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Feels Like Yesterday


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Even though she knew full well what time it was, the dark and the cold were still a bit of a shock to Stesha as she stepped out of the largest knot in an ancient oak tree. She'd spent the past fifteen hours of a very long day much closer to the equator, helping out with a World Food Program/UNISON/Freedom League joint humanitarian project in Haiti. Evacuations ahead of the unseasonable tropical storm had kept casualties low, but the damage had still been extensive and a huge amount of arable land wiped out. She'd done good work helping put things back together, but it had been exhausting, miserable work in soupy humidity broken only by periods of pouring rain. By the time she'd finished doing what she could, her uniform was so soaked she could barely pull it off so she could change into somebody's spare UNISON jumpsuit. 

 

Even with as long as the day had been, even as tired as she was, Stesha wasn't quite ready to go home just yet. Ammy was out with her class on an overnight camping trip, and the house was so big and echoey with nobody else in it. She thought often about removing the extra bedrooms and going back to a cottage, but every time she considered it, some disaster or other filled all the rooms again. Tonight, though, it was  empty rooms and tomorrow another tremendously long day of trying to organize the tax information for the 501(c)(3) that funded Sanctuary's needs from Earth Prime. Unless of course some disaster came up, she thought wryly, and wasn't it terrible and wrong to wish for a disaster just to avoid paperwork? 

 

Liberty Park, like most of downtown Freedom City, was never truly dark. Here on the footpath near the Children's Zoo, blue twinkle lights were strung along the path and through the trees, making soft shadows over the bench she sat down on. Just a few minutes to unwind, she figured, and she'd be ready to go home. Or at least cold enough to want coffee. With a rueful grin, she pulled a handful of seeds from her pocket and began flicking them across the path one at a time, letting them take root and grow into flowers as they fell. 

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"Y'know, usually I'm the one stepping through walls or trees," a somewhat gruff voice said from a bit away, near the entrance to the children's zoo. "Here. Looks like you need this more than me."

 

Casper was in his full costume, his goggles hanging around his neck, his feet floating slightly above the ground as he moved closer, holding out a cup of coffee. "Don't worry, I just picked it up."

 

His eyes looked tired behind the mask, but, it had been a long day. Casper had just wanted to take a look around the zoo, figured he might bring Carrie there soon (unless she had gotten too big for that, he could hardly keep track), but, well, the lady seemed even more tired than him.

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Stesha startled at the unexpected voice, the seed she'd just flicked growing to a vine the width of a man's arm in unconscious reflex before she caught herself. "Oh, hello," she said to the newcomer, dredging up a smile. "I appreciate the offer, but caffeine just doesn't do much for me these days. I miss it!" She looked the man up and down for a moment, wracking her brain to try and remember who he was, but came up blank. That was embarrassing, there was a time she'd prided herself on how many heroes she knew. "I'm sorry," she began, "I don't think we've met. I'm Fleur de Joie." 

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"Eh, guess I'll keep it, then." Casper raised his mask from his mouth and brought the cup to his lips. Would be a shame to let a not-great-but-at-least-alright cup of coffee go to waste. 

 

"Oh yeah, that I figured that out. You're kind of a big deal, y'know. Freedom League and everything." He kept the bottom of his mask up. It would be silly to keep pulling it up and down while drinking coffee, wouldn't it? Yeah, it would. This was a big time Freedom Leaguer. He had to at least try to look a bit cool, right?

 

"Don't worry, we haven't met, but I guess I know that exhausted look. I'm Ghost."

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Her smile became a little warmer, a little more real. "Ghost, I've heard of you. You've been in Freedom City for a long time now." In truth she had wondered about the guy a few times, especially when she'd never managed to run into him on any of her park beautification missions back in the day. It had seemed possible that he might be a for-real ghost, only appearing when the city was in need or something like that. But here he was, in person and drinking coffee. "It's very nice to meet you. Are you on patrol tonight?" 

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"Kinda, I guess." He took another sip of coffee. It was so hot, but he really shouldn't let that show, right? Big time Freedom Leaguer here. "Took a look at the zoo, haven't been here for a while."

 

It felt weird just hanging with his feet out under him, he moved them up on himself, so he kind of sat on the air in a tailor position. "So what's the trouble? You look like you've gone a few rounds with Superior."

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She laughed ruefully. "It only feels like it," she told him. "I was working with UNISON on a disaster relief project in Haiti. Sixteen hours straight of trying to clean saltwater out of farmland and coax the crops back into it. I was glad to be able to help, but it's tiring work. And tomorrow I need to sit down with a couple of tax accountants who speak a complicated sort of Algebraic English that I can barely follow, so no day off there." Stesha shrugged broadly. "No rest for the wicked, I guess." Leaning back on the bench, she began to toss seeds again, though she was looking at Ghost. "I've always wondered," she said frankly, "how people like you can do it for such a long time. Don't you just get exhausted?"

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"Coffee helps," Ghost offered, holding up his cup, smiling weakly. "Lots and lots of coffee."

 

He took another sip. Still hot, but getting better. He had to keep his cool here.

 

"I dunno, I've quit a bunch of times. Its not an easy thing to do, over and over, but then something happens and I can't help it. I can't not help, y'know."

 

His smile turned into a slight grin. "Gotta do what I can do. How else am I gonna look my kid in the eye, right?"

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"I suppose that's true," Stesha agreed. Some of the seeds she'd tossed on the ground were still growing despite the cold, turning into pansies, marigolds, black-eyed susans where they'd fallen. "It's harder when you see something bad and can't do anything about it. But when you've got the power to do things, it feels like you always need to be doing them. I'd take a vacation, but trouble seems to pop up twice as fast whenever I try to do that." She laughed softly and went to adjust her cowl, before realizing she wasn't wearing it tonight. Just as well, too, or it would've been a sheet of ice. "Twenty years in Freedom City, I bet you've got stories."

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"Sure." Another sip of coffee. It was more comfortable temperature, so he got some more in now. "Its how it goes. Try to take a break, go watch a game or go to a party or something, then you're just asking for someone to rob a bank or a giant monster to walk down the street. Just how it goes."

 

He emptied the cup and looked around a bit. No bin in sight. Figures.

 

"Eh, I'm just the friendly neighborhood Ghost. Might've been around a while, but not like I'm some big shot Freedom Leaguer, right? Now you've got to have some good stories. I mean, helping out with evacuations and space wars and everything? I'm just dealing with stuff here in Freedom."

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"Well you'd think," Stesha replied, a wry grin on her face, "but just try telling my daughter that. 'Mom,' she tells me, 'all your stories end up the same way. A plant eats the bad guys or there's a last minute reality warp, or time rewinds and it all unhappens!' And I ask what she wants from me, and all she wants to hear are juicy details about the love lives of people I know." She laughed softly. "She's ten, so I can't tell if it's a phase she's going to grow out of, or if it's just teenagerhood showing up early."

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"Mine's 6, so I honestly got no idea if that's something they'll grow out of." It was kind of weird talking with someone else with a kid like this. "She doesn't know about me and well, this whole thing." He motioned around his face with his finger around his mask. "Ex-wife doesn't think she's old enough yet. Can't argue with that, y'know."

 

He thought for a moment, then shook his head. Nah. He'd just met Fleur, she might be a big shot Freedom Leaguer, but they didn't really know each other. Couldn't share too many details.

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"Secret identities are tough with kids," Stesha agreed with a laugh. She could see the other hero's reticence, but wasn't offended by it. Caution kept people alive in this business, and not everybody had a safe little alternate dimension to escape to. "They are the absolute worst at keeping secrets. Mine is at Nicholson and that makes it easier; everybody there is in the know and she doesn't have to think about it too much. One day I'm sure she'll be proud of you." The little patch of flowers was spreading now, surrounding the garbage can opposite the bench. It moved a little oddly, even for a patch of super-fast flowers, and a closer look revealed that as they went, the plants were dipping their blossoms and swallowing up cigarette butts, gum wrappers, all the bits of litter that hadn't made it into the can. "Anything exciting going down in the city tonight?"

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"Tell me about it. One time she found my goggles," he pointed up to the goggles around his neck, "and put them on, ran around my in-laws' place with them on. At least she didn't turn 'em on."

 

Finally noticing the flowers moving near the trash can, Ghost perked up a little bit. "Huh. That's a neat trick. Keeping the city safe one trash can at a time?" 

 

He shrugged at the question. "Eh. Nothing big. Stumbled on a few would-be-robbers, a couple of ninjas. One of Doctor Midas' goons tried to hold up a pawn shop for all their gold. Just the usual."

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"Ugh, Doctor Midas is such a jerk. I can't believe he got out of prison again." Stesha made a face. "I am absolutely all for rehabilitation, except for the folks who make it pretty clear that they like crime very much and don't want to stop doing it. But it sounds pretty quiet overall. That's nice, I prefer fighting crime when it's warm out."

 

Laughing, she flicked her fingers in the direction of the flowers she'd made. One blossom began to stretch, its stem growing to a sturdy three-foot-tall column, tall enough that the daisy on top could lean into the trash bin and vomit out all the collected refuse like a Saturday night drunk. "Cleaning up parks is sort of a habit at this point. Freedom City's are usually pretty clean already, but it's nice to help. I'm guessing the goggles aren't just a costume piece, then? What do they do?"

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"Heh, yeah. Its incredible that they letting him out on that idea about him being psychologically compelled to get all the gold he can. I means, sure, might be a thing, but he's kinda going overboard with the gold battlesuit he keeps using. Honestly, I think he's just having fun with it."

 

He looked at the flower, grimacing as it spat out all the trash.

 

"That's... actually kinda disgusting. Sorry, effective and all, but that can't be good for the flower. And, y'know. A barfing flower."

 

He shook his head and looked down at his goggles, tapping the glass for one eye with his fingers. "Sure. Kinda need 'em when I go through stuff so I can see anything. X-ray vision and GPS, makes it much easier to find my way around."

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"Huh, I never thought about that, but it makes sense," Stesha admitted. "I wonder how GK does it when he's working underground." GK, in this context, was pretty easy to place as Gaian Knight, Fleur's geokinetic colleague on the Freedom League and neighbor on the planet she'd created. "I guess it would be pretty hard to see or get your bearings in the middle of solid rock." A sudden smile lit her features. "But if you think that's gross, you should see when I have the flowers doing toxic waste cleanup instead of picking up cigarette butts. That gets very gross. And it's not really good for the individual plant, no, but it's good for the planet they all live on. It's a noble cause." For the moment the barfing flower looked none the worse for its efforts, straight and bizarrely tall against the blanket of its smaller fellows.

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"I dunno. He might be able to feel it or something? Honestly, not really sure what Gaian Knight can do. Pretty sure we've never met." He paused for a second. "I don't think we've ever met, at least? All kinda runs together in the long run, y'know."

 

Ghost looked at the plant as Fleur pointed it out and grimaced. "Yeah, that doesn't really help. Like... that's a bad mental image right there. So, thanks for that." There was a bit of a laugh in his voice at the end anyway.

 

"What's all that about, anyway? Heard you lived on some other world now? Cleaning up there now?"

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"I still have a home in the city," Fleur explained, "but I spend a lot of my time in a different dimension, yes. I call it Sanctuary. It was a mostly destroyed alternate Earth, but I've been rehabbing it for, oh, almost ten years now. And doesn't that make me feel super old," she confessed with a laugh. "It started out as just my headquarters, a place to practice using my powers to clean up disasters and as a holding area for civilians." You know how it is," she added, "when you're trying to get people out of the way of a fight but there's no place safe to put them? I just move them there for a few minutes or hours, in a safe building there."

 

She waved a hand at the plants and they all began to bloom much more quickly, flowers widening out and becoming full, then overblown, then dropping their petals and drooping. "We've ended up taking in a number of small refugee populations over the years, with the help of private charities and several universities, some religious groups, anybody who'll lend a hand. Right now there's about twenty thousand people and a few thousand giant bees living there." As the plants withered and collapsed into humus, she reached into the remains and pulled out a small handful of seeds, tucking them into a pouch on her belt.

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"Sheesh. Ten years. Feels like I'd just heard about that." Ghost paused, seemed to be thinking about something and then put the palms of his hands against his eyes and leaned backwards a bit. "I've been doing this for way too long."

 

"Twenty thousand people? And a few thousand giant bees?" He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure, that's nothing. Just rehabilitating an entire planet and turning it into paradise for man and bee alike. How do you even get time for all the Freedom League stuff? I mean, big cosmic adventures, saving the world, all that? Gotta take some time away from your Sanctuary."

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Stesha laughed. "Tell me about it! I swear it feels like I started no more than a couple of years ago, but here it's 2021 and I have a ten year old daughter and thousands of bees. I think maybe hero work is a little bit like parenthood, the nights are long but the years are short."

 

Some of the day's bone-deep weariness was already starting to ebb away after a little rest and conversation. "I'm lucky, I have a lot of people doing most of the work on the ground in Sanctuary. There are village councils for each village and the queen bee of course, so I don't have to do much, you know, actual governing. And this is the quiet season on Sanctuary, we don't do too much new development in the winter months. During the summer, yes, sometimes it gets a little tricky when the League calls me in, but I don't do much of the grand cosmic adventuring." She wiggled her fingers like she was ready to cast a spell. "These powers aren't much good in space! I haven't been off-planet since, oh, that business with the Communion, I guess. Have you ever thought about joining up with a team?" 

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"Wait, wait. You said giant bees? Like, the Beekeeper's giant bees?" Casper shook his head agan. "I'd wondered where they'd gone. Tangled with him a few times. Would't really call him a regular in any way back then but, y'know. You kinda remember giant bees."

 

He was still thinking about those bees. It had been so long since he had last chased some of them down, now he couldn't get them out of his mind. It was like some kind of buzzing feeling in the back of his head. So weird.

 

"Huh." Ghost had barely even listenend. Beens on his mind now. "Sorry. Its all buzz buzz right now. Its weird. I honestly never really found out what was going on with all the Communion stuff. Bit above my usual grade, I guess."

 

A team? That was an idea, yeah. "Tried to get involved with teams a few times, never really worked out. I mean, not against working with people, but something always seems to get in the way."

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"Yeah, Beekeeper gave me a lot of problems back when I was just starting out," Stesha said ruefully. "He thought we were a perfect match, a bee and a flower, and let's just say he had a really weird way of showing her cared." She rolled her eyes. "The whole giant bee thing was a real mess, especially when the giant dragon bees showed up, and then the giant robot bees. Never let it be said that the man could not work a theme! We needed some place to put them, and the only way they were going to have any kind of decent life would be somewhere with really huge flowers and hardly any people. They were the first permanent residents of Sanctuary. Gaian Knight helped me set up some _really_ big beehives." 

 

Her look was sympathetic when he talked about the difficulties of finding a team. "It's definitely not easy," she agreed. "People come and go, personalities conflict, folks get hurt or have families, all kinds of stuff. But it's always nice to have people you can call in a pinch. Oh, here," She opened her hand and bloomed a large marigold flower on it, then reached her other hand in to the wrist, like she was doing a magic trick. It was a good trick! She pulled out a business card and handed it to him. It was simple, just her code name, a phone number and an email address, and the logo of the Freedom League. It smelled faintly of flowers. "I know you've been at this for ages and you've surely got your network, but if you ever need anything, please don't hesitate. We should all look after each other." 

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Ghost shrugged. "Guess it makes sense in some kinda weird, twisted way. Its weird how villains tend to fixate like that." He paused and winced. "Someone named Banshee was running after me for a while like that. Been a while since I've seen her, now that I think about it."

 

He looked at the card in his hand, playing with it a bit and turning it around. The big Freedom League logo, Fleur's info, and his eyes going back to that logo.

 

"Man, you even get fancy business cards from the league." Ghost laughed lightly, holding it up and pulling his goggles up to get a look at it. "Fancy." He seemed to think for a short moment, like he was struggling with himself. "So, what'd it take to get into the League, anyway? You started out pretty grassroots, and look at you now, running with the League."

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"The interns on Sanctuary tell me that business cards are hopelessly old fashioned," Stesha confessed with a soft chuckle, "but I like them. It's much easier to give somebody a card than to have to put numbers in each others phones right then and there. If something's not broke, why fix it?" She closed her hand and the flower she'd been holding disappeared, leaving behind only a breath of perfume.

 

"Getting onto the League can be a weird business," she told him. "A lot depends on what they're looking for at any given time. I got tapped for the Auxiliary first, the League team that handles Freedom City and the Eastern Seaboard in particular. There's that team, then the Chicago team, the West Coast team, all for regional operations and support. These days, pretty much everyone who moves up to the main League team, the one that handles things all over, comes from one of the support teams. I was on the Aux team for four years before most of us got the bump all at once, and they got new people for the Freedom City team. We mostly look for heroes who are good with people, who can work well in teams, have powers that mesh well with the team they'd be going to. The usual stuff, I suppose."

 

She shrugged one shoulder, smiling ruefully. "I guess each move seemed pretty small while I was making it, they just came one after another. Looking back, though, yeah. It feels like a million miles from where I started. I imagine it's that way for you, too. Still in the same city, but everything changes." 

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