coolness over my own face told me that I had received a similar covering.

“I’ll let them know they can come in, then.”

Scene 26 – May 30th
Interior High Stakes Bar, Continuous\
Quinn Kaufman

Hertz turned out to be an petite, curvaceous woman with a spiky black pixie cut, wearing a dark-colored skirt and a sunflower-pattern blouse. La Borda, standing just behind her, was taller and thinner, her equally-dark hair rolling down to her shoulders in waves. She wore a full suit, but also bore what must have been the jacket to Hertz’s outfit folded over one arm. She also looked at least ten years younger than her wife, oddly.

“Alessandra DeVitto,” Hertz introduced herself, offering a hand to me with a pleasant smile. “But please, call me Essa! Everyone else does.”

“Nice to meet you, Essa,” I said, shaking her hand.

“The tall drink of water next to me is my wife, Maria,” she said as La Borda shook Holly’s hand. “I understand you two just graduated?”

“Uh, yes,” I said as they pulled up a pair of chairs to sit at the end of the table – Maria slid a chair beneath Essa as she sat without either saying a word, in what looked like a very practiced motion. “Is that DeVitto like the DeVitto gallery?”

Essa clapped her hands together under her chin, clearly pleased, as Maria left. “Yes! I funded the place – I’m glad you know it! I’m quite a fan of the arts, you know, although I’m not really talented myself. Are you an artist?”

I scratched the back of my head, a little uncomfortable. She certainly seemed nice… “I, uh… I try? I haven’t really had the time,” or the mental energy, I privately thought, “to do much for a while now, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back to it now that I’ve graduated. I won’t be juggling school and work anymore.”

“I quite understand. What about you?” She asked Loki.

“I’m an artist, yes.”

“Wonderful! I wonder if I saw your work at the event this winter?” she mused. She probably had – Holly had submitted a piece to the MLED’s winter art show, although I hadn’t.

“Maybe.”

“I, uh… I’m a little unfamiliar with the etiquette here,” I said. “I’ve never met a supervillain out of costume before.”

Essa shrugged. “There’s not really a specific etiquette. I’m not the most formal person out there – our clothes aside – and the Mountain King’s rules are more about how to treat civilians than other metas.” Maria returned with two glasses of beer, handing one to her wife, and she took a sip. “If you have any questions, feel free to ask, but this is mostly just… we’re friends of Miriam, and I like to think that we’re friends of Abe and Emilia as well. This is just mutual friends introducing us to each other, yes?”

“…I suppose so.”

“I have a question,” Loki said.

“Ask away!”

“Why are you okay with us knowing your identities?”

Essa raised an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“…because we’re on opposite sides?”

“Are we?” She took another sip of beer. “The fact is, what you as heroes want is not an end to crime – at least not for its own sake. What you want is for as few people to be hurt as possible, right?”

“…that’s not entirely wrong,” he allowed.

“Maria and I don’t go out and hurt people senselessly,” Essa explained. “We even do our best not to harm people accidentally. And we impose those rules on those who follow us as well. Oh, sure,” she said, waving a hand dismissively, “there are occasional skirmishes with the Buff Boys, but they cause much more damage than we do. And occasionally there are… irate customers, let’s say… who need to be discouraged, but you would do the same thing if you saw a woman being menaced, sex worker or not, yes?”

“…yes,” I admitted.

“So, we both do the same thing,” she chirped happily. “We maintain peace over what we can, and prevent people from being hurt! The only difference is that you’re backed by the government, and I make much more money.”

“See, it sounds like you’re saying that you fund pimps and run protection rackets,” I said, sipping my beer.

“Don’t forget the gambling dens,” she reminded me. “But we don’t fund pimps – that’s not as safe for the workers. We maintain brothels, it’s a lot more secure and easier to make sure everyone involved is safe – both physically and sexually.”

“And you just out and say it, huh.”

“I’m not ashamed of it – I’ve made things better for sex workers in this city.” Her eyes danced wickedly as she offered, “I can give you a coupon if you want to see for yourself.”

I nearly choked on my beer as Loki cut in. “No, thank you,” he said with a glare, and Essa laughed. “But I don’t think that answered my question.”

“Oh yes, why am I okay with you knowing my identity.” Essa took a long draft of her beer, finishing it, then turned to Maria. “Would you mind getting me a second glass, dear?”

“Of course,” Maria murmured, taking it as she rose. She leaned over for a moment and kissed her wife on the top of her head, and Essa hummed happily.

“It’s a mutually assured destruction thing, basically,” the supervillain told us. “I find that having a good working relationship with superheroes is much easier when I can destroy you if necessary thanks to knowing your secret identity. And heroes find that possibility much more palatable when they know mine, and can tell themselves that they could do the same.”

“…just tell ourselves that, huh?” I observed. “You don’t think we actually could?”

She shrugged. “More that I don’t think you would. I’m a much better option as a crime lord than anyone else short of the Mountain King, else I would have been toppled years ago. Combine that with your heroic obsession with doing the right thing, and I find it hard to believe that you would use my identity against me.”

“…she’s got us pegged, Loki,” I observed.

“Essentially,” Essa continued, “I’m quite all right with you knowing who I am. It’s not as though I don’t know who you are.”

I blinked.

“What,” Loki said flatly.

“The MLED isn’t as leak-free as it likes to pretend,” she said as Maria returned with another glass for her. “That said, Quinn, Holly, would you terribly mind if we set business talk aside and pretended to be civilians for a little bit? I have a new friend I’m trying to poach from her current employer, and unlike Maria, she’s not aware of your identities – she thinks I’m just introducing her to some of my friends.”

I swallowed my anger and, as usual, looked to my best friend for guidance. She bit her lip, thinking, but after a moment she said, “Fine.”

“Thank you.” Essa blinked in surprise as our masks disappeared. “Hm. I thought you were blonde.”

“No,” Holly coldly said.

“Well, in any case. Abe, Emilia, you’re alright with it, yes?”

“Any friend of yours is a friend of ours,” Emilia assured Emma, emerging from the quiet conversation she and Abe had been having while we spoke with Essa.

“Then Maria, dear, would you mind fetching her?”

Scene 27 – May 30th
Interior High Stakes Bar, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

Maria returned a few moments later with a slight young woman, maybe a year or three older than me, who wore mostly pink – hair dyed in a pink undercut, pink dress, pink heels, pink fishnets. Even the cocktail she was holding was pink.

“Saige! So glad you could make it,” Essa said to her, just as cheerful as she had been all night. “Sorry about the slight delay, just a few private things I had to sort out with Quinn and Holly here. Everything’s fine now, don’t worry.”

“Glad to hear it,” Saige said. “Uh, is there a seat for me?”

“You can take mine,” Essa offered as Maria sat, rising, then plopped herself in her wife’s lap instead of in her own chair. Maria wrapped one arm around Essa’s waist to secure her as the smaller woman pressed a kiss to her cheek.

“Thanks.” Saige said as she sat in the newly-vacated seat. “I hope the argument wasn’t about me, I don’t want to cause any trouble between friends.”

“Not at all!” Essa assured her. “It wasn’t even an argument, really.”

Saige seemed unsure, but nodded. “So, uh, I’m Saige Sanders. I know Essa and Maria, obviously, but who are the rest of you?”

“Abe.”

“Emilia Alvarez.”

“Holly.”

“Quinn Kaufman, nice to meet you.”

“A pleasure,” Saige said. “What were you guys talking about before the, uh, not-argument?”

“Well, Quinn and Holly here recently graduated from college,” Abe said, nodding towards us. “What were your degrees again?”

“Biology, concentrating in metahuman biology,” I said. “With a minor in art.”

“Dual major in magical studies and art.

“Nice, fellow artists!” Saige said, raising a hand – I obliged her with a high-five. “I doubled in art and chemistry myself. Congrats on graduating!” She took a sip of her drink. “I hope you didn’t end up with as much debt as me.”

I shook my head. “My dad worked for NVU, so I got free tuition.”

“Nice.”

“I waited to disown my parents until after my last semester was paid for,” Holly said with a faint smile. I was glad to see that she was using it as fodder for jokes – it bode well for how she was feeling about the whole thing.

“Very nice,” Saige chuckled. “That’s the way to do it, for sure. I just went to a college I couldn’t afford and went into debt for my entire life.”

“Well, chemistry’s got to have some high-paying jobs, right?” I said encouragingly.

She sighed. “Not as many as you might think. I suppose my current gig is pretty good, but you would not believe how high my debts have gotten.” She sipped her cocktail again, then shook her head. “But hey, let’s get off the topic of my dumbass life choices, huh? How ‘bout them Champions?”

Abe chuckled, and I couldn’t help but join him – After all, more than half of the New Champions were sitting right at the table with her.

“What about them?” Essa asked. “They haven’t done much recently, have they?” she added with a teasing wink at Abe.

Saige shrugged. “I guess not super recently, but, uh, there was that big thing a few months back, right? With those weird knight guys who invaded the MLED Compound?”

“The Round Table,” I said.

“Yeah, them.”

“But that was ages ago,” Abe pointed out. “It’s been nearly five months since they were seen.”

“But they can’t remain underground forever, can they?” I pointed out. “Villains do villainy. It’s a thing.” I tried not to stare at Essa or Maria as I spoke.

Saige snorted, then covered her mouth shyly. “Okay, yes,” she said, “villains do villainy, but, like, not all villains do it openly, right? Some villains are just, like, facilitators. They sell shit to other villains, or work for other villains. Maybe that’s what they’re doing.”

“Then why attack personally?” Holly asked.

“Maybe they were trying to steal something,” she suggested. “Or lots of somethings – whatever they could get. It could take months and months for them to sell it off, depending on how much they stole.”

“…that’s a thought,” Abe said pensively. “Something to look into, at least. Maybe if Essa can’t poach you, we’ll have to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I work for the MLED,” he said. “In, uh, the analyst division.”

Saige eyed him. “Just an analyst? You’re ripped as hell, dude.”

“He’s taken,” Emilia said, pressing a kiss to Abe’s cheek. “And we’re not open to anyone else right now, sorry.”

“Just an observation, relax. I’m only into girls anyway.”

“If they’re selling to other villains, I don’t know if there’s anything the Champions could do about that,” Holly began.

“Unless any of those villains decided to offer information to the MLED.”

“Oh, like that’s ever gonna happen.”

“I bet it happens sometimes,” I said, remembering that the tip-off about the drug deal that I had helped Abe stopped the night we met had come from the Magnificent Maxwell. “Maybe not often, but sometimes.”

“It does,” Abe agreed.

“Point is, the Champions probably shouldn’t be obsessing over them,” Holly said. “They should look to the future, and just try to be ready for whatever happens.”

Saige shrugged. “It was just a thought, anyway. It could be something completely different.”

“My personal theory,” Essa mused, absently swirling the remainder of her beer, “is that they’re planning some kind of big event as a follow up. Rumors say that they wound up with some kind of large power source, which they’ll use to fuel their next plan.”

“…is that what rumors say?” Abe asked, eying her.

She shrugged. “Just rumors,” she confirmed, and he nodded.

“Whatever,” I said, wanting to get off the topic – if we stayed on it too long, I was certain that I would give something away. “They ought to focus on the future.”

“You should do that too, you know,” Emilia said to us. “I know college is great, but it’s also over now – don’t get too wrapped up in it, you know? Remember your friends, but also move on with your life. Focus on what you have now, and what you’re working towards.”

“That…” My eyes fell on Holly. “…sounds like pretty good advice, honestly.” Focus on what we have and what we’re working towards, without getting wrapped up in the past? I thought I might be able to handle that.

Holly met my eyes, smiling. “Yeah, I think it is.”

Abe raised his glass. “To the future!” he declared.

“To the future,” we echoed, clinking our glasses against his.

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