"Coming up on 32nd and Baker. Anything we should look out for, Console?”
Lisa glanced up at the holographic map of the city hovering over the sizeable suite of monitors in front of her, and then hit a button. “Smooth sailing, Envoy,” she said, angling her head towards the microphone built into the workstation.
“Lame,” said a second voice, low-pitched, female where the first had been male. “Can’t you give us a mugging or something?”
Lisa snorted, keying the intercom again. “Yeah I’ll just get right on my crime-summoning mmph—!”
She was cut off as a presence darted in from behind her shoulder and smooched her firmly on the lips. Lisa made a startled noise and jerked back, breaking the kiss, leaving her looking into Corey’s face, unabashedly wearing a broad, vulpine grin.
“Console, say again? Are you—Y’Allah! Quit PDAing on the radio!”
Corey leaned over to the console and pushed the button. “Never.”
“Fuu—eff off, Starheart.”
There was a world weary sigh from the first voice. “Continuing our patrol route now. Let’s keep it professional, people.”
Shooting Corey a glare which she knew was a little too flustered to be any true deterrent, Lisa spoke into the microphone. “I hear you, Envoy. Speak to you in half an hour.”
She let the button go and continued glowering, even as a smile threatened to break straight through her scowl. “Mid status report? Really?”
Corey’s self-satisfied expression didn’t fade. “Envoy needs reminding we’re kids, not private military, and I wanted to greet my girlfriend properly.”
“Well…” Lisa feigned reluctance. “I suppose that was a pretty decent greeting.”
“I thought that throwing you over my head then catching you on the way down might be a bit much.” A mischievous gleam was in her eyes. “I can still do that, if you want.”
Flashing a grin, Lisa shook her head. “Tempting, but no thanks.”
“Coward,” said Corey, resting her arms on the back of Lisa’s chair. “Get off any time soon?”
Tilting her head all the way back and getting an upside down view of Corey in the process, Lisa pulled a face. “Another hour and a half to go.”
“Lame as fuck.”
Lisa laughed. As much as she’d wanted to stay away from the front lines when she first started out with the Undersiders, taking that role for the Wards was pretty dull. Turned out that after getting a taste of life in the fastlane of heists and evading the heroes, being stuck cooling her heels sucked. They hadn’t had so much as a PR patrol at this stage of their probation, and the PRT weren’t willing to give Lisa the kind of resources she would need to play mission control. She wouldn’t have trusted herself with those resources either, but that was besides the point.
At least Lisa still had her favourite person. She gave Corey her best puppy dog eyes. “This is pretty boring. Keep me company?”
“Sure. No action?”
Lisa snorted. “I mean, even if there was, I’d only tell them to observe and call for backup.” She caught Corey starting to frown. “Which is fine!” she added hastily. Corey stuck out her tongue. Lisa shrugged. “It’s just dull. And sure, maybe they shouldn’t have them diving into full-on cape fights like in Brockton, but they need at least a little experience of the real deal if they’re going to be Protectorate heroes.”
“Oh god, they got to you!” Corey widened her eyes exaggeratedly, holding up her hands—no longer taped as of a month ago— in a warding gesture. “You’re a PRT shill now!”
“Har de har,” said Lisa. “Speaking as a former villain, my dastardly deeds would have been much easier if I hadn’t had to deal with the Wards.”
Corey hesitated, the playfulness fleeing from her face. Worry caught in Lisa’s throat. They bantered and teased so easily that she slipped up around certain topics. Her and the Undersiders had joked around about crimes all the time, and that tended to be habit forming. The gap wasn’t one that her and Corey could bridge overnight.
The silence became unbearable. “Sorry,” said Lisa.
Corey shook her head leadenly. “No it’s fine.” She continued, filled with resignation. “I guess I can do some homework.”
Great. Lisa left that one to die, scolding herself for letting her tongue outrun her brain. Corey sloped to the beaten leather sofa a couple of metres back from Lisa’s chair, retrieving her satchel. Lisa traced her steps, swivelling her chair around, and her power started filling in some of the gaps.
Stressed. Struggling. Not adapting well to new environment. Not able to focus like she wants. Inability to concentrate, homesick, worries about parents, worries about me. Dislikes power training. Dislikes her powers even more than before. Fearful, terrified of losing control. Hates what she did to Coil. Hates that she wanted to do it.
That was...that was a lot. Too much for Lisa to bring up right after crashing the conversation into a ditch. It was a snarled, tangled knot of issues that could only be picked apart with care and time, daunting even if Lisa was at her best, which, in adjusting to her new life as one of the white hats, she assuredly wasn’t.
Kicker was, Lisa had spent months running and hiding, ducking out on her emotions and concealing the truth. For all the reasons that she’d had, withholding the truth had nearly been the end for them in every sense of the word. She was through with that. No more secrets.
Well. From Corey, anyway.
Start small. If Lisa nudged the talk along, Corey would open up, she just had to ensure she wasn’t forcing anything. There was a difference between her talking because she felt comfortable and her talking because she felt obligated.
“How’s school?” Lisa ventured.
“School’s…” Corey sighed, looking off away. “Tough. It’s tough. Still. Still tough.”
Barring a miraculous 180, Lisa hadn’t expected anything different, but that wasn’t the point. Left to her own devices, Corey would keep everything bottled up in an attempt to keep Lisa from worrying, so she had to prompt her. “Want to vent?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Fuck.” Corey flopped onto the sofa. “Like, I knew this was gonna be hard but—I guess maybe I kinda didn’t. Fuck!” she laughed, a jagged sound that carried no warmth or cheer.
“It’s a lot all at once. You’re allowed to take some time to adapt.”
“I’ve had some time.” Corey started to sprawl, stretching her gangly limbs out, one arm draped across the couch’s backrest, the other trailing on the floor. She made a satisfied huff of released tension. “Three months is long enough to acclimatise.”
Lisa shook her head, the edges of her mouth quirking up. Everything had to be a million miles an hour, didn’t it? “Yeah, to one of the Wards, a new school and city, and moving out from your parents. Not all three.”
Corey groaned. “I know you’re right. I know that’s totally reasonable, but my feelings just—like, they don’t care. I try to tell myself that my grades slipping some is natural, but then I start beating myself about it anyway. Knowing why I’m lonely in the student lodging doesn’t stop me feeling that way.”
A couple of simple remarks, but more than enough to wipe the smile off Lisa’s face. “I’m sorry I can’t be there with you.” Since she already had her GED and in the interests of preventing suspicion with two new transfers at the same time as two new Wards, the PRT hadn’t sent Lisa to school with Corey. Still gave her study and homework to do though. Bastards. “At least it’s only another couple weeks?”
“I’m bombing my finals so hard it’s going to leave craters. I’m totally going to have to repeat.”
“Hey, hey.” Not bothering to glance back at the console, Lisa got up and walked over to her. She leaned over Corey, putting one hand on either shoulder. Tension was bunched up beneath the skin, though Corey relaxed fractionally as Lisa looked down into her eyes. “You’re not going to fail. You’re working really hard and I know you know the material. If you don’t ace the tests, who cares? You’ll have the summer to rest and get your head back where it needs to be, and then you’ll nail it next year.” Lisa tapped Corey on the nose and winked. “So quit worrying!”
A slight smile broke through Corey’s gloom. “I’ll try, no promises.”
Lisa straightened up with a nod. Corey wouldn’t be Corey without caring a whole damn lot about everything, and trying to make her promise not to worry was sketchy at best. Corey gave another small sigh, then started to speak, but was cut off by a foghorn-like alarm, which emitted three long honks.
Great, the mask-up signal, right as Corey was about to share. Her shutters immediately came down, a shadow falling across her face as she sat up. Wordlessly, she dug a hand into her satchel and extracted her mask, which she regarded between her hands for several long seconds. Lisa swallowed, pulling her own domino mask out of her pocket and donning it.
Corey slowly shook her head, and then finally tugged the mask on. It was white on blue, covering much of her face but leaving her mouth and chin exposed and her hair free. The full ensemble looked good on her, and even better when lit up even a little by her power.
Only, Lisa knew that she hated the costume and hated applying her glow to it even more. Lisa knew that after their introduction to the public, back in the dressing room at the venue, Corey had unmasked with trembling hands, puked, then burst into tears.
Lisa reached back over and rested a hand on her shoulder. After a second, Corey covered it with her own.
A couple of minutes passed unmoving before the muffled sound of voices reached them from next door. The alarm gave a lot of warning. One voice was calm and measured, while the other was all over the place, bouncing up and down in pace and volume both. After a brief conversation that wasn’t quite audible through the sound-absorbent door to the console room, the handle turned, and a muscular black man stepped inside. He wore a sleeveless silver costume stencilled with leafy patterns, and his mask was mocked up to resemble a bascinet. Hedge Knight, the second-in-command of the Columbus Protectorate. He gave the two of them a courteous nod, then ushered his companion in after him.
“This is where the Wards monitor each other’s patrols,” he explained to the teenaged girl trailing in his wake, who was wearing one of the plain white domino masks reserved for guests and ‘just in case’ situations. The girl’s clothes were ill-fitting and had seen a lot of use and abuse, ripped jeans and a threadbare black hoodie. Her eyes just barely peeked out behind the floppy dark fringe of her hair, contrasting her pale skin.
“Neat,” she said, one hundred percent of her attention on the two of them. “When do I get to try it?”
“‘Properly understand the risks of your power in order to mitigate them’, right.” She recited the words in a flat monotone just shy of disrespectful, since Lisa suspected they were Hedge Knight’s own.
“Correct.” He seemed unaffected by the sass. Knight exuded the kind of composure that made Lisa itch to attempt to crack, but resisted, given that her good behaviour was not just requested but required. Knight went on, gesturing to her and Corey. “This is Starheart and Gumshoe. They’ve been with us for around three months.”
“I do live in this town, you know. I follow cape news.”
“That doesn’t mean we’ve met,” said Corey, a touch snappishly.
Figments of a smile came and went on the girl’s face. “Spose not. I’m Glitch.”
“You can’t introduce yourself as something new every time you speak to somebody, Jinx. It’s going to cause confusion,” said Knight mildly.
“I wasn’t feeling that one,” said Glitch.
“The codename is only temporary at this stage. You’ll discuss your actual branding with Image.”
“So it doesn’t matter if I switch it around then.”
Hedge Knight didn’t sigh, but Lisa could tell that he wanted to. “Confusion, as I said. Regardless. Starheart, Gumshoe, Glitch here is joining the Wards. We’re running through orientation at the moment.”
Glitch raised a hand. “Bi.”
“No, we aren’t leaving quite yet.”
Corey cracked a very small smile.
Knight’s watch suddenly beeped, and he checked it, then double-taked and checked it again. “Ah… sorry about this, Glitch, but I need to make a quick call. Is that okay with you?”
Surprise, swiftly hidden, flickered across her face. “Uh, yeah, sure dude, you’re in charge, aren’t you?”
Feels nervous, uncertain of self. Masking insecurities with a persona. Used to defense mechanisms, expecting the other shoe to drop, watching for the catch. Feels this is a loaded deal. Feels she didn’t have another option. Has taken loaded deals—
Lisa reeled her power back before it ran across something truly privacy-violating, diverting her attention to the console’s holographic map. She was trying to do better about not digging up every bit of dirt on everyone she met, not least because the PRT had made it clear they’d take a very dim view of her thinkering people’s personal baggage.
She still managed to discover that one of the Protectorate had an entire room of his house dedicated to glass unicorns, but he was a grown man, he could like what he liked.
Hedge Knight, quiet for a moment, shook his head. “I’m not going to leave you alone with people you just met without asking.”
Glitch was prepared this time, not showing even a chink in her cool demeanour. “Sure, sure. Do whatever.”
Knight nodded. “Take a moment to get acquainted. Look after her, you two.” He stepped back out of the room.
Glitch instantly turned back to them and, with a brief once over, pulled her mask right off. “Hi.”
“...Hey.” Corey gave her a hard look.
She shrugged. “It’s not like you wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street now.”
“It’s about the social game,” said Lisa.
She considered. “Fuck that.”
Corey laughed. Lisa smiled, slightly. The girl shrugged again. “Anyway we’re going to be teammates and I’m not wearing this thing 24/7. Itches like crazy.” She stuck out her hand. “Crystal. Chrissy, if you want.”
Corey accepted the shake, but made no move to unmask. “Starheart.”
“She doesn’t like sharing her identity right away,” supplied Lisa. “I’m Gumshoe.” Personally she didn’t care all that much, but would feel bad not showing solidarity with her girlfriend. It’d taken the lion’s share of these last three months for Corey to finally feel comfortable unmasking around all the other Wards. She still refused to allow almost anyone from the PRT or Protectorate to see her face.
“I get that,” said Chrissy. “I just don’t see the point. ‘Specially for me. I’m gonna be living here a while.”
Okay, but did it really count as digging into someone’s baggage if they just pushed it into your face as soon as you met them?
“They’re putting me up, too,” said Lisa casually.
“Heroes or the street. Pretty easy choice.” Corey bristled, but Chrissy didn’t seem to notice. “Anyway, you two are actually the ones I wanted to meet most. You’ve barely showed up since they introduced you. Are you guys like, in the doghouse?”
Lisa and Corey exchanged glances. Officially, Corey needed better control and Lisa’s power wasn’t suited to fieldwork. Unofficially, the Wards had all been briefed immediately that they were on probation.
“I can’t patrol until they trust me,” said Corey blandly.
“Snap,” added Lisa.
“Oh, huh. Okay. I thought you might’ve big time botched something important—” she cut herself off with a snap of the fingers. “Botch! That’s perfect! Hah!” she beamed, then seemed to remember the conversation topic. “So you’re both a pair of baddies, huh? Must be pretty awful, they don't mind Bandersnatch faking like he's gonna bite villains' heads off—”
Corey stepped forward with enough force it echoed. “Shut. Up.”
A dangerous smile quirked Chrissy’s lips, but as they began to shape words, there was a knock on the door. Chrissy carelessly tugged her mask back on, slightly askew. Hedge Knight reappeared. “Ready to go, Glitch?”
“Botch now!” she chirped.
Yet again exhibiting extraordinary patience, Knight simply nodded. “Botch. I like that one.”
“I am a genius.”
“All right. Let’s get going. Thank you for that, you two.”
Lisa waved. “Later, Bitc—Botch! Botch. I said Botch.”
Knight exited, a chuckling Botch in tow.
They both stood there for a second, and then Corey exhaled, and like every ounce of her energy went with the breath, she flopped over the back of the sofa and lay face down on the cushions.
“I’m an asshole,” she muttered.
Lisa sat down on the floor, putting her back against the couch. “She pushed a button. I should know, I push buttons.”
Twisting her head so that her cheek lay flat on the cushion, Corey hissed a sigh. “I didn’t have to react like that. I’m just—I keep trying to tell myself that I’m not a bad person, but I fucking killed someone, Lisa. I crushed him. That’s worse than anything you ever did. I don’t deserve to get upset over—”
“Hey, no.” Lisa shifted, twisting and kneeling up off the ground so she could rest a hand on each of Corey’s shoulders. “It’s not a contest, all right? And you sure as hell deserve to feel anything you want to feel.”
Corey shifted, breaking Lisa’s grip. “I killed someone,” she repeated.
Responses cycled through Lisa’s head as she knelt there, hands bunched to her chest.
‘He deserved it.’
‘You did what you had to do.’
‘He’d have done the same to us.’
She spoke none of them.
“What happened, happened,” she said, at length. “We can wish it went down differently, but we can’t change it. Killing him doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you somebody who made a mistake. I made mistakes too. I could have handled things better that night. I could have been smarter and avoided putting you in that position. I could have been happy with dodging him and calling it a draw. I didn’t. I wasn’t.” At some point, Lisa didn’t know when, she’d risen to her feet, started to stride back and forth. “Yeah, we both fucked up, but we’re still here. We’re here, not dead or arrested in jail. We got a second chance. So, we can let what we did drag us down, let ourselves drown under that weight, and waste that chance, or we acknowledge our mistakes, pick ourselves back up, and we do better.”
For a very, very long time, Corey just looked back at her. Second after second dragged past, Corey’s glistening brown eyes locked on hers. Lisa’s power crowded in, desperate to fill the void with information, illuminate what lay beyond that look. She refused to lend it her ears. She refused to know. She was afraid to know.
Corey stood. Those soulful brown eyes of hers glistened. She shuddered, the world’s tiniest sigh.
“We do better,” she whispered, scooping Lisa up into a fierce hug, bridal style. “Both of us.”
Lisa giggled in relief, looping her arms around Corey’s neck. A thousand emotions flooded through her, but burning through them all was adoration, love. “Of course. What would I do without my knight in shining armour?” Corey snuffled a laugh that was halfway sob, and Lisa sobered.
Meaning it more than she’d ever meant another word, Lisa leaned her head close to Corey’s ear and spoke.