Tag Archives: Comet

You Can Choose Your Friends 3

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Thanksgiving dinner went all right, and to my relief it was uninterrupted. Leon made fun of me for expecting something to happen, and I couldn’t argue with him about it; the closest I came to being in danger was when I went back for seconds on turkey, stuffing, and potatoes. When I’d asked Shawn’s aunt half-seriously if she used a secret family recipe for the stuffing, she laughed and said she just made it up one year, after trying different versions over the years and being unsatisfied with them all.

I felt like I’d eaten enough for three dinners, once I accounted for dessert. Shawn’s aunt and uncle had spent hours in the kitchen, while Shawn, Liz, and I entertained their kids. They’d had a friend of theirs over, too. He’d been a co-worker of Shawn’s uncle, and he’d been hilarious. Whenever we weren’t keeping the kids busy we were listening to him tell some story or other, while Shawn’s aunt laughed and his uncle kept having to remind the guy to keep it all PG (or not, when the children weren’t around). He’d managed, cutting a few stories short and skipping some parts that sounded interesting. If my parents had been there, I had a feeling they would have called him “a character.”

In retrospect, I don’t think Liz needed any backup,” Leon commented.

Are you kidding?” I said. “She played with their kids, she ate seconds, and they all had a great time. She’s golden. I bet she’d have to burn down their house for them not to like her.

I was back in my room, alone. Shawn and Liz had crashed at her dorm, probably because it was a little closer and we were all exhausted by the time we got back to campus. It gave me some privacy, anyway, which was fortunate because I’d felt a need to take off my pants after eating so much. The waist had been uncomfortably tight around my stomach.

I sat back in bed and leaned against the wall, putting a hand to my belly. “In retrospect, we might have gone overboard.

Sorry about that,” Leon apologized. “It was hard to stop once you let me have a turn.

Forget it, I pigged out too,” I said. “It was worth a minor stomach ache. I freaking love Thanksgiving, by the way. It’s nice to have an excuse to stuff myself once in a while.

Amen to that,” Leon agreed with amused reverence.

I checked my phone, quickly, just in case.

There weren’t any messages. We turned off the lights to go to sleep, taking pleasure in the moment.

For one evening, at least, I’d managed to forget about everything that had worried me the night before. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was a pleasant respite.

My predictions proved untrue; the quiet did last beyond Thanksgiving. Mary kept in touch to let us know that Tuggey was tailing Michaels with a few men while the empath went from place to place, moving around and trying to attract our attention without being too obvious. According to her, Michaels was bitching about the uncomfortable arrangements and constant movement. We all agreed that his discomfort was a feature of the plan, rather than a bug. It was petty, but sometimes you have to take the satisfaction you can get. Tuggey was handling things better, but apparently was getting sick of Michaels whining. I was happy to let them hate each other’s company in peace.

Raquel and I both took the opportunity to catch up on our schoolwork, and I was motivated by the knowledge that winter break wasn’t too far off now that Thanksgiving was behind us. Christmas decorations started to go up, and I began to worry about the possibility of something going wrong while I was at home for break. Mary and Raquel were competent, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving them without backup. Heavyweight had powers, but I didn’t consider him reliable. That might be unfair of me, but it was the truth.

There was one big surprise shortly after Thanksgiving, though, when Raquel and I went to meet Bloodhound and his teammates for lessons and practice.

Bloodhound and Stalker weren’t the only ones present; Comet was there, and she asked us if we would mind if Meteor came by to talk to us.

We talked it over briefly before agreeing, mainly out of curiosity. When Meteor showed up, she was dressed like Comet, but all in black – the same thing she’d worn in the video I’d seen of the Battle of Philadelphia. She landed right outside the building and walked in, and the five of us (seven, counting Feral and Leon) turned to face her.

Meteor stopped just inside. “Hi,” she said. Comet walked over and gave her a hug, and after a moment’s hesitation she returned it. They whispered to each other for a moment, then walked back toward us together. Meteor glanced at Bloodhound and Stalker, then looked at Raquel, Feral, and I. She took a deep breath, clearly gathering her thoughts or her courage before speaking.

“So…we met under pretty strange circumstances, I guess,” she said. “I know I probably came across pretty badly. In retrospect, what I said then sounds kind of paranoid and…well, not good. I just wanted to apologize for flipping out right off the bat. It’s not the kind of first impression I would have liked to make, if I’d been thinking about it.”

“It’s all right,” Menagerie said. “I guess you’d just been through something pretty tough.”

Meteor turned her head to glance at Comet, then looked back at us. “It wasn’t a good day, no. That was my first real fight, actually. I managed to stay out of that kind of trouble pretty much my whole life. I’m sorry you were there when all of that came out, anyway. I already apologized to them,” she jerked a thumb at Bloodhound and Stalker, “and their teammates, but I wanted to talk to you guys too.”

I cocked my head to one side. “I’m guessing you meant some of what you said, though, right?”

Meteor shrugged, and Leon thought it looked a bit forced. “Yes, but not the way I said it. The truth is, I don’t have a problem with the Philly Five in particular, or with you guys. But what you all do does make me anxious. Secrets and lies usually breed, and I don’t really trust power that’s used in secret. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that, you know? It’s not about what I think of any individual. I just…don’t trust the overall direction. And I do worry about the example it sets. I don’t think any of you are bad guys, or bad people, but that’s kind of what worries me. It’s really easy to sympathize with you and take your side, but anyone with the right powers can claim to be supporting justice. The problem is that every one of us ends up defining that for ourselves, and we have a lot of muscle to make our definitions stick whether other people like them or not. That’s dangerous in a way the Collector and his people aren’t. They’re just criminals, at the end of the day. They don’t have an ideology. That’s what I would have said before, if I’d been feeling less…upset.”

“If you think we’re decent people and you don’t distrust us, how can you have a problem with us trying to help people?” Menagerie asked.

“Because people change,” Meteor said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Having power changes people, and using it changes them more. I know my life would have been very different up to now if I couldn’t do the things I can do. Knowing that I can fly away from any conversation I don’t like is just the tip of the iceberg. I remember being a kid and having to learn real fast that I couldn’t afford to throw a temper tantrum. Now, I just live every second of every day with the knowledge that I can throw a tank rattling around in my subconscious. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t change us is out of touch with reality.”

“You think it changes us that much?” I asked.

“We’re still human, in the end,” Meteor said. “In the good ways and the bad ones.” She let out a deep breath. “Let me put it this way: I’ve tried a few drugs, but power’s better than all of them. It’s too good. That’s my real problem. I guess I wish no one could do the things we can do. Even if I would have to give up flying.” Her voice turned wistful at the end. “That one’s pretty harmless on its own, I guess. But if I could snap my fingers and make these powers all go away, worldwide? I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“We’re trying to help people and keep them safe,” I pointed out. “A few months ago, I was worried too. I wasn’t involved, and I stayed out of things partly because I was worried about making the world worse, which sounds a lot like what you’ve been saying. But if none of us did anything, then nothing would ever change for the better either, would it? I agree these powers are pretty unfair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find good ways to use them.”

“Maybe,” Meteor said. She seemed to relax a bit as I redirected the conversation along more general lines. “But there’s a difference between getting involved in the world as Steve or Jennifer and getting involved in the world as Meteor or Flicker, isn’t there? Look, I don’t think having powers means that everything we do goes bad. It just…magnifies everything. The more power we have, the more impact our choices have. So our mistakes are bigger. Our successes might be too, but I’m just not sure that’s worth the risks.”

“Speaking of risks, we take some pretty big ones to do what we do,” Stalker interjected. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

Meteor hesitated. “It does, but when we take action we aren’t the only ones at risk. If I fly around recklessly and plow into a building, then all the people there are at risk, and they didn’t have a chance to say whether or not they want to accept that risk. We aren’t always the ones who pay the price for our choices. If I make a regular mistake, then that’s fine. But once powers get involved, it’s all a lot less evenhanded.”

I realized that we had started to drift into a line opposite Meteor, like we were going to argue her down. I drifted to my right, trying to turn the group into more of a circle.

“Well, I appreciate your apology,” I said. “It was a bit unsettling, as introductions go. But if that was your first real fight, I’d say you did just fine if getting a little angry and worried afterward is all that happened. I freaked out after mine, that’s for sure.”

Meteor shook her head. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? I came here to apologize, not start a debate, but now we’re debating. Look, you should know that I admire what you’re trying to do, at least. I don’t necessarily think you’re making the right call, but I appreciate your motives. Does that make sense? That’s what I came here to say. I might hope you’ll change how you operate, but I know you’re trying to be on the right side, and that still counts for something.”

Leon and I weren’t really sure what to say to that. Menagerie and Feral seemed to feel the same way, so we just stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, until Meteor looked at Bloodhound. “Can I have a sec, by the way?”

“Sure,” he said after a moment. They walked off to one side.

“Thanks for hearing her out,” Comet said once she was gone. “I guess you probably figured out we’re close, after our little argument. I know she can be kind of hard to deal with sometimes, but I know she’ll have my back anytime I need it. She saved my life, that day.”

I glanced at Stalker, and Leon wondered if Comet’s teammates felt the same way – and whether Meteor was really deserving of Comet’s trust, either way. She’d practically ranted, the first time we met. Even taking into account the circumstances, and the fact that some of her points made sense, she’d seemed dangerous. I knew better than to judge someone’s entire personality based on a few minutes of interaction at a highly stressful time, but she seemed angry, underneath it all.

Not angry,” Leon disagreed. “Afraid.

Of what?” I asked.

I don’t know, David” Leon said. “But that’s my instinct. She was afraid, not angry. In any case, it’s good to see that she is calmer now. One thing she didn’t point out is that there is a vast disparity in the amount of damage people with powers can do, I think. You and I could cause serious trouble, but it’s not likely to happen in a single moment of carelessness or passion. Comet or Meteor, on the other hand, only need to make one mistake to hurt a lot of people.

True, I guess,” I said. “Not all superpowers are created equal, and all that.

“We all have it tough sometimes,” Menagerie said. She looked at Meteor and Bloodhound. “I’m surprised she cares what we think, though.”

“I think she just felt bad for letting our stuff splash on you,” Comet said. “So, how have things been in this neck of the woods?”

I figured we should accept the change of topic. “Not too bad. We’re keeping busy, trying to stay on top of things. There’s sort of a situation brewing. Not something we can talk about, but we might end up asking for some help at some point, if you can provide it. Particularly from you,” I nodded at Stalker.

Stalker seemed surprised, for a moment, but then she settled again. “Well, I’ll help if I can. I don’t think there’s much point to us talking if we don’t help each other out now and then.”

“I don’t expect you to sign a blank check or anything, don’t worry,” I said. “We’re not being mysterious just for laughs. It’s just that it’s still early stages. We’ll tell you more when we know more about what’s happening and what kind of help we need. For now, we’re playing the waiting game a lot.”

Menagerie nodded agreement. We’d talked about the situation a bit, before meeting the Philly Five, and agreed not to tell them anything specific yet. I’d favored saying nothing, after what Mary had told us about the boss, but Leon, Feral, and Menagerie had all wanted to at least give the team a head’s-up, in the hopes that they might be able to help us more quickly if something went catastrophically wrong. I’d held out until Leon suggested that we consult with Mary. She was a bit irritated that we wanted to share any of her secrets, at first, but after talking it over she ultimately took their side.

I hadn’t lost that argument very gracefully, but when everyone disagrees there isn’t much else to do.

“Does this have to do with what happened to that kid, Justin?” Comet asked.

“Dustin,” Menagerie corrected. “And it probably does.”

“Please don’t try to look into it yourselves,” I said. “We’re doing our best to keep a low profile. We don’t want the people responsible to realize we’re on their trail.”

“Okay,” Comet said. “Thanks for the warning. How worried about this are you guys?”

I scratched my head. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a two or three for expecting something to go wrong, but more like a seven or eight for how bad things could get if it does go wrong. But there’s a lot of margin for error on that second part. Too much we still don’t know.”

“Anything else you can tell us?” Stalker asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

Bloodhound and Meteor walked back toward us and I watched them as I spoke to Comet and Stalker. “We’ll be in touch as the situation develops,” I said. “For now, I think we’d like to keep brushing up our skills. If and when something happens, I’d like to be ready.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” Comet said.

“Don’t wait too long to ask for help,” Stalker added.

Bloodhound and Meteor arrived at the spot where we were standing and rejoined the rest of us.

So, are they better or worse now?” I asked Leon.

Those two? I have no idea, actually,” Leon said.

I guess that makes two of us. Or one-and-a-half, maybe? Stupid idioms.

That’s idiots,” Leon said. “But I don’t think it really applies to me, so speak for yourself.

Hardy har har, aren’t you hilarious,” I said. We returned our attention to everyone else.

“So, what do you guys normally do here, spar and stuff?” Meteor asked.

“I’ve been teaching the two of them,” Bloodhound said. “With mixed results, I must admit, but it hasn’t been a waste of time. More recently, Stalker got bored and decided some sparring was called for. I’m assuming she reasoned that it’s sensible because I’m on hand to patch everyone up, as if I had nothing better to do.”

Comet and Stalker laughed, and Meteor shook her head. “Anyone mind if I stick around?” She looked at us, then added, “I won’t take it personally if you say yes. I recognize that I haven’t exactly been running an airtight popularity contest…campaign, thing.”

I started to shrug, but stopped myself. “Menagerie? Feral? Leon?

I don’t know,” Leon said. “What do you two think?

I’m a fan of apologies, and it seemed sincere enough to me,” Menagerie said. “Feral?

No reason not to let her stay,” Feral said.

“I don’t see any reason to kick you out of the unofficial club,” I said. “Just remember the first two rules of super hero club.”

“You do not talk about super hero club,” Stalker said immediately. “I think the second one says that Meteor is supposed to bring snacks. Donuts are preferable to bagels, since there’s no toaster.”

Feral and Menagerie didn’t get it, which in retrospect wasn’t surprising.

It’s from a movie, sorry,” I said. “I’ll explain later, if you care enough.

“I thought one of the rules said that if it’s your first time, you have to fight,” Meteor said, turning her head towards Comet. “Isn’t that right?”

Comet laughed. “We just made up, and you want to go a round? I think you’re unclear on how friendships are supposed to work.”

Meteor held up her hands. “Hey, if I don’t know something, take me to school. Are you ready to do this or not?”

Comet shook her head. “Fine, but keep in mind that we don’t want to have a repeat of the island incident.”

“Hey, that was on you,” Meteor said, waving one hand airily. “You’re the one who sank it.”

“You punched me through it!” Comet protested.

“Um, what?” Menagerie said. She sounded a bit like a deer looks in the headlights.

Stalker laughed so hard she doubled over, placing her hands just above her knees to support herself.

“We weren’t there, but I’ve heard the story,” Bloodhound said. It was hard to tell, with the way the mask distorted his voice, but it sounded like he was amused, too. “Apparently these two geniuses once found a small island and thought it might be a good place for a sparring match. It was out of the way, so tiny that it wasn’t really worth owning, and there wasn’t even anything living on it, really. Just sand and grass, a bit out from the shore. So they start sparring, slowly turning up the heat and using more of their powers a bit at a time, until eventually one of them punched the other one down at an angle that went through the island and into the water. Three times. Our fearless leader makes a pretty hardy projectile, so instead of the island breaking her fall, she broke the island.”

“It wasn’t very sturdy to begin with, in fairness to us,” Meteor said. “Not, like, a proper island. It was just some sand and grass anchored by a few rather large rocks.”

“It was smaller than a football field, but not that much,” Comet said. “And you broke it!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Meteor said, her voice dripping with the scorn of the dismissal. “How could I have broken it when I never touched it? Really, Comet. Don’t tarnish your reputation by being dishonest with these kindly folk.”

Comet stared at her for a second before breaking down in laughter, and I was almost surprised to see Meteor start chuckling too. I found myself laughing along a bit as well.

In the back of my head, Leon and I chalked the exchange up as further evidence of how close the two were. That exchange could have been friendship, but Meteor had alluded to them being family previously, and now I was inclined to think it had been the literal truth.

Sisters?” I asked Leon.

Could be close cousins or something, but yes, I think that’s most likely,” Leon agreed. “I think it fits with everything, and they do have the same powers, after all. Perhaps the abilities run in the family.

I frowned. “Do we have any evidence that powers are hereditary? They’ve all appeared in people whose parents didn’t have powers, I thought. Dustin’s mother isn’t pyrokinetic, as far as we know.

I don’t think we’ve ever seen solid information either way,” Leon said. “But it seems possible, at least. If not blood relatives, perhaps they’re just friends who have been close for years? The similarity in powers suggests a common cause, though. If they are related, it seems like a meaningful correlation, at least. I suppose it could also be a result of exposure to something, if powers are…bestowed, for lack of a better word. Maybe they both walked past the same magic tree one day when they were kids.

Meteor got herself under control first. “So, you up for it or not? We don’t have to, but it has been a while.”

Comet straightened up. “All right. But seriously, hold the power. We’re guests. Trashing the place would be rude.”

“No problem,” Meteor said with a nod. She started walking away from us. “So…stay indoors, no breaking the building, and no using spectators as shields. Shall we dance?”

Comet walked after her. “Let’s do this.”

“Come on, let’s get out of the way,” Stalker said. The rest of us followed her as she walked off to one side, away from the pair who, I realized, had stopped walking in favor of floating. Stalker was leading us away from the fixtures that remained, and I realized she was trying to make sure we had a clear view of most of the building’s interior. I would have criticized that, on the grounds that it would be smarter to stand behind something, but then I remembered that Comet and Meteor would have to be careful not to collapse the building by accident. There wasn’t any safety in getting behind stuff. Either I trusted their control, or I should be leaving the area entirely.

Comet’s teammates didn’t seem nervous, and I decided to trust them. The “island incident” might sound terrifying, but they’d checked for inhabitants first. If I’d had that kind of strength, I would have wanted to test it at some point, too.

Besides, I really wanted to see this. Each of them had fought Silhouette and Skyscraper, and I knew Comet had fought a few other tough supers over the years, but I’d never heard about a mirror match like this one. Meteor and Comet had apparently reached a comfortable spot, and they were both floating just a bit above the ground, facing each other. There were only a few yards between them, and I assumed either one of them could cross that distance in a heartbeat.

“I feel like we should be placing bets,” Stalker muttered.

“I bet this is going to be fucking awesome,” Menagerie said.

“I bet one of us pisses his or her pants before it’s over,” Bloodhound said.

“I bet we’ll all look back on this one day and agree with Menagerie,” I said. “And by ‘one day,’ I mean tomorrow.”

“Now,” Stalker said.

She must have been calling the start for them, because they moved at the second she spoke, flying towards each other. Meteor led with her right leg, extending it as they closed, and Comet ascended above the kick, attacking with a combination of rapid punches at Meteor’s stomach. Meteor dropped to the ground and then kicked off like a swimmer but moving straight upward. Her fist just barely missed as Comet slid sideways, and Comet’s shin caught Meteor in the stomach, knocking her backward.

Meteor dove right back in, but this time when Comet kicked at her Meteor came to a sudden stop, her upper body twisting in midair as she kicked with both legs, feet together. Comet turned but got hit in the shoulder and knocked back by the blow, barely stopping her momentum short of the wall.

The whole fight was like that, a constant back and forth. The way they flew let them move in three dimensions unlike anything I’d ever seen. I’d noticed it the day I met the Philly Five, but it was on another level now, with both combatants easily able to move forward, backward, left, right, up, down, or any combination thereof. They twisted and slid around kicks and punches, flipped upside down without a moment’s hesitation, and generally ignored gravity and slapped inertia across the face. Even without flight I could never have fought either of them, but now I realized that even if I was a match for them in strength and toughness I could never catch them in the first place unless they flew near me.

As the match continued, they started putting more force into the blows, although it did plateau, thankfully. I wondered if Stalker had reminded them to be careful and rein it in.

I started to feel jaded when I realized that I was actually getting less impressed by the spectacle in front of me. Only a handful of minutes had passed, and I was already accustomed to the sight of Meteor and Comet flying over and under each other, as casually as I might sidestep. It was still exciting to watch, though. I’d lost track of who was landing more blows, but it occurred to me now that there was probably no way for a match between these two to end unless it was serious or they just got exhausted. They were so durable that calling a winner in anything short of a fight to the death might be impossible. Their ability to fly meant that even taking out the legs might not be a disabling injury.

Finally, the maneuvering and exchanges of blows gave way to something else. Meteor and Comet started grappling with each other in midair, trying to get a hold of each other’s arms and legs. That was, if possible, even stranger to watch than what had come before, and it took me a while to figure out why. Grappling typically assumed that the ground was there to pin your opponent against, but that wasn’t always true for these two. Soon they landed, but Leon and I quickly realized that the trickiest part of grappling between these two was countering each other’s flying abilities. Even when pinned on the ground, each of them had the power to accelerate in any direction, regardless of where they were looking. At one point, Comet got Meteor’s arm and seemed about to pull it into a position where Meteor would have to give up or have her arm broken, but then Meteor suddenly flew sideways, not off the ground but simply sliding along it. She jerked in several directions, and the rapid changes of movement allowed her to free her arm. A bit later, Meteor grabbed Comet by the leg, and Comet flew up at an angle, then stopped, letting momentum carry Meteor along so that she lost her grip.

After a few frustrating-looking minutes of that, they called a halt and landed. Stalker started walking towards them, and the rest of us followed. Meteor took off her helmet and shook her head, then started wiping her face.

“Sweat in the god damn eyes,” she said, muffled by her mask. She tugged it back into its proper place a second later, then looked at Comet. “There’s nothing like fighting 3D.”

Comet nodded, then took her helmet off too. “Yeah. Thanks for the practice.”

“Back at you,” Meteor replied. She flopped onto her back, staring upward. “I feel totally gross.”

Comet laughed. “Hey, at least you live alone. You won’t have anyone complaining that your clothes stink.”

They looked up as we stopped near them.

“So for the record, that was awesome,” I said. “Which, I think, means Menagerie wins the bets we didn’t make.”

“Thanks,” Menagerie said. “I’ll make sure not to spend it all in one place.”

I looked at Bloodhound and Stalker. “So, I know telepathy probably makes sparring boring – either it doesn’t work or it just wins outright, I’m guessing – but do the rest of you guys ever spar either of them? Because the way they move, it just seems impossible.”

“It’s a pain in the ass, but the rest of us can beat Comet if we work together and get a little lucky,” Stalker said. “We’ve done it…what? Twice? Three times, I think.”

Bloodhound nodded. “Three times. We haven’t bothered to try that matchup very often, though. It’s not really fruitful training.”

Meteor broke in, sitting up and leaning back on her hands. “With people who can fly like us, there are only three ways to bring us down, really,” she said, glancing at Comet before she continued. “First, there’s dogged pursuit. It takes luck, but if the powers align right you can just keep chasing and we eventually make a mistake, if only due to fatigue.”

Comet chimed in, rolling her shoulders. “Second, attack something we have to defend. That can force us to get close, so we lose the mobility advantage. That’s how Blitz got me before. Third, prevent us from moving. Telekinesis might do that, or force fields, or other stuff like that. Or if someone with the right leverage and strength can just get a solid grip on us, they can keep us close. We have a lot of horsepower in our flying, though, and we can go in any direction, so that’s tough.”

Meteor picked the conversation back up. “Lastly, of course, there’s cheating. If someone’s powers just knock us unconscious without a fight, that would work too. So I guess that’s actually four ways.”

“How did you guys do it?” Menagerie asked, looking at Stalker and Bloodhound.

“It really does take all of us,” Stalker said. “Direct telepathic attack might change that, but we’ve avoided experimenting, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Telepathy can help arrange a coordinated attack and defense, though. Newton can just barely hold Comet down if he cranks his power up enough and just lays on the Gs. Doing that to a normal person might kill them, of course. Actually, he has to be careful not to turn the power up and down too quickly, or he can cause problems anyway. Something like the bends that divers have to worry about, if you know what that is. Has to do with pressure.”

“We’re getting a bit sidetracked, here,” Bloodhound said. “The answer is that we can beat Comet, if we all work together and get lucky enough. It requires favorable conditions, her making a mistake, or a genuine coincidence in our favor to catch her in the first place, but it’s doable. The more we can plan, the better the odds. Without that, though, she just takes us out one at a time. I assume things would work pretty much the same against Meteor, except that we’ve never practiced against her.”

“Speaking of powers, there’s something I’m curious about,” Meteor said. She looked at us – at Menagerie, I realized after a moment. “Your friend, the cat – she can cut through a lot of things. Do you know if she can cut us?”

“Um, I’m, uh, not sure,” Menagerie said. She sounded nervous.

“Relax, I’m not interrogating,” Meteor said. “I’m just curious. Could we do a little experiment?”

“What kind?” Menagerie asked.

“I don’t know, cut my palm or something?” Meteor suggested. “If not, it’s okay, but I have to admit I have wondered about it.”

“I’m kind of curious too,” Comet said.

“I don’t know…” Menagerie said.

I don’t think you need to worry,” I told her. “It’s their idea. No one’s going to get pissed at you, even if something does go wrong.

“I promise not to get mad,” Meteor said. “It’s not like I’m asking you to give me a papercut.”

“Wait, have you ever even had a papercut?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Comet said. “It would have to be paper from a super-tree, or something.”

Stalker hid her face behind one hand, shaking her head, then looked at Menagerie. “Don’t worry so much about it,” she said, pointing at Bloodhound. “We’ve got the magic doctor, remember?”

“Well, okay,” Menagerie said. “um, which…”

Meteor stepped forward, pulling her right glove. “Here. Just a nice shallow cut on the palm, please. I like my hand attached.”

Menagerie focused, and Feral appeared in her arms as a small housecat. Feral stretched briefly and turned to face Meteor. Meteor held out her hand, stepping closer.

Feral reached out delicately, a single claw lengthening, and then pressing it to Meteor’s palm. Carefully, she drew it across the extended hand.

Meteor twitched, pulling her hand away. “Damn. I can’t remember the last time something hurt like that.” She looked at Bloodhound. “Here.”

He took her extended hand in his own, closing them over it. It was a shallow enough cut, so I assumed it wouldn’t take long.

“It’s not working,” Bloodhound said after a few moments.

Everyone turned to look at Feral.

“Oh come on!” Menagerie protested.

“Relax,” I said. “Has that ever happened before?” I asked Bloodhound.

“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at Meteor’s hand. “Wait. There was one time…when I healed Heavyweight, the night you rescued Dustin. Some of his injuries seemed to resist being healed. Wait a moment.”

He concentrated again, and we all waited quietly. I glanced at Menagerie.

Heavyweight’s wounds inflicted by Feral resisted healing?” I said. “Did we know about that?

No, he left before we got back from dropping Raquel off, remember?” Leon said. “I note that he said ‘resisted,’ though, not that he couldn’t do it. Heavyweight certainly seemed fine the last time we saw him, so I think it must have worked eventually.

Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I wonder if Feral’s claws would be harder for us to heal from, too.

Interesting question, but I don’t think I’m as curious as Meteor. I hope you aren’t, either,” Leon said.

No, I favor remaining ignorant on that score,” I said.

We watched Bloodhound, keeping an eye on Menagerie.

“There,” Bloodhound said. “Did that work?”

Meteor spat on her hand and rubbed some dried blood off so that she could see clearly. “Looks good. I guess your heal-fu is stronger.”

“Apparently,” Bloodhound said. He looked at Menagerie and Feral. “I hadn’t realized your claws might have this effect. Healing cuts they make takes more out of me, though it’s still doable, but if you learn to control the effect you might be able to make wounds easier or harder to heal, as you like.”

“I wonder how well it would have healed on its own,” Meteor mused.

“I’m not testing it again,” Menagerie said flatly. “I don’t like cutting people.”

I couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so I just reached out and gave her shoulder a brief pat.

“I wasn’t really asking,” Meteor said. “I’m curious, sure, but I don’t want to walk around with my hand bandaged for a week, if only to avoid coming up with an explanation. Thanks for trying it, though. Bloodhound, thanks for the healing action.” She looked at all of us. “Last time I left, I said to call me when things get bad. I said a lot of other crap too, but I want to take another stab at it: call me if you need some backup. I’m not too far away.”

“You’re heading home?” Comet said.

“Yeah, I think I better get back,” Meteor said.

The two of them walked toward the door together, and Comet put an arm over Meteor’s shoulder.

We all watched them go. It might have been Leon’s influence, but I found myself watching everyone else, too, wondering what they all thought of Meteor now.

Well, at least I could ask Menagerie outright, once we were alone.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 1

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We were sitting in and around the van that had brought Bloodhound to Berkeleyport just a few hours ago. On the road partway to Philly, Comet had caught up to us. Not long after that, Bloodhound had gotten another call, and we’d learned that it was all over.

Menagerie, Stalker, Bloodhound, Newton and I were all still in shock, I thought. It was bad enough to hear what had happened, but we’d all been preparing ourselves, getting mentally ready for the fight of our lives, and now it was over before we’d arrived. I’d worried about being too late to make a difference once or twice, but it had never occurred to me that a crisis would come up and then be resolved before I could even arrive.

Now, we were sitting in the parking lot of an out-of-business bookstore on a Pennsylvania back road. I was slowly feeling tension and adrenaline drain out of me, and Newton and Stalker were both fidgeting awkwardly while Bloodhound knelt over Comet, lying on her back on the ground.

Seeing Comet bloody, part of me was grateful that the fight had ended before we could arrive, even if it meant Blitz had escaped. I sat and stared at her, lying there with her eyes closed, mask partially covering her face as Bloodhound held her left arm. After taking stock of her injuries, she’d let him heal her chest and stomach first, but then insisted that he take care of her wrist; she wanted to be fit to fight in case Blitz came back.

I glanced around. Comet was lying in the back of the van with Bloodhound next to her, and the rest of us were sitting on those little cement things they put at the front of some parking spaces. Menagerie was next to me, with Feral pacing anxiously beside her, while Stalker walked back and forth and Newton sat on the cement thing to our right.

Bloodhound had already said they would drive us back to Berkeleyport once he was done looking at Comet.

All I could think about was whether or not the fighting would start up again.

It was strange, but most of us probably knew less about what was going on than the average American with a television. During the trip, we’d been talking, trying to discuss possible tactics for taking down Blitz, instead of listening to the news coverage. Bloodhound had suggested that until we were close enough to make a difference, hearing the reports would just get under our skin, whereas talking calmly would help us get into a better frame of mind. I thought he was mostly worried that Raquel and I would wet our pants if we heard too much bad news, but I wasn’t certain he was wrong, so I went along with the idea.

Once we’d met up with Comet, Bloodhound had started healing her in the back of the van as we drove, but with the fight over he’d said he could do a better job if we weren’t moving. Besides, showing up to the scene now might make our identities easier to figure out, and it wouldn’t make a difference. I got the impression that while they weren’t worried about the van being traced back to their real identities, they would need to give it up if we drove it around blatantly while dressed for a fight.

I realized I was bouncing my right leg, but I couldn’t stop.

I was full of nervous energy, along with my actual fear. I stood up and started pacing, parallel to Stalker. Ten feet away, then back toward the van. Rinse and repeat.

There was a sudden ring, and Stalker pulled out her phone; all of us except for Bloodhound and Comet stopped moving and looked at her.

“Hey,” she said. “Yeah? All three of…wait, why is – no, I guess I get it. Yeah, okay. I’ll tell her he’s coming. Just give us a minute.” She hung up, turning toward us.

“Hey, Uplink, Tin Man, and Meteor are here plus one civilian,” she said, walking toward the van. “Someone who wants to see you pretty bad, Comet. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Menagerie, Flicker, they’re all going to be masked and stuff, but um…just try not to see anyone’s faces in case, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. My voice was hoarse. I hadn’t even realized my throat was so dry until I spoke.

A couple of minutes later we were joined by another car, and four people got out. The three men were in normal clothing, but wearing masks. I didn’t recognize any of them by sight. The last person was a woman, dressed in something reminiscent of Comet’s outfit but all in black.

Two of the newcomers stepped forward to embrace Newton and Stalker, while the last man and the woman went straight to the van. As they walked past, I noticed that the man looked clean and unhurt, unlike the others. Newton turned toward us, gesturing at the two men with him. “These are Tin Man and Uplink,” he pointed. “You already know Tin Man, of course, but it’s hard to recognize him out of the suit.”

Tin Man was short. He couldn’t have been more than one or two inches over five feet tall, if that. He was wearing jeans and a short-sleeve t-shirt, and there were burns, bruises, and scrapes visible on his arms.

Newton turned back to him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. He looked at Stalker. “The suit took most of the beating.”

“Good,” Stalker said. “That’s what it’s for.”

“It’s in the trunk, if you want to have a look,” Tin Man said. “Come on.” He led her back to the car, and they popped the trunk to look inside. I guessed that the suit must be disassembled to fit.

Uplink and Newton walked over to Menagerie and me.

“Pleased to meet you,” Uplink said, reaching out with his right hand. I took it a bit cautiously and gave it a gentle shake. He didn’t look hurt – just dirty – but I wasn’t sure. He shook Menagerie’s hand next, then took a step back and glanced over at the van before looking at Newton.

“Is she going to be okay?” he asked quietly.

“Bloodhound says yes,” Newton said. “That’s good enough for me. I know we’re not used to her bleeding, but she’s not brittle. She can take a beating better than all of us put together.”

“Yeah,” Uplink said. “I guess.” He looked relieved.

I took the opportunity to appraise him while they were talking. Uplink was a bit taller than Tin Man, but not by much. I thought I saw a bruise or two, and a scrape on his forehead that had bled not long ago, but it was small and he looked fine. His sneakers were torn up, but that was about the worst of it. As we stood there, he rolled down the sleeves of his flannel shirt and buttoned it closed, shivering slightly.

I wondered if he was someone else like us, or if the Philly Five thought of him as an unofficial team member, but a noise drew my attention to the van, where I saw the woman who’d arrived standing back while Comet sat up and hugged the man tightly.

“Thank god,” he said. “I was so worried.”

“I’m okay,” she said gently. “Really. I’ll be sore for a while, but nothing permanent.”

The other woman turned around and walked a few steps away, tapping Bloodhound on the shoulder, and he followed her. The rest of us all backed off, giving the pair by the van some privacy. I had a good guess who the man was, now, or at least what his relationship to Comet was.

Bloodhound and the other woman came over to us, and I saw that her black outfit was torn in a few places, but she didn’t look hurt. She wasn’t bleeding, limping, or showing any other signs of injury.

When they reached us, she stopped, staring intensely at Menagerie and I in turn. Most of her face was hidden by her mask, and the rest wasn’t giving much away.

“You two came to help?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, a bit uneasily. “Sorry we weren’t in time.”

She shrugged off my apology. “Whatever. Thanks anyway.”

“Menagerie, Flicker, this is a friend of ours,” Bloodhound said. He glanced at her. “She’s not part of the team, but I guess she heard what was going on and wanted to help out, since things were so bad today. You can call her Meteor.”

I gave her a choppy nod of acknowledgment, and Menagerie muttered a “pleased to meet you.” Meteor seemed to be on edge, and it was making me feel awkward.

She turned to glance back at the van, and my eyes reflexively followed. Comet and the man were still holding each other, and I looked away quickly. When Meteor looked back at us, her jaw clenched, and I wondered what was going on with her. Did she have some kind of problem?

She may just be keyed up from the fight, David,” Leon pointed out. “Don’t read too much into it. Especially if she hasn’t done this before. No one acts normally after their first battle.

Good point,” I said. “Thanks for being the voice of reason.

We stood in awkward silence for a few seconds, until Comet and the man released each other and she leaned back against the side of the van. Meteor immediately began walking over. Bloodhound hesitated for a second before following, and Menagerie and I drifted awkwardly in the same direction behind them.

Meteor walked right up to the vehicle, stepping quickly, but she stopped short.

“You okay?” Meteor asked brusquely.

“Yeah,” Comet said softly. “Thanks for-”

“Don’t, please,” Meteor cut her off. “Just…don’t. You’re family. There was no way I wouldn’t have come.”

Comet’s head tilted to one side. “What’s wrong?”

Meteor shook her head. “Everything,” she said. “Everything about this is wrong. I told you before that I thought even starting your team was a bad idea, and I meant it. I backed off because I couldn’t see any way to stop you except to fight you or out you, and that would have fucked our whole family over, and now I’m your accomplice.”

I hesitated. I had just picked up one secret that I didn’t think I was supposed to know, and Meteor sounded emotional. She might drop more.

So did I go with curiosity and paranoia, or with courtesy?

My moral dilemma never really got up to speed. I was too busy listening to them talk.

“Accomplice? We’re the good guys.”

Meteor dropped into a crouch, putting her face more level with Comet’s. “That’s the problem,” she said quietly.

She took a deep breath and straightened, then let it out. “I came to help because I’ll always put family before principles, and the hell of it is that I don’t know if that’s me stroking my ego or criticizing myself or both. I almost killed three people today, Comet. All I can think about now is the fact that I held back, and maybe I shouldn’t have. That’s the problem. We had Skyscraper unconscious and we fucked around. I had Recast and I punched his knee instead of his head, and I literally had Collector by the throat. I could have finished all of them, and they’re all confirmed murderers, and I can’t believe I let them get away. And that’s the god damned problem.”

Comet leaned back against the van’s side, then stretched out to put a comforting hand on Meteor’s knee. “You did the right thing. We’re not killers. We’re the good guys. We have to draw lines, and take them seriously.”

“No, you are the good guys,” Meteor said. “I am nobody. But because the six of you decided to play the part of being heroes, we’re stuck with the world you made, and if I had killed those men it would have meant something. I don’t know if that’s why I didn’t do it, or not. But the problem is you guys. The famous Philly Five. You created a world with heroes and villains, and now it’s too late to go back and we’re all stuck living in it. Do you get it? The story on the news today won’t be that a few insane people with powers struck out at the world. The story will be that you fought the battle for Philadelphia. That’s part of history, now. It’s never going to change.”

“You think it would be better if we let people like them do whatever they wanted?” Comet asked heatedly.

“No!” Meteor said. “Do you not get it? There used to be two sides to crime: society, and the bad guys. Okay? That was the idea everyone had in their heads. Now we have three: society, bad guys, and us. Self-appointed protectors. We’re the third side, now. And you don’t have any control over which people are going to decide to join your side, or how they’re going to fight. Tomorrow someone who idolizes you might kill someone because he’s afraid they might be the next Collector. You’re worse than the bad guys because you’re role models!”

Everyone stared at her, myself included. I hadn’t even noticed the others – Stalker, Tin Man, Newton, and Uplink – gathering, but we were all standing in a rough semi-circle around the back of the van, where Meteor stood looking down at Comet. The man who’d been holding her was sitting next to her, still, staring up at Meteor, but I couldn’t see his expression.

Meteor suddenly turned to look at all of us.

“Christ,” she said, shaking her head. “Who the fuck do you people think you are? You’re a cure worse than the disease! I know Uplink’s tried poking where he wasn’t invited. Only on bad guys, you’ll tell me, but so fucking what? Have you ever heard of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ or the right to privacy? I know for a fact that Bloodhound has killed, and you all know it too. And you sit here and look at me like I’m the crazy one? Do you not get what we are?”

“Je- Meteor, calm down,” Comet said. “Look, I know today was bad and you’re stressed, but you need to take it easy, okay? We’re not the bad guys here! We’ve been risking our lives to try to help people!”

Meteor laughed bitterly. “Oh yeah, and the world’s way better, isn’t it? You’re secret fucking police without a dictator, Comet! You have no accountability, and you’re worse than a regular vigilante because if you go nuts no cop with a gun could hope to stop you!”

Comet stood up, plainly angry. “It that’s what you think then why did you come help us at all!”

“Because I’m a fucking hypocrite!” Meteor screamed. “Because I’m human and you’re family and I don’t want you to die!”

The two of them were panting, staring at each other, while the rest of us stood there, stunned. I wanted to glance at Feral and Raquel, but I was afraid to look away. I couldn’t see Meteor’s face, but she sounded like she might be crying.

Meteor moved first, turning away from Comet and then back to her jerkily. “Jesus, listen to me! You’re inspiring children to go fight! Fucking think about this, please! Okay? Look at them!” she pointed at us. “You fucking know Menagerie isn’t college aged yet. Flicker might be. Is that better? They could die, and they’re following in your footsteps! And what if they don’t, and we don’t? Are we going to keep networking and recruiting and mentoring until we have a whole army? What the hell are we going to be in ten years, Ali? You and I are powerful enough to take over a small country in a month already, and you want to get even more people together? More powers? Do you want a big country, instead? Do you want a continent? Because if we keep going we’ll end up with one by accident. We’re too dangerous!”

“You’re talking like we’re freaks or monsters!” Comet protested. “Dammit, we’re just trying to help people! Do you know how many lives we’ve saved while you were off being uninvolved? We’ve helped the police catch double digits of bad guys with powers! We’re not monsters!”

“Yes we fucking are!” Meteor yelled. “If someone came at me with a knife, I could be safe without even moving! I could fly away, or heal, or get Bloodhound to heal me, or punch his goddamn head off, or take a fucking nap! What do you think a monster is, Ali? We’re not normal people, we’re not like normal people! We don’t fear what they fear, we don’t think like they think, and we can do things that they can barely imagine! We might still be human, but we are fucking monsters! Wake up, all of you!” She turned, staring at us.

I stared back at her. I didn’t know what to think. She sounded hysterical, but that didn’t make her wrong. She was hitting a lot of doubts I’d had, some from the beginning and others that arose from my own experiences.

“Do you guys think this is okay? Even remotely?” Meteor pleaded. Her voice faltered. “Christ, just think about this! You must have family who are normal, or friends, or someone. We’re setting ourselves above them! Where do you think that ends? Please, all of you, fucking think!”

“We have thought about this,” Bloodhound said quietly. “Someone would have teamed up, Meteor. Blitz did. Would you prefer that we all joined the FBI? Do you trust the government with a private army of supers?”

“No, I don’t,” Meteor said sadly. “But I think I trust you guys even less. We’re not kids playing with fire, here. We’re babies juggling dynamite. And your little group is the biggest baby with the most sticks in the air, and sooner or later someone is going to jostle your elbow and you’re going to drop them all. You might survive, but the people around you won’t. Can you honestly tell me that this world is better than the one we’d have if the Philly Five never existed?”

“Yes,” Bloodhound said without hesitation.

Meteor stared at each of us in turn. I didn’t say anything, and neither did Raquel.

“Yes,” Comet said.

Tin Man nodded. The rest of the team followed suit, agreeing.

Meteor slumped, sitting on the van. “You won’t stop,” she said. “None of you wants to see it.”

“To see what?” Uplink asked. “How afraid you are?”

“Of course I’m afraid!” Meteor exploded. “God, why aren’t all of you? You’re holding the world in your hands and you aren’t worried about squeezing too tight or dropping it, and you should be! You should be fucking terrified! I’m afraid because you’re all bullshitting yourselves, pretending you’re just normal people as if that isn’t an even bigger self-delusion than whatever made Collector think he’s a god! You tell yourselves that you don’t kill people because of justice, or rights, or whatever, but the real reason is fear! Because you don’t want people to be afraid! You don’t want them to realize what we are, and you don’t want to admit that what we can do is fucking scary! And now you’re probably afraid of me because I won’t join your game of ‘let’s pretend.’ Wake up!  You should be afraid!”

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Comet asked, stricken. “Talking about ‘what we are’ like we’re things, not people?”

“Better than you!” Meteor said. “You guys have to see this! You’re changing the course of world history and acting like it’s just a day job that you clock out of, and it’s not! We are going to live in this world. Our kids and nephews and nieces and grandkids are going to live in this world. The world where the person with the best power sets the rules.” She seemed to run out of steam, all of a sudden, her voice dropping. “At least everyone can see that Blitz is the bad guys. They’re hard as hell to stop, but no one thinks they’re right.”

More silence. Meteor looked at each of us in turn, again. When she got to me I flinched and looked away instead of meeting her eyes.

After a minute that felt a lot longer, Meteor turned back to Comet. “I’m glad you’re all right,” she said, “but it doesn’t change anything. You’re still wrong, and I’m still afraid that we might end up on opposite sides one day if you don’t change what you’re doing. And I still fucking wish you hadn’t done this, because it could screw us all, and you made it so my only choices were to let you go commit your fucking crimes or betray my own family.” Meteor stood there panting, then suddenly rounded, pointing at Bloodhound. “And for fuck’s sake, don’t trust him and his advisors!”

Comet floated up and forward to give Meteor a hug. Meteor stood stiffly for a few seconds, but eventually she returned it, slumping tiredly, the tension draining out of her.

“It’s going to be all right,” Comet said.

Meteor shook her head. “It’s really not,” she said sadly. “It’s not going to be all right.” She turned away and walked a few steps, then stopped. Her shoulders slumped again, and she looked back at Comet one last time. “Call me if you need…” she shook her head again, sighing. “Call me when it gets bad.” She looked at Bloodhound. “You…be good. And pass the message on.”

It was plainly a threat. Before anyone reacted, she shot into the sky and flew away.

We all stood in the awkward silence for a second, looking at where she had been.

“I’m sorry about that,” Comet said quietly. “All of you. Bloodhound, I don’t know what her problem with you is.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bloodhound said, at least outwardly calm. “She came through for us today, and I think she will next time too. And we should have someone around to doubt us. Someone who questions, but isn’t an enemy. If she ever feels strongly enough to side against us, maybe we’ll deserve it. Maybe we’ll need the wake-up call.”

“Have you killed?” Menagerie blurted out.

Everyone fell silent again, and she shrank in on herself. Feral padded closer to her, rubbing up against her left leg. I took a half-step towards her, leaning in her direction, while facing everyone else. It was impossible not to notice in the silence, but I hadn’t thought about it.

“Yes,” Bloodhound said. “I have. More than once. The first time was in self-defense. There have been two other times. On one occasion, I was defending others, and the last time it was someone who had killed repeatedly himself. I haven’t killed since I joined the Philly Five, though. That was part of the terms when we created the group.”

There was another tense silence.

“Is this going to be a problem?” Bloodhound asked. He didn’t sound threatening, but I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that there were two of us and five of them, with Uplink and the (apparent) civilian hanging back, but sticking close to the Philly Five.

“Why didn’t you mention it before?” I asked. I tried not to sound confrontational, but I was really just trying to buy time to think.

Part of me was wondering how far the Philly Five would go to keep their secrets. We knew several that we hadn’t known before, and that made me nervous.

“Frankly, it’s none of your business,” Bloodhound said. “I don’t kill as a matter of course, and I haven’t done it for some time. I’ve never pretended I wasn’t keeping secrets from you, even when I was offering lessons. You both have secrets from me as well, and I haven’t pried into them, despite the fact that what I’m teaching you gives you more power which could be misused. I judge you both by your actions, just like the whole world judges our team. I think that’s fair.”

I noticed that the others let Bloodhound speak for himself, even Comet, the apparent leader. A glance showed me that the man with her – who had to be a boyfriend or husband or something – was holding her carefully, letting her lean on him.

Are you okay with this?” Menagerie asked me.

I don’t think anything is different from yesterday or this morning,” I said. “I’m not thrilled to learn that Bloodhound has killed, but I’m not sure how much it matters. Without knowing the details, we can either take his word for it or not. Basically, it’s just a question of whether we choose to trust him or not. If he told us all the details of the deaths, it would be the same – we weren’t there, and we don’t have any way to ensure he tells the truth or double-check his story.

“What about the rest of you?” Menagerie asked. “Have you killed anyone? Comet? Tin Man?”

“No, I haven’t,” Comet said.

“Me neither,” Tin Man said.

Stalker and Newton shook their heads.

“And Uplink?” I asked. “I don’t want to be unreasonable, but telepathy seems pretty ripe for abuse. Comet said you guys draw lines and sick to one side of them. Where’s your line?”

“I don’t go poking into everyone’s head on a whim,” Uplink said, crossing his arms. “I defend against other telepaths, and I’ll try to figure out where bad guys are and what they’re planning so we can take them down as safely as possible. I can’t control them, or anything.”

I turned to Stalker. “What about you?”

“I follow the same rules he does,” Stalker said slowly.

She had hesitated for a fraction of a second before answering. Was it the sign of a lie? None of the others reacted to it.

I looked at Menagerie.

Is that good enough for you?” I asked.

I don’t know,” Menagerie admitted. “Feral, Leon? What do you guys think?

Reputation doesn’t make people good, but they’ve earned it publicly, and we’ve seen firsthand that they’re willing to cooperate with other people, including the authorities,” Leon said. “I’m inclined to think they’re on the level, even if this is all dangerous. But I think Meteor and Bloodhound were right. Someone should watch them, just in case.

They’re strong, but don’t kill,” Feral said. “They don’t beat confessions out of people either, as far as I know, and they came to help us without needing to be asked. Trust them for now, but keep your secrets just in case. And if we can in the future, we should find a way to get in touch with Meteor. Just in case. They might be good today, but tomorrow is always a new challenge. Anyone can fall.

I think they’re right,” I said. “Menagerie? If it’s not unanimous, we can break contact, do our own thing. I’d be okay with that.

She took a moment to think before looking at Bloodhound. “I’m not sure what to think,” Menagerie admitted. “Meteor seemed to feel pretty strongly, and I can’t say for certain that she was wrong about everything. This is dangerous, and we’re all in over our heads. But if you’re still willing to teach us, I’d still like to learn, and if this happened again…I’d still want to help.”

“Thank you,” Bloodhound said.

We all stood for a second, not certain where the conversation could go from there.

“Well, that should make the ride home less awkward than the alternative,” Tin Man said.

We all started laughing, from shock more than anything else, and the tension disappeared from the air.

Tin Man looked over at Comet. “You know I love Meteor, but she never makes things calmer, that’s for damn sure.

Comet laughed a bit uncomfortably. “Yeah, she’s pretty…intense.”

“I wouldn’t care if she cursed at us for twenty minutes, after today,” the man with her said quietly. It sounded like his voice was nearly breaking, and he pulled her into another embrace. Comet tilted her head to whisper in his ear, and we all moved back to let them have some privacy again.

Bloodhound walked over to us, gesturing for Tin Man to follow.

“So, I imagine the two of you want to get home,” he said. “Tin Man, could you and Stalker take them back in the car? I’ll get the rest of the crew home in the van.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tin Man said.

I noted that he hadn’t volunteered to drive us, and I was glad.

A minute later, Menagerie and I were sitting in the backseat while Tin Man drove and Stalker sat next to him. The car pulled out and turned for home, and I started to relax for the first time since Bloodhound had answered his phone.

“So, what kind of music do you two like?” Tin Man asked, reaching for the radio.

“Jazz would be nice,” Menagerie said.

“A woman after my own heart,” Tin Man said approvingly. He started going through stations.

“So, can you tell us what happened?” I asked. “If you don’t want to rehash it right now I’ll understand, but I’d like to know.”

Tin Man paused, then turned down the radio. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess I can do that. Just give me a couple minutes, okay? I feel like I haven’t relaxed in forever.”

“Sure,” I said. “Take the time you need.”

I settled in to listen.
 
 
 
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Walk a Mile in Their Shoes 4

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Jessica sat up, startled, as she felt her phone buzzing in her back pocket. She glanced around the lecture hall as she pulled it out, glancing down.

She frowned. It was her sister’s home number. It was unlike her to call in the middle of the day. Could it be an emergency?

The phone stopped ringing, and she hesitated, glancing up to make certain the speaker hadn’t noticed her distraction. One of the other students attending glanced over, but that was all. Her phone vibrated again, and she quickly unlocked it to check the text message.

It wasn’t from Ali; it was from Ali’s husband, John.

“Pick up. Emergency.”

Jessica grabbed her bag and walked out of the lecture as discreetly as she could, stifling a curse. She had been looking forward to hearing the guest’s speech, and he was only around for a week, but there was nothing for it.

The surface irritation shielded her from her own fear long enough to get outside without giving away that anything was wrong. She was just about to call John back when her phone rang again.

She answered. “Hello?”

She barely got the word out before he started babbling over her. “Jess, Alison needs help! There’s a fight, and she’s on the news, and- and she’s losing! Please hurry!”

It felt like her stomach turned solid. “Is she okay?”

“I don’t know!” John said. “Jess, please hurry! Most of the team was out of town and they’re not back yet! Tin Man is running, and Ali’s bleeding. She needs help now!”

Jessica had started sprinting without really knowing that she was doing it. “I’m coming,” she said. “Hang on.”

She’d feared getting this call.

It took too long to run behind the building, too long to fly up to the top of it and drop her bag in the shadow of an air conditioning unit, and too long to strip out of her clothes and get into her costume. Precious seconds slipped away, one after another. When she tried to put her boot on her foot slipped, and she almost cursed as she lost her balance and caught herself with her power, floating an inch off the ground as she slammed her foot down into it. She pulled on her helmet last. The outfit was identical to her sister’s in function, though it wasn’t colored so distinctively; Jessica had opted for simple black on the costume she had hoped never to wear for anything other than practice.

When she was done, she didn’t bother taking another look around; she just flew straight up, not stopping until she had an airplane view of the city below her, a complex grid of buildings and streets. Anyone who wanted a clear look at her would need binoculars.

She pulled her phone out of the small compartment on her back. “I’m on my way now, John,” she said. “I won’t be able to hear you while I’m moving, but when I’m close I’ll want an update on where she is.”

“Okay,” he said heavily. “I’ll be here.”

He sounded frayed. Instead of giving him empty reassurances, she hung up and put the phone away, zipping the small compartment behind her back closed, and then took off at top speed.

Jessica wondered if her mother was on the way, too, but she couldn’t very well call her any more than she could call John, not when she was moving so fast.

They really needed headsets built into the helmets. Of course, for that to work they’d also need some sort of voice-recognition, or a way to push buttons with their tongues, or something.

Calm. She needed to be calm. There might still be plenty of time. John was used to seeing his wife win, and without too much difficulty, on those occasions when he saw her fight at all. Hell, he usually saw the news coverage after the fact, when he already knew she was okay. The fact that he felt panicked didn’t necessarily mean panic was warranted. Ali was tough. Jessica knew exactly how tough Ali was from personal experience; having the same powers, they practiced against each other regularly, and they’d been evenly matched. If Ali was still fighting, it probably meant things weren’t too bad.

The rest of her team was out of town, John had said. Tin Man was there, but in trouble. Jessica didn’t think anyone helpful could get there faster than she could.

She hoped it would be fast enough. She hoped she had enough power to make a difference.

Jessica looked down, focusing on the path. The first time she’d flown to Philly from New York under her own power, it had been haphazard at best. She’d used a compass and a map, and gotten lost twice. It had seemed stupid at the time, but she’d known that it might pay off some day when she needed to rush, even as she hoped that day wouldn’t come. Now it had, and she was profoundly grateful that she’d memorized the route. Flying meant she could go in what was almost a straight line, saving time compared to following roads. This way, she just used the roads as checks on her progress. She was familiar enough with the route that she had some landmarks picked out, towns and shopping malls and anything else that stood out. She was lower than any airplane typically flew, so the ground wasn’t just a distant texture. Most things were recognizable, even cars. People were too small to make out, though.

Jessica pushed as hard as she could, but there were limits to her speed. In the past, she’d made the trip in under an hour, but she’d never gone to her limit.

Roads, trees, homes, grassy fields, towns – they were all a blur. As she accelerated, cars became harder to make out as clearly.

It was taking too long. If the rest of Ali’s team was out of town without a good reason, Jessica would scream at them.

She faltered for a moment. She was assuming it was coincidence, but what if it wasn’t? What if the enemy somehow knew that today was the day Philadelphia’s defenders would be weak?

The possibilities flitted through her mind. There could be a traitor. Ali and her team could have been identified, spied on. A precognitive could be involved, or a telepath.

Too many possibilities, even keeping things narrowed down to the powers that she knew existed. There was no point worrying about them, nothing that could possibly be gained. Figuring out the why would have to wait.

Jessica looked down again, correcting her course to the west slightly. It wouldn’t do to overshoot her target.

She was losing more time. More time she might not have.

When she recognized the outskirts of Philadelphia coming into view, it was a relief, but that only lasted for a few seconds, as she quickly realized cars were streaming out of the city. The gridlock looked awful. There was no traffic going the other way.

Fires were scattered around a chunk of the city, a desolate region full of levelled buildings. Even as she slowed, Jessica saw one wall collapse under its own weight. No one was near it. It hadn’t been struck, that she saw. Whatever damage had happened before had just caught up to the structure.

Jessica started a long, slow loop over the damaged area and pulled out her phone, dialing John.

He picked up immediately.

“Where is she?” Jessica asked.

“By the river,” John said. “She’s fighting Skyscraper, Collector, and Silhouette. I think someone’s helping, but I’m not sure. Jess, hurry.”

Jessica hung up and put the phone away, angling toward the water.

The damage got worse and then better a couple times between her starting point and her destination. As she moved toward the water, there were signs that the damage was more recent. She saw more fires and firefighters, more ambulances and foot traffic. Some people were actually coming into the area, moving in the opposite direction compared to Jessica; she assumed they were trying to get away from the current fighting. With fires raging and buildings in danger of collapsing, it wasn’t safe, but it had to be better than getting caught between supers.

She finally caught sight of Skyscraper, and she accelerated towards him.

He punched the ground with his right hand twice, then a third time, a fourth and fifth time, and she wondered what he was doing.

Then his fist stopped, half-embedded in the street, and Jessica realized he was holding her sister.

Her helmet was gone. The wig she usually wore under it was missing, too, and her hair was red. That was good. The red was fake, a little magic she’d learned with some help; if Ali’s hair was still red it meant that she was most likely still alive.

She didn’t appear to be moving, though.

For a moment time seemed to stop, as Jessica saw her lying there, only her head and shoulders visible. Her face was partially concealed by her mask, and partially by blood and grime, while her body was engulfed by Skyscraper’s massive hand.

He held her pinned to the ground, and Jessica recognized another figure approaching: Silhouette. Jessica had heard her described, but seeing her in person was new. The shadowy form was human-shaped, but lacking in detail, not sharp enough to make out clearly, and that made her more threatening.

She was walking toward Ali.

“Fuck that,” Jessica said, her eyes narrowing.

She flew down at top speed to hit the bitch in the back.

Silhouette started to turn and then leapt to one side, just in time to avoid her charge, landing and turning to face her. Jessica was moving too fast to adjust to the unexpected dodge, and she nearly plowed into the street.

“Who the hell are you?” Silhouette said. She sounded surprised, but it was hard to read someone with no visible facial expression or body language.

Jessica didn’t answer. She went straight at her again, a bit slower. Silhouette jumped to her left, and this time Jessica changed course to intercept her in midair, knocking her down to the ground with a punch. Silhouette regained her footing immediately, and Jessica dropped down and ducked under Silhouette’s right hook, punched her in the stomach, and leapt up, grabbing the other woman behind the head and yanking her head down to hit her in the face with both knees, then kicking out with both feet to knock her back and flying back and away, gaining distance.

Jessica spun around and took off again, this time heading toward Skyscraper. Silhouette was off-balance, if only for a moment. It was an opportunity.

Skyscraper still seemed to be surprised at the sudden intervention of someone they hadn’t been expecting, and when she reached him Jessica struck at his fingers until they opened, then she picked Ali up and flew away. She went a block or so and landed on a convenient roof, lowering Ali to the ground.

Ali coughed and Jessica turned her head to the side as she spat blood onto the roof.

“Hey, sis,” Jessica said. “Are you okay?”

Ali’s eyes were half-closed. “Hey Jess. Good timing.”

“Are you okay?” Jessica repeated.

Ali coughed again, but nothing came out. “I’ll be fine. Maybe a cracked rib or two. Nothing too bad.”

“Can you fly?” Jessica asked.

Ali took a deep breath, wincing, and floated up off the roof. “Looks like I can.”

“Good,” Jessica said. She looked back the way they had come. “Go find Bloodhound and get healed up. I’ll handle things here.”

“No way,” Alison said. “We need to find Tin Man, now. Last I saw, he was running away from Silhouette.”

“He’s not anymore,” Jessica said. “She was coming for you, so either he got away or she caught him. Now go get healed.”

Alison looked stricken. “I have to find him.” Jessica grabbed her shoulder before she could fly off, yanking her roughly back down so her feet hit the roof, and she stumbled.

“You need medical attention,” Jessica said firmly. “I’ll go look for Tin Man, but I can’t do that and cover for you at the same time. Besides, if you get to Bloodhound you can bring him back with you.”

Ali looked like she was going to keep arguing, but Jessica grabbed her and flew when she saw her sister’s eyes widen, reacting to something behind her.

She just barely felt a tremor running through the roof in the split second before she took off. Jessica spun in the air, releasing Alison to fly on her own.

“Next time, don’t fucking argue when someone tries to help you!” Jessica yelled. Skyscraper had caught up to them.

She went straight for the giant’s face, then abruptly swooped into a downward dive through the collapsing building. She went into the ceiling and came out of the wall by Skyscraper’s feet, flying straight up to hit him between the legs.

He buckled and fell, landing on one knee and using a hand to catch himself as he groaned. Jessica flew a brief loop, trying to spot any of Skyscraper’s allies, and then returned to hit the back of his knee with a literal flying kick.

Jessica couldn’t keep a small smile off of her face despite the circumstances as Skyscraper toppled backward, his free hand clutching at his face where Alison had gone right for his nose. He cried out in pain as he fell flat on his back. Seized by inspiration, Jessica flew right past her startled sister and into the giant-sized man’s mouth.

She punched the roof of his mouth and stomped on his tongue. “Thank god for helmets,” she muttered. “This is just gross.” As she said it, she realized that the mouth seemed to have no saliva; it wasn’t as gross as she would have thought.

He was reacting, reaching into his mouth with one massive hand and trying to pull her out as he gagged. Jessica grabbed one of the probing fingers and yanked hard, twisting it in a direction it wasn’t meant to go until it snapped.

Skyscraper screamed, yanking his hand away in reflex, and started trying to bite down, but Jessica wedged herself under his tongue, digging her fingers into his gums so he couldn’t dislodge her. When he tried to reach in with his fingers again, she flew for the back of his mouth and down into his throat. This far inside, she thought she could hear his heartbeat.

Jessica started punching and kicking at random. If this didn’t work, she had another option, but she was really hoping to avoid it.

Skyscraper choked, gagged, and coughed, but she held on. Soon enough Jessica had done enough damage that she could grab a flap of tissue, and she began to pull on it hard, tearing it forcibly. There was no blood, which seemed to finish answering at least one question about Skyscraper’s powers, but given his reactions it seemed like he could feel pain when his giant form was hit, so she stuck with the approach that seemed to be working.

It was taking too long, though. Jessica flew back up into the giant mouth, then waited for Skyscraper to breathe and went up, out of the mouth and into the sinuses. Taking a moment to orient herself, she faced towards his brain and then started smashing away.

It only took a few seconds for that to get definitive results. He started to scream, but the sound cut off almost immediately, and the entire giant body around her just disappeared.

The sudden brightness was strange. Jessica looked around and spotted Skyscraper’s real body, normal-sized, falling to the ground beneath her. She plunged down after him, catching him gently as she landed on the street, and spun around in place to take stock of the situation.

Alison flew down to join her. “Nice work,” she said.

The building they had been standing on just a couple of minutes ago was another casualty, as were the two on either side of it and one across the street.

“How are you?” Jessica asked. “Did he get any more hits in?”

“No, you had him reeling,” Alison said. “I generally try to avoid the brute force approach, but you definitely made it work there.”

“Good,” Jessica said. “I take it you’re not going to leave no matter what I say?”

“You’re damn right,” Alison said.

Jessica sighed. “Fine. But I’m on point for the duration. John’s worried about you already, and I haven’t even talked to mom and dad yet. Stay close and be careful.”

“Let’s do this, then,” Alison said.

Jessica pushed Skyscraper towards her. “Start by taking him to someone who can put him in custody, would you?”

Alison looked down at the unconscious man, hesitating for a moment. “Yeah, sure. But we need to find Tin Man. Last I saw, he was hurt.”

Jessica opened her mouth to answer, and then everything disappeared. She saw darkness and heard silence, dropping Skyscraper in her surprise. She tried to fly toward where Alison had been, reaching out, but encountered nothing. After a few seconds of flailing ineffectually, she flew straight up. She could still feel the pull of gravity, but it only served as a single compass point, and she couldn’t tell how high she’d gone when she stopped or where she was in relation to anything else.

Experimentally, Jessica clenched and unclenched her hands, clicked her tongue and then ran it over her teeth.

“Sight, no, hearing, no, touch…yes,” she said. She could feel her lips, jaw, and tongue moving, even though she couldn’t hear the sounds it should make, and feel some vibration in her throat.

“Smell?” she said. Talking to herself might seem especially silly, but the physical sensation was an anchor of sorts. She sniffed. “Can’t smell anything much. So faint it’s inconclusive. Could be remembering what I expect, and inside my helmet there isn’t much to smell anyway. Hmm. Gravity, yes, so I’ve got my sense of balance.”

Testing that again, she let go of her flight, abandoning herself to the earth’s pull for a moment, then caught herself.

“Definitely feel that,” Jessica said.

She stopped talking. It had been pleasant, but she had a sudden thought; if someone could stop her from hearing anything, could they also hear what she should be hearing? Possible. There was no way to guess, since powers seemed to run on their own peculiar logic or disdain it entirely.

Jessica recalled Comet describing fighting a man, once, who stopped her from hearing anything. She’d still had her sight, though. Lacking both of the senses she relied on to navigate the world was a bit more of a handicap than she knew how to handle.

On the upside, nothing seemed to be attacking her yet.

She floated, waiting. Was there a way out? Maybe some way to break the effect?

Jessica bit down on her tongue as hard as she dared, trying to avoid severing it.

She screamed from the pain. If someone was listening, maybe it would confuse them. If they were friendly, maybe they would figure out she needed some help.

It changed nothing, so apparently sharp and sudden pain wouldn’t let her break through the sensory deprivation.

The pain in her tongue throbbed as she floated in midair, waiting.

Someone had to be doing this, and it couldn’t be a friend. If they weren’t attacking her, then that probably meant they were busy.

She felt the pit in her stomach again. Alison might be dying a few feet away for all she knew, but she was powerless to help. The dread built and built, like pressure held back by a dam, and she strained to keep herself calm.

“I don’t know if you can hear me,” Jessica said, “but if you can, and you hurt Comet? You should know that I’ll kill you.”

Still nothing. Should she try going straight up? Most powers had some sort of range limit. But she had been hit, even if it wasn’t much, and her suit wasn’t reliably airtight anyway. If she went too high she could kill herself. And if the effect didn’t dissipate on its own, she’d be moving out of range of possible help, as well.

Jessica held herself still, her fear and uncertainty growing. She started to count. At the very least, she could keep track of the time.

“One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi…”

She got past one hundred before she was interrupted.

Jess?

U.P.?” she said cautiously. “Is that you?

Yes. I’m going to lift the effect in a second, but their telepath will know immediately. When I do it, you need to spin around and then head forward and down. Comet is inside the busted storefront there, with Silhouette, Skyscraper, and Recast. Collector and Tin Man are both headed in that direction too, but Tin Man is exhausted and pretty beat up. Smith and some FBI folks are further away, but drifting in your direction. Ready?

Jessica rolled her shoulders. “Do it.

Her sight and vision came back. Normally she would have resented Uplink’s touch on her mind, but under the circumstances it was welcome.

It took her one second to spin around and spot the storefront. Three to fly down and inside.

Zero seconds to start screaming and slam into the shadow that was pinning Alison to the ground and pummeling her bloody.

She tackled the other woman and flew straight up through the roof, spun around once and let go, sending her flying. Maybe she’d reach orbit, and maybe not. Jessica didn’t much care at the moment.

Back down. Skyscraper was there, normal-sized and looking groggy, along with another man – Recast, she assumed. He had the familiar claws, and was just bending over to try stabbing Alison. He appeared to be aiming for her eye, which might actually work. They’d never stabbed themselves in the eyes to check.

Jessica grabbed him by one arm and went back out the broken window she’d entered through the first time, slamming him into the ground legs first. He screamed as they shattered, and she punched his right knee as hard as she could.

For a fraction of a second bits of muscle and tendon held the leg together, but then the joint was destroyed, severing the limb completely. She stomped on his chest, feeling hard bone and softer tissues give way, then threw him across the street, into the wall. He stopped screaming when he hit, and Jessica stopped caring about his existence, turning around and re-entering the store.

Skyscraper was looking at her with wide eyes.

“I tore your throat open once, big guy,” Jessica said. “Want me to do it for real this time? Go find someone to surrender to. You get one chance to give up.”

He swallowed, eyes going to Alison, lying on the floor, and Jessica couldn’t help following his gaze. It hurt to see her like that, bleeding on the ground, one arm clutching at her side even in unconsciousness. Her breaths were shallow and her face was screwed up with pain that intensified each time her chest rose and relaxed a bit each time it fell. Her face was bruised, her forehead was cut, her nose looked broken, and her jaw might be too. The rest was largely hidden by her costume, but Jessica knew the damage had to be there. There were tears, in a few places, and wet blood stained the cloth and covered up the skin.

She looked up again, staring at Skyscraper, and he stared back at her blank helmet.

“Surrender now!” Jessica said. “I’m not waiting for you to think about it! She needs medical attention, and if I have to kill you for her to get it then you’re just a corpse waiting for a toe-tag to me. Got it?”

Skyscraper nodded, head jerking uneasily.

“Turn around,” Jessica ordered. She knew Alison would be trying to calm her down if she was awake, but that didn’t help. It just reminded her of the situation.

Jess! Collector inbound!

Jessica flew forward, arms going under Alison’s shoulders and legs, and she went up and out of the building through the exit she’d made with Silhouette. She was looking straight up into the sky when a spasm ripped through her muscles, nearly making her drop Alison. She willed her arms and hands to hold tight, using her powers to angle her unresponsive body so Alison wouldn’t fall and propelling them both up and away. A glance down showed her Collector.

He smiled, and more lightning fired up from him.

This one hurt worse, and it hit before she had recovered from the first. Jessica turned onto her back as if she were lying in bed, letting Alison slump limply across her stomach so she wouldn’t fall, and stopped ascending, diving and slamming into the remains of the building’s roof.

Collector lashed out with another shot of lightning, but it missed as the roof obscured his view. Jessica had her breath knocked out of her as she landed, hard, with Alison pressing down on her. She waited a few seconds for the pain to subside and her muscles to obey her again.

Uplink, status?

Can’t talk now,” he responded. “Their telepath is trying to find me, and he’s not bad. I’m shielding you all from him, but it’s taking everything I’ve got. He’s used to working with unfamiliar minds, I can tell.

What about Tin Man?” Jessica wiggled her fingers and toes, testing herself, then reached up and gently lifted Alison and placed her on her back on the roof. She winced as she realized Alison’s right wrist was broken. “Sorry, sis,” Jessica murmured.

He’s okay for now,” Uplink said. “Hooked up with the FBI folks, so he’s not alone. Their telepath is here too, so they’re still in the fight.

Can you help me wake up Ali?

Uplink cursed, and his frustration carried over their connection. “Not right now, I can’t.

“Damn it,” Jessica muttered. She picked Alison up again and pushed off to fly to a different roof, surveying the area and trying to spot Collector.

She caught sight of Recast, and the bastard was somehow reattaching the lower leg she’d punched off of him. She’d thought he might be able to grow it back, eventually, given what Alison had told her before, but that was just ridiculous. He looked a bit shorter, though, and there were stains where he had left blood behind.

He looked up and spotted Jessica.

“Shit,” she said.

There was a crash and the building she’d just left finished collapsing, only a few bits of wall remaining upright, as Skyscraper expanded out of it. Jessica realized that she hadn’t even noticed what kind of store it had been, between all the damage and her focus on more important things.

Jessica glanced over her shoulder and dove sharply as Collector let loose, shooting fire and lightning at her through the air. His misses were overshooting her and hitting distant buildings. Most didn’t do much damage to brick, concrete, or metal, and she wasn’t worried about the glass, but if he started a bunch more fires things could get bad; the fire department had to be overworked already.

Jessica looked around, hustled to a nearby roof with a bit of a lip, and set Alison down, bending over her.

“Wake up, Ali.” She shook her sister, too urgent to be gentle. “Wake up, come on. I can’t hold you and fight, and I can’t leave you someplace unconscious. Wake up!”

Nothing.

Uplink, I need you to help me wake her up,” Jessica said. “Do it, then tell me who’s after you and I’ll get them off your tail, okay? I just need her mobile so I can fight.

Fine,” he responded. “Be quick. Smith is chasing me, and she’s almost caught me three times now. I think my luck is running out.

Alison’s eyes opened suddenly a moment later and she started to get up, but Jessica held her down as firmly as she could without hurting her.

“Ali, look at me,” she said.

Alison glanced around for a second, instinctively trying to examine her surroundings, then looked at Jessica. “Jess? What’s-”

“Later,” Jessica said. “I need to go help Uplink, and you need to go get healed. You’re fucked up pretty bad.”

Alison floated up, her power allowing her to do that much without pain, but when she started to re-orient herself to a standing position she cried out in pain.

“Comet, stop!” Jessica yelled. “You’re hurt too badly! You’ll slow me down, okay? I need you to get clear. Now! I’ve got backup, but you’ll endanger us more when we try to cover for you!”

Alison swallowed, tears in her eyes and she looked around and saw all the damage to the city. Skyscraper was coming closer, and both of them could hear his pounding footsteps.

“Okay,” Alison said weakly. “Okay.”

“Go,” Jessica said, staring at her.

Alison flew away, head hanging as she stared down at the rubble and fires.

Jessica breathed a sigh of relief and turned back toward the oncoming enemies, then went up and over them. “Uplink, guide me in. I’ll pick you up, we’ll regroup with Tin Man, and we’ll end this.

Okay,” he said. “Um, the feds don’t know I exist, remember?

Then I guess today will be really fucking educational for them, won’t it?” Jessica said. “Man up and don’t give me crap about your secrets.

Thanks for the advice,” he said sourly. “Ahead of you, on your left. I’m in the pharmacy.

Jessica looked down, scanning for the place, and nearly flew past it. She spotted it out of the corner of her eye and swept down, opening the door and walking in rather than flying through the glass. “In here?”

Uplink stepped out from behind some shelves. “Hey. Let’s get moving.”

Jessica winced. “Street clothes?”

He grimaced back, looking down at his jeans, sweater, and sneakers. “I was in a rush.”

She couldn’t argue with that. “All right. Take my helmet. I’ve got the mask on under it, at least.”

Jessica pulled the helmet off and tossed it to him, and he caught it, sliding it on to hide his face.

“You have a small head,” Uplink remarked as he walked toward her.

“Good to know. Come on.”

They walked out and Jessica picked him up, flying up and looking for Skyscraper.

He was a couple of streets away when he saw her and lunged forward. Jessica rose higher, noting that the giant had put Collector down at some point.

“Where to?” Jessica asked.

“What?” Uplink said.

She rolled her eyes. “Which way, oh mental giant?

He pointed. She flew. They were heading into the already-damaged area, back the way they’d come.

He guided her straight to Tin Man. He was standing with a group of people, all armed with guns, helmeted and armored.

Normal people, she suspected.

Two raised guns toward them while the others looked in every other direction, but Jessica kept her approach slow and nonthreatening.

“It’s okay,” Tin Man said. “They’re with me. Friendlies.”

One of the guns lowered.

“Names?” asked a woman standing next to Tin Man.

“Agent Rogers, these are Uplink and another ally.” Tin Man looked at Jessica. “Did you ever pick a name?”

Jessica shrugged. “Never seemed to matter. I don’t usually do the team thing.”

“Well you are today,” Tin Man pointed out.

Jessica settled to the ground, putting Uplink down. “Can you guys babysit him?” she asked bluntly.

“Why?” Rogers said.

“Because as long as he’s here, Tin Man and I are in the fight, and if he gets taken out, you lose us too,” Jessica said. “Good enough?”

Rogers cocked her head. “Telepath? He’s shielding you?”

“Yeah,” Uplink confirmed. “I got here late, unfortunately.”

Rogers nodded slowly. “All right. We need all the help we can get, today. Hang on.”

She turned to the side, away from Jessica and Uplink.

“Skyscraper should be headed this way,” Jessica said. “Maybe Collector too. Just, you know, for your information.”

Rogers acknowledged her with another nod, and Jessica realized the other woman was talking into her headset.

Jessica lifted off again, floating a foot or so above the ground, and turned to look back the way she’d come. She thought she could hear Skyscraper approaching, but it was faint.

Rogers tapped her on the shoulder, surprising her. “Here,” she said, holding something out. Jessica took it and realized it was a headset, like Rogers’ own.

She put it on. She was already breaking a habit by letting Uplink into her head, no matter how good the reason. She wasn’t going to balk at a headset.

“Hello?” she said.

“You’re our new addition, the one who helped Comet?” a voice asked.

“That’s right,” Jessica said.

“Is there something we can call you?”

Jessica shrugged. “Meteor’s fine.” It wasn’t a moment for imagination.

“Okay, Meteor,” the (male) voice said. “I’m Agent Turner, FBI. My team and I are here to stop this, and if we don’t do it very shortly then the National Guard is going to have a crack at it, which I suspect wouldn’t work out too well. You willing to work with us?”

“Yes,” Jessica said.

“You willing to follow orders?”

Jessica only considered for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “Unless you ask me to leave or waste my time.”

Turner grunted. “No danger of that. I’m not in a position to turn away help. Now, they’re headed our way, so let’s get to this. Are any of Blitz out of action, and is Comet coming back?”

Jessica’s eyes narrowed. “I doubt any of them is out of action, and Comet most certainly is not coming back.”

“All right,” he said. “Does either of our newcomers have information to share?”

Uplink got her attention. “Smith’s range is longer than we saw in Berkeleyport.

She passed the message on.

“You were there?” Turner asked.

“No,” Jessica said. “I got clear reports, though.”

“Assume she knows everything you’d expect Comet or I to know,” Tin Man said.

“All right,” Turner said. “Anything else?”

Comet thought briefly. “Recast heals quickly, up to reattaching severed limbs. Collector has good aim with his lightning. Skyscraper’s tough even inside, his giant form doesn’t bleed, but he still feels pain and I think too much of it knocks him out. And I think Silhouette’s tougher than me. Same weight class, but a little heavier.”

She remembered the shadow striking Alison and her fists clenched for a moment before she pushed it aside.

“Umm…I think that’s all,” Jessica said.

Rogers was looking at her a bit uneasily, but she shrugged it off. Her reference to severed limbs had sounded a bit casual, looking back, but now wasn’t the time to worry about it.

Uplink spoke again. “I think I’ve worked out what their telepath does. It seems like it’s all the same trick, actually. He does something to perceptions, transferring them. Like, if he wants to he can let Collector see what Smith is looking at, or vice versa. The same with hearing. It seems like he can do it to any unprotected mind, but the good news is that I don’t think his bag of tricks is any bigger than that. I have to concentrate to protect us from him, but even if I failed I’m pretty sure he couldn’t turn us against each other, or make us see things that aren’t there or anything like that. The bad news is that his range seems pretty good. I can’t tell how it matches up to mine, but I’ll need to stay fairly close to Tin Man and, uh, Meteor, in order to keep them in this fight. I don’t think he needs to do that, and he’s good enough on defense that I won’t be able to get into his head.”

Jessica frowned. “He had me blind and deaf. How does that work?”

Uplink shrugged. “I’m pretty sure he had someone bound and gagged, or something. Maybe noise-cancelling headphones. But it felt the same as everything else he does. Proxy makes the trick versatile, but he can’t actually do other things.”

“How sure are you?” Turner asked.

“Less than one hundred percent, but not by much,” Uplink said.

Turner took charge. “All right. They’re almost on us, so we need to get ready. Skyscraper and Silhouette are the only ones who seem outright immune to conventional weapons, so they’re the biggest problems. Meteor, I take it you can hurt them, and we’ve got one other here who should be able to, maybe two. They’ve also got two regenerators: Recast and Collector. The other three, Proxy, Dealer, and Smith, should be vulnerable to all the normal things, but hitting Smith with bullets might be a tricky proposition and we need to keep her away from us if possible. I don’t want her melting our guns. Meteor, Tin Man, I think we’ll need you two to try to draw them out. Rogers, your team will try to maneuver around, hit the ones who aren’t invulnerable. Valentine and I will be providing sniper fire, and Agents Miller and Gallagher will move in to help with their two toughest threats. Meteor, Tin Man, please keep in mind that none of my people can survive getting hit by Silhouette. Please don’t let it happen. Agent Miller, in particular, is the one keeping Proxy out of our heads. Everyone clear?”

“Meteor, clear,” Jessica said.

“Tin Man, clear.”

“Uplink, clear.”

“Rogers, my people are ready.”

“Good,” Turner said. “We’re ready on this end. It looks like Skyscraper is coming down the street towards us – we’re about a block east of your current position. Skyscraper is approaching from the north. Everyone get in position and get ready.”

Jessica looked at Tin Man. “I’m thinking high ground. Want a lift?”

He nodded, and she flew over, picking him up. Once she had a firm grip on the armor, she flew silently up to the roof, looking around for Skyscraper.

“Which way?” Jessica asked. She’d lost track of the cardinal directions since arriving.

Tin Man pointed silently.

Jessica glanced downward and saw Rogers and her people moving with Uplink in tow, heading in the same direction Tin Man was pointing. It looked like they were going to circle wide to get around behind Skyscraper. If his less-durable teammates were following in his wake, it could give them a good shot at one or more of them.

Jessica kept her hold on Tin Man and dropped below rooftop level, flying in the indicated direction and letting the buildings shield her from sight. Pretty much everything in the area was three stories tall or shorter, so she was pretty low to the ground.

She adjusted her grip on Tin Man and frowned as she noticed his suit was marked. She’d been focused on Rogers’ squad before, assessing the unfamiliar people, but now that she was alone with Tin Man she realized he’d been in a nasty fight.

“You sure you’re good to go?” Jessica asked.

“I’m sure,” Tin Man said. “It’s just dents and dings. We keep the suit simple so it doesn’t break too easily.”

“Okay,” Jessica said.

They flew for about a minute, then stopped and rose again, poking their heads over the roof. This time Jessica got a clear view of Skyscraper, striding in a rough line forward, head turning back and forth as he looked for his prey.

“It looks like he’s alone, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” Tin Man said.

“Me neither,” Jessica agreed. “He’s bait. Just like us, I guess. Turner, we’ve got eyes on Skyscraper. Tell us when to make our move.”

“Understood,” Turner said. “Wait a bit longer, we’re trying to locate the others first if we can.”

“Visual on Smith,” Rogers said. “Alone, looks like. No, wait, Collector just joined her. But something looks off. Not sure what.”

“How sure are you?” Turner asked.

“I don’t know,” Rogers said hesitantly. “My instincts are screaming that something’s wrong.”

“Give me their position,” Turner ordered.

Jessica listened with half her mind while the rest watched Skyscraper. Of course, the part of her that wanted to hurt the bad guys wasn’t much interested in him. She really wanted Collector and Silhouette, and possibly Recast. But then, she’d probably get her chance at them soon enough.

Seeing the ruined buildings, the fires, abandoned cars, and belongings left in the streets, it was hard to fight down her anger again. It was easier than when they’d had Alison, though.

Jessica tore her mind away from the memory, focusing on the present, but it was yet another reminder of why she hadn’t chosen to take the same path as her sister.

Comet was a hero and an icon. Jessica preferred to remain nameless because she didn’t trust herself to be a symbol. She’d never admitted that to anyone, though.

She remembered the way Rogers had looked at her when she mentioned Recast recovering from having a limb severed, then remembered how easily she’d done it.

Jessica grimaced. No, not everyone was cut out to be a hero.

“Hey, you okay?” Tin Man asked.

“Fine,” she said, not even turning her head.

“Rogers, take your best shot on my command,” Turner said. “At the same time, I want Tin Man and Meteor to go for Skyscraper. Miller, Gallagher, Valentine and I will be ready to support both groups when they react. Ready?”

“We’re ready,” Tin Man said.

“In position,” Rogers said.

“Acknowledged,” Turner said. “On my mark. Three…two…one…mark.”

Jessica flew out with Tin Man in her arms, rounding a corner to get behind Skyscraper. “Knees?”

“Sure,” he agreed.

She dropped him, gave him a second to start running, and flew forward. Skyscraper was facing away, as they’d hoped.

The heard gunshots and the giant started to turn, but the timing worked out all right, and they got lucky; he lifted his left foot, which Jessica had been aiming for. She could adjust with ease, unlike Tin Man. Tin Man made a running leap and tackled Skyscraper’s right knee from behind, and Jessica hit his left, knocking it out from under him before he could plant it. He fell on his back again.

Recalling their previous fight, Jessica hit him between the legs again on the way to his face. Tin Man started hitting his knees, and Skyscraper groaned loudly as he fell.

“That’s not Collector, it’s Recast!” she heard over the headset. She didn’t recognize the voice; one of Rogers’ people, probably. More chatter. “Get back, Smith is headed toward us.”

Jessica tried to fly into Skyscraper’s mouth, but he had the presence of mind to close it, his teeth clicking. She tried plan B, changing course for his right eye.

It widened for a moment and then Skyscraper shut both eyes, hands swatting at her frantically as his legs flailed, trying to evade Tin Man’s blows.

“Meteor, get clear!” Tin Man said.

She lifted off, barely avoiding both of Skyscraper’s hands as he tried to roll over onto his stomach, and she looked around. She caught a glimpse of fighting up the street, but it was unclear, with dust and debris obscuring her view.

“Silhouette is here, we need backup,” Rogers said calmly.

Jessica looked at Tin Man and he nodded. “Go, I’m good.”

His suit’s left gauntlet was opening and retracting, exposing the flesh of his hand. She saw a spark of electricity just before he reached out to grab Skyscraper’s leg and turned away, heading toward the other part of the fight.

“Meteor inbound, where’s Silhouette?” she said.

“First floor, on your right if you’re in front of the building!” It was a new voice, another one she didn’t know. Jessica circled and burst through the cloud of dust to see Silhouette kicking a hole in the wall, nearly flying into Collector – no, that had to be Recast – in the process. She grabbed him by an ankle and swung him through the air, using him to smack the back of Silhouette’s head to get her attention, then threw him over the shadow’s head, down the alley between buildings.

Silhouette turned and attacked her, but Jessica dodged the first blow, dropping down to sweep Silhouette’s legs. The shadow tried to jump over it but stumbled when Jessica spun without touching the ground, using her flight capability to move in ways a normal person couldn’t. Jessica grabbed both of Silhouette’s ankles and slammed her face first into the ground.

The asphalt shattered, and the impact was strong enough that the wall next to them cracked, the hole Silhouette had opened widening as bricks broke and fell. Silhouette tried to reach up and grab Jessica’s right hand, but she let go and pulled it back, using her left to swing the woman away and up into the air, then bring her crashing down again. It felt satisfying, so Jessica did it three more times, then left Silhouette on the ground and started kicking her in the back.

“Collector’s here! The real one!”

That wasn’t through the headset. Jessica looked up and then spun around, still kicking Silhouette into the ground. Collector was just rounding the corner, hands rising to point at her.

Jessica crouched and smashed both hands into the asphalt, then lifted a slab up as an improvised shield. It wasn’t large enough to hide all of her from him. She heard a crack like lightning and threw her improvised weapon down the alley; she was lucky enough that he’d missed. She saw Collector get clipped by the projectile and fall to the ground clutching his shoulder, but then someone grabbed her ankle and yanked hard. Silhouette rolled over her, pinning Jessica to the ground with her body, and started punching her with her right hand while she used her left to pin her.

Jessica wrapped her legs around the other woman as tightly as she could and squeezed, her arms groping for Silhouette’s throat. When Silhouette punched her in the face she tried to bite her hand, but instead she just got punched in the mouth. They kept wrestling for a few more seconds, until Jessica abruptly took off, carrying Silhouette with her and flying rapidly down the alley toward Collector. He was standing up and lashed out with stream of flame, so Jessica turned to use Silhouette as a shield and knocked him over. Silhouette punched Jessica in the face again, harder, and Jessica lost her grip, then found her face slamming into a wall.

Silhouette let go for a moment and Jessica used the chance to get clear, flying up so she couldn’t be grabbed again. Silhouette didn’t seem to have much technique, but she suspected that trading blows would still be a losing proposition.

There was a loud crack, recognizable as a gunshot but louder than most, and Collector fell. Silhouette was blocking her view, but Jessica thought he appeared to have been hit badly. Silhouette grabbed him and started running.

“Collector’s hit, and Silhouette’s trying to get him clear. Should I pursue?”

“Yes!” Turner ordered. “Try to pin them down or separate them so we can get another good shot. He’s the linchpin.”

Jessica flew above them and then glanced at the sky, positioning herself in front of the sun before attacking. As she closed in, she saw that Collector had been hit in the chest, and his wound was bleeding badly. She wasn’t an expert, but if he couldn’t heal she would have expected him to die.

Collector’s face was pained but his eyes were open and he was looking up. Silhouette reacted before Jessica could close in all the way, presumably warned by the man she was carrying. She leapt in an erratic zig-zag pattern as she moved down the street, then jumped through a hair salon window, turning around so her back would break through it and protect Collector.

Jessica followed. “I’ll try to get them back outside.”

“Good,” Turner said. “We’ve got Smith contained for now, and Skyscraper is on the ropes. Rogers, what’s your situation?”

Jessica paused for a moment to hear the answer.

“We’re trying to stay away from Smith, and we keep punching holes in Recast, but he won’t go down. There’s something weird, though. He’s shorter than when we started. I wasn’t sure at first, but he’s lost a few inches at least.”

Jessica stopped herself from thinking about the implications, returning to her own fight. As she entered the place she saw Silhouette waiting for her, standing in front of Collector as he lay on the ground. Jessica flew forward, knocking a chair aside when Silhouette pitched it at her.

Suddenly, Silhouette dropped to the ground and Collector sat up, throwing both hands forward. A jet of flame spewed out, so hot that it was blue at the center, and Jessica brought her arms up to cover her face. She tried to break the ground to create cover again, but she was too slow, and she felt heat washing over her.

Jessica coughed as she breathed in some of the smoke, then jumped back to avoid one shadowy hand grabbing at her. Her maneuverability seemed to give her the edge in a slugging match outdoors, but if they were grappling Silhouette’s strength advantage would probably prove telling.

They’d moved away from the others, so the sounds of battle were a bit muffled, but Jessica could still hear the fighting. She hesitated for a moment, trying to figure out how to handle her two opponents, then shrugged and went up.

It was something of a rule for her and Comet. When in doubt, take the high ground.

She went into the roof and then came back down – not behind Collector, where she thought they would expect her to appear, but behind Silhouette.

The trick paid off. Both of them were caught flat-footed, expecting her to go for the leader first, and they were looking the wrong way. Jessica glided forward and kicked Silhouette in the back, propelling her into the wall, then shot forward to grab Collector.

He unleashed more fire, and the blue was stronger this time. Jessica knew it was burning through her clothes, in places. They were meant to be less flammable, but they could still burn. The heat started to hurt her skin, and she prayed that she was as durable against it as she was against physical force. For obvious reasons, she and Ali had never fully tested their ability to take damage.

Collector switched to electricity, but as it hit her Jessica managed to clamp one hand around his ankle. He twitched for a moment and stopped, and she roughly pulled him in between herself and Silhouette, who had just finished pulling her head out of the wall. Jessica grabbed Collector’s neck with her other hand.

“Try anything and I’ll crush your neck,” she said. “Maybe you can come back from that, but I’m betting your brain still needs oxygen. Even if it repairs physical damage, that doesn’t mean you’ll be the same mentally.”

Collector stopped moving, and so did Silhouette, or at least the shadow that surrounded her.

“Silhouette, turn your back on me and walk outside,” Jessica ordered. “Now.”

She didn’t move. Jessica squeezed Collector’s neck, both of her hands now holding it.

“Do it,” Collector said. She relaxed her grip. Silhouette turned and walked away slowly.

“Meteor, what’s your status?” Turner asked.

Uplink, fill them in,” Jessica said silently. She didn’t want to take her attention off of the two enemies in front of her.

Silhouette walked out into the street, then turned around to face them again. Jessica looked around nervously. She was dimly aware of Uplink and Turner talking, along with Rogers.

“Meteor, they’re backing off. You’re holding their boss?” Turner said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Hold there,” he ordered.

“Will do,” she said.

Silhouette was unmoving. Collector was breathing hard, clutching his chest with one hand. Jessica glanced down to see the other. It reached toward his pocket and she grabbed his wrist.

“No moving, I said,” Jessica whispered in his ear. “Don’t test me.”

He didn’t answer.

“We’re on our way to you,” Turner said. “We’ve got Skyscraper in cuffs, but we still don’t know where Proxy and Dealer are. Stay alert.”

“I’m here,” Jessica said.

The seconds felt long, and for the first time Jessica realized how heavily she was breathing. She found herself staring at Silhouette, and she remembered seeing the woman pound on Ali again. It wasn’t until Collector cleared his throat that she realized she’d started to squeeze subconsciously. She relaxed her grip.

She was just going to ask Turner what was taking so long when Collector cleared his throat again.

In an instant, four people appeared in the room with her: Dealer, Proxy, Recast, and Smith. Silhouette came back through the window, and Jessica was just starting to lift off the ground when Dealer reached out and touched her.

The next thing she knew, she was standing in front of Skyscraper, practically on top of him.

The man was cuffed and being watched by two of Rogers’ people, and Uplink was behind him with the rest. One turned his gun toward her as she appeared.

“Hold fire!” Rogers ordered.

The man’s finger eased off the trigger.

“Fuck!” Jessica yelled. “Fucking god damn teleporters!”

Skyscraper smirked at her, and her eyes widened. “Incoming!”

Silhouette appeared as the word left her lips and punched her so hard she was launched back and through two desks. Someone shot her, but it didn’t do anything and she ignored the bullets as she turned and broke the chain linking Skyscraper’s cuffs with a swipe of one hand. A second later, Jessica caught a glimpse of Dealer between them, and then all three were gone.

She was still pulling her arm out of the monitor it was stuck in.

“Motherfuckers!” she screamed in frustration.

“What happened?” Turner demanded.

They were all spinning around, watching every direction for another attack, but none came.

“They disappeared,” Rogers said. She looked at Jessica.

“Meteor here,” Jessica said. “They got the drop on me. Teleported me away, then had Silhouette and Dealer extract Skyscraper.”

Turner was silent for a moment. “Uplink, is their guy still trying to get into your heads? Miller says he stopped.”

Jessica glanced at Uplink. He was leaning on one wall, cradling his left wrist. “No, he’s not,” he said after a moment. “He’s stopped, at least for now.”
 
 
 
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 3

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Driving away, I wondered if I’d made the right call. I remembered how Raquel had sounded, almost begging me not to leave her alone with Feral, but the truth was that I couldn’t do that. Even if I’d stayed the night on their couch, sooner or later I would have to sleep, or leave, and the two of them would be alone together, in some sense. Like Leon and I, they were always together, and in a sense they were always alone, too. She had seemed calmer before walking into her house, at least. I hoped being there, seeing her mother, would help her relax. Now that she wasn’t blaming Feral for everything that had happened, it shouldn’t be an issue the same way.

I focused on the road, not letting my mind wander. I was too tired to obsess about all of the things that I knew would be haunting me later, fortunately.

I got back to the park and found Heavyweight already gone, presumably heading home as he’d said he would. Comet and Bloodhound were sitting cross-legged on the ground, while Stalker still stood over Dustin, lying on his back on the bench. It didn’t look like she’d moved in the minutes I’d been gone. I looked at her, standing over the kid, but didn’t approach. I didn’t want to distract her in the middle of her work.

I wasn’t comfortable with the situation. Of all the powers I’d heard of, telepathy was one of the ones most ripe for abuse. If someone like Comet, Heavyweight, or Silhouette punched a hole in a man, there was evidence. They could be discovered and tracked down by the police, the same way a man with a gun could. Arresting and incarcerating them might be a problem, but they couldn’t just vanish without a trace.

Telepathy didn’t leave fingerprints, as far as I knew. It didn’t leave traces that normal people could detect. It was wrong to abuse that power, but the law couldn’t make it criminal in any meaningful sense. Could a telepath even be locked up if they were caught?

Someone like Michaels probably couldn’t. It was a thought I’d had in passing after Mary explained his powers, and I’d been trying to put off thinking about it ever since, focusing on Dustin instead, but as I stood there looking at Stalker I couldn’t put it out of my mind. If Michaels got caught, convicted, and imprisoned, how long would it take for him to subvert the other inmates with his powers? More importantly, how long would it take him to get control of the guards and the warden? If put in a conventional prison he might just be able to walk out after a couple of weeks, telling his new friends to erase the security footage behind him and give him their car keys for good measure.

It was a problem that hadn’t been solved yet. So far, only a few powered criminals had revealed themselves. Some had been caught, mostly people whose abilities didn’t let them just walk out of prison. The types who weren’t bulletproof, and who couldn’t punch through walls. One or two had been killed resisting arrest. If I was remembering right, there was at least one somewhere who could escape pretty much at will, but who had surrendered herself into police custody willingly. She was convicted and sent to prison, but in an odd way she was on the honor system; stuck there only because she allowed herself to be.

I’d heard of a guy the Philly Five had caught more than once, who kept breaking out of custody – he could apparently teleport or walk through walls or something. The first time, everyone had been scared, but now he was a joke, mostly because he insisted that people should refer to him as “Larcenous Leonard” and he hadn’t actually hurt anyone. He just stole stuff, always from very wealthy people who could afford it. Once, he’d accidentally surprised an old woman into falling over and breaking her hip during a robbery. He’d called an ambulance for her and waited with her until it showed up, and there were rumors that he’d contributed significantly to the fundraiser that was launched afterward to help her pay for the medical care that she needed as a result. Basically, he was the opposite of threatening. People didn’t approve of him, but he seemed so sincere that you couldn’t possibly hate him (unless you were one of his victims, I suppose). One reporter had said that he seemed to have “stepped out of a comic book.”

So, on one side there were guys like that. Leonard’s powers, whatever they were, let him make a mockery of the law, but most people didn’t see him as a serious problem because he never endangered anyone intentionally. In the long-term, it was still an issue, but for now, as long as he was the only one, he wasn’t a real threat to society or anything. He wasn’t destabilizing the economy, or murdering people, or leaving them with mental scars. I’d never heard of anyone else with powers sporting that attitude, though, and Michaels clearly wasn’t playing around.

If we caught him and turned him over to the police, we’d have to tell them what he could do and…hope for the best, I supposed. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer. In fact, turning him over to the police would be placing them in danger very directly, in a sense, and it was a danger they hadn’t signed on for, unlike most of those they faced.

Leon agreed with me, but he didn’t see any alternatives either. I remembered talking to Carmen, Bloodhound, Comet, and Raquel about what we did and why, and I found myself asking how much we should do. I couldn’t build a better prison, but someone needed to. There had to be some way to shut down powers, or contain them. But until we found it, we had a big fat problem with no solution.

I walked over to Bloodhound and Comet, sitting near them on the ground, and the three of us looked at Stalker.

I’d trusted Dustin’s mind and future to a stranger. The Philly Five were publicly known heroes, sure. Stalker was the least understood, but presumably still to be trusted.

Assuming that she didn’t use her powers on her teammates, anyway. Assuming she wasn’t using them on me to get me to trust her. Assuming a hell of a lot. Assuming, in fact, that I was still the one making my assumptions.

Damn telepathy. Paranoia fuel for all time.

I sighed. If Stalker was manipulating my mind, then there was nothing I could do about it. Subtle manipulation could leave the same evidence as no manipulation at all. Strong manipulation could leave me unable to notice it despite a lack of subtlety. It all depended on how her power worked, which I didn’t know. If I did notice something, then I could act. Leon would keep an eye on me, just in case. I would do the same for him. If someone’s power was strong enough, or far enough outside the box, there was no way to prepare for it in advance.

I didn’t want to mistrust the Philly Five. They hadn’t done anything to deserve it, as far as I knew. An obsession with secrecy wasn’t, itself, a good reason for mistrust. Not with the number of fights they had been in and the amount of attention they had received. For one thing, I was confident some people would try to sue them if they knew who the group was. For another, I had just gone from calm to completely paranoid on the mere suspicion that one of them might be a telepath. I could imagine that they didn’t want that. Presumably they had other lives that they liked to get back to, when they weren’t busy saving people, and that made sense too. Even if they’d been obsessed with becoming heroes, it wasn’t truly a full-time job. There had been entire weeks, maybe months when they didn’t even make an appearance, in the past.

I shook off the thoughts, turning to Bloodhound and Comet.

“Anything?” I asked.

Comet turned to look at me. “No news yet,” she said. “Not sure how much progress she’s making.”

“Okay,” I said. I turned back, watching Stalker and Dustin again.

“You all right?” Comet asked. “You all look a bit shaken up tonight.”

I almost laughed at the sheer understatement. “That’s one way to put it,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Sometimes things go well. Sometimes they don’t. Tonight they went bad very quickly.”

“Want to talk?” Comet said.

I shook my head. What had happened with Raquel and Feral was their business, and deeply personal. It was one thing to involve myself, to an extent. We were alike. We had a relationship – teammates, I supposed, though the team wasn’t official. I couldn’t tell the Philly Five the details any more than I could tell them to Carmen without Raquel’s say-so.

After a second, I reconsidered. Those details were out, but that didn’t mean I had to be silent about everything.

“The kid, Dustin, tried to attack me,” I said. “He was cornered with Michaels, the guy who messed with his head. We think he might have done something else, too. Sort of encouraged things to get violent, messier. Whether it was on purpose or not is another question, but it got pretty bad. At least one death, and a few serious injuries.” I looked over at her. “And I admit, I’m not used to getting shot. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but it still happened.”

I hadn’t meant to say that much. Looking at Comet, even through her helmet, I got the feeling that she knew that, somehow.

“Powers can make things about as unpredictable as they get,” she said. “Anything that hits your head instead of your body, it can be hard to deal with. I’ve been through that a couple times. It can leave scars on the inside.”

I didn’t have an answer to that.

“If you need to talk more, you can say so,” Comet said. “Anytime. I can’t drop everything instantly, but I know everyone needs a friend now and then, and it’s tough to talk about this with anyone who’s not in the business. That’s one reason we made a team in the first place,” she continued, gesturing to Stalker and Bloodhound. “Not just for the fighting, but for the aftermath. So we could have someone to talk to who would understand. Without that, I think we’d all be a lot less mentally healthy. It’s still different for all of us, of course. Different powers. The others can’t really relate to the fact that I can outfly a helicopter and punch it out of the sky, if I want to. I don’t really understand exactly what it’s like for Bloodhound, or Newton, or Tin Man. That’s unavoidable. But we all come closer than normal people, and that helps.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You need to think about how far you’re willing to go,” Bloodhound said abruptly. He turned to look at me. “We try to avoid killing people, but it’s possible you’ll face a choice at some point, between killing one of the bad guys or letting him hurt someone else. Even without that, there are risks. The more fights you get into, the more likely someone could die by accident – get knocked into the street and hit by a car, or hit by a stray bullet, or fall out a window. Can you live with it if that happens? Are you willing to risk your life to keep the bad guys alive? What about your friends’ lives? Heavyweight and Menagerie, I mean. It’s not one simple question.”

“I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately,” I said.

“There’s another part of it, as well,” Bloodhound said. “Working with people who answer those questions differently can be a problem.” He glanced at Comet. “We don’t always agree on everything, but we agreed to play by the same rules – as a team. It’s one of the things that has kept us together. If you end up forming a group of your own, you may need to come to a compromise or two in the process.”

I didn’t answer him, but I didn’t think that would be difficult, really.

“Don’t take too long to decide,” he advised.

“Is that really something you can decide?” I said. “It seems to me like what you’re asking about is more a matter of attitude and emotion. We don’t pick our emotions.”

“True,” Bloodhound said, “but we can adjust our attitudes.”

Comet spoke up again. “The truth is, it’s better to know all that before the first time you go out. But most people just don’t know enough about themselves if they’ve never been in a life-or-death situation. Some things you can only learn the hard way.”

I remembered leaving the guy in the bedroom of the burning house. He’d been unresponsive, lying still, and I hadn’t detected a pulse or breathing. Still, I couldn’t help imagining him waking up on fire, only to find he couldn’t get away fast enough, burning as he crawled through the house until it finally collapsed on him.

He would most likely have suffocated, first,” Leon noted. “It doesn’t matter now, though. You could only help one escape, and you didn’t set the fire or wound those men. We aren’t responsible for any deaths tonight. We did the right thing, within the limits of our abilities and the choices of everyone else involved. In the end, that’s all we can do.

I know,” I said.

I did, really. My life hadn’t included a lot of life-and-death situations before, but I felt pretty stable, overall. I hadn’t killed anyone, or put anyone in a position to die. If we were right in our suspicions, Michaels was ultimately responsible for the fact that anyone had died; if not, then Feral and Raquel were partly to blame, but Heavyweight and I were still fairly clear, at least as far as my moral judgment was concerned.

It felt like it should bother me more. I suspected it would, later, when I was more awake; regardless, I knew I’d feel responsible if anything similar happened again, now that I knew what to watch out for.

I closed my eyes for a moment, shaking my head to try to clear the thoughts, and then opened them again and looked at Stalker and Dustin.

Still no changes; she stood there without moving, and he lay there breathing. I sat and stared, watching them in silence.

Minutes passed. As I sat there in the dark, the last leftovers of my adrenaline deserted me, and I slumped forward.

I’m not sure when I drifted off to sleep, or how long I was out, but I woke to find Comet shaking my shoulder. I was lying on the ground, on my side, and I was cold. It was still dark out; probably the middle of the night.

Comet was standing, and so was Bloodhound. I stood up automatically, not thinking about it, and started to reach up to rub my eyes, but stopped myself as I realized that my hands were probably dirty. Instead, I blinked. I felt sore all over, and my eyes were stinging more than a little; combined with how dark it was, I knew it couldn’t have been too long. Maybe a few hours. My head started to ache as I stood, and it throbbed as I focused my eyes and looked around before settling down into a dull but manageable sensation.

I noticed Stalker sitting on the ground, leaning back against the bench – Dustin was still on it. At some point, he’d had a coat draped over him to help him stay warm.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Problems,” Comet said. “Stalker has been going for a couple hours, and she says it’s not working. Whatever Michaels did, she can’t just undo it. It seems to be permanent, and she’s worried that tearing out the stuff he put in could have side effects.”

“What kind of side effects?” I asked.

“She’s not sure,” Comet said. “This isn’t something we’ve ever dealt with before. Generally speaking, Stalker has a rule against rearranging people’s brains, so she’s never really tried to do it. The point is, we can’t fix this on our own. We’re going to have to see if we can get help.”

“Do you know somebody else who might be able to help?” I asked hopefully.

“Not for sure,” she said. “But the FBI has at least one telepath. We’re going to have to hope they’re willing to bend the rules a bit again. On the bright side, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any rules for this specific situation yet, so we won’t be asking them to break any.”

I nodded, then looked away to roll my head around in a circle, trying to stretch my neck; I was still feeling pretty sore. “All right. I’ll make a call, see if I can get someone to come meet us. Is there anything specific you want me to say?”

“Just to ask for Agent Miller to be one of the people who comes,” Comet said. “She’s our telepath.”

“Okay,” I said.

I guess we’d built up some goodwill, because when I said that we had something on Dustin and needed to see the FBI’s people – including Agent Miller – they agreed to show up without much prompting.

I suggested that we could come to one of the city’s police stations, if they wanted. I figured that would make them more comfortable than any amateur hour cloak-and-dagger idea I could come up with. They weren’t thrilled with that idea, presumably because they didn’t want vigilantes stopping by law enforcement buildings to be a regular thing. We ended up agreeing to meet up at the parking lot where Dustin had been abducted in the first place. I was too tired to think of anything clever, and it was a location we would both recognize. That was good enough for me.

I took a side trip to my rented car and popped the trunk to put on a change of clothes; I’d stashed those anticipating that what I wore for the rescue attempt might get beat up. I’d figured that I wanted to be wearing something clean when I got back home. I’d managed to stay anonymous largely due to luck, so far, and Leon and I had agreed that we needed to do more planning to keep out of trouble. After that, I reunited with Comet, Bloodhound, Stalker, and Dustin, and we left for the meeting.

“Shouldn’t he have woken up by now?” I asked, pointing to Dustin. Comet was carrying the boy.

“Normally, yes,” Stalker said. “Don’t worry, Bloodhound checked him and he’s not hurt. I just encouraged him to stay asleep a bit longer. I can’t do it forever, but since he was already tired to start with it wasn’t difficult.”

We got to the lot first. The FBI people pulled in maybe ten or fifteen minutes after us, in two cars. Judging by their appearance, they’d taken the time to wake up all the way before coming. Four of them got out: Cynthia Miller and Clifford Turner were the drivers, with Stephen Gallagher and Noah Valentine getting out of their respective passenger seats. From past encounters, I knew that Miller and Gallagher were partners, while Turner and Valentine were another pair.

Leon and I ran through a quick refresher on what we knew about the four. Turner had been in charge in the past, and shown some willingness to work with us to stop bad guys. I didn’t think he’d break rules, but he’d already bent them. At the same time, it was plain that he’d prefer to have us come work for him, or his bosses, rather than doing our own thing. He’d said it flat out. Lastly, we knew he had some sort of power that let him see the past, or something like that.

Valentine deferred to him. If he had any powers, we hadn’t noticed or been told yet. He seemed professional and dangerous, and I was fairly certain that he’d put a hole in one of the bad guys with a rifle when we fought Blitz. I wondered if he might have been in the military before.

Miller, the only woman in the group, definitely had powers; maybe more than one, like me. She could apparently destroy or erase anything that got too close to her, and I’d seen her use it both offensively to attack Skyscraper and defensively to block bullets, destroying them before they could hit her. She looked a bit younger than Valentine or Turner, and Leon was guessing she was newer and less experienced. And, of course, the Philly Five were confident she was a telepath. That fit with some things Menagerie and I had overheard, and apparently she and I registered oddly to Miller, which I assumed was because of Feral and Leon. I’d ask Stalker later – I should have done it before, but I’d been too tired to remember.

Gallagher, I’d barely seen any of. We knew basically nothing about him. Based on what I’d seen from the others, I was going to assume he was dangerous in some way.

“Flicker, Comet, Bloodhound, and Stalker,” Turner said. His head cocked to one side. “Bit of an odd group. Does this have something to do with a house burning down tonight?”

Maybe scratch that goodwill idea I’d had. Turner looked neutral enough, but the others were making me a bit uncomfortable. Valentine and Gallagher were hanging back, but I hadn’t failed to notice that both of them had clear lines of sight – and potentially clear lines of fire – between them and us. Miller, who was the most dangerous one up close, was standing next to Turner. She looked loose and ready; I recognized the general way of standing from my own martial arts experience. I had a sudden suspicion that she could kick my ass in a fistfight even without her powers, and the way she was standing said that she was ready to do exactly that. Given the way her power worked, even Comet couldn’t ignore her as a threat, if something happened. One swing at someone’s head and she could probably kill them outright, super strength or no.

“It has to do with Dustin,” I said. “We found him – and when I say we, I’m talking about myself, Menagerie, and Heavyweight. The problem is what to do now. When we went to get him, he tried to set me on fire. Which, yes, caused a house to catch and probably burn down. We didn’t sit around watching.”

“They found blood around that house, and a corpse on the second floor, not to mention a trashed car and other signs of trouble,” Turner said. “Did one of you kill somebody?”

“No,” I said. “Heavyweight, Menagerie, and I didn’t kill anyone.” I gestured at the Philly Five. “They weren’t even in town at the time.”

It wasn’t precisely a lie. Feral might have killed someone, but that didn’t mean Menagerie had. I wasn’t going to get into our suspicions about Michaels for the moment.

“Last time we met, you seemed to say you were going to stay out of the way while we did our jobs. What changed?” Turner asked.

“We found out exactly where Dustin was, and we weren’t sure if he was going to be kept there or not,” I said. I was trying to sound as calm as possible. Their suspicious looks weren’t helping, although my fatigue did, oddly enough. “We had a window of opportunity, and we didn’t know if it was going to stay open. I’m not happy with how things went. None of us are. But for now we have Dustin, and he needs help.”

“You said Dustin tried to burn you,” Miller broke in. “Why?”

I sighed heavily. “We’re pretty sure the guy who kidnapped him did something. Some sort of telepathy, or something like that, which could help to explain why Dustin went with him in the first place. Brainwashing. He attacked me, and later tried to burn Heavyweight. Everything went to hell, but I managed to grab him and run for it, and at that point whoever had him was worried enough about the police showing up that they ran instead of chasing us. I called them,” I gestured to the Philly Five, “hoping they could help figure out what the bastard did to Dustin and undo it.”

I turned to look at Stalker and stepped to one side, out of the way. She walked forward, carrying Dustin, and passed him to Comet before addressing Miller.

“I’ve tried, but I can’t fix it on my own,” Stalker said, taking over the explanation. “I don’t have experience trying to undo brainwashing, so that’s not really strange, although it is disappointing. I was hoping that either you could do it, or we could do it together.”

Miller and Turner looked at each other.

“What do you think, Cynthia?” he asked her.

She considered for a moment, and I noticed her fiddling with her watch as she did so, sliding it around her left wrist with her right hand. “I’ve never tried anything like it before,” she said. “I don’t know.” Cynthia frowned, turning towards us. “How did you know I was a telepath, anyway?”

“Because she’s their ‘telepathic countermeasure’,” Turner said, gesturing at Stalker. “Is that it?”

Stalker nodded. “Yes. You should be more careful whose mind you try to prod, Agent Miller. We talked it over and decided not to hold a grudge, but not everyone is so understanding, even among people who are trying to belong among the good guys. I couldn’t figure out exactly how your ability works, but I know my teammates very well. Shielding them from you isn’t very difficult, and your effort to check them out revealed you to me.”

“Hmmph,” Cynthia said. “Fine, you’re on the ball and I showed my cards. But look, I don’t know if I can help with what you want to do, here. I’ve never tried to undo brainwashing either. In fact, my abilities aren’t even what I’d call invasive. I can’t change what people think.”

Stalker shrugged. “I understand. It’s not where my gifts lie, either. But there’s a brain that needs fixing, and we’re here. I don’t know any other telepaths who are available. Unless you do, then I think we should try. If we can’t fix it, it’s entirely possible Dustin will wake up violent. We should have a while before that becomes an issue, but he won’t sleep for ever, even with my encouragement.”

Cynthia turned to me. “Can you help? I can’t read you, either, and I know she’s not keeping you protected. It feels different.”

“I’m not a telepath of any kind,” I said. “I have a guess why you can’t read my mind, but it’s only a guess. I can’t help with this.”

Cynthia sighed. “So it’s me or no one, is that it?”

“Yes,” Stalker said. “So, are you up for it?”

Cynthia looked at Turner. I couldn’t see her face well enough to tell if she was reluctant, or what, but he nodded after a few seconds.

“If you think you can help, you can try it,” he told her. “Just be careful.”

“Before we start, I have to ask what you can do on your own,” Stalker said. “In the interest of fairness, I’ll go first. What I’ve managed so far is mostly just communicating mind to mind, with people I know. I haven’t spent too much time trying anything on strangers, and when I have it hasn’t worked very well. Sometimes, I can manage to tell if they’re lying, or what they’re thinking about, but that’s almost it.”

“Okay,” Cynthia said. “I’ve done the lie detector thing too, a few times. It’s not reliable, though. I’ve never run into another telepath before, as far as I know, so I’m not sure how this is going to work. My main thing is…well, like I said, I can’t change what people think. But if I try to get into someone’s head, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of how they see themselves. Not literally. I just get an image of what kind of person someone thinks he is, if that makes sense. So if a guy really has issues, it tends to be unpleasant to see, and if I run into the most arrogant person in the world, he’s probably going to look like a god. It took me a long time to even figure out what I was seeing, but that’s my main thing.”

“That’s good,” Stalker said, sounding a bit relieved. “I know you’re not used to changing stuff, but at least you’re used to tying into a stranger’s mind. That’s the main problem I was running into when I tried alone.”

We all stood there for a few seconds.

“Ready?” Stalker asked.

Cynthia took a deep breath, then let it out. “Sure. Let’s do this thing.”

“Actually, before we start,” Stalker said, turning to look at the rest of us, “can we find someplace to sit? The rest of you are probably going to be bored, and I’m tired of standing.”

“All right,” Turner said. “Let’s get comfortable.”

We sat around, none of us really doing anything as we waited for Stalker and Miller to wake up. The two of them and Dustin were in the back of one of the FBI cars, with Gallagher keeping an eye on them. Valentine, Turner, Comet, Bloodhound, and I were just sitting around with nothing to do, it seemed, although occasionally someone would get up and walk around. At first, I found myself checking the time frequently, but it was pointless and I soon gave up.

For a bit, I thought I was going to fall asleep again, but my headache persisted and I felt simultaneously tired and unable to sleep. I was probably going to be screwed up for a couple of days as my body tried to catch up on the rest it had been denied.

I tried to think about my current homework, or anything else, but that wasn’t happening. I gave up after fifteen minutes or so. Soon it was back to checking the clock with nothing else to do. I wished that I had a deck of cards or something.

That made me wonder how the FBI agents and the Philly Five would do at poker. I suspected that however things went, I wouldn’t be the winner in any hand including all of us.

Hmm. Maybe Leon and I had different tells. That would be fascinating, but also make some sense. We were distinct personalities, after all. And if somebody got used to dealing with me first, then we switched, it might give them fits.

I sat there doing nothing for a while longer, and eventually a car door opened. We all perked up, some of us standing, and Stalker stepped out of the car.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “But I think we did good enough for him to go home.”
 
 
 
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Trust But Verify 1

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Bloodhound and Comet both showed up, with someone else in tow. It was obviously a female figure, which ruled out Newton. It could be Tin Man, or the fifth and final member of their team, who was called “Stalker”. Stalker was a virtual unknown, rarely seen, and there wasn’t much video of her. Stalker had showed up three times that I knew of; some people thought it was someone who wasn’t an original member of the team – they’d been called the Philly Four for a bit before she made her public debut. Secrets aside, people had some idea what the other four could do, but Stalker had never been seen using powers.

Supers seemed to have a thing for secrecy. I would have made fun of it, but I’d spent a lot of time thinking about secrets and lies myself in the last two weeks or so.

Her face was covered, but she was wearing normal clothes, which the team in general didn’t. Leon pointed out that she seemed to walk closer to Bloodhound. It was a subtle distinction that I hadn’t noticed, but I trusted him. Between Bloodhound and Comet, she looked small, but I realized it was how she carried herself more than anything else. Comet was pretty big, of course, but Bloodhound wasn’t much larger than average.

“Hi,” she said. “I don’t have a fancy name that I go by, so I’m afraid this won’t be much of an introduction, but I’m a friend of Bloodhound’s. You can think of me as a consultant on spirit-related stuff.”

Leon and I noticed it at the same time when we suddenly felt a presence –hers, but also separate and attached to her – appear in front of us. I didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“You’re like us,” I said finally, thinking aloud. “But you were hiding.” I cocked my head to one side. “Can we meet your friend?”

“She’s not real big on talking to strangers, unfortunately,” the woman said. From her voice, I thought she wasn’t much older than me. I glanced at Bloodhound. Could she be his girlfriend, or something?

“When it comes down to it, neither am I,” she went on. “I don’t have a cape handle because I’m not in the business. I stay away from trouble, and it mostly stays away from me. But I hear you have a little spiritual problem, and I owe Bloodhound a solid, so I’m willing to help.”

“Which I appreciate,” he said, interrupting. “We’ll be even after today.”

“Okay,” I said, glancing at Bloodhound before I looked back at her. “And how are you planning to help, exactly?”

“That’s simple enough,” she said. “We’re going to meet your friend Menagerie, surprise her, and yank Feral right out of her. Then we’re going to ask if she was a good little spirit and paid her rent on time, and see if Menagerie wants her back. If she does, that’s that. If she doesn’t, we’ll need to ask why before we figure out what to do next.”

“I don’t know if Feral can survive outside of Menagerie,” I said. “Do you? Because I’m not too big on the idea of spirit murder, or whatever it would be called if there was a law for it. Especially since they seem to get along well, as far as I know.”

“I can’t give any absolute guarantees,” she admitted, “but I know that other spirits can survive on their own for a time even without help. It tends to cost them personality, but we should be able to prevent that between us,” she said, making a gesture that seemed to include me, Comet, Bloodhound, and herself. “Even in the worst case, I don’t think there could be any bad side effects unless we sat around for at least a couple hours. As long as we don’t waste time, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Leon?” I thought, prompting him for his opinion.

Go through with it,” he agreed.

“Okay,” I said. “So how do we do this?”

“Well, there’s just one thing first,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“This,” Bloodhound replied. Comet was behind me in a second, knocking me to the ground and grabbing hold of my arms. I managed to keep my face from hitting the dirt, but I coughed and blinked as the air left my lungs and I breathed in dust.

When my eyes cleared, Bloodhound was holding his sword.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not for you. But as long as we’re checking spiritual credentials, we figured we should start with your friend Leon.”

“You’ve got him?” the nameless woman asked Comet.

“He’s not going anywhere,” she replied calmly. I didn’t even bother trying to struggle. She wasn’t hurting me, but I felt like my wrists were being held by a vise, and her foot was on my back. I couldn’t even trip her, since she could fly. That meant that leverage was almost useless, even if I could find some.

“Okay,” the other woman answered, sounding a bit nervous. “I am sorry about that,” she said, looking at me. “It’s really nothing personal toward either of you. If you’re both playing fair, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I didn’t say anything. It sort of made sense, but I was still pissed off, especially because I could feel Leon’s fear. Sure, they said a spirit could survive on his own, but I couldn’t be certain, and neither could he. Not until after the fact.

She sat cross-legged in front of me, a yard or so away. Bloodhound stood at her side, sword held up in both hands. It made me think of an executioner about to strike, which wasn’t helping me calm down.

The woman in front of me closed her eyes and bowed her head, then looked back at me.

“Okay, buddy,” she murmured. “Have you been naughty or nice?”

I felt a sudden sense of emptiness.

Leon, are you there?” I asked.

Nothing. He was out.

A small part of me felt relieved, and a much larger part of me felt guilty as soon as I’d realized that. I may not have asked for his company, but I didn’t think he’d asked for mine either, and he’d become a real friend.

Part of me had missed having my mind to myself, though. With Leon around, I’d never really had privacy.

“So, you’re Leon,” she said, looking at the air in front of me.

I couldn’t see anything. Remembering what Leon and Bloodhound had managed to teach me, I tried to perceive the world differently, to focus on the magic in it.

There he was – a poorly-defined figure that looked a lot like me, actually. He was turning around, looking in every direction.

“Hey, are you all right?” I asked aloud.

“David?” he answered absently. He was looking at himself, at his hands and body. He didn’t look normal, of course, since he wasn’t physically there, but for those of us who knew what to look for his presence was plain.

I noted that Bloodhound was looking at him; I couldn’t see whether Comet was. I also noticed that Bloodhound’s sword looked different, now that I’d switched to perceiving things the other way. That was strange, but it also made sense – they’d said it wasn’t for me, after all, which meant it could only be for Leon. Apparently he carried that thing around for at least one good reason I’d never suspected. I wondered whether he’d used it on any spirits before.

I was guessing the answer was “yes”.

“So, Leon,” the woman asked, getting his – and my – attention. “You and…Flicker getting along okay? You happy with things the way they are?”

“I would prefer to be independent,” Leon answered. “But unless that is an option, yes, I’m happy to be coexisting with Flicker.”

“Hmm,” she murmured. “How about you?” she asked, turning to me. “You want your…tenant back? Or what?”

I glanced at Leon, but I didn’t hesitate. “He’s welcome,” I said. “Unless he gets a better offer and wants to go.”

Leon laughed a bit at that. “I guess I wasn’t a bad roommate,” he said.

I smiled at him, and I felt Comet’s grip relax a bit.

“Okay then,” the woman said, waving a hand mock-dramatically. “I now pronounce you man and spirit. You may inhabit the host.”

With that she stopped doing whatever she had been doing, and Leon seemed to just slide back into place. The process only took a few seconds, but in those few seconds I felt like something clicked into place and I knew that we trusted each other even more than we had before, now.

Comfy?” I asked.

You should have cleaned this place while I was gone,” Leon joked. “One minute outside your brain and there are dust bunnies everywhere, what the hell.

I laughed out loud and the others looked at me strangely as Comet let me go and helped me up with one hand.

“Uh, sorry,” I said. “Internal dialogue. You had to be there.”

“We’ve been here the whole time,” Comet pointed out, but she sounded amused.

“I meant ‘there’ as in ‘my brain’,” I said. “So, now that that’s done, if you’re satisfied that Leon and I are both on the level, can I ask if you’re planning the same thing for Feral and Menagerie? Because I’d rather not assault a friend, even in a good cause.”

“No, we’re not planning the same thing with them,” Comet said. “We were almost certain about you. We’re more worried about them. They don’t get the kid gloves.”

I wasn’t happy, but I also wasn’t willing to screw up our one chance to surprise Feral by telling her and Menagerie what was coming, and I couldn’t handle the situation on my own. That meant I was stuck doing it their way, however little I liked it.

Menagerie and Feral arrived expecting a lesson with Bloodhound. Instead, Newton turned up the gravity to keep Menagerie from moving, and when she called out Feral, Comet tackled the cat to the ground and restrained her while Bloodhound and his friend explained the score.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not happy about how we’re doing this, but if either one of you is screwing the other one over we can’t just ask. They checked on me and Leon the same way. Nothing bad happened.”

“You fuckers,” Menagerie said, struggling to crawl out of the increased gravity. “Whatever’s between me and Feral is none of your damn business. I would have thought you would understand!” she added, looking at me.

“Look, if I could know for certain that you two were fine with each other this wouldn’t be necessary,” I said, trying to be logical. Not that defusing anger with logic often works, but it was worth a try.

“Think about it this way,” I said. “If Menagerie is abusing her power, then we can’t ask Feral and expect the real answer under normal circumstances. It’s the same thing if the problem goes the other way. The only way we can know for sure that you two are both all right is to separate you, at least temporarily. If you’re both dealing with us straight, then we could just ask, but if one of you isn’t such a good guy, asking would just tip them off. I know it sucks, but can you please just cooperate? If you do, it’ll be over faster and I can start apologizing.”

Menagerie looked over at Feral. I wondered if she would try letting the cat body evaporate and forming a new one – she seemed to be able to do that at will, which made confining Feral essentially impossible. The fact that the cat could change size just exacerbated the problem.

“Fine,” she said, practically growling. She looked like she was grinding her teeth. “Feral, let’s just play along and get this over with.”

Soon enough Feral’s cat-shape dissolved and she formed into a human figure, much like Leon had. Again, I could only see it when I focused. I noticed that her features looked different from Raquel’s, while Leon had looked a lot like me when we were separated.

“So, Feral, do you want to stick around in her head?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Feral said. Even with poorly-defined features, she looked like she was glaring.

“And Menagerie, you want to keep sharing your body with the cat lady? If you say no, we can keep her in one piece. She won’t just die right away, or anything.”

“Yeah, I do,” Menagerie said. “Now is that it, or what?”

The woman started to speak, and then stopped, frowning. She looked at the two of them closely, before turning to Feral.

“If she wants you, I won’t stop you from going back,” she said. “Just make sure you two play nice.”

Again, the return took moments. Leon and I were paying close attention; when Feral returned to Menagerie’s body, she seemed to slip into control again, as she had before. Still, she gave it up immediately. I was still a bit uneasy – more about what I’d helped do than anything else – but they’d both had a real choice, and they’d both made it.

The woman was watching too, and she looked even more unhappy than before, but she didn’t say anything else to us.

“Now that I’ve met your friends and gotten on their bad side, I’m going home,” she said to Bloodhound and Comet. “Stay out of trouble.”

She left, and that was that. Time for the fallout.

“I’m pissed off,” Menagerie said, looking at all of us. “Actually, we’re pissed off. I’ll see you all next time, but I’m going home to cool down, ‘cause right now I just want to punch all of you. You could have fucking killed her if you were wrong.”

“Okay,” I said. “I am sorry.” I shrugged. “If I knew another way, I would have tried it.”

“Yeah,” she said, biting the word off. “Fine. Whatever.”

She stalked away.

The three of us who were left stood there for a moment, watching her go.

“That went better than expected,” Comet said once she was gone. “I thought she might actually try to hit me.”

Bloodhound snorted. “She would just hurt her hand, and she’s not that dumb.”

“Maybe,” Comet said. “I wonder about that spirit, though. How sharp do you think her claws can get?”

“Good question,” Bloodhound mused. “I’d be surprised if they cut you, but maybe I’m just too used to seeing you shrug stuff off. Powers don’t all seem to work the way you’d expect…maybe she could cut you.”

I looked at them a bit uncomfortably. They sounded like they were just wondering, but combined with the way we’d ambushed Menagerie and Feral, it was making me look at them a bit differently. They might be good guys, but somehow they seemed less heroic than they had the first time I met them.

I reminded myself that they’d probably saved my life – and Menagerie’s – the first time we met. Still, I had a feeling we wouldn’t end up being friends.

“I’m heading out,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you two around.”

“A bit shocked?” Comet asked. I guess I hadn’t been hard to read.

“Uncomfortable is more like it,” I told her.

She nodded. “That’s fair. Just try to keep in mind that if we seem a bit quick to act, well, it’s because we’ve seen things go bad when people hesitated. I don’t mean to be condescending, but you’re new to all this. Even Menagerie hasn’t seen that much, in comparison. Spirits aren’t our usual thing, but past experience tells me that when we find a possible problem, the best thing to do is handle it as soon and as carefully as possible. That’s all this was.”

“I get that,” I said. “And I even know that it wasn’t about mistrust. I’m the one who brought up the subject, anyway.”

“You’re right, it wasn’t about mistrust,” Bloodhound agreed. “It was about wanting to trust. Menagerie’s done good work here. So has Heavyweight, and so have you, even if you’ve barely started. Consider this: we are arguably the first team to work together like we do, and even if we don’t break the law outright, usually, we still bend it pretty damn far even on the good days. We knew, when we started fighting together, that we might inspire imitators. We figured some of them would be good guys, and some of them might not be. We feel a certain responsibility to try to make sure that the good ones survive, and the bad ones get put out of business.”

“That sounds like you’re talking about us and Blitz,” I said. “Are you still looking for them?”

“Absolutely,” Comet said. “We may not be responsible for their actions, but we let the genie out of the bottle when we started collaborating. One super can be dangerous. A team of them can be a catastrophe. We thought it was worth the risk, and we still do, but that doesn’t mean we’re blind to the consequences.”

“Someone else would have tried it if you didn’t,” I said. “No offense or anything. You guys are a big deal. But I’m not sure you changed history.”

Comet laughed. “You might be surprised. Not all of our fights are on the news, after all. As for making history, well, the records will show that we were around for years before Blitz became public, and they’re the first bad guy team I know about. We thought that would be better than having it the other way around.”

“Did you really think that far ahead?” I asked.

Comet hesitated for a second.

“Yes,” Bloodhound answered. “We have to, whenever possible. You should too. If you start causing massive property damage, it will affect us, Menagerie, Heavyweight, and anyone else on our side. If you save a cop, that will probably help us. Word gets around, and people group us together, even if we’ve never met.”

I nodded, then looked at Comet. “Were you going to say something?”

She seemed to think for a moment. “I have a friend with powers. We both found out what we could do around the same time. When we realized that we weren’t the only ones, she looked at me and said, ‘the world we grew up in just died.’” She chuckled. “Melodramatic, but she had a point. The day someone woke up able to fly, or run on water, or read minds, the world became inherently unfair. And not just a little bit; it’s monumentally unfair. People like us,” she gestured at all three of us, “are going to decide how unfair it gets, for better or worse. There may not be a lot of us yet, but we’ve done some brainstorming. Even without telepaths, I think our odds of taking over the world if we ever all got together would be pretty good. So, we do what we do. We stop some bad guys, help some people, and most importantly we set an example. The real wins aren’t when we beat the crap out of some guy and hand him to the cops. The real wins are when someone else decides that robbing a bank isn’t worth the risk of dealing with us, or decides that it is worth the risks to fight on our side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying stopping bad guys is worthless. But in the long-term, the indirect effects are bigger.”

“Interesting take on things,” I said. “Do you really think it would be that one-sided if it was supers versus everyone else?”

“No,” Comet said, “but I don’t think we’ll ever see that kind of war. Even if it came down to it, some of the supers would take the side of the majority, and some of the normal people would side with the supers. Nothing is ever that clear-cut. If we recruited every super we could and tried to wipe out vanilla humans, I think we’d lose, if only because most of them wouldn’t sign up. But we could cause a hell of a lot of damage along the way, and trying to take over would be another story entirely. The FBI sees the danger too, from what they said. Sooner or later, some super is going to try to make himself a king. If he’s strong enough, if he can recruit enough other people to help him out, he might be able to make it stick. That’s mainly what I’m afraid of. And in that kind of conflict, there are a million ways he could get normal humans on his side. People do it all the time. A dictator with my powers probably wouldn’t be worse for his people than a regular one, but he’d be harder to take out.”

“So we try to keep them from dreaming big in the first place, then.”

Comet shrugged. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or something like that, I’m not sure I’ve got the expression quite right.”

“All right,” I said. “I hear what you’re saying, I see how it applies to today. And I’m still grateful for the way you bailed us out in the past. I’ll try not to hold today against you guys…but this stuff is still new to me. I hope you understand. I’m not used to that sort of pragmatism, even if you did have a good reason for betraying my trust.”

“You may be glad we did, the next time you have to talk to Menagerie,” Bloodhound said. “She’ll likely forgive you sooner for it.”

With that, the two of them finally left, and Leon and I were alone again.

It had all happened fast, but I had a lot to sort through, between the way I’d felt betrayed and the guilt I’d felt over helping to ambush Menagerie. Even knowing it was all in a good cause, I wasn’t used to using people’s trust in me against them. And my own irritation just made me a hypocrite, given that I’d started it all in motion with the same sort of “it’s for your own good” logic. On top of that, the things Comet and Bloodhound had said were playing in my head. I felt like they had been honest with me, although Comet seemed to hesitate before telling me about her friend. Maybe it was a family member? Or maybe she just wasn’t sure whether to tell me anything personal? It did help me feel like they trusted me.

That might have been why she did it, but I didn’t think it had been a lie either way.

I walked home, wondering if they really did feel responsible for Blitz existing as a group.
Collector seemed to be the center of it, the one who’d brought the others in. He certainly could have gotten the idea from the Philly Five, but the truth was that the idea for a team of supers had existed in fiction before any actual supers showed up. That cat was well out of the bag from the start, I thought.

I wonder if we’ll ever see Bloodhound’s friend again,” Leon wondered. “Somehow I got the sense that she was more than a casual acquaintance. And she seemed very at ease with manipulating spirits. I’d like to find some way to stop her from doing whatever she did.

Agreed,” I said, losing my old train of thought. “If she could yank you at will, someone else might be able to as well. That’s a problem we need to solve, and sooner rather than later. When you came back, it felt like it happened naturally. Was there any effort on your part?

Not really,” Leon answered. “It was like she was pulling me through a door and I stretched, until I only had one foot on the side where I started, but then when she let go I just snapped back into place. It didn’t even hurt, really. I could feel the difference, but it wasn’t painful.

That’s what I thought,” I said. “When you were gone, I could tell, but when you came back it felt natural. Like settling my weight into a chair or something, you know?

Yes, something like that,” Leon agreed. “I think our link changed, as well. I actually feel more comfortable here than I used to.

I wondered if that was just me,” I admitted. “I think you’re a bit easier to hear now.

We should try to test things out sometime,” Leon said. “Maybe with Menagerie and Feral around as spotters? See if I can leave and come back at will. It could be educational. I’d like to know just what I’m capable of.

That could work,” I said. “And it would be nice to show that we trust them after today. Maybe with their help we can figure out how to keep you in here if someone else comes along and starts pulling.

My thoughts were on Collector just then. He’d learned healing by watching my healing, and he’d stolen other tricks like that from other people. I wondered whether he might want to try stealing Leon. If he could control him, it might be worthwhile for him to do it. Having Leon with me had some definite advantages, if only in terms of improving my ability to multitask. In the recent fighting, we’d found that he could use my peripheral vision while I focused on what was in front of me, and he’d warned me about trouble that way more than once. Even if he couldn’t do anything else, that alone was a significant edge, and Collector seemed like the sort of guy who wanted every edge he could get.

Leon could tell what I was thinking, approximately at least. “You think he’ll be back one of these days,” he said.

Yeah, I do,” I said. “He didn’t kill me because he wanted all of our powers. That’s got to be why he wanted us and Menagerie and Feral. Sooner or later he’ll make another run at us, somehow. And they saw my face. It’s still a whole city to find me in, but it’s not impossible. Just really damn hard. I think he’ll come back, with his whole crew, and I think if we’re not ready he’ll grab us, learn everything we know, and then cut my throat. Whether you’d die or get taken, I don’t know.

We were both quiet for a while.

Well, I guess we’d better make damn sure we’re ready,” Leon said. “You want to try to step up our practice schedule? Find some way to train more?

I think so, yeah,” I said. “Not sure how exactly, yet. Let’s both brainstorm overnight, then compare notes tomorrow.
 
 
 
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Knowledge is Power 4

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“Starting with the good questions, huh?” Bloodhound asked. “It is the first thing smart people usually ask.” He took a deep breath. “What is magic? How does it work? I’ve known a few other people who use it, but not many. Excluding the bad guys – who generally aren’t interested in talking to me – most of them fall into a few categories. The majority don’t really care what it is or where it comes from, because they just don’t worry about that stuff – they only care about what they can do with it. Some don’t worry about it because they can’t think of any way to find out, so there’s no point.”

Feral, Raquel, Leon, and I were all listening intently. I wondered if Bloodhound had ever done any teaching before; he kind of sounded like he had, I thought. He was dressed as I’d come to expect, complete with sculpted mask, and he was wearing his sword across his back this time. It was long and relatively thin, now that I got a closer look at it, but not thin like a rapier. It could still be used for slashing as well as thrusts. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about swords. The most useful evaluation I could give was that it was straight, not curved, and that both sides were sharp. He also had bulges in various pockets that had seemed empty when I saw him before. Leon pointed out that he’d likely ditched the sword because of Smith, before, so the gear in the pockets was probably metal too.

“I can say that, as far as I know, magic is new,” he continued. “You know how in stories, there’s usually an ancient magical society that has coexisted with ours for hundreds or thousands of years, and it’s somehow kept secret? Or magic is secret because it’s been passed down among a very small number of people? Or people automatically forget about magic when they see it? Yeah, that’s…not a thing. At least, not as far as I know. The people I learned from only picked up magic recently.”

I glanced at Raquel. We were both wearing our masks, but I wondered how she was reacting to the news. She glanced back, but I couldn’t read anything in her body language, so I returned my attention to Bloodhound.

“How recently?” I asked. “Are we talking in the past decade, in the past century, or what?”

“Between decade and century,” Bloodhound answered. “I learned the first of my talents from my father. He was mostly self-taught, after getting a little jump-start from someone else.”

I chewed my cheek a bit at that. He thought magic was new, but he learned from his father, who learned from someone else? What?

“My father’s teacher wasn’t human,” he said.

“In fact, he was what I’d call a spirit,” Bloodhound said, tilting his head to look at each of us in turn.

Well, that was interesting.

“My father wasn’t like you two, precisely,” he said, anticipating my question. “The spirit didn’t live in his body. But the two of them could communicate, and he taught my father a lot. Unfortunately, the spirit isn’t around anymore, and he never did explain where he came from – at least, not to me.”

“So ultimately, you don’t know how old magic is,” I said. I tried not to sound disappointed, but I think it leaked into my voice anyway. I’d been hoping for some real answers, not a mystery.

But Bloodhound shook his head. “I know for a fact that the spirit wasn’t someone who’d been hanging around for a long time. He was new to Earth, basically. Didn’t understand or recognize a lot of things. He just showed up, pretty much out of the blue, and he happened to meet my father. I’ve encountered a few other spirits since, and none of them remembered being here – on this planet – for very long. Does that mesh with your experience?”

Leon?

It’s fine to tell him, I think.

“Pretty much, yeah,” I said. “My spirit-buddy doesn’t remember a lot, but that’s not what I’d call much in the way of evidence for anything, really.”

“Same here,” Raquel said. “Lots of questions, no answers.”

Bloodhound sighed. “That’s what I was afraid you’d tell me. I was hoping to be wrong, but at this point I’m not sure we’ll ever know where the spirits came from. All I can tell you is that whenever I’ve been able to find people knowing how to use magic and track it back to the source, I’ve always either found a spirit or a dead end where I lost the trail. And none of the spirits I’ve encountered told me where they came from either.”

That sounded pretty ominous to me, but if spirits were all invading I wouldn’t expect them to start by teaching us how to do stuff, so maybe it wasn’t so bad, really.

“So in short, magic seems to come from spirits, and we don’t know where they came from,” Raquel summed up.

“More like knowledge of magic comes from spirits,” I corrected. “There’s no way to know if there was magic before people started using it.”

“I’m pretty sure there was, actually,” Bloodhound said. He took a deep breath. “This gets back to the question you actually asked me. As far as I can tell, magic is just an energy source. It’s another type of power. No one harnessed electricity for thousands of years, but it was still, you know, there. It didn’t not exist just because we didn’t know how to make computers or light bulbs. I think it’s the same with magic, except that it’s not visible. No one had any clue that it was there, so no one tried to figure out what to do with it. Just like cavemen wouldn’t have any idea how to build a nuclear reactor. They can see the sun, but that doesn’t automatically let them know how to use a related power source.”

“That…kind of makes sense, I guess,” I said. “I get that no one seemed to know what to look for, or whatever. So magic is what, just there, kind of sitting around until someone grabs it for something?”

“Something like that,” Bloodhound said. “You can use solar power or wind power for all kinds of stuff, but until you do, well, it’s kind of irrelevant. The point is, it’s easy for people to miss major power if they don’t know how to look, and most people have no idea there’s anything to look for.”

“Okay, I think I’m with you so far,” Raquel said. “But how many people using magic have you actually run across? I mean, can you give me a ballpark number?”

“My best guess is that there might be a hundred – maybe two – in the entire world, but that’s recent,” he answered. “Collector has been knocking the number down in North America, and he might have been to a few other places too. But my best guess is a guess. There’s no census. We don’t have a club, or a newsletter, or anything. And a fair number of people end up, well, getting hurt. Or killed.”

“You mean besides the people Collector has been murdering and copying tricks from?” I asked.

Bloodhound nodded. “Collector’s dangerous, but he’s not the biggest danger.” He paused for a second, maybe figuring out how to explain what he meant. “Look, think of it like this. You both know magic can be pretty dangerous. Now, if most people are self-taught, do you think they’re usually smart enough to be careful, or do you think they say to themselves, ‘awesome, let’s see what else I can do’?”

“I got it,” I said, nodding my understanding. “You’re saying people get magic and then start shaking it like a cartoon character with a chemistry set. Decent odds they blow themselves up, or something.”

“That’s part of it,” Bloodhound confirmed. “No one has established lab safety rules for magic or anything. It’s like giving people the supplies for rocket science and the materials, but not giving them an actual teacher. Maybe a few pages from a textbook. Mostly they get nowhere; they’ve got access to the power source, but no idea how to use it, so it takes them a long time to find the on/off switch. And once they do, there’s a good chance they’ll just have it blow up in their face, like you said. They stick their finger in the socket to see if the electricity is on and get zapped. Some of them die, some of them decide to leave it the hell alone, and some of them keep at it.”

“But your father found a tutor,” Raquel noted, “and you’ve said other people have learned from spirits too.”

“Right,” Bloodhound said. “But those are the exceptions. Those are the people who have actually managed to develop some tricks of their own that they can perform on command. For every one of those, there are probably ten more who never find a teacher. They either don’t realize they can do anything, get nowhere and give up, or off themselves. Maybe one out of those ten manages to learn something useful by trial and error without burning himself alive, or getting hit by lightning, or whatever. Magic is powerful stuff; it’s not safe. I wouldn’t call it user-friendly, either.”

“How dangerous, exactly?” I asked. “I’m guessing you aren’t in danger of getting struck by lightning every time you use magic, at least.”

He laughed. “No, it’s not that bad. But you should know that some of the things that work for me haven’t worked for…other people. I’ve tried to teach before. It didn’t go that well, and I’m not totally sure why. No one died or anything like that, but if I do teach you, it’s a gamble. That’s why I wanted to have this conversation first, really: to give you a chance to back out if you want to.”

I didn’t really consider it. I just shook my head. “Collector can sense us if he’s ever close. And if there are other spirits out there, I’d rather have the option of hiding, at least. Besides,” I took a deep breath, “they saw my face. I think, for me, being able to lay low is a necessity, not a perk.”

Raquel agreed. “I don’t want Collector – or anyone else – finding me at home,” she said. “It’s one thing to get in a fight on my terms, but if I can’t hide I don’t think I’d be able to sleep at night.”

He looked at both of us for a second. “Okay. Then rule number one is to start as slow as possible, and for God’s sake think before you try anything new. I told you I’ve looked for other people using magic, tried to find them? Well, that’s how I know how many of them end bad. I found one guy who turned into a wolf – not a werewolf, just a wolf. He was stuck like that for good, and he damn near mauled his own family. He didn’t get it right and he had to be…put down. Too dangerous for anything else. I never found out for sure what exactly he was trying to accomplish, but it doesn’t matter. One guy tried to control electricity and got struck by lightning, I wasn’t kidding about that one. I found a woman who tried to see the future and completely lost her shit – she’s in a mental hospital.” He sounded sad about the last example.

“No one knows all the rules of magic, but trial and error is insanely dangerous,” he said. “I can’t say it too many times. I really can’t. I haven’t even told you about the worst stuff I’ve found out there, because you both seem decent and I don’t enjoy giving people nightmares. But you can’t fuck around with this, ever. I don’t like helping people get themselves dead because of stupidity, and I don’t want you to get someone else hurt because you’re impatient, either. Rule two is to be damn careful where and when you practice, because sometimes magic can have unpredictable side effects if you make a mistake. If you go home and practice there, you deserve to get hit by lightning because you could be endangering everyone else around you.”

The three examples he gave and the hints of worse ones were enough to put me in a cautious mood. Leon agreed.

After we both promised to be extremely careful, we got to business. We’d met in the same little park as before, but Bloodhound warned us that we needed to find someplace better to practice anything beyond the basics, or he wouldn’t teach us for long. He also said that even teaching us the one trick would take more time than we had left – it was already starting to get a bit late, and Raquel indicated that she had to go home. I wouldn’t mind heading back to my dorm, either, and I figured Bloodhound was probably ready to leave, unless he was staying in town for the night. It wasn’t a really long drive to Philly, but it was long enough.

He left us some contact information – a throwaway email address, specifically – to arrange future meetings and renewed the protection from before, so Raquel and I wouldn’t be easy to find if Collector came back. We promised to contact him only with emails we didn’t use for anything else, and to never refer to each other by name or describe what we were doing. If we hadn’t, I got the impression he really would have walked away.

I’d felt a bit paranoid at times since meeting Raquel. The more I had to do with the Philly Five, the more I wondered whether I was paranoid enough.

“One last thing,” he said after we finished. “Two supers have been nabbed in this city. If something comes up, whether it’s more trouble or you learning more about who’s behind it, I’d appreciate it if you let us know. We’ll give you a heads-up if we learn about any trouble headed here, in return.”

Raquel and I conferred briefly with Leon and Feral. “Deal,” we said together. That wasn’t a tough sell.

The best thing of all was the fact that I now had a way to contact the Philly Five directly. That meant I could talk to them alone, and I might just have a chance to figure out whether Feral was a problem or not.

I set up a new email address and sent a message to the address Bloodhound had given me that night, asking if we could meet privately to talk as soon as he had a chance, but I made it clear it wasn’t an emergency.

I got an answer the next morning. It took a bit to arrange a time to meet – partly because Raquel and I were also looking to arrange our next meeting, too. During the week my life seemed to go back to normal, but I found myself checking for messages from Raquel, Heavyweight, or the Philly Five frequently just in case. I’d sit in class like everything was the same, and it felt the same, but then once I got out I found it hard to relax. I was combing the news for stories on supers the way other obsessive people checked their social media. I started to notice that I felt tense physically and mentally; I’d always been a pretty relaxed guy in the past.

On the bright side, my obsession did get me some information. It turned out that Skyscraper had popped up alone before hooking up with Blitz, and enough people had seen him here in Berkeleyport that he was recognized. One news report incorrectly speculated that he might be the group’s leader, since they didn’t have much else to go on. Apparently he’d been from a rich family, and he threw a tantrum when he found out he wasn’t getting his share of the family inheritance. Things turned nasty, and he ended up growing to giant size and lashing out. By the end he’d been forced to either go to jail or go on the run, and he’d opted for the latter.

I wondered if that was how he’d been hooked by Collector; had he teamed up with the others in the hopes of getting money or influence? Or maybe he just hadn’t had any other options he liked, and Collector came along and made an offer that sounded better than nothing?

I was working out while I thought about that. Looking back on my past performance, I’d decided that I really needed to get in better shape to make the most of my powers and, you know, stay alive, if I was going to keep running around getting into fights. I found that Leon could help with that; when I worked a muscle, he could help it recover faster. It had never occurred to me, but given that strengthening a muscle essentially means inflicting low-grade, repeated injury on yourself, it made sense. I felt a bit guilty for cheating, but not much; I didn’t have the same amount of time to invest in staying in shape as a bodybuilder, and it was in a good cause. Besides, I discovered that being in better physical shape was actually more pleasant than I’d ever suspected. The workouts also let me burn off my nervous energy. I talked things over with Leon, wondering if he could guide my regenerative ability to make it easier for me to stay in shape; when I got hurt, my understanding was that he basically restored my body to proper condition, and if that worked, then it might help me improve my conditioning without constantly going to the gym. That would be a long-term experiment, though.

Thursday evening I actually felt normal, and I spent a few hours hanging out in the common room just talking and wasting time. It was the first time I’d really done that since Raquel climbed in my window and bled on my chair, and it felt good. I was finally relaxing a bit, I felt confident that Blitz was out of town, and while I was worried about the long-term implications of the group’s existence being made public, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it. At the same time, I was making actual progress toward resolving the potential issue with Feral. I had a meeting with Bloodhound and Comet scheduled for the weekend, and a separate meeting with Bloodhound and Raquel to start actually learning from him. All in all, things were looking up.

Friday, Blitz went back to Skyscraper’s home in California and wrecked the place. I guess they’d decided that there was no reason not to, since they had so much attention on them already. The pictures made it clear that Skyscraper’s home really had been a mansion. The place looked like it was built by rich people who wanted to make sure everyone knew they were rich people. When the seven of them got through with it, it looked like an action movie set after the big finale. It had been three stories tall; when Skyscraper left, it was less than one.

The aftermath was messy. Skyscraper had roughed up his family members personally, and together Blitz had killed a handful of security guards. They stole a bunch of valuables and cash, and set the place on fire as they were leaving, although that last part might have been an accident. They also forced a couple of his relatives to make some electronic transfers…which apparently went all over the world. Leon pointed out that they must have been planning this for a while to pull that off. I wondered just how much of the money they’d manage to collect, but either way it was hell on Skyscraper’s family, since their home had just been torched.

The media focus on supers in general and the group specifically ramped up again. The fact that there were seven people in Blitz became public knowledge, and I could hear some real fear in people’s voices when they talked about it. Berkeleyport’s supers had been few enough that most of the people in the city didn’t really think about them much, a month ago. Most people had heard of Heavyweight and Menagerie, but they hadn’t seen them and they didn’t really think about them. Now, no one could ignore that we’d unknowingly hosted the world’s first known supervillain team of seven people, and that they had escaped. The nutjobs came out of the woodwork online and on TV to talk about what had happened, and I saw a guy ranting about supers on the streets at one point in town. He looked disreputable, and no one was really listening, but I knew that just a week ago his rants had been about political and social issues – stuff like voter apathy or tax policy. The guy – we called him “Can’t-you-see” because he said that a lot in his rants and none of the students knew his name – had been a fixture since before my freshman year at least, and it was the first time I’d ever heard of him changing topics.

On the bright side, the FBI had less reason to withhold information now that the whole mess was public, so they started to spread around what they knew about the members of Blitz. Christopher Rollins, AKA Collector, was listed as the group’s leader. They had a few solid photos of him from before he’d started running around murdering people. Brian Jones, AKA Skyscraper, was another one they had plenty of information on. I was surprised to learn that Smith, the one who controlled metal, was actually named Elise Smith. It might be a common name, but that was a bit much for coincidences.

Those were the three they had the most information on. I almost laughed when I learned that Rollins had been some kind of accountant. Smith had apparently been working in a housecleaning business. It wasn’t clear how they’d met, or how Collector had picked up most of the others, either. I did find out that Smith’s powers had been the subject of some local news report or article in her hometown, at some point before she left.

They still didn’t have much of anything on Silhouette, Dealer, or Recast, but that made some sense I guess. No one had gotten a good look at Silhouette’s face, not even when we spotted her walking back to the motel that one time. Dealer, the kid, stayed out of the limelight as much as possible and always wore a baseball cap. He usually wore a hoodie, too, so even when there were cameras around they hadn’t gotten good angles at his face, apparently. As for Recast…well, Leon and I had determined that his appearance changed, although we weren’t sure whether it happened all at once or gradually. Either way, seeing his face wasn’t enough to put a name to it. Proxy, whose real name was Paul Lewis, had apparently committed non-violent crimes in the past. Mostly theft or other financial stuff; he had apparently stolen money from other people’s accounts at times, so they suspected he might be a hacker, but that didn’t answer how or why he’d met up with the others.

“I can’t believe they were here,” Shawn said. We were in our room, along with Liz; we’d been doing homework before the topic came up. “They’re insane. I know the Philly Five are still around, but I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten away from them before.”

“Someone might have without us hearing about it,” Liz pointed out. “I mean, even when they were in town we didn’t find out there were seven of these guys. Makes me wonder why no one said anything before this, really.”

Shawn snorted. “They probably didn’t know yet. It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy or anything. They said the group hasn’t been around that long; it probably took some time to figure out how many there were, if they weren’t doing anything this public before.”

“That makes sense,” I chimed in. “I mean, if they were doing stuff like this they would have been on the news already. So they must have been quieter before.”

It wasn’t the only conversation of the sort I had. Things cooled down on campus pretty quickly, if only because we had proof Blitz had skipped town and people were busy with their normal lives, but even when the frenzy started to cool it didn’t subside completely.

I checked on superstuff.com and found that the site had server issues; a lot of people were registering and posting to the forums who hadn’t before, and the tone changed. I’d been strictly a reader, staying out of conversations, but I remembered just fine, and they had always been pretty polite. It was a small community, united in curiosity more than anything else. The site had drawn the sort of people who wondered just what supers could do, and wanted to know about them. Now there were a lot more arguments. Reading some of it, I started to feel a bit grim.

The first supers had appeared in 2000, but it seemed like the other shoe had finally dropped, eleven years later. The fact that the guy most responsible – Collector – wasn’t a super at all just seemed like the icing on the cake. I didn’t really expect a lot of people to believe me if I told them he was using magic, though, and I wasn’t sure that publicizing that fact would be a good thing either.

It wasn’t all bad, at least. I saw people point to the Philly Five, Heavyweight, and Menagerie as examples of good supers, and there were a few others too. That didn’t even count the people whose powers were public knowledge but who didn’t use them: a construction worker in Illinois who had super senses, or something like that, a girl in New Mexico who could move through the earth, and a boy in Europe who could make it rain or snow sometimes. There were others, too. I was surprised by how many, actually; I hadn’t heard of a lot of these people before. Part of that was the site’s expanded audience, which I realized included more people who weren’t from North America than ever before.

For some supers, discovering their powers was more of an inconvenience than anything else. I saw an interview with one man who complained that he wished he’d never told anyone he had telekinetic abilities – they weren’t major enough to be useful, but people were so curious that they bothered him all the time.

“You really wish you didn’t have this ability, Mr. Gallagher?” the interviewer asked him. He’d been professional, but his manner slipped when they got to this bit. He sounded pretty surprised.

“Absolutely,” the guy answered.  “Look, I’m just about powerful enough to open a beer bottle. You know how useful that is? It’s not. It doesn’t help me do anything. I’m a software guy. I work on programming at a computer all day. Using my brain to type would be slower and less convenient than doing it the normal way, and I’d have a headache all the time to boot. The only thing about my life that’s changed is that now people ask me to move stuff with my mind as a party trick, and that’s the kind of attention I’d be just as happy not to have.”

“I suppose many of us had never considered it in that light,” the interviewer said diplomatically.

I wondered why he’d done the interview, if he didn’t want attention, but it didn’t really matter to me. The guy had a point, either way. His power might have been handy to someone else, but for the life he led it just didn’t matter that much.

Not every super was a powerhouse. Even for the ones who were, their power might not be particularly useful to them. People like Raquel, Comet, and I were exceptions among exceptions.

Saturday, I met Comet and Bloodhound.

“Thanks for coming,” I told them. We were standing on a rooftop near the park we’d used to meet up before. We could see in every direction, and the area wasn’t busy, so there was no reason to expect anyone else to be around.

“From your message, I understand it’s important,” Comet said. “What’s this about?”

I took a deep breath and hesitated for a second. If Feral was on the level, I was about to massively invade her privacy, and Raquel’s, for no good reason.

We don’t have other options,” Leon reminded me. “Tell them.

“It has to do with Menagerie and Feral,” I told them. “Leon – that’s my spirit – and I are a bit worried about the pair of them.”

Comet’s head tilted to one side. “You worried Collector will come after her or something?”

“No,” I said. “We’re not worried about anyone else finding them or hurting them. We’re worried about Feral herself. I don’t know how much you two know about spirits, and what I know has a lot of gaps in it, but I’m not sure their…relationship is like the one I have with Leon. I can kick him out if I ever want to. I’m not sure whether Menagerie can do the same thing to Feral. I’m afraid she might be a hostage in her own body.”

They were both silent for a second, so I continued.

“I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how to find out, either,” I told them. “I can’t ask them about it, for obvious reasons. And the only other people I know who might have so much as a clue are you guys.”

“Hmm,” Bloodhound muttered. “I’m afraid I’m not an expert on spirits.” He and Comet looked at each other. “There may be someone else I can contact for help,” he said reluctantly. “It might take some time for them to get back to me.”

Comet looked at me. “What exactly is it you want to do?”

I sighed. “I just don’t know. I want to find some way to make certain that Menagerie is in control of her own body, but the how is…I don’t even know where to start on it. I’ve been trying to arrange this conversation for days, but every time I was in the same place as you she was around too, or else we were in the middle of fighting. Given that Feral’s proven herself to be one of the good guys, I decided to wait until we dealt with Blitz, and it seems like we have, at least for now.”

“All right,” Comet said. “Bloodhound will talk to his friends, and we’ll get in touch again when we know more. Just so we’re clear though; do you have concrete reasons to suspect anything?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “Menagerie told me about a time that Feral took over, but it was only for a few seconds, assuming the story was accurate. She gave control back right away. I also know that Feral took over briefly when you helped heal her arm the other day, but she said that was for pain management, and I didn’t want to act suspicious by asking outright, just in case I have a reason to be paranoid.”

Comet just nodded. “We’ll hurry, just in case. In the meantime, act normal for now, and see if you can pick up anything from the two of them without giving it away. Don’t pry; just pay attention. Got it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Got it.” I looked at Bloodhound. “One other thing, though. I think it might be best if we didn’t learn how to hide from other spirits until after this is resolved. That’s why I was pushy about meeting the two of you as soon as possible. I think Feral’s one of the good guys, but if I’m wrong about her and she’s not, well, I don’t want her knowing how to disappear. She could go to another continent and stay gone for the rest of Menagerie’s life. The world’s more than big enough for one person to hide in.”

“I’ll make sure neither of you learns too quickly, then,” Bloodhound said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Step one complete. I felt a lot better after talking to the two of them.

I’d insisted on having the meeting on the early side, because Bloodhound was teaching Menagerie and I that same day. I was grateful for the masks we all wore when she arrived, since they made it easier for me to act normal, but I needed the help. When Menagerie rode up on Feral’s back, I could feel my heart speeding up, and I had a powerful desire to watch the two of them as closely as possible. At the same time, the guilty part of me wanted to look away from them as much as possible, even though I knew my concerns were a simple matter of not having information. It wasn’t like I knew Feral extremely well and had betrayed some years-long trust and friendship. I’d known them both for days. But even the fact that my concern for Raquel was motivating me didn’t make it easy to act normal around the two of them.

Relax,” Leon said. “They haven’t known us long enough to know whether we’re acting normally or not, either. They can’t see our faces, they don’t have telepathy or empathy or heightened senses or anything, and we’re all going to be busy paying attention to Bloodhound. I’ll handle Feral and make sure she doesn’t get suspicious. You just keep one eye on Raquel, and we’ll figure this out.

Bloodhound didn’t waste any time once we were all there, and I was glad. I wasn’t feeling up to making small talk.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s get this show on the road. The first thing to tell you is this: I’m not sure what all the rules of magic are. I’m not even sure if there are consistent rules for everyone. You’re going to learn what I know, but you’ll have to figure out what works for you and go from there, because this is definitely more of an art than a science, at least for now.”

“No consistent rules?” Menagerie asked. “Really?”

“Not ones that are easy to articulate,” Bloodhound answered. “Keep in mind that I’ve only been at this for so long. It might be that we’ll have the universe dancing to our tune in a couple of generations, but it took time to go from controlling fire to smelting steel.” He paused for a second and then spoke more thoughtfully. “I’ll grant you that I’ve been a bit busy with other things, too,” he said. “If you really dig into magic, you may learn stuff I haven’t. If you do, I hope you’ll share. But things seem to work differently for different people. I had another student once who tried to learn how I heal, and she just couldn’t get the hang of it, even practicing regularly for months.”

“The more you talk, the less confident I am that this is a good way to spend my time,” Menagerie said. “Can we quit beating around the bush already?”

Bloodhound laughed. “Fine. You’ll both need to learn to perceive magic, but the human body doesn’t have the senses for it. That means you’re going to have to temporarily give up one of your normal senses,” he said. “Have you ever heard of synesthesia?”

“No,” Menagerie admitted.

“Yeah,” I said. “It means something about…mixed-up senses? Something like that. Hearing sights.”

“Not exactly, but close enough,” Bloodhound said. “I’m going to try to help you both see magic. It’s going to feel weird as hell, and you may not be able to see normally while it’s happening. I can reverse it in a second if I need to, and even if I don’t it should wear off on its own. What you need to do – and this goes for your spirits too – is let me.”

“Both at once?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, one at a time.” He looked at us. “Ladies first?”

“Sure,” Menagerie said. She sounded nervous and excited, which was about how I felt.

“Okay,” Bloodhound said. “Sit down for this. Stay still, don’t move, and just look around. Like I said, it’ll be weird, so try not to panic.”

She sat and Bloodhound walked over to her.

Leon, you said you could perceive it when he did something before, right? Watch close and tell me what you can. Actually, show me if you can.

No problem,” he answered absently. Leon sounded as interested as I was in this.

I knew he was doing as I’d asked almost immediately, because my perception changed. I was looking at Bloodhound bending over to touch Menagerie’s eyes, and at the same time I knew that Leon was watching, but his view was different. Leon got better use and more enjoyment from my senses when I let him take over my body temporarily, but he could still tell what I was hearing or looking at most of the time. It was just less sharp, less immediate somehow. Now I was simultaneously looking through my eyes, which felt normal, and seeing what he saw. In his view, Menagerie and Feral were a blurred-together jumble of impressions. Even though I was looking, I knew that what he used to see them wasn’t truly vision. I didn’t have another word for it, but I decided we’d need one.

He could also “see” Bloodhound, who looked mostly normal, and the trickle of power flowing from his hands into Menagerie’s eyes. It looked a bit creepy, really. Nothing bad seemed to happen, and then he drew his hands away.

She stiffened abruptly, sitting up straight as she looked at Bloodhound and then turned to look at me and Leon.

“Um,” she said hesitantly. “Uh, I think it pretty much looks the same as what Feral can show me already.”

“Really?” Bloodhound said. “That’s interesting.” He tapped a finger on his leg for a few moments in thought. “I’m not going to undo it right away. I want to try a couple things so you can confirm that what Feral sees and what you see are the same. Can she show you her vision whenever you want?”

“Yeah, she can,” Menagerie said. “Well, maybe not when she’s in her own form. We should check just to be sure.”

She turned her head to her left, and Feral’s cat shape took form right next to her. It looked like Feral, who Leon could see overlapping Menagerie, was squeezed out of one body and into the other shape, like squeezing toothpaste from one tube into another. Except that the stuff that made the cat-body was also Feral…as if she were expanding into the shape and hardening.

It only took a moment for her to go from formless mass inhabiting Menagerie to cat. She stretched and preened for a moment, as if checking her body for mistakes.

Look there,” Leon said, indicating the area between the two of them. Through his “vision”, I could perceive something like a string tying Feral and Menagerie together. It looked tense and stretched, like bungee cord or a rubber band, and I immediately understood that the way it looked was symbolic. There wasn’t a literal cord, but if anything happened to Feral the connection between the two of them would snap her back into Menagerie. That was why she could simply abandon her cat-body and let Menagerie reform it next to her again at any time. Without that tie, losing her body would leave Feral adrift.

Leon and I had discussed what would happen if I ever ejected him, and he’d said he wasn’t sure. I believed him. He might be free to go, but now that I knew he remembered almost nothing before meeting me, I understood his reluctance to try it better. If he needed somewhere to live and had no connection he might just go nowhere. Oblivion, without even leaving behind a corpse.

It suddenly occurred to me that there was another side to my fears about Feral; if a spirit bonded to someone and thought being kicked out would kill it, just how wrong would it be to prevent the host from doing so? If being ejected from a body was death, then kicking the spirit out was a form of murder. At the same time, the only way to find out for sure was to test it. Still, as far as I was concerned, the original owner of a body had the right to it, not any passenger.

The cynical part of me noted that that point of view seemed simultaneously reasonable and extremely self-serving.

Bloodhound had said that his father learned from a spirit, but wasn’t like me or Raquel. I’d have to ask him about that after all, and hope he wasn’t feeling too secretive.

I absently watched as Bloodhound tried a few simple tricks to see how Feral and Menagerie saw them.

“It looks like she can’t show me what she sees when we’re separated,” Menagerie said. “But let me try something else.”

She closed her eyes and asked Bloodhound to repeat his tests; he did, and she let out a pleased little exclamation. She sounded a bit smug, actually.

“Yeah,” she said. “When I look through my eyes without Feral’s help, I don’t see anything. When I look through her eyes, though, I can see it. And if I learn what you did, I guess I can see that way without her, so we could watch two different directions at once.”

“It looks like I’ve got magic-o-vision too, courtesy of Leon,” I said. I cocked my head to one side. “You said you’ve met someone like us before, right? I guess they missed out on this little perk?”

“Hmm,” he mumbled a bit absently. “I’m not sure, actually. I think they just can’t use it because of the spirits’…”

I waited for him to finish the thought, but he didn’t. After a couple seconds, he seemed to remember what we were doing.

“Sorry about that,” Bloodhound finally said. “Well if your spirits, Feral and – Leon you said, right? If they can help you see without having to give up normal eyesight or something else while you do it, I’m frankly jealous.” He looked at Menagerie. “I’m going to cancel what I did. We can work on it later, if you want to be able to see that without Feral’s help.” He looked over at me. “Your spirit doesn’t separate from you, right?”

“Right,” I said. “Leon stays in here.”

He nodded. “All right. Then I’m not sure if learning this would help you at all. I figured out a way to substitute another sense for eyesight, so I can walk and do magic at the same time, but it took me months. I wasn’t sure if it would work for you, but it looks like you may not even need to learn this. In that case, let’s get to step two: power.”

That made sense. Leon was literally always around, and I didn’t mind skipping a step if he thought I could.

“From what I can tell, some people generate their own magic,” Bloodhound said. “It’s slow, it’s limited, and it’s got an upper limit. On the bright side, it’s a continuous process. The capacitor might run out, but the generator never does, as far as I know. Other people don’t have an internal battery, as it were. They can’t do anything unless they find, beg, borrow, or steal some juice to get things going. I’m not sure what the story will be for you two. Spirits seem to have some energy of their own, but I’m pretty sure drawing on that too heavily can starve them to death, so all four of you should be careful. If a normal person overdraws, I’m not sure what happens, but I think it might knock them out, burn out their battery, or even kill them. I haven’t been really eager to test that.”

“How do you figure out how much you have to work with?” I asked.

“Trial and error’s the only way I know,” Bloodhound said. “Some things seem to take more energy than others, but figuring it all out is hard. When I fixed your arm,” he waved a hand at Menagerie, “it didn’t take too much juice, because I was working with materials that were already there, but it was a little harder than it would have been on someone normal, I think. People who can use magic seem to resist it automatically, at least a little. You should be able to learn to control that, but it’s like a reflex; it can be overcome, but not easily.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I’m getting ahead, though. For you two, you’re going to have to make sure that you only draw on your own power to do anything, unless your spirit friends are okay with donating to the cause. I’ve never taught someone like either of you, so this is uncharted territory. The fact that they can share what they see so easily might mean that they’re tied into your magic, for all I know.”

I thought for a moment. “I can’t speak for you two, but I know Leon can get tired. If we use our powers enough, like the other day, he eventually needs a break to recharge. I’m not sure if he can feel tired without me feeling tired, but it might be worth testing. I assume that using up your voodoo makes you feel fatigue, right?”

“It does, though it’s a different sensation from physical or mental fatigue,” Bloodhound said. “It’s hard to pick out without practice, because usually you’ll feel the other two at the same time, and I think we’re just not wired to use magic naturally. So the next step in teaching you two is going to be cautiously trying to find your limits.” He sounded like he was smiling. “For lab rat purposes, I’m going to teach you one thing that shouldn’t be dangerous first.”

He held up his right hand cupped, and exhaled. A small speck of white light appeared in his palm, as if he had a light bulb embedded in the flesh.

“This was one of the first things I ever learned,” he told us. “It came in very handy during the last power outage I experienced, but mainly it’s useful because it’s just about the safest thing I ever learned. There’s nothing fancy to it. You just make a tiny point of light, and if you screw up nothing should happen. If it goes well, you might just barely feel the drain, but you probably won’t be able to notice it at this stage.”

I looked at his hand, interested, and wondered whether I might be able to do anything interesting using that with my power to hide myself. If it did involve bending light as I suspected, and I could learn to make light, there might be some interesting possibilities.

“It’s hard to explain anything relating to magic,” Bloodhound mused aloud. “Just like we don’t have the natural eyes, we don’t exactly have the right vocabulary, I think. Leon and Feral can help you see what I’m doing, but the hard part is learning to do it yourselves. It’s like trying to use muscles you’ve never needed.”

He looked at the two of us in turn, looking at ease as he held the tiny speck of light. It wasn’t that bright; maybe more like an LED than a lamp’s light bulb, really, but it was clear enough to see, especially when he turned his hand over. The little light was bright enough to visibly change the shadows in our corner of the little park.

“One person I know said it was like trying to push your brain out through your hand,” he said. “My father told me I needed to will the light into existence and focus on my hand. As you might guess, I found that pretty unhelpful when I was learning. I felt like he was asking me to fly without giving me a parachute, let alone wings.”

Menagerie and I laughed a bit at that.

Bloodhound sighed. “This is the trickiest bit, in a way. Magic…it feels different for different people. For me, concentrating on it is like looking through a microscope, focusing down to see lots of tiny things. Once I do that, I can actually make stuff happen. Someone else I know says that just touching magic feels relaxing like a warm bath. Another person told me it felt like putting her hand into a fire and feeling the heat without the pain.”

He looked us over again. “That’s all pretty unhelpful, I imagine,” he said. “Actually, I don’t have to imagine. It never helped me a damn bit. What I want you both to do, for now, is try to focus on the light itself. Cupping it in your hands can make it easier to concentrate. I made this little spot from my own power, and that’s generally the best way to get started, since the whole point of this is to learn what it feels like for you. There really isn’t any better way to explain it, though. Have your spirit buddies show you what they see, and try to copy what I did.”

By this point in the day, the sun was nearly down. It hadn’t been when we started, but we’d been there for a while.

I cupped my hands, frowning, and let Leon show me what he saw. I tried to feel for some power within myself, to see if there was anything there.

I think I can show you how,” Leon said. “May I?

Yeah, okay.

I let Leon take the driver’s seat, becoming a passenger behind my own eyes. He seemed to reach into nowhere, finding something inside me that wasn’t physically there, and I realized that he knew what he was doing; this was sort of how it felt to use the powers I’d gotten from him.

Leon cupped our hands, and a white light formed there.

Feral and Menagerie were watching us, as was Bloodhound. Leon held the light for a few seconds, and then it slipped away; I felt myself violently yanked back into control of my body and I yelled in surprise as I stumbled forward.

In the back of my head, Leon was screaming.
 
 
 
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Knowledge is Power 2

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My hands reached the top of the wall and I scrabbled for a grip to haul myself up. Desperation gave me the strength to pull myself over the rim of the wall and onto the roof of the building – whatever it was, I hadn’t even had time to look – and I let myself fall forward and out of sight. I was getting fatigued and my stomach hurt like hell where I’d pulled Smith’s little present out, but Leon urged me on, talking me through his plan a bit at a time. At his direction, I sprinted like mad for the other end of the roof, looking over my shoulder, then quickly came to a halt and tapped into my other power, turning myself invisible. I’d been too slow.

As I stopped, Skyscraper’s head came into view, followed by more of him as he grew to massive size again. He didn’t look particularly angry, but it was still imposing as hell, especially since I was standing still with nothing between the two of us. Trusting my powers was one thing when I was using them to move out of the way; when I was standing still with people looking for me, it was a lot harder to do.

He looked around for a few moments, but it seemed like he failed to spot me, despite the small anomalies around my feet. He bent down, and I was on the verge of trying to hide somewhere else so I could let Leon heal me again when he came back up and deposited Collector and Smith on the roof. He ferried the rest of them up afterward, and I didn’t like what I saw on their faces. Collector looked pissed off, and Smith even more so. She was still clutching her nose with one hand. Once she came up to the roof, a pair of air conditioning units liquefied, and the metal started to spread out to cover it. She’d probably notice me when it reached my feet, if they didn’t find me sooner.

By now, all of them were on the roof. Skyscraper had shrunk down and let Silhouette bring him up after dropping everyone else off. Smith was walking forward, and the others were spreading out too. So far, I hadn’t really seen her use her power at very long range, and I – along with the other good guys – was hoping that she didn’t have much range to work with. At the very least, I knew she could move metal that was most of the roof’s length away, now. I resolved to measure the distance later if I got out of this and she escaped.

Recast looked a bit different again; his damaged arm hadn’t grown back, but his nose seemed a bit larger than I remembered, and he was turning around and sniffing at the air.

Shit,” Leon thought.

Recast took a few seconds to look at the roof, and it just so happened that the wind picked up – blowing from behind him towards me. I wasn’t sure if that could make a difference when we were standing yards apart, but I hoped it might. I didn’t know how close help might be.

I was thinking frantically. If they were going to spot me anyway, I should move first. With no backup, my best bet was probably to sprint for the edge of the roof and drop, using my power to reach the bottom while hopefully avoiding injury, but this building was a bit taller than the other one I’d fallen from. Even if I just twisted my ankle, that could make the effort pointless, since I’d never get away from them limping. But would they hang around long? Menagerie had been there when we teleported, which meant that we should still be in her range, assuming it wasn’t smaller than mine. Unless they’d been able to jump farther this time? But I couldn’t conceive of any reason they wouldn’t have jumped as far as possible in the past, and if that was the case then they should be the same distance away now.

With a sinking feeling, I realized that Menagerie and I had neglected to compare our respective ranges before Bloodhound had helped us hide. In retrospect, that had been a massive oversight. Her range might be half mine, for all I knew. We’d been on opposite sides of the motel before, but we’d been figuring out our ranges as we went, and trying to stay close enough to see the place through binoculars at the same time.

Recast’s head jerked toward me. His eyes moved back and forth, as if he expected to see something in the area where I was standing, but wasn’t sure what to look for. He looked confused; I prayed that he would stay that way.

Smith turned to Collector. “He’s gone. We should go now, before they find us again.”

Yes, please, I thought. Definitely do that. That would be the best present ever.

Collector looked disgruntled and angry, but he didn’t contradict her. His eyes flicked to some of the others for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m not done with this town. I want-”

“The fucker’s here!” Recast interrupted. I looked back at him and saw that he was looking in my direction and down – at my feet.

I didn’t know if he’d spotted the small anomaly in the light that I couldn’t hide, or seen drops of blood that had dripped onto the ground, but it didn’t matter. Leon and I were in complete agreement. I didn’t wait for them to figure things out; I switched from stealth to speed and crossed the distance to the corner of the roof in two strides, looked over the side, and jumped off. I shrank the distance as much as I could, landing on a closed dumpster, and while I stumbled a bit I didn’t fall. I hopped down to the ground and started sprinting away normally, letting Leon heal me and not looking back.

I heard a loud crash behind me, and risked a glance as I was turning a corner. Silhouette was there and chasing me. I wanted to use my speed, but I needed Leon to finish healing my stomach or I’d probably die anyway, so I just sprinted down the alley and hoped he’d finish before she caught me.

He didn’t. I heard her getting closer, but I couldn’t switch powers – I was worried that much more blood loss would be a real problem. She grabbed my arms roughly, spinning me around and shoving me into the wall.

“Struggle and I’ll just break your legs,” she told me. “Come on.”

I sighed, but I also let her lead me back to the building. I hadn’t gotten very far. When we arrived, she picked me up and leapt up to the roof with casual ease.

She dragged me over to Collector and held me in front of him. Proxy pulled out his gun, aiming it at my head.

“Thank you,” Collector said to her. “This should only take a minute,” he continued, seeming to address all of them, before he turned to me.

“Now, let’s see what you can do. Some kind of regeneration? That could be very useful. But how does it work?”

I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure how to answer, or what he wanted me to say. He looked at my stomach, which Leon had finished fixing as Silhouette brought me back.

“Hmm,” he said. “Seems to work pretty quickly.” He sounded pleased. Leon and I were frantically trying to think of something else to do to get away, but Silhouette had a firm grip and Proxy’s gun wasn’t moving either. I didn’t know whether Leon could heal brain damage. I wasn’t sure whether I’d still be me afterward if he did. It occurred to me that if I wasn’t, he could probably take over, but I wasn’t nearly desperate enough to consider that a viable option.

“Smith?” Collector said, holding one hand up over his shoulder. Smith smiled, placing her knife in the waiting hand, and Collector stabbed me in the arm and stomach.

I grunted, but managed to suppress the desire to scream. “Leon, try to call Feral.

We had no way to know if we were too far away, but I didn’t want wait to see where this was going.

I felt Leon call out, trying to get Feral’s attention and tell her where we were. We both thought that might break Bloodhound’s spell, but with Silhouette holding me still it wasn’t like stealth was really a big concern at the moment. The only other reason to hesitate was that Collector – if he was as much like me and Menagerie as we thought – might hear it and just decide to kill me immediately. We hoped that if Leon called Feral specifically, no one else would be able to hear it.

Collector didn’t react. Instead, he continued to watch the two wounds he’d inflicted close and knit themselves. When they finished, he stabbed me in the arm again.

That time, I screamed; I’d been focused on what Leon was doing, and he surprised me. Silhouette held me up, barely even noticing that I wasn’t supporting my own weight. I stared at Collector, feeling the pain start to recede. He continued to be fascinated by the healing.

When the wound closed, he stabbed me twice more in the arm. I screamed louder and felt Leon call out to Feral again. I remembered the people who’d run from the parking lot when we first arrived; even if Feral couldn’t hear Leon, help should be here soon.

It was strange to realize that I was probably better off if Collector continued his tests, or whatever he was doing. It hurt like hell, and I was still afraid of losing too much blood, but he wasn’t actually cutting that deep or causing much damage. It was all stuff that Leon could fix.

He didn’t stab me again. Instead, he wiped off Smith’s knife, took a deep breath, and then slashed his own palm, grimacing.

I watched the cut heal itself, and I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach.

Leon, did he just-”

Yes.

He looked back up at me, smiling slightly. “I don’t suppose you’ll be willing to demonstrate your other tricks?” he asked. “I would very much like to learn them as well.”

I didn’t answer. I wasn’t being defiant; I was just frozen in fear.

Then I heard Feral answering Leon’s call – and she was getting closer.

Get ready,” she told us both.

Play for time!” Leon urged. “Stall him!

I sighed. “Will you let me live if I do?” I asked.

Collector looked at me in surprise. “If you’re willing to cooperate, prove it and make yourself disappear again,” he said.

“I can’t do it yet,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady as I lied. “My powers don’t just work anytime I want. They’re more complicated.”

His eyes narrowed. “Complicated how?”

I hesitated for a second. “That’s hard to explain. They interact with each other in odd ways-”

Smith snorted. “He’s full of shit.”

“I’m telling you the truth,” I said, focusing on Collector. He was the boss; he was the one I needed to convince if I was going to stall. “The fact is, using one of my powers affects the others.” I was babbling, trying to sound believable without committing to anything.

Collector looked at me for a second. “Smith, I think you wanted the first crack at this guy?”

She grinned, stepped forward, and yanked off my mask. I almost hid my face, but that would prove that I’d been lying a second ago, and I thought that would probably get me killed immediately. In contrast, them seeing my face might get me killed in the long-term, but wouldn’t make a bit of difference right now.

Smith cracked her knuckles and punched me in the nose hard enough that my head was knocked backward into Silhouette’s chest. I’d never broken my nose before, but I was pretty sure she’d done the job.

“Now,” Collector said. “That was a bit of poetic revenge on her part, but if you don’t cooperate immediately we’ll move on to more painful things. Show me how you vanish.”

I stared at him for a few seconds, swallowed, and shook my head. “No,” I said quietly.

He just sighed and turned, walking away a few steps. Smith started lining up to hit me again.

When she hits you, the gun will be out of line for a second,” Leon said. “That’s our chance. Don’t miss it.

I swallowed, readying myself to use my main power to slide out of Silhouette’s grip again. On the way back to the building, she’d been holding me tighter and Leon had still been healing me. Now, she’d relaxed a bit. Smith kicked me in the stomach and I doubled over, then she grabbed my hair and yanked my face down to knee my broken nose.

It hurt. I’d been shot in the shoulder earlier, but adrenaline and the fact that I’d been focusing on other things had dulled that. This didn’t hurt more, exactly, but I was anticipating it, so I was more focused on the pain I was feeling. I tried to focus on bending the space my arms took up and sliding them free, pulling them out of Silhouette’s hands. Smith kicked me in the stomach again, I bumped into Silhouette, and her grip slackened for a second. I managed to move so that her grip was on a different part of my arm, but it wasn’t enough to get loose. Smith kicked me between the legs and I nearly fell on my face; Silhouette tried to adjust her grip to hold up my weight, and that gave me enough space to slip free.

Smith’s eyes widened as I stepped forward, still bent over, and rammed my shoulder into her stomach. I spun us both around so she was between me and Silhouette, and I got lucky enough that she blocked my view of Proxy for good measure, although I had glimpsed him turning to point his gun at me again.

I pushed my power as hard as I could, getting to Collector in two steps, grabbing him, and taking us both to the edge of the roof and over. Then I let go and shrank the distance to the ground, but only for myself.

I landed on my feet; it was painful but my legs were okay. He landed on his feet, too, but he cried out in pain and one leg gave out under him. I stepped forward and punched him in the gut as he tried to stand, but the second time I hit him I felt a jolt and fell to the ground, my muscles refusing to obey me. I fell on my back, and I happened to land so that I could see my hand – it was burned where I’d hit him, which thankfully was a very small area. My heart raced. I could already feel Leon starting to repair the damage, could even see the effects on my hand in real time, though some of the burned skin didn’t repair itself, of course; it was dead and beyond Leon’s help. It flaked off easily, though, as he disconnected the living tissue from it.

Collector stood angrily, and I saw him grip his leg and push the bones into their proper positions. I guess I had managed to break it with that fall.

He’d gotten scratched in the fall, too, and I saw the scratches close themselves. He glared at me as he held his leg. I stumbled to my feet, trying to look at him and look up at the same time. I was expecting his crew to be coming at any second.

Collector stood up, gathering flame in his hands, at the same moment I saw Feral round the corner. She looked fiercer than I remembered, with two long fangs protruding like a saber tooth tiger. Collector must have either heard her or seen my eyes glance at her, because he started to turn and threw his fireball at her instead of me.

I was back on my feet, muscles once more obeying me, and I sprinted out of the alley. I saw Feral dodge behind the same dumpster from before to evade the fireball, then shove the thing forward so that it nearly hit Collector in the side. Silhouette landed and pushed the dumpster back, and then I was rounding the corner and I nearly ran into Menagerie and Heavyweight.

“Are you okay?” Heavyweight asked.

I was too busy panting to talk, so I just nodded.

“Can you still run?” Menagerie asked.

I nodded again.

They glanced at each other.

“Fuck it, let’s go,” said Menagerie. Heavyweight picked her up.

“Follow me,” he said, and then he started running, taking huge strides that were more like hops, springing from one leg to the next. I walked after him, depending on my power to keep up. We were about a block away when I saw a bunch of cars – police and FBI – arriving. Heavyweight and Menagerie led me to several that were already parked or parking, and Heavyweight put Menagerie down when we arrived. As we got close, I cut my power and let Leon take over; he started using my other ability to hide my face.

I guess I probably looked creepy; Menagerie did a double-take when she glanced my way.

“You got another mask I can use?” I asked.

“Yeah, here,” she pulled one out of a pocket and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll pay you back when I get a chance.”

I pulled it over my face and then let the invisibility drop.

Turner and his partner Valentine got out of his car, and Bloodhound exited the back seat. Miller and Parker got out of another vehicle.

“Are you all right?” Turner asked me.

I took a deep breath. “I’m fine, but I have bad news. Collector picked up one of my tricks.”

That got a reaction from everyone. “Which one?” Bloodhound asked.

“The healing – regeneration, whatever you want to call it. I’m not sure if he does it as well as I do, but I’m guessing yes.”

“Yes,” Menagerie said, her eyes closed. Presumably she was seeing whatever Feral saw. “He’s definitely fixed that broken leg. It looks like-”

She sighed, leaving the sentence unfinished, and opened her eyes. “They’re gone. I can’t feel them from here, I’m sorry.”

Turner looked at me. “And you? Can you tell where they are?”

I tried to concentrate on the feeling I’d felt before, but I was tired. Even if Leon had fixed my injuries and I wasn’t in pain, I’d expended a lot of energy.

Leon, you got anything?

No, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m too tired – it’s shortening my range. I don’t know where they went.

I shook my head at Turner. “I think I used up too much juice fighting. I can’t find them, I’m sorry.”

I noticed Turner’s left hand clench into a fist for a moment, but besides that he barely reacted.

“All right,” he said. “I’m glad you’re alive, at least.” He hesitated for a moment.

“Put me in a car,” I said. “I’m too tired to run and my range is shorter, but if someone else handles the moving I can tell you if I feel them.”

He looked at me in surprise. “You sure?” he asked.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I was tired and I knew that walling off my emotions was the only thing keeping me functional at the moment, but I didn’t want this to happen again.

Menagerie said she was willing to help the same way, and we both found ourselves shown to cars. Heavyweight and the Philly supers gathered, waiting together so they could react quickly if we found anything.

Miller was driving the car I was in, with Parker riding next to her and me in the back. I asked them not to talk to me much so I could concentrate.

We drove around for what felt like a very long time, but Leon told me later it was only about an hour and a half. A little while later, Turner called, and I heard Parker talk to him; he was calling off the search, at least for now, although he said he’d have some people keep looking in case Blitz made a mistake.

“Would you be willing to have another little meeting?” Parker asked me. “Turner wants us all to compare notes, learn everything we saw Blitz do today. Anything on their powers, personalities, it could be useful. Especially if they leave town and we need to tackle them without your help.”

I agreed, and the others apparently did too. There was a brief discussion about where to convene our little meeting; given the possibility that the bad guys would be found again, no one wanted to disperse or to go too far away just yet.

I was only half-listening. Most of my attention was on what had happened; I was going through how I’d gotten caught and what had happened afterward and imagining all the ways I could have gotten killed. I tried to stop, but it wasn’t working.

I took a minute to check on Leon; he said he was still tired, but he would probably be better in a day or two, as long as nothing happened to tire him out more. If we did need to use our powers, he said he thought we’d probably have to keep it brief or risk having them run out on us in the middle of something.

That gave me a couple of ideas to think about later, but I filed them away. I wasn’t in the mood, and experimentation would have to wait until I was recharged anyway.

I listened to the road noise, the sounds of cars, and managed to pay attention to it instead of thinking. Miller and Parker didn’t really talk to me as we drove, and I was grateful. When we arrived at our destination and parked, I didn’t notice right away, only realizing we’d stopped when Parker got out of the car.

I didn’t even notice Miller leaning back until she put a hand on my shoulder.

“Hey,” she asked quietly, “are you all right?”

I stared at her for a few seconds. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just exhausted.”

She couldn’t see my face, but she could hear my voice, and she obviously didn’t believe that.

I swallowed. “A tiny bit shaken, maybe,” I said more quietly. “Thanks for asking.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them,” she said.

I shook my head. “Not your fault,” I told her. “Two on seven wasn’t very good odds.”

She smiled. “One on seven’s even worse. You did a hell of a job surviving.”

I grimaced, then realized she couldn’t see it. “I wish it was entirely down to me being a badass, but unfortunately Collector wanted to learn my powers. He learned one in about a minute and a half. I’m just glad he didn’t manage to pick up the other two.”

“It could be a lot worse,” she said. “Every time we’ve confronted these people, things have gone worse than the last. We send them running, but they’re hard to put down, and they’ve hurt a lot of people in the process. Today, I think we’ve only had two deaths. That’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.”

“What kind of body count do they have?” I asked.

“It’s not quite as bad as I made it sound,” she said after a moment. “The group used to be smaller, so they were less dangerous, but at least Collector doesn’t seem to love fighting for its own sake. They usually just run. But by now, I’m pretty sure they’ve killed at least fifteen cops trying to bring them in, counting the ones here.”

My first thought was that that wasn’t as bad as what I’d expected her to say. My second was that fifteen deaths was still fifteen too many, and that she’d said “at least”…and that that didn’t account for any bystanders. Granted, I hadn’t seen them target any random bystanders, and I wasn’t even sure they’d harmed any by accident, but there must have been some if they’d gotten into multiple fights with the authorities. And even if they weren’t running around trying to do damage right now, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t change their goals or methods later, especially if Collector kept adding new powers to his bag of tricks.

“Look, don’t worry about that right now,” Miller said, turning to exit the car. “We’re here.”

I was tired enough that I didn’t want to get up; it took real effort, as much mental as physical. I just wanted to sink into the seat and not move for an hour. Leon chided me, and I got up and out of the car. We were parked behind a police station, to my surprise, and Miller led the way inside and past a few police officers; all of them looked, but only some of them stared. I guessed that they’d known we were coming, and I wondered if we were in the back to minimize attention.

Miller took us to a conference room. The four Philly supers were there, along with all four FBI agents whose names I knew, with Menagerie, Heavyweight, and me bringing it to a total of eleven. It was crowded.

I gratefully accepted an offer of coffee. It was bitter as hell, but it was also warm, and I was grateful for that. Just having it in my hands was helping me feel more relaxed and less like I needed to be ready to run or fight at a moment’s notice.

I noted that none of the Philly supers took coffee, although I suppose they would have had to take off their helmets to drink it. Heavyweight accepted a cup, and drank it like it was water. Menagerie waved off the offer. Of the FBI people, Parker and Turner had some.

For a minute I wondered what we were waiting for, but then a man wearing a Kevlar vest and combat gear walked in. When Turner stood up and the two shook hands, I could see that he had SWAT written on the back of the vest. I took a closer look at his face, and realized that I’d seen him before, when we were planning our initial move at the motel. It was Lieutenant Patterson; I wasn’t sure if he was in charge of the city’s SWAT or just one of the top few guys, but it was something like that.

Turner showed him to a seat.

“All right,” Turner said, breathing out as he sat down. “Let’s get this done.” He looked at Comet. “Would you start us off with anything new you noticed about them?”

I tried to listen and pay attention, but I just couldn’t do it.

Leon, can you handle this?” I said.

Sure, I guess,” he answered. He felt surprised.

Thanks,” I said.

I tuned the conversation out, tuned everything out and tried to calm down. I was remembering being held by Silhouette, what it had been like to have Smith hitting me and Collector stabbing me while I wondered how long it would take help to arrive and whether they’d get there in time. Looking back, I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to hold it together enough to keep from just giving Collector what he wanted. I wasn’t sure if I could do it a second time, either. If they hadn’t been pressed for time…well, I don’t think things would have turned out so well.

I tried to stop imagining it, but I could envision the scene so vividly; what it would be like to be caught, trapped with basically no way out. They’d been a bit sloppy, and I’d gotten away, but if help hadn’t shown up I was sure they would have caught me again, and I wasn’t going to assume they would make the same mistake twice. Collector seemed pretty smart, judging by his ability to keep the other six in line and stay alive and out of prison.

Leon gave me a mental nudge, letting me know that my turn to talk had come up; I dithered for a second, then let him take control of my body. I just couldn’t deal with it right now. Maybe later I’d be able to talk things over, but not right now.

I could tell he felt a bit of joy at the opportunity, along with concern for me; I let him sit in the driver’s seat sometimes, but not very often, and while we’d never drawn up a formal contract or anything it was definitely a privilege rather than a right, so he tended to relish the opportunities. From what he told me, the experience of being in my body made sensations much more immediate than if he was just in my head, although it didn’t really change anything else. I was guessing that either the experience was novel because he’d never had a body, or he had and it was nice to feel the world for himself again.

I’d have to ask, one of these days, instead of putting it off forever. Recent events had made it pretty plain that the details of what Leon was and where he came from could be important, and my reluctance to mess up what was mostly a good thing would have to go.

He seemed to enjoy the coffee more than me, too. I wasn’t a big coffee drinker.

For me, letting him take over was relaxing, at least in the short-term. I felt my heart rate slowing, my muscles relaxing, and my fear receding. Fear is a physical thing, at least partly, and with Leon closer to my body I didn’t feel tightness in my stomach, adrenaline pumping through me, or all the other things that were symptomatic of it. It removed me from the fear, so that I was looking at it from the outside instead of feeling it in myself. I could examine it more objectively.

Under the circumstances, my lingering fear made plenty of sense. I’d never really been in mortal danger before, unless you count the risk of dying in some sort of freak accident, like being struck by lightning. The most likely cause of death in my life up to now was probably being in a car accident. Trying to be a superhero (and I felt like I deserved the name a bit more, now, even if it still seemed a bit grandiose) meant courting risks, and not just the risks of random chance.

I’d known going in that I would find myself in danger from the bad guys. I’d known that my past life experience, which was lacking in terms of time spent fighting, wouldn’t have prepared me for what that was like. It made sense that I would need time to cope after today, with everything that had happened; that was normal.

I tuned into my eyes as Leon glanced around, wondering what everyone else in the room felt like. The professional law enforcement personnel all looked…well, professional. I did notice that Patterson’s face was drawn, but then I remembered my little conversation with Miller. Most of the people on the scene had probably been his people, that he worked with or knew, and if anyone had died it was likely them.

I noticed Menagerie looking at me, but she looked away after a second. Feral was sitting in her lap in housecat size, curled up unmoving with one of Menagerie’s hands as a pillow. I wondered if that helped her stay calm.

The four from Philadelphia were almost eerie, and not just because I couldn’t see their faces. Their body language seemed even calmer than that of the professionals, now that I was looking. It was like this just wasn’t a big deal for them.

I tried to remember what I knew about the team, to figure out how they could be so calm, but I didn’t know. Maybe they managed to keep some of what they did out of the news? I knew they’d been doing this for years, but they just looked totally unfazed by everything, like it was as normal as going to buy groceries.

The memory of Collector and Smith hurting me popped to the surface again. It was easier to deal with, now that I felt detached and rational, but I felt apprehensive when I remembered that they’d seen my face.

They could find me.

Granted, they had a whole city to search, and that was only possible if they stuck around in the first place. On top of that, as long as Collector couldn’t sense me they’d have to just look the old-fashioned way. But it was still an unpleasant possibility.

I suppressed the fear for now, knowing I might have to deal with it later anyway, but I couldn’t think of anything that could be done about it. They’d seen my face, and that was that. I suppose I could have gotten plastic surgery or something, but even if I had the money I wasn’t willing to do that. I’d just have to keep an eye out and hope for the best, for now.

The meeting eventually wrapped up. I felt Leon’s attention on me, but he seemed to sense that I was still content for him to drive. We left, spoke to my colleagues briefly, and then headed for home. Leon had to work a bit to get me to my dorm room and bathroom without anyone seeing that my shirt was bloody, but he pulled it off just fine without my help, and soon enough I was in the shower. He asked if I wanted to take over again, and this time I said yes.

There’s no substitute for a hot shower. I cleaned myself up, feeling very grateful for the healing Leon had done and the fact that it didn’t leave me covered in scars, and went back to my room. Some clean clothes later I very nearly felt like a new man, and looking around my dorm room seemed so divorced from the reality of the rest of my day that I could almost forget it had happened, although that illusion broke when I looked at my chair and remembered Raquel sitting there, not so long ago, asking for my help.

I knew there were lots of things I should do, but I put most of them off. Instead of worrying about supervillains or my grades, I sat down and looked up what people were supposed to do after giving blood – thank you, Red Cross – and bookmarked the page. I wasn’t sure whether I’d lost more blood than people who donated, although it seemed likely; my wounds had closed quickly, and most hadn’t been that big to begin with, but there had been several. Still, I didn’t feel faint or anything like that, and while Leon couldn’t magically replace lost blood I was fairly certain that he’d minimized what I lost. So I’d be drinking extra liquids, foregoing any workouts, and looking up iron-rich foods to eat in the near future. For now, though, I was tired and hungry and I wanted to eat something I’d enjoy, preferably as soon as possible.

At Leon’s prodding, I peeked into the common room to see if any of my friends were around on the way out, but they weren’t, so I went to eat by myself. Or as close to “by myself” as I ever did anything, anyway. I walked away from campus a bit, until I got to a sandwich shop, and spent a couple of minutes staring at the menu before placing my order. I indulged myself with some chocolate milk to go with my BLT and potato chips.

It wasn’t healthy, but it felt good. Pleasant, in a mundane sort of way. Like I had regained my footing after being off-balance.

I let Leon drive for the second half of the meal as a little thank-you for looking out for me, and both of us took our time eating. We were in no rush to get back to the world or worry about things we needed to do; it would still be there afterward.

Eventually we finished eating. I took over again, walking home slowly and enjoying the chance to see part of the city just running normally, with people walking around, talking to each other, shopping, eating, working. A bus stopped in front of me, and I went around the people waiting, barely glancing up. The bus driver looked at me for a second, I suppose because he was wondering whether I was going to get on.

It started to rain as I was on the way back, and I ended up running halfway to the dorm. It was just starting to pick up as I got indoors, so I didn’t get that wet.

When I got back to my room, Shawn wasn’t there. Judging by the amount of his stuff that was missing, I guessed he was with Liz, probably staying there for the night, thus giving me the room to myself. I lay back in my bed, staring at the ceiling. I’d managed to calm down, to relax and let go of most of my fear, and Leon knew what I’d missed during the little meeting; I’d talk to him about it tomorrow.

I rolled over onto my stomach, closed my eyes, and stopped thinking, waiting for sleep to come.
 
 
 
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Knowledge is Power 1

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As I stood on a rooftop looking down the street, with the motel barely in sight, I wondered if calling the authorities and waiting for them had been the right call. I was blocks away from the place where the bad guys were hanging out, with Menagerie opposite me and a similar distance away on the other side. After the way they’d escaped last time, we were all assuming that they’d pull a similar trick. Their teleporter – or whatever they had – had gotten Collector out of my range and Menagerie’s pretty quickly, and odds were good that they’d retreat the same way as soon as they realized we were ready for them, or as soon as they realized they’d been found at all.

So, anticipating that they would try their vanishing act and mindful of the fact that only Menagerie and I could sense their boss, and only with limited range at that, we were split up to try to find them after they ran.  I kind of wanted to be present to help take them down, but I couldn’t argue the logic. Given that I’d gotten my ass kicked last time, I was feeling a bit relieved to be on spotter duty, really. Turner, the FBI guy who was running things, and Comet had agreed that the chance of them standing and fighting was slim, unless we ran them to ground. Basically, we hoped to keep the pressure on and make them overwork their teleporter so we could find his limits. Since they’d all clustered together before vanishing last time, part of the plan was also to separate them as much as possible in the hope that we could either make them wait too long and lose the fight or force them to leave someone behind. Based on what had happened before, we were all assuming he could move them at least three times in an hour or so, but we didn’t have any way of guessing his upper limits.

I glanced to one side, where another FBI agent (was that the right word for them all? I wasn’t actually sure) stood waiting with a fancy walkie-talkie and binoculars, ready to pass on anything I could tell them so the assembled forces of good (and law, justice, and possibly rainbows and unicorns) could react as quickly as possible. Somewhere nearby, Comet and her three teammates were waiting for someone with the legal right to do so to knock on the motel room’s door. I wasn’t clear on the precise nature of the legal requirements for the FBI to go into a motel room, or what they’d done to meet them in a hurry. I got the impression, from bits of conversation I’d heard, that it had involved some hurried phone calls and rushed documentation. Still, they were in town to find these people, and they hadn’t seemed surprised by anything except the fact that we’d actually called them.

My thoughts returned to the present when the person I was looking at turned her head to look back at me and Leon gave me a mental nudge to stop staring. The blonde-haired woman looked comfortable dressed for a fight, and she had no trouble giving orders to the three city cops sharing the rooftop with us – more spotters, waiting for me to tell them what direction to look in. She’d introduced herself as Agent Cynthia Miller. Generally, my past life experience hadn’t included much in the way of street smarts or the ability to recognize dangerous people, but I had a feeling that she was one. Something about the way she looked at me was unsettling, as if she could perceive more than I was giving away by standing there. I knew she had powers, and right then I was just praying they didn’t include seeing through my mask.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Just thinking over the plan.”

She gave a little nonverbal acknowledgment and turned back toward the motel.

Leon, any clue what she does?” I asked silently. “Or rather how she does it?

No,” he replied. “While her demonstration was impressive, I could not sense anything unusual. Her powers must not be…magical…in nature. I thought I overheard her asking to be stationed by you or Menagerie, however.

I frowned behind my mask. Why did she want to be near one of us? I would have thought she’d want to be near the Philly Five and Heavyweight, or maybe right at the motel. She’d cut a brick in half by chopping it with her hand, annihilating the middle of the thing and leaving perfectly smooth – but not straight – edges on the two pieces, but she said her power was only good at close range. So why stick her up on a roof?

The little demonstration had been part of a pre-battle attempt to ensure we didn’t all get in each other’s way if and when things got hectic. Several of us had done a little show-and-tell of our powers. It made sense, but was there much point if she was going to stand on a rooftop with me?

I was jolted from my reverie again when she straightened up at hearing something from the walkie-talkie.

“It’s time,” she announced loudly. “Get ready.”

We were too far to see what was happening with any clarity unless we had help, but I’d thoughtfully been given another pair of binoculars for my own use. I brought them to my eyes and looked down the street at the motel.

I could just barely make out enough to see what was happening, in a general sense. Someone went to the motel office, coming out shortly afterward with an employee in tow; they walked quickly, instead of running. Two other rooms were cleared out, presumably as quietly as possible. This had been the biggest issue, really: how to minimize the danger to random bystanders when they knocked on the bad guys’ door. None of us really believed they would come quietly, although they were being given the chance.

Another FBI guy – wearing Kevlar and a helmet, like Miller – walked up to the door. I couldn’t hear what he said, of course. There’d been some conflicting predictions about whether they would teleport away immediately or fight, but that mystery was solved when the door opened and a human shadow stepped out, immediately attacking the man who I assumed had just told them to surrender.

Silhouette staggered a bit when her fist failed to hit anything, passing through the stationary image of the FBI agent standing in front of the motel room. Another of the reinforcements the suits had brought in, Henry Parker had looked a lot like Cynthia Miller when they were introduced. Both had blond hair and blue eyes, and both looked serious. Parker had demonstrated that he could project his own image and swap his position with that of the projection at will. The image didn’t have any physical presence, though, which was why Silhouette’s haymaker had left her staggering instead of killing Parker.

She was only starting to get her balance back when Comet swooped down and kicked her in the side, moving so fast I only knew what had happened because I’d half-expected it. I lost sight of them immediately, keeping my binoculars trained on the door as I waited for more of Blitz to emerge.

I wasn’t disappointed; Claws came running out. He took a cursory-looking swipe at Parker’s image, still standing there, and then took a look around before running back inside.

Okay, I hadn’t expected that. Why come out and then go back?

Moments later, part of the motel’s roof and wall exploded outward. Dust and debris were sent up into the air. It sounded like there were two more explosions in rapid succession, and then Skyscraper’s form became visible, growing taller until it towered over the one-story building. He looked around, turning in a circle. His teammates followed him out the back of the motel, allowing them to avoid most of the cops who were waiting for them to come out the front or sides.

I tried to keep an eye on what was happening, but it got harder fast. Comet came back into view while I was looking at Skyscraper, appearing to smack him around like she had last time, but he seemed more prepared. She flew straight into his fist, and while he stepped back with one foot to steady himself he didn’t lose his balance. The giant was big enough that I could see his eyes narrow; when Comet came around for another pass he picked up two cars and threw them at the cops.

Comet detoured to knock them out of the sky and into the street where they wouldn’t hit anyone, but the big guy seemed to feel that if something worked he was going to stick with it. He kept throwing cars, chunks of motel, dumpsters, and anything else he could find. Comet was forced to play defense to knock most of it out of the sky so that it didn’t land on anyone.

I could hear what I assumed were gunshots – at this distance, they sounded surprisingly loud – and some of the bad guys were hunkering down, but not all of them. I still couldn’t see Silhouette, but I saw Claws just sprint right at a few cops, ignoring their gunfire to get close enough to start slashing. One seemed to put up a good fight after dropping into a boxer’s stance, but Claws cut his chest and he fell. Claws looked a bit different, again, sporting longer hair and longer claws, and he raised one arm up to finish the cop off.

Before that could happen, there was a loud noise and I saw a hole appear in his chest, spurting blood. He fell to the ground and crawled out of my line of sight. I couldn’t tell if the cop was all right or not.

I looked around again, trying to understand what I was seeing. Tin Man was nowhere, and Newton was out of sight too, although I saw a gas cloud that I thought might contain Tin Man and Silhouette. Tin Man’s armor made him one of only three people we had who could take a punch from Silhouette without dying immediately, and when they’d discussed using gas on Silhouette, Tin Man had noted that he should be able to breathe just fine regardless. I could tell Newton was around when I saw Claws emerge – looking almost fully healed, although he still had a hole in his shirt – next to Smith, the metal-controller. Smith tried to help Claws get up, but both of them were soon pinned to the ground, much like what Newton had done before. They crawled back into cover and out of sight.

That accounted for Claws, Smith, and Silhouette. Skyscraper was still throwing stuff indiscriminately, while Collector lobbed fireballs in a similar fashion. They were wrecking nearby buildings – which I was fairly confident were already cleared, thankfully – and probably making sure that a lot of insurance companies and car owners would be unhappy. Fortunately most of the buildings were brick, so the fire wasn’t spreading much, at least. The last two members of the group, Proxy and Dealer, were near Skyscraper.

Bloodhound showed up, armed with his two sticks again. He stepped out of an alley swinging at the two who apparently weren’t fighters, and they seemed to panic. They ran toward their boss and Skyscraper’s legs, and I saw Collector turn and lob a few fireballs at Bloodhound before turning back to attack the cops. Skyscraper stopped throwing cars and tried to crush Bloodhound. I couldn’t see if he connected, but the second the debris stopped flying Comet went on the attack. She hit Skyscraper again, laying into him with repeated kicks to the head, and he fell onto his back. Before she could follow up, he raised a leg and kneed her through the air and I lost track of her. Skyscraper shrank a bit as he stood up, gathered the three teammates near him, and then moved to regroup with the others.

“It’s coming now,” Miller said to me. “Be ready.”

“I’m on it,” I told her.

It took a minute for them to gather themselves again, but they managed it, with Comet out of the picture. Silhouette had already gotten out of the gas – she looked less energetic than before from how she moved, but there wasn’t much anyone could do to keep her in there to get the full effect, unfortunately. As soon as they were all together, Skyscraper instantly shrank to normal size and they disappeared.

I closed my eyes, trying to focus on what Collector’s presence had felt like. Were they in my range?

There,” Leon said, and I turned around. I sprinted to the other side of the roof, before closing my eyes again, then pointed.

“They’re that way,” I said. “Not sure how far, but if we don’t move now I’ll lose them soon, even if they don’t jump again.”

“Okay,” Miller said next to me. “Let’s go.”

I heard one of the cops calling my report in to everyone else. Miller grabbed me and I stepped off the roof, reaching for the ground below with my legs. It seemed a bit harder than using my power alone, but I got the job done. The distance shrank in a second or two. We still stumbled as we landed, but we didn’t break our legs.

“That is freaky as hell,” she grumbled. “I can’t believe it works, even though we tested it first.”

As she spoke, she was mounting a waiting police motorcycle; as soon as she started the engine, I started speed-walking, stretching my steps to close the gap towards the bad guys. She wasn’t far behind me.

Now that I actually understood what the hell my power was a little better, I could tell I was covering ground a lot faster. It was hard to clock it, given that I hadn’t had the chance to experiment as much as I wanted, but I was keeping pace with – or passing – the normal city traffic easily. I could hear Miller close behind me as I walked, though there were no police sirens. If they thought they’d gotten away, we didn’t want to scare them into jumping again too soon.

Miller and I got closer and closer, and I slowed down, trying to get a better sense of where Blitz was and avoid stumbling into their line of sight. I followed them to a parking lot behind a line of stores, then backed off. Miller caught up to me, and I quickly motioned her to stop and wait, walking over.

“They’re here?” she asked.

I nodded. “In the parking lot. My guess is they’re stealing a car. I assume we still want to avoid being spotted as our top priority.”

She agreed, then held up a finger as she talked to her boss.

“Yeah, we’ve found them,” she said. “Flicker says they’re in a parking lot, probably trying to steal a car. If they don’t want to waste their teleporter, it would make sense.”

I couldn’t hear the reply, but they didn’t talk long.

“Okay, we’re sitting tight for now,” she said. “I’ve got to get this out of sight; don’t want to tip them off if they pass by leaving the lot. Let’s get scarce.”

She moved the bike up the street and then took it behind another building, and I followed her.

“They still there?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe their boss is picky about the cars he steals.”

She frowned. “Or maybe they’re trying to grab more than one.”

“That could be a problem,” I said. “I can only follow their boss. If they split up, someone’s probably going to get away.”

She called her boss again. “Yeah, ETA on backup?” she said. “They’re taking too long in the parking lot. We’re not sure why, and we can’t take a closer look without risking getting spotted.”

Another answer I couldn’t understand, but Miller reacted to it. She was…surprised? I wasn’t sure.

“Comet, Heavyweight, Menagerie, and Newton should get here soon,” she told me. “We’ll hold off as long as we can, but as soon as we have enough firepower to scare them we’re hitting them again.”

I just nodded, trying to hide outward signs of my nervousness and fear.

Still nothing from Collector.

“Do you think maybe they’re waiting to see if we find them?” I asked. I was trying to think of why they might sit there doing nothing. “I mean, they may not know how we found them in the first place, so…maybe they’re hoping to see if it was you guys or the Philly Five or us?”

“Could be,” Miller said, chewing her lower lip. “Or, maybe they want to give us a chance to spread out. If we had to look the old-fashioned way, it would take a lot of eyes to have any chance of finding them. Especially since they could have jumped again.”

The next few minutes felt a lot longer than they were. Comet arrived first, followed by Heavyweight and then Newton. One of the FBI cars pulled up, and Bloodhound stepped out along with Parker – the blond guy – and Turner, their leader. I still wasn’t sure if he had any powers or not. Turner’s partner, Valentine, got out a second later.

“All right,” Turner said, “here’s the deal. We’re setting up spotters again, and I’m hoping that if they jump a second time we can find them again. Miller, I want you to take Flicker and head south to nearly the edge of his range. We’ve got Feral doing the same thing to the north, just like before. Hopefully, we’ll stay lucky.”

Again, I felt relieved and a bit ashamed to be walking away from the fight, but Leon pointed out that I’d done my job the first time. If the system worked, there was no reason to abandon it. When I pointed out that we’d probably lose them if they jumped directly east or west, he didn’t have much to say, though.

I followed Miller, this time moving at a more relaxed pace as we got some distance. We pulled into a Wawa parking lot and she called Turner again, telling him we were ready. I could see several police cars on the streets, moving as officers repositioned themselves. A few, I knew, would have stayed at the first scene to keep an eye on things and secure it. If we didn’t catch any of them, the FBI was hoping they might get something useful from the room (or rooms) the crooks had been staying in.

“They’re going in,” Miller told me a minute later.

We couldn’t see anything this time, which made the waiting a lot harder. Unable to rely on our eyes, we listened to her radio as closely as we could.

“Noah, target the boss if you get a shot,” I heard Turner say. A second later there was a loud noise – an explosion, I thought – and I heard someone saying “man down”.

“Let Comet handle the big guy,” Turner was telling someone. “Be ready to-”

He stopped talking suddenly, and I felt my sense of Collector move again. Leon and I took a few seconds to figure out where it was.

“They jumped again!” Turner said. “Spotters, what have you got?”

“They’re this way,” I told Miller, pointing southeast. She hopped on her motorcycle and we started moving again, with her calling in the report as we ran.

“He’s not moving much yet,” I told her, shouting to be heard.

We were starting to get close when Collector’s slow movement changed direction and sped up.

They’re moving in our direction,” Leon pointed out unnecessarily.

Unable to spare the energy for talking to Miller, I led us on a detour, trying to see if he was right. Collector changed direction to follow. He stopped for a few seconds, then resumed moving, going faster now.

I quickly ran to the side, farther away from the roads, so Miller would follow me and stop.

“They’re coming towards us!” I told her as soon as she could hear me. Her eyes widened, and she started reporting in. I looked around, while asking Leon if he could figure out how they’d found us. Bloodhound’s spell (for lack of a better word) hadn’t worn off, as far as I knew, and Leon confirmed that it still seemed to be active. But if that was the case, then how the hell did they figure out where Miller and I were?

“Evade, but try to keep track of them,” I heard Turner order in response to Miller’s report. “If you can’t dodge them, try to get someplace unoccupied. Backup should start arriving soon.”

We did. I was stuck choosing our direction by default, since Miller couldn’t respond to Collector’s movements immediately. I led us away from busier streets, where people had been staring at us, and tried to circle around Collector so that he couldn’t get too close.

He stopped moving. I came to a halt myself and told Miller.

Seconds later I started hearing loud noise. Collector stayed still, but after a few moments we could both see Skyscraper headed our way, with at least one or two allies on his shoulders or in his hands. Collector started moving toward us again, but I could tell he wasn’t with the giant.

“Shit,” Miller swore as we caught sight of them approaching.

“Collector’s not with them,” I told her. “I think they’re just trying to take out the two of us so they can run.”

“Let’s not let them,” she said, starting up her motorcycle again.

We took off, trying to get away from our pursuers, but the motorcycle had barely started moving when I looked over and saw some of the metal beginning to flow and run. I grabbed Miller and pulled her off the motorcycle just before a tendril of metal could close around her ankle, taking two massive steps back from it and pulling her with me. She glanced back and we both saw the vehicle destroyed as its metal bits flowed into a single block, then she turned to look the other way and yanked on my arm, pulling me to her left. I instinctively went with the motion instead of looking first, taking the quickest big step I could in that direction before I turned around.

Skyscraper was almost on us, but Smith and Claws were already there.

“Which one do you want, Recast?” Smith asked.

“I’ll take the lady,” he said. “You can have your rematch with blur-boy over there,” he gestured at me.

“Don’t focus on them too much,” Miller whispered to me. “They’re probably trying to distract us from their teammates.”

Fortunately for us, Skyscraper – who was still coming our way – got a distraction of his own. Comet plowed into him yet again, making me realize that I’d lost track of how many times she’d hit the big bastard, and again he nearly fell. He yelled angrily, grew larger to the point where he was at least three or four stories tall, and started trying to swat or grab at her. She was fast, though; I tore my eyes away from her quickly to watch my own opponents, but I still caught a glimpse of her looping around Skyscraper’s arm when he tried to punch her.

No, Comet wasn’t the person I was worried about.

“Any ideas?” I asked Miller.

“We go for Smith together; bring me with you to get close,” she said quietly. “She’s way more dangerous than her buddy. Do it now.”

I let out a sigh, grabbed Miller by her right arm and left shoulder, and did just that. Again, I felt that extra effort to bring her along.

From her reaction, I guess the feeling of being dragged along on my big steps was uncomfortable. Claws – or Recast, I guess – had been moving toward us, opening up space between himself and Smith, so we passed him on the way to her. He was already reacting, but three steps carried us by without coming in reach, so I wasn’t too worried about him.

Looking at Smith, I could see that she was carrying a backpack. Her clothes were very normal aside from that. I knew she had the metal from the motorcycle to work with, but other than that I wasn’t sure what to expect.

When we were close enough, I let go of Miller before taking a step past Smith to get behind her. If she could only see one of us at a time, I figured, we’d have better odds of avoiding her tricks.

She turned to face me immediately, but at the same time metal came out of her backpack and dropped to the ground, forming into a puddle that flowed toward Miller. I stepped in and tried to kick her in the stomach, but apparently I’d underestimated Smith. She stepped to my left and kicked back, hitting me in the stomach, then followed up with three punches before I could step too far away. She looked angry, and she hit hard enough that it hurt. I tried to back up and get my breath back. Over her shoulder, I could see Recast getting close to Miller, who was practically running to avoid the metal puddle that flowed toward her.

I stepped in again, but when Smith tried to punch me I grabbed her arm with both hands and yanked, taking three huge steps and then shoving her into Recast. He hadn’t seen me coming and the pair of them went down. I stepped in to try to keep them down but Recast slashed at me with his claws again. They were still long – maybe as long as the distance from his wrist to his fingertips – and he was quick, so I had to either dodge fast or back off completely. As I evaded him, he stayed between me and Smith so I couldn’t easily get to her. Leon seemed to notice something else about the guy, but he didn’t say anything right away so I figured it could wait, especially since he saw fit to remind me that Collector was headed my way again.

I saw Miller draw her gun and fire twice at Smith, then aim toward Recast, and I got the hell out of the way. She fired two more shots.

Smith seemed to have gotten out of the way, but Recast definitely got hit twice, the two bullets punching holes through his back and out his chest. He stumbled, but when I moved in to take advantage he slashed wildly at me and I soon realized that the cuts were already closing themselves. Through the ragged, bloody holes in his shirt I could see the wounds sealing up and the blood loss slowing and stopping. It was a pretty damn impressive sight. As it happened, Recast watched me but didn’t do anything else; I glanced at the blood he’d lost on the ground, wondering how much damage it might take to prevent him from healing it all.

If we healed the same, then his claws would probably give him an advantage, in the long run. Otherwise, I figured that whichever one of us could heal more probably had the edge.

He came at me again. I let him, grabbing the guy and using my powers to take a big step and pull him with me so I could slam his head into a lamppost. The noise seemed way too loud. Instead of screaming in pain or falling down unconscious, he just grunted and slashed at me again, cutting two deep furrows in my right arm. I let go of him and stepped back, but he seemed completely unbothered by the blow as he stepped after me, slashing and stabbing again, and I took another big step back to get some distance. He glanced at my arm, saw it healing, and seemed to stop in surprise; I guess he wasn’t used to fighting someone else who could regenerate so quickly.

“I wonder which one of us heals faster,” he muttered. I took the opportunity to glance at Miller and Smith, and I saw that my ally was in trouble. She didn’t have her gun anymore – not a huge surprise, but still a bad thing – and she was stuck retreating away from the advancing puddle of metal.

I thought about her power, and glanced at Smith, who seemed perfectly content to stand still and do the hard work without moving. Leon was keeping track of Collector, who was still getting closer.

I sprinted toward Smith, shrinking the distance as I went and ignoring Recast completely, trusting Miller to figure out that I wanted to swap opponents. Recast shouted to warn Smith and she turned, seeing me coming. I hoped to catch her with her metal too far away to help much again, so I didn’t slow down. I ran forward and grabbed her, letting her punch me in the stomach so I could take a few big steps and get her further from Miller while distracting her. I managed to hang onto her right arm, and I used it to yank her around and off-balance, then kneed her in the stomach. I did it two more times for good measure, then hit her in the face. She screamed as I hit her nose – which I’d broken last time – and I barely stepped back in time to avoid getting stabbed with a knife she’d pulled from somewhere.

“Fucking bastard!” she howled, one hand holding her nose as it streamed blood. “I’m going to cut you into fucking pieces!” She threw the knife at me.

I stepped out of the way and it clattered to the ground, only to slide back to her. She picked the knife up again, then stopped, eyes wide, as I heard Recast scream behind me. I stepped in and punched her in the stomach, left-right-left, but she grabbed my arm after the third punch and stabbed me in the shoulder. I grabbed the wrist of her right arm, holding the knife, and yanked it out. Normally I knew that was a bad idea, but I could heal and Leon had yelled at me to get it out immediately; I trusted him to have a reason without explaining it in the middle of a fight.

I tried to hit her elbow or wrist with my knee, but she kicked my other leg and we both spilled onto the ground. I rolled away from her on my side, standing as fast as I could, but she was a bit quicker to get to her feet. I took the chance to glance over at Miller and Recast.

Miller had a cut on her left arm, but Recast was missing his completely. It was just gone. I couldn’t see a severed limb anywhere or anything; his arm just stopped about halfway down the forearm, as if it had never been there. I couldn’t tell if it was healing, because I had to tear my attention away as the rest of the bad guys arrived.

“Look out!” I shouted to Miller.

She did a forward roll past Recast and Silhouette’s two-foot landing cracked asphalt instead of pulverizing Miller. Silhouette shouldered Recast to one side and tried to punch Miller, but he grabbed her arm and yanked her back, putting his own body in the way. Miller’s punch, which would have hit Silhouette, hit Recast instead.

Anyone else would have hit his ribs with a glancing blow, but Miller’s hand never touched him. Instead, any part of him that was too close to her hand just seemed to disappear. It didn’t disintegrate, or do anything else that I could think of a word for. A chunk of his chest was just gone. I could see a couple ribs where the skin was missing, and as Recast screamed and pushed Silhouette away from Miller I wondered why he was having trouble healing from her attacks when he’d seemed to take being shot in stride. Then I wondered why he wasn’t screaming louder; it looked like it should have hurt more.

I ran over to Miller and grabbed her, then started pulling her as I ran away. Silhouette picked up Recast and jumped back, and Collector hit the area where they had been standing with a fireball. He kept targeting me with more, and I glanced at the ground as I dodged, worried about Smith.

I barely dodged her metal puddle trick and the fireballs at the same time, but once I got away from the metal it was a lot easier. Collector’s fire was hot – orange, mostly, with what might have been a hint of blue inside – but he wasn’t throwing them out too quickly, and it seemed like he had to concentrate to keep lobbing the things.

I could still hear and sort of see Skyscraper fighting Comet. I knew more help had to be on the way, so if we could just hold out we should be all right – we had numbers on our side, if we could just get them all to the right place at the same time.

As I was watching, the two non-fighters caught up to Collector and the kid grabbed his shoulder. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, because I was too far away, but Silhouette soon grabbed Collector, picked him up, and leapt toward us. Smith followed them, along with Recast, while the last two walked over more slowly.

Comet flew down, grabbed Silhouette, and then took her airborne. For a second, all of us were so surprised that we just watched them as Comet spun around, threw Silhouette straight up into the air, and then flew after and started punching her repeatedly.

I’d never actually seen someone air-juggled with punches and kicks before, but Comet was doing a pretty damn good job. Silhouette was still spinning and moving upward, and I figured she was too disoriented to really defend herself as Comet pummeled her like a very angry game of hacky sack.

I came to my senses and looked back at the people trying to kill me, and it was a damn good thing. While several of them were looking at the spectacle above us, Collector was just throwing his hands out and launching another fireball.

I grabbed Miller and side-stepped again, but Skyscraper – who had been fighting Comet – slapped at both of us.

“Mine!” Miller yelled, stepping closer to me and raising her hands toward the descending palm.

It hit and vanished, much like when she’d struck Recast earlier, but there wasn’t any blood. Skyscraper screamed in pain and recoiled before he could hit us, and the sound was so loud I could barely process it, though it thankfully grew quieter as he shrank suddenly back to normal size and stumbled over to his friends. I got enough of a look to see that he appeared unharmed after shrinking, despite the fact that a chunk of his hand had been missing a second ago when he was giant.

Smith grabbed Collector by the shoulder. “We’re not winning,” she said. “It’s time to go.”

He hesitated for a second, looking at her angrily, then jerked his shoulder out from under her hand. “Proxy?” he said questioningly, looking at the stocky non-fighter.

The guy hesitated for a second, his eyes moving quickly to Smith and then back to Collector. “They’re getting close,” he said. “We should go.”

Collector growled in anger. “Fine,” he said, turning back to us. “Grab the guy. I’m not leaving empty-handed. Skyscraper, pick me up and get your giants ass moving so we can help Silhouette with that flying bitch.”

I swallowed. Skyscraper, still looking pained, seemed to shake it off before starting to grow again. He picked up Collector, carrying him high into the air, and started to attack Comet and try to grab Silhouette, who was somehow still not on the ground. Collector started aiming his fireballs at Comet.

I couldn’t wait to see how that turned out, because Smith was walking towards us, along with Recast. I was calm for about two seconds, until I realized that Smith had had time to gather more metal now, and was working with a lot more than just a puddle.

Then Proxy pulled out a gun and shot at us.

I’d been watching Smith and Recast, assuming that the other two weren’t a threat. Leon tried to warn me, but I was too slow in reacting. I was holding onto Miller, preparing to move us both, but I felt her get propelled backwards, and because I was holding her but wasn’t prepared we both fell to the ground.

At the same time, I felt abrupt pain in my right shoulder. I could barely process the sensation, it was so unlike anything else in my experience. When I looked down, there was a hole in my shoulder with blood gushing out, and my other hand automatically reached to try to cover the wound. I looked up and saw Skyscraper depositing Collector safely on the ground, while Silhouette came leaping back from somewhere out of sight, looking a bit unsteady. They all started gathering, except for Proxy, Recast, and Smith, who were running towards us.

Proxy moved to the side, aiming at Miller, and pulled the trigger. I tried to get myself moving in time to help, but I was having a hard time focusing past the pain even with Leon rebuilding the damage, and I was too slow.

The gun was pointed at Miller’s head; I saw her bring her hands up to shield herself and waited to see blood.

There wasn’t any. Proxy pulled the trigger twice, cursed, and I saw Smith stop and look at Miller in confusion. Miller stood, hands still shielding her face, and charged toward Proxy, laughing. Recast tackled her to the ground, but when Proxy tried to shoot her again Miller wrestled Recast in the way and he jerked in pain as the bullet hit him. She threw him off and stood again, resuming her charge towards Proxy, but suddenly the ground seemed to slide out from under her. I saw Smith’s slightly-reflective puddle of metal again, with sharp points coming out of it, and redoubled my struggle to rise; my arm felt better than it had, and I managed to get to my feet. Miller managed to turn her fall into a forward roll away from the metal, though she got some cuts on her shins for her trouble. I took two quick steps to get to Smith and punched her in the side, hitting her ribs five times, then grabbed her hair and jerked her head back. I tried to hit her back with a knee, but I was off balance and I hit the back of her head, losing power in the process. She punched me in the balls, grabbed my arm, and jumped so that I was carrying all of our weight. I lost my balance and we fell on the ground again, the impact with the asphalt stunning me.

I fought to stay aware of what was going on, and when my vision cleared I saw the kid helping Smith to her feet as she clutched her side with one hand, glaring at me. Silhouette came over and picked me up, and as she did I saw Recast and Proxy headed our way while Collector and Skyscraper appeared to be in a stand-off with Miller. She was frowning unhappily, her hands mostly blocking my view of her face, while Collector stood with flames in his hands and Skyscraper, still normal-sized, waited next to him. They were watching for her to make a move, apparently.

Leon urged me to move immediately, to get away, but just when I started to struggle – which wasn’t working very well, since Silhouette was holding both of my wrists and didn’t even notice when I kicked her – Recast stepped up to me and plunged his claws into my arm. I felt my arm go numb, and the sensation began to travel throughout my body.

Then Heavyweight, Menagerie, and a mess of cops showed up. I couldn’t move well and the bad guys were blocking my view, but I saw Turner and Bloodhound get out of a car, Collector throw a few fireballs, and Feral bounding toward me, but then Skyscraper and Proxy came back and everything vanished.

For just a second, everything seemed to disappear, and I wasn’t aware of anything except my body. I wasn’t looking at blackness or hearing white noise; there was literally nothing to see or hear. It was like being in a complete void, and I’m glad it didn’t last long.

At the same time, the numbness left my body. I could feel everything again, and it felt pretty good; Leon must have finished most of the repair work. I exhaled in surprise, and before I could finish breathing out the moment ended. I could see the bad guys standing just where they had been before, in relation to me, and I could feel Recast’s claws in my arm again.

The numbness started to take hold, and I desperately tried to use my power.

I didn’t try to run; that was impossible with Silhouette holding me. But if I could shrink distances to stretch my steps, I hoped that I might be able to do something else. I tried to shrink the space my arm took up so that the claws – which were in pretty shallowly – wouldn’t reach into my body.

It worked. As soon as the claws were out, I could feel Leon starting to rebuild my body to work normally, and I brought my legs up to kick Recast away from me before he could stab me again. He wasn’t ready for it, and he stumbled back into Collector and Smith.

I tried to do the same thing again, focusing on making my wrists and hands take up less space so I could slip them through Silhouette’s grip.

Two for two. I slid free and stepped away as quickly as I could, narrowly avoiding a kick that could have crippled me.

Recast and Silhouette both started coming after me, and I dodged as fast as I could.

Smith’s eyes narrowed, and I felt a sudden pain in my abdomen. I screamed and glanced down. There was metal clasped around me, forming a spike and starting to dig in. A glance confirmed that it wasn’t like a belt that went all the way around my body, and I quickly grabbed the metal and yanked it off before it could penetrate deeper.  Pulling it free hurt even more than getting shot in the shoulder had, and I saw that I’d been wrong; rather than a spike, what I was holding looked more like a serrated knife. I clutched my hands over the wound, trying to hold everything together so Leon could fix it as I stumbled back and leaned against a wall. I looked around quickly, hoping my surroundings would help somehow.

We were in another parking lot. I wasn’t sure what we were behind, but it looked pretty big. There were a few people visible, most of them quite sensibly running the hell away, and at least one pulling out a cell phone. I saw one mother with two kids drop what might have been a grocery bag and shove the kids into the backseat before jumping into their minivan and driving away, scraping the edges of two other vehicles in the process.

I didn’t blame her one bit. I looked back at the bad guys. Recast was on my left, Silhouette was on my right, and they were both moving closer. My back was quite literally to a wall. Collector formed another fireball and tossed it straight at me.

I looked up and jumped, reaching as high as I could and praying that it would be enough.
 
 
 
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Ignorance is Bliss 5

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I was still trying to figure out what to do about Raquel and Feral when I got back home, but I hadn’t come up with anything. The more I considered the situation, the more afraid I felt of making the wrong decision and provoking Feral to take control and disappear. I had no doubt she could avoid me for the rest of our lives if she was so inclined.

If we both learned Bloodhound’s trick, then it might be impossible for anyone to track her, which meant I couldn’t postpone this much longer. I needed to make a call and do something before we had our little lesson.

I’d been more aware of what was going on this time, so I was careful about security and traffic cameras on my way home and my ski mask was off before I reached campus. I’d worn generic jeans and a t-shirt that hopefully wouldn’t stand out even if someone did catch footage of me.

The door was open a crack when I got to my room, with Shawn and his girlfriend Liz inside, sitting on his bed and watching some movie on her laptop. I gave them a nod but kept quiet, glad they had something to focus on besides talking to me.

Shawn paused the movie. “Hey man, you okay?” he asked. I guess my face was giving something away.

“Fine,” I said, “just thinking. What’re you guys watching?”

“Enter the Dragon,” Liz said, pointing to the DVD case. “You want in?”

“Thanks,” I said, “but I haven’t eaten yet, so I’m heading to the dining hall. You guys have fun.”

Liz looked at the alarm clock on the desk next to them. “Crap, it’s dinnertime already? I didn’t realize.”

“You want to eat something now?” Shawn asked, turning to look at her.

“Yeah, let’s,” Liz said. “We can finish the movie after.”

The two of them got up and pulled on their shoes, and we all headed downstairs and across campus to the dining hall. It wasn’t opposite Shawn’s and my dorm, but it was a few minutes away. Shawn put his arm over Liz’s shoulders, and the two of them walked close together. There was nothing wrong with the gesture, but they both seemed a bit self-conscious and excessively aware of everyone around them.

While Shawn was a fairly tall guy, Liz was a bit on the shorter side. It had been obvious to me from the start that they were self-conscious because Liz was white and Shawn was black. As far as I knew, they’d never had any actual trouble as a result, but Liz’s parents didn’t know they were dating yet, and I gathered she wasn’t sure what to expect, since it was a family first. The two of them were more relaxed than when they first got together, at least. Shawn and I had been roommates for a while, but Liz had seemed a bit nervous about how I’d react until we got to know each other better.

“So, why Enter the Dragon?” I asked, trying to give them something else to think about. “Any particular reason?”

“Just celebrating the weekend,” Liz said.

“So is that a tradition now?” I asked. “Martial arts movies on Fridays?”

Liz looked thoughtful for a second. “I guess it is,” she said, “but not on purpose.”

“Huh,” Shawn muttered. “Well, last week was Crouching Tiger, and the week before that was Jackie Chan’s First Strike, so yeah,” he looked at her with a smile. “I guess if three makes a tradition, then we started a new one by accident.”

“Everybody should watch Bruce Lee kicking the crap out of someone on Friday nights,” Liz said. “The world would be a happier place.”

We split up at the dining hall to collect our food. I grabbed some roasted chicken – the batch had just come out, so it was hot – and some green beans. I’d never loved green beans, but at least the dining hall never screwed them up. They were just kind of bland. I saw Liz at another station, getting some rice, and I went to grab some of my own. When I finished, Shawn was already claiming a table, so I went over to join him. He had a burger and some fries on his tray.

“So, how was your week on a scale of one to ten?” I asked.

He shrugged. “The school part was fine. I’m more worried about the supers fighting in town. The news didn’t get any video, really, but they fought in at least two different places. They said the Philly Five showed up, but no one got taken into police custody. That means that whoever started it all got away. I don’t know about you, but I don’t love the idea of living in a town where fights like that happen all the time. I mean, one of them threw a couple cars, man. If we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, we could just get squished.”

I grimaced, mostly because I wasn’t happy that the talk had turned to this particular subject, but I supposed it was unavoidable. It was the biggest local news, at least. If people had seen more, it would be the biggest regional or even national news, probably.

I wondered if the government might be encouraging people to report on other stories. I wasn’t a conspiracy nut, but the FBI guy had said they wanted Blitz dealt with as quietly as possible. Honestly, I couldn’t disagree with his reasons, either. I didn’t want to see others emulating their example.

“I hear you,” I said. “I’d be happier if the action was somewhere else.”

“That’s not very nice to ‘somewhere else’,” Liz chimed in as she sat, placing her tray on the table. “Me, I’m glad that whatever it was didn’t last too long.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said truthfully.

Shawn shook his head. “I don’t think it’s going to blow over this time. I’m not nuts over supers like some people, but I pay attention enough to know that sightings and activity are going up, not down. Maybe this is a bit more extreme than most examples, but I think it was probably just a matter of time.”

“What do you mean?” Liz asked.

“Well, you remember that thing in the Caribbean?” he asked. “Trinidad and Tobago, I think it was, or someplace like that. One guy with powers gets drunk, starts throwing stuff out of a junkyard, and pretty soon they’re calling in the military. He ended up surrendering, but it shows that it doesn’t take much, you know? That’s not even getting into all the rumors and unconfirmed reports from all over the world. I guess what I mean is, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to keep being lots of little news stories instead of one big one.”

“You might be right,” Liz said quietly. “Sometimes it seems like the world isn’t any different from when we were kids, but then something like this happens. Makes it hard to ignore. Ten years ago, no one had ever heard of Comet. Can you remember what that was like?”

We were all quiet for a few seconds. I found myself thinking about what it had been like meeting Comet; mostly I’d been grateful that she showed up. The fact that she’d arrived during a fight and saved my butt would probably have left me awestruck if I hadn’t been so afraid and tired. Looking back, I was amazed that I’d talked to the Philly Five so…normally. It seemed like it should have been weirder. I mean, if you meet someone famous isn’t it supposed to be a big deal? Not automatically life-changing, but at least impactful? For me, seeing the Philly Five was associated with being in trouble, now, and I suspected it always would be. I found myself hoping that they’d find themselves lacking any reasons to come back to town in the future.

Not that that seemed likely.

“At least there are good guys out there too,” I said, trying to lift the mood.

“Yeah,” Shawn said. “I did hear Comet showed up; that’s kind of awesome.”

Liz smiled, but elbowed him lightly in the side. “Don’t go looking at another girl on me, now.”

Shawn laughed. “Well, she’s out of my league so I’ll have to settle for you.”

She punched his arm, mock-glaring.

He rubbed the spot she’d hit. “On the bright side, if I was dating her and she got mad my arm would probably hurt a hell of a lot more, so maybe I’m better off.”

Liz and I laughed. “What if she did like you?” Liz said. “If she gave you a hug too hard, you might get crushed. You’re much safer with me.”

Shawn grinned at her. “Yeah, but you steal my fries whenever I get some. I bet I wouldn’t have to put up with that from Comet.”

“That’s a lie,” Liz said, reaching out to grab three fries and fighting to keep a straight face as she stuffed them into her mouth. “I would never take your food,” she told him seriously, the fries making her cheek bulge.

The rest of the meal was like that, without any more serious talk about supers. It took me a bit to relax and let my many worries go, but it felt nice once I managed it. I had stuff to do, but I decided that I’d put it off until tomorrow. For tonight, I’d take Shawn and Liz up on their invitation and watch the rest of the movie with them, then go to sleep. I had plans for tomorrow, and I wanted to de-stress before facing them.

When I poked my head out the window Saturday morning I found that it was chilly and cloudy again. The breeze wasn’t too cold but it was moving fast, making that whistling noise you get sometimes on windy days.

I dressed warm, but also tried to make sure I could move quickly. I hit the dining hall early – for a Saturday – and then left campus, heading to our appointed meeting spot. I was there early, but that was the plan; I figured the spot was as good as any to practice with my powers, and if Bloodhound or all of the Philly Five showed up before Raquel I really wanted to talk to them.

At the same time, I’d decided that whatever Raquel and Feral’s situation was probably shouldn’t be my top priority. I’d never seen or heard of any evidence of Feral doing anything wrong, and they’d been coexisting for a while, at least. If I didn’t get a chance to say something beforehand, I’d just bring it up when I could. The only thing driving me to investigate at all was my own paranoia.

I spent a few hours trying to get a feel for my powers. Before, I’d mostly thought that my “speed” was either on or off. Sometimes I’d tried to go faster, but the results had always been mixed. Now, with the hint I’d gotten thanks to Heavyweight, I had reason to believe that things worked differently.

I tried running, concentrating on my feet and my power. Running faster made a bit of a difference, but I didn’t feel anything unusual happening. When I tried to step farther, though, I made a breakthrough.

It was like my legs were stretching over the ground without straining at all. The weirdest part was that it didn’t feel like anything odd was happening in a physical sense. The sensation of my muscles contracting wasn’t changed at all. There was just a blur around my feet and my legs stretched too far. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it let me step a couple yards in one stride. I tried jogging, this time focusing on taking larger steps rather than moving my legs faster. It felt awkward, but I could plainly see that I was covering ground way faster than before.

I can’t believe neither one of us figured this out,” Leon remarked. “It’s lucky we didn’t need the edge during the fight before. At least we’ll be better prepared next time.”

                “Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure how far I can make it stretch, though, and I don’t want to injure myself finding out.

I’d never had a pulled groin, and I had no plans to learn what it felt like. For the next hour or so, Leon and I experimented cautiously, trying to learn what the limits of my abilities were. I found I could double or even triple the length of my strides pretty easily, but doing more than that actually felt difficult. Jumping backward or forward, I could get a little extra distance, but I wasn’t sure if it worked as well. It didn’t seem to matter how fast I was walking or running, except in the sense that moving faster could make it harder to focus on using my power. It seemed like running might actually be slower for me than walking, that way, because moving my body faster demanded more focus. Weird.

Leon proposed an interesting wrinkle. “You should try to jump up or climb a wall,” he told me. “See if you can shrink a vertical distance, too.

I looked around, picked a two-story building, and walked up to it, standing under a second-story window. I jumped, kicking off the wall and trying to focus on moving upward.

It didn’t really work. I fell back to the ground, landing on my feet and reflecting that I probably looked pretty stupid. After thinking for a few seconds, I tried again, jumping up. Instead of focusing on moving, though, I focused on reaching upwards with my arms.

I felt my power again, and the distance to the window seemed to shrink. My fingers caught the lip below the window, and I looked down to see a drop below me.

In retrospect, I really should have figured out the way down first, even if it wasn’t all that long of a drop. Not very bright. Fortunately, Leon had another suggestion.

I dropped down, focusing on reaching the ground with my legs, and the fall was shorter than it should have been. It felt more like I’d jumped two steps on a staircase than anything else.

“Awesome,” I said. Leon was pretty excited too, and I thanked him for the helpful suggestions. I walked around the edge of the park, lengthening my steps artificially, and got back fast. Looking at the remnants of an old tire swing on the ground, I decided to try something else. Without moving closer, I reached toward it with my arms and willed them to grab it, then drag it back toward me.

It worked, but there was something really weird about seeing my blurry arms. In fact, the air around them looked distorted too, but when I dragged the tire swing over the ground – which looked normal – it covered the whole distance.

Check me on this,” I thought to Leon. “It seems like I can only stretch myself, and maybe my clothes or anything really close. Except instead of me reaching farther, there’s just less distance for my body to cover.

That seems like a good description so far,” Leon agreed. “Which also explains why we had trouble increasing speed in past experiments. You don’t run faster, you just shrink the distance you travel. That lets you get there sooner.

I tried to think of anything else I could do with my new and improved understanding of my power. I supposed that in a fight, I could probably hit people faster.

Actually, that wasn’t quite right, was it? Thinking it through, I walked over to the wall again. I kicked it normally, not using my power. I had done it just hard enough to hurt my foot a bit, but not enough to worry about it.

Then I tried to focus on using my power and kicked it again the same way.

It hurt less.

“Huh,” I mumbled, thinking aloud. “So if I cover less distance, I think I don’t hit as hard, which makes sense…but that means that I have to pick between hitting someone normally or faster and weaker. I can’t do both.”

Hit them with something heavy and it won’t matter so much,” Leon suggested. “Or maybe grab them? There are options.”

I know, I’m just thinking it through,” I replied. “Trying to catalogue my disadvantages, along with the advantages. I might want to get my hands on a taser, although I need to look up how dangerous they really are first. I don’t want to kill somebody by accident. But that doesn’t depend on strength to zap people; it just needs to touch, so it might be a good investment.”

Leon was on board with that idea. “We can look it up later. Maybe we can get some handcuffs or something, too. If they expect us to be slow, we might be able to cuff somebody to a fence or something, and then work from there.

                The two of us tried to brainstorm some more ideas, and I tried to figure out how I’d go about getting a taser without leaving a record of it, or handcuffs for that matter. I didn’t really know, but I suspected that doing so would involve breaking the law, at least for the taser. On the other hand, I didn’t want to run around beating people over the head, so I’d need to come up with some alternatives if I kept doing this.

Come to think of it, were tasers legal for anyone to carry? Was that a federal or state thing?

More research to do when I got a chance later.

Leon and I were still thinking when Raquel showed up.

“Hi,” I said, giving a brief wave. Leon added his own greetings, and they returned them.

We were both wearing masks already, but from the way she moved, she looked jittery. Neither of us really had anything to say at first, and she quickly started pacing, until she stopped and Feral appeared, her feline body next to Raquel. The pair of them walked over to an old, rusty metal bench and Raquel sat on it, Feral staying close and putting her head in Raquel’s lap like a pet. After a moment I walked over and joined them, watching Raquel petting Feral’s head and scratching behind her ears as if she were a housecat and not as big as a person.

“Nervous?” I asked.

Raquel’s head jerked up and down in a nod.

“We’ll be fine,” I said, trying to project confidence. “We’ll have even numbers this time, and the Philly Five have been doing this for a while. Plus, we’re not on defense. We’ll track them down, and if things look bad we just won’t start anything without calling in the cops first.

“We’ll see,” Raquel said. A second later she turned her head to look at me. “I know it sounds like it should work out, but I just have a bad feeling about all of this. We still don’t know what happened to Davis, that telekinetic. It can’t be a coincidence. He went somewhere.”

“How tough was he?” I asked.

She snorted. “Stupid, but very tough. No subtlety, not much control, but he had lots of raw power.”

I didn’t have an answer to that. Trying to think of something to say, all that came to mind was my concern about Feral. We sat in an awkward silence for a bit, until Leon reminded me we did have something else to discuss; he’d thought of it overnight.

“So, Heavyweight doesn’t really know about Feral, and I never mentioned Leon to him,” I said. “But if we’re going to be tracking down the bad guys, he’s going to wonder how.”

“Crap,” she said flatly. “I forgot about that. I hope he doesn’t mind that I never mentioned it before.”

I half expected Heavyweight to show up right then, but he missed the cue.

“So we tell him together?” Raquel asked.

“I guess so,” I answered her. “I don’t really have any evidence to show him, but at least it should sound less crazy coming from both of us.”

We returned to awkward silence after that, while I tried not to stare and Feral, until Heavyweight arrived a few minutes later.

“Hey,” he said to both of us. Then he looked at me. “So, you think of a name yet?”

I was about to say no when Leon spoke up. “I was thinking you might want to go with Flicker,” he said to me. “Covers both of your powers, in a way, but it doesn’t really tell anyone much.

I blinked. “Well, I’m thinking about Flicker,” I said. “Haven’t really thought it through yet, but we can try it for today.”

“Flicker, huh?” Heavyweight asked. “Okay. I’m not sure I see it, exactly, but it’s your name, not mine.”

I shrugged. “Like I said, I haven’t been thinking about it for long.”

In my head, Leon laughed. “That’s what I call an understatement.”

“So listen,” I began, “before our out-of-town ringers show up, there’s something you don’t know.”

He cocked his head, listening.

“Raquel and I are, ah, not exactly like you,” I said, struggling to find the right words.

Fortunately, Raquel jumped in. “You know what I do,” she said, standing up and pointing to the large cat sitting at her feet. “It’s not just a thing that I control. Feral, the cat, she’s some kind of…person without a body.”

He stood silently before turning to me. “So you can…create something like her?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, I showed you my powers yesterday, except for healing. But they come from a guy named Leon, who doesn’t happen to have a body. I can’t prove to you that he’s here or anything, sorry. Actually, I’ve never told anyone about him because I figured it would just sound nuts. Any explanation that starts with, ‘the voice in my head is named Leon,’ or ‘well, the voice in my head thinks…’ I figured it wouldn’t go over well with anybody. Until I found out about Feral and Menagerie, I didn’t even know if there was anyone else like me around to find.”

“One of the people we fought, their leader, he’s like us too,” Raquel said. “We think that’s how he found us before, but Bloodhound helped us hide, at least for now.”

I couldn’t see his face, but I got the impression Heavyweight was having a bit of a hard time believing us.

“Okay, fine,” he said after a bit. “I guess that might explain why they found you later and not me, at least. But why are you telling me all this now?”

“Because we should still be able to find them the same way they found us, if we can get close enough,” I said. “That’s the plan for today. The Philly Five already knew about us, somehow, although I have no idea how. They seem to know a lot of things. Anyway, with Menagerie and Feral here I’m less worried that I’ll sound crazy telling you.”

“Pretty much the same for me,” Raquel said. “Even being able to point at Feral, I don’t expect most people to get it if I say she’s a real person with a mind and stuff. It’s pretty weird.”

“That’s one word,” Heavyweight said, but he sounded like he was taking us seriously, at least. “I guess I don’t blame you. Me, I’m happy to have just the one mind, no offense. Is there any way I can talk to them?”

I hesitated. I might be able to let Leon take over my body temporarily, but I didn’t think he would sound different or anything, so it wouldn’t really constitute evidence. To Heavyweight’s eyes, it should look the same.

“Not really,” Raquel said. “Feral can talk through me, but there’s no difference you can see or hear or anything like that.”

“Okay,” he said. “I guess I’ll just wait and see what the big fish have to say when they get here.”

We settled in to wait, not sure how long it would be. I fidgeted a bit, Raquel sat down again and returned to petting Feral, and Heavyweight sat and leaned his back against a tree. I was still trying to avoid staring at Feral when the Philly Five showed up just a few minutes later. They were short one member again. Bloodhound, Comet, Newton, and Tin Man looked pretty much the same as they had before. We said hello, I gave them my new name, Raquel thanked Bloodhound again for his help with her arm, and we got down to business.

“Menagerie, Flicker, I know I promised to show you how to hide yourselves,” Bloodhound said, “but if you don’t mind we’d like to put the search for Collector first. What I did should hold up for a while longer, so it shouldn’t be a problem, and we don’t want to miss our chance to find them today. I promise that even if we finish dealing with these guys, I’ll be willing to teach you later.”

“Okay,” I said gladly. Raquel agreed too, though she sounded a bit disappointed.

“I was thinking we could split up into two groups,” Comet said. “Menagerie and Flicker each go with one group, the rest of us keep an eye on them, watch their backs. If either group finds something, call the other one and wait for them to arrive, then we can decide what to do. I don’t want to rush this.”

Raquel and I nodded.

“So you know about their invisible friends?” Heavyweight asked, gesturing to us.

“Yes,” Comet said. “We’re basically depending on their invisible friends, when you get right down to it. It’s not a big city, but it’s big enough that we’ll never find the people we’re looking for the old fashioned way. The FBI might, with security camera access and funky software and stuff, but we wouldn’t stand a chance unless we got obscenely lucky. But with the two of them around, all we need to do is run a grid search and have them speak up if they feel somebody close by. It’s not perfect, since we have no way to set up a perimeter and the bad guys could have left already, but it’s pretty good. And if they have left town, then I’d call that a partial win.”

“I wouldn’t mind, myself,” Raquel agreed. “So how do we do this?”

“Well,” Comet answered, “We were thinking Bloodhound, Tin Man, Newton, and Menagerie would be one group. Heavyweight, Flicker, you’d be with me. That work for you guys?”

“Why split up that way?” I asked.

“It’s the best speed match we could come up with,” Comet said. “From what we saw, we figured you’re faster than Menagerie.”

I glanced at Raquel. “I might be faster, but I’m not sure how long I can keep up higher speeds. I’m still testing my powers out. Given that there’s a chance we’ll be fighting later, I hope you understand if I prefer not to tire myself out too much running across the city.”

Raquel looked up. “Someone else can ride with me, if they’re up for it,” she said.

Comet nodded slowly. “Okay, we can work with that. Let’s say me, Menagerie, and Bloodhound together? Flicker, Heavyweight, Newton, and Tin Man for the other group. That work?”

No one objected.

“Cool. Have a look at this, then,” she continued, pulling out and unfolding a map of Berkeleyport. “I figure we should pay less attention to the good parts of town, since people are more likely to notice and report anyone weird hanging out, so that means we should look toward the north, right?” She looked at us – the locals – for confirmation.

“Northwest is probably our best bet for that,” Heavyweight said. Raquel nodded agreement. “That’s the poorest part of the city. South and east are generally better.”

“Okay,” Comet said. She outlined her proposed routes, which were modified with a bit more input from Heavyweight – I got the impression he knew the city’s roads pretty well, and certainly better than I did – and soon enough we set out in our two groups. Newton and Tin Man ended up showing Heavyweight and I to a nondescript van they had parked nearby.

“It’s hard to get around inconspicuously in the suit,” Tin Man said, opening the back doors. We all got in and sat on two benches along the side walls, except for Newton; he went up front and took a minute to unmask where we couldn’t see him. Heavyweight, Tin Man, and I were out of sight in the back, but anyone could see Newton in the driver’s seat.

From what Tin Man had said, I guessed they moved around like this a lot; it made some sense. Newton could fly, I knew, but I hadn’t seen him go that fast. A car was probably faster a lot of the time; he definitely didn’t look like he could keep up with Comet. Tin Man and Bloodhound didn’t have any special ways of getting around that I knew of, so using some sort of vehicle made sense, although I wondered how they kept anyone from identifying the thing and following them home.

I didn’t waste my breath asking, though. We were working together, but I doubted that they would tell me something like that, especially after the way they’d handled the two FBI guys.

After a minute, we pulled out and Newton started driving us around town. I was anxious, although after the first half hour went by with nothing happening I started to feel bored and anxious, which I’d never known was possible. Without being able to see out, my whole world was pretty small: just the back of the van, with me, Heavyweight, and Tin Man. The two of them made me feel small, and the fact that they weren’t talking started to feel awkward, even if I knew they were just trying to let me focus. I became very aware of the sound of my own breathing in the enclosed space, despite the noises of the van and other cars outside.

After a while longer, Tin Man got a call. He talked for a few moments, then hung up.

“Menagerie found something,” Tin Man told us. “Newton’s getting directions now. They’re waiting for us to get there before doing anything.”

I made a conscious effort to relax, but the tension was getting to me as we turned to rendezvous with the rest of the group; I didn’t feel bored anymore. When we arrived, Newton parked behind a brick building. We gave him a minute to put his helmet back on before getting out, and he used his power on each of us one at a time so we could quietly ascend the wall. It was a strange feeling, as if the wall itself became a floor and I was walking normally, even though I could see the open sky dead ahead, but I had to admit that just walking up the wall was a cool experience. When I got to the top, Comet took my hand and helped me re-orient myself. Menagerie and Bloodhound were waiting, looking down the street. Newton came up last, the same way the rest of us had.

The seven of us gathered there – four almost-legends and three locals. Focusing again, I could feel someone else – possibly Collector – nearby, and I looked down the street to try to guess where he was.

“I think it’s the third building,” Menagerie said to me quietly. “There,” she pointed.

The first buildings I saw looked like empty storefronts. One had been a grocery store, identified by the Acme sign that was still present even though the parking lot had plants creeping up around the edges and the building itself looked almost completely empty inside. One had been a Borders bookstore until it went out of business. There were still a few small signs leftover, declaring that the location was going to close soon, though I was pretty sure it had done so months ago.

The third building was a motel, ratty-looking but still open. It was only one story, squat and a bit long. I tried to get a sense for the distance, but I wasn’t sure whether she was right; sensing people was a new thing for me.

There’s definitely someone there,” Leon agreed. “I think it’s him. Be careful, okay?

“I’m sending Feral to check it out,” Raquel said, louder. Feral shimmered into existence and then stalked forward to the edge of the roof before climbing down slowly.

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Newton said as we looked at the cat.

“Wait a sec,” Raquel told him. When Feral reached the bottom of our building, she shrank down to the size of a housecat and assumed a more normal appearance. She was white and black, her fur an uneven mix that made her look like a normal housecat. She padded slowly down the street until she reached the motel.

Bloodhound pulled out a pair of binoculars and took a closer look; the cat was far enough away that I couldn’t see her clearly with the naked eye.

“They’re definitely in there, or at least Collector is,” Raquel said after a minute. “I’m still getting the hang of recognizing people, but Feral says he’s familiar, and that’s the only person it could be. She can’t get in without drawing attention, though. So what’s our plan?”

“We’ll have to wait,” Comet said. “No offense to you; I believe that Feral can recognize the guy. But I don’t want to start anything without seeing at least one of their faces and getting some sense for who else might be around. Menagerie, how about you stay here with Bloodhound and Tin Man while the rest of us spread out and check out the surrounding area. We can regroup here in twenty minutes or so. It seems like they’re probably just camped out for now, but let’s make sure first.”

“And if they are just camped out for now?” I asked.

“Then I say we call the government and drop the hammer on these bastards,” she said cheerfully. “I want everything we can throw at these people. If we’re lucky, we’ll finish them off today and we can all get back to our lives.”

I didn’t say anything, but I had my doubts. On the other hand, we already matched their numbers. With backup, we should have a significant edge.

We split up, as Comet had suggested. I went up the road away from the motel, trying to get a feel for the lay of the land. There was a gas station not too far away, and some cheap apartments. Past that there was a bunch of houses, mostly old but in decent shape. I saw a few little stores, a few offices – belonging to a doctor, a lawyer, and a real estate agent – and there was a barber shop, too, complete with the red-white-and-blue colored spiral thing that I don’t know the name of, but which a lot of older places seem to have for some reason. Nothing special or unusual. As I got further away, I saw a take-out joint, advertising pizza, sandwiches and stuff like that, the Greasy American standards.

I got around more easily than expected; the roofs were mostly a uniform height, and I could jump from one to the next across the narrow alleys separating them with a little use of my power to make it easier. Crossing the street would have been another story, but within the block I could get around pretty well. I had tried to step across one gap as a test and nearly fell; either it was too far or I just didn’t have enough practice yet. Concentrating on using my power to let me reach further, I managed to get a better grip and climb up from the edge of the roof.

I was standing on what seemed like an empty warehouse at the end of the block when I saw three people walk out of the food place together and head in the direction of the motel. One was a muscular, dark-haired, pasty-white woman I didn’t recognize. She looked pale enough that it almost seemed unhealthy. The second looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. His skin tone could have been from almost anywhere.

The third was Skyscraper at his normal size.

The second man is the one with the claws,” Leon said, once I’d spotted Skyscraper. “His skin tone is different, and some other things, but his facial features are mostly the same.

The three of them were walking along with a few grocery bags filled with what looked like take-out food and at least one bottle of soda.

I moved back from the edge of the rooftop and started pacing them. Sure enough, they went right to the motel and I found myself returning to the roof I’d started on, where Menagerie, Bloodhound, and Tin Man were waiting.

Bloodhound was watching me as I came back.

“You’re early,” he said.

“Spotted something,” I told him, pointing to the side. We all walked over to the roof and looked down for a moment before backing off. They had no particular reason to be watching for us, but four people lurking on a rooftop weren’t exactly inconspicuous, even if people usually weren’t in the habit of looking up. The three of them looked casual and relaxed as they walked, though, and I doubted they had any idea we were in the area.

“I’m pretty sure those are Skyscraper, the claws guy, and maybe Silhouette,” I said. “She’s the only one I didn’t see before; that could be what she looks like when her power isn’t on. Unless I’m mistaken, they’re bringing back lunch.”

Bloodhound was looking at them through his binoculars. “I see four or five sandwiches, maybe more in the other bags they’re carrying, so most of them are probably here. Nice.” He fiddled with the binoculars. “Tin Man, call the others. Have Comet swing around to pick up Heavyweight.”

“I’m sending Feral closer,” Menagerie said, closing her eyes and sitting down. Tin Man nodded at Bloodhound, walking away a few steps.

I almost told her not to, but Feral did look just like a normal cat at the moment, so it should be all right. Before, when she’d gotten hit, Menagerie had only been knocked out. As far as I knew, Feral couldn’t really be hurt in any permanent sense. It was still a gamble, but probably a worthwhile one.

The three we were watching got to the motel and knocked on a door, which someone inside opened. They went inside.

“Perfect!” Menagerie said. “Feral managed to keep the door open a crack. She’s sitting outside. We’ll see if they talk to each other.”

“Will they get back soon?” I started to ask Bloodhound, but Menagerie shushed me.

“They’re talking,” she said. “It looks like all of them are there except for the metal woman and the kid. Skyscraper wants to get out of town now, but Collector says he wants to finish here first. He wants at least one of us, and,” she stopped for a second, frowning. “He wants someone else, too. It sounds like he’s not sure who he’s looking for, but he knows they’re here.”

Bloodhound and I were silent, eager to hear more from inside the room. As Menagerie was talking, Tin Man seemed to finish his call and he walked back over to us.

“Someone – I think the guy with claws – he’s agreeing that they should leave,” Menagerie continued. “He wants to try showing up somewhere else, then coming back, hoping they’ll only have to deal with the locals that way. The boss is shutting them down, though.”

She cocked her head, and when she spoke again she sounded confused. “He says there’s something or someone important here, either magic or tied to magic, and he won’t leave without finding it.”

That was unwelcome news, but I reassured myself that we were starting to get a grip on what these people were after.

Newton got back; I noticed when his footsteps approached, so he must have come up to the roof discreetly. He started to speak, but stopped when Bloodhound gestured him to silence.

“It looks like they’re done talking for now,” Menagerie said disappointedly. “They’re all starting to eat their food.”

Comet and Heavyweight arrived soon, and we shared what Menagerie had overheard and seen. “I can’t hear so well now,” she told us. “Feral’s still outside the door, but one of them noticed it was cracked and closed it. I think the woman – probably Silhouette – is sitting on Collector’s lap, so they might be together. One of them got a call, though, and said that Smith and Dealer were coming back. I’m guessing that’s the metal woman and the kid. If we want to catch them all together, we may get our chance soon.”

We sat there, waiting. It was still overcast, but it didn’t really look like it was about to rain; it was just one of those days where everything looks kind of dim and gray, and it’s hard to tell that time is passing because the sky changes so little throughout the afternoon. Finally, we saw the kid and the metal woman show up, walking to the motel from another direction. The kid had a drink in one hand, and some sort of electronic device in the other; Bloodhound said it looked like it was a video game handheld. They were walking slowly, and I remembered that I’d hurt the woman in our previous encounter. Menagerie said her nose was partly covered with something, so I guessed I had broken it after all, and she seemed to favor one side slightly as she moved.

Menagerie didn’t want to tip anyone off, so she had Feral move away from the motel room and didn’t try the trick with the door again. She thought it was too risky, and Comet agreed. Once the door closed she sent Feral back, but regretfully reported that the cat couldn’t hear much of anything.

“Anyone got another way to spy on them?” I asked.

“My eyes are sharp, but my hearing isn’t particularly better than normal,” Heavyweight said. “I don’t think I can help.”

“This might work,” Tin Man said, pulling off a small device that was clipped to his suit. “But we’d need some way to get it into the room. It’s basically a glorified microphone.” He looked at Menagerie. “Could your pet carry it in if the door opened again?”

Menagerie glanced at the thing and shook her head. “Probably not without being noticed,” she said.

“I might be able to do it,” I said, thinking about my other power. “But they’d have to open the door themselves and I’d have to get really lucky to get through without them noticing, and then I’d either need them to open the door for too long again, or I’d be stuck in there. Besides, I don’t think it matters what else they have to say if we can catch them,” I pointed out.

Comet looked at me for a second before answering. “You’re right, I guess,” she said. “But I don’t like not knowing what brought them to town, and given how they got away before, I think pinning them down and bringing them in is going to be tough.”

I shrugged. “I agree, but if I go in there odds are I’m going to tip them off without us gaining anything. I think we’ll have to settle for what we know now, and call in the G-men. If we waste too much time, they might just leave on their own before we do anything, and we’ll miss our chance.”

She hesitated for a moment, but acquiesced. “All right. Tin Man, make the call and let’s see if the professionals are ready. Let them know we won’t make a move until they get here, and we’d appreciate it if they’d be willing to discuss things with us first.”

She looked back at the motel and let out a heavy breath. “As for the rest of us, let’s try to relax. Stretch if you want to, grab a drink of water if you’re thirsty, whatever you need. Menagerie, if you could have Feral keep an eye on the door and tell us if they try to leave, that would be appreciated.”

She suited her actions to her words, starting to stretch a bit. Bloodhound just sat, leaning back against an air conditioner or something that was sticking up out of the roof. Menagerie followed his example, though she slumped more. Tin Man walked to the other side of the roof, presumably to make the call, while Heavyweight and I paced back and forth a bit. I didn’t want to tire myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit, either. I was too keyed up for that.

Tin Man came back after a minute or two. “They’re coming,” he said. “The FBI guys want to meet us over there,” he pointed to an empty parking lot two blocks away. “It sounded like they’re serious, so don’t be surprised if this whole area starts looking busy.”

“Newton,” Comet said. Without further discussion, Newton helped us walk down the side of the building just like he’d helped us walk up, then floated himself down gently.

“Thanks,” I said. I’d considered trying to use my power to speed up the walk, but decided against it. I didn’t know the ins and outs of his power; if it interacted with mine in some weird way, it could have caused a problem of some kind.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

That definitely seemed like he was affecting gravity,” Leon observed. “I wonder how long his range is? He stayed in sight during the fight before, when it might have been better to hide. Do you think he needs to see people he’s affecting?

Maybe,” I answered. “It seemed like he was confident he could lock down three of them before, when they were pretty close together, so I’m guessing he’s not limited by people. It seems more like he affects an area, and he’s always kept it in sight so far, so probably he needs to see it to target accurately. When he flies, it’s not too fast…probably the same power, and he just can’t move the effect too quickly, which is why he’s slower than Comet.

Leon kept thinking about it, but I tuned out to pay attention to the other people I was with again.

“Would you mind taking care of the van?” Comet was asking Newton.

Newton got in their van and started driving it off. I assumed they just wanted it out of the way so it wouldn’t get trashed or identified by anybody. In the meantime, Comet led the rest of us over to the indicated parking lot to wait for our allies.
 
 
 
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Ignorance is Bliss 3

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Claws and Miss Metal were still a fair distance away from me when the situation changed. The giant was in the middle of kicking down the brick wall of a closed storefront that some of the police were inside when something flew into his foot, knocking it upward and sending him off-balance. His massive arms windmilled and he fell back, his elbow hitting the trunk of an already-crushed car. He managed to avoid landing on his arm, just barely, but he looked stunned. The flying figure came back and followed up with a quick jab-cross-hook combo to his jaw and I heard something break with an extremely loud snap. Finally, the flying figure kicked his nose, then zoomed across the battlefield to hit Shadow Lady in the back, sending her sprawling. The shadowy woman got back up right away, though, and she didn’t hesitate to get into it with the newly-arrived hero.

And she was a hero; the real deal. I had never met her or even seen her in person, but everyone recognized Comet, the leader of the Philly Five. She wore mostly brown with red and yellow highlights, an armored costume that covered her completely, including a helmet, gloves, and boots; you couldn’t see enough to guess anything except that she was a woman. Allegedly someone had once seen enough of her costume damaged to tell that she was white, but it was an unconfirmed rumor; she was that good. And she hadn’t come alone.

Despite the name, the Philly Five were rarely all at a fight together. Most things they dealt with didn’t require the full team. Right now, there were three other members present that I could see, only one short of the full roster: Bloodhound, a male figure who usually carried a sword on his back, Newton, another guy, who was suspected to do something relating to gravity, and Tin Man, who wore a suit of powered armor that made nerds and militaries around the world drool. No one had any idea how the damn thing could work with no obvious power source. It also made it hard to guess whether there was a man or a woman inside, although most people assumed it was a man because of the name. As far as I knew, no one was sure whether they’d come up with the names themselves, or been given them by someone else, so that was iffy at best.

Like Comet, all three of them were fully-covered from head to toe, not exposing anything that hinted at who they were. Bloodhound, wearing what looked like urban military clothing with some red on it, moved the fastest. He went straight for Claws and Miss Metal, drawing a pair of long, straight sticks instead of the sword he usually carried. As he took one in each hand, I noticed that it seemed like he had a number of empty pockets and pouches; I couldn’t figure out what that was all about. When Claws came to meet him he struck with blinding speed, jabbing the man in the stomach with the point of one stick, then feinting high and dropping to the ground to sweep his legs. Claws jumped over the sweep and slashed down, but Bloodhound just rolled out of the way, letting the man’s claws scrape along the ground. He came up on his knees in the same motion, struck Claws in the side of the head once with each stick and then hit the man’s left wrist. He stood, kicked Claws in the face, and then began to stalk towards Miss Metal, weaving and jumping in a way that seemed strange if you didn’t notice the metal flowing on the ground toward him.

In the meantime, Comet and Shadow Lady were trading blows. Comet wasn’t flying, but she did seem to float back out of the way of some attacks instead of stepping, and when the shadow kicked at her head she just rotated in place, her head and feet swapping positions and then coming full circle. Neither one of them seemed to be getting tired, but Comet was landing more blows than her opponent was. As I watched, she ducked under a hook aimed at her face and hit the silhouette twice in the stomach, then jumped forward and planted a knee in the other woman’s belly. Afterward she just glided by a few steps in the same direction without touching the ground, already turning to face her opponent before she landed again. Watching her fight was a bit odd; I guess when you can fly as easily as walking, you don’t have to worry about balance.

Newton hadn’t moved since I spotted him, just standing there in colors much like Bloodhound’s but without the red. His outfit was boring but it looked practical, with a bulk that suggested protection. If he hadn’t showed up with the rest of his team, that was pretty much the only thing that would have called attention to him, really. He stood still, but he was looking right at the three bad guys who had been doing the least fighting: the kid, the leader, and the stocky blond guy who I hadn’t seen do anything yet. They were all hunched over. As I watched, they seemed to be pressed against the ground, having a harder and harder time moving.

Tin Man’s suit was bulky, almost like what you’d get if a bodybuilder wore metal clothing, with sturdy limbs, a thick body, and a head that looked too large for a human. Most of it was a metallic gray, a lot like his namesake. He was charging toward Shadow Lady and Comet, and it was obvious Comet saw him coming. She suckered Shadow Lady into stepping backward, right into position to take Tin Man’s fist in the kidney. He hit, and I thought they were going to take her down for the count when the giant climbed back to his knees and started swinging at Tin Man and Comet. He finally connected, sending Tin Man’s armored figure stumbling backward, and then he stayed on him, forcing him to keep dodging instead of actually fighting. Comet picked Shadow Lady up and threw her up in the air, but the giant managed to catch her, and then he jumped at Newton. Without looking, Newton dodged to one side, breaking into a sprint. The giant scooped up Metal Stabby Lady in the middle of her fight with Bloodhound, then Shadow Lady dropped down, grabbed Claws, and jumped to where their boss was still stuck to the ground. The giant crossed the same distance in a step, then abruptly shrank down to normal size. As soon as he was done doing that, they all stepped closer together and then vanished.

Just like that, the fight was over. No puff of smoke, no dramatic declaration that they would show us all next time, nothing. They were just gone without a word. If I wasn’t so relieved I might have been shocked.

At least, that was my first reaction. The Philly Five were more cautious about things. Comet and Newton each lifted off the ground and flew a circuit around the intersection. Newton stayed low and close, moving in a lazy circle, while Comet went higher and farther away. I lost sight of her a few times.

At the same time, Tin Man and Bloodhound were walking to where the bad guys had been standing before they disappeared.

I watched them numbly for a few seconds before suddenly coming back to my senses. When my brain started working I ran over to check on Raquel. She was on the ground nearby, and when I bent over her I saw that her eyes were closed, but she was still breathing. I didn’t see any wounds on her except for the arm she’d already had in a sling when this whole mess started. It was trapped under her, which probably wasn’t a good thing, but I didn’t know whether moving her would make it worse.

I took a second to take stock of my own condition, and found myself pleasantly surprised that my foot wasn’t bleeding.

You’re welcome,” Leon said. “It wasn’t that hard to fix, since the point was so thin, but I recommend you avoid getting stabbed from now on.

Thanks,” I told him sincerely. “I guess you’re probably also why the rest of me doesn’t hurt as much?

Yes,” he answered smugly. “You’ve got a couple of bruised ribs, but as long as you don’t sleep on your stomach I should have those fixed by morning. You can also feel free to thank me for repairing your left kidney. I know you have two, but I didn’t want to be wasteful.

Another time I might have laughed, but I really wasn’t in the mood. Besides, I didn’t want to get a reputation as the crazy guy who got into super-brawls and then started laughing at nothing. And I had a more pressing concern.

I looked at Raquel. “Are they alright?

He hesitated for a moment. “Raquel is fine. Feral was harmed when the fire struck her; I think she – they – will need time to recover.”

I frowned. “Then why is Raquel unconscious? And why did she scream? It sounded like she was in pain, not like she was upset.

He hesitated again, and I started to wonder if he really had the answers I wanted. “Feral and I are similar, but I think my connection to you is different from the one she shares with Raquel in some respects. Besides, she manifests a physical form. I can’t do that. Some other differences should be expected. I do not think either of them is in great danger at the moment.

I was still trying to phrase my follow-up question when I heard someone clear his throat behind me. When I turned, I saw Bloodhound standing there, sticks stashed behind his back, hands clasped in front of him in a polite fashion that seemed extremely at odds with his affinity for mayhem and the ruined surroundings. It was like seeing a perfectly-set table in a burned-out mansion.

I found it oddly comforting and calming.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I believe I may be able to help your friend, if you will allow it.”

I hesitated for a second, looking around. Calling Raquel a friend would really be stretching things, given that I’d literally known her for less than half a day. My quick glance showed me that things didn’t look as bad as they had during the fight. I guess being in the middle of my first super-brawl threw me off; go figure. Now, I could see that only a few police cars had been trashed; if you’d asked me during the fight I might have said two dozen, but it looked like less than a dozen, even counting the two I’d seen get thrown by the giant. The police were cordoning the area off, and only two of the corner buildings had been trashed; one was the empty storefront I’d seen before, the other was a 7-11. Thankfully the three people walking out didn’t seem hurt; they were just standing there, staring at the scene. Mostly they stared at Comet and Newton as they returned from their loops and came in for soft landings.

My eyes hadn’t deceived me entirely, though. There was at least one dead officer in view, and several injured, including one who looked badly burned.

I tried to tune it all out and focus, looking at Raquel and very carefully not thinking about the fact that I could have just died.

“What kind of help?” I asked.

“For one thing, I can most likely wake her,” Bloodhound responded, apparently not offended by my asking.

I frowned, but nodded hesitantly. “Go ahead,” I told him. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard or read anything about him healing people before. I found myself wishing that I’d spent more time researching everything I could about known super-powered people.

I asked Leon to keep an eye on things as much as possible, and he agreed. I trusted Bloodhound, but I didn’t know the guy, and I felt uncomfortable making a decision for Raquel while she was out, even if it didn’t seem like a big deal.

Bloodhound knelt next to Raquel and quickly checked her over, seeming to do it like a medical professional, which surprised me. Maybe it shouldn’t have; the Philly Five had been in a lot of fights, and someone had to patch them up when things didn’t go well. There’d been at least one time when everyone wondered if Tin Man was dead after a fight in downtown Philadelphia, and a few people still insisted that it could be a different person in the suit now. I wasn’t sure what to think, myself.

After examining her briefly – making sure to leave her mask undisturbed – Bloodhound gently rolled Raquel onto her back and pressed his fingers to her temples. He seemed to sit still for a few moments, bowing his head. Abruptly she woke, levering herself to a sitting position and batting his hands away from her head. He immediately stood and backed away, raising a hand to stop Newton – who I hadn’t even noticed walking up to us – from doing anything.

Raquel took a few seconds to process the fact that the fight was over, then looked at us and stood up a bit awkwardly.

“What happened?” she asked.

“You were knocked out during the fight, and I just woke you up,” Bloodhound answered. “Your attackers have fled, for now. I believe it would be a good idea for the two of you to talk to us before going home,” he glanced at each of us in turn, “but first I think we have another matter to attend to.”

As he finished speaking, he turned to face one of the ruined buildings, which had the largest cluster of police cars around it. A few new vehicles had pulled up since the violence ended, and now two of the officers were walking over to us. One was limping a bit; I realized as he got closer that he was one of the guys I’d pushed to the ground earlier.

I offered a hand to Raquel and helped her stand up.

As the cop got closer Comet and Tin Man joined us, the four teammates standing in a little group while Raquel and I stood next to them with a slight distance between us. He didn’t pause, taking the odd circumstances in stride as he walked right up to us and stopped, though he seemed a bit confused about who he should look at when he spoke. His eyes flicked over us each in turn, until he settled on looking at Comet.

“It’s not an order or anything,” he said, sounding a bit hesitant, “but I just got a call saying that there’s a few people who’d like to speak with you, if you wouldn’t mind sticking around.” He paused awkwardly, clearing his throat. “Uh, it shouldn’t be a long wait.”

Raquel and I exchanged glances, then silently agreed to follow the lead of the more experienced individuals, glancing expectantly at Comet.

“Of course we don’t mind,” she said. “We’d prefer not to talk in the middle of the street, though. Why don’t we wait in there?” she pointed to the trashed storefront.

The officer hesitated for a second before he nodded. “Yeah, okay. That should be fine.”

We all started walking over to the building, and I was glad of it when a news van pulled up outside just as I was going through the doorway. Either they didn’t see us, or the cops kept them back; I’m not sure which.

Once we were inside, we all stood around, except for Bloodhound. He sat cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against a wall. The part of the building we were waiting in wasn’t trashed too badly, although the ceiling had a few holes in it and there were corresponding piles of rubble on the floor. There was still a light haze of dust in the air, kicked up during the fight. Newton leaned casually against a wall, while Tin Man paced back and forth, the armor producing the occasional noise as he did so. Comet just stood, perfectly still from what I could tell.

The police officer looked a bit unhappy at being stuck standing around waiting with us, but I guess he had orders to make sure we didn’t leave before whoever-it-was got here to speak with us, or something. After a moment, he walked over to me.

“Thanks for helping my partner and me before,” he said abruptly.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

He looked me over like he wasn’t sure whether to say anything else before turning and walking away again.

I sat on an overturned file cabinet, glad to take the weight off of my legs for a bit. Raquel seemed to think for a moment, and then came and sat next to me; I slid to one side to give her enough space.

Are you all right?” I asked silently, hoping no one could overhear us.

I think so,” she answered after a moment. “I’m not sure what happened, exactly.

From what Leon tells me, Feral got hit by some fire just before you went down,” I told her. “You sounded like you were in a lot of pain, and then you just hit the dirt. I don’t know if one of them did something or not, but you definitely didn’t get punched.

She absorbed that in silence for a second. Or maybe she was talking to Feral? I’m not sure. The conversation got cut off when two men walked into the room. In the lead was a black guy, tall, with a military haircut and looking sharp. I got the impression his eyes cataloged everything that could be understood from seeing us at a glance. The man with him was white, similarly tall, with a friendly face, kind of like a TV show host. They both wore suits. I noticed that the second guy’s eyes lingered on Tin Man for a few seconds as they approached us and wondered why. It might have been nothing, or he could want to peel the armor off him and see how it worked. Everyone wanted to crack that shell, if only for curiosity. There were a lot of theories about Tin Man, including some people who insisted it was a robot. That would have been unbelievable a decade ago, but with confirmation that some people could fly, no one was so sure anymore.

The two newcomers carried themselves with authority, but I did notice that they seemed a bit less sure of themselves when they first caught sight of Comet. That I could sympathize with; Comet had been in the superhero gig as long as almost anyone else, and she was the leader of the only team I’d ever heard of. She wasn’t the first, but she was a living legend.

If they were awestruck at all, they got over it quickly, though, coming to a stop a few paces away from us. Raquel and I stood up, and the other members of the Philly Five clustered around Comet, our three little groups maintaining some separation from each other.

The black guy cleared his throat.

“I’m agent Clifford Turner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he introduced himself. “My partner is Noah Valentine, likewise.”

Noah nodded neutrally.

“Identification?” Bloodhound asked in a polite and firm tone.

The two of them seemed a bit surprised at that, but both obligingly pulled out badges.

Newton studied them briefly, then looked at Comet and nodded.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” she said. “Now what can we do for you?”

They put their badges away, seeming a little nonplussed. I thought I saw Valentine’s lips tighten a bit, but I wasn’t sure what it meant.

“My partner and I are here tracking a group of criminals with powers,” he said bluntly. “Specifically the group you just fought. We’ve been following them around the country for some time now, and we finally caught up to them when someone reported the fight earlier today – the first one, involving Heavyweight.” He paused, looking at Raquel. “May I ask why Heavyweight wasn’t here this time, and whether he’s all right?”

Raquel hesitated as everyone turned toward her, then stood straighter. “I don’t know,” she answered. “I haven’t seen him since the first fight. We split up to try to lose them.”

The two agents exchanged a troubled glance.

“I haven’t tried to contact him since then,” Raquel said. “He’s most likely at home, or on his way here, even.”

“I see,” Turner said. He looked at me. “And I take it you’re a friend of hers?”

Raquel and I looked at each other again, and I nearly laughed. Feral and Leon were both radiating amusement.

“Close enough,” I answered. I had no idea how straightforward to be with these guys. I didn’t want to antagonize them, but superheroes were still in a gray area at the best of times, so I took my cues from the more experienced people around me. They seemed to regard the agents as allies, but not necessarily friends, and certainly not to be confided in. There was a clear distance between the three groups, but Raquel and I had unconsciously positioned ourselves closer to the Philly Five (or four, at the moment) and we were all sort of facing the two agents in an almost-group.

Turner’s partner grunted, but didn’t say anything. There was a moment of awkward silence as Turner waited to see if either Raquel or I would offer any new information.

“Right,” he said finally, almost sighing. I got the sense he was more exasperated than antagonized. “I guess we’ll get to the point. We’re here tracking The Blitz – that’s one of the names for the group you just tangled with. They might have changed it again, but we have to call them something, so let’s stick with that for now. We know that there are seven of them, and what some of their powers are. We were hoping you might be willing to share any information that might help us deal with them.”

“And will that be a two-way street?” Comet asked. She made it just a question, rather than a challenge.

“Not in any official sense,” Turner replied, “but if we were to be on the scene, fighting them at the same time, I’d prefer to cooperate rather than work at cross-purposes. They’re far too dangerous a group for that.”

“Because of what they represent,” Tin Man chimed in. “A group of powered individuals, or whatever the term is this week, who are working together for their own ends, whatever those are.”

Turner nodded. “I’ll be blunt. We want to stamp this out as quickly as possible, preferably with as little publicity as possible. We don’t want people to see this and come up with the notion that if they have the power, they can make themselves kings. One group is bad, but eventually we’ll get them. The problem is that we can’t afford to wait for them to screw up. If they get enough attention, people with powers and similar inclinations will try to follow in their footsteps. We’ve put together a unit that can handle supers, but they can’t be everywhere at once. We want to bring this group in, or at a minimum break it up, as quickly as possible and with as little attention as possible. If they start inspiring imitators, we’ll all regret it.”

“True enough,” Comet said, “which is why we’re tolerated, primarily.”

I thought that was leaving a bit out, but bit my tongue. The FBI had been given jurisdiction in cases with supers by Executive Order pretty recently, when Congress failed to ratify a bill to deal with the issue somehow, but that was only a couple of years ago in 2009. Supers had appeared in 2000, and Comet had become active by 2005…so the main reason she was tolerated was because the politicians took too long to act and she’d won people over by the time they got their act together. Still, no need to antagonize the guys; the fact that they were talking to us at all was an indication they were here to play ball and get the job done, rather than assert their jurisdiction and try to impress everybody.

I got the impression that Turner and Valentine were both thinking the same thing I was, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.

“So,” Comet picked up, “you want to exchange information about our mutual problem, and you’re open to collaboration in the field, shall we say, even if we won’t be holding any official meetings or anything. Correct?”

Turner nodded. “Basically, yes. To show good faith, I’ll offer something first. The group’s leader seems to be a man named Christopher Rollins, who calls himself ‘Collector’ or ‘The Collector’. We’ve been tracking him around the country – and through a little side trip to Canada – and from the limited information we have, he may be getting more powerful as he travels. It’s hard to tell, because he’s left more dead bodies behind him than live witnesses, but he’s been seen doing various things involving fireballs or fire coming from his hands, as well as leaving strange symbols around. Some of them are associated with the occult; we’re not sure what that’s all about. More recently, one survivor reported that he shot lightning. That’s only happened in the last few months.”

“Sounds like he was holding back,” Comet said, “but knowing that could help next time.”

I cleared my throat. “Um, do we have any idea why they’re in town at all?” I asked. “Because if it were me, after a fight like that one, I’d clear out. I get the impression from what you said that they haven’t stayed anyplace very long,” I said, looking at Turner.

“That’s mostly correct,” he said, “but they don’t have an obvious pattern. We believe that Collector started out travelling with just one or two of the others, and they’ve picked up the rest as they moved, but we’re not sure what it is they want, frankly. In some towns and cities, they kill one person and disappear. In two places, they’ve killed more. In others, they’ve passed through and no one has been hurt at all. We don’t know what they want here, if anything. Rollins didn’t have much history of criminal activity or violence until a few years ago, and it’s not clear what prompted the change.”

Raquel and I looked at each other for a moment, debating.

She made up her mind. “I think they’re after me,” she confessed. “The first fight, Heavyweight and I were in a public place, just talking. They somehow knew who we were even though we weren’t doing anything odd. And the second time, they seemed to be after me again.”

“Actually,” I said, thinking, “I’m not sure whether they wanted just you or both of us.”

“Most likely both of you,” Bloodhound commented.

Everyone looked at him.

“The two of you, your powers have some similarities, correct?” he asked.

“We think so,” I said, hedging my bets and trying to keep things vague.

Bloodhound looked at Turner. “I think we will find that this ‘Collector’ is gaining power as he travels – by stealing it from some of his victims. I don’t think he can do it to anyone with powers, however, which would explain why his targets have been specific. If I’m correct, then I believe the only other person here he’d be interested in is myself.”

I was a bit startled at that, but I think I managed to hide it. “Leon, is he like us?

Leon took a moment to answer. “If he is, he’s found some way to hide it. But there is something different about him – I’m uncertain what.

Talk to Feral and try to figure it out,” I requested, returning my full attention to the conversation.

“…don’t really see any link between the powers the three of you have demonstrated,” Turner was saying. “What kind of similarity are you talking about?”

“It’s not something I can explain, I’m afraid,” Bloodhound said. “I only know that the three of us are similar enough that one of us being a target suggests the others will be as well. Of course, if anyone else arrives, I can’t say whether they might be on his list or not.”

That brought on another brief silence, which Comet broke.

“The shadow woman, do you know anything about her?” she asked.

Turner shook his head. “Nothing useful. One person reported seeing a member of Blitz who looked like a shadow, but that’s it. She goes by ‘Silhouette,’ actually.”

“She’s tough,” Comet reported, “but no special tricks that I saw. Can smash buildings, probably bulletproof. If you’re up against her, try gas; she still needs to breathe.”

After that, the discussion got very businesslike, and we mostly traded info that everyone already knew, just for the sake of thoroughness. I did learn that the guy who hadn’t seemed to do anything was called “Proxy,” and they called the giant “Skyscraper,” but that was about it. Apparently they were still doing research on all of them, and they didn’t know most of their real names. Silhouette in particular was driving them nuts, since no one could see her face. They weren’t even sure if she looked like a shadow all the time or not.

The agents were less hostile than I expected, really. Since we were infringing on what was their actual job, I thought they’d look down on us, but if they did they weren’t letting it slip.

The discussion of the bad guys’ powers concluded quickly.

“One of them is a telepath of some kind,” Tin Man warned at the end. “I’m not sure which or how powerful. Probably either the kid or Proxy.”

Turner looked surprised at that. “How do you know?”

“We have telepathic defenses, of a sort,” Comet answered. “They activated during the fight. Those two are the only ones who didn’t display any powers, so one of them is probably the culprit.”

It was obvious they wanted to ask about that – hell, so did I – but they didn’t waste their breath. Comet clearly didn’t intend to offer more information on the subject.

“All right,” Turner said. “Thanks for the warning. I hope that you’ll tell us if you learn anything else useful – you can contact the local police and they’ll know to pass it on. Tell them who you are and that you have a message for me continuing our conversation from Wednesday, so they’ll know it’s not a prank thing.”

“Of course,” Comet agreed. “We’ll see you around, gentlemen.”

By silent agreement, Raquel and I were walking toward the exit when Comet caught up to us, her other teammates behind her.

“I imagine you’re tired,” she said, “but I really think we should have a quick chat before we split up. If nothing else, Bloodhound can fix your arm.”

“Where?” I asked, continuing to walk.

“Say, three blocks north and two west?” she suggested. “There’s a nice, private little spot we can use there.”

After that, Comet and Newton flew out of the building, heading south, and their two teammates waited for a minute, then went west, Bloodhound indicating that we should go north. When I got outside and saw the few cameras still in sight pointing south hoping for another shot of the fliers, it made sense.

Raquel mounted up and the two of us ran to the north, then west to the spot we’d been directed to.

Are you two all right?” I asked them.

Fine,” Feral answered. “We are only tired. The arm injury is no worse than before, thankfully.”

Arriving, we found one of those places you see sometimes in old cities, where there are lots of crooked roads. The alley they’d directed us to was a little dead-end piece of street in the middle of some run-down buildings, leading into what may have been a tiny park once. The landscaping made me think of a playground, anyway, though there wasn’t anything left except what looked like the leftovers of a collapsed tire swing.

Newton got there first, and the others arrived soon after. I thought I’d heard a vehicle motor, but I wasn’t sure. They were on foot when they came into view, at least.

“May I?” Bloodhound asked, gesturing toward Raquel’s injured arm as he approached. She only hesitated for a second before sitting down and offering it to him. She was facing away from me, so I couldn’t really see what he was doing with his hands, but Leon asked me to look in that direction; he said he could see something.

After examining Raquel for a minute or two, Bloodhound took out one of his sticks and gave it to her to bite.

“It’s a clean break, but I need to set it before I can heal it,” he told her. “I’m afraid it’s going to hurt.”

She nodded, biting down on the stick and closing her eyes, but when he pushed the bone back into place she didn’t cry out.

“So,” Comet started talking. “I’m afraid you two have a bit of a problem. They’ve found you twice now, and without their telepath reading your minds, which means they can likely do it again. Specifically, their leader can.”

That got my attention. “You know a hell of a lot for someone who just got to town,” I commented, frowning behind my ski mask.

She nodded. “We’ve been doing this for a while. Gathering information is half the battle, sometimes more. For instance, I know that what I said a moment ago was incorrect in one important way; it would be more accurate to say that the four of you have a problem.”

Now I was really paying attention. I didn’t feel threatened – hell, Comet was still a hero to me – but how the hell did she know this stuff?

“Is Collector like you?” she asked. “Is he connected to a spirit?”

There was an awkward silence as Leon, Feral, Raquel and I held a brief, silent conference.

“We think so,” I finally answered.

“We thought as much,” she said. “It was an educated guess, but it explains a great deal. You could sense him when he was close enough, right? And the reverse is almost certainly true.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

“I assume he’s out of your range now?” she asked. When we both nodded, she continued speaking. “In that case,” she said, “when your friend’s arm is healed, I think we need to help you hide, or else he’s going to follow one of you home at some point.”

“How are you going to do that?” I asked her.

“Magic,” Comet said with what sounded like a smile.

After a moment of silence, she prompted me, “you’re supposed to say there’s no such thing as magic.”

I chuckled weakly, before obliging her. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

“Not the best delivery,” she commented. “Look, I don’t know how to explain this well, but the fact is that our buddy Bloodhound isn’t like the rest of us, here. What he does is something he learned. If he had time, he might be able to teach all of us, though there’s no guarantee we’d be any good at it. We call it magic because if a guy can heal wounds without using technology or going to medical school, it seems appropriate. You two are a bit in the middle, on the other hand. Your spirit friends give you power, and Bloodhound can find them because they make you stand out. We’re not sure if it’s the same way you can sense each other, but he may be able to help you hide that…signature. If it works, you can at least go home and not worry that those guys will find you while you’re sleeping or eating breakfast.”

“What about their telepath?” I asked her. “Can’t he find us?”

“Ah, well that’s the bright side,” she replied cheerfully. “I think your non-corporeal buddies protect you from that. So there are some benefits.”

I glanced over at Raquel, and was shocked to see that she was flexing her formerly-broken arm.

“Thanks,” she said to Bloodhound in a quiet voice. “I really wasn’t looking forward to coming up with an explanation for that when I got home.”

“Speaking of which,” Comet said, “I’m sure you’re in a hurry, so let’s wrap this up.”

“Wait,” I interjected. “I appreciate the help, but if these guys stick around, we’re not going to be able to fight them on our own. Even if the FBI is in town looking for them, I don’t love our chances. Did you guys come here as a one-time thing, or will you be around?”

“We can’t camp out here constantly,” Comet said. “For now, Bloodhound will do his little voodoo and they shouldn’t have a way to find you; that will have to be enough. Lay low and try to avoid attention. If you can search some of the city between now and the weekend without being obvious about it, it might be a good idea, but we won’t be back until Saturday. Whether you want to team up with us to look for them then is up to you. We’d be happy to have the numbers, but we’re going hunting either way.”

I looked over at Raquel. “I think I’m in,” I said. “If they stay here they’ll find us eventually, or just start causing trouble. I’d rather go after them with you than alone.”

“Me too,” Raquel agreed. “I’ll talk to Heavyweight; see if he’s up for going on the offensive. It’s not something we’ve done before, but today was a whole new experience too.”

“Come here, please,” Bloodhound requested, interrupting the conversation. He sat cross-legged on the ground, his back straight. Raquel and I imitated him. “If you would each give me a hand,” he said, extending his toward us.

Raquel was sitting to my left, so she gave him her right hand, while I extended my left. I was impressed by whatever Bloodhound had done for her arm; she didn’t seem to be in any pain anymore, and moved it normally. He took our hands in his and bowed his head, sitting in silence. As we sat there, I found myself looking at his helmet just for something to do. I couldn’t tell what it was made of, but it covered his entire head, with a front that looked almost sculpted, in contrast to his teammates. The features on it were just basic shapes, with circles over his eyes and what looked like a triangle for the nose, but it gave an unsettling impression now that I was up close and he was just sitting there without speaking. Comet, Tin Man, and Newton each wore what looked like an ordinary motorcycle helmet with a featureless visor and a speaker grille under it, though I was guessing they were more durable than anything you could buy in a store.

I was tempted to ask them where and how they got all their gear. I didn’t want to build an arsenal, but I would like to improve on the borrowed ski mask I wore if I was going to keep doing this.

As we sat, Leon and Feral told Raquel and me that they could see him doing something, manipulating some sort of pattern. It was as if he distorted the sense of presence we gave off. When he finished, I realized that I couldn’t sense Raquel even though she was still sitting right next to me.

I looked over, and there she was. It was strange, but the oddest part was the fact that it was so noticeable. I’d never really tried to sense anyone that way until today, since I’d never had occasion to do so, but during our frantic running and the two fights I’d gotten used to having a clear idea of where Raquel was very quickly, even if I hadn’t used it for much.

“Did it work?” Bloodhound asked, releasing our hands and standing. I noticed that he stood without using his hands to balance or push himself up.

“I think so,” Raquel answered him, and I nodded in agreement.

“Good,” he said. “I think that should last for about two weeks. Maybe one, at a minimum. Plenty of time.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But if you wouldn’t mind, could you show us how to do that for ourselves? I’d like to be able to run away a bit more effectively, if push comes to shove.”

He took a moment before answering. “I can show you both how to do it Saturday, if you want,” he said. “No guarantees that you’ll be able to learn it, but if one of you picks it up he or she can always help the other one out. Could you meet me here at noon?”

I looked at Raquel for a moment before answering. “We’ll make the time,” I said.

I wasn’t confident that we’d manage to track the bad guys down and have them taken care of in a week. Even if we did, I had volunteered for the long haul; there would be other bad guys, eventually. I wanted to be able to sleep without worrying that someone less friendly would climb in my dorm room window.

“In that case, I’ll see you Saturday at noon,” Bloodhound said. “I’ll try to teach you what I can, and then we’ll go on our little hunt. If things go well, hopefully we’ll be able to deal with this before they make another move.”

The four of them got up to leave.

“Hey, thanks for saving our asses,” I blurted out.

“Our pleasure,” Comet replied. “It’s always nice to have new faces on our side. We like to encourage that sort of behavior.”

They left quickly and quietly.

“Jesus Christ, I am so sorry,” Raquel said, turning toward me as soon as we were alone. “Really, really sorry. Fuck.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Hell, I didn’t even get hurt.”

She snorted. “Yeah, that sounds great but I happen to know it’s bullshit. Helping me got you three broken ribs and one of them poked into your kidney. Feral was asking Leon about it. It may not have been a big injury, but it was there. And I know most of your body was a big bruise, too.”

“Okay, so I got hurt,” I said. “It may have been the first time, but I doubt it will be the last. And remember, they would have found me alone as easily as you. So if I hadn’t come with you, I’d actually be in more danger now, because I wouldn’t have gotten any help hiding.”

That made her pause. “I’m glad I can go home now, at least. Without worrying, I mean.”

I grunted my agreement, but hesitated to speak before just plunging in.

“Look, I wasn’t kidding. I’m committed to doing this now – to helping out. And I think we can agree that working together is a hell of a lot safer than splitting up,” I gestured to where Comet had stood, “so I think we need some way of getting in touch. Can I ask what you and Heavyweight have been using?”

She laughed a bit. “Mostly we just show up when something makes enough noise or hits the news. But we thought it would be smart to have some way to get in touch, so…well, you know superstuff.com? We each set up a throwaway account. Don’t use it for anything else. But we shared profile names, so we can message each other if something comes up. It’s not the best, but we didn’t want to share phone numbers or anything. We’ve never even seen each other’s faces.”

“How does that work?” I asked. “I mean, if you met each other earlier, don’t you have to know what he looks like?”

She shook her head. “It sounds stupid, but we did spy movie bullshit. He asked for the meet and gave a time, and I replied with the place and said I’d be wearing a red hat and a blue jacket. Sat by a tree. When he got there, he found me, then sat next to me partway around the tree. That way we could watch both directions and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. I felt silly, but it was working.”

“Do you think he got away?” I asked her.

“I think so,” she answered. “I mean, I can’t sense him like you, so the Collector guy shouldn’t be able to either. And if I was the one they wanted, they may not have even tried to chase him. So he probably made it.”

After that, we didn’t seem to have much else to talk about, or much energy for talking, so we split up and went home. She told me her superstuff profile name – catsarecool3399 – and said to get an account and message her, and she’d see about putting me in touch with Heavyweight.

I gave the scene of the fighting a wide berth on the way home, but tried to go fast, speeding until I was only a few blocks from campus. I was tired. It was dark, I was still afraid for my life and in awe from meeting four of the Philly Five, and I just wanted to get home and find out whether I’d be able to sleep tonight.

Fortunately I made it home without incident and found that Shawn wasn’t around to ask where I’d been or what I’d been doing, and I managed to sleep. In fact, I fell asleep so fast Leon had to remind me to take off the ski mask, kick off my shoes, and crawl under my blanket.

The last coherent thought I remember having was, “That was a hell of a first day.”
 
 
 
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