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I had felt a little twinge of warning in my stomach when Tanya pulled me aside after our little group hangout split up, possibly because of the way she’d glanced at me before telling Alexis that she would catch up with her in a minute. Apparently my gut was smarter than my brain, because it had picked up on the warning signs and I’d written them off as nothing.
It hadn’t occurred to me that she might ask me out on a date.
Tanya was looking at me expectantly, and I was staring at her mute, like a dear in the headlights, trying to respond without stumbling over my words.
“Uh – I don’t think – I mean, no, sorry,” I said haltingly. “I like you, but I don’t want to go out.”
I was wincing inside. There’s no good way to say ‘I just want to be friends,’ but I was confident I’d just found one of the many bad ways to say it.
“Oh,” Tanya said, her face falling. “Okay.”
She stared at me, clearly not sure what to say next.
I started to reach out with one hand and thought better of it. “I’m flattered,” I said, managing to find my tongue at last. “Really. I’m just not looking for someone right now.”
I held another wince. That sounded too close to ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ another cliché.
“Sure,” Tanya said with a nod. I hoped that would help her feel a little better.
“Excuse me,” she said, turning to walk away.
I let her head back to her room, my good mood evaporating as I went back to mine. I’d never had occasion to reject a friend before. Seeing the look on her face hadn’t felt nice. I hoped it wouldn’t cause drama and break up our little group.
“Alexis will help her get over it,” Leon said. “I’m sure it will be fine, given a little time.”
“Yeah, I hope so,” I said. “As long as Alexis doesn’t skewer me. She’s pretty protective towards Tanya, and I’m pretty sure I just made her shit list.”
“You’re borrowing trouble again,” Leon said. “Relax.”
I gave Tanya another glance over my shoulder, and looked away when she started to glance back at me, retreating into my room and closing the door behind me. I flopped onto my bed and sighed, trying to let it go. “You know, I was in a good mood pretty much all day. I’m sure she was too. I wish we hadn’t had to ruin it.”
“Out of curiosity, did you have another reason for turning her down?” Leon asked.
I rolled onto my back, putting my hands behind my head and staring at the ceiling. “Do I need one?” I asked rhetorically. “Yes. Don’t get me wrong, she’s nice and she’s pretty, but I don’t think this is a good time to start dating anyone. With all the stuff that’s going on? I’d like to wrap up our current problems first, get Mary’s boss dealt with and the Jamesons back to their lives. Especially since there’s a non-zero chance that Mary’s boss will end up killing us, given how afraid of him she is and why.”
“If that wasn’t going on, would you have given it a shot?” Leon asked.
“Maybe,” I admitted. “I like her, and not to sound shallow but she looks nice too. I’m not sure.”
“Anything else?” Leon asked.
“Just come out and say it,” I told him. “You’ve clearly got something on your mind.”
“At the risk of sounding self-centered, I’m wondering if you might have turned her down in part because of me,” Leon said.
I hesitated for a second, and he read it the right way.
“So, I’m correct,” he said.
I rolled my shoulders uncomfortably. “Look, the other reasons are true too. It’s not just you.”
“But they are temporary, and I am not, necessarily,” Leon said. “I think it’s something we’ll have to address sooner or later.”
“We’re a package deal,” I said. “It’s not that complicated.”
“Bullshit,” Leon said. “I think it’s fair to say that it is pretty complicated. Be honest. Would you be comfortable dating any girl as long as I’m in here?”
“Do we have to have this conversation now?” I asked.
“Is putting it off going to help somehow?” Leon said.
“Probably not,” I admitted. “But I’d still prefer to. Look, you want me to get blunt? I’ll get blunt. I’m not going to date anyone who doesn’t know about you. That’s off the table entirely, for obvious reasons which I will not go into at length, okay? As for dating anyone at all, that’s iffy at best. Two’s company, but three’s a crowd, as they say. I haven’t discussed it because I haven’t figured out what to do about it yet. Maybe one day we’ll figure out how to get you your own body, if you want that. But for now, kicking you out would kill you, and I don’t want that. I actually like having you around.”
“That’s nice, but it’s your life that I’m borrowing part of,” Leon said. “I don’t want to be cutting you off from other people.”
“You’re not cutting me off from anything,” I said. “I’ve got plenty of friends, including you. I wouldn’t have met Raquel and Feral without you, either, among others, and I’m glad I did. Even taking into account the increased likelihood that I’ll get splattered by a super-punch one of these days. So don’t go blaming yourself for anything, all right? That’s why I wanted to put this conversation off until I had a solution in mind.”
“You can’t blame me for feeling partially responsible,” Leon said.
“Oh, shut up,” I said. “I can if I want to. Look, I’d still feel weird about it even if you weren’t around. I’ve got a lot of secrets, these days. Dating someone who doesn’t know any of them would feel off. It’s dishonest on a level I’ve never had to deal with or think about before. If I had powers but not you, I would have given her the same answer, okay? You being around doesn’t screw up my life. Maybe the reverse. Despite my doubts and misgivings, I think we’ve done some good, and if you weren’t here Collector might have killed Raquel the day we met. Personally, I’m glad that hasn’t happened.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with this,” Leon said.
“It doesn’t matter either way,” I said. “Come on, Leon. We’ve got a good thing going. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is. One day we might split, if we figure out a way for you to survive it. Until then, you’re still not responsible for my choices just because you’re renting my real estate. I know what I’m doing and why, and that’s all any of us can get in the end.”
I lay back, trying to relax physically.
“All right, I suppose I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Leon said.
“Since ‘it’ is my own damn opinion, that’s an affirmative,” I said. “It’s not like someone else has inside info.”
“Other than me, you mean?” Leon asked.
I smiled. “Poor word choice, but you know what I mean. Your info isn’t more inside than mine, is the point.”
“Point taken,” Leon conceded.
Tanya started avoiding me, I found, and that went for Alexis too. I tried not to read into it; despite what I’d said to Leon before, I figured Alexis was just keeping Tanya company and trying to cheer her up. She’d looked like she was taking it hard when I turned her down. I tried to steer clear for a bit, to give her some space to get over it. Hopefully things would return to normal soon, or close enough.
That left me without much to do during my free time, though. Shawn and Liz were off together, spending time as a couple before they got separated over the holidays. I had other friends, but they weren’t as close, and they all seemed pretty busy too.
With nothing else going on, and mindful of the looming issue of Mary’s boss, Leon and I doubled down on practicing our skills, trying to stretch them as much as possible. We attempted to do a lot of different things with magic, most of which failed. Fortunately, the only one that blew up in our face was an attempt to control a small flame.
Unfortunately, it blew up in my face rather literally, which hurt like hell for a few minutes until we finished healing the damage. I hadn’t been planning to throw fireballs around, but it looked like even my more modest ambition was going to have to be written off. I was nervous that someone would notice my eyebrows were singed off, or that my hair was shorter; the latter problem was easily fixed by going for a haircut, at least, but I ended up just shrugging at the former. Upon further reflection, Leon and I weren’t worried enough to devote time to figuring out how to control the speed at which my eyebrows grew back. We gave it a quick try just in case it turned out to be easy, but when it didn’t work we moved on. I figured that nobody would be inspecting me that closely.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. I put the minor disaster out of my mind as I looked into a full-length mirror and failed to see myself reflected in it. There was still that little patch of distortion, still noticeable around my feet, but other than that I had become completely invisible, and this time I had extended the effect to my backpack. The extra effort wasn’t too much of a strain, now that I’d worked out how to get it done, and it meant that I could sneak around while wearing thick clothing or hauling stuff with me, which was nice. I hoped to find a way to extend the effect to another person, but so far I wasn’t anywhere near skilled enough. I extended my right arm all the way out in front, pointing at my reflection with a finger, then tried extending my limbs in various directions; they stayed hidden. When I had tried holding up a stick, though, using it to point, most of it remained outside the area I was affecting, and I could see it with or without the mirror. I pulled out my ruler – I’d had to go buy one for the occasion – and held it out instead of the stick, looking down to see where it became visible.
“Less than two inches hidden,” Leon commented.
I took a deep breath and focused, trying to push the effect further along the ruler and outward from myself; it grew increasingly difficult to hold, and I soon lost it. I managed to hold onto enough to keep myself invisible, but my backpack reappeared behind me, apparently hanging in midair. The straps were mostly hidden, but the pack was painfully obvious.
I sighed, putting down the ruler.
“It seems like we can’t extend it very far if we go in every direction at once,” I said, disappointed. “Maybe we could hide someone else if they’re small and right next to us, but I doubt it. And if we’re ever carrying anything bulkier than my bookbag, I don’t think it’s going to work at all.”
“Try strapping the backpack on the other way around, on your chest,” Leon suggested. “Let’s make sure that works too.”
“Sure,” I said, following the suggestion. I let the invisibility (or was that camouflage?) fade as I did so, then reproduced the effect once I was done. It took a few seconds to get it right, but I managed to hide the bag again, without much more difficulty.
With that done, I took the bag off and put it down before grabbing the ruler again. “Let’s try something else.”
Ignoring everything else and without the backpack, I held the ruler out, like before, and tried to extend my invisibility to cover it specifically, rather than the whole area around myself.
That worked a little better. I only managed to hide about half of it, though, which convinced me that distance from my body was a big factor, not just the size of the area I was attempting to hide from sight.
We kept at it for hours, testing and pushing until we were both exhausted. Over the next few days, we tried to hide better, we tried to shrink distance more while on the move, and we tried to add color while creating a small light. I didn’t have much success improving my movement powers, and attempts to drag something with me kept failing. When we moved onto light, though, it was another story.
We managed to create light in a vibrant red color, finally, and after that it was like we’d broken through a wall. Practicing in the dark, I soon found that I could generate light in various colors, and it only cost me a bit more power than just plain white light of the sort I’d get from a flashlight or lamp. Making more than one color at a time was another story, but I couldn’t think of any reason I’d actually need to do that.
“Do you really think we’ll ever want to make a green light, either?” Leon asked pointedly.
“We might, yeah,” I said. “I can’t think of a specific reason off the top of my head, but it could be helpful. Anyway, it’s fun. I think we’re still allowed to have fun.”
“Fair enough,” Leon said. “Still, I’d like to spend some time on something other than magic, if you don’t mind. I know the time we’ve been putting in is worthwhile, but I’m starting to feel burned out on this.”
“Do you have something specific in mind?” I asked.
“No,” Leon said. “I just want a break. We haven’t talked to anyone much, except in class and at meals, and we’ve been spending all of our free time on work. Can we please relax? See a movie or something?”
“I guess, yeah,” I conceded. I had been pushing pretty hard, partly out of a desire to be ready and partly to avoid thinking about my worries, both the mundane ones and those involving powers.
I looked up the convenient theaters to see what was showing, and within a few minutes we had picked a movie and left my room, heading out.
A few days later, I’d had an awkward dinner with Tanya and Alexis, which seemed to be Alexis’ idea, and I was optimistic that we’d get things back to normal eventually, but I was still feeling vaguely lonely and bored. Tanya clearly felt a bit hurt, still, even if she wasn’t saying it. I almost apologized, but Leon pointed out that she likely wouldn’t appreciate my doing so in public, and reminded me that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the first place. I hadn’t been totally tactful, but that wasn’t some awful, terrible crime.
I tried to put it behind me and enjoy the quiet, reminding myself that “busy” had often equated to “in life-threatening danger” recently, but apparently my brain was either malfunctioning or just not up to code in the first place, because getting back to my normal life wasn’t a welcome relief anymore. Playing video games, reading, and sitting around was still relaxing and fun, but I felt less engaged in all of it, even after I’d had some time to get back into the routine. Trying to expand my powers with Leon was interesting, but it was also hard work, and I couldn’t do it all the time.
Finally, it occurred to me that I could get my Christmas shopping done, rather than waiting until the last minute the way I traditionally did. Starting in the first week of December was pretty unprecedented. With that in mind, I headed out to the nearby mall, figuring I’d begin there.
I tried to mentally review the ideas I’d come up with so far. Shopping for gifts for my parents was always difficult, and the last time I’d spoken to them I hadn’t thought of asking them for ideas of what to get each other, so I was on my own for the day. Beyond them, the only people I needed to get gifts for were Shawn, who was a close friend at that point, and my cousin Billy; I’d drawn her name in the family lottery.
Shawn should be the easiest, I thought. I’d get him a movie or two, or maybe a season of a show he liked. The mall had a Best Buy, and I should be able to find something there. My mom would be happy with earrings or books. Thinking back to something she’d said on the phone, I thought she needed a new winter coat and boots, too, so those were possibilities.
As for my dad, books were always an option for him, too. I wasn’t sure about practical stuff. I’d try looking for some music, probably classical or jazz; if I spotted something that looked good I could try calling mom and then ask her to make sure he didn’t have it yet.
The tough one was Billy. She was pretty close to my age, but I hadn’t seen her for a while, so I didn’t have a strong sense of what she was interested in these days. We got along well, but only saw each other around the holidays, for the most part. Maybe I could call her parents for suggestions? If I got really lost, I could always just call her, but that felt too much like giving up.
I was still mulling my list over when I got off the bus at the mall, and I was absorbed enough in my thoughts that I almost wandered in front of a car – not my brightest moment. The driver honked, and I sprinted across the parking lot and into the mall, feeling dumb.
I wandered the place for most of an hour, finally going to Best Buy in frustration. I hadn’t come up with anything for my parents, and Billy’s parents hadn’t picked up. I decided to just get something for Shawn and go home. I’d try calling again tomorrow, figure out what I was going to buy, and then give it another shot. Every year, I forgot how much I hated Christmas shopping. I always obsessed over gift ideas, having second thoughts and then waffling back and forth until I just bought something to end it. That was the reason I put off shopping in the first place. Giving gifts was nice, but picking them was another story.
When I was finished, I went home feeling frustrated with my lack of success.
Leon’s presence was still in the back of my mind, as always, but he hadn’t had much to contribute, so we hadn’t really talked much. Despite that, I had felt a pretty clear sense of his opinion whenever I stopped to look at something. It seemed like his attitude and emotions were coming through more clearly than when we’d first met.
I got an email from Raquel on the way back. No subject line, and when I opened it all I saw was a link.
The link sent me to a video which I quickly realized was showing Meteor fighting another woman with powers. I assumed it was Meteor, at least; with only the colors of their outfits to go by, there wasn’t any way for me to really differentiate Meteor and Comet unless they talked to me, and the video quality wasn’t good enough for me to make a guess based on height and build. Regardless, it was a short fight. I didn’t get a great look at Meteor’s opponent, but she seemed to manifest a pair of giant hands in midair, using them as weapons. Meteor was fast enough and tough enough that she dodged most of the blows, and when I watched the video a second time I realized that she was letting herself get hit a few times because there were people behind her. Finally, she moved out of frame for a few seconds and then came back, flying through a window and tackling her opponent to the ground, then grabbing her and flying up into the air.
When they came back down a minute later, the other woman surrendered to the police and Meteor flew out of view.
“She must have been pretty convincing,” I said.
“My guess is that she threatened to drop her,” Leon said. “I don’t know if she would have, but that’s the most obvious reason to fly the enemy up like that. And I agree, she must have been persuasive.”
In the last few seconds of the video, the opponent-turned prisoner looked up before the police put her in the back of a car.
“Where was this?” Leon asked.
I looked again. The video title didn’t say, but a quick glance at the comments revealed the scrap had taken place in New York.
“I would think the FBI would be able to respond pretty quickly there,” I said.
“They probably can, but Meteor and Comet have an advantage in terms of response time, after all,” Leon said. “They might well have been present. If it was a running fight, then she might simply have gotten ahead of them.”
“True,” I said, still looking at the comments. “Well, at least it was nothing like the Philadelphia battle. No fatalities, if the person who posted this knows what they’re talking about. Let’s see if we can learn more.”
We didn’t find out much about what had happened until later; the story was too fresh when Raquel pointed us to the video, but details were released the next day. The woman apparently had a broken arm and bruised ribs when she surrendered, and was accusing Meteor of attacking her. No one was taking her claims very seriously, despite her injuries, because everyone else who had been present when the fight started agreed that Meteor hadn’t even been there at the time. In fact, she’d arrived only after the woman had assaulted two police officers who arrived on the scene of the call that had set off the whole mess, which had been a report of noise and vandalism. She’d been using her powers to destroy someone’s car – it wasn’t clear to me whether the owner was a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or something else – but she apparently hadn’t been very discreet about it.
“We’re lucky her lies are so transparent in this case,” Leon said. “I wonder how long it will take for someone acting as a super hero to be believably accused of a crime?”
“Technically, we’ve already committed a few crimes,” I pointed out. “Although as I understand it, Meteor probably didn’t do anything wrong except maybe leave the scene without even making a statement. There’s no rule against defending other people who are attacked, after all.”
“When I said ‘believably accused,’ I meant in the public eye,” Leon clarified.
“I hear you. It probably won’t take too long, especially if more people start taking action like Meteor – or like us, for that matter. Someone is bound to go too far at some point, if only by accident.”
“Am I right in thinking that prosecutors don’t have to advance any case they don’t want to?” Leon asked.
“I think so,” I said uncertainly. “I mean, there’s always the possibility of pressure from the community, or the police, or the mayor, or anyone in a position of influence. But I don’t think anyone can force them to prosecute a case if they don’t want to. Why?”
“Just considering the ins and outs of our lifestyle,” Leon said. “The logical conclusion of this is that popularity with the local populace may influence how much someone like us can get away with.”
“That goes for anyone, to an extent, though,” I said. “I mean, we ignore personal shit that politicians do if we like them enough. Sometimes people even ignore blatant corruption. I’m not saying that’s great, but I don’t think you and I have any particular advantage in that regard, you know?”
“Probably,” Leon agreed. “As I said, I’m just thinking it over. Considering hypotheticals. How angry do you think people would get if the police tried to prosecute the Philly Five, for example?”
I raised my eyebrows involuntarily. There was no one there to see it, but Leon could feel me doing it, so it had the same effect, I supposed. “People would be pissed, I’d expect,” I said. “They’re popular, they’re winners, they’re local, regional, and maybe even national heroes, and they would have to do something wrong where everyone could see it. Can you imagine trying to pick a jury for that trial? You couldn’t even hold it in Pennsylvania, let alone Philadelphia, without packing the jury with fans. I don’t think anyone else has quite so much reputation to trade on. Raquel might come close, around here, I guess. The way she saved Dustin the first time was extremely public, after all. Not to mention the other stuff. You and I are a bit more under the radar, but I imagine there are rumors floating around about us too. I’d bet that they’re mostly positive, locally, even if the FBI is wary of us.”
“You’re probably correct,” Leon said. “All of which makes me wonder what’s going to happen if and when the government tries to shut down vigilante efforts like ours.”
I rolled my shoulders, glancing around. I was sitting in a chair in one of the more public parts of the library, close to the front desk, with my laptop on my knees. I glanced at the girl sitting behind the desk, and the students scattered around the room.
“I wonder what they think of all this stuff,” I said. “Is Raquel popular with them? I feel like it would be tough to live here without knowing about her at least vaguely, and most people probably see her as a hero.”
“I agree with them,” Leon said.
I smiled. “Me too. I think you’re right that the status quo won’t last forever, though. Turner practically told us as much. But it is a thorny problem. I wonder if the FBI might try to bring some of us on board, somehow. Recruiting the Philly Five could be a major PR coup, if they could find a way. It would retroactively condone everything they’d done in the past, which might be a sticky point, but I don’t think they’ve ever gotten caught breaking laws, really. Maybe some minor stuff. Misdemeanors. But that’s probably not bad enough to cancel out the advantages, right?”
“Definitely not,” Leon said. “Some people might object to recruiting the Philly Five, of course, but they’re so popular I can’t imagine anyone in politics objecting too loudly. Maybe someone affiliated with the police, but I think the local cops like them. After what happened with Blitz, they may even love them, unless they blame them for the group showing up in the first place.”
“If it were me,” I mused, “I would probably get them to agree to some community service or something. If I had them for misdemeanors, I mean. That way no one could say I was ignoring their past completely, but I could still take the credit for signing them up. What do you think?”
“It has possibilities,” Leon said. “I can definitely imagine a world where that happens, from a government perspective. I doubt the Philly Five would go for it, though. They expressed concern about the idea of a government monopoly on powers.”
“Yeah, but there’s a difference between the government saying ‘no vigilantes’ and the government conscripting people with powers,” I said. “In the long run, we have to go down that middle route, right? Otherwise, doesn’t the idea of a law-bound society juts get left behind?”
“What are we, then?” Leon said.
“I’m remembering when we talked to Bloodhound and Comet, a while back,” I said. “I think we’re a stopgap, really. I think we’re here to smooth the transition. To make sure it isn’t too rough, and keep society afloat while it adjusts. Like patching a boat’s hull while you work on repairing it. The patch might not be pretty, but you still need it to keep the water out while you’re figuring out the long-term solution.”
“Sometimes patches are permanent, you know,” Leon said. “I’m not sure your analogy works quite the way you intend it. I mean, people patch sleeves all the time, and leave them that way, or paint over cracks in a wall.”
“Yeah, well society isn’t a freaking boat, either,” I said dryly. “Or if it is, it’s one that we’re constantly redesigning and rebuilding while we sail it, which…makes no sense. You knew what I meant.”
“True,” Leon conceded.
I watched my fellow students for a minute, reflecting that things had changed a lot for me in a few months. With the exception of the people I was already friends with, I felt very separate from all of them.