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Avenger Assembled

And Never Will Be

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Two weeks after the events of "Cry for Justice" 

 

All in all, the murder of Professor Parker Psion and the capture of his granddaughter had gone largely unnoticed by the Freedom City press. Even after the attempted break-out two weeks earlier, one that had seemingly targeted Frances Psion in particular, the media hadn't really gotten involved. A superhero had been mind-controlled by a suicidal elderly supervillain; an attempt to break out said supervillain's confederate had been foiled, and that, or so it seemed, was that.

 

-

 

"We moved her back into the psych ward after the incident with the Crime League two weeks ago," explained Captain Harold Schmitt as their monorail car rumbled along through the depths of Blackstone, the very mountain seeming to threaten to close in on her as they descended deeper and deeper beneath the sandstone. They weren't that far underground, not objectively, anyway. "Normally procedure is to put failed escapees down in maximum, but since she never actually left her cell, we got her back in the psych ward as soon as a bed opened up again. We haven't had any violent incidents since then - even though she's refused medication." 

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Paige wrapped her fingers tightly around the monorail's grab bar, keeping her eyes fixed on her companions rather than on the narrow tunnel and the encroaching darkness. If she pretended it didn't bother her, she reasoned with herself, maybe she'd stop perspiring sooner. She supposed she ought to feel flattered that she rated two security guards as an entourage along with the Captain, but apparently some of the nice folks at Blackstone weren't as big of believers in rehabilitation as they claimed. Apparently twenty years on the straight and narrow wasn't quite enough to inspire trust, now they knew where she came from.

 

Paige wasn't sure she'd have gotten in at all if she hadn't been toting Christie along. Christie Levin was both an old family friend and an excellent attorney, which made her the perfect companion for a jaunt like this. She'd been Paige's court-appointed the one time she'd gotten picked up way back in the day, and they'd managed to strike up an improbable sort of friendship. Christie understood about Psions, and family, and even a little bit about Paige's fear of mountains, and even though she was nearing sixty now and making bank in private practice, she had time to help out with this very sensitive bit of trouble. She'd managed to legal-eagle the staff at Blackstone into submission with less than ten minutes of wielding paperwork at them. Paige just hoped they'd bee as successful at convincing Frances to cooperate. Christie's first visit, just after Ember's incarceration, had not been terribly productive. 

 

"Has she had access to the outside at all?" Paige asked Captain Schmitt, and was pleased when her voice sounded normal. "Newspapers, television, visitors? I know you haven't allowed her cousin in to see her since she was arrested." 

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"She gets a fresh copy of the newspaper every morning, has an hour of uninterrupted TV access in the common room every day, and can take one book out from the library every week. If she goes another two weeks without any incidents, she gets an hour on the surface to go with her TV time, and three books, and so on. Normally she'd have more privileges by now, but things have been difficult." Schmitt checked his sheet. "Her most recent reading material was...the Count of Monte Cristo, and the last television show she watched was-" He raised an eyebrow. "Supercrime! - the Fourth of July Special." That particular episode had revolved around the history of all-American superheroes and supervillains, complete with a guest visit by Ace Danger explaining to the kids why you shouldn't eat manaka root - it was the sort of thing that could be safely broadcast in a prison without too many worries.

 

The psych ward was pleasant enough when they arrived; the walls decorated in soothing beige and other neutral colors, gentle music playing over the loudspeakers. As a new arrival, Ember was near the door, but there was enough time for Christie to stop and make sure Paige was ready to go on before they kept going to Frances Psion's cell. 

 

Frances was short, like her mother, with red hair cut prison-short instead of the fiery mane Paige had seen on the television and in the footage of her father's murder. Dressed in a prison jumpsuit, she was standing in a sparsely-decorated cell as she peered through the transparent covering over her cell's door - looking right at her aunt. Her face, with its now mostly-healed bruises, was set in a look of calculated boredom that looked exactly like how her mother had looked when she was in a bad mood. 

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Paige was distracted for a moment upon entering the maximum security psych ward by the heavy impervium door that blocked the first of the cells. From within came a faint, ghostly whistling, something complex that teased at the edge of her memory of classical education. Curious despite knowing better, Paige extended her mental senses past the door, then drew them back immediately and with great haste. "Are you all right?" Christie murmured in her ear. "You've gone even paler." 

 

"Fine," Paige murmured, swallowing hard. "Just the ambiance." Gathering herself, she approached the cell where her niece waited, setting her stance to mirror the young woman's, but with the slightly forward-leaning indicators of interest instead of boredom. She could do psychology without psychic powers, really! "Hello Frances, it's nice to meet you," she began with politeness that was just slightly warm. "I heard so much about you from your mother, but it's been a very long time. I wish this could've come under better circumstances." 

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Frances stared at her, eyes burning with emotion, and suddenly spat against the glass, spittle dripping down the transparent barrier. "Screw you, Aunt Paige," she said with venom in her voice that burned as coldly as her usual flames were hot. "My mom died because she and the others had to fight the Atoms and the other race traitors all alone, while you were busy whoring around with your punk boyfriend. Look at you, with your goddamn Hollywood face lift, like you're not as old as that flatscan nobody." She shot a look at her would-be lawyer, then looked back at Paige. "Don't get me wrong," she added, "I'm not a goody-goody like Julie or Josh or the twins, I've actually been outside the compound for fun a few times. It's real nice out there, especially if you know how to party. But leaving family? Leaving family to the Atoms? That's the goddamned worst. Do your kids even know who you are? Or who you used to be?" 

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Oh no, child, screw you. Despite her inner turmoil, Paige managed to keep the words unsaid and safe behind her mental shields as she studied the wrathful creature who'd once been her sister's daughter. She tried to remember how she'd felt when she'd left the compound for the last time. Even though she'd run away, even though she'd broken free, there'd been plenty of beliefs she'd clung to for a long time because she couldn't bear to know how she'd been deceived for so long. Frances was a decade older than Paige had been, a lot more time to cling to the lies. "Give us a moment, could you, Christie?" she asked her friend politely.

 

The lawyer nodded and withdrew, stepping back to join the guards at the end of the corridor. Paige crossed her arms over her chest and gave the spittle on the cell door a cool look of derision. "If you're done with your tantrum, perhaps we could talk like adults for a little while," she suggested. "I know you're scared, and I understand why. You think you know who you are and where you come from. You've been told a story your whole life about the way things are in the flatscan world, and why it's so important that you stay home and stay loyal. But then you went out in that world, and it put cracks in your foundation. You know that some of what you were told isn't true, and it makes you wonder what is."

 

Paige leaned closer, looking into Ember's burning eyes with intensity of her own. "My kids know who I am, and where I came from. When they're old enough, they'll learn all of what I've done. But the important thing, the thing you and I never had, is that they truly know who they are and how they fit in the world. I've worked hard to make sure they have that, and I know it was what Paulette and Frank wanted for you. That was why they died," she told her niece, lowering her mental shields enough to allow her sincerity to show through. "Not because of anything the Atoms did, but because they, all of them, were ready to break away. They weren't true believers anymore, and if they weren't, you children wouldn't have been. Dad couldn't let that happen."

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"Grandpa wasn't a prince, but he didn't deserve to be shot down like a dog by some superannuated flatscan piece of trash. Mind-controlled suicide my ass, you don't live to be a hundred years old and just give up!" Frances flinched and looked away from Paige's gaze, then pulled her mouth into an angry line. "Besides, if he was that free with the mind-screws, I'd probably be tied down with brats just like Julie and Josh. After that..." She shot her gaze in the directions of the cameras in the corridor, and smirked. "After that thing with Gamma, though, I convinced him and all the others sniffing around I could do more for the family on my own. I..." As if by an effort, Frances tore the conversation from herself and looked at Paige. "What does it matter what they wanted?" she asked her aunt seriously. "They tried to leave, they got dead - Grandpa tried to fight and he got dead. Flatscans'll come for all of us one of these days."

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"He was dying already," Paige told Frances, her face tightening with a dozen conflicting emotions. She'd grieved her father's death in the shock of the moment, but it didn't erase the terrible things he'd done, or a lifetime spent in fear of him. "He'd have lived a few more months, if that. Instead of dying an old, sick man in bed, he died a martyr for his cause and inflammed you to carry on in his memory. It wasn't giving up, it was the same cold-blooded strategy he's always used."

 

Paige turned aside a moment, clenching her hands. She was surprised Ember wasn't jumping right in with a comeback, but despite her temper, they'd both been trained in rhetoric by the same hand. Let your enemy speak, and maybe they'd reveal more than they intended. In this case, it just gave her a chance to lay her cards on the table. "You're right about one thing, though. It didn't matter what your parents wanted. Not to Professor Psion, anyway. Nor what I wanted, nor what you wanted. We were his legacy and his tools, and we were only good so long as we were in his hands. You rebelled, but you never went far afield, never really left the team or flouted his control. If you had, he'd have killed you, the same way he tried to kill me. The same way he killed Parker Jr. and Patrick and your parents."

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"...what, he dropped the rocks on them?" Frances gave Paige a fierce look, pressing her hands flat against the transparent barrier of her cell, the energized shell sparking slightly around her hands, like a static shock that never quite went away. "That's stupid, Paige, and I am not stupidI saw the bodies when I was six years old, and you don't forget something like that! I saw what did it, dammit!" It seemed to be a sore point for the younger woman, who come to think of it hadn't shown a sign of any powers besides pyrokinesis and flight that Paige had ever heard of. "Or is that some kind of metaphorical hero hippie-dippie crap about how his crappy leadership got them killed? Because I can believe that. God knows he never did anything I thought was a good idea. or anything fun.

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"You know goddamned nothing, kiddo," Paige shot back, her voice hardening. "And it would be stupid for you not to believe your grandfather was capable of directing the placement of shaped charges to make something big into falling chunks of debris. He had you do it at that old army base in Colorado a few years ago, didn't he? Didn't you kids ever wonder what the hell all your parents were doing inside that mountain, all at the same time? Karen,Joyce and Frank weren't fighters, they'd never have been called out for an engagement with the Atoms or anyone else. And Parker and Patrick could barely be civil to each other at that point, much less meet up for social time with the plus-ones. There's no reason they should've been there for a mountain to fall on." 

 

She took a step closer to the barrier, her eyes darkening as she looked over to where the others waited at the end of the corridor. "You think seeing is believing, believe this. I know what happened because I was there, and because I had a psychic connection with my siblings from the time I was old enough to go out on missions. We didn't get along most of the time, but they were my team. They were my family." She let some of that old grief shine through, but it was quickly replaced with old anger. "You want to know how it went down? Dad sent out an all-call to the whole family, even to me, even though I'd been out for years. He said it was important, said it was family business. I wasn't gonna go, but I was twenty-three and my own supervillain and I just had to show off how badass I finally was." She gave Ember a humorless smile. 

 

"The meet was set in one of Dad's old hideouts, deep in the Rocky Mountains. Hadn't been used for years, but it was still in good shape, you know how he is about upkeep." Now Paige was almost in her storytelling mode, the conversational style she used on SuperCrime! that made her an effective narrator. "The older sibs, they were all still with the program, and when Dad said jump, they said how high. They were right on time to the meeting, and they brought their spouses, just as he'd instructed. Hell, even I was on board that far, and I had Richard with me. I was out in the tunnels and I could hear them all talking, arguing. Your mom was playing peacemaker, like she always did, but the boys were wound up tight. They were sure Dad was going to finally pick his successor at this meeting, and they were both sure it would be them. They wanted control so much, these thirty-year-old men who were still being treated like teenage sidekicks. No matter who got picked to lead, the other one would be pissed beyond belief, maybe even enough to strike out on his own. And your mom, well, we didn't talk a lot, but we talked some. She wasn't happy with the creche program, and she felt like she hardly got to spend time with her little girl. She and Frank wanted more kids, but not the way Dad wanted them. If one of the boys left, she might have worked up her nerve and gone too.

 

"So they had plenty to argue about, and since Dad wasn't there yet, nothing but time to do it. And me, I stood out there in the hallway and couldn't make myself go in. I was scared." Paige laughed briefly, the sound was pained. "I thought I was scared they were going to yell at me, but maybe it was a precog. Happens sometimes. But your mom noticed I was out there, trying to make up my mind. She was twice the psychic I was back then, real strong, very well trained. She linked up with me, gave me a little mental pep-talk. We hadn't seen each other in five years, I wanted to see her again, so I was all ready to go in, when suddenly we hear Dad's voice over the loudspeakers."

 

Her voice was suddenly hoarse, her throat dry as she remembered it. "He talked about how disappointed he was in all of us, how we were nothing but flawed prototypes of his vision, and he wasn't going to let us destroy all his work. He had a new generation to mold, and they would be his legacy to the world. And the doors all started slamming shut. I didn't even know what was happening, but Richard has speedster reflexes, and a great set of instincts. Before Dad even finished talking, Richard grabbed me and we were running as fast as he could take us. The adrenaline and the danger, it was like being back on a mission, and suddenly I was linked with the boys too, I could feel all of them in my head." Paige squeezed her eyes shut. "There was nothing I could've done for them, but I could still feel them. Dad set us up and he knocked them down, just like he planned. The fact that I escaped was nothing but an accident." 

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Frances' face fell - whatever she'd been expecting to hear from her aunt, it hadn't been that. She looked down at her sparking hands, suddenly unable to meet Paige's eyes. She breathed in and out, fast, like a big animal trapped in a too-small cage - it was clear she was agitated, and getting more so by the minute. "What-what did Carolyn say when you told her this?" She looked up, and her eyes burned with unshed tears. "Because she's not old enough to remember that day, but I am. If my mother was so righteously telling you all about how she was getting murdered by her father, why couldn't I hear any of it?" She smashed a closed fist against the barrier, nearly driving herself backwards from the redirected blow. "Goddamn it, if you're so righteously heroic, why didn't you ever go back for us? I saw your pictures from the Terminus Invasion, you know Lady Liberty! You could have brought in the Freedom League if you cared so much!" 

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Paige let Frances rant, flinching just a little at the accusations. "I haven't told Carolyn yet," she finally replied, keeping the tremor from her voice even as her eyes prickled with tears. Now wasn't the time for that, but she wasn't entirely sure she could help it. "She deserves to know too, but I wanted to tell you first. Of all my nieces and nephews, you're the one I've thought about the most all these years, you're the one who haunted me." She met the girl's eyes through the barrier, willing Ember to see her sincerity.

 

"You look so much like your mother. She loved you so much. I never met you, but I could feel the love she had for you, and the joy you gave her. It surprised me," Paige admitted, "because I didn't believe Paulette was capable of something like joy. She was always so calm and methodical, but then there you were, and she was so happy." She ran a hand over her face, automatically taking care not to smear her makeup. "Paulette would've given her life to protect you and keep you safe. You were only three when the mountain came down, still a baby. If there were any power in her body and mind to shield you from her death, she'd have used it, just to keep you from experiencing that pain. I was an adult, and a psychic myself, and I was right there, so the link between us held. It's as simple as that.

 

"The rest... not quite so simple." Paige sighed. "It took me days to recover from what happened in the mountains. I was completely out of it, and even when I woke up, I was out of my mind with fear. My father would've known he hadn't finished the work he started, and I was afraid he'd be coming after me. Even so, I wanted to rescue all of you and take you away. You shouldn't be raised by your parents' murderer. Richard and I talked about it, we went over plans and options and tried to work it out, but we just couldn't find a way." She spread her hands, as though looking for absolution. 

 

"We were fugitives then, on the run from the heroes and the villains alike. We had no home, no base of operations, a little money but not enough to finance any big operation or hire a mercenary group. The Freedom League was disbanded and scattered, and even if we'd found a member or two, who would listen to a crazy story about a breeding compound in Colorado told by a couple of second-rate supervillains?" She let out a breath that was half-sob, remembering the bitter helplessness she'd felt. "There was no one to help us, and we were fleeing the country for our own lives. I knew that while you were in the compound, you would at least be safe. It was more than I could give you. By the time we came back and did our hero turn, it was 1993, and the Terminus Invasion had decimated everything. What heroes were left were all trying to put the world back together. And then you were all growing up Psion, becoming teenagers, villains in your own right. I thought it was too late, that even if we went for you, you wouldn't have come with us."

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"This is..." The words were thick as molasses in Frances' throat, emotions churning under the surface that reminded Paige of the sounds of a distant wild fire in California. "This is all very interesting, but even if I believed it, it doesn't change anything." She looked at Paige, anger and grief boiling barely contained beneath her surface. "I'm not like you, or Josh, or...or my mother. No flatscan judge or jury is ever going to let me go, and they're not going to let you keep it a secret, either. They're not stupid, not really, and they know what I am and what I've done. The only way I'm ever getting out of here is if someone busts me out and doesn't screw it up like last time. And if the government finds out where our family is, they'll just take Josh's kids, and Julie's kids, and put them with little flatscan families where we'll never find them again. We won't just be gone, we'll be...lost." She shook her head. "If I stand trial, a real trial, not some bullcrap psychiatric hearing, I can show the metahumans of the world they don't have to be afraid of their flatscan governments telling them how to live...or of other metas telling them what to do."

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"It doesn't have to be that way, Frances," Paige replied, even as she wondered if she should motion Christie over. Not yet. "You know they can't just release you, you've gone too far for that. But the things that have happened to you, the way you grew up, that's not your fault. You were lied to and manipulated your whole life, just like I was. I know what it was like to grow up in the family, and I will testify about it for your sake and for Carolyn. Other people will testify too, people who watched you grow up and understand. If you will cooperate and go through therapy, you can be rehabilitated and released in just a few years through the Project Freedom program. Flatscans and metas aren't enemies, not in any world except the imaginary one that your grandfather saw. You don't have to make yourself a martyr for his twisted vision." 

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"...no." Frances walked back from the barrier, hands falling to her sides, a mutinous look on her face. "I'm not...I'm not going to talk about family like that in front of a bunch of flatscans, and I sure as Hell am not going to blame anyone else for the things I've done." She crossed her arms, unable to keep her body still. "Maybe I have been lied to, and maybe Grandpa was worse than I thought, but I am nobody's pawn, and I am not going to...to debase myself, like some unbred two-bit meta-hood, so I can go to some happy, hand-holding jail with some drunk and fliers." She looked away, but despite the defiance, her aunt could hear the grief in her voice. "I'll talk to the lawyer, so we can do it right, and so I don't screw anything up. But that's it. It's too late for anything else." 

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"That's your choice, Frances," Paige told her niece quietly. "And you're right that at the end of the day, you're the one responsible for the crimes you've committed and the people you hurt. But you've been hurt too, starting when you were too young to even understand what was happening to you. By the family that was supposed to be protecting you. Keeping silent about what he did to create us, how he raised us, isn't protecting anyone anymore. And I don't believe it's too late for you." 

 

She sighed and took a step back from the barrier. "Let me call Christie over to talk with you about what the legal process will be from here on out. She's smart and very good at her job, and she already understands about the Psion family, so you can tell her as much as you want. And if you want to talk to me about anything, you can call me anytime." 

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"I will," said Frances after a long, noticeable hesitation - not as if she was lying, but as if she'd been trying to think of what to say. "Thanks for coming by." 

 

Paige gave Frances and Christie some privacy - while she could listen telepathically from across the corridor without any problems, it certainly didn't hurt to give her young niece the appearance of privacy during her conversation with her attorney. When they were done, and Christie had left her client behind, the two women walked together down the corridor. Taking advantage of the mental connection they'd occasionally used for private attorney-client conversations, given the circumstances, Christie said "Well, looks like rain out there," giving Paige the go-ahead for a mental connection. 

 

"-It's going to be tough. I think we can avoid maximum sentencing with your testimony, with her admitting what she'd done, and with what we can offer about the Psion family. Beyond that...Frances is a violent felon. And then there's the question of any federal trial...-" Paige could hear her friend sigh. "-As it stands, now that you've talked with her, and with you'll testify to in court, once all the trials are done, we can avoid a life sentence once her trials are done. If she talks...she might get out in time to see that little child as an elementary school kid.-" 

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~That's probably the best we can hope for,~ Paige agreed, taking out her phone and concentrating on an empty calender page while she built the mental link. ~She's family, and I love her as the daughter of my sister, but it doesn't blind me. There's no way Ember Psion should be out on the street anytime soon. I'm worried enough about what Argent is doing while she's out on bail, and she's far more stable.~ The conversation between Christie and Frances seemed to be coming to an end, with the lawyer passing several folders of paper through the forcefield for her to read over. The two old  friends let the conversation lapse for the moment. 

 

Paige didn't pick it up again until they were off the island entirely, back in the parking lot where they'd left their cars. "You could try and take guardianship," Christie suggested, reaching into her purse for a pack of cigarettes. She offered one to Paige, who waved her off with a slight pang of regret. Seventeen years since she'd quit smoking, and still that pang. It didn't seem fair. They leaned back against Christie's blue Mercedes and studied the island. "She may be twenty-seven chronological years old, but you know how much that means in real life. There's still a terrified and angry sixteen year old girl in there with no idea of how the world works. You know the psych evals are going to show she's barely fit, even if she cooperates." 

 

"I can't." Paige shook her head again. "It might make things easier, but I'd lose her forever. This is her first chance to make her own decisions as an adult. Even if I think it's a wrong call, I can't take that away from her. It'd be worse than prison." 

 

"Yeah, I thought you'd probably say that." Christie blew out smoke, looked at the vast gray sky above the squat prison building. "I'll do my best for both of them. We'll see how it all shakes out. What kind of odds are we giving on an escape attempt before trial?" 

 

"I never bet on a sure thing," Paige replied dryly. "It's not if, but when. The family is bound to be in a shambles right now with Father gone, but they aren't going to leave anybody behind. Julianna is probably frantic, even though I'm sure Argent and Empath have been in contact. Every precaution's been taken, so that's going to be a matter of seeing how it shakes out as well. God, other people's families must be so boring!" 

 

Christie snorted. "Yeah, and now you know why "interesting" is a curse. Keep in touch, all right? Say hi to Richard and the kids for me." 

 

Once the attorney departed, Paige stayed for a few more minutes, till she was sure some surveillance camera operator in the prison was probably getting twitchy. She wondered what it would've been like to be caught and sentenced down there, never free, never seeing the sun. Shivering a little, she turned her back and hurried to her cheerful red minivan. If she wasn't careful, she'd be late to pick up Holly from school. 

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