“Hey, is this seat taken?”
Lisa glanced up from her cell phone, thumb continuing to type out the remainder of a text. A lanky girl with short red hair was hovering by her table, bearing a tray occupied by the most enormous sandwich she’d ever seen. Layers on layers of fillings were crammed between what bore some very close resemblance to either half of an entire bread loaf.
Okay, the trainwreck effect beat out any desire for solitude. She had to see what carnage would ensue from attempting to eat that monster.
“Sure, knock yourself out.”
The girl took a seat on the opposite side of the booth, placing down her tray with a grateful smile which displayed slightly bucked front teeth. Both of her hands were bandaged around the knuckles. “Thanks, pretty busy in here today. Was getting worried I’d have to try and juggle this beast standing up.”
Lisa smiled thinly, one eye on her phone. She didn’t need her power to tell her that her new dinner guest would be outgoing; talkative and willing to approach someone she didn’t know for a favour, albeit a small one.
So it wasn’t even a slight surprise when the girl extended a long arm across the table for a shake. “Corey.”
Lisa took the hand. Her grip was more gentle than she’d expected. “Lisa.”
Corey smiled again, her eyes crinkling, then sat back. She had freckles splashed all across her face and down her exposed arms. A burst of colour on her tanktop caught Lisa’s eye and she looked a little closer. It bore a rainbow design featuring the Protectorate’s Legend and some text which she couldn’t quite see.
“You like it?”
Lisa managed not to startle. She'd thought the quick glance was too subtle for her to be caught looking. She shrugged, playing it off. “Sure, I guess. Merchandise isn’t really my thing.”
“Fair enough, me neither. I just look up to Legend like a lot.” Corey picked up the mutant sandwich, sized it up, and then somehow managed to take a bite out of one end without unhinging her jaw.
Deliberate challenge, trying to see if I had an issue, has attracted negative attention for the shirt before, inspired by Legend’s example as a gay man, not a cape; queer. Observant enough to catch me looking, was looking at me already, thinks I’m cute. Focused on the food now, less interested in me than how hungry she is.
Lisa felt herself smile and hid it by looking down at her phone. No reply from Brian yet. People being attracted to her was usually followed by her power helpfully informing her of exactly how gross the things they wanted to do in bed were, or how often they picked their nose and ate it, or, well, any number of unpleasant habits, really. ‘She wants to eat that goddamn enormous sandwich’ made for a refreshing change of pace.
The next fifteen minutes went by at the table. The café wasn’t getting any less busy, and Lisa caught sight of a couple of groups hovering at the entrance and then turning away when it became clear space wasn’t freeing up. Lisa got a refill on her coffee. Brian was still taking a while to respond, but the conversation was non-urgent, so she couldn’t get too annoyed. Corey continued to work on her meal, slowly and steadily munching her way through the sandwich of myth and making impressively little mess for how many fillings were attempting to escape at any given moment.
She wasn’t sure where Corey was putting it. She looked too skinny to be able to eat like that.
“Hey, you don’t go to Arcadia, do you?” The question sounded innocent, but Lisa wasn’t so sure. A snub was lining up behind the query, waiting to pounce on an opportunity to gloat about attending Brockton Bay’s best school.
Two could play at that game. “No. I have a GED.”
“No way!” Corey lit right up. “That’s really cool! I’d never be able to study enough to pass the exams. Explains why I’ve never seen you at school, I guess.”
The enthusiasm seemed genuine, but it was probably just a good recovery. No sly bragging for you. "I suppose it does."
"So are you working then?" She grinned and gave a quick eyebrow waggle. "On the ol' career ladder?"
"Yeah, I do online work mostly." Hadn't trotted that lie out for a while, most people tended to take it at face value.
"Neat. Like, blogging? Streaming?"
Buuuut not this one. "I wish. Nah, it's pretty much tech support."
"Aw. I thought I was meeting an internet celebrity," Corey said playfully.
"Nope. Regular IT girl here." She gave her a rueful smile. "Biggest claim to fame is breaking records on time spent telling old dudes that clicking on the bright and shiny things on the internet is why they're getting viruses."
"Man, forget the capes, that's real heroism right there."
Lisa laughed. "It pays the bills while I look for something better."
"Not much on the resume?"
"Pretty much. Too little experience, and some places flat out can't hire teens."
There was a certain something to a well-crafted lie which Lisa loved. Sure, lying was ultimately a means to an end, but you had to take your fun where you could find it, and in a scenario like this which was almost risk free, she could practice her cover stories with impunity.
"Yeah, I feel that." Corey gripped the knuckles of one hand with the fingers of the other and started to work them back and forth. "I can volunteer at the place I work at, but they couldn't let me intern in the summer cause I'm only sixteen."
"What do you do?"
Corey didn't respond immediately, continuing the repetitive movement with her fingers, then swapping the grip to the other hand. A delay usually meant either an uncomfortable topic or a pause to come up with a plausible lie. Curious, Lisa let her power fill the silence.
Open person, fine talking about the subject or she'd have evaded. Apprehensive about something else, is looking at me while she thinks; apprehensive about me, apprehensive about my reaction. Volunteering is something she’s passionate about, discussing it will reveal personal information to me, volunteering is with an LGBT group; is trying to decide if she's happy coming out to a stranger. Talking about volunteering has been dealbreaker before, negative associations with coming out, has lost friendships from it, wants to be friends, wants to be honest; preparing herself for if this sours.
It all ran through Lisa's head in a matter of seconds, quickly enough that she took even herself a little off guard. Maybe she'd handed her power enough context clues to be full steam ahead, maybe she was in tune with it because she was enjoying herself.
Corey dropped both hands to the table. "I volunteer at the Queer Youth Refuge; it's a subsidiary of Brockton Bay Youth Relief, if you’ve heard of them. I try to make time for it every weekend. Reminds me how shitty a lot of kids have it, keeps me from getting too caught up in my own head." She lifted her head, straightening. Her expression was attempting to be blank but not quite succeeding, pale eyebrows downturned at the outer corners.
Lisa felt a brief swell of sympathy, minor, but sincere. Had to suck having that hanging over your head with any new acquaintance, especially in Brockton Bay, where hey, turned out that there was a not-insignificant part of the population who were willing to tolerate the presence of extreme bigots as a cover to their own more subtle bigotry.
"Sounds cool. I don't know much about them, but I've seen their leaflets a couple places. 'You're not alone', 'We're here to help', right?"
Corey smiled and nodded, relief practically pouring off of her. "You have no idea how many of those leaflets I've handed out. Even took some to the PRT building, but their tour guy took them off me. He said he'd pass them on to the Wards and Protectorate, but I'm pretty sure he just tossed them."
The skepticism reached Lisa's face before she could prevent it. Imagining anyone strolling on up to the PRT so casually was difficult, teetering on the edge of plausibility.
"Hey, don't give me that look," said Corey, though she was still smiling, the tension in her manner already a thing of the past. "Everyone seems to forget that capes are people just as much as they're heroes or villains or whatever. They have their own crap to deal with outside of the superpowers, and all of the Wards and some of the Protectorate are in the age range we offer support to."
There was a switch. Wasn't often that she heard somebody downplaying the celebrity cape culture, less often still that anyone brought villains into the mix too. Actually maybe not ever. Lisa couldn't resist nudging the subject along; this was going from a fun diversion to genuinely interesting. "So, what, if someone like Rune came up to the refuge and asked for help you'd just welcome her in?
Corey paused, and then shrugged. "We'd try to help. You don't know anyone's story without asking. Maybe Rune feels trapped in the E88, maybe she's never had anyone challenge her views, maybe she's hiding some things about herself and is afraid of what'll happen if she tells." She looked down at her sandwich, rotating the plate slowly with her index finger. "You don't just pop out into the world as a racist, you know? That kind of hatred is taught." She glanced back to Lisa again. Her lips quirked up, but the smile was a sad one. "I'd like to think that if someone reached out to me, genuinely asking for help, that I'd be able to set aside the shitty things they may have done to do what I could. If no other reason than because like, how shitty would it be to just validate their own twisted worldview by spitting in their faces?"
Wow. Naive, much? No way was Lisa leaving that one alone. "I feel like that's kind of over-optimistic, and no offense, but I find it hard to believe that you'd be willing to just forgive and forget someone for years of violence." She knew she was risking a negative reaction by being so blunt, but that was part of the fun of conversations like this. Safe was dull.
"No, that's fair." There was a brief lapse in the conversation as Corey decided to continue her assault on Mt. Sandwich, then she went on after completing the mouthful. "Thing is, people get into toxic situations all the time, capes or non-capes. Sure, they need to be held accountable for their actions, but that's not what we—BBYR I mean—are for, and if we can maybe head them off from harming others in the future by showing some human decency, that's the kind of thing that can turn a life around." Corey frowned, making a small 'tch'. "I really wish I could give you specific examples, but confidentiality is a thing. Can you trust me that I've seen it happen a couple times?"
Pushing further would be definitely inviting an argument, and Lisa found that Corey was growing on her enough that she could resist the urge to needle, so she nodded. "Sure thing." If she ever got really curious, she could do some digging with her power. Actually, that was a fun idea. She made a mental note to look into it later, once she'd given her thinker reserves a little time to recharge. She'd been using her power a lot today already and she needed to save it for if anything important came up.
They fell into a comfortable silence. Corey resumed eating. Lisa exchanged a couple more texts with Brian and one with Alec, picked up a third coffee as a reward for behaving herself and to preempt any headaches that might develop if the Undersiders needed her firing on all cylinders. That was the most frustrating part of her power, having to pick and choose what she could and couldn’t afford to use it for. She supposed the limitations prevented her from getting completely carried away on tangents, but—
A high-pitched sound came from across the table. Lisa slowly looked up from her phone, a grin beginning to spread across her face.
Corey had a hand across her mouth. Her plate was finally empty, only crumbs remaining. Damn, that was one hell of an effort. Although, it had apparently caused some side effects...
“Did you just…?”
“No!” Corey said, much, much too quickly. “Squeaky chai— hiccough! ”
Lisa snickered, falling into outright giggles as Corey’s face flushed. “Chair, huh?”
“Stop— hiccough! —laughing!”
Oh my god it sounded like a noise from a cartoon. She continued laughing. Corey looked mortified.
“You are the— hiccough! —worst! We can’t be friends now!”
Lisa sighed dramatically. “Alas for our hero, defeating the evil sandwich king but falling victim to a terrible curse in the process.”
That broke Corey. She started to giggle too, only for the giggles to be interrupted by more hiccups, which set Lisa off again, clutching at her sides. In the middle of the laughing fit, Lisa’s phone went off, and it took several seconds to get herself together enough to actually check the message.
Brian: Can you get back to the place? House meeting.
Which was code for some possible Undersiders business. Interesting.
You: Yup, omw.
She gave Corey an apologetic smile. “Friend of mine wants to meet, so that’s me.”
“Ah, no worries.” Lisa read the disappointment in her voice, even though she managed to keep it out of her expression. “Hey, uh, I know we kind of just met but you seem cool and I’d like to hang out again sometime. Not for a date or anything! But uh—”
Lisa already had a pen out and was scribbling the number for one of her burner phones, which fortunately cut off what was threatening to become babble. She handed it across the table, standing up from her seat, and Corey favoured her with another huge smile.
“Relax, motormouth,” said Lisa. “I didn’t think you meant it that way.”
Corey opened her mouth to speak and was cut off by yet another hiccup, prompting a second giggling collapse. Lisa managed to hold in the laughter this time, but continued to grin widely.
“See you around, Lisa,” Corey finally forced out, between giggles.
Lisa cocked a finger gun at her and fired it as she stepped out and away. “Later.”
Leaving the café, she found herself reflecting, gladly, that it hadn't been a date request.
That would have just made things awkward.