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April 18, 2015 

Southside 

 

Hologram was on her way to visit the Howards, a young couple in their mid-twenties with a little daughter named Emma. Emma is five and a little scrapper; a soon-to-be kindergartener who has started manifesting low-level flight and telekinesis. The Howards, young parents with no reported superhuman activity in the family, are nervous about sending their little girl off to Nicholson, even though they were the ones who contacted Nicholson in the first place. The school has a team of counselors and volunteer staff to help with this kind of thing, but one thing that has a proven track record is sending out a parent volunteer to talk to the parents so they do the right thing and get their little kid the education they need. 

 

The Howards' home was a small bungalow in the Southside, a neighborhood that has begun to decline in the years since Paige first lived in Freedom City. But this little cul-de-sac is still doing well, a comfortable community of middle-class young families right at the beginning of their lives. Stepping outside, the most ominous thing Paige could see as she looked up at the little red house was a LOST DOG picture stapled to the nearest utility pole. 

 

-

 

It had been the Scarab's last case. Well, second-to-last. In the summer of 1978, violent dreams of bloody carnage had woken Alexander Rhodes night after night, scenes of gore far too real to be imagined but with no real way to trace them to a source. He'd been in the process of developing a psionic resonator that would have allowed him to find the source of the mysterious visions, but then the Scions of Sobek had come to Freedom City, and Alexander Rhodes had never done anything else. 

 

The Scarab started seeing the visions again last week. Not the same visions; these were scenes of nature, red in tooth and claw, the brutal killing of animals by something fast and predatory - but the psychic 'color' of the visions was just the same. This time the technology does exist to help the Scarab's powers, though, and so it is that within a few days she's been able to trace the source of the visions to one particular neighborhood in the Southside, a middle-class cul-de-sac that's avoided the rising poverty in the neighborhood. 

 

 

Wail's phone rang yesterday, going straight to the machine with Keith busy in class. The voice on the other end was rough and male, nobody he immediately recognized. "Wail. Come to the Southside tomorrow morning." He rattled off an address. "We need help." Click - and from a cell line that didn't pick up again when Lamar called it back.  

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There were times, Paige decided, when it just didn't pay to be a hero with a public identity and a flexible schedule. She felt awkward going out to try and sell people on Nicholson when her own child was barely a year into the program, but volunteering for the school had seemed like such a good way to meet people and keep an eye on Holly's progress. It was her own damn fault for checking the "anything" box for the "how do you want to volunteer?" question. Next time she'd be more specific. She'd been told the Howards already had a full set of school literature to look over, so instead Paige had a phone full of pictures of the third grade in action, field trips she'd chaperoned and parties she'd helped supervise. Little enough ammunition, but hopefully it would provide a starting point, and then she could assess the emotional temperature and play the rest by ear. Simple, right? 

 

She fired off a quick text message to Will, reminding him to pick up Holly from soccer if this meeting went past 11:30, added a couple more items to her shopping list for the dinner with Starlight tomorrow, then tucked her phone into her purse and went to ring the doorbell. 

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I-800-JUSTICE had never actually been disconnected. At first it had simply been easier to maintain the number than figuring out some way to prevent it from being abused - the days of going toe to toe with the freelancers of 1-800-VILLAIN hadn't been far enough go for anyone to want to take that risk - but with Jav and Yelena both gone LaMarr could never quite bring himself to pull the plug. No one called it any more, of course. The occasional automated call or someone with more knowledge of local history than good taste curious to see what would happen but a fairly sophisticated automated system weeded out all of that and returned a terse recorded message.

 

There were, however, certain keywords or phrases that instead routed the call to his person number. Some of them were specific, like 'utahraptor' or 'Typhoon'. Some were more general and one of them was simply 'we need help'.

 

He supposes it could have been a trap. That was fine, anyone stupid enough to think setting a trap for Wail would end well for them wasn't much of a threat in the first place. Anyone who thought they'd get off lightly for misusing that number doubly so. If it wasn't, though, well. Keith LaMarr had never been much good at turning down a plea for assistance. Walking the streets of Southside, he scanned the neighbourhood as inconspicuously as a man of his imposing silhouette could manage.

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The Scarab's telekinesis lowered her feet to the Southside sidewalk with all the noise of falling snow.  A tiny fraction of her phenomenal psychic power was directed toward screening her presence from the eyes and ears of the residents and passers-by.  She gave their subconscious minds a simple command to ignore her, forget her, for their own good as much as for hers.  It was a command maybe a hundred people on Earth could defy.  The lion's share of her power and attention were focused on the past rather than her present surroundings.  Block by block, she walked the streets, pausing for a few moments here and there to open herself up to the psychic resonance of the neighborhood, listening to the echoes left by the people who walked those streets before her.

Violence leaves a stain.  You can scrub and scrape the blood off the floor.  You can demolish buildings and pave over streets.  But you can't wash away the stain of that blood being shed.

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Paige hesitated with her finger hovering over the doorbell when she felt a strange little bump against the corner of her consciousness. For a moment she thought it was Holly trying to get her attention, but the indefinable flavor was different, not entirely foreign, but certainly not her daughter. Something was trying to change her mind, very subtly. Turning away from the door, Paige walked back down the front walk towards the street, looking around for anything that might have caused the disturbance. Three houses down, she caught sight of someone else coming up the sidewalk, someone who didn't fit the neighborhood at all. "Scarab?" she asked, closing a little more of the distance between them. "What are you doing here?" 

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The Scarab stopped in her tracks and just stared at Paige for a few moments, as the color rushed back into the world around her and she once more saw it as it was at that moment instead of how it had been in years, months, or minutes past.  Maybe a hundred people on Earth could resist her psychic cloak...and most of them lived in Freedom City.

A hundred voices echoed inside Paige's mind, all speaking in unison, three louder than the rest - two men and one woman.  Ms. Cline.  I do not believe I have made your acquaintance.  I have enjoyed your show.

The Scarab's cape gently flowed behind her, held aloft by a constant nonexistent breeze.  I am...tearing up floorboards.  Lifting up rocks to see what crawls beneath.

 

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Paige blinked a few times at the very bizarre sensation of a hundred-person chorus in her head- not painful, but a little deafening- and adjusted herself to mental communication. It probably made more sense if the Scarab was trying to be inconspicuous. ~It's a pleasure to meet you as well,~ she replied with a pleasant smile. ~I encountered your predecessor once, but it's unlikely that the meeting made much of an impression. I really admire the work you've done in Freedom City over the years. Do you have some evil in particular that you're looking to turn up near here? I'm meeting a candidate for Nicholson here, and I wouldn't like to see her or her family endangered.~

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The Scarab continued to face Paige but floated in a half-circle around her, rising about a foot into the air.  My...predecessor.  Yes.  I am following up on a loose end he left before his...untimely passing.  I know not yet whether they are events yet to come or already buried in the past, but I have seen blood shed here, as he saw before me.  Whoever it is, whatever it is, they have not yet graduated to human victims.  I would ask this family if any pets have gone missing in the area recently.

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Paige grimaced. ~Disturbing, but I see where you're coming from. Serial killer pathology often starts with the neighborhood pets. I'll keep an 'ear' out while I'm in the area as well. This looks like such a nice, calm area, but I guess you never can tell what might be underneath. Maybe we should convince them to move into the family village~ she thought, half to herself, but easily carrying over the mental link to another strong telepath. She refocused her attention on the Scarab. ~You're welcome to come with me if you like, ask your questions to the family. The little girl isn't a telepath but she is a telekinetic, and getting them introduced to people in the hero community might make the family more comfortable with their daughter's potential.~

Edited by Electra

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Dramatic or not, the phone message hadn't given LaMarr much information to work with, leaving him scanning the suburbs looking for anything out of place. A child sized bicycle abandoned in a yard, a missing dog poster stabled to the side of a post, Paige Cline having a silent conversation with thin air, water running down a driveway to the sewer grate from an above ground pool being emptied, a pile of ads and flyers sitting in front of the house of the one family who hadn't been outside to collect them yet. Nothing worth further attention. Mouth turning down slightly into a frown, he continued walking along, eyes peeled.

Something wasn't sitting right with him, still, the familiar nagging feeling that he was missing something, a feeling that often preceded the room he was in exploding or something similar. He supposed that was just a side-effect of living as long as he had. Paige would understand, he could ask her about it when she was done speaking with her invisible friend. It was quite the coincidence seeing her here, after all. The civics teacher's frown became a grimace as he massaged a growing pain above one eye. It was a coincidence, so why was he so sure it wasn't anything important? Well, obviously she wasn't actually talking to an invisible person, that would have been noteworthy, she was just talking to someone he wasn't looking at. Someone he still wasn't looking at even as he made the attempt specifically.

Muttering something about telepaths the broad-shouldered mountain of a man walked over to the television host, keeping his attention focused on her with an application of iron clad will.

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Thank you.  I would be happy to come along.  But I will wait to reveal my presence until it is necessary or desirable.  It is always prudent to keep something in reserve.  "Never lead with your left," as the boxers say.

The Scarab's head jerked to the side, then slowly moved back toward Paige.

You have another acquaintance, or fan, however, in the near vicinity, who would no doubt be happy to accompany you in a more overt matter.  Indeed, stealth would not be his preference even if it were possible for him.  I cannot derive greater detail without actively invading his mind, for which I do not currently have cause, but whatever his specific thoughts at the moment, he is familiar with you, he has noticed you, and he bears you no ill will.  I know him only by reputation, but by that reputation, he has extensive experience working with children, and a vested interest in helping the gifted among them to integrate with society as smoothly and productively as possible.

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~What?~ Paige looked around, startled, then relaxed when she saw Wail coming over. She waved. "Fancy meeting you here," she greeted the sound controller. "Did the school send you over too? I didn't realize you were affiliated with Nicholson." Paige supposed it made sense, he was a teacher and a metahuman, after all, and he'd probably do a great job working with the super-powered kids. Maybe just a teeny bit on the intimidating side for new prospective parents, but if their kid was some kind of five year old walking disaster area, maybe they would feel more comfortable knowing that there were some extremely strong people who'd be working with her. 

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LaMarr rubbed his left temple with some irritation as he gave Paige a bemused look. "Eh? No, I got an anonymous call saying somebody needed help," he clarified, taking a moment to remember that the reformed bank robber was old enough to have kids in school now. He'd known that already, of course, but it was a hard thing to internalize, getting old, and it didn't help that the Clines seemed to take the same attitude toward aging that they once had toward property laws. "Is that the new Scarab? Well. Not 'new' any more, are you? Sorry." Now that he was standing right next to the two women it was easier to keep his attention on the red and gold armored psychic, though he still felt his eyes trying to flick away when his concentration wavered. "I'm assuming it wasn't either of you who gave me a ring or you wouldn't have bothered with the phone. There more going on here I should know about?"

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"I don't know," Paige admitted with a frown. "Scarab sensed some sort of evil around here and has been trying to track it down, it might be related to what you were called in on. I'm just here visiting the family of a prospective student. It probably couldn't hurt to get the perspective of people who live around here, they might have at least an inkling of something bad has started to happen in the neighborhood. Cause honestly, I haven't felt so much as a twinge since I got here, and it certainly doesn't look like an area with a big evil problem." She waved a hand at the blocks of perfectly ordinary houses surrounding them in all directions. "You're welcome to come along, the more the merrier, but I have to get over there or they're going to start wondering where I am." 

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Their mutual search all led them to the same location - the small bungalow of Jean and Daniel Howard. This was the address Wail had been called to; this was the one blindspot in the Scarab's scans of the area, this was the home of the people that Paige had been called to meet. On that ominous note, they knocked on the door, which after just a few minutes was opened by a strangely familiar figure. Short and slim, but muscular all the same, he had the look of a middle-aged gymnast; his hair turning white at the top and a short brown beard and mustache on his chin. In a dress shirt and slacks, he might have just stepped out of an office's casual Friday. They could hear voices behind him, a small child that must have been Emma and adults talking, but that sound was cut off by the gasp the man gave as he looked from one face to another and a sudden curse of "Jesus God!" 

And then he slammed the door in their faces. 

"Dad!" A second later, the door flew open, revealing a woman in her mid-twenties who by her Florida A&M shirt and familiar face had to be Jean Howard. She'd pushed right past the man at the door. "What the hell? I...uh, wow, I didn't know you were bringing a friend, Mrs. Cline!" She didn't look displeased by all the arrivals, unlike her white-faced father, but she was very surprised. "Hi, I'm Jean Howard." 

Edited by Avenger Assembled

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"I'm very sorry to have surprised you!" Paige said with an apologetic smile. "And please, call me Paige." She gave the intimidated older man her friendliest smile before gesturing in Wail's direction. "This is Keith Lamarr, he's an old friend of mine. He's a metahuman, and a teacher as well, high school. He was investigating something else going on in your neighborhood when we ran into each other." From the way the Howards' eyes had been tracking, she suspected they could not see the Scarab yet, and Paige supposed there was probably a reason the other psychic wanted it that way for now. "I'm sorry I'm running a little late, I hope we're not inconveniencing you. May we come in?" 

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LaMarr didn't say anything to their hostess right away, his attention fully on the man who's originally answered the door. If Paige hadn't already gotten him thinking about the old days he wasn't sure if he would have picked up on it but something about that sputtered oath jogged his memory and looking at the middle-aged man's fit build something clicked. "Jiminy Cricket," he muttered under his breath, folding his arms over his chest and frowning slightly. "All the times I tried to get you to shut up in the middle of a fight and now you don't want to talk?" he asked cryptically, making eye contact with Jean's father over the tops of his sunglasses. "You the one who called me?"

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It was a tense moment - broken up by a sudden gale of laughter from inside the house behind Jean and Harry. "Whee! I'ma supahero!" Suddenly from down the stairs there came flying a little girl, her short blonde hair rippling in the wind, only to come to a quick landing in her grandfather's arms. Emma Howard was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and all of five years old. "I wanna go to the supahero school!" she declared cheerfully, looking around at the adults at the door. "Right now!" 

"Ssh, honey, let's go help your grandma in the kitchen for a minute," said Harry, deftly handling the stocky preschooler despite his age. He shot a look at Wail and said in a bald-faced lie, "No, it was my daughter who called the school," before he turned and began heading towards the kitchen, his step betraying a slight limp as he went. "Honey, the people from the school are here!" A feminine voice answered from the kitchen; and through the passthrough the others could see Grandma Howard - it was her blonde hair on the little girl's, a middle-aged woman with thick glasses and a bright orange T-shirt who studied the group at the door with suspicion. 

"Well, uh, come in, come in," said Jean awkwardly, stepping aside wide enough to allow all the heroes into the house. "Dan pulled a late shift at the hospital, so it's just me and my parents. They've been really helpful ever since we moved back to Freedom." The living room set was mismatched plush, the kind that a family might get when shopping for discount furniture. Looking up revealed some unusual decorations against the stucco ceiling - pillows duct-taped to the surface, and lots of them! There seemed to be at least a few in every room of the house. 

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Paige was starting to wonder if this had been such a good idea, especially with Scarab apparently determined to remain completely incognito, but it was too late to back out now. She mustered a bright television-worthy smile and entered the house, making sure the door stayed open long enough for all your companions. "That's an innovative solution!" she commented, glancing toward the ceiling. "I remember when my son first started coming into his super-speed, we had to put cut-up pool noodles on every corner and edge and counter in the house for a year. Children are amazing, they have no fear about their powers, but they leave us with our hearts in our throats half the time, right?" She shared a look of commiseration with Jean, hoping to form a rapport with at least one person in the house. "My son Will is seventeen now, he's starting to grow out of it. My daughter Holly is ten, she's in the third grade at Nicholson. I understand Emma is ready for kindergarten?" 

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Leaving Paige to speak with Jean in the living room, LaMarr followed Harry into the kitchen, stopping in the doorway with his arm's crossed. It wasn't so much that he was intentionally blocking the exit as it was the only natural result of his broad shouldered bulk but the effect was fairly imposing either way. "Lousy liar without the mask, Bottlecap," he rumbled in a resounding bass carefully restrained to well below his voice's bone shaking potential. Looking over at Harry's wife he ignored her suspicious look impassively and simply nodded his chin. "Ma'am." It seemed clear that Howard had been the one to call him and he wasn't about to let anyone use the 1-800-JUSTICE line and then brush it off; he might not have been for hire any more but nobody wasted his time.

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"Don't wanna go to kinnergarten!" protested Emma, as if an old wound had been opened. "I wanna go to supahero school!" She was looking at her mom when she said it, and Paige instantly recognized something that had been the subject of argument between a small child and her mother. 

"Kiddo, you've gotta go to kindergarten!" said Jean to her daughter, who was clutching Paige's leg piteously, as if pleading with her to save her from the terrifying fate of kindergarten. "You've got to finish learning to read and write, so you can read your books on your own!" 

"Kindergarten kids can't fly!" protested Emma again. "Numbers and letters are BORING!" she added, now definitely starting to drift her way up Paige's leg, as if she had suddenly begun to grow weightless. "I wanna fly and see Heaven!"  

-

In the kitchen, Honey Howard stared at Wail from behind thick prescription glasses, from the look on her face biting back a tart comment or two of her own. "Don't you scuff my tiles, mister," she finally said before throwing a bag of trash over her shoulder and trudging out the back door to the backyard trash bins. In the moment she was gone, the heavy metal storm door shut, Harry Howard's face fell. 

"She, uh, she doesn't like having other supers around, so today's hard. She damn near blew the roof off when she found out Jean called the people at Nicholson." Fidgeting for a moment with a fallen refrigerator magnet, Harry added quietly, "I'm sorry I missed the memorial this year, Keith." It was an answer, but not much of one. A moment later he looked away, and added, "Been a long time since somebody called me Bottlecap...Bumblebee," he added with what should have been a smile in his voice. "I called you because something's..." He looked back at Keith, his eyes haunted. "You remember back when those kooky sharkmen were building a tunnel under the Lincoln Bank, and I nagged you and Jump and Jive to go digging till we found them? It's that same feeling. Something's happening, right here, right in my kids house, and I don't know what it is! Everyone else is-"

He fell silent, quickly, when his wife reentered; there was obviously tension among the elder Howards. For her part, Honey looked again at Wail and said politely, "I heard about what you've been doing in Lincoln with your school. You're setting a good example for those kids out there."  

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"Nicholson is a very special school," Paige told Emma with a smile, gently taking hold of the girl's shoulders to keep her from drifting too far. "Some of the kindergarteners there can fly, or will be able to fly someday. When you go to school there, you will learn how to fly better, fly in ways that are safer and more controlled, so you never run into things and hurt yourself. You will also learn reading and writing, and do art and music and recess and lunchtime, all kinds of fun things. And you'll meet other special children like you, who have their own unique talents. Heaven can wait, kiddo, there's all kinds of stuff for you to be doing on Earth!" 

She looked past Emma to Jean. "I wanted to ask if there were any questions about the school that a parent might be able to answer. I know you've had meetings with the principal and Emma's teacher, but sometimes parents have a different perspective." 

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"But I want to see the sad puppies in Heaven!" protested Emma, her voice full of childish guilt. "I have to see if they are okay!" 

"Oh, baby," said Jean, gently prying her daughter off Paige and holding her in her arms. "It was very sad that that happened, but that wasn't you, honey, that was wild dogs in the neighborhood. The policemen will find them and he'll make sure all the puppies stay safe." 

"No, it was me!" said Emma, waving her arms vigorously. "I ated them up in my dreams!" And she made momentary eye contact with Paige - and for a second or two, Hologram tasted blood in her mouth and the feral joys of the hunt, the grass cool on her skin and the meat fresh as it slid down her gullet...

"...I just want to know if it's normal there. I mean, I know the kids have powers and they're learning how to be superheroes," Jean was saying, now floating herself slightly as she held onto a clingy Emma, "but is Emma going to get the chance to be a normal girl there?" 

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A cold reception in a white family's suburban home wasn't exactly a novel experience for LaMarr, whether it was condescension to a young black man working more or less as muscle for hire or hostility toward the idea of an openly gay man teaching children, and it wasn't one he let get under his bulletproof skin. In this case, however, it was fairly clear that there was considerably more going on in the Howard household than mundane prejudice. Not all heroes retired with fondness in their hearts for the job, he knew, and that life had a way of bubbling back to the surface no matter how hard one tried to put it firmly in the past. 'Captain Freedom' had never claimed to be telepathic or precognitive back in the day and Lord knew he'd given the younger man a hard enough time about trusting his 'bad feelings' but he couldn't recall a single time those hunches had been wrong, either. It was enough to make him think this was more than an old man getting nervous about his grandchild following his footsteps into a dangerous world, at least.

"Kind of you to say," he replied to Honey with a deep nod. Her concerns about her kitchen tiles weren't unfounded given his prodigious mass but he'd gotten good at stepping lightly when it was needed. "Not to sound too cornball but they really are the future, no word of a lie. I can understand all this making you nervous." He glanced over his shoulder toward the living room before turning back to the couple. "Can't just stick your head in the sand and hope a thing goes away, though. Better to meet it head on, been my experience."

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Paige stared wide-eyed at Emma, unconsciously raising one hand to wipe her already-clean lips. "Yes," she murmured absently, "there's a full normal kindergarten curriculum along with powers training. She'll learn everything she would in a public school, but with superlative teachers who can help her master her abilities." She crouched down to bring herself to eye-level with where Emma was floating. "Can you tell me more about the dreams you have, sweetie?" she asked very carefully. She wasn't sure where Scarab had gone, maybe decided to go on with the investigation outside, but she heartily wished the other psychic were present. "Are they scary dreams?" 

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