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Avenger Assembled

10th Anniversary Vignette: 10 Years

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Wander Vignette


"Time Spent With Cats is Never Wasted" 


December, 2007 (fifteen)

It was cold, and getting dark, and Erin didn't know where she was. None of this was anything she wasn't used to by now. She didn't suffer from the cold the way she used to back in Seattle, didn't shiver from it or get blue around the lips, but she could still feel the bitter sting of it against her bare skin. She was still wearing t-shirts and blue jeans every day, picking up new ones by rote whenever the current set got too torn to stay on or too caked with dried blood to wear without scratching. It would be a trivial matter to pick up a sweatshirt or a coat the next time she raided the dark and fetid shell of a Walmart, but that seemed unlikely. Changing from summer to winter clothes meant acknowledging the passing of time, meant remembering that the last year of her family was drawing to a close. Even if she could find other living healthy people by Christmas, which she was determined to do in her less depressed moments, this had been the last year on earth for everything she loved and she needed it to last, possibly indefinitely.


She compromised tonight by finding shelter in an old barn next to the burnt-out shell of a farmhouse. The cold didn't hurt her, but it was still nicer to be warm and out of the wind. The doors of the barn had been opened at some early date so there were no dead animals inside, just piles of old farm equipment and half a dozen well-fed cats still hanging around. The loft still had hay in it, baled and unbaled, so just a little work got her a relatively cozy bed for the night. On a whim, she opened a couple cans of tuna from her pack and began making friends. The cats hadn't really had time to go feral yet, though the kittens had never seen a human and were wary of her at first. One particularly bold orange tomcat polished off most of a can by himself, then plunked down in her lap like he owned the place and started purring.


“Guess you were the housepet type, huh?” Erin asked him, her voice scratchy and strange in her own ears. When was the last time she'd spoken aloud? She had done for awhile, after Megan, just... after. When the grief had no longer stuck her throat closed she'd made herself talk, sing, fill the silence with her own human noise in pointless defiance. It attracted zombies, but that was okay because she wanted the violence and the blood on her hands that didn't belong to anybody she loved. She couldn't remember when she'd stopped doing any of that. Maybe when she realized that the zombies came anyway, or maybe she just stopped being afraid that she'd forget how to speak English.


At any rate the cat seemed to like it, butting her hand with his head encouragingly. Erin kept petting him, even after she laid down when he obligingly curled himself up on her chest in a heavy purring weight. She kept talking too, nothing important, just telling him he was a nice kitty and talking about the kinds of food she would have when she finally got to Freedom City and found a restaurant again. It was the warmest sleep she'd had since the end of summer.


The next morning Erin tried to coax the cat into the Jeep with her, but even an entire can of tuna wasn't enough to get him to hop onto the seat. “Come on,” she told him, “you can be a traveling cat. See the world. See what's left of the world, anyway. Keep me company.” He cocked his head at her and murred, but still refused to jump in. She picked him up and put him in the jeep, his face practically in the tuna can, but he turned around and hopped out again, sprinting halfway back to the barn before turning to look expectantly at her.


“I can't stay,” she told him. His expression clearly asked why not, what was there out in the dead and empty world for her now? “I just do,” she insisted. “There's got to be something left somewhere, and I'm going to find it.” Leaving the rest of her cans of tuna open on the ground, she drove off, keeping a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.



December, 2017 (twenty-five)

“I can't get him an espresso machine for Christmas, he already has like five espresso machines,” Erin pointed out lazily, her eyes half closed. “Besides, it's not personal enough. A really good present has to mean something, like, important to the person who gets it. Last year was easy, I got him that big canvas print of the wedding picture to go with the picture of his grandpa. That was a pretty good present. But we're running out of time here.”


She sighed and lifted her cocoa to her lips, gazing pensively into the fire. Her recliner was set at a strategic distance, close enough for warmth and atmosphere, far away enough that she did not bake even with the footrest up. It was just about perfect. In her lap, Charlie stirred and stretched, his claws piercing her denim jeans without ever poking the skin. “Keep petting,” he insisted.


“I've been petting you for forty minutes,” Erin protested. “My hand's going to fall off.”


“Superpowers,” Charlie reminded her lazily, settling down into full-meatloaf position. “No real danger. More petting.” He closed his golden eyes and purred as her hand fell back into rhythm. “Better.”


“You,” Erin told him, laughing as she stroked his silky back, “are the least helpful animal I have ever met.”


“Not true,” he insisted, stretching his legs and kneading biscuits on her jeans. “Very helpful. Good for blood pressure, good company. Protect you from many insects and mice. Also there is Baxter.”


Erin paused and considered that. “Okay, good point. You're much more useful than Baxter. But you still have to be nice to him when they come for Christmas.”


Charlie didn't say anything to that, choosing instead to ostentatiously close his eyes and pretend to fall into a feline coma. “You have to be nice,” Erin insisted sternly. “Christmas is hard enough for Jessie already, she doesn't need to be worried about you taking a swipe at her dog. He's not smart like you, you need to be the bigger, ah, creature.”


He opened one eye, rolled it at her. “Will not bite first,” he allowed with great reluctance. “Marking will require retaliation.”


She snickered. “You know, I don't know if you talk like this because you're still learning magic human talking, or if it's because you have Trevor as a role model. Are all the other magical cats going to look at you someday and wonder why you don't use articles?” Charlie ignored the question, but his usual look of smug satisfaction was even more pronounced than usual. “Right, you don't care at all. I guess I need to get Jessie something for Christmas, too, and her froggy friend. I wonder if they'd like to visit Seattle, like plane tickets and a hotel or something. Jessie hasn't been back except for a few minutes since she got here, and Aquaria would probably get a kick out of Pike's Place. Could be good.”


“Baxter gets boarded,” was Charlie's only, very firmly delivered, comment on the subject.


“You mean you don't want us keeping him here?” Erin asked, tongue in cheek. “That's not very friendly, he's practically your cousin. Wouldn't you rather go to Dutemps if I needed to go somewhere for awhile rather than be boarded at the vet?”


Charlie visibly bristled at this set of choices. “Unacceptable.” he practically hissed, his claws digging in just a little further on her pants.


She laughed, smooshing his ears down momentarily before scratching under his chin the way he liked. He purred, but it was a reluctant purr. “You're so spoiled, you know that, right. Richie Rich as a cat, the whole world in a silver cat dish. When your dad lived with me, he stayed warm by sleeping under the covers of my dorm room bed with me or sleeping on the radiator vent in the girls' bathroom. And then he had to go off and save the universe or something.”


“Should've stayed here,” Charlie opined lazily. “Nicer here with you.”


“I'm glad you think so,” she told him. “It's nice here with you, too.”



December 2027 (thirty-five)

“Help, help, help, help, help!” Erin barely had time to straighten from her crouch in front of the Christmas tree before a flying orange blur hit her at full speed, ricocheted off her shoulder, and rocketed into the higher branches. “Evil spawn, evil presents, evil!” Charlie hissed, his gold eyes glowing.


Another clatter behind her had Erin turning to find said evil spawn screeching to a halt in the doorway, attempting to reverse course before being seen. Travis was the first to realize they'd been made, shoving both hands behind his back and looking innocent. Cecily wasn't quite as sophisticated, catching on quickly to the need for subterfuge, but forgetting to hide the frilly wad of fabric she was holding. They both gave her their best cherubic grins.


She sighed. “Okay, Evil Spawn, all hands in front. Why are you tormenting the cat?”


Travis scowled, but brought his hands from behind his back to reveal his allegedly kidproof phone in its utilitarian black case, along with a string of battery-powered Christmas lights. Cecily raised her hands, the lump of fabric resolving into a truly hideous green and red dress sized for a large doll or possibly an average cat. “We want to make a cat movie, but Charlie won't help us,” he accused. “It's gonna be so cool but he won't hold still!”


“Cat video, mommy!” Cecily agreed, nodding vigorously. “Like Uncle Mark made!”


“Uncle Mark turned himself into a cat for that video,” Erin explained, “he didn't force any animals to be in it for him. Charlie doesn't want to be in your video and it's not nice for you to chase him,” she scolded. “What do you say?”


Travis heaved an enormously put-upon sigh that let Erin know she was an utter philistine for stifling his creative vision, but he turned towards the tree anyway. “Sorry, Charlie,” he said ponderously.


“Sorry Charlie,” Cecily echoed. “Please wear the dress?”


“Never!” came the very certain voice from deep inside the tree.


“But how can we make our video, Mom?” Travis whined. “We can't turn into cats!”


“I can!” Cecily insisted, dropping to all fours and starting to meow. She butted her head against Erin's leg.


“You're a very nice cat,” Erin assured her. “Why don't you call Uncle Mark?” she suggested to Travis. “Maybe he'll pop over with Richie and help you make a sequel to their video. That would be fun. Just make sure to clean up any water that gets spilled.”


The idea of a visit from the Lucases brightened the kids immensely. “Okay!” Travis agreed, racing from the room with his sister at his heels, surprisingly agile on all fours.


Erin turned back to the tree. “You may want to get while the getting's good,” she suggested to Charlie. “The upstairs ballroom balcony is going to be warm with the heating on and it'll be nice and quiet.”


“Like it here,” Charlie insisted.


“This Christmas tree is full of presents,” Erin pointed out. “It's like catnip for small humans.”


With great ill-grace, Charlie jumped out of the tree, shaking himself all over as he landed on the ground. Even though speed was of the essence, he took the time to groom one shoulder contemptuously at her before heading for higher ground. Erin laughed before turning back to her interrupted task, tying sloppy ribbons around the packages she was placing under the tree. She wasn't really much of a decorator, but the ribbons ensured that present-opening lasted long enough for them to snap a few photos, at least.


Early morning presents and the big breakfast and the video call to Aunt Jessie would round out the Christmas morning tradition very nicely, especially when knowing the right people meant they could spend the afternoon sledding on an assured blanket of snow in the backyard. She was just thinking about whether they might need a bigger toboggan for all of them this year when another strange noise caught her attention, this time from the fireplace. Someone was sneezing.


She turned again, automatically angling her body to minimize her front exposure and glancing toward the bat hidden in the arm of the sofa. It wasn't necessary, though. The creature in the fireplace was obviously a cat. At first she thought Charlie had somehow fallen down the chimney, but this cat didn't have white socks, nor could Charlie float in the air to get over the grate or vanish soot from his fur with no effort. “Oliver?” she asked, startled and uncertain.


“Hello, Erin,” Oliver walked over to her as though he owned the place, twining around her legs in a friendly way. “It's been a long time.”


“It really has,” she agreed with a half-laugh, crouching to pet him. “I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again. How's life out in the universe?” Oliver's fur was soft under her fingers but she could feel scars in his skin that hadn't been there before, the marks of hard battles. She had more scars now than she used to, too.


“It keeps me busy,” he assured her. “My champions are brave and strong, and their work is praiseworthy, but none of them have been as gifted or as willing as you were. I miss our time together often.”


She smiled. “I miss you too. I'm really glad you introduced me to Charlie, he's really something, but you and I had some really exciting times together. He's off hiding from the kids right now, upstairs. Did you want to talk to him?”


Oliver gave her a feline smile. “I had heard you were kittening these days. It looks good on you. You seem settled. Are you happy with your choice, then?”


“Yes,” Erin told him firmly. “I miss you, but I've never regretted it. Earth needs me, and I need it. And I'm very happy.”


“Good.” He purred and rubbed his forehead against her hand. “I find myself in want of a place to rest for a little while. The battle is long and it never really seems to end, but one cannot always be fighting. May I stay?”


“Of course.” Erin scooped him up and carried him over to the couch, just like she had when he'd been her pet, such a long time ago now. They settled in together next to the tree. Oliver's purring loud in her ears as she stroked his fur. She yawned and propped her feet up on the table. “You're family, you're welcome here as long as you like.”


"Thank you," he told her gravely. "You've always provided a superior resting place for cats." 


"Well I do try," she replied, equally soberly.


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Wraith Vignette - "Twice As Lucky"


<I do not like Earth. Why can we not go home? We can find the criminals, and stab them.>” She was pouting, and she could see why humans did it - it was, for a body supposedly made of animal meat and bone, an oddly satisfying slump to mimic a more natural liquid slouch.


English, Dirinai,” said her mother - patient and collected as always, “and speak with your mouth. You need the practice before we move to America.”


“Indira,” she corrected, which earned a less-than-satisfactory hum from her mother. “Why must we go to America? I had gotten to know people here. I was making friends.”


“We must keep our family safe, Indira.” Her mother sighed, turning away from her task to view their only child with stern sympathy. Indira knew that look, and responded by bonelessly pouting even further - she wasn't going to get anywhere tonight. As usual. “Soon you will have a place you can call home. We promise. I will hear no more of this.”



“That’s good work. Toss ‘em on the desk, will you?”


This was a dubious proposition: the desk in question may have been solid wood but even it was creaking under the weight of all the other items that had been ‘tossed’ for supposed later organization. If Indira had been hired as a secretary, she’d have been offended; since she hadn’t, she chose to ignore it.


She opted instead to displace Jack’s coat, a long brown thing that she draped over one arm so that she could place her files on the bare corner it had occupied. She was already smiling to herself in anticipation of the gruff-


“Careful with that.”


Yes, that was it. She hmm’d, holding it up to inspect it for any new holes before moving it to a place of honor on the coat rack, where coats go. “I know it is traditional,” she mused, cocking her head at its fraying form, “but does anyone ever comment on the private investigator wearing a movie coat?”


Jack snorted, looking up from his own work to gesture at it with a aging, calloused hand. “That is an antique, and so’m I, so show some respect. Movies got it from us, not the other way around, and don’t you forget it.” She smiled noncommittally, but gave the coat rack a bow of respect nevertheless. He tried to not look amused. “Besides, it’s been with me longer’n any o’this. Anywhere it is, that’s home. You’d be twice as lucky to be half as blessed.”



“We have to leave, man. We have to leave now. We have to leave yesterday.”


Bobby had always been a worrywort, and clearly today was no different. Fisher put his cards down and sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he turned to talk to his...associate. One day he wouldn’t need Bobby - he’d have a better class of lackey. For now, he made do. All part of the plan.


“He’s an old man, Bobby,” Fisher said, like he was explaining something to a child. “And he’s hurt, at that. Even if he makes it, and figures us out, and makes it in here, what’s he gonna do? We’ve got like two score guys on this job, we’ve got his granddaughter, he’s not gonna bust in here with some old Sam Spade revolver crap. If he tries, we go and turn the office, or we nab that assistant that you were supposed to have already. Or maybe you forgot.”


Bobby had the grace to look sheepish, but only until he remembered why he was there. “No. Joe-”




“F-Fisher. No, man.” Fisher was getting worried, now, too, under the impatience; Bobby spent most of his free time fretting about some nonsense, but in the dim lights they’d set up he looked awfully pale. “You don’t get it. It’s not him. We’ve gotta leave. Forget the girl, leave her, it-it’s-”


There weren’t lights anymore. Some of the men started swearing, card game forgotten as they tried to dig their flashlights out in the dark. Somewhere off in the distance there was a soft grunt and a thud, and the chilling clacking of claws on brick that went up in a way not supported by the absence of ladders and staircases at that end of the expansive loading dock.


There was swearing as flashlights landed on unconscious bodies; Fisher was already going for his gun, and Bobby was going for a panic attack.


Too many flashlights to not see something. Fewer flashlights by the minute, but only where nobody else could see it happen. More panic, and less swearing, as each beam of light cut out. An awful rattling noise that echoed around the room, impossible to place.


“I saw it, man. It’s here.”



Indira’s coat fluttered in the wind as she opened the top floor balcony doors, and she smiled despite herself; it was the only piece of real clothing she was technically wearing, appearances aside, but for all its occasional inconvenience she’d grown fond of its old, brown weight.


“This is my favorite spot,” the Indian woman said, turning her smile toward the new girl - it was warm, calm, and inviting, an older sister welcoming the newest member of a close family. “The height is better if you climb to the spires, but they take you further toward the center of the castle and this is a view that cannot be beat. Most would be twice as lucky to be half as blessed.”


The girl took her side as they looked out across the nighttime city, Indira letting her eyes slip black even as the newest addition’s began to glow. “It is always important to remember that we are above the city only in height. The old stone and the new skyline is wonderful for pleasure and for keeping you grounded.”


There was silence, then, for a moment like an eternity before her reverie was broken a sound her friend couldn’t hear. Introductions would be in order soon. “Do not mind the shadow dogs, and remain out of the spooky room - you will know it when you see it. If you see a large frog, she too is a friend, as are the aliens and the ghost. Especially the ghost, but you have met her already, I think.”


Her smile claimed a bit more of her face, and Indira turned back to look not at the skyline but at the stone walls of the city’s strangest building. “It is an odd place, but a good place, and fitting for such a strange group. And...it is home.”

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2007, Edwards Air Force Base

"Congratulations again, Lieutenant"

"Thank you very much, Commandant Luallen." The massive young man, clad from head to toe in the dress uniform of the United States Air Force, tenses his shoulders back, head snapping straight. Cut off by a pat on the shoulder, the Colonel beside him smiles.

"At ease, at ease. You worked hard for today, Lance. You can take a breath."

A breath like the release of a pressure valve escapes the young Lieutenant's body, relaxing his tall frame. His mouth has a smile plastered on it, even as his eyes look almost tired.

"I know, sir. But I just can't believe I'm here already. It feels like just yesterday when I got the acceptance letter."

Behind them, the sounds of men and their families congratulating one another make the two raise their voice a bit more, even as they begin to walk to a quieter corner of the hall.

"To be honest, sir, I'm still shocked I even got accepted. I've heard of people spending years on the waiting list in order to get into Test Pilot Academy, if ever. I hadn't even been out of the Academy for very long before getting called up. I was reeling wh-" With a firm pat on the shoulder, the young pilot gets cut off.

"Now, now, just take a breath." Slowly, bit by bit, the Commandant begins to inhale through his nose, straightening himself up. Following his lead, the Lieutenant does the same, filling his lungs up. In turn, they both exhale, before speaking once again. "There you go. Much better, right?"

The graduate finishes the last bit of air, a smile properly on his face. "Yes, sir. I guess I just had a bout of shock about the whole situation."

"Your humility is appreciated, Lieutenant. You wouldn't be here if you didn't have the ability. Just because you're young, doesn't mean you don't have it in you. Now, then..." Cut off by the group back in the room calling over, Commandant Luallen gives the newly-graduated test pilot an encouraging slap on the back, pointing him back towards the other graduates. "Go on. And get a glass of champagne. You told me earlier you haven't even had a drop to drink this whole year. You earned it."

Saluting in thanks, Lieutenant Factor goes off to join his fellows, each and every one of them looking forward to a career of pushing the newest technology to their limits.


November 2017, Skies Above Freedom City



A streak of silver flies across the hangar bay, before crashing into the far wall. A huge divot embeds itself right where the object aims. A couple mechanics, having taken a duck and cover nearby, carefully approach the embedded object and begin to pry it out.

The hangar door howls with the wind from outside, as the winged figure walks in. His left hand tugs momentarily at his matted hair, a grimace of frustration on his face. The sealing door cuts off the rushing air, leaving only the sounds of heavy metal footsteps clanging upon the floor of the bay.

Hitting the middle of the room, Victory stops, shutting his eyes and taking deep breath after breath, trying to calm himself. Along his body, a myriad of vents open all at once, exhaling clouds of steam as the staff wait along the edges of the room. When it clears out, the mechanics rush in, attending to their duties.

While the workers around Victory work on dismantling piece by piece of outer armor, shuffling them off to cleaning and maintenance, leaving the inner skeleton of the cyborg supporting the remaining flesh inside, an AEGIS official approaches.

"You did good out th-"

"He's still out there. AGAIN, he managed to slip away."

"But those people are safe. That's the most important thing. And nobody else could've gotten there in time except you."

Hanging his head still, the hero finally steps out of the designated spot, having the much lighter day-to-day plating put back over the robotic skeleton, looking as close in shape to the rest of what remains of his human body as possible.

"But he'll be back again. What happens if I'm busy on a rescue halfway across the world?"

A smile crosses the higher official's face, as he stops their walk. Patting Victory on the shoulder, he hands over the tablet carried on his side.

"Well....remember the program we had discussed?" Victory begins to read, with his eyes going wide within a few lines. "Well...I finally managed to convince higher-ups to provide funding. We'll be starting up the first round within the next year and a half. And you..."

".....Head Instructor...?"


November 2027, Classified Location


"...and don't forget, you're here because we know we have what it takes. You've already sacrificed more than anyone could ask. You're extremely bright, and it's clear from how you got here that you've got the guts and character to make it through this program. But..."

A flesh-and-blood hand lands on a silver upper arm, belonging to a fresh-faced young soldier. The brown-haired corporal looks down at his own artificial arm, then up to the smiling face of the Colonel. The same face that had been seen all over AEGIS recruitment material for the last decade, with or without a helmet.

"...if you really do want to go back to civilian life, you have my word. We'll get you back there."

A warm smile, then the Colonel straightens back up. "Now, get back to the rest of the team. You've all got a new drill coming tomorrow."

Trading a salute, the office door shuts, with the younger man disappearing in a flash of movement. Shutting the door once he's all alone, Colonel Factor lets out a long breath, walking back to his desk. Dressed in his daily uniform, endowed with a unique patch on the right shoulder showing a pair of metal wings, the massive man steps up to the wall behind the central desk. Nearly a dozen helmets, blue and silver all, adorn places of honor. With one exception: A black helmet, shaped similarly to the others, but with a more menacing edge to its wing-like protrusions, sits out of formation, near the corner.


The now middle-aged hero puts a metal hand upon it. It moves and shifts like an arm of flesh, muscles and fibers made of a shimmering metal, one far beyond the sort that make up the walls of room he finds himself in.

Removing the helmet from  its mounting, Colonel Factor turns it over in his hands, a smirk on his lips as he looks at the faint orange glow that still remains swirling, trapped inside.

"Who would've guessed? All it took was seeing things from a teacher's point of view. Guess you were a success after all, V1."

As if to cut him off, the alarm throughout the base blares, as the PA system kicks in.


Placing the black helmet back in its spot,  the Colonel turns back towards his door. With a loud clang, the entire room shifts. Going downward like an elevator, he stands firm in the very center. The suit covering his body goes from a deep, dark blue to a shining silver, before it seems to melt and spread all over his body. When the only thing left open is his mouth, the vet stands in a broad, winged shape. The Victory that's been patrolling the skies of not just Freedom City, but the world for nearly 2 decades.

The room stops, with the door-holding wall retracting entirely. Before him are a cadre of men and women, all with various arrangements of cybernetic parts and bodies. Each of them stands at attention, and all bear the same silver-wing logo upon their shoulders.

Victory steps forward, his voice booming out over the PA system within the wide hangar bay.

"Alright, everyone! We've got a hole coming in. Here's our plan of approach..."

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2007 Freedom City, Robinson Services Garage


Lexa Venn was only seven years old, playing happily with her ball whilst her father worked in the chop shop of a certain Mr. Axel Robinson. It was an oily, greasy place, full of diesel smells and grubby mechanics, but Lexa did not mind. She liked the fumes, and she minded the dirt not one bit. Her mother claimed that Lexa actually liked it, and on this matter she was astute and correct. Perhaps Daisy Venn, her mother, might have disapproved. She was a nurse, and hygiene was important. But whilst she tutted, and sighed at the prospect of wiping the grime from her daughters face, she did not worry or fret. By her estimation it did a child good to expose to the dirt of the world.


The shop was frequented by biker gangs, including the Blacksmokers. Whilst whispers of nefarious, and at times even infernal (literally) machinations bubbled and brewed in the chop shop, there was never any fear for Lexa Venn’s safety. Every clan had its code, and if anybody was misfortune enough to harm a hair on Lexa’s head, they could be assured that the Blacksmoker gang would harm considerably more than a hair in retaliation. One would expect that considerable dental work would be required after such attention.


Every now and again, there would be the roar of engines, deep and wonderful. Sometimes loud, but Lexa was no longer startled. The fear had quickly evolved into a fascination. Sometimes it was a bike, sometimes it was a car. Even a speed boat, on one exotic occasion.


Lexa loved her father, and by extension she had loved what he did. But soon, the love was more than just the penumbra of idolisation. She genuinely grew to feel at home amongst gas and throttles, clutches and cylinders. She ached for the day she could drive herself, or at least have a whirl on a quad bike. For now, she amused herself with watching, and learning which end of a spanner goes on what parts of a bolt. Every now and again, there was an inevitable misplaced swing or twirl of a spanner or some such like, and almost inevitably, there were tears. But every time the wail of a child shrieked through the shop, she would be picked up with love, consoled, and her distress soon waned. And every time, she would pick up the spanner again.


2017, Freedom City University Hospital


Another day. More blood samples. X-Rays. A MRI today, which was a regular, but at least not daily, occurrence. Visits from lawyers, police, AEGIS, and various scientists from the Allbright institute.


Nobody could quite put together what had happened. Both legs lost in an instant. Her right arm pretty soon after. They were trying to save her left one, but on the sixth operation now, and things were not looking good. Multiple fractured ribs and internal damage, but at least they had managed to stich her guts back in. Somehow her heart had escaped penetration.  The spleen had gone. A lifetime of antibiotics beckoned.

And amidst all this horrible loss for Lexa Venn (compounded by the realisation that she was to blame), she was in isolation, the esteemed Scientists of the hospital and AEGIS and the Allbright institute trying to work out what she was infected with, and why her shattered or absent limbs were being replaced by twisted metal. “The Mechaphage” they called it.


Her mother tried to lift her spirits, despite a heart for of tears. But it was hard, so hard. The isolation did not help. How she yearned to hug her daughter, to kiss her. And maybe, deep down, to shake and beat her for her foolishness. But for all her mother’s bitter efforts, even Lexa Venn, full of joy, was now full of despair. What life awaited her? Crippled beyond endurance, for one so active.

Her mother worked in the hospital, in the surgery department. She had tried to get answers to her daughters mysterious illness, but none were forthcoming, for there were none. A mutated bacterium, they said. Darwin-X, they whispered. But for all the cutting edge science, no answers.


Wallowing in self pity, nay self disgust, from day to day, the horror was broken by tragedy. A plane crash, twenty miles north of Freedom City. A national disaster. Her mother was called away to help with the emergency care in the very same hospital Lexa was in.


The injuries were horrific, not least because so many of the victims were children. The toll broke Lexa’s mother, who broke down in tears, and snapped at her daughter. Lexa was not the only with a missing limb. Not the only one with more than one missing limb. She had not had crushing head injuries, she was not on life support. She was not being fed through a tube in her stomach. She was not the only girl to have lost.

This was no magic ointment. The road ahead would be long and paved with fear. But it was, perhaps, a turning point. She was not alone. She heard the stories of her mother. She followed, on the news, the stories of the aircraft. The failed engines. The mechanic in her seethed, and the enormity of the accident hit her. If only there was something she could do….!


2027, The skies above Freedom


The call had screamed through the airways. The panic was almost palpable!


The pilot had keeled over stone cold dead. One engine had failed. An impossible circumstance. What was it? Sabotage? Terrorism? An act of a vengeful God?


In any case, there was no contingency for something like this. High above the skies of Freedom City, ten years ago to the day of a terrible accident (what portent! Screamed the superstitious) that had claimed the lives of so many, another plane was descending into the city on a plume of smoke, promising ruin and death.


But perhaps not!


Rev screamed through the air herself, on blue jets. He left behind a sonic boom and a lamentably smouldering remains of her favourite limited edition sneakers.


Those days in hospital, and the airplane crash, had always stayed with her. She had met some of the victims, and it was heart rending. She had plenty to do as a superhero, but she always had an ear out for aircraft in distress.


She landed on the wing of the plane, carving herself a hand hold. The heat was blistering but bearable. With one arm, fully resistant to the blazing fire, she reached into the engine. It was darned hard to see, but she could feel around.


Mending an engine one handed on the wing of a plane that was gliding into a full blown crash was not, it should be said, an easy task. But when was aided by a heat-resistant telescopic limb equipped, with a multitude of wonderful tools, spanners (ah! Beloved spanners), drills and wrenches on every finger tip, the matter was considerably easier. It was even possible.


Repairs effected and ground considerably, nay, alarmingly, closer, Rev smashed into the cockpit. She was not a pilot, but how hard could it be? At least both engines were now working. The screams of the passengers evoked more adrenaline, and hence inspiration.


There was no engine she could not manage, she reasoned.


Especially ones revved up. Boosted by her own cybernetic mechaphage.


The engines screamed, and the wings wobbled. Rev struggled magnificently, and it lo, the plane slowly straightened.


As it was, the landing was hardly clean or tidy. A significant amount of fuselage was lost, but no lives were. Minor injuries only, and a landing (such as it was) several miles away from urban density.

All in all, thought Lexa Venn, a thrilling and wonderful ride.

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Ten Years:  Psyche and Phalanx



Harris-Albright Thanksgiving 2007


Even without the the travel restrictions the Alex and Mike were under it was likely the Albright and Harris family holidays would have coincided regardless.  The families were fast friends before the advent of their children's abilities.  The fact that they had little option other than staying in Freedom for the holidays ensured that it was accepted tradition that they alternate hosting each other for the big events.


This year the Harris’ were hosting, Marvin had acquired a fryer and set it up in the driveway promising the gathered family and friends it would cut hours off of the onerous task thanksgiving meal preparation leaving them all much more time to socialize.  Whilst the adults gathered on the lawn to chat and share the news of the day Alex and Mike were free to take their leisure with minimal interference.  They sprawled in the den amid a nest of board games some of which still even retained all their pieces, “I dunno  I get the feeling I felt a lot more challenge in candy land at four than at fourteen.”  Mike opined as he gamely spun the spinner and counted his piece across the board only to be sent back more spaces than he’d moved forward, “Yea that seems about right.” he sighed with a small smile despite his gloomy demeanor he was clearly enjoying the time spent with his friend.


Alex grinned at him from her position across the board. “Challenge isn’t the point of candy land,” she pointed out with the unerring logic of someone who had never been challenged by Candy Land, or really most board games. “It’s fun!”


With her red pigtails in glittery bands and wearing overalls over a brightly striped turtleneck, Alex looked younger than fourteen, especially when she clapped her hands at getting to put another pink peg figure in her steadily filling car. “We are definitely missing some pegs though. If you end up pulling a wife and daughter, we might have to improvise.”


Mike shrugged and let out a short laugh, “Fun?  Without math or anything?”  he teased lightly, “Who are you and what have you done with Alex?”  the broad shouldered teen joked and spun the spinner once more, “Well I’m flying solo so far so I have that going for me.”  he acknowledged as he picked his way down the board.


When he came to a rest he smirked, “Ah taxes.”  and he went to count out the requisite bills from his small pile, “I’m pretty sure the monopoly money has already been mixed in I’ll just use the shoe or something if that happens.”  Mike suggested as he handed the mismatched pile to Alex and waited for her to correct his math.


Alex chuckled and dutifully adjusted the pile of cash before setting his change, plus correction, back in his piles. “Eventually, it’s just going to be a Frankenstein of all the board games together and will make sense to no one - not even me.”


Turning her gaze back to the board, Alex took her turn cheerfully, even when her luck took a turn for the worse. As she put her cash in the bank, she added, “Besides, I always have fun when we’re together - whether or not there’s math involved. Especially when you let me pick the game. I know Life isn’t one of your favorites.”


This time her grin was teasing.


Mike scoffed slightly at her contention she’d not understand the Frankengame, “Unless there is some higher dimensional physics to Uno I haven’t noticed that seems unlikely at best.”  he admonished with a laugh.  He watched her move her car and nodded at her misfortune, “Well you have to admit it is a bit crap.”  he paused, “Pardon my language.”  he excused with a slight blush, “Though you do make it alot more fun.”  Mike acknowledged with a small smile.


Moving past the moment with perhaps a touch too much alacrity he moved to make his own spin and sent the plastic spinner rocketing off its spindle to ricochet off the walls in nearly upsetting the already unsteady pile of games next to him in its flight.  “Uhg, sorry,”  he winced as he stood to try and track down the spinner hoping he hadn’t broken it, “Need to pay more attention.”  he murmured berating his lapse in control.


Alex’s smile was gentle and she held her cupped hands out together, a small crease of concentration appearing on her features as she focused. Telepathy was as easy as breathing for the young redhead, and as natural, but telekinetics took work.


Slowly the spinner stuttered into the air from where it had slipped between two games and floated back towards Alex’s waiting hands. She let out a little puff of breath, looking pleased with herself as she dropped the spinner into her cupped hands. “No harm done, Mike,” she told him kindly as she leaned forward to put the spinner down where it belonged. It stayed in place, maybe a little more lopsided than before but the game was almost ten years old now. “See?”


Letting out a heavy sigh as Alex pushed to retrieve the errant spinner Mike shrugged slightly and curled his shoulders inward his carefree demeanor vanished behind the fear of upsetting the piles of games or causing more damage in some minor movement.  Glancing to the now righted spinner he met Alexs gaze and nodded, “Yea this time.”  he morosely agreed and gingerly ‘spun’ the dial once more, sending in a lazy half rotation and moving his spaces.  He often wished he had Alexs control and focus but every time he stopped thinking about it something like this happened.  


As his already broad shoulders sagged, Alex reached out one hand to cover his, strengthening the soothing aura she projected, “Give yourself time, Mike. That’s really all you need.” She told him with unerring faith in his potential. Squeezing his fingers once, she added, “I’ve never lied to you, have I?”


Mike looked up at her and nodded, “Of course not.”  he agreed, “I just,”  he shook his head not verbalizing further though it didn’t take a psychic to know he wasn’t sure he’d have that time.


Present Day:  Penthouse Suite, AEON Tower


Mike leaned over the counter with intense focus as he laid out the Crudités platter with care.  “They’ll be here any minute Alex.”  He called out a not so quiet reminder that the reports hovering around her above could wait until after the holiday.  Checking the timer on the turkey a final time he stared nonplussed up at his fiance and rose into the air his ‘Kiss The Chef’ apron flapping lightly as he rose to Alex’s level arms crossed as he stared down at her.  “Alex?”  he asked expectantly.


She blinked once at him, finally pulled from ‘the zone’ by Mike’s body blocking one of the holographic screens flickering in the air around her. Data streamed by on the multiple displays, forgotten for the moment as her attention was diverted.


Uncurling from where she’d sat cross legged in the air, she floated over towards him with a smile, “Well, if you insist,” she said before pressing her lips against his, dutifully following his apron’s ‘instructions’. “I’m sorry, you were saying something? I was buried in the financials.”


With her arms curved around his broad shoulders, she smiled at him, “It’s nice to have you home during the day.”


Mike laughed, a low sonorous rumble in his chest, as she blinked up at him and floated over.  “I suspect that may be why you bought it in the first place.”  he teased as their lips parted.  Tucking an arm around her waist as he pulled her gently down to the floor away from her work, “I was saying our parents will be here any moment.”  he repeated with a smile and shook his head amused at her distraction.  “And you’re still in your slippers.”  he pointed out.


Looking down at his fiance the big man raised a brow, “Oh you noticed I was here?”  he asked with a mirthful grin.  Stroking the small of her back lightly he nudged her toward the bedroom, “Go get ready I have finishing touches to get on the appetizers.”  he gestured at the perhaps overkill spread he’d laid out for what was really just a small family thanksgiving.   “You think they’ll like it?”  he asked for a moment uncertain at hosting it themselves despite now having more time resources and space than either of their parents.


“I know they’ll love it,” Alex replied with utter confidence. She left her hands on his stomach, leaning into the affectionate touch even as the buttons that shut down the various displays were depressed by telekinetic efforts. “Even if you hadn’t gone all cooking-network with your efforts.”


She pulled back, dutifully to go get changed as requested even if she’d clearly have rather lingered. No one was going to mind her slippers, after all, but it was important to Mike. Reaching up, she touched his jaw with light fingertips. “And you’re right, that’s absolutely why I picked out that apron.”


Alex floated up to press another kiss to his lips before vanishing up towards the bedroom. Stop worrying, Mike.  


Mike nodded at her assurances, “I hope so.”  he murmured agreement and looked off at the spread as she went to change her shoes.  “I should have gotten the brussel sprouts from that farmers market.” he murmured mostly to himself despite knowing full well no sourcing was going to fix brussel sprouts but his mom had roasted them for every thanksgiving he could remember so it wasn’t like they could just skip it.


‘I know I know i just want it to be perfect.’  He reiterated once more as he tilted his head slightly zeroing in on the sound of the express elevator to their penthouse activating, ‘they’re in the elevator.’  he warned and distractedly pulled a pan of rolls from the oven forgetting the oven mit he’d insisted they needed ‘for appearances’.


“It already is,” Alex replied with a small smile, not bothering to raise her voice, as she shut the door to their bedroom and floated down to join him. She wasn’t about to pretend that he couldn’t hear her and, even if he was distracted, he’d easily pick up her thoughts, after all. Alex gave him a shining smile as she dropped into the center of the living room and padded over to open the door for their parents.


The Albright-Harris Thanksgiving had never been a fancy affair, more suited towards sweaters and tights than anything formal and this was no different. Alex opened the door as the elevator dinged, dutifully telling Mike, “They’re here, honey.” like his hearing hadn’t just given him the information. There was a level of normal that Mike still tried to cling to and Alex was nothing if not accommodating.


“Mom, Dad; hello!” She said cheerfully, offering her aging parents hugs before she turned to give the same warm embrace to Mike’s parents, “Come in!”


Dumping the rolls into a bowl and covering them to keep them warm Mike turned as their parents made their entrance.  Brushing a stray hair from his forehead left a smudge of flour across his brow as he followed up with a round of careful hugs of his own, “Let me get your coats.”  he offered easily and gathered them to hang in the closet by the door.  


“Hope traffic wasn’t too bad?”  he enquired as they welcomed their parents into the penthouse. “Mrs. Albright, Mr. Albright.”  he greeted too formally earning an eyeroll from his mother, “You’re marrying their daughter I think you can manage Rebecca and Victor.”  she scolded lightly as she leaned in to return his hug.  He let out a small sigh at his mother’s perpetually carefree attitude as he glanced to Alex, ‘At least she didn’t say sleeping together.’ he acknowledged as they moved into the living room, “Can I get anyone a drink?”


Alex didn’t miss a beat talking to their parents but her amused peal of laughter sparkled through his thoughts as she sent him a purely mischievous smile.


Thanksgiving 2027: Caldwell Manor


Mike set the dry cleaning in the back of his car pausing for a fraction of a second as he zeroed in on a distant sound.  Glancing to the clock on the dash he nodded, “I’ve got time…” and in a flash of white and gold Phalanx crossed the city.


He had of course had time for that interlude, supersonic flight tended to take the rough edges off many side trips.  Nonetheless enough of them would add up.  He ducked in through the door to the manor with a chagrined half smile, “Uh sorry I’m running late, traffic.”  he murmured as he brushed a stray bit of rubble from his shoulder that had somehow managed not to be dislodged earlier.


“Among other things,” Alex said cheerfully from where she was overseeing some kind of game between their eldest children. “Don’t worry, you’re back in plenty of time to take over here as I need to stand up and walk for a bit. My back’s bothering me again.”


She extended slender hands for Mike to help hoist her out of the couch. “Your father’s trying to put Tim down for a nap, but Christopher and Zoe need an impartial referee or it gets a little heated in here.”


Mike lifted his petite if gravid wife to her feet with careful ease and placed a quick kiss to her forehead.  He shrugged slightly at her knowing look, “Uhm Yea.”  he acknowledged and leaned in to look over the game in progress, “Now kids remember.”  he began earning an eye roll from Zoe, “It’s not whether you win or-”  His daughter cut him off, “It’s how you play the game, yea, yea.”  


She smiled at her elder brother, “And I’m going to play to win.”  earning a forlorn sigh from their father.  


Mike ruffled each of their hair despite perfunctory protests, “Well whatever keeps it fun for both of you.”  he laughed as they did not inherit his particular brand of competition apathy.  Looking back to Alex he raised a brow, “So should i poke my head in the kitchen ooorrrr…..?”  he asked clearly looking for an excuse to take the ill advised action of interrupting this year's designated chef.


“You should not,” Alex countered with a serene smile and a knowing look. “Both grandmothers are finally working in harmony and you don’t need to fuss. Honestly, you should just tell them that you WANT to do the cooking next year when it comes up rather than trying to make everyone happy.”


Alex put the hands in the center of her back, trying to rub the cramp from her spine absently, “Though I am glad that you’re free this year. It’ll make it all so much easier -- Zoe!” Alex broke off to scold their middle child, “-- Don’t freeze your brother.”


“Mooooom, but he thiiinks faster. It’s just making it fair!”


Mike raised a brow slightly, “Harmony?  So no repeat of the great tofurky wars of 2023?”  he joked with a smile and shrugged slightly laying a hand on her back a touch of enhanced speed letting it vibrate like a massage chair.  “Well it just seems to mean so much to them.”  he observed and shook his head, “Besides-”  Whatever he had been saying was cut off by their children's ‘antics’.  

“Zoe.”  he scolded as her brother unstuck from time.  “She’s not wrong.”  Christopher opined and looked ot his younger sibling, “Clearly we should even the playing field in our next footrace and I’ll lower the coefficient of friction under you.”  he teased as he continued to jump his piece about the board despite her efforts.


“Mmmm,” Alex agreed absently, her brows creasing faintly - almost as if she were involved in a psychic conversation, but not quite. Without looking up from the board, Christopher finished his latest round of trouncing his beleaguered sibling, before pointing out prosaically, “We probably won’t be able to even finish this game if Mom continues to progress at the current rate.”


He paused and then fixed Zoe with all the superiority that an eight year old could muster. “She’s having the baby, dummy.”


“Christopher, we don’t call people dummies,” Alex chided, gently but firmly.


“Now appaaawha?”  Mike began a to back up Alex and her mild scolding only to lose train of thought as their precocious sons words sunk in.  There was the familiar look of panic that flitted briefly across his features as childhood cartoon images of needing to fetch hot water flashed through his mind despite having at least three decisive instances to disprove such flights of fancy.


He stared down at Alex his focus just loose enough to confirm he was eying the baby's position, “Why didn’t you say anything!”  he sputtered as his own examination confirmed what Christopher had just said.


Alex scrunched her nose at Mike in displeasure as he clearly used his x-ray vision to see through her skin. “Because you fret,” she replied frankly, absently patting her husband’s arm, “And then you hover and feel awful because there’s nothing you can do. I would have told you if you hadn’t figured it out by the time we needed to leave… which will probably be right around the time the turkey’s done if I’m right.”


“Depends if Grandma takes the turkey out of the oven when it's done, or when she thinks it's done,” Christopher volunteered, unasked, to Zoe’s rolled eyes.


“Know-it-all,” Zoe teased.


She of course was not wrong.  Already he was shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he tried to decide if they should just go now or if he needed to triple check the bags again to make sure nothing was forgotten.  Frowning slightly he huffed, “There’s reason to Fret!” but there was no heat to the words.  


He even let pass Zoe and Christopher's teasing as he looked to the kitchen and through the wall, “Well we certainly shouldn’t tell them they’ll try to rush or hold it off.”  he murmured pensively and frowned slightly as his mother made another run at her ‘famous’ sugar free cranberry sauce.


“You’ll be eating hospital food,” Alex pointed out in tune with his thoughts, absently giving his arm another pat. “We can just leave now if you’d feel better about it. And no, there is zero reason to fret. Next time, maybe I just won’t tell you at all,” she teased before pausing for another contraction.


Mike smirked down at her slightly as he got his worries back under control, “No no we’ll wait.”  he assured her and turned toward the kitchen teasing over his shoulder, “And you’ll be eating hospital food.”  He countered as he paused in opening the door to the kitchen, “Your mom loves me and will pack me a goody bag.”


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A Higher Level


March 27, 2007


"How's it going at the foundry?"


Joe pushed his food around his plate. The family dinners were usually a point of pride, and he was always happy to spend time with his folks. Especially after getting his own apartment in Lincoln and dealing with a hundred different flavors of ramen. But lately, it seemed they'd taken on a specific tone. Especially tonight, when Mom and Andy were out on the first leg of the college tour.


"Everything's good," he said. "Haven't set anything on fire yet."


Dad laughed. Joe could tell it was a little guarded. "Pay's good, right?"


"Can't complain, for where I'm starting out. And I'm taking the effort to set some aside."


"Really? Good to start setting up savings early. Got an eye on anything in particular?"


Here it was. "Dad, you know, you don't have to worry --"


"I don't think it's worrying, Joe. But, like we said --"


"I don't want you to bust your ass for me --"


"I'm your dad. It's my job to bust my ass for you. You don't have to worry -- "


"I do. Andy's got a lot better chance of getting into a good school than I ever will. And you did just fine in construction --"


"Yes, but..." Dad sighed. "World's changing, Joe. Union job doesn't go as far as it did. I just... want you to try and find something that fits you, you know? Something that reaches beyond here. Your mother and I wanted to give you the chance to follow your dreams, and --"


"And you're not sure the foundry's that."


"Well... not in so many words, but..."


Joe raised a hand. "Dad. I know what you're saying. Maybe I'll find something else. But if I don't... the foundry pays well, it's honest work, and hey, I get benefits. More than I can say for most guys my age. If something comes along, then good. But... this is where I am now. And I'm okay with it." 


Dad nodded. The situation seemed defused. "Still, Joe... couldn't hurt to keep an eye open. Maybe something big will befall you when you least expect."


March 28, 2017


"Are you serious?"


It wasn't said judgmentally. Just as an examination. Still, Joe wanted to slink into the depths of the booth. He had met his dad at the bar to discuss matters with Asli, and where they might be going. 


"I'm not saying it's serious, serious, or that we're there yet, but... I mean, we've moved in together, we've talked about the faith issue... I mean, there's a next step, and we're probably gonna take it eventually, so..."


"So, you want to sound it out? Is that it?"


"It's not like I've got cold feet, but..." Joe sighed. "We get along great, but we're still different in a lot of ways. We've worked it out, but I'm always afraid there's gonna be some riff that's gonna tear it apart. And then there's... our line of work. I mean, she can handle herself, but the kids? Andy and I didn't get our stuff until relatively late, so..."


Joe's dad put his drink down. "Joe, I may have never gotten the... blessing from your grandfather that you and Andy did. But let me tell you something. When I met your mother, I was just getting used to being a foreman. I have a decade and a half on her - she may have pursued me, but I kept asking myself, 'What am I even doing with this woman?' But she got me to the altar, and around the time she was pregnant with you, your grandmother... had the first of her turns."


Joe's dad ran his finger around the rim of his glass, as if trying to meditate on its meaning. "What I'm saying is... there will always be something that keeps you from taking the next step. Something that makes you fear you're about to step off into thin air and plunge ass-first into the abyss. But you overcome it. There will be people to help you on the way. You can't be limited by your fear of what could be. You have to focus on the potential of what could be." He smiled. "Besides. Your mother's already decided you'll have cute kids with her, so you can't let her down."


Joe laughed. "You're sure? I mean, if it comes to that?"


"Joe, I'm not the father who gives the blessing in this case, but... you've got my blessing. You sound like you're ready for what comes next."


March 29, 2027


The suit still felt weird.


He’d gotten used to wearing a dress shirt, tie, and trousers. Even if he forewent the jacket. Even if he paired it with boots. It carried an image, but he wasn’t going to bend fully to it. Still, going up in jeans felt a bit too… Texas. And going up in his full costume would just be weird.


If they ripped Dukakis apart for the tank… then again, Dukakis never broke a tank if half, did he?


A gust of wind told him he wasn’t alone. “How’s Boston?” said Joe.


“Holding itself together,” said Andy, who’d swiftly gotten out of his Barrage costume and into his suit. How he could do that without tearing the clothes had apparently taken years of practice and many dollars invested at a thrift shop. “I figure if I duck out for one night, the city won’t go to hell.”


“Yeah, we always say that, don’t we?”


There was a moment’s silence. “So,” Andy said, “Asli’s still good with this?”


“It’s safer than the other route.”


“Says the man who took a rocket to his face.”


“Yeah, well, the more rockets…” Joe sighed. “I’m not invincible.”


“Could have fooled me.”


“Look, I’m counting on being a tough son-of-a-bitch. If I wasn’t… I mean, a hero going public and doing this is lining up for it. But I can’t count on being able to tough out everything that gets thrown at me. I’m not giving up the duty, I’m just… taking it elsewhere.”


“You could just put the helmet back on…”


“Half the reason the press is here is because I’m Asli’s husband. The other half is they pretty much already know.” Joe adjusted his tie. God, it always felt tight. “I mean, fairy tales and all that, but a mild-mannered steelworker hitched to a famous DJ? They always suspected there was something there.”


Joe sighed, looking at the mirror. “I mean… look, you’re right. I am the strong one. Means I’m stubborn as hell. So…” He just let it fall silent.


Andy put a hand on his shoulder. “Dad would be proud. If that’s what you’re afraid of.”


“It’s not. But… man, I wish he was here to see it.”


“Well, I’m sure, wherever he is, he’ll be celebrating.”


The murmuring outside was reaching a bit of a pitch. Joe knew it was time.


“All right. Let’s go do something stupid.”




“Good evening.” Joe stood before the podium, trying to grip it carefully. There was still a bit of nerves, and while he was very good about controlling his strength… well.


“Most of you know me - if you know me at all - as Joe Macayle. Community advocate. Head of United Steelworkers Local 317. And husband to Asli Sadik. But you may also know me by another name. Cannonade.”


That brought the thunder. Joe waited for the tide to die down before he spoke. “I suppose you want a demonstration. I mean, I could bend a steel bar in half, but that’s kinda going against the point of the day. I could show off my resilience, but my wife’s got a thing about me getting shot in public to prove a point.”


There were a few laughs as people tried to figure out how to take that. Okay. Maybe leaning in with humor this early was a bad idea. Time for earnestness.


“You may be wondering why I’m coming out like this. Truth is… I’ve been spending over a decade now, fighting on the streets of Freedom. Busting crime rings, driving out monsters, helping to repel things that represent threats to our life and liberty on a fundamental level… but there are other problems in this country. Problems that can’t be punched - and man, do I know from punching. For too long, there’s been an imbalance in this country. There have been efforts - sustained efforts - to jam the system of government so that people born with wealth that most people can’t begin to dream of can pull the ladder up after them. If the ladder even existed at all. There is an attempt to separate the American people out from the process of America - of creating a system of politics that feeds itself, with systems of security and law that feed themselves. A system that throws whatever crumbs it has left to everyone else and expects them to beg for thanks.


“We can’t allow this to stand. We can’t allow this system to keep driving us apart in the name of feeding it. We have to address problems both on the local level and in the highest reaches of our nation. Which is why I, Joe Macayle, am announcing my candidacy for United States Senator for the state of New Jersey.”




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John didn't have much of a memory. Most of his old life was gone, and that was a blessing. He preferred to let the fog take all of it. It was easier to focus on the mission. That, and focusing too much on what he might have lost was bound to drive him insane. Not caring was the hardest thing he'd ever done. It was a lot harder to just let go of people than he thought it would be. He was a dead man already. No family, no friends. He was a ghost. That was all he was supposed to be, all he wanted to be.


Still, he found himself attached. He couldn't stop it, couldn't help it. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't, He couldn't clean up Bedlam and not care about it, or the people in it. He couldn't want to fix the world, and not be part of it.


That's when he heard about the stabbing of a pastor. It had been an accident. That's all it was. Someone pulled a knife, pastor stepped in the middle. Ambulance didn't get there in time. That's how it happened sometimes. A lot of the time, actually.


There was something about this incident that made him want to investigate it. Was it an accident? Did someone order a hit on this young pastor? What if it was intentional? What if one of the gangs wanted him out of the way? He tried to tell himself it was just another accident, just another incident. He found the outreach center where it happened. There had been a vigil there the night before. The pastor was well liked, and the community mourned him in it's own way. He walked past the flowers to where the man had been stabbed.


There wasn't anything there. The cops found the knife, arrested the perpetrator. It was going to be a fairly straightforward case. Even Bedlam had a heart sometimes. What was it about this situation that brought him here? Maybe it wasn't so open and shut, though. Maybe there was a reason for it. Maybe there was a purpose to his presence. He'd need to dive in, need to see exactly what happened here.


He took a deep breath, and reached into the memories of the area. Maybe there was something lingering, some specter of the incident that could reveal some secret. His intuition told him something was here. Something extra, some kind of reason, some kind of answer for him to find.


John closed his eyes, and Stephen opened them.



He was sitting in front of someone, someone he recognized. The man was dressed in a modest suit, and smiling. There was something alien and familiar about this situation, he let the memories flow. 


“You did well Stephen.” The man said with a smile. “Straight As. I believed in you.”


“Thanks.” Stephen said. “I'm taking a break for a bit, you know, before I try out for the force.”

The man nodded. He was a preacher, Pastor Jameson. He met him when he was in high school. Pastor Jameson had been to his graduation from high school, now his graduation from college.


“I am proud of you, Stephen.” Pastor Jameson said with a smile. There were tears in his eyes. “College graduate and everything.”

Stephen nodded. There were few adults in his life that he wanted the approval of. Few adults he wanted praise from. There were few people he was afraid to disappoint or upset. Pastor Jameson was the only name that stayed on that list.


“So.” Stephen said, choking up a bit. “I just, I want to help, you know? Be a police officer, help people. Do good.”


Pastor Jameson laughed. “Same reason I chose to follow God. Suppose we all serve in some way.”



John staggered, he was breathing hard. This wasn't what he expected, wasn't what he wanted. This wasn't the memory of the stabbing. This wasn't from his powers, this was from deep inside his mind. This was his own memory. Something he remembered about a pastor much like the one that was stabbed.


“Shame about that preacher.” Someone said. She couldn't have been over sixteen years old. “You here to pay respects?” Then she saw who he was, what he was wearing. “OH....” She staggered back.

He drew himself to his full height. “Damn shame.” He said. “People try to do good, doesn't always end well. This was an unfortunate accident, right?” It was a leading question. He wondered what the purpose of remembering that pastor was. If the ghosts were trying to guide him.


“You think that was an accident? Man...” He turned to face her. The coat flowed in the wind. He looked ragged, tattered. “Oh, um, I...” She was afraid, visibly shaking. Fear was a useful tool, but not always. If thugs recoiled the way she did, his job would be a lot easier.


“Just give me a name.” He said, looking her in the eyes.


“Oh, Big Rick.” She said. “Look, we didn't talk right.” She said, raising her hands. “Big Rick wanted him gone. He runs a dice game tonight.”


John nodded. “Thanks.” He gazed up at the roof above them. He ducked a moment, and leaped. He heard her gasp as he jumped into the air. She probably wanted Big Rick gone herself, he realized.


He landed on the roof and broke into a full run. Dice game, dice game. He heard rumors of a dice game. Abandoned apartment building, about two miles away.



“Do you remember me?” John said. He was wearing Stephen's face. The man looked like his old memories. Pastor Jameson was well aged, mid sixties.


He smiled wide. “Stephen!” He choked out. “Oh, I, I heard you were dead.” He took a deep breath. “How, where...”


Pastor Jameson was still the pastor of his old church. After the Sunday service, it was simply a matter of finding the man in his study in the church. Old habits, he mused. Still doing good in the community, John reflected. 


“I did.” John said, in Stephen's voice. “I did die. Kind of. It's hard to explain.”


They were in Milwaukee, it was an early spring evening.


“What happened?” Pastor Jameson asked.


“I transferred to Bedlam.” Stephen said, taking a deep breath.


“Oh, I heard a rumor about that years back. How are things there, still terrible?”

“Better than they used to be.” Stephen said. “Not as good as they could be, but better than they used to be.”


“What have you been doing there?” Jameson asked.


“What I said I would do.” He smiled. “I'm helping people.”


“Oh, that's good.” the old Pastor said with a smile. “You said you died?”


“I can't tell you more, sorry.” Stephen raised his hands. “Trust me it's, a long story. Maybe some day that story won't matter anymore, but...”

“I won't pressure you.” Jameson said. “I understand, some secrets are harder to tell.”


John nodded and took a deep breath. “Actually, you know what? I'm not sure you'll believe me, but, let me tell you what happened when I transferred to Bedlam.




They were playing one of their dice games in one of the upper floors. The lights were very dim, too dim at street level. Not for John, though. He figured the lights were probably bright only near the dice game. Make sure nobody saw it happen. Wasn't too dark for John, though. Not with his sight. He needed to keep his nerves in check, needed to stay calm. He knew that anger would get him shot up. He was tough, but he couldn't ignore bullets. He saw figures in the dark.


He jumped on to a lower ledge and began to climb, jumping where he could to reach the floor where he saw the figures in the dark. There were several men and women serving as security, all armed. However, their coverage was worthless. Their patrol patterns were erratic and poorly maintained. Tearing through them would be child's play.


He descended on six guards, one by one. None of them had a chance to cry out before he knocked them unconscious and dismantled each of their guns quickly. Police training paid off in unexpected ways. These guns would be useless without firing pins. There was one overhead lamp lit on the whole floor, well inside it. They needed the light, he didn't. Some twenty or thirty young men and women sat around a table where they were rolling dice. Most of them were armed, but that didn't matter.


The lamp shattered overhead and everyone drew their guns, straining to see as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. One down, two down, three. They heard the shuffle of cloth, spotted the swirl of tattered cloth. A couple of shots went off, but nobody was hit. John picked the one that looked in charge before he killed the light, and threw him over his shoulder.


Big Rick felt the slap on his face and he opened his eyes.  A rough hand dragged him to his knees, and he opened his eyes, groggy. He was looking at some kind of memorial.


“Does that man look familiar.” The voice was deep and gravely, standing overhead. There were pictures of some guy Big Rick recognized, a pastor. 

“Nah man, I don't know who that is.” Big Rick said.


“You ordered the death of a pastor.” The voice was cold.


“Bedlam man, people die all the time.” Big Rick was a big man. Over six feet, two hundred pounds, hit the gym. He had little to be afraid of and less to to worry about. The hand snatched him up and threw him on the ground. His head bounced against the pavement a little. When he opened his eyes he saw him, the Tattered Man.


“People die.” The figure said. The coat was torn up, ragged, yet on this frame it looked terrifying. He smelled of dirt. Big Rick couldn't see his face in the lights overhead. “You're not making anything better.”


“Nobody is, man. We're all crooks, you know that. Even if I did order a preacher's death, what's it matter? Nothin' matters in Bedlam, man. Nothing but what you can get for yourself. You'll never make a difference, why do you even try?”


“Because people can change, places can change.” John said, remembering himself, Pastor Jameson. “I changed you.”


“I don't give a damn about a Pastor, man.” Big Rick laughed. “You think you can change this place?”


“Not what I'm talking about.” John said. “Your guns are gone, your money's gone. Nobody will trust your game anymore. How long before Bedlam gets you too?”


Big Rick shuddered. “Wait, what?” He said managing to stand up. “The hell did you do, man?!”


His cynical, careless demeanor vanished. John turned and looked up at the buildings around him and started walking forward. Big Rick was behind him, John could hear his angry, stomping footsteps. It didn't matter, he was unarmed anyway.


John jumped to a nearby roof and broke out into a run. He hand to ignore the memories for now. He couldn't focus on who he was before. He had to keep his eye on the mission. He threw a bag full of firing pins into a dumpster and took the guns with him. He took the ill-gotten gambling money and put most of it in a bag by a certain church.


He sat on a roof overlooking city with a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee. As dawn crept over the city, he leaned back against a wall and took a deep breath. Bedlam may never change, he reasoned, but he wouldn't stop fighting. Not as long as people like that Pastor still existed.

Edited by Thunder King

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Emerald Spider in


With Great Power...


An Emerald City High School 2007

Just because they were girl didn't mean the jocks were any worse as bullies, in fact in some ways they were even worse. And the worse of them all was Beatrice Brant, some even unkindly called her the Rhino for her blunt force, almost everyone was afraid to even stand up to her little cliche.


Peri wasn't afraid. Fifteen years old and the words of her mother ringing in her ears, a quiet anger at her sudden loss, often stepped in when Beatrice was picking on the younger students. More an academic than an athlete it didn't always end well but despite the result, Peri always did the right thing. She didn't care about making friends all she was concerned was about finishing her studies.


What else would she want to do?


First Emerald City Bank, 2017


"Wow do people really still rob banks? It's the 21st Century after all!"


Descending from the air on a bundle of superstring made manifest was Emerald Spider her upside face in front of the bank robbers who'd just burst out of the bank. Whatever was going on in her life this was the best part of her day.


"Holy **** it's Emerald Spider." it's wasn't the most creative of responses but understandable, the guns were a lot less acceptable.


A well-timed quip and web of quantum entanglement to entrap their guns were on the way when she saw her of all people, sitting scared behind the safety glass someone she'd not thought about for almost a decade, Beatrice Brant. The quip was lost in the surprise, but not the more important restraining web she'd learned a thing or two in the last year or so since she'd put on the costume. After that it didn't take much more to subdue them, having them all wrapped up in a neat package for the ECPD when they turned up.


Peri had heard somewhere that it was dishonourable to drink with your enemy, but she'd never really held truck with that kind of thinking. So a couple of days later, better not to try and draw any kind of link to Emerald Spider just in case, she just happened to show up at Beatrice window to inquire about her account. It was a surprise how much Beatrice was pleased to see Peri and how quickly they'd arranged to have a coffee and catch up on old times.


The conversation at the local Starbase was about the various woes that had befallen them since High School, and unlike Peri who had come to terms with her choices, Beatrice was bitter about her fall from grace. Apparently whilst she was a great athlete in High School she was only an average one at College. Never caring to study and counting on her athletic prowess to get her through life Beatrice had struggled after school until she'd gotten her job at the bank. It reminded Peri how'd lucky she'd been after High School that lead to her working on the Spdr Rig, whilst she might be financially disadvantaged becoming the Emerald Spider was the best thing that had ever happened to her. So lost in her own thoughts Peri almost missed the question she'd expected since they'd arranged to meet up.


"Everyone else wouldn't dare stand up to us, but you would every since time. Why did you always get involved even if it wasn't you fight?"


Peri took a deep breath but she didn't need to think about it at all, it was something that she knew by heart.


"Every time before my Mom shipped out she would tell me the exact same word, that it was the duty for those that can to protect the weak. And ever since I lost her I have tried to live my life by that principle." she wiped away a tear whilst noticing that Beatrice's eyes had welled up as well, maybe the old bully wasn't a heartless than she thought back then.


"It's not too late you know to do something with your life to help make a difference for this city."


An Abandoned Warehouse, 2027


Detective Beatrice Brant had been hunting the guy for months now and had finally gotten a solid lead on his location, she should have waited for backup but there was a chance that he'd get away again to kill more people. So it was that she was traipsing through this warehouse looking for a killer, hearing a sound she turned to see a bundled up figure hanging from the rafters.


"I hope you don't mind by I got here early and wrapped him all up for you."


A shadow up in the roof of the building, one of this cities greatest hero Emerald Spider. In some ways, more than she suspected really, she was a detective because of Emerald Spider.


"It was dangerous to come here alone Detective, why did you take a risk?"


The detective smiled at an old memory before replying.


"Something an old friend told me..."

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Fear and Loathing in Vineta (November 2007)


Thaelia gasped as the blade came hurling through the stone pillar of the palaestra.  She opened her mouth to scream, but logic won out.  If her assailant could hear her it would be it.  Thaelia knew she shouldn’t have snuck away from the royal guards to play with the local children.  Vineta was called the Atlantean city of sin for a reason.


But, they had invited her.  Kids in the royal city wouldn’t dare to invite a royal to play.  And with her adoptive sister on the surface, the remaining princess found herself with no one to play with.  How could she pass up the invite?  Really, as far as she saw it Thaelia had no choice but to run out on her guards.  It's why the king taught her how to avoid a royal tail.  Even if the queen was famous for always finding the king when she served as his personal guard.


But, as soon as she showed up to the palaestra five grown Atlanteans dove on her.  Attempting to grab a hold of the ten-year-old girl.  But, even at her age Thaelia was stronger than the average Atlantean and quickly threw them aside and began swimming away.  That’s when they reached for their swords and followed.


Now the average Atlantean used a thrusting weapon.  Underwater, you needed a certain level of strength to use a sword with ease.  Either these men were inexperienced in their craft, or they were too experienced.  Neither possibility fared well for the Atlantean demigoddess. 


So Thaelia ran.  Swimming into a nearby mausoleum, because all Atlantean palaestra’s had a nearby mausoleum.  She desperately began to pull out a stone coffin.  Ducking inside she fought every urge in her body telling her to scream as she laid against the skeletal occupants of the coffin.  The men were slower than her, so perhaps they hadn’t seen her come inside the mausoleum. 


The sound of stone tombs and coffins being pulled out soon confirmed she had no such luck.  Thaelia began to pray to the goddess of the hunt.  Hoping Artemis could bring her some measure of protection.  Unfortunately, divine intervention was not in the cards, Thaelia soon found her tomb moving out and herself surrounded by the kidnappers.  One of which immediately stuck his hand out to grasp her by the throat.  To the ten-year-old princess, the man looked like a monster from the tales the queen would spin at night.


This was it.  She was to be ransomed off.  The Senate might even put pressure on the royal family to not pay the ransom.  After all, she wasn’t technically King’s daughter.  Her very existence and divine lineage provided a challenge to the throne.  Making her more trouble than she was worth.  Thaelia closed her eyes and prepared to accept her fate.


“Hands off my daughter!”  A familiar voice yelled.  No sooner had Queen Ariallis yelled than the kidnapper had moved his hands from around Thaelia.  Surprisngly he complied.

“Thalassa, are you well?”  Thaelia simply nodded.  “Then we shall be off.”  The kidnappers made no attempt to stop the queen or princess as they moved to leave.  Fighting the queen would be forfeiting their lives.   After all, they had her daughter.


Atlantean Report (November 2027)


Jason Kreutter was a professional.  He had been planning this heist for weeks.  Everything was perfect, it had to be, after all he planned every detail down to the letter.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t planned for his own muscle to be pointing a pistol at the end of the night in his house boat.  “You have to believe me sweetheart, I had nothing to do with that.”

It all started out going according to plan.  Marcus cut off the traffic lights, and David careened the Humvee in front of princess Michaela’s limo.  Bringing the vehicle to a screeching halt.  Meghan was the muscle, she was supposed to handle the heavy business.  They were kidnapping a Tongan princess, so of course there was going to be heavy business.  No sooner than she had stepped out of the Humvee with her machine gun had Meghan found herself sent flying through the air.


Her rough landing into a public mailbox barely left her conscious.  Giving Meghan a clear view of their Humvee being kicked into the side of a bank.  Kicked.  Not that she had much time to process the sort of monstrous strength needed to do that as the damage immediately set off a silent alarm.  Quietly Meghan slumped away before the monster could find her.

The problem with controlling every detail of a heist.  While you got all the glory for a mission’s success.  It also meant to the rest of your team attributed the failures to you.  Especially when everyone else was in police custody and you were nowhere to be found.  Meghan had been tracking the police radio, come to find out Jason’s name wasn’t listed in the reported arrests.  The police weren’t even looking for him.


Yet, here she was having to limp about semi-concussed avoiding the police.  And the monster at every turn.  Everywhere she went that thing was soon to follow.  It had been 12 hours and Meghan hadn’t gotten an ounce of sleep.  But, Jason.  Oh Jason he was just going on with his life.  Well not if Meghan could help it.


Meghan broke into his houseboat and stood over their leader’s sleeping body.  Gun pointed at his head.  After an hour Jason stirred awake and immediately opened his mouth to scream only to find Meghan’s free hand covering his mouth.  She released it just long enough for him to quickly spit out,  “You have to believe me sweetheart, I had nothing to do with that.”


For his part Jason was telling the truth.  He really didn’t double-cross his team.  The Freedom City native hadn’t been in Washington DC for long.  But, he was the only member of the crew to know one simple universal rule amongst the common criminal of Freedom City.  The moment people start flying, you run. “No darling, I really don’t.”


She pulled the trigger only to find her bullet ricocheting into the wall.  “You,” Meghan gasped as a hand shot out of nowhere to block the bullet.   The ‘monster’ had crashed through the side of the boat and jumped between the shot before the trigger was fully squeezed.  She was six feet of pure muscle, and had persistently been chasing Meghan all day without rest.

“At last, the Daughter of the Seas was beginning to grow wary.”  It boasted.  “Finally, you have led me to your ringleader.”  Before Meghan could piece together the fact that the only reason she hadn’t already been caught was so Thaelia could find Jason, Thaelia exhaled a strong enough gust of air to knock Meghan against the wall of the boathouse.  Already exhausted the hired muscle lost consciousness. 


“Told you, I had nothing to do with it.”  Jason’s unpleasant voice was the first sound Meghan heard when she awoke in the back of the police car.  Her head turned to the side to find the man with a black eye.  Outside the woman whom she had dubbed a monster all day was casually conversing with the police officers.  Laughing at one of their jokes.  She didn’t look so much like a monster. 


“D.C has a Cape now.”

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Robin’s features were screwed up in concentration, bouncing lightly on her toes as her grey-eyed gaze fixed on the high-low bars. A gentle hand came down on top of her braids, “Remember, baby, the important thing is to do your best. No one can ask more than that.”


Her smile was quick and bright for the words from her gentle father. The pride radiating off of him was palatable. “But my best is pretty good, right, Daddy?”


In her spangly leotard, Robin couldn’t help but feel very grown up and fancy as she waited her turn for try outs. Even at eight she knew that catching the trainer’s eye would make the difference in advancing to a whole new level of gymnastics training; way beyond what the Y could offer. 


She wished both parents could be there to watch her attempts but it was hard enough for just one of them to make the time off of work. Robin had some concept that her family was poor, although at eight, she wasn’t yet aware of the strain even an afternoon off would cause for their meager finances. Fens children grew up quickly, but her parents tried so hard to buffer her from the harsher edges of reality as much as they could. Two years from now, that world would come crashing inward but in this moment, in 2008, all Robin had to fret over was the impending tryouts and whether her mother would get to see them. 


“You’ll record my performance for Mom, right?” Robin asked for the fifth time. 


“Yes, honey, of course. Now go on out there.”


With pride shining in the same grey eyes that his daughter had inherited, Robin’s father stood at the sidelines as she sailed through her routine with absolute joy. His daughter was a wonder, and no one would ever be able to tell him differently. After flipping and twisting through the air like she belonged among the birds, Robin stuck her landing for just long enough before dashing back over to the sidelines. 


“Did you get it? Did you? Did I do good?”


The questions burst from her, bouncing with barely concealed energy as she tried to look at his worn phone to make sure that her performance had been captured. Even years later, Robin would vividly remember the way that his laughter boomed and he swept her up for a hug before taking her out for ice cream.


It had been a good day.


It was an absolutely terrible day. Chasing after a mugger had split the seam in the last ‘good’ pair of jeans that Robin owned, and the usual bus that she hopped onto to get back to Claremont was MIA, which left her leaping from rooftop to rooftop and hoping that her antics wouldn’t destroy the jeans past patching by the time she got back to the dorm. 


“What am I even doing here?” Robin muttered to herself as she dropped through the window into the room that she and Fred shared. “It’s been two years, zero progress.”


Which wasn’t entirely fair, and Robin knew that even though she felt it keenly at the moment. She’d come here with the hope that Claremont’s training would help her find out what happened to her parents. Instead, she only had more questions. 


Stripping out of the ruined jeans, she tossed them into her ‘to be mended or turned into rags’ box at the end of her bed. More of her clothes seemed to end up there than not lately.  Crossing to the dresser that held her meager belongings, Robin reached out for the worn picture of her parents in the frame that Fred had purchased. Dr. Martinez had been so pleased with the ‘growth’ of leaving her belongings in the dorm rather than lugging them about in a tattered backpack everywhere she went. 


Robin was self-aware enough to recognize that it did mean that she’d accepted the dorm room as ‘home’ but it was all changing again. This was her senior year. Fred had made it very clear that she was not going to accept Robin’s return to the streets but the idea of taking charity even from her friends chafed. 


“And its home. The Fens might be run down, but it's my home. It was our home,” Robin murmured, aware she was talking to her parents faded images. She liked to think they were still listening, but she was pragmatic enough to recognize that the chance was slim. 


“So… what do I do then? I’m not going to stay on someone’s couch, if I’m going back to the Fens, I need to find a way to put a roof over my head and food in my stomach... Something where I can make my own hours.”


She reached out and gently set the frame back on the dresser. 


“Something where I can help people,” Robin added finally, a promise to the ghosts of her parents, “I can keep chasing the past, but it isn’t going to ever make right, what happened to us. I can’t fix that.” Her gaze slid up only, finding her features in the mirror; her father’s grey eyes and the stubborn chin that she shared with her mother, “But I’ll keep it from happening to other families. I promise.”


Robin cursed under her breath as the stenciled glass of ‘Chevalier Investigations: Private Investigation and Detective for Hire’ exploded into her shabby office, shattered by a thrown brick. Yes, Fred told her that she should shell out for the bulletproof glass but that stuff was expensive and Robin wasn’t all that worried about getting hit by a bullet, or a brick in this case.


But it would have been nice to not have to replace the window. 




Standing up, she crunched her way across the carpet to pick up the brick with her prosthetic. The metal scraped against the stone.  Eschewing the door, Robin stepped through the now gaping storefront and onto the street, looking perturbed but undaunted. No doubt the perpetrator had already booked it, and it could be related to any of a half dozen cases that Robin had open. 


(Sadly, half of those were not paid in cold, hard cash but more for favors. Robin was a perpetual soft touch, certainly, but living on the streets had taught her the value of bartering and early on in the agency’s formation, she’d realized that keeping a steady stream of favors owed made it much easier to farm information in the Fens.)


Letting out a shrill whistle, Robin cocked her head at an alley where a half dozen urchins loitered about, “Hey, Sammy, you and your friends see anything? Save me some time and there’s a twenty in it for you.”


The ring leader sidled closer, his gaze darting towards the side, “Fifty.”


Robin rolled her eyes, “You’re killing me here. I already got to pay for that window replacement.” Gesturing with her good hand towards the window in question, she eyed the kids and their too rangy forms. “Tell you what, I’ll give you twenty bucks, and a pizza to split.”


“....Two pizzas. And soda.”


“Deal,” Robin huffed out a sigh, managing to look put upon and pleased at the same time. Pulling a bill from her pocket, she made the trade and ordered the pizza, exchanging the goods for a lead on the latest vandalism. One of the petty drug rings she was working, but that was almost good news. It meant she was getting close. She might even have that particular crew shut down by the end of the week, and Fred would have the bullet proof glass she wanted.


All around, it was a good day. 

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Miss Americana


Where the Heart Is 



2007 (nineteen)

Gina looked down at the key in her hand. The realtor had given it to her at the closing, in a little manila envelope with a stupid red ribbon on it. Like a present, except one that she'd mortgaged herself to the hilt to afford. She had more money coming in now than she ever could've contemplated a year ago, but Freedom City was an expensive town. For what she'd paid for the little two-bedroom bungalow in front of her, she could've had the biggest, fanciest house in Blackwater, Missouri. Maybe twice over. She considered it money well spent if it meant she never had to set foot in Cooper County again.


Shouldering her backpack, she picked up her single suitcase and walked up the sidewalk to the front door. There was a little screened in porch at the front of the house, its screens dark enough to make them nearly opaque. She could do more with that, make it more private. She'd already made the phone calls to have the chain-link fence in back ripped out and replaced with a twelve-foot privacy fence, the highest local ordinances would allow. The glass guys had come through already, installing privacy windows everywhere, along with heavy-duty built-in blinds. In this house, nobody was ever going to look at her unless she wanted them to.


The door unlocked with a soft click, opening into the living room of the first place that had ever really belonged to her. The place smelled of new carpet and fresh paint and bleach cleaner, nothing like the musty old smell of the hotel she'd been living in for the past year, or the faintly acrid air freshener tang that Mama preferred at home. It was empty, of course, but for the kitchen appliances, but the cable was already connected and her computer equipment was in her backpack. She could have everything she needed ordered by tonight. When the door closed behind her, sealing her off in her own private sanctuary, Gina felt the constant pressure in her chest finally loosen. Nobody knew her, nobody was looking at her, nobody even knew she was here. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, she could relax.


It was a heady feeling. She took another tour of the home, though she'd already gone over it with a fine-toothed comb during the last walk-through. The place wasn't new but it was in good shape, and she had all sorts of ideas. Completely renovating the basement was first on the list of course, she'd need lots of room for computing space and additional protection. Even with a state of the art security system, she was still a woman living on her own in the big city. That would require moving out for at least a week, an idea that wasn't appealing, but she could probably get the upstairs walls rewired at the same time, get the built-in generator into place and configure everything for remote operation. It would look nearly the same when she was finished, but it would be so much better.


Gina's original plan had been to go out and get some groceries once she'd dropped her things off, sort of christen the house by filling the cupboards. Now that she was here, though, the idea of going out again tonight sounded tremendously unappealing. She ordered pizza instead, figuring she was christening the house by putting herself on the delivery list at the local Papa Johns. When the delivery guy arrived and rang the doorbell (a particularly grating buzz, she'd have to address that as well) she found herself curiously loathe to even open the door, as though she would breach her precious wall of security by letting anybody so much as see inside. That was stupid, though, so after just a moment of hesitation, she opened the door and took her pizza. Left a nice tip, too. This was her neighborhood now, and her pizza place, and it always made sense to get on the good side of the people who you'd be seeing a lot of.




2017 (twenty-nine)

Gina was the first to admit that therapy had not been going very well. After Steve had gotten himself accidentally shot into space a couple of years ago, it had come to her attention that even with an invulnerable robot body, agoraphobia was limiting her effectiveness in emergency situations. Sure, she could haul herself out of the house if it were literally a matter of life and death, but she was barely functional, certainly not the help she'd like to be. It was stupid to not be able to go outside. It was stupid to believe that anybody really cared what she looked like or what she did enough to mock her for it, or that even if they did, it should mean anything. It was stupid to be so afraid. And if there was anything Gina prided herself on avoiding, it was stupidity.


Unfortunately, knowing all those things didn't change the fear itself one little bit. Cognitive behavior therapy was easy enough to practice, with her mind happily dredging up pitch-perfect memories of every time someone had called her ugly or weird, every time her mom had talked about how she'd be so much prettier with a smaller nose or more sculpted cheeks, every time she'd stood on a stage like a painted doll and failed to come up to par. She could play those scenes over and over in her head like YouTube videos, complete with absolutely biting commentary from the asshole trolls who lived in her own mind. But the thing about having eidetic memory was that playing the videos again and again never softened them. Every time was just as bright and cutting and painful as the first. It was... somewhat counterproductive, really.


Exposure therapy was going a little bit better. Steve had mostly given up dragging her around the block on walks, realizing that coerced time out tended to increase Gina's stress rather than allow her to acclimatize. (Steve had gotten a little therapy of his own as well.) Periodic forays into her own backyard, her front yard, the little concrete patio outside her lab, all of them had started becoming easier as long as she didn't have to interact with anybody. Once she was outside, she could stay there for up to half an hour sometimes before she needed to retreat. Progress was maddeningly slow, and she was mad at herself for letting things get to this state, but it was still progress.


Right now the house was the biggest remaining hurdle. What had once been her sanctuary was now at risk of becoming a prison, even a solitary confinement cell. Steve had braved a great deal in order to join her there, putting up with more than any sane man would in terms of her neuroses and nerves. He had his own reasons to want a fortress from the world, so maybe they complemented each other to that extent. But the house had become her dark burrow, her hidey-hole, her lightless escape tunnel from the world, where not only could nobody see in, she could barely see at all. Things became distorted there, she suspected, the way things were always scarier in the dark. She and her home both deserved better.


Gina didn't use her front living room much, partly because she wasn't sure what to do with both a living room and a family room, but mostly because of the large front-facing windows. With their shutters drawn they looked like blind eyes that took up most of one wall. It was creepy to sit on the couch opposite them, watching them as though one might suddenly wink and show her something she really didn't want to see. And honestly she didn't really know what they looked like with the shutters open. But that changed today.


She'd asked Steve to stick around today for moral support, then had banished him from the room at the last minute due to a case of performance anxiety. He really did tolerate a lot from her. It was nice to know he was there, though, just out of sight in case courage failed and she needed a quick escape to the basement. But she wouldn't. Because she could do this. Carefully, every movement precisely calibrated, Gina raised her hands to the window. A flick of her finger disengaged the catch, and then it was just a matter of moving her fingertips (move, fingertips, you can do this, goddammit) and suddenly the shutters were swinging open, flooding the room with brilliant morning sunlight. Gina blinked into the sudden glare like a baby rabbit emerging from its hole, but she didn't run.



2027 (thirty-nine)

How had it come to this, Gina wondered as she stared into the hall closet. How had she become this kind of person? She was a genius billionaire superhero philanthropist, and these days everybody knew it. How had she become the sort of person who wondered if she had enough scented candles set out?


Gina closed the closet door firmly enough to make the picture frames on the wall shake slightly, then spun on her heel and marched away from the closet with great strength of purpose. She made it exactly as far as the living room, where a trio of scented candles mocked her from the coffee table, their flames flickering innocuously, their inoffensive aroma of vanilla and bayberry lightly perfuming the air. (Gina didn't know how a real bayberry smelled, but a bayberry candle smelled like pink Smarties.) It was enough, she told herself. Three was a good number, a perfect number, a mathematically pleasing number that wouldn't set off the smoke alarms. Speaking of which.... shit!


Abandoning the question of candles, she raced into the kitchen just in time to catch the oven timer as it began to beep. Normally she didn't need to set things like timers, eidetic memory and all, but since tonight she'd clearly lost her mind, it had seemed prudent. Just as well, too. The canapes were perfectly cooked, little pigs in a blanket nicely gold on top, wontons crisp on the edges but not blackened. She ate one of each to test them out and settle her nervous stomach. They were good. She opened the wine and poured it into a juice pitcher to breathe (she and Steve had broken the decanter at Thanksgiving in an ill-advised dishwashing splash fight), then popped the cork on the champagne as well so the noise wouldn't bother Steve. He'd planned to be here an hour ago, but had gotten tied up at work, possibly literally.


That was okay though. Mara and Ellie were their friends, and even if it had taken years, it was important to return hospitality for hospitality. More importantly, they were both the sort of people who would understand if this didn't work out. It had been years since Gina wasn't able to leave her house, years even since she'd stepped out from behind the protective veil of Miss Americana, but this was different. Inviting people willingly into her safest space when there was no disaster brewing and lives weren't on the line... it was different. They might tease her just a little bit later if she freaked out and threw them out the front door after ten minutes, but they'd understand. It would be okay.


Drinks, food, scented candles, music... little towels in the bathroom? She had to go check. Little towels in the bathroom, and the nice soap, and plenty of toilet paper. All the shades were up, revealing the Christmas lights shining up and down the street, including the ones Steve had painstakingly hung on their own eaves and bushes. She hadn't been able to bring herself to look in a mirror, too stressed out for that, but she knew her clothes were fine, her makeup done by touch, her hair neat. It was the best she could do. The doorbell rang, a pleasant chiming of bells that echoed through the house.


As Gina put her hand on the knob, she hesitated for a moment, waiting for the familiar racing of her heart. It usually only lasted for a few seconds before she could open the door and go out. Tonight, though, it was steady. There was nothing to be afraid of on the other side of that door. Taking a deep breath, Gina smiled and opened the door for her friends.

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The woman in the mirror looked nothing like Talya, except for the eyes. Those were definitely her blue eyes staring back at her, but the rest of it might as well have been a mask. The wispy white hair pulled back in straggly bun spoke of a woman well into her seventies, at least, although one who was making every effort to age well. The trick in creating a believable illusion was in the details. ‘Rebecca’ had been a vain woman and wouldn’t let a thing like prison or aging ruin her good looks, so her disguise had all the hallmarks of what Bombshell might have looked like, had she ever aged, changed subtly day by day. 


Smoothing her hand over the prison jumpsuit, she moved away from the dingy mirror with the fragile grace of someone who had been very athletic, once, and towards the cell door to await the next part of the day’s routine.  As far as everyone here was concerned, she was Rebecca Danvers, the former flame of the long-deceased Scarab, a famous thief who had taken the name of the World War II hero, Bombshell, to make her own.  There were only a handful of people who knew she was also the original Bombshell, and even less than that who knew she was immortal. Decades behind bars was very good for being forgotten. 


Part of her continued to catalog the slight variations in the prison environment. Dmitri thought she was being dramatic with herself imposed exile. Ace might - might - understand it, if he let himself feel anything long enough to address it. Her release date was steadily approaching so, regardless, Talya could hardly continue this ghost-life. 


Making her way over towards a table and her bi-weekly card game, her gaze absently skipped across the television. 


It was only years upon years of training that kept her posture slightly stooped and kept the flash of fury from twisting her features at the red and gold streaking across the screen. 


How DARE they? Couldn’t they leave the dead well enough alone?


For the first time in years, Talya felt glorious purpose sweep through her. She’d let the release date come, make sure this identity was clear and then… then, she’d make sure this pretender was worthy to claim the name.


After all, she had nothing but time on her hands.



The woman in the mirror looked nothing like Talya, except for the eyes. Those were definitely her blue eyes staring back at her, but the rest of it might as well have been a mask. Talya eyed the effects critically, only to pause in reaching for a slender tipped brush as one of her offspring tumbled into the room. Leaving her makeup half-done, Talya stood to gather the little girl up. Oh, Mia wasn’t upset, certainly; Erik had the girls learning to tumble almost as soon as they started toddling, but she’d clearly been in a hurry so best to see what that was all about. 


“Careful, my love,” Talya said as she scooped Mia up, automatically turning her head to see if one of Mia’s siblings was hot on her heels. The hallway was empty, so whatever had brought her dashing into her parents’ rooms was not a fight with one of her sisters. Probably.


By the time she glanced back to Mia, the little girl was scowling at Talya directly, “Mummy!”


“My goodness,” Talya replied gravely, turning at the waist to deposit Mia on the extra large bed that occupied the center of the room. That bed had been a custom piece and Talya had no intention of actually telling Erik just how much it cost anytime soon. “Such a face. Whatever have I done, Mia?”


Even bouncing onto the plush comforter couldn’t break Mia’s scowl, nor did the teasing penetrate as the little girl’s features took on a decidedly mulish cast that Talya, personally, thought she got from her father. Stubborn ran strong in the Espadas gene; even Terry had his own brand - though he hid it better than his sisters. 


“Mummy,” Mia repeated, scoldingly, “You have your OTHER face on. I don’t like it.”


Oh, of course it was Mia who took exception to the masquerade. Eden was thoughtful, and Terry and Emily were young enough that it probably hadn’t registered. Mia, though, she’d begun to recognize the disguises and, clearly, she decided that she didn’t care for them.


“Baby,” Talya said, softly, her tone gentling as she came down to sit next to Mia on the bed. Gathering the little girl up against her side. She knew what Mia saw, it was the red-lips and sharp lines that she’d worn for decades upon decades. “You know we all wear masks sometimes when we work… This is just another mask.”


Mia frowned, reaching up to touch Talya’s cheeks and the artfully styled blonde curls. Her little mouth twisted downward unhappily, “But you don’t look like you. You don’t look like Mummy.”


Talya’s mouth curved in a small, sweet smile; the smile that didn’t go at all with the red lips and cat eye liner that defined Bombshell. Leaning into Mia, like she was sharing a secret, Talya’s brow touched her daughter’s,  “But it’s still me, dearest. It doesn’t matter what mask I’m wearing, I’ll always be your mum, and that’s all that really matters.”


The girl in the mirror looked nothing like Mia, except for the eyes. Those were definitely her daughter’s eyes turned up for approval but she could probably fool her own father walking by him in the street. Talya hoped so, they were going to test that later and she did so enjoy being right. 


“Mum, is it right?” Mia wanted to know, standing up impatiently to give Talya the full effect. Talya looked over her as critically as she ever had practicing in the dojo.


“It’s good… very good, though you’ll have to watch mussing up the hair. Your mother’s ears are a little harder than most features to disguise,” Talya said with a fond smile as she reached out to tweak Mia’s hairstyle to better hide the delicate points that all the children’s ears swept up into. 


Most parents probably didn’t have disguise and subterfuge high on their lists of valued pre-teen skills. Honestly, most of Mia’s classmates probably didn’t have open access to make-up but Talya had only one rule when it came to cosmetics for any of the children, including Terry. Any child could wear makeup but it meant that Talya would be teaching them how to apply it. 


“It’s very good, you’ve shifted the entire tone of your skin away and the the contouring is judiciously done, not too much. You’ve gone very ‘evening eye’ for a thirteen year old, though. Natural is better for a disguise, dearest, even if sparkles are more fun,” The door banged open as Talya finished her advice alongside smoothing out Mia’s braid over her ears. 


Mia’s ire was immediately drawn as whatever raucous game of tag that had been going on in the rest of the house poured into and around Talya’s bedroom. 


“Oh my god, you guys are the worst!” Mia scolded, clearly copying Eden’s tone. With Eden away at Claremont for her first year, there was certainly a void to be filled and there was definite dissension among the ‘ranks’ as to who should be in charge in her absence. 


Sliding through the chaos, Talya recognized the notable absence of her son which meant either Terry was utilizing the distraction, or he was planning on striking from the shadows when someone’s guard was down. She made a mental note to corral him downstairs towards the dojo and the endless chores that a family business always created.


“Emily, Maisie, I know that you both have homework to be working on. To your rooms, please.” Talya said as she finally stepped into the fray, turning those two girls neatly towards their rooms before anyone could careen across the bed like it was a trampoline. Catching the youngest Espadas, she shooed her towards the patio, “Tempest, your mother is in her gardens. Why don’t you go see if she can put your energy to good use, hm?”


Nodding for Mia to head towards the stairs and see if she could fool her father by joining a class of other tweens in the dojo. “I’ll be down in a bit. Wouldn’t want to ruin your disguise by making it too obvious, hmm?”


It might be chaos, certainly, but she was never, ever bored. 

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Ten Years Ago  


Xavier looked down at the document intensely for a long moment.  He remembered every test, every question, every detail, every name, every scenario the Institute had put before him.  Decades of intense training and testing of the success of their methodology, for the betterment of mankind.  So when he saw her name return, even a decade later, his mind instantly connected the scenarios.  The scope of his view widened and he realized in that moment he had to leave the Institute.  It was the briefest of pauses as the read the report, but one the watchers would detect in one pass over his footage or another.  It was dangerous he knew now to taunt them but the magnitude of their lies fresh in his mind he could not help it.  He looked directly into the camera, the camera his silent companion he was supposed to be unaware of.  His eyes bore into it with the hate and anger and despair he felt in the moment of realizing the harms he had caused.


It had been dangerous, as was the hidden flaw he left in his work that day, it was unlikely it would be noted, it might take years yet.  But a risk he could not avoid, he was no longer their pawn nor tool. As he was brought to his room for the night he turned back to his mentor, therapist, handler, he couldn’t be entirely sure anymore “Good Bye Doctor Grayson.” he spoke softly.  The Doctor paused with a bemused smile, “We’ve been over this Xavier at bed time we say good night.”  she explained as she had explained many of the confusing twists of social interaction over the years.  “Oh of course, my mistake.”  he graciously acknowledged earning the slightest drawn eyes of concern from the Doctor before she dismissed her concerns and left the room.


Both of those sentimental extravagances of course would make their way into his file when his room was found empty the next morning.  As would the statement of the trucker who had picked him up on the side of the road, the doctor and nurse who had begun his exam when the trucker brought the chilled and almost silent young man to the hospital.  The police report they filed when they found the exam room empty once more, and the small fortune of opioids missing from what should have been a secure locker.  The bus drivers, hotel clerks, and myriad of waitresses and others in a trail that steadily grew cold.


He never found the true name of the institute, the facility he’d been kept in was shuttered, it’s trail scrubbed clean long before he was able to risk looking further into their business.  The stolen pills bought him bus tickets, clothes and food as he criss crossed the country by backroad, always dealing in cash, never more than two nights in a place until he was confident that he’d laid enough false trails.  In a dozen different public libraries around the midwest he slowly teased out the shape of the nameless organization more importantly he uncovered a place where he could both be faceless and watch them.


Stepping off the bus in Bedlam he closed his coat tight against the brisk chill and walked out into the city.  He already had his course set, the initial investment would be difficult of course but if there was any city to find a loan without a credit history, or any other kind for that matter, this was it.  Here he could disappear and perhaps, just perhaps, repay some debts while he did.


Present Day  


Xavier sat at the omnipresent coffee shop chain nursing a watery, scalding tea gingerly as he casually watched the courier make his way down the block, through the overgrown and dilapidated yard to the heavy door of one Karen Wright’s home.  It had been ten years since that name had set his course before him.  Woken him to the reality of his ‘education’ with the Institute.  Ten years that had been far friendlier to himself than the Mrs. Wright to his shame.  


He couldn’t see the interaction between the the woman and the courier.  But he could guess, the distrust, the confusion, the eventual acceptance of the folio, he could almost hear the locks clicking into place once more as she retreated from the outside world that had treated her so poorly.  She’d retreat to the kitchen most likely, poor another drink and stare down the envelope like a venomous snake.  No good news came by bonded courier.  Not for Karen Wright.  


He closed his eyes and silently sipped his tea letting the bitter tannins and prickling heat flow over his lips.  Inside the house down the block his estimation was not far off.  KAren set aside her drink and finally opened the sealed documents staring down at them in confusion for a long moment.  Setting his cup down Xavier slowly stood tucking his paper under his arm and began to slowly stroll down the sidewalk.  Karen rushed to the door folio clutched to her breast and threw it open looking for the courier now long gone.  Out and across the overgrown lawn she bolted peering up and down the street for any sign of where these had come from.


Xavier tipped his head to the woman as she shakily retreated back into her home to complete the disclosure forms.  Across town a much younger woman stared blankly at the similar folder of adoption disclosure documents and back to her co-worker who had signed for them, “Where did these come from?”  she asked receiving only a shrugged, “Bike Messenger.” in response.  Staring down at the paperwork she slowly leafed through it, “That PI said these were all sealed though …”  she murmured quietly.


Xavier kept quiet watch on the house to ensure no one from the Institute had tracked his trail of breadcrumbs to reunite the family shattered by the shadowy organizations dark dealings decades ago.  It didn’t make it right but it was perhaps a start.  And really that was the best he could hope for.


He wasn’t there when they were finally reunited, unless he miscalculated, and he never miscalculated, they’d never even see his hand in it.  It wasn't his place, besides there was still work to be done.  While they met in a nearly empty applebee's he was already boarding a bus to Bedlam City.  A good place to vanish and an even better place to find those who wanted to vanish.  


Ten Years Hence


Xavier sat shackled in place staring impassively across the table at his interrogator.  “I’m not here for you.”  he stated once more as the fuming security chief leaned in toward him threateningly.  “I frankly find this entire exercise tiresome.”  he explained with infuriating calm.


Backing up the interrogator began pacing full of menace, “Well let’s start from the beginning then Mr. Steadman.”  he growled  looking expectantly at the rumpled PI, “What are you here for?”  he scoffed, “You and your ‘team’ got no where near that server room you had the plans for in your adorable little hideout.”  he mocked openly.


Xavier merely nodded, “You have no idea why I or my compatriots are here.”  he stated plainly, “You are clever enough to know that our plan was nowhere near success.”  eyes tracking his interrogators movements, “You also know I know that.”  for the first time he shows a hint of emotion as the corner of his mouth pulls up in a smile.  “So you want to know why we started on so clearly a flawed plan that would land me here in your tender comforts.”  Xavier explained the security chief now growing nervous, “You are correct there are at least ten plans that get us closer without being caught.”


The big ex-cop slams his hands on the table, “Closer doesn’t get you in that room.”  he mocks quite full of himself earning a small nod and little else from his prisoner.  “You’re assuming that’s the room I want to be in.”  Xavier points out boldly, “You’re still not asking the right questions Marvin.”  


At the mention of his first name this prisoner certainly shouldn’t have known the big man whirls on Xavier looming threateningly to no apparent effect.  “If you were allowed to hurt me you would have.”  Xavier countered easily, “You’re waiting, which in most cases would be smart.”  the head of Wolfram Security stared down at Xavier, “Most cases, You’re shackled in a locked windowless room in the basement labyrinth of our private corporate facility.”  he growled angrily, “I have all the time in the world.”  With a  mere shake of his head Xavier stopped the slight tapping of his heel he’d used to keep his timing since he was placed in the room.  “No.”  He replied, “You don’t.”


Before he could respond the door to the chamber opened revealing his employer flanked by Federal Agents.  The outraged dressing down he’d been about to deliver died in his throat as the debonaire CEO nodded to him, “Our friends from Homeland Security here took great interest in this man and his associates.”  Wolfram explained cockily.  “Agents Hurd and Glory from the catskills regional office would like a word Mr. Steadman.”


Xavier tilted his head slightly as if listening to another conversation and nodded.  Standing slowly the manacles fell slowly from his wrists long since opened.  “That’s who I was waiting for.”  He stated plainly as the horrified CEO and Security Head gaped at the now free prisoner.  They both hit the ground without a sound as Xavier nodded to his actual compatriots. He tapped the hidden earpiece, “We got it.”  he stated with a smile as the ‘Federal Agents’ led him from the room and out of the facility to be met by the rest of the team in the van as they pulled away into the night.

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"So, that's it," said Rick, pushing up his glasses as he studied his son across his desk. "If your mother and I die before you turn eighteen, you'll legally be the ward of Mr. Summers. He's a good man, and he'll give you a good home. He has a lot of experience helping raise good kids. The house is all paid off and so are the cars, so you'll be able to-Mark, what are you doing?" He smiled with affectionate annoyance as he looked over to see Mark drawing a picture in his yellow legal pad - the one he was supposed to be using to take down his father's medical and legal information. 


"Oh, sorry, Dad," said Mark, looking guilty for a moment as he looked over at his dad. He didn't look guilty for long, instead grinning at him as the two men shared a secret. "But c'mon, you're not gonna die till you're really old! I know it's important for me to be responsible, but you and Mom are gonna be okay." 


"I'm a lot older than your mother, Mark," said Rick with a half-smile, his once-blond crewcut now decidedly shot through with grey. "And you need to be ready for what happens when you get older. You're my only son, and the only grandson of your grandfather - you have a proud family name. I want to make sure you're ready for what happens when you grow up." 


"I will be," Mark promised. His eyes lit up as he added, pointing to one of his mother's pictures of his father on the far wall, "Just like you were when you and the Centurion switched bodies and you had to pretend to be an adult for a whole week!" 

"Hah!" said Rick, leaning back in the squeaky leather office chair he'd inherited from his own father. "Those were good times. I was about your age, I think. You know what that reminds me of," he said, sliding the papers back into the folder on his desk. "My biggest regret from those days is that I never picked out a good codename for myself. If you're going to keep doodling, you'd better do something constructive with it - what were you thinking? Lucky Strike? Edge?"  




"Mark! Mark!" Edge appeared in the bathroom in a flash of light, summoned instantly by his wife's call. "Look! He's doing it! He's doing it!" Luckily, Ritchie wasn't doing the thing that he'd been doing the last time Nina had called Mark in to help with bathtime. Instead, their baby was sitting up in the tub, wet like his mother - but with the water in a circle around him rather than in it, so that his bare butt was on the porcelain. Ritchie didn't seem to mind the fact, laughing and waving his arms, the water around him jumping up and down with his pudgy arms. 


"See, I knew it!" said Mark, grinning as he took out his camera and snapped several pictures, careful not to catch any of Nina, who as usual had stripped down to join Ritchie in the tub for his bathtime. Nina didn't spend quite as much time with Ritchie as Mark had expected, but she loved to take him into the water, whether it was the beach near their house or the tub. At three months old, Ritchie's apparent lack of powers had been a major source of concern for his mother - and his father too, at least a little. "Look at him, just like you." 


"Well, this is a fine thing," said Nina, watching the way her boy manipulated the water. She couldn't see the familiar swirls of her family's hydrokinetic powers, or the great inky blots of her husband's - instead Ritchie seemed to be..."Is the water laughing too?" she asked, studying the way the bathwater was moving around Ritchie's little body.


"I think it was," said Mark, smiling. "That's funny! I wonder if he uses his powers differently than yours."


Nina hmmed and looked up at him, hands protectively holding Ritchie up. "Well, we'll soon find out. Fetch me my robe, would you, darling?" she asked as Ritchie's laughter quieted and the water flowed back around him. "Now that he's demonstrating his powers, we can take him out to the beach and see if he's ready for full-


"...babe, c'mon," said Mark, sitting on the closed toilet and putting his hand on Nina's back. "It's time for him to have his bath, then his bottle, then take a nap. He's gonna be a cranky little cuss if we mess with his schedule. Besides, he deserves a normal day, doesn't he?" 

"Our son is not normal," said Nina firmly, but then softened, "But you're right. He does deserve to be a small boy." She patted the top of Ritchie's fuzzy brunette head, drumming her fingers in the tap-tap-tap that had made him giggle before,. "He deserves everything.




Typhoon sat on her throne, flanked by Monsoon and Gale. Really both of them were too young to project real authority, Nina reflected, but the important thing was the message that it sent - and that it would let them see how much fun this would be when they were older. "Citizens of America! This is - TYPHOON!" She raised a mailed fist high enough for the camera to see. "I applaud your government's proposals to expel its metahumans - proof for all the world to see that democracy is a government of FOOLS and WEAKLINGS!" She slammed her fist against her throne and declared, "Be assured that all metahumans expelled from the United States will find shelter on fair Socotra and her colonies - where we will build a PARADISE the like of which you can only dream!" At the end, she raised her fist again and declared, "HAIL SOCOTRA! HAIL SUPREMACY!"


With some reluctance, Monsoon and Gale both managed "Hail Typhoon!" as their father turned off the camera - but their lack of enthusiasm was obvious. 


For her part, Nina's mind was elsewhere. "Ah, is it really so late? Darling, I need to change for the Lemurian ambassador," Nina said as she rose from her throne, her mask retracting to let her peck Mark on the cheek. "Can you deal with the littles tonight? I don't think we'll need them there, and you can stay in and work on your painting."


"Hey guys, what's the matter?" Mark asked as Nina headed off to change into her work clothes - Typhoon's armor was suitable for state occasions but wasn't really suitable for day-to-day wear. He plopped down on his usual spot on the steps in front of the throne, Monsoon and Gale - Richie and Gale, both hopped off their smaller thrones and sat next to their dad. "Normally you love wearing your armor with Mom." 


"Why does Mom have to yell so much?" asked Richie as he pulled off his mask. His sibling, who in all fairness was only four years old, had mostly lost track of the conversation and was more preoccupied with trying to walk the edge of the marble platform without falling off. "It makes me think she's going to fight you." 

"Oh, you've heard your mom yell at me before," said Mark with a grin, "It's just how grownups talk. Anyway, all that yelling was just a trick." He held up his camera. "Once we get a good recording, we'll broadcast it out on the Internet. If people in America are worried about what Typhoon'll do, they'll remember they need their heroes and they won't vote for anything dumb." 

"Ohh, it's statecraft!" said Ritchie, brightening up as he understood the impact of his father's words. "Hooray! I love statecraft. Mom says I'm old enough to start planning a takeover any day now." 

"Ha-hah!" Mark laughed, "your mother's such a kidder! Watch out there, squirt!" He caught Gale as the latter finally slipped, his younger child landing on his lap with a giggle. "We're a family. And families work together to help other people - even if you have to fool them a little first. And that's not statecraft." He grinned. "That's magic." 


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Content warning: violence, swearing.


Pliable Foe. - Errant.

Forty minutes a day a day a person is blind.  Roughly.  It’s not a precise count, not an exacting thing, but it is a thing that happens.  As a person’s mind struggles to interpret data that is happening around them. From a strict materialistic neurological level it is likely a coping mechanism for a data stream exceeding the receiving/retention mechanism.


The mind is inefficient.  Flawed.  As such it could be exploited, especially if someone was conscious of what was happening, even more so if they learned how it happened.


So in most cases this was not something to be helped.  Not something that could be controlled.  Except…


It was September 31st, 2007.  This date didn’t exist.  But it happened.  The paradoxical thought helped organize the time/place in a chaotic jumble of memories (stolen, recovered, his own, and redacted) and empirical data (set in similar framework and data point parameters as the memories).

In the space between a self-inflicted fiction and an actual moment was where he learned the nature of his abilities.  Before then it was batting away against the tidal pull of others around him.  The crush of that external breaking apart the structures he sought to build, to make, eroding what could find purchase.  Like sand castles.


Similar to ones that he might try to build during the times he would spend in Lonely Point, staring into things for meaning.  Or maybe to look at his chiefest rival over a thing as illusive as that date.  It was a solace while at Claremont.  It was quiet, superficially, as well as with the cacophony that he ‘enjoyed’ day in and out there.  He liked to sit among the little patch of lathyrus japonicus there and contemplate the toxic thing.


He kept coming back after graduation, as much as time would allow, after things went sideways, and kept careening until he was a ghost, a spectre, with all the weight of a shadow on the wall.  Just like he would go back to September 31st, 2007, even if the goals and reasons were different.

When and where he learned of the forty minutes.  Learned that the time was flexible.  A push, a nudge, and his mother lost track him outside the house he lived in near the outskirts of La Grande, Oregon.


He didn’t tell her about it.  The fear of reprisal was strong, it made the scar on his stomach ache in a psychosomatic spasm at the memory that was fresh, even later.  When they tried to impress upon him ethics about what he could do.  How there were implications, consequences regarding it.  At that point had learned to keep quiet, a motte and bailey defense against their attempts.  He gave up the easy points, and kept everything else shielded.


He already had pain impressed on him, already had a harsher punishment than their efforts.  They were still beholden to the forty minutes, after all, and the pageantry they engaged in was practiced.  They expected something similar to the, then, other kids, or that was the only speech they had established.


No.  The first time the lesson was taught it was taught with a decisive harshness.  One that impressed upon how personal violation felt.  How powerlessness didn’t hit you all at first, that it crept in, and settled like a parasite.


He didn’t tell his mother.  He learned that.  Just he learned to make little thought paradoxes and attach them to moments he wanted to have anchors, to find them in the tumultuous sea.  The reference points mattered, they had a weight that his mind couldn’t ignore, as he had learned to ignore the press, the crush, the roar of others.


As he learned for them to ignore him.  Forty minutes could be stretched to days living as a shade of solipsism.


It’s why he told Holly Cline, years later, that he wasn’t really someone emulate.  Even if he helped her mother and father.  He did it not being there, by snarling up the works of others. 


It’s what brought a drill into his head, and wires down his spine, finishing the plans made for him before he was born.  He ruined things.  A spanner to be thrown into the works, and for the gears to choke and sputter on, before they stopped.


Years of hearing everyone else, seeing them, unable to extricate his consciousness from theirs, and he was left seeing himself as something else.  Maybe not a person so much as a thing.  Or a metaphor given flesh.


Or he saw himself as kin to the lathyrus japonicus he liked to sit with.  Toxic.  But turned to in desperation.  It’s why he ruined the hero worship Holly had, why he was uncomfortable with their friendliness.  Will didn’t get it (not initially, that came later, and it ruined a friendship), but Richard and Paige did.  A lot of the superficial things were ignored, he tried to be normal, to be congruous with them, and not simply adjacent.


Richard was too nice to call Elias the thing he often referred to as the worst.  Elias appreciate them for it.  They didn’t need to, and they didn’t make excuses, or pretensions are understanding him.  It was more, and less than his mother gave him.  A Christmas here, a Thanksgiving there.

His mother and father’s lessons showed, slipping into moments of being a caged animal.  Or hiding in those forty minutes.


It allowed a bit of freedom, allowed him to grind his thoughts down.  To pick out something else in the ocean, and follow after it.  Which he did.


It let him act on what he saw.  Fulfilling promises he never made years before an angry man tried to twist him into a thing he already was.  This is what his mother taught him, the fable of the scorpion and the frog.  


He knew the lesson at the time, when her harmful touch pressed/burned against his skin.  Pain to stop him.  But in his nature he responded in kind.  That was part of the story he’d tell later in Claremont.  Or to nice agents in AEGIS.  Or when the Dotrae touched his mind.


She forgot this happened.  Because he asked her to, and because forty minutes can be a long time.  Especially something someone didn’t want to see the thing in the first place.


Even the narrator.


He never imagined he was hiding from his mother in those times.  He was hiding for her, after he had stopped being a creeping crawling thing (as there was a differency between a grub and a butterfly).  As in time all things with fangs learn to bare them, even if the consequences of such where not something they could understand later.


Thread ran through, and he had to ask himself if that was why he’d step away.  Not a proper grasping of his nature, except in those moments where he’d see a hamstring quiver.  Seeing all the spots in the backs of others where a knife ought to go.


Forty minutes.


But that number is soft, pliable.  And even if there is cognizance over the existence of the thing it doesn’t mean that someone is aware of it forever after the revelation.  People tended to forget things like that, unless they make a point.  Tie it to something.


“Isn’t that right, Jade?”


She couldn’t respond, because she was choked up.  She didn’t see it coming.


“What you are feeling right now is helplessness, as the autonomic control of your breathing has been taken away from you.”


Forty minutes.


“I know it’s cruel.  But I don’t think you deserve any better, you f***ing b****.”


But it’s a soft number, never quite that amount.  Different for each person.  Sometimes it even lasts the rest of their lives.

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