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Avenger Assembled

The Room Where It Happens (IC)

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August 2017 

Downtown Bedlam 

Anna Cline's (Temporary) Apartment 

 

Anna woke up in bed, taking a moment to take in the situation. Even with the slow fading of her powers over the last few decades, the situation was easy enough to take in a moment or two. She was in bed, in the apartment where she and Esperanza had been staying the last few weeks. The girl had dropped out of high school after the incident with the Hammer of Justice, and Anna herself had left behind the apartment she'd actually rented under her own name. She could have taken Espy out of the city, dropped her in Freedom or even back in Florida, but Esperanza had said she didn't want to leave her ma or just run away from the man who'd abused her, so they'd stuck around and technically lived as fugitives. 

 

They'd moved every couple of weeks, paying cash with the money Anna got from the drug pushers and lousy pigs she took down as Lady Horus, and for the second time in her life, Anna Cline was taking care of a kid. She'd made a lot of plans, bringing home books from the Bedlam library, making sure Espy kept up with her studies so she could get herself a GED and get somewhere other than this one-horse town Anna had tied herself to because it was better than doing nothing with her life. The kid was smart, the kid was strong, but you didn't get anywhere in the hero world unless you had an education.

 

Of course, it would have been easy enough for her to teach Espy to steal. Or encourage it, anyway, her sidekick certainly hadn't shown any hesitation about picking locks or swiping things for her mentor, and with her skills and smooth tongue she'd have made a fine little apprentice thief. Espy reminded Anna a lot of herself as a kid, and for that matter a lot like her boy, a which was why she tolerated the backtalking, the light fingers, the lying, and the outright complaining a lot more than a lot of mothers of her generation

 

Of course, that didn't mean there wasn't stress now and again - stress that came from searching for a murderous vigilante who wanted her dead, lying to her son and her family about why she was in Wisconsin, from wearing the helmet of a god and hearing the whispers of the shadow of a goddess who could only tell her that the great trial was coming soon and that she needed to be ready. And Anna was ready, she had been ready from the moment she'd put on the helm, a queen taking on the likeness of the goddess she'd always known herself to be. 

 

She'd never been really good at waiting. It sometimes made her - 

 

She blinked a few times, thinking about the night before, and the bar, and thinking about being old and outliving all her friends, and all the things she'd never done in almost eighty-three years of living, and sat up, automatically pulling the sheet up to below her shoulders. Espy was knocking on her door with the double rap-rap she'd taught her, the Helm of Horus was safe in the bedroom closet, and there was another woman in bed with her. Well you knew this was going to happen, Anna, you were stone-cold sober last night, her inner voice chided her.

 

"Just a minute, honey!" she called, rising to her feet and digging around for her clothes faster than a woman of her apparent age should have been able to. "That's, uh, sorta my foster kid," she admitted to Nicola as she pulled her dress down over her head. They'd gotten each other's names but not much beyond that. "So you may wanna..." 

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Nicola sat up, the bedsheets pooling around her waist, and stretched languidly.

 

She was feeling quite sated, on multiple levels, and with a slight shrug of her pale shoulder she slipped out from under the covers and started gathering her own things.  The vampire didn't really expect to end up in someones bed when she went to that bar.  I just wanted a quick snack, she thought.  But I guess Bedlam is making me lonely.


She was squeezing herself back into her trousers when she paused.  "Wait," she said.  "Your sorta foster kid?"  I shouldn't be prying, why am I prying?

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"Yeah," said Anna, her tone making the word a question. Ya wanna make something of it?

 

She opened the door, partway, and was confronted by Esperanza Azul - at seventeen fanatical exercise meant that the girl was coming into the well-built, muscular build of a born athlete, her 5'8" height making her big indeed for a young woman of Honduran descent, her black hair in a short ponytail. She was wearing a Bedlam Maniacs T-shirt and jeans - and looked annoyed in that way only teenagers can be "I heard you coming in last night, Anna," she said. She ticked off points of a past conversation on her fingers while peering over the shorter woman's shoulder. "So me having boys from the neighborhood over is 'crazy irresponsible', but you can-yikes!" she jumped as she caught sight of Nicola. 

 

Anna stepped out into the short hallway outside, pulling it closed behind her. It was mostly artifice, though - this building was built for temporary accommodations for the various off-shore companies that had offices or plants in Bedlam thanks to its lax law enforcement. The walls, and doors, weren't thick. Not really in the mood to have a teenager judging her personal life, Anna said, "The boys you usedta run with are gang kids, and they can't leave it on the street when they come in here! If they don't bring in you-know-who, they'll bring in Mara, or Yardies, and then what the hell are we supposed to do with ourselves?" 

 

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Nicola looked thoughtful for a moment then shrugged.

 

She finished pulling on her trousers, fished her bra off the lamp and worked on getting dressed.  She was in no hurry now, the foster kid already saw nearly as much as Anna did and they were on the other side of the door now, so she took her time.

 

She paused to listen, it wasn't that hard the walls were thin enough.  And what she heard made her frown.  She wore her own criminal past on her skin--the stars, the spider, the cat and the cross--and while she wasn't particularly ashamed it was a path she wouldn't recommend.  It was unkind.

 

The tall brunette opened the door quietly and moved to slip past Anna and Espy.  Except she opened the door too fast, realized what was happening and then reached out to stop it and ended up overcompensating.  She missed, and crashed into the door frame, knocking her hat off and dislodging her sunglasses.

 

"OK," Nicola murmured, pushing her shades back up the bridge of her nose.

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"Ah, jeez!" Anna and Esperanza stopped their argument long enough for the former to get Nicola to sit down on the almost-spotless couch in the living room and the latter (with an eye-roll) to head into the kitchen to fill a plastic bag with ice. "Here, siddown, you don't wanna go anywhere after gettin' a hit that hard." Not wanting to trust her knees with kneeling down, Anna sat on the couch next to Nicola and handed her the icepack. "You musta taken off runnin' there." Anna's accent, like it had last night, was clear as a bell in Nicola's ears - out of place among the Wisconsinites of Bedlam, she was the sort of person who said "Joisey" without a trace of irony. 

 

"You two get high last night?" inquired Esperanza, folding her arms and watching the two adults with a faint air of superiority. "That why you-" 

 

Anna rolled her eyes right back at Esperanza. "Honey," she said with a sharp tone to the word, "I don't need you judgin' me or my friend here. I didn't do anything heavier than Shirley Temples last night anyway." She sighed, then went on, "This is Hope, she and I are a team. Hope, this is Nicky. We, uh, both like the Heroes." The last pre-season game had been on the television back in the hotel bar down the street. "Well looks like you're not gonna bruise, anyway," she said, giving Nicola a look. 

 

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Nicola shook her head, both to Hope's question and to give herself time to think.  "I don't get high," she murmured.  "Probably something I ate, throwing me off.  I'll be fine."  She very carefully did not look at Anna when she spoke, but accepted the icepack graciously.  Probably figured it was better to not draw too much attention to the accidental innuendo.

 

"Thank you," she said after a moment, giving Anna and Hope a close lipped smile.  She realized she should start to get a move on, at the very least to check back in on an abandoned steel mill she was thinking of purchasing with the stipend her King gave her.

 

But she decided to stay, at least for the moment.  She had time.

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Anna almost said what she was thinking - that Nicky hadn't eaten anything the night before, not even the peanuts and hot wings down at the bar. But luckily her brain moved quickly, even on limited amounts of sleep, and so with nothing more than a faint color in her cheeks, she said, "Hope, honey, can you get me Tuesday's bag? Yeah, I see that look on yer face, I'll run out and restock later." With a sigh, Hope headed down a few steps towards the furnished apartment's small kitchen/dining room, giving the two older women a moment's privacy. 

 

"It ain't no fancy breakfast, but it's chicken sandwiches, apples, and bottled water," she said with a shrug. She'd made meals like that all the time back in her younger days, when it had been her and Richard living on the move. "Take it with ya." Her voice got quieter, and a little huskier, with Hope still carefully out of the room. "Listen, Nicky, we may not being staying in Bedlam long, but I gotta tell you somethin'." She leaned in and on a quick impulse, pecked Nicola on the lips. "Last night was...real special. So I ain't gonna ask a lot of questions about yer prison ink. But if I ain't askin' questions, you ain't givin' anybody answers, right?" 

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Nicola's eyes narrowed behind her sunglasses.

 

"Such questions would go nowhere nice," she said quietly, but softened the warning with a smile.  It seemed that Anna already knew this, but Nicola wasn't one to leave things to chance or ambiguity.  At least where aspects of her past were concerned; her present she was more than happy to keep plenty vague.

 

Of course she could have been talking about anyone asking her questions about Anna.

 

She leaned back into the couch, tilting her head to regard Anna with a look that was only vaguely predatory considering her obscuring eye wear.  "I would not begrudge anyone leaving Bedlam," she said after a moment.  "I am only here because it was requested of me.  Where I permitted to leave I would."

 

Her attention shifted to the door where Hope went.  "You should keep your food," she said.  "Not that I do not appreciate the offer, but I have certain dietary requirements and at the moment I am quite sated."

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Anna sighed softly and settled back to the other side of the couch. "I got no veggie stuff," she admitted. "Always thought that was food for rabbits." "Never mind, Hope!" she said, raising her voice. Hope's exaggerated "Ugh!" from the kitchen spoke volumes, as did her exaggeratedly loud efforts to start making herself some lunch. 

For her part, Anna didn't seem too bothered by the girl's tone. "Teenagers," she whispered with a quick grin. "What are ya gonna do?" There was a lot she wanted to say to Nicola - but most of it would have made her feel more vulnerable than anything they'd done the night before. So instead she said, "Hey, listen, I ain't gonna probe about why yer in town. But if yer ever lookin' for a good spot, Hardwick Park's real nice this time a'year. Coupla good sports bars too," she added. 

 

Knock-knock-knock! 

 

"Hope, you wanna-" 

 

"I'm eating breakfast and reading my calc book!" called Hope, trying too hard to sound virtuous. With an elaborate sigh, Anna rose to her feet and headed for the door. "We got another week left on our lease, damn super said he'd be checking to make sure we were packed. Jussec." She took a few steps down the hall towards the door - and from Nicola's perspective, something happened. She saw Anna turn and run, stutter-step backwards, towards the kitchen where Hope was, an instant before an explosion blew the door off its hinges!

 

 

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The typical response to most things in Bedlam was to ignore it, and it wasn't possible to ignore it then you run away from it.  Failing that you hunker down in once place and hope it all passes you by.  Nicola did none of these things, and she was up from the couch and moving toward the sound of the explosion on reflex.

 

She was by Anna's side in a faction of a second, far faster than a human had any right to be and she clenched her fist around the bag of ice still in her hand.

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For Anna Cline, Clock Queen, Lady Horus, time slowed to a crawl. 

 

Esperanza was a brave girl who'd been in her share of fights - but she was also a kid who'd been through a whole hell of a lot in the last few months. She was crouching for cover in the kitchen, taking shelter from the bomb blast, her hands pressed over her ears. "Down!" Anna mouthed so she could see it, moving far faster than a normal woman could have, almost faster than Nicola's eyes could follow. Faster than she _could_ have followed, if not for the blood in her veins. 

 

For her part, Anna turned, caught sight of Nicola, and sized her up in an instant, faster than anyone could have processed. Another super - she'd had some hints to that the previous night. And a friendly one, or she'd have stuck a knife in at any time since the last evening. "Stay here!" she said to Nicola, stepping around her to run down the hall. It was all terribly familiar - and terribly strange at the last time. "I'll be right back..." 

 

"Hah! Hah!" At the door, a man was entering the room, backed by five of the muscled, ill-fitting-suit-wearing thugs Nicola had come to associate with Bedlam organized crime. The man in the lead, though, was no regular criminal. He was stripped to the waist, slim, muscular upper body covered in a variety of tattoos, bright red hair slicked down on his head and his face painted like a clown's. His eyes were wide, and he was smiling as he twirled two knives in his hands, fast, faster than any normal man could have. 

 

"Stabbo the Clown and his backup band are here for two special girls' birthday party!" He twirled the knives again, striding forward with slow, deliberate intent. "Where are the BIRTHDAY GIRLS?" he demanded.

 

Tick tick tick.

 

Anna Cline entered the master bedroom in a blur, finding the Helm of Horus hidden among their dirty laundry, and clapped the Helm to her head. Nepthys flashed into her mind - but the goddess of night and silence had better things to do than castigate her for 'Hathoring around when there was work to be done'. Nepthys was sometimes a trouble but she was no fool; she knew a fight to the death when she saw it. Anna hit the corridor again at a speed faster than a speeding car, blurring into invisibility as she ran into the kitchen. She knew intellectually that she was (as per what she'd heard from some very smart people) phasing her way out of the space-time continuum - she preferred to think of it as being too fast to be seen, or heard, or smelt until it was all over.

 

"Well well well!" Stabbo took another step forward, flipping his knives and was _in_ the kitchen with phenomenal speed, twirling his knives with a look of delight on his face. Despite her terror, Esperanza had rallied enough to grab a sharpened knife from the drawer that hadn't come with the room's silverware. "Here's the little one - but who the Hell are you?" he demanded of Nicola. "Oh well - Stabbo will be happy to put on a show even for uninvited guests!" He leered at Nicola, took a single step into the room - and vanished. 

 

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Nicola glanced toward the kitchen where 'Stabbo' went.  Sure, he moved too fast to track but she could still smell the blood in him.  She could smell it in all of them as she smiled, turning toward the punks that were moving into the apartment.  It wasn't a nice smile, not the one she shared with Anna earlier, but predatory and her fangs were showing.

 

"Well, well, well," she purred taking a step toward them, "I thought I would have to go out to eat.  But here you little morsels are, delivered right to the doorstep."  She laughed. It was a cruel, mocking laugh, and then she was upon them.  Nightingale weighed in with brutal savagery, no fancy martial arts just pure street brawler and in moments she was done.  With no biting.  So she lied a little.

 

Of course, the bigger threat was further in, but it always helps to keep your back clear.  She headed off in that direction, fixing her hat.

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What followed felt like two hard punches to Nicola's back - until she realized she could smell half-digested blood in the air and that the pain exploding from her lower back was far greater than punches should have given. Stabbo was behind her, blood on his knives and a smile on his face. "Now that we're done with the opening act, I think it's time for the main event! Come on, baby, let's put a smile on that face-" He was coming at her with the knives again when suddenly a god appeared next to him out of thin air.


"Ho, thou vile fiend! Taste the solar fury of Horus the Avenger!" Before Stabbo had time to respond, the divinely-crowned paragon smashed him in the side with the crossed handles of her dual ankhs, the sheer force of the blow knocking the man across the room and out the window like he'd been hit by a bomb. It had occurred to Anna, of course, that she could have driven the pointed end of the ankh through one side of the man's head and out the other - but she wasn't a killer, at least not without more provocation than this. Spinning her ankhs away, the goddess stood before Nicola, gleaming with divine power, the Sun seeming to radiate from her half-covered face, white-blonde hair cascading down her back in glossy ringlets. 

 

Ah, geez, he got her right over the kidneys! 

 

Leaning out from the kitchen, Esperanza yelled something that Anna knew was a particularly foul Spanish curse, then ran like Hell for her bedroom and her bugout bag. Good good, just as Anna had taught her, and made her practice. She'd be bringing the first aid kit too, which was exactly what they needed. 

 

"Thou art wounded! How shall your wounds be healed?" declared Horus as she moved to tend Nicola's injuries. Normally she'd have already packed Nicola up and flown her to one of Bedlam's hospitals, preferably the ones whose staff was on the ball, but she'd seen how fast Nicky had moved in the fight. She wasn't going to take a superhuman to one of those places without knowing more of the score. 

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"Blood," the vampire murmured without thinking, still dazed from the violence of Stabbo's attack.  But the shock was fading, and now she was aware of hands from the too bright woman on her skin.  Was aware the the blood leaking out of her was not a healthy shade, too dark and too thick.  Was acutely aware of the gnawing hunger that she felt too weak to fight, and of all of the life that flowed through veins around her.

 

"You need to s-stay back," she said, staggering to her feat.  She was trying to not look at Lady Horus, her brilliance was starting to give her a headache and she held up a forearm trying to shield her eyes, her wince of pain--from the light or from her wounds--inadvertently showed her fangs.

 

"Please.  Please run."

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"Madre de Dios, Anna, she's a vampire!" came Esperanza's exclamation from the hallway. The teenager really had come prepared for a hasty evacuation. 

 

Lady Horus stared at Nicola, eyes glowing yellow with solar energy, as she processed this with superspeed. She thought of the night before, and of how she'd taken a woman to bed for the first time in her life. 

 

Anna remembered Lenore, sweet and sad, trying to impress the Raven with how she wasn't a monster despite preferring the company of criminals and supervillains. All of Lenore's pretty hopes for redemption had gotten her killed when the Raven had picked a human woman over the monster

 

"I have eyes to see," Lady Horus replied to Esperanza. Anna didn't like talking to the girl through the godly disguise, but right now there was no other way. "If you can feed without killing, take what sustenance you can from these worthless wretches," she said, gesturing to the criminals below. Studying Nicola, and stepping back to let her actually take what she needed, she added, "I can look upon you without fear. Thou are not the first nor the last of thy kind I have seen.

 

If she does kill those guys, I am gonna look like such an _ass_ in front of Espy.

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She actually shook her head.

 

"No, only take from the willing."  It was close to the truth.  She did take some from Anna the night before without asking, but that was more of a sexual thing than a feeding thing.  It felt very, very good when she fed and not just for her.  But it was too easy to become addicted to that, and that was what Nicola was afraid of.

 

"I have a cache, an "abandoned" steel mill..." she trailed off.

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Lady Horus said something that Anna was reliably informed was a particularly foul Egyptian curse, something she believed because she'd heard both Set and Nepthys say it at one time or another. She was already calculating how this was going to make it into the local newspapers and what she was going to do if her family caught wind of it, but for now she had to move fast. When she saw Esperanza had her bugout bag she stepped forward, letting the girl grab onto her back in a move that would have knocked Anna Cline down but was no trouble at all for the sun goddess. "Take my hand," she said, extending it to Nicola. "We shall FLY," They flew out through the window that Lady Horus had knocked open when she'd battered Stabbo away, and soon the trio were flying across Bedlam City as fast as a racecar! 

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The abandoned steel mill was fairly nondescript, which is par for the course for most of the rusted out reminders of better times that littered the rust belt.  At least on the outside.  Inside one of the main buildings, with surprisingly modern security systems, it was comfortably appointed and quite modern.

 

Nicola made a faint 'make yourself comfortable' gesture to her guests and extricated herself from Anna and vanished deeper into the mill.  She came back a few moments later with a drink that, for all intents and purposes looked like tomato juice but both Esperanza and Anna could assume was not.

 

"Thank you," she murmured.

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"Take thy leave for just a moment, Lady Azul," said Lady Horus, knowing full well that her ward would be listening by the door anyway but needing at least the appearance of privacy. Esperanza did as she was told, still shaken from the ambush, her bag over her shoulder as she stepped into the nearby room that had once been one of the steel mill's offices. Face-to-face with Nicola, Anna Cline pointed one finger at Nicola. Up close, the transformed nature of the woman within was obvious. Though Nicola could only see half of Anna's Cline's face and much of her body was covered by brightly-colored linen, what she could make out looked as if two or three decades had been lifted from her shoulders. 

 

As she spoke she moved around the room, hands clenching at her sides. "Thy wounds have healed - wounds gained in my favor, and in the favor of mine protege. Because you have shed blood for me and for her, we speak as friends. I owe you a boon for what you have done. But...I have known others of your race. Many were fiends - I called one a friend. I have...thought about it tried not to think about it told jokes about it wondered what it would be like She thought about it fast and decided that, even through the Helm, there was no point in double-speak -"never lain with a woman before last night. When we lay together, was I ensorceled?

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The vampire leaned against the wall, one eyebrow raised.  "Which answer would let you sleep better at night?"  She let the question hang in the air, longer than she had to, simply watching Anna/Lady Horus while she finished the last of her drink and felt the warmth and life suffusing her.

 

She looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged.

 

"That was all your decision," Nicola said.  "I flirted, you flirted back, and what happened after was between two consenting adults."  Then she flashed Anna an impish grin. "Granted I may have kicked things up a notch afterwards," she parted her mouth a little, a hint of fang showing, "but by that time you already had your hands in my underwear."

 

"So I will apologize for that little love bite, especially since I didn't ask first.  But the rest of it?  No, there's nothing to apologize for, from either of us.  It was fun, don't ruin that."

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Lady Horus suddenly coughed, inside the mask Anna thinking So that's what that's like! "...well, thou certainly have a tongue in thy head," she commented, smiling as a faint blush appeared on her pale cheeks. "But I believe your words." Esperanza had reentered at this point, looking like she was holding back something, maybe  laughter, maybe a scream, with great effort. Anna took her in quickly and knew they'd have much to talk about that afternoon. For her part, she went on, "If you took blood, you spilled it - think nothing of it. You may count us as friends.

 

Esperanza did take this opportunity to speak up. "Listen, lady, I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it's a pretty big coincidence that Stabbo the Clown showed up at our door the morning after you did, don't you think?" She frowned, crossing muscular arms as she gave Nicola a penetrating look. 

 

"Do not alienate our allies, girl!" said Lady Horus with vehemence - but not actual anger. "I was careless - I let myself return without hiding my trail. All things I have castigated you for, my ward - I apologize" she said, pacing the room with barely suppressed energy of her own, glowing slightly from suppressed solar energy. "We have powerful enemies," she admitted to Nicola. "I have met no vampires who lacked for the same. Why are you in Bedlam?

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Nicola smirked at Lady Horus' statement, and she visibly struggled to keep from quipping about where else her tongue had been.  But then things turned serious, and Nicola's expression became guarded.

 

"I have a few reasons," she said, frowning.  "The path of the one that made me comes through Bedlam, though I think they have since moved on."

 

She shrugged and made a small throwing away gesture.

 

"Were it just vengeance I would have moved on, but my... King," yep, still weird to say that, she thought, "has requested that I keep an eye on things here."  Then she actually smiled, "Besides, I can do some good here, and the Church is always in need of a helping hand..."

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Ah jeez, I made it with a nun! thought Anna. Well that was one for her therapist - if she went to a therapist, which she didn't. Shrinks were lousy creeps anyway. 

 

"Then we are bound together - guarding this city." Lady Horus thought for a moment, then looked at Esperanza, and said, "If she were an enemy, she could have slain me last night.


"Which is why I'm not supposed to bring anybody home, remember?" said Esperanza, giving her a solid teenager's glare. "

 

"We will discuss that later," said Lady Horus, in a tone that suggested she might have to concede to her protege but not here in front of people. "In the meantime, we will need a place to stay until we can find a new residence. Bedlam is no great metropolis - finding a discreet residence is a great challenge.

 

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Nicola gave Lady Horus an odd look.

 

"You both are welcome to stay here," she said.  "Until you are ready to move on."  It was the least she could offer, and she had the feeling that Hope and Anna would want to move on as soon as they can.  Which the vampire understood, she'd been that way before she ended up in Freedom City.

 

"May not look like much on the outside," she continued.  "But The Mill is quite comfortable and has more than enough room. Just, ah.." she hesitated a moment.  "Going to need groceries.  I don't have any food.  For you all."

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Confronted with this possibility, Lady Horus - removed her helmet. The transformation from god to woman was all glowing solar light and radiating golden energy creeping up Lady Horus's body from her sandals to her head, gradually transforming her back into the familiar figure of Anna Cline. With the Helm removed and transformation finished, it was easy enough to see what Nicola already knew - that Lady Horus (albeit with her face half-covered by the Helm) was clearly Anna Cline with about two and a half decades removed from her. "That's...real nice, honey," said Anna carefully. "And don't think I ain't grateful. Esperanza and I need to talk first. We'll be back." Espy scooped up her bag and followed Anna out the door. The two of them headed away from the steel mill complex towards the river it had once dumped chemicals into - the Manitowac wasn't the cleanest river even today, but alongside its banks and away from the buildings of the Mill gave them space to talk in privacy. 

 

-

 

It was closer to lunchtime when the pair returned to the Mill, bringing with them a bagged lunch from the fast-food restaurant nearest the Mill site, one of the several Culvers' in the greater Bedlam area. "Hey Nicky!" said Anna sociably as they headed back inside, Esperanza sensibly settling down on a couch inside the entrance with her food. "We got hot stuff, but we gotta talk first. You gotta minute?" The question was asked in such a way that it brooked little argument. 

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