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

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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.

Previous Chapter | Intermission

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2.3. Scenes 22-24

Scene 22 – May 23rd
Interior Conference Room, Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

“Good afternoon!” Lucas Apollon bellowed as he entered the conference room, Director Shepard following behind, carrying her usual laptop.

“Afternoon,” I greeted him with a smile. “Director.””

“Kaufman,” she said with a nod as she sat and opened the laptop. I detected a note of well-hidden warmth, I thought – I had increasingly realized over the last six months that the director cared for us more than she allowed herself to show, trying to maintain a professional demeanor. But the way that she was always steadfast in the defense of all of us heroes, never hesitating to help us when we needed it – even if we thought we didn’t – showed the truth.

“So, almost done, huh?” Apollon asked me, opening his briefcase and withdrawing a set of files. “Were these six months a drag, or did they fly by?”

“A bit of both, to be honest,” I said. “There were a few days that seemed to last for weeks – the whole Excalibur incident and everything wrapped up in it, for example – and months that passed like moments.”

“That’s the way this business is, sometimes,” he agreed. “I hope you enjoyed it, though?”

“For the most part. I don’t intend to quit, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

Apollon sighed dramatically in relief. “Thank goodness. With Starling trasnferred out, the PR issues we’re still having with Anima, and Hypnos planning to quit at the end of the summer, I admit to being a little worried that New Venice would hit a new record for numbers of heroes lost in a single year.”

I blinked in surprise. “Nic’s quitting?”

“After a few months of PR prepping the public for it so he doesn’t face a backlash, yes,” the consultant told me. “He joined to get a handle on his powers, and now that he’s got a good hold on them…” he shrugged.

“I guess that makes sense,” I admitted after a moment’s thought. It was surprising, but I knew that hero work wasn’t what Nic actually wanted to do, and he had been making great strides with his powers since mastering combat precognition. “But yeah, I don’t intend to quit any time soon.”

“Good. That said, we do have some things to discuss in terms of you graduating from the Journeymen,” Apollon said. “Graduation is the best time to change your image, whether that be your name, your costume, or your heroic persona. You remember how those work, right?”

“Sure. Inspiring, Approachable, Practical, or Academic. And then you’re either a Leader, a Support, a Tank, or a Striker. …er, not a Striker,” I corrected myself, “a Swing.”

“Right. So, let’s go through that in reverse order, shall we?” he proposed, and I shrugged indifferently. “We’ve currently got you pegged as an Approachable-leaning-Academic Swing, and you’ve been doing very well with that,” he praised. “I hope we can leave you as is, there?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I don’t think I want to change that.”

“Right. Next, costume. You’ve been using those pride flag-patterned plaid shirts as accessories, yes?”

“Yeah, which… I think I want to change a little bit, actually,” I confessed. “There was a little bit of confusion a few months ago where someone assumed I was bi based on my plaid. I think I should maybe restrict myself to just the flags that I actually identify with – the nonbinary flag, trans flag, and…” I paused. “Hm, there’s not really a flag for the generic queer label, is there?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Apollon hummed thoughtfully. “Online feedback shows that most people assumed you were wearing the various colors in support, as intended, but I can see why you would want to avoid the confusion. I think we can restrict your plaids to the nonbinary colors and trans colors, sure.”

I bit my lip thoughtfully. “I mean, bisexual does describe me pretty well, it’s just…” I sighed.

“The label doesn’t feel quite right?”

“Yeah, exactly. I do like the bi flag, it’s just not for me.”

“It goes well with your costume, too,” he mused. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I just feel a little bad that I can’t be representation for the bisexual community.”

“You’re not required to serve as representation,” Shepard absently commented. “There’s absolutely no reason for you to feel guilty. It’s not as though we don’t have several openly bisexual heroes in New Venice already.”

“I get that, it’s just…” I sighed. “Just me feeling like I should be doing more than I am, I guess. Dr. Wagner keeps telling me I need to keep an eye out for that.”

“Let’s move on to your name, then,” Apollon offered. “I think that might be better than continuing to focus on this and stressing you out unnecessarily.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you given any more thought to something other than Newton?”

“Nope!” I said cheerfully, popping the end of the word.

He sighed. “Mx. Kaufman…”

“Newton has been working fine, hasn’t it?”

“It has, I just think that something else might suit you better.”

“Have you come up with anything new since last time?” I challenged, and he didn’t respond. “I didn’t think so.”

“Fine, fine,” he said, backing down. “No changes, then. Same name, we’ll be slightly more restrictive with your plaid shirts, and your role will remain the same as well.” He checked off a few notes on my file, then sat back. “The last thing is where you’ll be going after you graduate.”

“…can I stay here?” I requested, desperately hoping. “Please?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Give me a reason.”

“Well… it’s a role thing, right? You want at least person filling each of the 8 archetypes,” I remembered. “Plus an extra swing, just in case. And with Starling gone, there’s only one swing on the New Champions, Zookeeper. I would be taking that second swing role.” And with him gone, there would be no Academic heroes at all, but Holly would be taking his place. I didn’t want to leave her.

He nodded. “True, we do need another swing. Don’t worry, Mx. Kaufman, there was never any plan to shift you to another city – we would have had this meeting a month ago if that was the idea.” He smirked. “I just wanted to know if you could guess why you were staying.”

I let out a relieved breath. “Thank god.”

Scene 23 – May 30th
Interior MLED Compound, Morning
Holly Koval

I shifted a little to bump my shoulder into Quinn’s where we sat, waiting for Canaveral and Shepard to start the ceremony. “You doing okay, Quinn?”

They sighed and slumped a little, letting their head rest on my shoulder. “I should be, but I’m nervous for some reason. I know that this is a private ceremony, it’s just going to be the Journeymen, the Champions, and the director, and I know them all – there’s nothing to be worried about. It’s just… well, it’s just the same stupid anxiety that cropped up when we graduated from college last week.”

“You’re afraid that you’ll do something wrong,” I summed up, “even thought you know what to do and it’s very simple.”

They nodded against my arm. “Yeah, basically. Dumb, right?”

I rested my arm across their shoulders and let my hand rest on their head, gently playing with their hair to try and soothe them. “It’s not dumb – you can’t control how your anxiety makes you feel just how you react. If that’s how you feel, then I’m glad you told me,” I said, and they let out a happy hum. “Will your anxiety let you trust me to know what to do, if not yourself?”

“Yeah, of course,” they said immediately. “I trust you completely, Holly.”

I smiled, and turned to press a gentle kiss into their hair. “Then just follow my lead, and everything will be fine.” They twisted their head to meet my eyes, a smile spreading across their face, and I couldn’t prevent my eyes from flicking down to their lips, which practically called out for me to kiss them. I could prevent them from seeing the blush that spread across my cheeks at that thought, thankfully, and I did.

“Ready, kids?” Canaveral called from the podium he had set up.

“Hold on!” Quinn said, pulling their costumes mask over their head as they stood. I, on the other hand, just snapped my fingers, causing the mask of Loki’s costume to appear over my lower face as I rose. “Ready!”

Scene 24 – May 30th
Interior MLED Compound, Early Afternoon
Holly Koval

“Smile for the camera!” Canaveral said, turning a little so that the picture Zookeeper was about to take of the three of us, Quinn and I holding homemade ‘diplomas’ would catch us better.

“My mask covers my mouth,” I pointed out.

“Smile with your eyes, then.”

“My mask covers my eyes, too,” Quinn said, and we all chuckled.

2.3.24 Graduation

“Perfect!” Zookeeper said, lowering the phone and tapping at it for a moment. “Do you three want to double-check my wording before I post it?”

Canaveral took the phone from her and held it so we could all see the picture, which had indeed come out rather nicely – she had a talent for capturing just the right moment. “‘Congratulations to the newest members of the at New Venice New Champions Official, at Lieless Loki and at Newton’s Third, on their graduation from the at MLED official’s local training program’,” he read. “‘At New Venice Journeymen Official no longer, they stand beside us as masters! Hashtag I’m so proud, hashtag they’ve grown so much, hashtag and I know they’ll do great, hashtag official heroes, hashtag MLED heroic agents, hashtag hero graduations’.” Quinn laughed. “What? Is something wrong with the post?”

“No, the post is fine,” they assured him as they pulled their mask off again. “But ‘at New Venice New Champions’? ‘Hashtag I’m so proud’?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“For one thing, you don’t usually pronounce the tags and hashtags aloud,” I said.

“For another, you pronounced them wrong,” Newton joked, meeting my eyes with laughter dancing in their own.

“How the hell are they supposed to be pronounced, then?” he asked, bemused.

I felt a smile tugging at my lips, and took the phone from his hand. “Here, let me.” I cleared my throat and read aloud, “‘Congratulations to the newest members of the @nvNewChampionsOfficial, @LielessLoki and @NewtonsThird, on their graduation from the @MLEDofficial’s local training program. @nvJourneymenOfficial no longer, they stand beside us as masters! #I’mSoProudOfThem #they’veGrownSoMuch #andIKnowThey’llDoGreat #officialheroes #MLEDheroicAgents #heroGraduations.”

Canaveral gaped at me as Quinn and Zookeeper laughed, joined by Simone and the other Journeymen where they sat in the makeshift audience. “How…” he whispered, sounding horrified. “…how did you make those noises with your mouth?” I just laughed.

“It’s easy!” Newton assured him. They caught my eye again, and I gave them a subtle nod, ready as they spoke. “You just have to #talkLikeThis.”

He did a passable thousand-yard-stare. “Hashtag what the fuck.”

“No, like #whatTheFuck.”

Everyone laughed again, and I took charge as they settled down. I had been planning this for a while. “Can I make an announcement real quick?”

“Are you announcing a coup of the Champions?” Canaveral asked. “If so, I’ll have to ask you to sit on that for a bit.”

I chuckled. “No, not that. I just don’t really want to explain this more than once.”

“Go ahead, Loki,” Zookeeper told me.

“Most of the New Champions know this already, I think,” I began, “because all of you except Vulcan have been around since before I started wearing it full time. But, um…” I swallowed. This was harder than I thought.

Quinn walked next to me and took my hand, squeezing it gently. They didn’t say anything, but just that simple gesture was enough to remind me of their support.

“You all know I don’t actually look like Loki,” I said, switching from the costume illusion to the blonde form that I had worn as a civilian for four years now. “But I don’t actually look like this either – it’s just as artificial as Loki is. I designed it to split myself further from Loki. But…” as I trailed off, Quinn squeezed my hand again, and I rallied. “I’ve decided that that’s probably not healthy. I’m not going to do it anymore.”

I squeezed my eyes tightly shut as I psyched myself up, then let the illusory form drop. I let them see the real me, or what passed for it – the stupid chubby cheeks that I had hated for years, the uneven freckles and splotchy skin, the boring brown hair that I could never get to do what I wanted it to. Features that I had hated for most of my life and striven to forget about, but was now determined to accept as part of who I was.

“I’m proud of you, Holly,” came Zookeeper’s voice. “I think this was the right choice.”

“Yeah, mazel tov, kid,” Abe agreed. “I’m proud too.”

“As am I.”

“Go Holly!”

“You look great, Holly!”

“Hell yeah!”

I felt my eyes watering, and I didn’t fight the happy tears that began to fall. But for the first time in years, I allowed them to be seen.

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

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2.3. Scenes 18-21

Scene 18 – May 29th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Ready to go, guys?” Anima asked over our earpieces as we changed into our costumes.

“Almost.” I pulled the mask of the PA4 over my head and tapped the button at its belt, bringing it to life and causing it to shrink into a perfect fit. “Ready.”

“What have we got tonight, Anima?” Canaveral asked, slipping on his gloves and flexing his fingers.

“Anything you see on patrol, of course,” she told us. “Nothing in particular for you to check out, though. Just be careful – tonight’s route takes you through both Buff Boy and Crows territory.”

“Which means any of their metas could appear. Newton, who would you be running from?” he asked me.

“Rube or la Borda,” I promptly answered, then added, “but really, Canaveral, it’s my last patrol as one of the Journeymen – I’m a full Champion tomorrow. Can’t I at least assist?”

“I would advise anyone to run from Rube,” he said, shaking his head. “The guy’s dangerous as hell, and ambient probability manipulation as his power means that the fewer variables, the better. As for la Borda…” He gave me a look. “Do you think you could actually do anything against her?”

“…could you?”

“…touché, kid.” I smirked under my mask as he continued, “But the point is, no taking any chances.”

“What’s life without taking a few chances?” I asked rhetorically.

He sighed. “You don’t know what’s good for you, Quinn.”

Anima laughed, the earpiece crackling slightly as she did so. “Oh, the irony…” she chuckled.

“Hm?”

“Nothing. Zookeeper and Journey will be back in a moment.”

As she said that, space twisted nearby us, reforming to reveal the returning heroes holding hands as Journey teleported. She released the older woman’s hand as she spoke, apparently finishing a sentence she had been in the middle of. “-I’m just saying, if he’s putting in the effort, then why not?”

“Trying to change is good, but it doesn’t mean much until we see lasting improvement,” Zookeeper told her, then glanced at us and smiled. “Hey Quinn, hi honey.”

Abe stepped forward and gave her a brief kiss. “No trouble, dear?”

“Just a purse-snatcher in April Park. Nothing Simone and I couldn’t handle.”

“Disgusting,” I joked to Simone as she pulled off the mask of her costume and began extracting her hair from the cap she used to compress it until it fit in the costume.

“I know, right?” she agreed. “It’s like watching your aunt and uncle flirt.”

“I was gonna go with your mom and dad.” I tilted my head to the side thoughtfully. “Does that make us cousins?”

“I could see that,” she mused. “Except that Holly is sort of like my older sister, which means that you two would be incestuous.” I opened my mouth, but she cut me off, adding, “I know you two keep saying that you’re not dating, but you can’t pretend you don’t want to!”

I sighed. “Okay, yes, Holly and I like each other, and we’ve talked about getting together once we’re feeling more stable. But you know that both she and I have been through a lot in the last couple months. It hasn’t been the right time yet.”

Simone grinned. “I want to be the maid of honor!”

“That’s getting kind of ahead of things, don’t you think?”

“Hey, no more time to gossip,” Canaveral interrupted. “Come on, Newton, we gotta go.”

“Right. Later, Simone.”

“Later,” she said with a wave.

 

Scene 19 – May 29th
Exterior City, Late Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

We chatted as we went through the city, light banter and jokes that help keep our minds active as we leapt from rooftop to rooftop, passing through the Crows’ territory without incident. That wasn’t surprising, really – Hertz’s gang was mostly invested in sex work and gambling, nonviolent crimes that heroes typically didn’t involve ourselves in.

The Buff Boys, in contrast, sold drugs – they were best known for providing power-granting drugs like brawn, but they also peddled opiates, cocaine, meth, and anything else that could get you high – operated protection rackets, performed blackmail, and were generally scumbags. Not only that, they were expanding – or trying to, at least.

So as we began to reach the edge of the Crows territory that bordered the Buff Boys, our conversation faded. This was the most likely area to encounter a serious incident and, sure enough, my sense of presence picked up on scuffling a block or two off our patrol route.

“Hey boss, I’m picking up something from over there,” I said to Canaveral as we landed on a roof overlooking Kohei Street. “I can’t tell exactly what, from this distance, but I think it’s fighting.”

He nodded. “We’ll check it out. Anima, what’s the ETA for the police?”

“Three minutes, in this area. You want me to call them?”

“Put them on notice, but don’t call yet,” he decided. “It might be nothing, after all. Go ahead and call them in if we get into a fight, though.”

“Got it.”

We began moving, and it took less than a minute for us to reach the rooftops overlooking the fight. Two Buff Boys, steam rising from golden skin, as well as three members of the Crows – identifiable by the suit jackets they wore –  were standing in a ring around another member of each gang, jeering and hooting at the pair who were actually fighting. Some sort of cross-gang fight club, maybe?

“Surprisingly civilized, delegating just one fighter from each gang,” I noted. “The Buff Boys are usually a bit more barbaric in their beatings.”

“Fits for the Crows, though.”

“Clever Crows will constrain a campaign, but brutish Buff Boys belie the benefits of such brawling bargains.”

“How do you do that?” Canaveral wondered.

“Do what?” I asked innocently.

He shook his head. “Let’s see what they do when I drop in. I’ll try and diffuse the situation without fighting – you stay up here and be ready to back me up.”

“Got it.”

He flipped over the edge of the building, landing easily on the ground beside the gangsters, and casually hooked his hands in his belt. “Evening, gents. Having a nice night?”

“Canaveral, thank god you’re here!” One of the Crows immediately cried. “These thugs came out of nowhere and attacked my friend!” The other three nodded in agreement, theatrically patting the one who had been fighting on the shoulder.

I sighed into my earpiece. “Sure, that sounds likely.”

“It’s a matter of plausible deniability,” Anima noted. “Do we believe them? No. But it lets the Crows maintain a reputation as respectable members of society rather than gangsters.”

“Does it work?”

“Everyone knows they’re a gang, but they’re seen as the civilized option, so… sort of?”

Canaveral tilted his head to the side, eying the Buff Boys. “Interesting story. What’s your take?”

“Get the fucker!” one of the Buff Boys shouted, and the Crows scattered.

Anima tsked. “They always do this,” she complained. “I wish they’d do something new. Oh well… the regulars will be there in two minutes.”

I nodded. “Might as well lend a hand before they get here,” I said, and flipped off the edge.

 

Scene 20 – May 29th
Exterior City, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

 

I pulled and pushed off the environment to land myself on one of the Buff Boys who was coming at Canaveral from behind, my body weight – probably half that of the thug, but still twenty pounds of mostly-muscle more than I had once weighed – knocking him off balance, particularly when I immediately launched off the thug, pulling at his legs as I did so to both arrest my momentum and knock him entirely off his feet. Number 1 down, at least for the moment.

“You guys should be proud!” I cheerfully told them as I touched down. “This is my last patrol as a Journeyman – you get to be part of history!”

“Fuck off!”

“Wow. Very articulate,” I commented sarcastically.

“Hey, be fair,” Canaveral told me as he wrapped the chain he used to fight with around another gangster, using it to pull her off balance – I pulled on the ground and pushed a building behind me to root myself while giving an additional push to her lower legs, helping send her down. Number 2 off her feet. “It’s pretty good for a third grade education.”

“I went to Juilliard, you ass,” growled Number 3. He stomped heavily on the ground, the force of his brawn-boosted muscles cracking the pavement, and reached down to lift a slab of asphalt.

“And look what your theater degree has gotten you!” I said, launching myself at him. He raised the slab as a shield, and I landed on it, keeping a gentle pull so that I wouldn’t fall off. In the moment that he couldn’t see me, I exerted the force of my presence to launch a smaller slab right into his groin. “A part-time job as a punching bag and, I’m guessing, enough debt to drive you to become a gangster!”

“They pay well,” he groaned, clearly in pain but boosted enough that it didn’t stop him. Behind me, I felt Number 1 begin to rise, and I pushed against him – with my own body rooted to the asphalt slab held by 3, 1 was sent skidding away from Canaveral, giving him the few seconds he needed to finish cuffing Number 2. “It’s not my fault the economy is in shambles!”

“That’s fair,” I admitted, and reached out to pull at the building behind 3, exerting enough force to cause the man – between me and the building – to stumble backwards, hoping to trap him between the asphalt and the building. “But come on, dude, can’t you get a job at a coffee shop or something?

“Oh, like I’ve never heard that before.” He flexed his fingers, crushing the asphalt slab, and went for my skull. I managed to parry and twist away from one hand, but his other massive palm fell on my head, and he began to squeeze.

Fuck that hurt, but the PA4 was armored enough that it wasn’t debilitating. Instead, I reached up and found a pressure point on his wrist, squeezing it until his fingers involuntarily loosened – pushing at them as they did got my hand out of his grip.

The man suddenly jerked backwards as something small and fast-moving collided with his forehead. “What’s wrong, Newton?” Canaveral asked, stepping up beside me and hefting another ball-bearing. “You’re not having trouble with this guy, are you? I mean, really, him?

“Be nice,” I scolded. “He went to Juilliard!”

“What’s he doing in a gang, then?”

“The economy is in shambles.”

Canaveral nodded. “That’s fair.”

The thug rolled his eyes, rubbing at his forehead. “Wow, glad you fuckers approve of my life choices.”

“Didn’t say we approve, just that we understood.”

“Anyway, your buddies are tied up already,” Canaveral said, jerking a thumb at the other two Buff Boys. “Wanna join them before the cops get here, or would you rather get punched in the face a few times?”

Number 3 sighed. “Just cuff me,” he said, putting his hands out. “I’m not dumb enough to try to fight both of you at once.”

“Of course not,” Canaveral agreed. “After all…”

“You did go to Juilliard,” we chorused, and the thug sighed.

 

Scene 21 – May 29th
Exterior City, Night
Quinn Kaufman

 

“So,” Canaveral said as we approached the compound again on the last leg of our patrol. “How are you feeling?”

I rolled my aching shoulders, glad for the brief pause. Best shape of my life or not, four hours of parkour was still quite a workout. “Tired and sore. Looking forward to taking a hot shower and falling into bed once we get back.”

“No, I mean about being a hero,” he clarified. “It’s been almost seven months, now – you ticked over your six month period weeks ago, all you’re waiting for is the monthly graduation ceremony tomorrow.” He paused. “About being a hero and, I guess, your life in general.”

I sighed. “I don’t know, dude. It’s been a long day.”

“No need to answer now,” he told me. “Just… think about where you’re at, you know? I remember you were having a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to join up, and… I just don’t want you to regret it, I guess.”

“I don’t regret it,” I promised him. “Honestly, having a little extra structure to my life – and less free time – has been a blessing. If I don’t have time to think, I don’t have time to get anxious or depressed, you know? And government-provided therapy has been nice to have.”

“I don’t know, but sure.”

“Besides, I don’t know that I’d have become such good friends with Holly if I hadn’t joined,” I said. “For that alone, becoming a hero has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made.”

Canaveral paused. “How’s she doing, by the way? With her parents?”

“She’s managing pretty well,” I told him. “I don’t remember much of the night that she confronted them, but she was pretty torn up when we got back. After a night of rest, though… well, she’s had a bad night or three where we ended up cuddling in the common room so that she could sleep, but for the most part she’s doing well.”

He sighed. “I just wish I had known earlier.”

“I know what you mean.”

“In retrospect, there are things that should have clued me in, but… well, she would always just say not to worry about her,” he mused. “And I trusted her, so I didn’t. But it turns out that I should have worried.”

“You can’t help someone who isn’t ready to be helped,” I said firmly. “I think Holly was just ignoring it up until recently, when the whole Excalibur incident stepped on her mental health, and she realized that she was old enough to actually do something about it. Before that, she wouldn’t have accepted any help. Hell, she barely took mine.

He nodded, but still seemed pensive. “That’s true… unless someone is willing to make a change, you can’t do much for them.”

I tilted my head. “You’re not thinking about Holly any more, are you?”

“…no,” he admitted. “I’m thinking about Max.”

“…it’s been a few months since he went into the asylum, hasn’t it?” I asked. “How is he?”

“He’s… improving, apparently, but it’s slow. The damn thing really did a number on him, and he wouldn’t let Peregrine help…”

I put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Hey, he’s improving, right? Even if it’s slow, progress is progress.”

He nodded. “That’s true. I’m just worried about him.”

“Well, you’re a worrier,” I pointed out. “You try to be all happy-go-lucky, but we all know how much you care about and worry for us.”

“We?”

“The Journeymen. Which… I guess won’t be a we for much longer, huh?”

“Just twelve hours or so,” he agreed.

“…it’s another big change,” I said, looking off into the distance. “I’ve had a couple of those recently. Developing superpowers, my dad dying, becoming a superhero… hell, I graduated from college last week. Thanks for coming to graduation, by the way. I appreciate you being there, even if Miriam was too busy with her healing work.”

“Of course.”

“This will be another change,” I acknowledged. “But… I think it’s one I’m ready for, for once.”

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2.3. Scenes 14-17

Scene 14 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Evening
Dominic Könberg

“Uno!” Viv said smugly, setting down a red seven.

“Damn it! We can’t let her win!” Tristan declared. Then he sighed. “And yet…” he began drawing cards from the deck, his hand expanding until he found a red three to set down.

“I think we can get her still,” I said, playing a blue three. “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have any blue cards, so if we can just stick with blue…”

“Blue…” dad muttered, paging through his cards – he had been hit with a stack of draw cards earlier in the game and hadn’t gotten through them yet. “How about this?” He played a blue draw two.

“And another,” Percy grinned, adding one of his own.

“Perfect!” mom said, playing a third draw two. “Deal with that, honey!”

Viv grumbled as she drew from the deck. “Humph. So close…” She tossed one of her newly drawn cards, a red ten, onto the pile. “Betrayed by my own brother,” she complained.

“It’s about to happen again, too,” Tristan added, playing a blue ten, and she glared at him. The little twerp just stuck his tongue out at her, and she returned the gesture.

“Blue, blue, blue…” I murmured, glaring at my pair of green cards. “Now I’m having trouble.” I draw a card from the deck, saw that it was blue, and played it without really paying attention to what it was.

“Well you deserve to,” Viv sniped playfully. “I would have won and freed us from the hell of playing Uno if you hadn’t said blue!”

“If we’re in hell, at least we’re in hell together,” Tristan observed.

“I wouldn’t want to be in hell with anyone other than my family, certainly,” mom agreed.

I would rather not be in hell,” Percy remarked.

“Too bad,” I teased. “You’re stuck here with us.”

Viv glanced at dad. “…dad, you okay?” she asked, and I realized that he hadn’t played yet, just staring at his cards in confusion.

“…have we played this before, Morgan?” he asked. “I don’t remember the rules…”

My heart sank as I realized what was happening. Viv, meanwhile, softly said, “Yes, Arthur, it’s called Uno. Right now there’s a blue five at the top of the deck, so you need to play a card that’s blue or a card that’s a five.”

“Right…” he began looking through his cards as mom put a gentle hand on his shoulder, and absently leaned his head to rest it on her hand. “Like this one?” he had found a blue reverse card.

“Yes, like that one,” mom confirmed.

He played it. “Thanks, Morgan. Must have had a late night, I guess,” he said with a roguish grin, waggling his eyebrows.

“…of course, Arthur,” Viv said quietly.

It was hard on her, I knew, when dad mistook her for her mother. He rarely made such mistakes with the rest of us – although he had once thought I was Morgan’s brother and chased me out of the house – probably because the rest of us were boys, but with her… if Morgan wasn’t around when he had a moment and Viv was, it was almost guaranteed. She went along with it, as Devon had recommended, but I knew that it bothered her.

“Your play, I think?” dad said to Percy, sitting next to him.

“No, you played a reverse card,” he gruffly explained. “The order is reversed, so it’s Dom’s turn again.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

“And that means I’m back to hoping for blue,” I sighed, beginning to draw from the deck. “I realize I brought this on myself, but still…” After a few draws I found a wildcard, and played it. “Green.”

Tristan immediately played a three. “Uno!” he said cheerfully, although I could tell his cheer was a mask to cover his discomfort with dad having had a moment.

Viv glanced at Tristan appraisingly. “Hm… what do we think, gang? Does he have any other greens?”

“…why?” I warily asked.

“Well, I could change the color, or I could not.”

“I don’t think so,” mom said, narrowing her eyes at my youngest brother. “Honey, what do you think?”

“Hm… go for it, dear,” dad said to Viv. “You know best, I’m sure.”

“Got any greens, oh dear brother?” my sister asked, playing another reverse. Tristan’s turn again, and if he had any greens…

“Sure do!” he grinned, playing a green nine. “I win!”

“Good job, kiddo!” dad said, offering a high five. Tristan gave it to him, then lurched into his lap to hug him. “Oh! Careful there, Tristan, your old man’s kind of fragile!”

“Nonsense, dear,” mom denied, smiling at the sight and doing nothing to help him escape from my younger brother. “You’re as-” She was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Who could that be?” dad wondered.

“It’ll be Devon,” mom told him, beginning to rise. “They called earlier about coming to check on you, tonight, remember?”

“Oh yes.”

“I’ll let them in, mom,” I said, hopping to my feet before she could finish standing. “I’m about done for tonight anyway.”

“I’ll come with you,” Viv eagerly added, and I rolled my eyes – her crush was so obvious – but didn’t protest.

“Thanks, honey.”

Scene 15 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

“I’m gonna do it tonight, Dom,” my sister said to me as we walked to the front hall. “I’m going to ask them out.”

“Are you sure, Viv?” I asked. I had never gotten the vibe that Devon liked her the way she liked them, and I wanted to avoid her being heartbroken when they said no. Plus, Devon was 30-something, and my sister was only 21 – I didn’t want to kick their ass if they said yes. “They’ve probably had a long day at work, this might not be the best time…”

“I’m sure,” she said firmly, and from her tone I knew that I would never be able to dissuade her. “I fought Loki a few months ago, I think I can ask out the person I like.”

I put a hand on her shoulder, and although internally I sighed, out loud I just said, “Then do it. They’d be a fool to turn you down.”

A moment later, we reached the hall, and I swung the door open, revealing the petite, curvaceous doctor. “Evening,” they said with a tired smile, folding up the umbrella that they were sheltering under as they stepped inside. “How’s Arthur holding up?”

“He mistook me for mother, and forgot the rules to Uno,” Viv frowned, “but he got back on track pretty quickly. Pretty average, really.”

Devon nodded. “I know it’s hard, but you’ve all been doing an incredible job caring for him,” they promised us.

“What brings you here, doc?” I asked as we began to walk back to the game room.

“Well… you know that I was trying to put together a spell to help your father, based on research that Arthur Peregrine had forwarded me, right?” they said, and I nodded – they had been working on it since the end of October.

“Did you finish it?” Viv asked excitedly.

“Well… no,” they admitted. “But! Peregrine contacted me again and gave me a mystic diagram for a version of the spell a few months ago. It’s kind of ridiculously complicated, but I’ve been practicing, and I’m confident that even if it doesn’t work, I at least won’t make things worse.”

“That’s wonderful news!” I said with as we reentered the game room.

Scene 16 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

“What’s wonderful news?” mom asked.

“I have a new spell to try that might help,” Devon told her. “If I perform it right, it should disentangle the magical residue left behind by the artifacts and let me get at the Alzheimer’s directly with the usual spells for it. And if I do it wrong, it won’t make anything worse.”

“That is good news,” dad agreed. “I’m willing to try it.”

They dug in the shoulder-bag that they were wearing for a moment before producing a set of paperwork contained in a plastic sleeve. “I’ll need you to sign these, and then I can get started.

“Of course.”

“Were you going to bed?” Percy asked me as Devon began to prepare for the spell, drawing complicated glowing sigils into the air around dad, using a large ruler, a protractor, and a plum line to get them in exact positions even as he watched with interest.

“Yeah, but this is more interesting.” I didn’t have much hope of it actually working, if I was being honest – nothing else had, and Devon didn’t seem too confident either.

“You should get mom,” Tristan suggested, and I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Mom’s here already.”

“Other mom.”

“Mother would want to know about new magic being performed in the house,” Viv agreed.

I sighed. “I’ll get her.”

Scene 17 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

 

It was probably around the time to pull Morgan out of her wing anyway, I reflected as I walked. She had been in there for close to a month now – while her initial experiments with Excalibur hadn’t kept her from the rest of the family, because she had failed too often to get really excited about it, she had recently figured out a method to use it relatively safely, and hadn’t emerged since, spending a great deal of time scrying in order to fill out the information we had stolen from the MLED servers.

“Morgan!” I called when I reached the entrance to her wing, knocking. “Devon is here with a new spell to try on dad!”

She didn’t respond, and I frowned. Normally Morgan could be reached from anywhere in the house – she had monitoring spells set to alert her if anyone was calling for her. Even if those had been taken down for some reason, her wing of the mansion was small enough that she should have heard me in person. “…Morgan?”

Nothing, and I was starting to get worried now. I opened the door and entered, and saw that most of the lights were off – not unusual, she preferred to have as few distractions as possible when she was working complex magic – and a faint glow was coming from under one of the doors. “…mom?” I whispered.

Still nothing. I tentatively approached the door and opened it, to see…

Morgan, her eyes wide, sightless, and watering slightly. She held an ornate dagger that could only be Excalibur in one hand, a bright tracery of glowing sigils in the shape of a gauntlet wrapping around her arm up to the shoulder. Her other hand was clenching repeatedly at her leg, nearly drawing blood. Sitting on a table in front of her was a mirror, its surface filled with colorless light and smoking rising from where it touched the wooden frame.

I swallowed. Morgan was scrying, which explained what she hadn’t heard me – her senses were entirely absent. But… she had never looked quite like this while scrying before. It looked like she was crying. What on earth was she seeing?

I couldn’t let her put herself through this and, thankfully, I knew how to stop it. If she was using Excalibur, then she was scrying through wards that she wouldn’t be able to see through on her own, and taking it from her should result in her being cut off.

I glanced around, looking for something to protect myself from the damn thing, and found nothing, so instead I just pulled off the flannel shirt I was wearing. I wrapped it around my hand before taking Excalibur by its blade and pulling it from Morgan’s white-knuckled grip, thankful that my football coach was so insistent on grip training. I dropped the dagger on the table, then draped the shirt over the mirror for good measure.

Morgan came back to herself slowly, blinking a few times as her senses returned to her, and she began crying in earnest as she saw me. She lunged for me, and I hugged her as she began sobbing desperately.

“What is it?” I asked, my mind racing as I thought of all the horrible scenarios she could have seen. “What did you see?”

“…three months,” she whispered.

“What?”

“We only have three months before they go after her, Morgan said, horrified. “Just to get to us.

“Go after who?” I asked. “Morgan, what-”

She pulled back, sniffing, and murmured something that made a tissue fly to her hand so she could wipe her face. I waited while she cleaned up, and finally explained, “I was scrying on the Ambrosia Company. They… they can’t find us through the Kovals’ wards, but… their daughter isn’t under those wards.”

“The Kovals’ daughter,” I said, frowning as I tried to remember. Viv and I had used to play with her, when we were kids, but I didn’t think I had seen her in ten years. “…Holly? Was that her name?”

Morgan nodded. “Yes. And they know exactly where to find her.” She took a breath. “Apparently, Holly Koval is Loki,” she told me. “And if we don’t show up in the next three months, Ambrosia will go after her.”

I swallowed, flashing back to the artistic girl I remembered playing with and connecting her to the young hero who had nearly stymied us at the MLED Compound. “Threaten her to make the Kovals take down our wards…”

“Exactly. And then they’ll take Arthur’s armor, and Excalibur, and… and then it’s all over.”

“…three months, you said?”

“Yeah,” she said quietly. “Whatever our next move is, we only have three months to make it.”

“Well then,” I decided, “we’d better start planning.”

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2.3. Scenes 12-13

Scene 12 – March 26th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“So, Quinn,” Jacob asked as we sat down around the table – him and Holly’s mom next to each other, me and Holly across from them. “How did you and Holly meet?”

“We work at the same part-time job,” she said.

“Although,” I added, “we nearly met two years ago. We shared an art history course at UNV, as it turns out. A small overlap in our education.”

“Ah, you attend UNV? What for?” he pressed.

“I’m a biology major, with a concentration in metahuman biology. The plan was to become a doctor and specialized in treating metahumans.”

“Was,” he noted. “Did something happen?”

“Well… plans change. Some personal stuff… I’d rather not talk about it,” I demurred.

He hummed. “I see. Are you sure that you can’t explain further?”

I hesitated. “I’d really rather not…”

“Explain,” he said again, his voice almost musical, and I nodded agreeably.

“Sure. My father died a few months ago, and I promised him that I would become a superhero. I won’t have time to both work as a hero and go to med school, so I had to cut one.”

“Hmm. Reasonable, I suppose.”

Holly narrowed her eyes. “Father, you can’t do that!”

“Do what, honey?” her mother said calmly.

Holly froze, then shrank back a little. “Nothing, mother.”

Jacob shrugged. “I won’t do it if they answer our questions. Does that sound fair to you, beloved?”

“Perfectly fair, dear.”

“Right.”

He smiled at me. “Well, I think it’s quite good of you to have wanted to become a doctor, even if other matters have prevented you.”

“Thanks. I’d still rather like to, to be honest,” I confessed, scrunching up my face to get rid of a momentary feeling of discontinuity “but plans change, like I said. And thanks for not making me explain.”

He waved a hang magnanimously, even as Holly frowned. “Of course, of course. So, you met at work! How nice.”

“It may have been some time since I worked,” Delilah commented, speaking for the first time since we sat, “but I seem to recall that in my day, it was considered a bad idea to date your coworkers.”

“Ah, they’re young,” Jacob said, dismissing this objection. “Besides, we met on the job as well.”

“That’s different. We worked in the same field, but we weren’t coworkers when we met.”

“I’m sure it’s fine, beloved,” he assured her. “Didn’t you see them out on the patio? Quite adorable, don’t you agree?”

“Ah yes, the patio,” she said. “Holly, you know full well you’re not allowed to use magic in the house.”

“We weren’t in the house,” Holly said defensively. “We were on the patio.

“We also don’t like you trying to hide things from us. You’re not allowed to create privacy screens like you did there, not against us.”

“Now hold on, everyone deserves privacy,” I protested, but was ignored.

“What’s the point in banning them?” Holly demanded. “It’s not like they work against you two, apparently.”

“We taught you everything you know, of course they don’t work against us,” Delilah said, still calm. “And because we taught you, we get to decide how you use our skills.

“They’re not your skills, they’re hers! I snapped.

“Be silent,” Jacob murmured. “This doesn’t concern you.” I obeyed, sitting back in my seat.

“This is exactly what I hate about you two,” Holly hissed. “You treat me like I’m a thing, like I’m something that you own. I’m a grown woman! I have the right to make my own decisions!”

“Like this….” Delilah wrinkled her nose at me. “…person?”

“Yes! If I love Quinn, that’s my choice, and what you think doesn’t enter into it! But no, you just have to meet them and see if you approve of them dating your daughter, because it’s your feelings that matter most!”

“Honey, what you don’t realize is that we know better than you,” Jacob said soothingly, holding his hands open-palmed towards his daughter. “We have much more life experience than you. We know the world better. We know people better. If this Quinn person has ulterior motives, well…” He shrugged. “We’re in a much better place to see that than you are, particularly given our magical specialties.”

“I hate you,” Holly growled at her father.

“If it makes you feel any better,” he told her, “I see no reason to disapprove of them, at least not yet. Admittedly, I’m not done yet either.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that you’re still putting them through this interrogation! Holly snapped.

“While they are admittedly a superhero,” Delilah said, absently drumming her fingers against the table and staring at me, “you are as well. A decision I still don’t understand…”

“The only one you ever let me make,” Holly muttered, crossing her arms.

“And if they were planning to become a doctor, they must be intelligent enough – oh, dear, ask them about their grades.”

“Of course, beloved.” He snapped his fingers.

I blinked in surprise, feeling a slight disconnect. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I was asking about your time at UNV,” Jacob reminded me, and I nodded, his prompting helping me to remember. “Medical school is very difficult to get into – were you at all worried about your grades?”

“It’s tough, sure, but I’ve always been good at school. Valedictorian back in high school, 4.0 all through college, the works. I even managed to keep up my grades last semester after starting work. It’s not easy,” I noted, “but I can do it.”

“4.0 average, really?” he said approvingly, flashing his wife a quick smile. “That’s quite impressive.”

“Well, biology isn’t exactly easy, but it’s nothing compared to Holly,” I said, glancing over at her, and Jacob’s grin grew. “She might be the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

Holly was a little flushed and couldn’t meet my eyes. “Quinn…”

“What? It’s true. You should have seen her teaching me about magic.” I turned back to her parents. “It takes months and months for people to find a casting style that works for them in college, and she got me there in minutes.”

“It was your idea,” she protested, trying to deflect my praise.

“But you were the one who helped me get it working.”

“So you’re a mage yourself, then?” Jacob cut in. “My wife and I are as well, I hope Holly’s mentioned.”

“I’m not much of a mage – I really only know one spell,” I admitted. “And yeah, she told me – it came up when she taught me how to cast.”

“Honey, you shouldn’t be-”

“I know, mother,” Holly complained, interrupted her mother. “You don’t want me teaching people magic.”

“It’s not safe to learn magic unsupervised,” Delilah continued. “Quinn, you’re going to have to show us this magic of yours. Just to make sure that our teachings have been passed on properly.”

“Sure,” I agreed. I focused my presence for a moment on my wineglass. Almost instantly, the interior of the glass filled with light, a thick, almost-liquid white glow. “There you go.”

“Interesting method of casting,” she said, tilting her head to the side. “It almost resembles how Arthur does it.”

“Surely not, beloved. Arthur always used gestures.”

“Not Könberg, dear. Peregrine.”

I leaned forward curiously. “You know Arthur Peregrine?”

Jacob sighed. “Observant kid, aren’t you? Forget that,” he ordered, and I did. “How long did it take you to get that spell down?”

“The first time, or in general?”

“Both.”

“It took what, fifteen minutes to cast, the first time?” I asked Holly, and she nodded confirmation. “Then a month or so of regular practice before I could do it fast enough for it to be useful. Around three before I got it as instantly as that.”

“Quite impressive, don’t you think, beloved?” he asked his wife.

“I suppose,” she admitted, sounding reluctant to give me any credit. “Let’s try a test.”

“Mother, don’t-”

“Be silent, honey,” she ordered. I frowned, hating how Holly’s parents were treating her – I had known that they would be like this, but knowing and seeing were too very different things. But I let her take the lead – when she spoke up, I would back her, and until then… “Quinn,” Delilah began, flicking a finger and erasing my light spell, “focus on the wineglass again, but this time on the glass, not the air inside it.”

“I’m not sure that-” I tried to protest.

“Do as she says.”

I focused, letting everything in the world fade away except the glass.

   “Sound, as I hope you know, is nothing more than a pattern of vibrations.”

Delilah’s voice continued, instructing me as I meditated on the wineglass, arraying myself in the perfect focus that Holly had instructed me to use.

   “Whether it be a violin, a barking dog, a crackling fire, or your own voice, that pattern is all there is.”

The glass vibrated gently with her every word, a pattern that was becoming more and more clear.

   “And that pattern can be changed, altered, reworked, at the will of the magician.”

It was a pattern that made no sense to my conscious mind, but I could still understand it, could connect it to my sense of hearing and interpret it easily.

   “But sound is a complex thing indeed. Even a simple ‘hello’ has layers and complexities that the conscious mind cannot possibly design itself.”

Even the subtleties of the wineglass’s vibration that corresponded to the sounds of people breathing, and a faint, otherwise imperceptible hum coming from Jacob, were written clearly in its pattern.

   “But your unconscious mind can understand them – and more than that, can create them. To generate an auditory construct, here is what you must do…”

Delilah’s instructions sank into my mind like pebbles into a lake, sending out ripples that faded and shifted and forever changed the lake in a way. I learned…

   “…so connect your unconscious mind to your imagination to your conscious mind, and speak – not with your voice, but with the glass.”

“Like this?” I asked, imposing a pattern of my own speaking voice on the wineglass.

“Yes, precisely.” Delilah turned to Jacob. “Impressive,” she admitted.

He nodded. “They seem to be quite a quick learner. If that unfortunate tendency to stand up for themself and Holly can be corrected, they might make a very agreeable addition to the family.”

“If,” his wife pointed out. “They’re a bit old for the methods we used on her.”

“What methods-” I started, but was interrupted.

“Forget.”

 

I blinked, experiencing another momentary disconnect, and instinctively reached for Holly’s hand – she squeeze it tightly, as though afraid I would drift away. “I’m really terribly sorry,” I said apologetically. “I feel like I’ve been drifting in and out all night, and it seems terribly rude. You’re both lovely people, and you don’t deserve for me to be like this.”

“No need for an apology, young-” Jacob began.

“You’re drifting in and out because father is mind controlling you,” Holly hissed at me, glaring at her parents.

I blinked in surprise. “He’s what? I demanded, my eyes narrowing.

“Forget that. Young lady,” Jacob growled at Holly, “what do you think you’re doing?”

Something was slipping from my mind, but I fought to hold it – Holly had said something, had said… “I’m not just going to forget that you’re mind controlling me!” I snapped, rising and pulling Holly to her feet. “I think we should go, Hol-”

“I said forget it,” he snapped, half-standing out of his chair. “In fact, if you’re going to take this kind of attitude, you can forget this entire night, and that you ever met my daughter!

“Remember,” Holly said sharply, clenching her fist, and a spike of pain lanced through my mind. “And father, I hope you realize, when you’re dying alone and haven’t seen or heard from me in years, that this was the moment that any hope of an eventual reconciliation was lost forever.” I staggered as she spoke, and she wrapped an arm around my waist, slinging one of mine over her shoulders to support me.

“Honey, what are you-”

“You know damn well what I’m saying,” she interrupted. “I was already planning on leaving and never speaking to you again, but maybe, if you hadn’t been manipulating the person I love, breaking their mind for your sick curiosity, I might have eventually reconsidered! But no, you just had to play your fucking game!”

“Holly,” Delilah said flatly, standing. “Why on earth would you be leaving?”

“You’re smart, figure it out,” Holly growled. “Maybe it has something to do with how you vanished for months on end and left me to fend for myself, over and over and over again? Or how you come back from those blessed periods of respite to take control of my life and countermand everything I do? How you’ve tried to pull me from the MLED five times and counting, and yet something which seems so fucking important to you is forgotten the moment a new magical puzzle comes along?” She laughed bitterly. “Fucking hell, you didn’t even notice that I’ve been moving all my stuff out.”

Delilah tilted her head to the side, her fingers twisting briefly and tiny sparks of light playing on her eyes for an instant, then she narrowed her eyes. “Holly, listen to me. You will-“

“You don’t get to tell me what to do anymore, mother,” Holly mocked. “Don’t you get it? I’m leaving. You have no power over me anymore. None. I’m not even going to think about you from the moment I walk out that door, never again, you hear me?”

“I just want to understand why-”

“If you don’t understand why now,” Holly said, “you never well. Good-bye forever, mother.She turned and began walking, and I followed as best as I could.

“Holly.”

She stopped and looking over her shoulder at her father. “Oh? And what do you have to say for yourself?

“I…” he narrowed his eyes. “I’m not going to stop you, honey. But you know what you must remain silent about.

“Or what?”

Jacob blinked. “What?”

“Maybe I can’t block your fucking mind-magic completely in the moment,” Holly snapped, “but I can damn sure break it down at my leisure. What, exactly, are you going to do if I snap that thought-binding spell and tell the MLED all about who you used to be? Are you going to come out of retirement? Leave your cozy little hideaway? Stop doing your goddamn magical experiments and maybe, I don’t know, act like parents for once in your lives?” Her parents exchanged a glance, but said nothing. “Yeah,” Holly said, turning away again. “I didn’t think so.”

Scene 13 – March 26th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Evening
Holly Koval

Quinn seemed to have been hit pretty hard by my father’s enchantment magic and my hasty countercharm, and I honestly had no idea how much, if anything, they’d remember – mind magic was a delicate thing, and I had poked at Tristan’s perception filter at the beach for more reason than the dubious-at-best legality of it. If they had forgotten me… I didn’t know what I’d do.

I couldn’t share my parents’ identities and didn’t think I could break that spell, despite what I had told my father – that order had been layered onto my mind since I was a little girl – but I wouldn’t have to say exactly which supervillains they were to tell Armstrong that Quinn had been mindwiped by my parents. And… and that was the least I would do, I swore to myself, if Quinn’s mind had been permanently damaged. If they had hurt them…

I fretted worriedly, glad that the compound was empty for once as I laid them down on the common room’s couch. If their mind didn’t wake up from its current state soon…

I could feel the blankness of their mind if I extended my senses towards them, and I hated the feeling. It was worse than the grayness that pervaded their thoughts whenever they got caught up in memories of their father – there were still thoughts beneath that, even if they were wrapped in grief, but now…

Just a few moments before I was about to psychically prod them, Quinn stirred. “Oh god,” they moaned. “Did anyone get the number of the bus that hit me?”

“Quinn,” I worriedly said, reaching for their hand. “Do you…” I swallowed. “What do you remember?”

They blinked a few times, eyes unfocused, before they met my gaze and smiled. “Holly! I remember…” Quinn frowned, their brow furrowing. “We sat down to eat… your dad was asking me about… why I wasn’t planning on being a doctor. And then… everything else is a blur. What happened?”

The relief I felt was indescribable – they had forgotten everything from the first time my father had used his mental magic on them, but nothing else. They hadn’t forgotten why we were there, they hadn’t forgotten the entire night, they hadn’t forgotten me. “It… don’t worry about it, Quinn,” I said, blinking a few tears away.

“But-”

“Don’t-” I started to say, lacing my voice with psychic undertones, then cut myself off before I could finish the suggestion. Quinn was already lucky to have survived with their mind intact – I shouldn’t upset that balance with more mind magic, no matter how much it would simplify things.

Especially because… hadn’t I just been yelling at my father for this exact thing? Mind control was his first resort whenever anything didn’t go his way, and here I was, about to forcibly prevent my best friend from thinking about what had happened tonight. I couldn’t do that to them. I shouldn’t do that to them. That was…

I was a piece of shit for even considering it.

I sighed. “It’s all over now,” I said to Quinn, refusing to let those harmonics enter my voice. “There’s nothing to worry about anymore.”

They hesitated. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure. Don’t-” I bit my lip. How many times had I spoken those words, cast that spell? Was it really that instinctive, to prevent people from worrying about me? “Don’t worry about it.”

“…okay. If you say so,” Quinn said, lifting themself up into a crosslegged posture. “Hey, come here.” I leaned into them, and they pulled me into a comforting hug. “You’re shivering. This whole thing with your parents really has you freaked out, huh?”

I was shivering? I hadn’t even noticed. “Yeah,” I confessed. “It… they I knew what I must remain silent about. “-they’re pretty shitty people,” I managed. “But I’m done with them now. I never have to see them again.”

“And here you are, worrying about me when I probably just had too much to drink,” Quinn murmured. “I’m sorry. I was there to support you, and what did I do? I can’t even remember…”

“No, you were very helpful,” I promised them. “If you weren’t there…. like I said, I end up folding when I face them alone, and if you hadn’t been there…” If the person I loved hadn’t been there under threat, clear and imminent reason for me to marshal my courage… “I’m sure I would have folded again,” I finished.

Quinn nodded, their breath tickling the crook of my neck, and I shivered – noticing it this time, perhaps because it was a pleasant shiver rather than an unconscious, fearful one. Then they released me, but only enough to gently spin me around.

“Quinn, what are you – ooh,” I moaned as they began kneading my shoulders and the base of my neck, my eyes closing instinctively.

“You’re incredibly tense,” they said. “You need to relax a little, Holly.”

“I just… god, harder… it’s a combination of fear and relief and… and…”

“I know. It’s a lot,” they said sympathetically as I practically melted.

“…you’re really good at this,” I whispered.

“Thanks.”

“God… of all the fake partners I could have had tonight,” I couldn’t prevent myself from saying a few minutes later, “I’m glad it was you that my parents decided to fixate on.” Quinn laughed, and I continued, “you really would be a wonderful partner.”

Their hands paused for a moment, and they hesitantly said, “Holly, I… I was happy to step in and help tonight, and I’m glad that I can help relieve your stress, but…” I heard them swallow nervously. “…you do know we’re not actually dating, right?”

“Yes, Quinn, I know,” I responded, trying not to sound sad about it. However much I might like to…

“I think…” They swallowed again. “I think we’re on the same page about wanting to, unless I’ve misread things massively, but… I’m not ready yet. And… I don’t think you are either, right now.”

“…yeah,” I eventually admitted. “Yeah, I think you’re right.” They slowly began to massage my shoulders again, and I struggled to hold back another moan of pleasure. “…but don’t think I didn’t catch the ‘yet’ in there.”

I could hear the smile in their voice as they said, “Oh, I wanted you to.”

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2.3. Scenes 9-11

Scene 9 – March 24th
Exterior April Park, Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

I squinted at the flash card Holly held up to me. “An autoimmune disorder which results in the degradation of the nervous system… multiple sclerosis,” I said, confidently.

“Correct. And lastly…”

I blinked, coming back to myself.

“Are you okay, Quinn?” Holly asked. “You haven’t done that in a while.”

I sighed. “Yeah, Dr. Wagner has helped me get better, but… it’s just, that’s what my dad has. Had. It… that’s what killed him.”

“Oh.” Her eyes were infinitely kind, her voice gentle, as she said, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m doing better, I promise, it just… sometimes, when I’m not prepared…”

“Yeah.” She paused for a moment, then ventured, “at least that’s one chronic disease you know you won’t forget?”

I chuckled. “Imagine forgetting what disease killed your father. You’re at his eulogy and you’re all, ‘my father was a brave man. He fought for years against a deadly progressive illness, one which few can survive against, called… shit, was it cancer? It wasn’t cancer, was it?’”

Holly laughed. “I’m glad you’re doing well enough to joke about it, at least.”

“Yeah… I think dad would have wanted me to be able to.” I leaned back from my cross-legged posture and extended my legs, which ended up in Holly’s lap. She absently began kneading my feet, and I decided to change the subject – even though I was finding myself able to joke, finally, it still made my heart ache a bit. “Thank god it’s Spring Break next week. I’m really looking forward to getting a little time off from school.”

“Me too.” There were a few moments of companionable silence, the two of us enjoying just being together in the lovely spring afternoon – and in my case, enjoying the foot massage – before Holly said, a little hesitantly, “…you’re not going anywhere for the break, are you?”

“You know I’m not. Hell, I have two patrols scheduled, I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

She flapped a hand dismissively. “You know Abe would give you time off if you asked, the man dotes on you.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go anyway. Why do you ask?” I said, sitting up again.

“Well… I talked to my parents.”

“…how’d that go?” I asked. “Do I need to murder them for you? Because Shepard wouldn’t want me to say I will, but…”

She chuckled. “No, it… well, it could have gone worse, anyway. They’ve been asking about my life, what I’ve been doing, and… um…”

“That sounds like good news. What’s the ‘and’?”

“Well, I told them about you, since you’re my best friend, and… they somehow got the idea that we were dating?” she squeaked.

I blinked. That hadn’t been what I expected. “And here I thought you might be trying to escape them during the break,” I said after a moment.

“That isn’t the worst idea, but no. They, um.” Holly had one of those moments she sometimes had, where I could have sworn she was blushing heavily, but her face was perfectly composed a moment later. “They want to meet you – to have you over for dinner.”

I propped my chin up on a hand. “You told them that we aren’t dating, right? I mean, I do realize what it looks like when we sit under a tree and you rub my feet, but whatever Simone says about us…”

“I tried to tell them that, but father just winked and said ‘I understand’, and mother keeps talking about how she’d need to approve of anyone I spend so much time with…” She sighed. “I’m sorry to ask, but…”

“Are you asking me to pretend to be your partner and meet your parents?”

“…yes. It’s. Well. I, um, I kind of tend to fold if I’m facing them alone, as it turns out that hasn’t changed, and I would appreciate it you would – um. I don’t know. I shouldn’t have asked. Sorry. Just forg-” she babbled.

I leaned forward to take her hands in mine, silencing her. “Holly. Would this be helpful for you? Would having me there to support you help you confront your parents?” I hadn’t missed her mention of folding when she faced them alone, and I had a suspicion that the attempted confrontation hadn’t gone well, even if Holly claimed otherwise.

“…yes,” she whispered.

“Then I’ll be there,” I promised.

Scene 10 – March 26th
Exterior Mansion, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

I tried to avoid stressing out about meeting Holly’s parents. It wasn’t easy – meeting the family was an important step in a relationship, and while Holly and I weren’t actually in one, I wasn’t unaware that what we had was close – and might, once I was more confident about my emotional stability, become romantic rather than platonic. Or I hoped so, anyway.

Still, I was going to be there to support Holly when she spoke with her parents about the way they treated her, and being an anxious mess wouldn’t make me a good rock for my best friend to lean on. For her sake, I had to pull it together.

So when I met her outside her mansion – and it was still insane to me that my best friend lived in a mansion, when I hadn’t thought New Venice even had mansions – I was dressed casually but nicely, wearing a suit jacket over a light blouse, and had even pulled my hair into a ponytail. And no matter what I had been doing in the privacy of my own room at the Compound, here and now I was not shaking and sweating, but was instead calm and composed.

I texted Holly to let her know I had arrived and was waiting outside the main gate, and in just a minute or two she appeared, wearing a long black skirt and a red top. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She absently tucked her hair behind one ear and looked me up and down, a red bubble shimmering into view around us as she created a privacy screen. “That works, I guess.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You guess? Way to make a guy feel special, Holly.”

“Sorry. You look great, Quinn.”

“Better.”

She sighed. “It’s just… my parents are kind of the worst, and they’re going to be super judgmental – mother especially – and… I’m sorry to drag you into this.”

“Hey.” I caught her hand in mine and gave it a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “Remember how you supported me after my dad died?”

“Yeah…”

“I told you back then, I would do the same for you.” I shrugged. “This is that.”

“My parents aren’t dead, though.”

“They could be. Director Shepard wouldn’t like it, but they could be.”

She giggled involuntarily, then forced herself to calm. “Okay, last-minute stuff.”

“Go for it.”

“They’re typical mages,” she informed me, “so any magic talk is a good way to get them to open up. Just don’t challenge their knowledge. Or opinions. Actually, just don’t challenge them, it doesn’t go well.”

“Isn’t that what you’re here to do?”

She bit her lip. “…habit, I guess. They… don’t like it when I argue with them.”

“What do they do?” I asked, worried. If they…

“They… they don’t do anything, they just… barrel right through the problem, I guess. They talk right over you and just completely ignore that you ever said anything against them until even you forget that you disagreed. That’s how you ended up here even though I tried to tell them we’re not dating.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad…”

“It’s nowhere near actual abuse,” Holly insisted. “They’re just… overbearing control freaks. That’s all.”

“…I saw how you reacted when Anima was being influenced by Excalibur,” I pointed out. “Maybe it’s not physical abuse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not abusive.”

She sighed, turning away from me. “It’s not nothing, but… I just want to confront them about it and then leave. Make them understand what they’ve put me through, and then never see them again. Ever.

“Well… I guess I can understand that,” I said. I wrapped my arms around her waist, standing on my toes to put my chin on her shoulder. “And then you’re leaving?”

Holly nodded. “I’ve been moving more of my stuff into the Compound over the last month – I brought the last box over a few days ago.” She turned to face me again, putting her arms around my waist but leaning back so we could see each other properly. “There is one other thing.”

“What is it?”

“We talked about this once, I think, but this appearance isn’t any more natural to me than the one I wear as Loki,” she said, and I nodded in remembrance – she had painted a self-portrait that related to the subject and presented it as part of an art show the MLED had put on a few months ago, and had been thinking about dropping the illusion after she graduated. “My parents, uh, don’t allow me to wear this kind of magical construct in the house.”

I frowned. “Do they have a reason for that?”

“None that they’ve ever given me,” she said, shaking her head.

“Control freaks for sure.”

“Yeah. But, uh, that means I’ll need to show you what I really look like.”

Holly pulled away from me and took a deep breath. I waited patiently as she put her hands together, still psyching herself up. After a moment she simply breathed out, and…

As Loki, Holly was unrealistically handsome in the androgynous way that I tended to be most attracted to, in both men and women. Perfect skin, sharp bone structure, dark eyes that pulled you in, and artfully-tousled hair that could never be maintained in that shape without some kind of superpower. He was tall and thin and graceful, and fell just a little into the uncanny valley at times, just a little too perfect to be real.

In her blonde form, Holly was unrealistically beautiful, in a Nordic princess kind of way that I wasn’t usually into, but which she pulled off with aplomb. The same perfect skin and sharp jawline, but with baby blue eyes as bright as my own and long blonde hair, never a single strand out of place. She was tall and curvaceous and graceful, and fell just out of the uncanny valley of perfection – but it was a near thing.

Her natural form was none of these things. Her face was rounder than she let it appear, her complexion a little darker and a little splotchy. Her hair was neither flaxen blonde nor as dark as the void, but a curly mess of simple brown not too different from my own – her eyes the same warm, chocolate shade. Not as thin as Loki, not as curvy as her blonde form, more muscular than either. She had freckles splattered across her face, and an asymmetrical smile that revealed a single dimple as she shyly said, “Well… this is me. What do you think?”

I smiled back at her, knowing that my eyes were probably shining with admiration and not caring. “You’re beautiful.”

Scene 11 – March 26th
Exterior Mansion, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“Mother, father, this is Quinn,” Holly said, introducing me to her parents at the door. “Quinn, these are my parents,  Jacob and Delilah Koval.”

I smiled at them and offered a hand. “It’s very nice to meet you both.”

“A pleasure,” Jacob said, giving me a firm handshake and locking eyes with me for a moment. “Nice to meet the fellow – person? – that my daughter is spending so much time with,” he said with a wink. Holly seemed to have inherited his hair, which was a similar curly brown.

“‘Person’ is fine.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” said Delilah, although it didn’t sound like it. Her eyes matched Holly’s brown, but lacked Holly’s warmth – her voice, too, was cool and unimpressed. “Please, come in.”

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2.3. Scenes 7-8

Scene 7 – December 20th
Interior Ambrosia Compound, Early Afternoon
Miles Mercer

 

“Hey, boss?” I said, knocking on the door to Thornhill’s office. “You got a moment?” With some people – with Dr. Hartland, or Penny – I might not have bothered to wait for a response before opening the door. For others – Laura, rest her soul, or many of the lesser-ranking members of the Ambrosia Company – I wouldn’t even have knocked. With Susan Thornhill, however… with her, it was best to wait.

“Enter.”

Thornhill’s office was relatively plain, as far as the office of a CEO went, and I had seen my fair share. She believed in minimalism, and so apart from her desk and a single work of art – a simplified depiction of the myth of Prometheus stealing fire – the office was bare.

It was a real pain, because it meant that there was nowhere for me to sit.

“What is it, Middleman?” Thornhill asked, glancing up at me from a thick sheaf of paperwork. She seemed, I observed, to be experimenting with a new eye color today – bright gold – but was otherwise in her normal appearance. It wasn’t unusual to see her do this, admittedly – ever since Hartland had managed to create a treatment which could replicate Penny’s shapeshifting abilities, at least at a low level, Thornhill had been moving more and more towards an idealized version of her real appearance. Although literal gold was a bit of a step away from her natural hazel.

“You remember a few months back, when one of our clients – a Maxwell Copperfield – got a purchasing agent captured?” I asked.

She closed the folder and tilted her head slightly, thinking. “Yes, I think I remember. What was it that we sold him again?”

“I passed on some magical textbooks to him back when he was just a stage magician. Or copies of them, rather. They weren’t all that helpful, but…” I shrugged. “So little is, when it comes to learning magic.” You really needed either personal tutelage – and one teacher to many students, as college magical studies courses ended up being, usually didn’t cut it – or serious dedication to personal experimentation if you wanted to get good at magic.

“I recall the situation. Why bring it up now?” she questioned.

“Well, I added something to the mission of the Legion who was sent to New Venice a while back,” I explained. “Copperfield had been planning a heist of another magical text – an instructional book written by Merlin – and I demanded that he lend it to me. As recompense for interfering with our agent, supposedly.”

Thornhill smirked slightly – she wasn’t one for actually seeking vengeance, too pragmatic to do anything that didn’t benefit her materially, but she wasn’t above finding it amusing. “And that worked?”

“Yes – possibly only because it was Legion threatening him, but he did agree to make a copy of the book and pass it on to us, after he had stolen it.”

“I assume he has now done so?”

I scratched the back of my head. “Well… he made the attempt, at least. Things kind of got out of hand, apparently. The report just came in from our sources in New Venice’s DMO.” I tapped her folder and whispered a few words, swapping its contents with those of the report in my own office.

“I’m going to need that back.”

“Just read.” I leaned against the wall and waited while Thornhill skimmed through the report, a slow smile spreading across her face as she did. “Yeah, I thought you’d like this,” I said when she finished.

“I do – at least, in theory. It’s been years since we had eyes on the Mountain King’s armor, and we certainly didn’t have any agents who might have been able to take it from him at the time. But with the armor in other hands – weaker hands – it becomes a real possibility, particularly now that we have Legion.”

“Not to mention Excalibur,” I added. “The things we could do with a power-magnifier of that scale…”

“We’ll have to pass it around and see whether it’s more helpful in your hands or Hartland’s,” she mused.

“I bet I could use it to crack some of the more esoteric spells I’ve been working on…” I wheedled.

“We’ll pass it around,” Thornhill said firmly. “If it will produce more profit with you, it will be yours. If it’s more profitable with Hartland, it will be his.”

I sighed. “Yes, boss.”

“Good. Go speak to the Legions and have them send an iteration to New Venice to keep an ear to the ground for this ‘Round Table’. Once they pop up again, we’ll take their artifacts.” I nodded and turned to go, but was halted by another word from the CEO. “Wait.”

“What it is, boss?”

“Who’s this?” She tapped the face of one of the heroes noted as being involved with the incident.

I squinted, mentally turning the image in my head. “…Newton? They’re a new member of New Venice’s junior hero team. Joined a month or two ago.”

“Doesn’t that costume look familiar?”

“It… could be one of the psychic augmenters that Laura invented,” I admitted. “But that can’t be right – we haven’t sold any of the actual suits since she died.”

“I don’t believe we’ve sold anything to this person. So where did their suit come from?”

I picked up the file and peered at them. “Hm…” I murmured a switching spell again, fetching a file on Newton specifically, so I could get a better look. “I’m not too familiar with Laura’s tech, obviously – not my department – but this doesn’t look like a recent model. Aren’t we on the PA9 or PA10?”

“We need to double check the storage units that we keep the oldest models in, then,” Thornhill said, clearly making plans. “I doubt anyone was able to steal from us, but just in case… and we’ll need to reach out to those who did purchase an actual PA suit and see if any of theirs were stolen.”

“Or if any of them were able to replicate their suits,” I pointed out. “If so, maybe hire them? Hartland hasn’t been able to continue work on them, as he?”

“No, he hasn’t – that’s why we’re not offering the suits themselves anymore.” She frowned. “Wait… Kaufman had been working on the suits before we hired her.”

‘Hired’ was one way of saying ‘kidnapped’, I supposed – Ambrosia’s standard method, in fact. “I think so, yes.”

“Perhaps it really is one of the oldest models, from before then. Do we have Newton’s name?”

“Their registration with the DMO says… Quinn Kaufman. Laura’s child?”

“Most likely an early model, in that case,” Thornhill murmured, considering. “Dealing with Newton will be a low priority, but I think it still needs to be on the list. I want to keep that technology under our control, and the possibility of Newton noticing the similarities between their suit and that of Starling, or any of the others who posses PAs – or between their powers and those who used a PA to get them – is a worrying one.”

“Ambrosia isn’t exactly a secret though, is it?”

“Not precisely, but we’re still flying under the radar. Until I can get the legislation to explicitly legalize selling powers approved – I do need that back, by the way -”

“Yes, yes.” I reversed the switches I had performed, restoring the paperwork to where it had once been.

“- the company needs to remain relatively secret. Having someone who could potentially discover us from the outside, without being able to offer them anything to keep them quiet…”

“We could always kill them,” I suggested.

“True, true…”

“Starling and Canaveral are based in that city,” I said. “With Newton on the same team, any suspicions would probably be raised to one of them – and then they could shut down Newton’s ideas.”

“Hmm.” After a bit of thought, Thornhill decided, “We’ll leave their suit as a target of opportunity. It being stolen might draw their attention to it even further, if they haven’t already noticed the similarities. For now, we’ll leave them be – but if the Legion we’re sending now has a good opportunity to take them out and steal the suit, she should do it.”

“Seems unlikely, but I’ll let her know.”

 

Scene 8 – March 27th
Interior Ambrosia Compound, Evening
Miles Mercer

 

“Hey, boss?” I said, knocking on the door to Thornhill’s office.

“Enter.” I opened it and stepped inside, tossing the folder that I had brought with me – for once – onto her desk. “What’s this?” she asked, closing the one she had already been working on.

“Penny’s report from the three months that an instance of her spent in New Venice,” I informed the CEO.

“Ah yes. Looking for the Round Table and their artifacts,” Thornhill said. She opened the folder and began paging through. “The full three months… no sign of them then, I assume?”

“None,” I confirmed – the third-generation clone of Legion who had been left in the city had been collected and terminated after spending the entire time undercover. If she had found them, she would have returned, but… “It seems they’ve gone to ground.”

“I wonder if we have any way of drawing them out?” Thornhill absently mused.

“I doubt it,” I complained. “Legion’s best guess – and Hartland agrees – is that the Round Table was the wife and children of the Mountain King, having inherited his armor. Which, presumably, means that the man himself is dead – not that knowing his connection to them would have been helpful anyway, since we had no idea where he was anyway.”

“Odd that they’re in his old home city, if they’re trying to hide.”

“They could easily have left. And again, no one knows where he disappeared to after he presumably retired -”

“To raise his chilren, I suppose,” she guessed.

“Probably – so however they’re hiding, it’s pretty effective.”

Thornhill tapped her fingers against the desk rhythmically as she thought. “Some form of magic, I would presume. To hide so effectively not just from us but from the heroes as well – Canaveral is quite an accomplished tracker – they would need to have powerful wards against detection.”

“Most likely a set of wards on their home, wherever that is,” I said. “That’s heavy-duty stuff though – would the Mountain King have been able to do it? I was pretty young when he was doing his thing.” Not to mention that I was a West Coast boy – the man’s stomping grounds in New Venice were all the way on the other side of the country from my hometown of San Francisco.

“Not himself, perhaps – he was a mage of only moderate talent, and that was thanks only to the intelligence-boosting effects of his helmet,” she told me. “But he had a close association with the Maestri, who would certainly have been able to do such a thing. Perhaps when they retired – they all did so at approximately the same time – the Maestri set up wards for the Mountain King as well as for themselves.”

“The Maestri… they were masters of manipulation magic, right?” I asked. “Illusions, mind control, that sort of thing.”

“Exactly. If we put pressure on them, perhaps we can reveal the location of the Mountain King’s family.”

“That still requires us to find them,” I pointed out. “Which seems… basically impossible. They doubtless have the same protective wards on themselves, on top of their own abilities, and we’ve already failed to beat those wards with the Round Table.”

“Ah, but I already know where the Maestri are,” Thornhill said with a smirk. “Or how to find them, at least.”

“…how?”

She flipped through the Legion’s report and stopped on her observations of one of the local heroes – Loki. “The Maestri used a ritual to scour their identities – which the MLED once knew – from all archives, and even managed to wipe the minds of most who ever learned it. But Dr. Hart’s memory treatment kept it safe and sound for me. Maestro and Maestra are also known as Jacob and Delilah Koval – and their child, Holly Koval, is a member of New Venice’s junior hero team.” She gave a self-satisfied smile.

I nodded in understanding. “Get a hold of Loki, and use him to crack his parents…”

“And from there, the Mountain King’s family.”

“It won’t be easy,” I noted. “The MLED is quite protective of its heroes, even with you at the head of the DMO.”

“No, it won’t, which is why I’m going to label that as a last resort,” Thornhill decided. “First, we’ll continue to wait – the Round Table can’t remain underground forever. Sooner or later, they’ll emerge – if it’s later, then perhaps Loki will be a viable target, but if it’s sooner, then we have no need to kick that particular hornet’s nest.” She paused, then added, “Three months more, I think. If there is still no sign of the Round Table at the end of June, then we’ll send a Legion or three after Loki.”

I nodded, privately feeling relieved. I wasn’t unaware that my morals had been compromised to a degree by my time at Ambrosia – I was too invested in it now, had done too much and gained too much from the company. Still, I didn’t want to kidnap anyone, as had once been done to me, Laura, and Hartland – even if neither he nor I wanted to leave any longer. “Yes, boss.”

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2.3. Scenes 4-6

Scene 4 – February 14th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

I liked being a Journeyman. It kept me nice and busy, giving my mind no time to worry about my uncertain future or obsess over the mysteries of my past – between school, training, and patrols, it was rare that I had time to be caught by anxious thoughts.

Console duty, unfortunately, was one of those rare times.

Oh, it was important, to be sure – interfacing with the police and other emergency services, keeping track of the news and alerts, and directing the patrolling heroes to where they could do the most good was vital, and they were tasks that they had no time to do themselves. But while I acknowledged its importance, console duty was slow, for the most part.

Patrols in general were slow, and so, in fact, was heroism – Abe had once remarked to me that the kind of crisis which actually required superheroes, supervillains and similar, usually only happened once or twice a year, at least in New Venice. Most of the time, heroes were just patrolling – maintaining visibility to discourage villains from beginning those crises, and dealing with non-powered crime on the way. But, while it was far from uncommon to come across muggers, thieves, and other such crimes, that very visibility meant that crime, in the area of a hero’s patrol, was actually pretty low – criminals tended to scurry away when a hero was around, rather than commit their crimes. Prevention, rather than apprehension, was the strategy, much like the mere presence of a security guard in a mall stops more shoplifting than they could ever personally prevent. As a result, it wasn’t rare for patrols to go by entirely without incident.

But patrolling was also a very physical activity – moving across the city rooftops for four hours at a time, power-assisted or no, was quickly getting me into the best shape of my life – and that physicality drove a lot of thought from my mind. I was focused on spotting any crimes that were happening, on moving to the next rooftop, and on maintaining banter with whichever hero I was patrolling with – even Adam was beginning to open up. Starling had never bantered with me, but he had also been transferred out, as Abe had promised, at the beginning of the month.

By contrast, on console there was nothing to do but watch – and while there was a lot to watch, between several scrolling newsfeeds and the occasional remarks from Vulcan and Sequoia, who were currently doing a walkthrough of the docks, I was all-too-good at multitasking. I was entirely capable of manning the console while filled with anxiety – and musing about my ability to do that could only stave it off for so long.

“Heya, Quinn,” came a familiar voice from behind me, and I broke out into a grin.

“Holly!” I cried, spinning the seat to look at her. “Please tell me you’re here to relieve me of my mind-numbing duty?”

“Sorry,” she said, pulling up a spare seat. “You’re only half an hour into your shift – you’re here until 8.”

I sighed. “I know, I know. I just hate console duty.”

“I’m aware. Which is why I’m here.”

“But not to replace me?”

“No – to keep you company.” She smiled at me, and produced a lunchbox. “And to share some snacks.”

“You’re a life-saver,” I told her, taking the box and looking to see what she had brought – chips, apple slices, pretzels… I snagged a bag of sliced apples and popped one into my mouth. “Honestly.”

She leaned back in her seat, watching with an indulgent look as I turned back to the console. “So, anything interesting happen so far?”

“Not so far, no. How did your day go?”

“Well, I’ve been planning out my magical studies thesis…”

 

Scene 5 – February 17th
Interior Coulton Library, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

January had been a nice break from school, but I was well and truly back into the swing of things – especially with the addition of a thesis to write. Thankfully, the classes I had taken for my final semester at UNV were relatively light in comparison to those I had completed the previous semester – I had planned ahead, and left some simple classes for the last semester so that I would be able to put most of my energy into a thesis.

Of course, I mused as I knelt in front of a bookshelf, trying to find the book on the history of magical treatments in medicine that I needed for my History of Magical Science class, that didn’t mean I could just breeze through them. I still needed to do the homework and write the essays, even if – as in the case of Professor Marigold’s class – they were simple for me at this point.

And today, unfortunately, the book I wanted to use as a source wasn’t on the shelf.

I checked one last time, seeing that, yes, I was in the right place according to the Dewey number, and that, no, the book still wasn’t there. With a sigh, I sat back on my heels. “Fuck.”

I could, I supposed, find a different book for this paper. But the summary had been so perfect for what I wanted to write about, I really didn’t want to. So what were my options? It hadn’t been available from any other libraries in the city, nor did I think I could I afford to buy it. I could maybe find it online, but I had always found it easier to focus on physical books…

Something shifted in my sense of presence, and I noticed someone approaching behind me. “Hey, is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking up. “It’s all – Devon?”

My father’s old doctor blinked at me in surprise, and crouched to join me near the floor. “Quinn! I almost didn’t recognize you – your hair’s grown a bit, hasn’t it?”

I ran my hand through it – it had been over a year since I had gotten a haircut. A few weeks ago, it had finally lost its long war against gravity, and now instead of rising into a jewfro it rolled down to my shoulders. “Yeah, I should get a haircut at some point,” I agreed. “Or buy some hairbands, at least.”

“Maybe,” they said, then paused. “I heard you swear. Is something wrong?”

I showed them the note I had written. “I’m just having trouble finding this book, that’s all. I need it for class. Well, want it for class.”

“Oh, that’s no trouble,” Devon declared, rising. “Don’t move.” As I watched, they dashed down the aisle – quietly, it was a library, after all – and returned a minute later with the book in hand. “Here you go!”

“Devon, you’re a literal lifesaver,” I said, thanking them profusely. “Forget the doctor thing, this is your good karma for the month.” They laughed. “How’d you know where it was?”

“I had taken it down from the shelves for a project I’m doing. Don’t worry,” they assured me, “I’ve already made copies of the parts I want to quote. It’s all yours.”

“Thanks a million,” I said again, slipping it into my bag.

“So… still in college, huh?”

“Yeah. Last semester and it was already paid for – no reason not to, right?”

“Right. But…” they leaned in a little and whispered. “You’re Newton, right?”

“Gee,” I said, flatly, “however did you know?”

“Well, you were having that crisis over a job offer a few months ago, and within a few weeks of that Newton joined the Journeymen, and made it quite public that they’re the first superhero to use they/them pronouns. Other than Multiplex.”

I rubbed the back of my head awkwardly. “Well… turns out I was wrong about that, actually. There’s an independent hero in Toronto who uses they/them, and they’re kind of annoyed at me. Since they’re not part of the MLED, the PR guy’s sweep missed them.”

“Oh.”

“On the other hand, I’ve been messaged by a few other nonbinary heroes who said I inspired them to come out publically, so… ups and downs, I guess?” I shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

Devon chuckled. “Believe me, I know.” They stood and turned to go. “I… should probably get back to my project. But… I just want to ask if you’re doing all right, with… I mean, it’s only been a few months…”

I flinched internally, but realized, after a moment, that the expected twinge of internal pain and grayness in response hadn’t come. Instead, there was just a faint sadness, a bit of grief that passed before long. “I’m… doing all right,” I assured them, a little surprised to find that I was telling the truth. “It still hurts sometimes, but… I’m getting better.”

 

Scene 6 – March 13th
Exterior Dagobah Beach, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Come on guys,” Holly encouraged us, “let’s get a good spot!”

We tromped onto the beach, glancing around – it was the first weekend since the previous summer that it was warm enough to visit the beach, so Holly had put together a group outing for the Journeymen – as well as our partners, for those of us who had them. Of course, Nic – who had finally revealed his identity to me a few weeks ago – was dating Jack, and the only other member of the group who wasn’t single right now was Molly – she had been dating a boy named Tristan for the past two months, although this was the first time I would be meeting him.

Unfortunately, it was a nice enough weekend that we weren’t the only ones there – it seemed that half of New Venice had had the same idea, and the beach was very crowded.

“Come on, we just need a little space,” I begged the world at large, looking around for somewhere to pitch the tent. “Just a little!”

“Oh, hold on! I got something…” Molly’s boyfriend said cheerfully, digging through his bag. “One of my moms gave me…” He produced a small statuette and poked at a glowing button on its base. “It’s some kind of magic thing that’s supposed to stop people from bothering us. Mom is always worried about privacy, you know.”

“May I see it?” Holly asked, holding out a hand for the statue as people began to leave our vicinity – from the snippets I heard as they left, they were remembering urgent appointments, deciding to get lunch, or simply moving closer to the water. “I’m a mage myself, and I’m a little curious.”

Tristan hesitated briefly before passing it over. “Just, uh, be careful with it. She made it herself.”

Holly nodded as she peered at it. Her fingers brushed against each other and a series of glowing runes and sigils began appearing on, and floating in the air near, the statuette.

I stood on my tiptoes and rested my chin on Holly’s shoulder, finding myself curious as well, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand any of it. From this close, my presence picked out Holly’s expression right through her illusion – she was biting her lip with a faint frown, her brows furrowed with concentration. It was adorable, even if I couldn’t actually see it, and I had to remind myself yet again that I wasn’t ready for a relationship yet.

“This is on a bit on the edge, legally speaking,” Holly informed Tristan after a moment as she handed it back to him. She put a hand up to my cheek, and I leaned into her palm instinctively. “It’s not quite to the point of flat-out mind-controlling people, but it’s definitely sketchy. I hope your mom hasn’t done anything that goes any farther than this.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. She mostly does technomagic stuff, she just threw it together for this trip.”

“Really? It’s pretty advanced mind magic… still,” Holly glanced around the beach, “I can’t argue with the results. Let’s get this tent up so we have somewhere to put our stuff.”

We set up the tent and plopped chairs in the shade under it, leaving our bags and towels on chairs, and before long my friends began arguing about what to do.

“It’s been years since I’ve been to the beach,” Jack said. “A shame, really, since we do live on the coast. I don’t think I’ve made a sand castle since I was ten – I’d kind of like to make one again. See how much better we could do.”

Nic scoffed. “That’s kid stuff, babe.”

“Well, we are kids. I don’t know about you, but I want to make the most of having no responsibilities while it lasts.”

“I barely know what to do,” Molly admitted, absently playing with her boyfriend’s hand. “It’s been years for me as well, and even then I never really had a good time. Too dysphoric, and even now I’m not super comfortable…” Indeed, she was wearing a swim shirt over a one-piece suit, while the rest of us had doffed the clothes we had worn on the way here and were just in swimsuits.

“I know how you feel,” I told her sympathetically, “but I promise, you look great – no one is going to look twice at you.”

“Especially with mom’s thing,” Tristan said, nodding to the statuette – currently sitting on a chair of its own – and bringing her fingers up to his lips to press an encouraging kiss to them. “Is there anything you feel like you missed out on that you want to try?”

She bit her lip nervously. “I guess… I know little girls sometimes get sand packed over their legs in the shape of fish tails? I kind of want to try that.”

“Ooh, I wanna do that too!” Simone cried. “It’s been, like, a year since I got to be a mermaid!”

“We can make you both mermaids,” Jack promised. “You can even lie in the range of the statue if you want, so that no one will look.”

Holly glanced at the statuette, making that same under-the-illusion face of concentration for a few moments as Molly thought, then made a gesture. A transparent bluish bubble appeared around us, extending at least 15 feet away from the tent in all directions. “That’s the edge of its effect. If you’re within that, no one will pay attention to you, and no one outside of our group will enter it.”

With that assurance, Molly nodded. “Then yes, I’d like to be a mermaid.”

The younger members of the group began digging up sand to cover Simone and Molly’s legs. I, meanwhile, dragged a chair out from under the tent’s shade in order to get a little sun – Holly set up another next to mine and produced a book, one which I thought I had seen Miriam reading a few weeks before.

“Convenient that Tristan’s mom – one of his moms, did he say? – happens to be an artificer,” I commented.

She shrugged. “It’s not as unusual as you might think. Magical studies majors are becoming more and more common anyway, and there’s a revolution in artificing coming soon, I think. One of my professors says that within five years, magical technology will be competing with the regular stuff in the commercial market – if his mom is one of those researchers, something like that is probably pretty easy. Although,” she admitted, “I’ve only ever looked at artificing theoretically, myself – some of the same principles went into those magical earpieces, but it’s not quite the same when the spell is anchored a person rather than an object. Fewer power considerations, entirely different UI. My parents do it more often, I think.”

I turned to look at her. “How… are you doing with your parents, by the way? I know you’ve been talking with Dr. Wagner, but…”

Holly let out a long sigh. “Yeah, it’s… healing is slow, you know?” I nodded. “But I’m making progress. I’m planning to actually confront them about it, soon – next weekend, probably.”

“…are you going to want any support?” I asked.

She reached over and took my hand, squeezing it tightly. “I appreciate the offer, I really do, and I’ll think about it, but… I think it’s something I want to do on my own, you know?”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“But I’m almost definitely going to want to curl up and watch something light and fluffy afterward, so if you want to join me for that…”

“I’ll have The Princess Bride queued up and a pillow all fluffed,” I promised.

Holly smiled at me in a way that made my heart flutter. “Forget the pillow. Your shoulder will do fine.”

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2.3. Scenes 1-3

Scene 1 – January 2nd
Exterior City, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“…and then the bartender says, that’s not a bear, that’s my husband!”

“…is that the punchline?”

Canaveral sighed. “You kids just don’t get my humor anymore,” he complained, then ran for the next gap between rooftops. He dove for the edge of the roof, flipping over it and springing forward across Kasdan Boulevard.

I followed, an extended push against the street canceling out gravity and letting me take a nearly-horizontal trajectory. “You’re growing old, boss. Soon you won’t even know what third-wave meta-thrash punk is,” I quipped.

“…please tell me you’re joking.”

“Oh, hold on a sec.” I had caught a flash of something potentially suspicious in my presence as I landed, and wanted to double-check. Mindful not to stick my head – or even just my hand – over the edge of the building, I instead shifted my presence into my sense of hearing.

It was, as usual, a little overwhelming – more so now, as I wasn’t wearing the PA4 to help shield me from the backlash of my powers. Instead, I just wore padding underneath a mundane version of my costume that the gift store had had on hand. Still, I was getting better at shrugging off the headaches it tended to induce.

After a moment, I relaxed my mental muscles, allowing my presence to return, and pointed to the alley between the building we were on and the next. “Three muggers and possible rapists down there,” I quietly informed Canaveral. “They have a woman against a wall and are gagging her – I assume they spotted us and are trying to keep her silent.” Not silent enough, thankfully – her whimpers of distress had been quite clear to my expanded hearing range, as had the four elevated heartbeats.

“Zookeeper, you get that?” Canaveral asked, his voice equally hushed.

“I got it,” she confirmed through our earpieces. “Routing police now. ETA 90 seconds.”

“We can help her before then. You coming, Newton?”

I hesitated before, feeling guilty, I shook my head. “Not without my actual suit, sorry. I can’t safely throw around the kind of forces that will let me fight properly without it.”

“No worries.” He silently vaulted over the edge of the building. A few thumps, some grateful thanks, and a minute’s wait later, he was back on the roof with me, the woman having been handed over to the police officers who were now arresting her attackers and taking her statement. “Let’s keep moving.”

A few minutes later, we paused briefly on the roof of the Higgins Museum, and Canaveral said, “So… your suit.”

“Yeah?”

“Still messed up?”

I nodded. “Yeah, Anima burnt it out pretty good. Whatever power was making it work, it’s completely drained.”

“It’s been two weeks,” he observed. “Have you looked into fixing it?”

“I’ve read through mom’s notes, but… it’s pretty high-level, and I don’t know where to even begin. Anima tried pumping energy back into it, but it just animated.”

“Why haven’t you talked to Starling about it?” he asked.

I shifted a little uncomfortably. “I… I don’t know. I just haven’t.” That was a lie – I knew exactly why I hadn’t asked him. Starling was a dick – and more than just an anti-social asshole, he also refused to use the right pronouns for me – although he couldn’t settle on either ‘she’ or ‘he’, his inability to consistently gender me was small comfort when he still continued to try.

Canaveral took a breath, seeming to be thinking about something, then said, “I know that you don’t get along all that well with Starling, but… can you at least try? You’re in the same job, kid, and in a few months you’ll be on the same team.”

“Assuming I don’t get transferred out.”

“Right. But even then, sometimes you’ll have co-workers that are dicks. You still have to get along with them – especially when they’re the artificers or tech wizards who maintain your gear.” He gave me a patient smile. “It takes Ben a while to warm up to people – maybe that’s all it is? Spend a little time with him, it’ll get better. Ask him about fixing up your suit.”

It wouldn’t get better, but I didn’t bother explaining. “I’ll do that.”

He walked to the edge of the museum’s roof before pausing and looking over his shoulder. “Third-wave meta-thrash punk… please tell me you made that up?” I hid a grin under my mask, and didn’t answer. “Please?”

 

Scene 2 – January 7th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

I got my opportunity later that week, going on patrol with Starling. He was taciturn as usual as we walked through downtown – not a route which was ever expected to actually run into trouble, but one which was important to make sure that no one forgot that the heroes were keeping an eye on things. Or so Apollon had explained to me.

It was while we were cutting through an alley that I decided to get it over with. “Hey, Starling,” I said.

“What is it, boy?”

I suppressed a growl. “You know how my suit is fried right now?” He nodded. “Do you think you could take a look? Maybe fix it?”

“…probably.” He eyed me almost suspiciously. “Where did you get it, again?”

“My mom invented it, and left it behind before she was kidnapped. Or whatever happened to her, it’s not clear.”

“…hrm.” He furrowed his brows briefly – maybe focusing on his expanded senses. “…your name is Kaufman, right?”

“…yes?”

“Hrm. I… never mind.”

“What?” I asked.

He seemed a little uncomfortable now, which I didn’t really care about. I was constantly uncomfortable around him, and according to Canaveral I just had to deal with it – he could do the same. After a momentary pause, he said, “I think I may have met your mother, once.”

I blinked in surprise – I hadn’t expected that. “Really?”

He looked away from me, but nodded. “Yes. It would have been… I suppose probably not long before she vanished. We spoke about… her project at the time, and it… inspired me in the creation of my own suit.”

Something about that didn’t quite seem to line up there, although I wasn’t sure what – whatever it was, I put it aside. “So you’ll probably be able to fix mine, then. Or be able to figure out how to from her notes, at least.”

“You have her notes?”

“Yeah, they were in the same case the suit itself was in.”

“…yes, I should be able to.” He opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it and began walking again. “Leave it in my lab. I’ll have it fixed in a week or so.”

That had had to have been the strangest interaction I had had with the man yet, I mused as I followed. Had he seemed… almost guilty about something?

 

Scene 3 – January 15th
Interior High Stakes Bar, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Hey, Quinn! Over here!”

I oriented on Abe’s voice, finally spotting him in the crowded bar, along with Emilia and – I wrinkled my nose – Ben. Still, even if he was here, I had agreed to hang out with Abe and Emilia – had been looking forward to it, even – so I pushed the dull ache of my presence being overstimulated aside and made my way over to them.

“Hey guys,” I said, slipping into the booth that they had claimed beside Emilia. “Are Miriam and Adam not coming too? Seems like this might have been more of a job outing than I thought,” I added, eying Ben.

Abe shook his head. “It’s more of an overlapping social groups thing than a job thing,” he promised me. “Two of Miriam’s closest friends usually come as well, although neither of them could make it tonight. Adam is always invited, but he tends to be even less social than Ben. And Max…” The hero swallowed.

“I’m just here for the beer,” Ben quipped before taking a sip, breaking the momentary tension raised by the mention of Max, who had recently had his trial and been placed in Derleth Asylum until he recovered his sanity.

Emilia gave a weak smile. “So how are you doing, Quinn? Are you excited for your last semester of school?”

“Dreading it, more like,” I said with a theatrical shudder. “I’ve got to write a thesis this semester.”

“Do you actually have to?” Ben asked. “You’re a biology major, right?”

“I don’t have to,” I admitted, “but I’m going to.”

“Gotcha.”

“Hey, could I get a mug of the house draft?” I asked of a flagging waitress. “And a glass of water as well.”

“Certainly, sir,” she said, and I sighed. “Everything alright for the rest of you?”

“Great, thanks.”

“All good here.”

“Mhm.”

The waitress headed off, and Abe said, “Good choice. This is our favorite bar for a reason – among other things, the house draft is excellent.”

“I’m not too picky with alcohol, honestly. If it gets me drunk, that’s good enough for me.”

“Fair.”

“Do you have an idea for your thesis yet?” Emilia asked, getting back to college as a topic. “And what about your other classes?”

“Not yet,” I admitted, “but I’m meeting my advisor tomorrow to talk about it. As for the other classes, they don’t start until the end of January – I’m just trying to get an early start on the thesis, since I have so little free time.”

“What classes are you taking?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want to be the only topic of conversation,” I said. “How is Miriam doing?”

“Well, she’s not on forced leave anymore, since Peregrine cleared her and so did Wagner,” Abe said. “But her job is still in jeopardy. She’s doing a PR thing at the hospital tonight as part of fighting for it – trying to get the public to remember what she’s like when she’s not being mind-controlled.”

“It’s not a PR thing,” Emilia scolded him. “She’s just volunteering to do a rotation as a healer.”

“I think it counts as a PR thing given the timing. I mean, Lucas helped her arrange it, right?”

“He got the hospital to agree to it, but…”

“I still can’t believe that the public turned on her so quickly,” I commented. “I mean, she’s been a hero for what, fifteen years?”

“Eighteen,” Abe corrected.

“Eighteen years – people have been born and raised with her as a member of the New Champions. Her career as a hero can vote,” I said. “And the first time that she gets mind controlled, suddenly her job is in danger?”

“What you don’t understand is that the public is fickle,” Ben told me. “They only like us as long as we live up to exactly the image they have of us – that’s why it’s important to take on a persona that you can live up to.”

“Is that why you don’t do much PR stuff?” I asked. “Less to worry about how the public will react?”

“Part of it. I’m not exactly a social person – but at least I don’t lie about who I am.”

The waitress returned and handed me the beer. “Here you are, sir.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking it and sipping. “Mmm. You’re not lying, Abe, this is good.” Then I eyed Ben, as she walked away. “You, on the other hand… what exactly are you implying?”

“I’m not implying anything. You’re pretending to be something other than you are-”

“And what am I, exactly?” I demanded.

“You’re a little boy who wants to feel special and-”

“Settle down,” Abe ordered, trying to calm us down. “You don’t have to have this argument-”

“No, I think we do,” I insisted. “You haven’t respected my pronouns once since we met, Ben. What the hell is your problem?”

“You didn’t seem to care when the waitress called you sir-”

“I did care,” I hissed. “It hurts to be misgendered – it hurts every time, no matter how trivial. But coming out to a stranger hurts too, and having this conversation hurts, and so most of the time I just let it pass. Because it’s not worth it to educate someone I’m never going to speak to again. Because it’s not worth it to risk my life – yes, Ben, my life – by coming out to someone who might react violently! But you,” I pointed at him, “are someone I have to work with. I have to see you and fight beside you and follow your instructions, and I’ll be damned if I do it any longer with someone who thinks I’m a spoiled brat that just wants to feel special!

I realized that I was standing, that I had instinctively extended my presence to force the other heroes to remain in their seats while I vented. I slumped back into the booth, crossing my arms and looking away from the asshole. “You can’t even decide what you think my ‘real gender’ is,” I mocked as Emilia put a hand on my shoulder, trying to keep me calm.

Ben narrowed his eyes. “I don’t have to put up with this. Either she goes or I do.”

“Oh, it’s back to ‘she’ now, is it?” I sneered.

“Ben,” Abe quietly said. “I think you should go.”

The other man’s eyes widened as he spun to look at his boss. “What? But I-”

“If Quinn is telling the truth – and they quite clearly are – then you’ve been misgendering them for months. I know you’ve been through sensitivity training. I know you know how important it is to gender people properly – I know because you’ve never screwed up Molly’s pronouns,” he continued. “If you can’t respect Quinn’s as well, then you have no place on the New Champions.”

“Are you – firing me?” he asked incredulously.

“I don’t have the authority to fire you over this unless Quinn files an official complaint. But I can sure as hell get you transferred off of my team.”

Ben stood, clenching his fists. A moment later, he turned and walked away.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

Abe blinked. “You’re sorry? What on earth do you have to be sorry for?”

“I caused that argument, and you’re getting rid of him for me…”

“You didn’t cause that argument,” he insisted. “You were right, you had to get it out in the air, and… I’m sorry, really, because I shouldn’t have tried to smooth it over. And I should never have let it get to the point where that argument had to happen – I should have noticed how he was treating you and put a stop to it, rather than asking you to just get to know him better. That’s my job as team leader. So really, I’m sorry – and I’m sorry for the times that I’ve misgendered you, too.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I never reported it, because I thought it wasn’t really a big deal. I don’t know that I quite realized how much he had been getting to me. And you’re fine, on the pronouns front,” I assured him. “When you misgender me, it’s a mistake, and you always correct yourself immediately. When he does it, it’s malicious. There’s a difference – that’s another reason I don’t usually bother when random people get it wrong.”

“I’m sorry too,” Emilia said. “I invited you out to join us, and clearly I didn’t realize how thorny things were between you and Ben…”

“It’s fine,” I told her. “Again, I never talked about it – except to Holly, and I made her promise to keep it quiet.

“Still, we should have noticed.”

“At least he fixed my suit first… are you really going to transfer him out?” I asked Abe.

He sighed. “I’ll try to convince Susan to let him go entirely, but that’s unlikely – not because she doesn’t support you, but because of the timing. Firing one hero shortly after the whole scandal with Miriam would be a pretty bad look. Between that and the fact that he really is a very effective hero, it’s unlikely that he’ll be let go. And I doubt he’ll let himself be pushed to resign, so… yeah, I’ll get him transferred somewhere else. That, at least, is within my power.” Abe gave me a smile. “Hopefully, with the Excalibur crisis passed – at least until the Round Table emerges again – and Ben sent to another city, the last four months of your time with us will be better than the first two.”

Intermission | Act 3 | Next Chapter

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