Actions

Work Header

Donjon

Chapter Text

        Some things just couldn’t be fixed, no matter how hard you tried.

        I was sitting bolt upright on my ugly moose-patterned futon. The reflection in the mirror I’d hung from my door locked eyes with me, the muscles of her jaw -my jaw- occasionally twitching with latent tension. The phone in my hands piped out narration from a nature documentary I was only half listening to, most of my attention on the harsh voices of my roommates echoing through the thin walls of our apartment.

        Not gonna be my apartment much longer, I thought, a queasy mixture of shame and relief welling up in the back of my throat. As much as it galled me to go crawling back to my parents after trying so hard to escape their expectations and obligations, I had to admit that finally accepting defeat was a weight off of my back. Bitter though it was, at least I knew how to predict them.

        The door slammed open with no warning, smacking into the doorstop with a bang that made me jump. Ray stood in the threshold, face twisted into a mask of rage. He gave my room a look you’d normally reserve for a rotting garbage heap in the middle of the carpet, and his gaze grew uglier and colder still as it turned on me.

        I froze. My mind raced on a separate track, disconnected from present circumstances. Ray and I sitting on the couch of our old dorm and laughing as we played video games together, bonding through our mutual annoyance with another one of our dorm-mates. Zeroing out of college and moving to a nearby apartment complex while the money I got from student loans slowly ran out. Making a deal with my parents for monetary support while I tried and failed to get a job.

        Ray and two new people -Bill and his girlfriend- moved in a few months ago, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to get things right with them. They’d bothered me any time I was nearby, loudly complained about me right outside my door, yelled at me when I was in the shower, but they’d never forced their way into my room before. Some part of me noted how many dirty dishes there were on the floor, how long I’d procrastinated on washing them. It was just… hard to leave my room sometimes, no matter how much I told myself I needed to clean up.

        I pushed past my shock, forcing myself to my feet and meeting him stare for stare. He was at least half a head taller, with a broader frame and more muscle than me despite not really being an athletic guy.

        “Get out of my room,” I managed, barely keeping my voice from trembling. Something in me whimpered at the noise and emotion, and I could practically hear it babbling and weeping for mercy. I crushed it ruthlessly. I wasn’t going to let anyone treat me like this, no matter how shitty a roommate or how scared I was. Besides, if every time I did what they wanted they got mad about something else...

        It was pointless to try and reason with them.

        “You’re like a child,” Ray said, lips curling into a sneer under his unkempt red beard. “You know how much your little stunt cost?”

        Nothing? I thought, confusion and outrage warring for dominance inside me. A hundred protests sprung to mind, but I kept my mouth shut, contenting myself with glaring at him. All I’d done was press the reset button on the back of the router, easily fixed if they weren’t so busy haranguing me. But I knew that didn’t matter to them, the only thing that mattered was that I’d circumvented one of their ‘punishments’, and now one of them had to put me in my place. I just wished I understood why they hated me so much, wished that I could have prevented this somehow.

        “Sixty dollars a month for our internet,” he said, “and you’d understand what that meant if you didn’t make your fucking parents pay for everything.”

        I ground my teeth, trying not to growl. I hated the way he did that, hammering away at whatever got the most reaction, making out my every action to be some horrible disaster. He didn’t know shit about me, but it still stung.

        “We could shut the power off in your room, you know that right? Maybe then you wouldn’t waste so much money leaving the fucking lights on all the time,” he said in that aggrieved tone he always did, like I was the one being ridiculous, like it was my fault he had to take every opportunity to shout at and belittle me. It was so confusing. I’d tried apologizing, tried offering to set up a chore wheel, tried just cleaning more often, but it felt like nothing I did was enough for them.

        “How can you be so worthless?” he demanded, indicating me with a broad gesture. “You can’t get a job, can’t clean up after yourself, dropped out of college. What are you even trying to do?”

        “I say it’s shit parenting,” offered Bill from out in the hall. “She always got what she wanted, so she expects other people to do everything for her. She’s a disgrace.”

        I set my jaw, blinking tears out of my eyes. I wouldn’t just let them run roughshod over me like I didn’t even matter.

        “I said,” I started, grinding out each word, “get out of my room.”

        “No!” Ray shouted, and I instinctively flinched at his ferocity, the noise ringing painfully in my ears. “You’re such a slob. It’s no wonder there’s flies in the apartment with all the fucking dishes you leave lying around here. How many times do we have to tell you to clean up after yourself?”

        He took a step forward, and even though he was more than a pace away it still felt like he was looming over me. I swallowed, hoping he wouldn’t notice how tense I was. I clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering.

        “You’re like a fucking child,” he said, voice curling around the last word like he’d bitten something sour. I tried not to quail at the quiet menace in his voice.

        “Shut up,” I said.

        “What was that?” he asked sarcastically, voice thick with contempt. “You want me to wipe your ass for you?”

        That was enough. Pushing aside my abject terror, I made myself stand toe to toe with him despite wearing only my nightgown and being outclassed in height, weight, and overall fitness. As broad as Ray was, I could still just barely see past him into the hall where my other roommates, Bill and his girlfriend, were waiting in the wings. I couldn’t watch all of them at once, and I had- I had to get Ray out of my room. In the back of my mind, I cursed whoever built this apartment without locks.

        “Get out!” I shouted, outrage and self-loathing and fear driving me to punctuate my statement by trying to push him out the door.

        He didn’t budge. A cold pit grew in my stomach, and I tried pushing him again. It was useless, like trying to knock over a brick wall with nothing but my body weight and stubbornness. I looked up at his face, eyes wide. He was going to hurt me, I could see it in the way his eyes screwed up in anger, how his body tensed, how his whole face twisted in furious outrage.

        He growled and pushed back harder. Much harder.

        Time seemed to freeze as I fell, and it hit me all at once just how serious the situation was. Bill was starting to crowd in beside Ray, and I didn’t- I just didn’t know what to do. It was too-

        -||-

        Everything went black. Lights out, curtains drawn, props and scenery brought in from backstage with long practiced efficiency.

        I was the audience, and the ink-black stage surrounding me teamed with innumerable fragments of a creature that was the blackness of the stage twisted in on itself until it all but glowed with the tension of it. Each fragment had a place, a purpose in a larger structure, meshed together inextricably like the cogs of a clock or the cells of the human body. Time moved forward in fits and stops as I watched, cast and crew taking their places to patiently await their cue. One of the fragments grew larger and larger in my vision until every horizon held nothing but more of it, crystalline body shifting and adapting its physical form to better withstand atmospheric entry.

        The vision shattered as it made impact, and for a brief moment I saw into an array of possible futures as vast and uncountable as grains of sand in the desert. As it began to slip away I caught a glimpse of a small child in a cluttered room, simulating social interaction with a small army of articulated plastic figures. A door slammed on the other side of the house and she sat bolt upright, every muscle tense.

        -||-

        -much.

        I was falling, Bill still squeezing through the doorway Ray stood in. There was just enough time for me to register a brief sense of something profound before my back collided with the futon and an alien awareness unfolded in my mind. I felt cloth, stuffing and springs compress as though they were an extension of me, could trace the forces of the collision as they transferred from mattress to frame to the carpet my feet were on. The sensations were so detailed, so unexpected, so clear that in spite of everything I spent long seconds too dazzled to do anything but sit there and try to come to grips with whatever this was.

        I distantly registered that Bill was saying something, and his voice echoed back and forth through the enclosed space. I felt each step as he walked forward, and some part of me noted that I could probably give a good estimate of his weight now. He snatched my laptop from where it sat next to me on the futon, spouting off something about how much money I’d cost all of them.

        He made it halfway out of my room before I actually managed to put together what was happening.

        “Stop!” I shouted, or rather tried to shout. It came out as a strangled scream that resounded through my room like audio feedback, and I clutched at my head as if I could somehow relieve the sensory overload by manually clawing it out of my brain. My touch felt so small, so hard to focus on, like trying to think when there were loud noises and crowds and bright lights.

        Acting on instinct, I focused instead on my awareness of the floor in front of him and pushed . A weathered wall of stone bricks and aging wooden supports sprung up from the carpet, blocking Bill’s path and knocking Ray firmly out of my room. The appearance of the wall amplified my awareness of the surroundings and expanded them out into the hallway, the effect akin to someone moving from shouting at me from across the room to shouting directly in my ear. I grit my teeth, struggling to my feet in the hopes of getting rid of the wall or moving it or something ; Bill took advantage of my distraction, squeezing past the barrier and scrambling away with laptop still in hand.

        Standing was like trying to write legibly with my left hand in light so bright that all contrast and definition were lost, but patient persistence allowed me to draw up to my full height inch by agonizing inch. I took my first step and everything went wrong, a wobble sending me teetering toward the floor before I’d even registered that I was falling. Panic rose up like water boiling over the edges of a pot, and I instinctively drew more stone from the floor to break my fall.

        The information overload grew even worse as my hands touched the conjured rock, and this time I couldn’t stop an agonized scream from ripping itself out of my throat. It formed a feedback loop, the noise echoing incessantly and fueling itself from the panic and pain it caused. The surroundings reacted to my distress, constructs of wood and stone and metal sprouting from every surface and amplifying the unfamiliar sensations until I lost all awareness of my body.

        My capacity for conscious thought was reduced to fleeting fragments. The way weight transferred between components of the larger structure, guided safely to the foundations beneath. Someone was screaming, but the noise was strangely muted in the face of the greater whole. Grates, portcullises, mantraps, tripwires, snares, walls and doors and endless twisting corridors. I felt it stretch into the earth beneath, twisting it and hollowing it without undermining the structures above. My senses reached a peak, and I got a glimpse of the whole, the larger structure, everything radiating out from one point on the second floor of what was once a squat apartment building.

        The awareness retreated with agonizing slowness, and I returned to my senses piece by piece. Eventually it seemed to stabilize a few feet out from each point of contact I had with the ground, which in this case was my whole body. My eyes fluttered open and I very briefly thought I’d gone blind before realizing I was completely covered in a thick blanket of stone. I frantically pushed it aside, shocking myself with how easily I moved the ordinarily rigid and very heavy rock.

        The only illumination was the string of Christmas lights I’d pinned to the wall above my bed, but it was more than enough to see that all was not well. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, all of them had been covered and reinforced with grim, sturdy architecture. The light on the ceiling had been sealed completely under the same rough stone construction that covered everything else. The overall effect reminded me of a fantasy dungeon, or one of the castles I’d visited in the UK and Ireland exaggerated to the furthest extent possible.

        What the fuck is happening? I thought, and it was a plea.

        It took a few tries to stagger onto my feet, limbs still shaky from whatever the hell that was. I leaned on my futon for support while I surveyed the room. Mind reeling, I latched onto the laptop that Bill stole from my room. I had to get it back. The wall in the middle of my floor was inconvenient, but I was able to squeeze past it and start unbarring the now far thicker and larger door. Its weight made shifting it a chore, particularly with the extraneous wall keeping it from fully opening.

        I took one step out into the hall and heard a distinct, ominous click. The floor shifted under me the same instant a spring-propelled spear shot out of the floor. It seemed to pass by me in slow motion as I was moved just barely out of the way, stabbing through my nightgown and stretching the thin fabric taut. There was a brief stillness while I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to figure out how to breathe again. Holy shit. Fuck. Shit. I almost just died.

        “Okay Carmin,” I said in a quiet, breathless voice. “Okay. You can do this. You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay.”

        I pulled my nightgown off the roughly forged spear with exaggerated care, saying soothing words to myself in a near whisper. Carmin was my best friend’s nickname for me, reminding myself of him was another way I staved off abject panic. Good memories were like the soothing words or the breathing exercises I’d learned so long ago, tools for navigating my internal landscape in an unpredictable world I’d slowly accumulated and refined over time. As was so often the case, trying to manage the tangled mess of my feelings with the tools at hand was akin to trying to bail out the Titanic with a single bucket.

        Blinking, I realized I’d been standing completely still with my rescued nightgown balled up in my hands for over a minute. That’s enough of that, I thought at myself forcefully, turning to face the darkened hallway. I let my nightgown drop, the pale skin of my stomach just barely visible through the tear in the fabric. Visibility was limited to small cracks of light from the warped windows of our living room to the right, nowhere near enough to navigate by. Instead, I focused on the strange awareness of my surroundings that still dazzled and overwhelmed me at turns.

        I stepped delicately over a tripwire I knew instinctively would activate a flurry of arrows from the wall opposite me, carefully avoided placing my weight on a spiked pit trap covered with false flooring, danced around plates on the floor rigged to send spears stabbing from the walls or ceiling, and eventually I sagged against the wall facing my room less than five feet from where I started. My nose greedily sucked in the stale air, panting more from a roiling mixture of terror and exhilaration than physical exertion. Laying on the floor next to me was an exaggerated bear trap, constructed from what I was pretty sure was wrought iron. It was grey and roughly textured, somehow more brutal for how sturdy and utilitarian it was.

        Was there some way to get rid of it? The contraption was heavy in my hands, enough that I wouldn’t be able to move it easily. Instead I closed my eyes and concentrated on my awareness of the trap and the floor beneath it, trying to send it back to wherever it came from with another push. The wall next to where my hand rested reacted immediately, visibly rippling before unceremoniously spitting out a copy of the trap I’d been trying to get rid of. It clanked to the ground loud enough to make me wince.

        I made an indeterminate, nearly feral sound in the back of my throat. “Jesus fucking Christ, that is the literal exact opposite of what I wanted!” My voice came out as more of a whine than I would have liked, but I just couldn’t seem to stop it. “Please let me fix this, please. I can’t-”

        I shut my mouth with an audible click. This wasn’t helping anything, and I still needed to get my laptop back. Thankfully the traps weren’t as dense as they were outside my door everywhere, mostly clustering around entrances and amenities like mushrooms rather than being spread out evenly. Some more improvised aerobics got me up to the door to Bill and his girlfriend’s -I could never remember her name- room. I knocked loudly, my foot tapping with impatience and agitation.

        “Bill!” I yelled roughly through the thick wood separating us. “Where’s my fucking laptop? You know taking things without people’s permission is stealing, right? You’ll note that I’m not barging into your room even after you fucking stole from me. Maybe something to think about.”

        I growled, knocking louder. The door slammed open despite its weight, a very angry Bill shoving his way into the hall and forcing me to back up a few steps lest I be pushed over. His girlfriend was briefly visible cowering in their room with a flashlight before the door shut closed behind him. He held a light of his own, anger making it periodically shake and send strange shadows cascading down the short hallway and into the rest of the twisted apartment beyond.

        “Carmilla,” he spat, somehow making my chosen name sound like a vile curse. “You fucking freak.”

        He didn’t say anything else, the icy hate in his eyes all the warning I got before he advanced on me again. I backed up into the hallway to try and get away from him, a distant part of me noting how my surroundings seemed to react to my distress. The ground and walls around me undulated faster than I could scramble back, brushing aside spring loaded blades and small thickets of razor wire before I bumbled into them.

        I tripped near the end of the hallway, too scared and distracted to properly break my fall. The stone floor felt oddly soft as I landed flat on my ass, staring up at a man that had humiliated and mocked me for months. I remembered an argument I’d had with him and his girlfriend after they’d cut off my access to the internet, his smug self-righteousness had gotten to be too much for me and I’d just screamed wordlessly at them. He’d sneered and said I was crazy.

        A step forward on his part brought my awareness stuttering back into the present, the light of his flashlight briefly blinding and leaving me blinking spots out of my eyes. My heart tried to thud out of my chest as he loomed over me with a cold smile and said something I flat-out refused to process or comprehend. Everything fled my mind except the need to make him stop, to make everyone stop hurting me . I’d felt the floor under me like it was one of my limbs since I’d woken up in my room, but desperation was what drove me to try moving it like one of my limbs. Stone flowed around Bill like a living thing, binding his limbs and covering him up to the neck in an unyielding prison.

        The ground beneath me rose up as well, buoying me and helping return me to my feet. I walked up to the futilely struggling Bill and placed my hand on the rock surrounding him, realizing instinctively that if I wished it I could just squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze and reduce him to a fine paste. There was a moment -several moments if I was being honest- where it could have gone either way, but I forced myself to step back and really think about it. Was he really worth it? More importantly, was that the sort of person I wanted to be? The answer to both questions was a pretty clear no. So it was that I sighed and carted the immobilized Bill back to his room, unceremoniously dumping him back with his terrified looking girlfriend.       

        “All of you wait in here,” I said, voice firm, if still a little rough. “I’m gonna see what I can do about the traps.”

        Without waiting for a response I shut the wall back up. My room was a mess, and I knocked over a small stack of dishes in my haste to put on a pair of flannel-patterned pajama pants and grab my phone. I’d be needing the light.

        The hall was still covered in traps when I left my room and shut the heavy wooden door behind me, its hinges squeaking and groaning in protest. I moved forward with soft, precise steps, paying close attention to my sense of my surrounding to locate traps. I couldn’t figure out any way to get rid of them completely, but it only took me a few minutes to shove the mantraps and tripwires into the walls where they wouldn’t be able to do any immediate harm.

        Unfortunately my work wasn’t over, the kitchen and living room had been transformed too. The traps seemed to have sprung up in thick patches wherever there was likely to be foot traffic, largely sparing rooms with only one entrance but rendering the apartment’s kitchen, entrance, and seating areas completely inaccessible.

        Inaccessible for anyone else anyway, I thought as I had a slow wave of stone surge up beneath me and glide over a hidden pit of spikes in front of the door. A few more waves cleared off the center of the living room and freed Ray’s cat from behind the couch. The kitchen was dealt with in a similar fashion, and I let myself relax a little as the last few snares were cleared away. It had been, to put it mildly, a really goddamn stressful day, but I could at least breathe a sigh of relief that no one had gotten seriously hurt.

        Of course that was the moment I heard a very distinctive crunch from the apartment below me, followed shortly thereafter by agonized screaming. It wasn’t my ears that heard the sound, but the stones beneath my feet.

        The floor opened up, and I landed softly on the unyielding stone below. My phone was out a moment later, and what I saw drove the breath from my gut like a punch. A guy with short brown hair had gotten caught in one of my power’s mantraps, its crudely forged iron teeth digging deeply into his calf, and every attempt on his part to remove it only worsened the damage. The light attracted his attention, and even with how dim it was I could that his eyes were wild, shifting back and forth like a spooked horse.

        For precious seconds I froze, some part of me unwilling to comprehend what was happening. Someone was bleeding out right in front of me, arguably because of me. I’d never taken a first aid class, never learned anything beyond the absolute basics of treating wounds, but he was here and there wasn’t anyone else. So what did I know? I knew that removing the trap was a bad idea even if I could do it safely, since then the stab wounds would start bleeding even more freely. I knew that the first priority was stopping the bleeding, preferably with a clean cloth. What could I do immediately?

        “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I said, mostly to myself, restraining the stranger’s limbs as gently as I could manage. That done, I wrapped a stone tourniquet just below his knee as tightly as I could manage without risking permanent harm. He’d probably have some serious bruising but it was better than bleeding to death.

        I have to hurry, I thought, and began searching around furiously for something to staunch the bleeding. There wasn’t anything in arm’s reach, but as I searched I started to realize that I remembered this apartment. The ground gave me a small boost with each step as I practically leaped to the hallway closet. There was a first aid kit, but it had been crushed by the added layer of stone bricks. A few shelves below were some clean towels, which I grabbed. After a bit of fiddling I managed to retrieve a bottle of disinfectant from the remains of the first aid kit and hurried back over to the man I’d unintentionally maimed.

        My phone didn’t provide enough light, so I set down my items onto a small stone platform made for the purpose and had the ground beneath me rise high enough for me to grab onto the ceiling. The stone flowed down my arms and pulled me up, giving me the leverage to get my feet into the ceiling as well. I practically swam through the ceiling upside down, the material curled around my limbs letting me move reasonably quickly despite the awkward angle. With a bit of digging I pulled the room’s light fixture from its erstwhile tomb and the room was immediately illuminated, the change sudden enough that spots in my vision remained when I turned away.

        I dropped back down, and very nearly regretted lighting the room back up when I saw the full extent of his wounds. Hands shaking, I took a towel from the small table I made and pressed it onto the wound as gently as I could manage. Blood got onto my hands, onto the carpet, onto my nightgown, and he howled with pain, thrashing against his bonds. I winced at the noise but pressed forth regardless, knowing I’d never forgive myself if I let someone die in front of me. The towel eventually soaked through and I set it aside, washing the wounds out with some of the antiseptic I’d retrieved.

        The tourniquet seemed to be working, after the blood he’d already lost got mopped up I could tell the bleeding had stopped or at least slowed to a trickle. I pressed a clean towel into the wound just in case, flinching at the pained, feverish whimper he let out in response. I turned away, trying to focus on what needed to be done.

        Once no one was dying I hastily dealt with the traps in the apartment, not bothering to keep things pretty. Remembering the apartment I was in let me realize the full extent of what had happened. When my power had manifested its range had briefly spread out over the entire building and some of the surrounding area, which was probably why it had almost completely incapacitated me. Dozens of people were affected directly or indirectly, and I had no idea how to fix it before anyone else got hurt.

        It was the largest disaster I’d ever been directly involved in, with multiple lives on the line. Still, I found myself strangely calm. I was determined to keep anyone else from getting hurt, and that sense of purpose let me push aside the panic and self-doubt that threatened to crush me.

        “Who the fuck are you!?” asked a panicked voice down the hall.

        My head whipped around, and I saw a woman around my age poking her head out of her room, eyes bugging out at me. It was just a hunch, but I suspected it was because I was a complete stranger covered in blood that had appeared in her apartment just after the entire building turned into a death labyrinth.

        “I’m Carmilla,” I said, the words coming out of my mouth before I even had a chance to think about secret identities. “My power went completely out of control and I’m trying to fix it. Be on the lookout for traps, I tried to get them all but there were a lot.”

        She slowly emerged from her room, still kind of gaping at me.

        “What—how does that even happen?” she asked, her voice incredulous.

        I shrugged, not knowing how else to respond. She ran to her roommate’s side, kneeling next to him.

        “I did what I could,” I said, “which I’m afraid wasn’t much. Please watch him, make sure he doesn’t bleed out. I need to make sure no one else gets hurt.”

        She slowly nodded and I shot off to the apartment next door, simply pushing myself through the wall instead of bothering with going around. As quick as I could I neutralized its traps with waves of rock and moved on to the next one. I flung myself upward and crawled into the apartment above, only taking a couple moments to get my bearings and start dealing with the traps. Every surface I touched or pushed off of acted like an idealized trampoline, absorbing the force or pushing back precisely as needed. It let me travel at dizzying speeds, each leap potentially crossing dozens of feet even indoors.

        The third to last apartment was on the other side of the building from mine; it had taken me several agonizing minutes to work my way there, and each passing second pressed down on me like a thick choking miasma. I closed the wall behind me and literally leapt into action, an arm above my head to keep the ceiling from colliding with it. I needn’t have worried though, as I crashed into someone’s back before reaching the apex of my jump.

        The breath was knocked out of me immediately and both of us went sprawling across the stone floor. Thankfully I didn’t hear any traps go off where they landed, though they did make a pained ‘oof’ sound.

        “I am so sorry!” I blurted out as soon as I had breath, “Are you okay? I really really didn’t mean to slam into you.”

        “What the hell?” they asked with a feminine voice. “How the shit did you get in my apartment?”

        “Uhm, I’m sort of the person responsible for all this,” I said, gesturing pointlessly at the walls around us, “So I’ve been going around trying to fix things. I really am sorry.”

        “Okay, uh, thanks? I think I’m okay aside from some bruises,” she said, sounding as confused and overwhelmed as I felt, “But I heard some screaming a bit ago from the apartment next door, you might wanna check that out.”

        I felt a chill and sprung into action, trusting my memories of the building to guide me as I leapt around dealing with her apartment’s traps. Before leaving I pulled the living room’s light out of the ceiling, it was the best thing I could think to make up for knocking her over on short notice.

        The wall to the next apartment opened up, and the air coming out of it carried the sharp metallic scent of blood. Light spilled into the room beyond, revealing yet another twisted set of rooms rendered hostile to human habitation. I walked out into a living room that was once much like my own, and was now arguably even more similar. To my left was a hallway leading to bedrooms much like the ones in my own apartment. There was a pale thirty-something man in front of the hallway’s entrance, his left leg stuck in the ground up to his thigh.

        It was a simple but effective design, a layer of weakened rock above a small pit lined with spikes. All it had likely taken was him putting his full weight on it for a single step and his leg would have gone through, the spikes cutting into it and punishing any attempt to escape with further injury. There was a woman around his age repeatedly trying and failing to pull him out, her attempts incessant but utterly exhausted.

        I was by her side before I even realized it, and I could see that the man was still breathing, albeit weakly. He’d lost enough blood to develop an unhealthy pallor, and it dawned on me that he was almost certainly going to die before any ambulances arrived.

        The knowledge that I’d likely failed weighed down my gut like a ball of lead as I did my best to bandage his wounds with the stone around his leg. It was far from ideal, and I knew it was probably pointless, but I felt like I’d have gone crazy if I hadn’t done something. Once I did what I could I sat on the ground with a muted thump, too exhausted for anything else.

        I felt putrid. That was the word my mind kept circling back to again and again as it tried coming to grips with the fact that I’d hurt and killed people, whether directly or indirectly. It seemed like it should have been impossible, that was how strongly it clashed with my own image of myself. Almost unwillingly my mind began tracing back the cause and effect that had led to me kneeling on the floor of a stranger’s apartment, blood spattering my arms and clothing. The trigger event itself hadn’t been possible to predict, but I could have just not been in that situation in the first place. More importantly I’d wasted precious time getting my bearings and screwing around when lives were on the line, even though I hadn’t known it at the time. Perhaps most damning was that I’d never ended up going to a first aid class, even though it could have probably saved lives. The man I’d failed to save had paid the price for my ignorance and lack of preparation.

        “John?” asked the woman holding him, her voice almost a whisper. “Please don’t leave me alone, not now. Please.”

        When there was no response her head slowly lifted up, and she pierced me with a look that could have melted a hole through a block of tungsten.

        “You killed him,” she said, and her words were as quiet and unyielding as the stone beneath us.

        My mouth worked open and closed like a beached fish as I searched for something to say to make it better, to try and salvage this situation or offer some sort of comfort. There was nothing, though, and eventually my head bowed under the weight of my shame.

        “I am so, so sorry,” I said eventually, my voice barely above a whisper.

        She didn’t deign to respond, and after enduring a few moments of tense silence I all but fled from her. Clearing out the last apartment in the building was thankfully uneventful, and I practically swam up to the roof of the building with my power pushing me along. I started shivering almost immediately, the chilly November morning air easily slicing through my soaked nightgown. Hands shaking from far more than cold, I mechanically turned on my smartphone and dialed ‘911’.

        It rang twice before I got a response.

        “911, what’s your emergency?”

        “I uh, I think I may have just had a trigger event. You might wanna send a couple ambulances.”

Chapter Text

     “Are you at Rock Maple Village?” she asked immediately.

     I blinked. “Uh, yes. How did you know that?”

     “We’ve already received several calls about an incident in the area.”

     “Oh,” I responded, numb. That made sense. I had, after all, ruined an entire apartment building.

     “Can you tell me what happened?” she asked, her voice oddly gentle.

     I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came to mind. I stared out over the bizarrely ordinary apartments across from my own, though there were a few tall trees blocking the view. People were shouting and pointing, some of them seeming to gesture toward me. An idea kept circling my mind -spinning round and round like bubbles circling a drain- I wondered what would happen if I just laid down and didn’t move or speak or do anything.

     I’d be put somewhere eventually, I thought, maybe one of those parahuman asylums. No doubt horribly underfunded and poorly managed at best, or abusive and dangerous at worst. And with a chill, I realized that no asylum would be able to safely contain me; my power would be able to twist it into a nightmare at any moment, and I had no illusions about how long I’d stay in control while being trapped in one of the least pleasant places I could imagine. Given all that, catatonia should probably stay as Plan F.

     “-still there, sir?” the woman on the other end was saying.

     “Ma’am,” I corrected automatically. How long had she been talking? Fuck. “You uh, you wanted to know what happened? I’m sorry, I sort of zoned out for a bit.”

     “My apologies, ma’am,” she said, sounding refreshingly sincere, “and you’re doing just fine. Can you tell me what you were doing this morning?”

     Swallowing the lump in my throat, I gave a halting summary of the events leading up to everything that happened. How I completely zeroed out of college and ended up in a nearby apartment with some former dormmates. I talked about how it started with little things, like them being upset about lights being left on and me being more stubborn about it than I probably should have been. But they’d kept finding things to be upset about, and they’d kept escalating their responses. It got to the point where I was afraid of leaving my room, knowing with complete certainty that no matter what I did they’d find some reason to yell at me. I tried washing dishes and then putting them directly into the cupboard and got a sarcastic rant about my stupidity that made me cry. They cut off my access to the internet by changing the WiFi password.

     “And that was when… ” I took a few deep, fortifying breaths. “That was when Ray burst into my room. He refused my repeated requests for him to leave, so I eventually tried pushing him out.” An abrupt, humorless laugh pushed its way out of my throat. “It didn’t work. He, um, he pushed back. That was, that was when it happened.”

     I trailed off, keeping myself together by the thinnest of threads. I wasn’t sure if I could actually make myself continue. The problem with that was that I had to keep going, the state of the apartment was vital information for the emergency responders I knew were on their way. If they didn’t know what was going on they wouldn’t be able to help the people with injuries still inside, and I wouldn’t -couldn’t- fail again.

     “I saw something, and then my brain got completely flooded with information. For uhm, maybe a couple minutes? I was on the ground screaming, convinced I was having some kind of stroke. Eventually it reduced or I got used to it or something, but when I came to the entire apartment was twisted. It got warped into some kind of death labyrinth filled with deadly traps.”

     My voice continued mechanically, recounting everything that happened as best as I could remember it. I was reminded of all the times I’d heard how unreliable witness testimony was as I struggled to recall the details of events that happened only a few minutes ago. A strange thought to have, but it was better than thinking about the way the blood had tasted in the air, remembering the awful smell when I’d retched in reaction. A woman’s accusing eyes as she held the body of a man I’d failed to save. A man I’d as good as killed. Despite all of this I still felt something approaching calm.

     The numbness I was feeling was a defense mechanism, long practiced. It was called dissociation, the way I somehow cut myself off from my own emotions and sense of my body. The feelings were still there, still affected my behavior, but I didn’t truly feel them. It was a very brittle calm, something inherently temporary.

     I blinked. When had I stopped talking? Right, the last apartment. I took a few fortifying breaths.

     “Ma’am?” the woman asked, sounding concerned. Just that, just that little bit of sympathy, nearly shattered my calm facade.

    Just a little longer, I thought, not sure whether it was true. Just finish your report and you can rest.

        “Sorry, thinking,” I said, some of my shame leaking through my voice. “I got to the second last apartment, and, um.” I took a few more breaths, slowly rocking myself. “There was, uh, a guy. He’d uh, he’d fallen into a spike trap and I could tell he’d lost a lot of blood because of how pale he was, and,” I trailed off, unable to continue. “He didn’t, I.” A sob escaped my throat. Another.

     I pulled in a few desperate gasps of breath, knowing I’d never be able to finish if I didn’t get it out now. “And.” A breath. “He.” Another. “Didn’t.” I wheezed out. “Make it.” My voice was almost a whisper.

     The dam broke, and I freely wept, eager to find some release for my pain and confusion. On the phone the poor woman tried making consoling noises, but I didn’t think there was a force on earth that could have stopped me from wailing my heart out. Each time it felt like I was starting to calm down a new facet of how fucked up everything was presented itself to me and I started crying even harder. I was a failure. Far worse, I was a killer, a murderer. It was all so horribly horribly wrong. Weren’t powers supposed to be a good thing?

     Why, then, did it feel like I’d become some kind of monster? What if I were the sort of parahuman that had to be kept away from people, the kind that was dangerous just to be near? Even knowing it was for the best, would I be willing to be contained, kept from society? I turned the thought over in my head again and again, and felt a chill creep up my spine as I came to a disturbing realization. I wouldn’t.

     Things had gotten dark suddenly. I stood up in alarm, and immediately banged my head into a ceiling that hadn’t been there a second ago. My power protected me, shaping the stone to safely and gently disperse the force. I tore out of the wall in a rush, frantically checking to make certain there weren’t any traps where people could wander into them. As far as I could tell it had only affected a small part of the roof, encasing me in a tiny shelter bristling with spikes and surrounded by several spring-loaded mantraps.

     Why had that happened? Did my power react to my emotions? It certainly seemed plausible, the times it had gone out of control had been moments of blind panic or abject despair. Perhaps that meant it was something I could control, or at least predict. It was one of the very few comforting thoughts I’d had recently, so I tried to cling to it. After that outburst and crying for a few minutes I felt a little more centered, a little more like myself, so I turned my thoughts back to the things I could do something about.

     My glasses were all gross and smeared from getting scratched up and cried on. I hadn’t shaved properly, and I was… I was still covered in blood. My nightgown clung to me uncomfortably, and the unsettling sticking sensation was made worse by the knowledge of how it had gotten in that state. So the first thing I needed to do was clean myself up.

     The knowledge that help was on the way -which would no doubt include the local Protectorate capes Snap and Judgement- only made it feel more urgent. It might have been irrational but I just couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else seeing me like this, let alone two women I genuinely respected. It felt like I’d already made a rather poor impression on that 911 responder -blubbering instead of giving accurate information- and that really wasn’t the sort of precedent I wanted to set for my future cape career. My head snapped up, and I realized that when I’d accidentally sepulchered myself my phone had dropped the call with the poor woman. It would probably be a good idea to call her back and let her know I hadn’t gone on a killing spree.

     I stared at the phone in silence, the wind whipping at my hair, repeatedly blowing it in my face. It wasn’t really quiet. Aside from the wind there were general cries of alarm and exclamations of surprise, no doubt because of the massive fucking death fortress that just appeared in the middle of an apartment complex next to the Evergreen State College. How many of those exclamations were pointing at me? Did I have any hope of maintaining a secret identity after something like this? In truth, I wanted to run away. I wanted none of this to be happening. I wanted to bury my head in the sand and wait for all the badness to go away.

     That wasn’t an option, and I knew it wasn’t an option. So, with painful slowness, I managed to talk myself into calling her back. Someone picked up, and a short explanation got me transferred back to the woman I was talking to before.

     “Sorry about that,” I started. “My power flared up and I temporarily lost the signal.”

     “You’re fine,” she replied. “Emergency services should be arriving in just a few minutes, can you make sure there’s easy access to the people trapped in the apartment?”

     “Uh,” I said, frantically racking my brain for how I’d accomplish such a thing, “Yeah, yeah I can do that. Would some stairs work? For like, the second story I mean.”

     “Stairs should be fine,” She said slowly, sounding somewhat dubious, “But be careful.”

     “I will.” I said, with utter sincerity. I wasn’t going to let my carelessness get someone hurt ever ever again. “What’s your name?”

     “Jeannine,”

     “Thank you Jeannine, you’ve been very helpful. I’m Carmilla.”

     “Good luck Carmilla, please take care of yourself.”

     “I will,” I said, nodding sharply. It was time to get to work.

     I crossed the top of the building with a determined stride, a plan beginning to form in my mind. Something about how I thought had changed, had improved somehow. Humans were very good at remembering locations, could navigate familiar areas after being away for decades, and could learn new locations after only a few encounters with one. My power was something else entirely. As easily as seeing my own hand in front of my face, I could visualize the entire building’s layout from the foundations to the peak. Everything I’d observed was included, whether it was with my eyes or my power. With that kind of information available to me, figuring out where my apartment was was beyond trivial.

     The ceiling above my room opened up, and I landed soundlessly on the lumpy floor. The impromptu skylight gave me a good view of the damage. And damage was a good word for it with how mangled my shelf was. I shook my head, tromping to the closet with a forlorn expression dragging down my face. With some effort I managed to extract a dress and jacket from the new architecture, and eagerly stripped off my bloodstained clothing.

     I took a few moments to gently rock in place, arms wrapped tightly around my rib cage. I hated how wide it was -it made me feel like some kind of reverse orangutan, especially with my relatively short arms- but even that old frustration felt petty next to everything that had just happened. Things were calm at the moment but I knew, knew to my bones, that this shit show of a day would be seared into my brain forever. My teeth were grinding, I noted. I made them stop.

     Slow, deep, breaths. Just in through the nose and slowly whistle it out. My hand was twitching, and before I quite realized what was happening a scream tore itself out of my throat. As if to accompany it a ring of iron spikes sprouted around me with a sound of tearing metal, several stabbing straight through the futon I’d been sleeping on for the last five months or so. I growled savagely, unable to think past the need to express months of bottled anger and self loathing. I tore chunks out of the wall as if it were wet clay, mangled what was left of my futon beyond recognition, kicked furrows in the floor as easily as most people kicked sand around at the beach, created abstract sculptures and tore them apart.

     Minutes later I stood in the ruins of the ruins of my apartment. I was breathing heavily, and as I started to calm down I was ashamed to realize how much time I’d wasted on what amounted to a temper tantrum. The clothes I’d gotten out were still fine, so I put them on. The jacket was a royal purple that was more distinctive than I’d have preferred, but given everything that had happened I doubted I had much hope of maintaining a secret identity. I supposed the Protectorate might be able to arrange something anyway; my understanding was that this was exactly the sort of situation they were around for. With that thought, I finished tying up my sneakers and prepared for the most difficult part of my plan: actually making myself leave my room.

        People need help, I thought, If I just hide in my room they might die before the paramedics can get to them.

     That was enough. I visualized the hall beyond my door, the challenges I might face, imagined the sets of stairs I needed to build. The images brought a sense of clarity and focus, every step I needed to take laid out in front of me; it was all a lot less daunting when I knew what to do. The heavy door opened with a miserable creak and I stepped into the cold stone hallway, every muscle on my back taut with anxiety. My roommates were quietly discussing something in what used to be our living room -too quiet for me to make out the exact words- but the cold anger in their voices was unmistakable.

     I fretted for a moment or two, then went into the bathroom across the hall. The entry had two sinks facing each other, each with its own mirror. I went to the one on the left, and took a couple minutes to wash and shave my face. I grimaced at the bumps on my skin, the consequences of my haste. There was no helping it, so I drew myself up and walked into the light just in front of the hole in the floor. It was hard, but I managed not to shrink under my roommates’ scrutiny. I started filling the hole back up with the wood my power made, more as an excuse to look away from them than anything else.

     “So,” said Ray, dashing my hope that they’d just silently watch me leave. “Just when are you planning on fixing this?”

     When he said ‘this’ he made a gesture encompassing the whole room, as if he thought I wouldn’t have fixed it already if I could have. I knew it was pointless, but I couldn’t help but correct him.

     “I can’t,” I said, my voice coming out as cold and flat as a tombstone. I hadn’t intended to sound that harsh, but the flicker of uncertainty on their faces was satisfying enough to keep me from retracting it.

     My roommates exchanged a silent look, apparently hoping that one of the others was up to confronting the newly minted parahuman. I shook my head.

     “Look, I’m not up to dealing with your bullshit right now. I need to make sure the paramedics can get to the people that need help, so just get out of my way and soon enough you’ll never have to see me again.”

     Bill drew himself up, jaw tensing, but his girlfriend laid a hand on his arm and he swallowed whatever it was he had to say. They contented themselves with glaring as they moved back into the living room proper. I let out a quiet breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding and walked out onto our tiny porch, closing the door behind me with a thump.

         Assholes, I thought. A few deep breaths let me move my focus back onto the task at hand, the clarity of seeing each step laid out in front of me. The apartment complex I’d lived in for the last five or six months was more of a grouping of large houses divided into different living spaces than it was one big building. My own building had about eight separate apartments in it, two floors with four each. The ground floor was more or less accessible after I’d removed the traps, but the stairs leading up had been warped to be treacherous and narrow. Definitely not safe for rescue workers, let alone the people they’d come to help.

     I walked out onto the stairwell, enduring stares from what had turned into a rather large crowd of people. The only thing seeming to hold them back from crowding right up to the building itself was a thin line of black vans and black uniforms. The Parahuman Response Team had finally arrived, and I really hoped they weren’t here to arrest me.

     Fixing the stairs, or at least bringing them up to OSHA compliance, turned out to be far easier than I’d feared. Underneath the augmentations my power had added the original architecture was largely unchanged, and all I needed to do was command it to slough off and gather in front of me. Shaping things with my power was practically effortless, somewhere between moving my own muscles and molding wet clay. The stone was gathered into an out of the way pile on the ground floor and I moved to the next set.

     The other stairways were more of the same, though practice made each attempt a little smoother. When I finished I stood awkwardly in front of the building with no idea of what to do with myself. After a moment I half-fell, half-sat on the ground, my feelings a chaotic mess I had no hope of unpacking. A few minutes later I heard sirens, which meant the rest of the emergency services had finally arrived. I stared at the ground, unable to summon the energy to think about what happened or what was going to happen. It was too much.

     Time passed. The injured -and the dead- were extracted from their tombs and loaded into ambulances, and the crowd started slowly drifting away. Snap was snaking in and out of the different apartments to make sure they didn’t have any more nasty surprises. She moved with a lithe grace that attracted my attention even through the fugue I was in, her scaled armor giving her a distinctly reptilian cast. There were a hundred things I wasn’t up to asking her right now, not while I was this… discombobulated.

        Discombobulated is a good word, I thought, smirking dully.

        Someone was talking to me but I just couldn’t bring myself to focus on the words. It was too much. They tugged my hand, and I stumbled to my feet. We started walking, and eventually I got led to a cheap armchair patterned with an appropriately cliched floral print. I would know, I was wearing a dress with one. I dropped unceremoniously in the chair, realizing for the first time that someone had put one of those emergency blankets around my shoulders. It looked a little odd over my jacket but I appreciated the gesture anyway.

        I came to, just a little, and finally registered that there were other people around me. There was a man taking a seat across from me, wearing a light blue costume with a simple rounded triangle on his chest pointing toward his left arm. A play button maybe? Standing behind him was a broadly built man wearing a distinctly combat-ready costume in stark black and white, all hard planes and utility pouches. He had a gun at his side, I noted with some discomfort. Were they the ones who’d led me here?

        Someone put a hand on my shoulder and I shrieked, practically jumping out of my skin. My power was faster on the draw, the floor underneath my seat shifting me to the side and erecting a wall where I’d just been sitting fast enough to make my head spin. I quivered with tension, suddenly unable to keep still, my eyes darting around for an escape route. A moment later it melted into utter mortification when I realized just who had startled me in the first place. It was Snap, probably here to check on me.

        “I am very sorry for startling you,” she said, speaking with deliberate slowness. “It is a terrible habit of mine, and was not meant in malice.”

        “It’s okay.” I said, taking a deep breath. I thought about that for a moment. “Actually, none of this is okay. Not even a little bit. But it’s not your fault, and I accept your apology.”

        She smiled under her mask and suddenly my embarrassment didn’t seem so important. It was a very nice smile.

        “Thank you,” she said, giving a small bow. “I simply wished to make certain you were well before leaving on my patrol.”

        “Leaving?” I asked, trying not to sound as disappointed as I felt.

        “I am afraid so,” She said, her smile turning wry, “The work of a hero… it is never done. But I leave you in capable hands; Playback and Hard Reset are among the kindest, most capable individuals I know.” She punctuated that last statement with a hard look toward the men in question, as if daring them to contradict her in word or deed.

        “I’m glad you noticed,” the man in blue -Playback?- said dryly. “After five years at Watchdog without so much as a commemorative statue I was starting to think no one appreciated us. And HR? You might want to take care of that wall before the landlady yells at us again.”

        The man in armor -presumably Hard Reset- walked up to the stone wall my power had summoned and gave it a swift kick. The next instant it was gone, the floor exactly as it was before I’d messed with it. I frowned. Why hadn’t my chair been affected? He gave Playback a sharp nod and returned to his spot with deliberate casualness.

         Guess he’s not much of a talker, I thought. I could understand that, though I had trouble keeping my mouth shut at times. Even when I really really should.

        “Thank you Hard Reset,” Snap said, turning to me. “I must be going now, but I implore you to keep in touch.” With that, she put a small card on a table next to her and turned on her heel.

        “Wait,” I said before I thought better of it. “Uhm, could I have a hug?” I shut my mouth before I could blurt anything else out.

        Snap looked thrown for a moment, but quickly recovered with one of her winning smiles. “Of course you can have a hug. But only if you’re certain.”

        I got up, but before I could take more than a couple steps she was there with her arms wide open. Her armor was cold and a little pokey, but it was still a damn good hug. Strangely, the knowledge that she could snap my spine like a toothpick at any moment didn’t detract from it at all. A few moments later I stepped back, and I realized with some embarrassment that I was actually tearing up a little. I never thought I’d actually get to meet -let alone hug- one of my childhood heroes, even if it was under horrible circumstances. It was just really nice.

       “You are very brave you know,” she said quietly.

        I blinked. I hadn’t expected her to say that. “What do you mean?”

        “I mean that you could have run away and hid. But you didn’t. Had you not acted, many more would have died this day.”

        “If I hadn’t been there at all no one would have died.”

        She gave me a wan smile. “I know how you feel,” She said, her voice serious, “It is a terrible thing for someone to die when you know you could have saved them. But please, please remember that you are not responsible for that man’s death, no matter how it might feel. You did not choose to manifest powers when you did, you did not choose to harm anyone, and you took every effort to preserve life and health in terrible circumstances. You are a hero Carmilla. Don’t forget that.”

        Giving me a sharp nod, she turned and walked away, leaving me with my thoughts and two capes I didn’t know. Not that I knew Snap but… honestly I was mostly uncomfortable because they were both men. Perhaps it was unfair, but as they said ‘Once bitten, twice shy’ and I’d been metaphorically bitten more times than I could easily count.

Chapter Text

        The door closed behind Snap. I took my time turning back around, my gaze noting every nook and cranny of the cheap building. It was divided into three sections; there was a large lobby in the center with cheap armchairs scattered around, on my right was a small office where the landlady worked, and last was a little kitchen opposite the office. It was comfortable, predictable, scrubbed clean of harsh contrasts and bright colors. And yet I was terrified.

        My body thrummed with a nervous energy. I paced. It was damn near impossible for me to keep still like this. I’d managed to avoid thinking about what was going to happen - what the consequences of my failure would be- but I wasn’t going to be able to keep that up forever. Didn’t I consider myself a rationalist? Or at least, someone that aspired to know true things? It was time to start thinking about my future. I’d had enough of being pushed around by outside forces and my own neuroses, I was so goddamn tired of failure, so fucking done with treading water and hoping for the best.

        The capes - the handlers- seemed content to wait quietly while I worked through my issues. Playback sat with legs crossed and hands in his lap, giving me a disarming smile when I looked his way. His partner, on the other hand, practically radiated danger. He looked strong - strong enough to easily overpower me- confident, and well-equipped; that was without even considering his powers, which he’d quite happily displayed could remove any of the defenses I set up. What were his limits? Touch, perhaps? What determined what he could reset and how much? There just wasn’t enough information for me to know for sure.

        I halted that train of thought, shaking my head. What was I thinking? Was I really planning to fight a pair of Protectorate heroes? What would that accomplish? I went to the kitchen, hoping a little solitude would help get my thoughts in order. The counter looked like polished granite, but a touch revealed it was only a thin layer over cheap composite wood. I closed my eyes, trying to mentally travel back to somewhere safe, to the small rooms and offices where I’d talked for the first time about feelings that had lain dormant and buried most of my life. In that, at least, I had no regrets.

        I pushed my chair back into place and sat down, taking a sip of water to try and cover my nervousness. Not that it mattered, probably. Didn’t he say he was in Watchdog? That was where they put powerful thinkers, wasn’t it? I wondered what his power was.

        “Hello Carmilla,” Playback said, keeping his hands still. “I’m afraid we haven’t properly introduced ourselves, with everything that’s happened. My name is Playback. Are you familiar with what a thinker is?”

        “Yeah, I think so. They’re capes that know things they shouldn’t be able to. Like enhanced skills or seeing the future.” I’d read up on a lot of cape stuff over the years, given how goddamn fascinating it all was, but I’d been disappointed to find almost nothing aside from the basics everyone knew. Each source seemed to contradict the others, and sometimes themselves.

        “That’s right. I have the ability to see into people’s pasts, further back the more I interact with them. My power works automatically to create these recordings, but I choose whether to look through each history. Are you following me so far?”

        “Yes,” I said, not certain I wanted to know where he was going with this.

        “Good,” he said, giving me a wry smile. “I’m here to interview you and figure out exactly what happened and why. Think of it as an informal debriefing. Next, we’re going to talk about your options and figure out a plan for the future. Any questions so far?”

        “Am I-” My voice caught in my throat, my mouth suddenly dry. I took a sip of water and continued more quietly. “Am I going to be in trouble?”

        There was almost nothing I feared more than getting sent to prison - to a prison for men- and having to deal with a toxic, violent social atmosphere for years and years, constantly terrified of being hurt - or worse- , having to hide myself again. I wouldn’t - couldn’t- go back to pretending. It just wasn’t a fucking option.

        This time I managed to stop the spikes before they grew more than a few feet tall. I tried to consider it a victory. With calming breaths, I coaxed them back into the floor and spread them out into a harmless sheet of metal.

        “I’m sorry,” I said, unable to bring myself to meet his eyes.

        “You haven’t done anything wrong, Carmilla. And you most certainly aren’t in any trouble.” As far as I could tell he was sincere. Though if he’d looked a bit farther into my past he’d see all sorts of things I’d done wrong, a veritable barrage of shit. I’d failed as a student, as an actor, as a- a son, as a friend, and most recently -my nightgown sticky with blood and vomit, the incongruous thought that I’d never be able to look at it the same way again- as a roommate. I was fucking drowning in failures.

        My palms pressed into my eyelids, and I forced myself to focus on the present. There was still something I’d wanted to ask.

        “If you can see people’s history, why do you need to bother interviewing me?”

        Hard Reset snorted, startling me a little. “I’ve asked him the same damn thing; apparently it’s polite to take up an hour of people’s time on what amounts to a formality.”

        “To put it another way,” Playback said, giving him a mock-glare, “I prefer to get each individual’s own perspective on what happened in order to give their actions context.” Hard Reset seemed to roll his eyes under his helmet. I got the impression this was a conversation they’d had many times.

        “Furthermore,” Playback continued, seeming to ignore his partner’s antics, “My power works more quickly when there is a seed of information for it to work with. And most importantly, I want to make it clear that you don’t have to let me look and you won’t get in any trouble for refusing. Of course we’d like more detailed information, but there aren’t any lives depending on it and it would be a terrible breach of both your trust and my own ethics to look at your past in detail without permission. Do you understand?”

        I did. I turned the words over in my mind a few times, but of course I had no way to verify whether or not he’d already looked into my past. Frankly, just revealing the nature of his powers was an enormous show of trust; he could have bullshitted about them, but I didn’t think that was very likely. On balance I felt like I could trust him on this. I nodded.

        “Very well. First, do I have your permission to record the rest of this interview?”

        I nodded again. He took a small audio recorder and placed it on the table next to him, pressing a button to presumably start recording.

        “First things first, please state your full legal name followed by today’s date.”

        He’d put a noticeable emphasis on ‘legal’. My lip curled, but there was no avoiding it.

        “My legal name is Christopher Frederick Lindholm, but my preferred name is Carmilla. The date is November 4th, 2009 at uh-” I looked at the clock, “10:32 AM Pacific Time. Christ, I can’t believe it’s still this early.”

        He gave me a smile I generously interpreted as apologetic, though it seemed to falter a little under the sour look I gave him. The rational part of me acknowledged that he probably needed it for proper documentation, that he meant me no harm, that he’d quite pointedly used my actual name earlier. I acknowledged those points, but I was too worn out and emotionally exhausted to give a shit.

        He’d better have a damn good reason for this, I grumbled internally.

        He cleared his throat before continuing. “Next, I need your verbal permission to look into your past with my power. I’d like to reiterate that there is no obligation to do so, legal or otherwise.”

        I gave it some thought. If I looked at my actions from an outside perspective, from one less mired in my own self loathing and negativity, there really wasn’t anything I would be ashamed of people knowing. It was terrible and I hadn’t been at my best, but I don’t think any reasonable person would have expected otherwise.

        It would be nice if I could be reasonable with regard to myself. - Useless. You’re like a child. Worthless. Lazy. Crazy. Immature. Spoiled. Oversensitive.- But that was probably a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.

        “You can look into my past, but I take no responsibility for what you find there whatsoever.”

        “Really? None at all?”

        I forced a grin onto my face. If it looked a little sickly neither of them saw fit to comment. “Nope, all of that stuff was past Carmin. I’m present Carmin. Therefore, I take no responsibility.”

        “Sounds like solid logic to me.” Hard Reset piped in. Well, tuba-ed in anyway. He had a pretty deep voice.

        “Says the man that literally punches things back in time.”

        “That’s wrong.” Hard Reset snapped, making it a judgement. His jaw looked carved from stone as he said, “I can kick ‘em back in time too.”

        That startled a laugh out of me, and for the first time in what felt like years I let myself relax a little.

        “Now that the formalities are out of the way,” continued Playback, all smiles once again, “There’s something I need to know.”

        Just like that I was tense again. What was next?

        “How are you, Carmilla? How are you feeling?”

        I blinked. “In all honesty? Pretty fucking awful. I’m not sure if I even want to get into it.”

        “Would you prefer to move on to something else?”

        So polite, I thought. I looked away, taking some time to think it over. His demeanor gave me hope that this wasn’t going to suddenly flip into a proper interrogation, which was nice. Because if it did, I was fucked. Just what I’d said over the phone would be enough to convict me of all manner of things if they truly wanted to. It certainly didn’t seem likely, but I just couldn’t trust that anymore. The assumption that things would be safe, that I wouldn’t be blindsided by something I couldn’t handle, that I could trust in social conventions to protect me had been utterly crushed the moment someone I’d once thought of as a friend assaulted me in my own bedroom. Was it assault? I’d pushed first, but he’d barged into my room and ignored repeated requests to leave. And then everything that happened after…

        The questions whirled in my head, a churning ocean of anxiety threatening to pull me under. I could use my power to jump long distances, to practically swim through land. What if I just ran away? I could hide somewhere my power wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone and just, and just-

        No. I forced myself to focus on my breathing, desperately reaching for that brief clarity of purpose I’d felt confronting my roommates and then actually fixing something. The world tilted ever so slightly as my focus changed. It was like the difference between squinting with one eye closed and seeing with my glasses on. I’d known intellectually that my perception of the world as made up of distinct objects was merely an abstraction, a way for the brain to simplify something far too vast to faithfully recreate.

        The physical forces underlying every movement and structure were laid out before me with cold precision. I moved a hand in front of my face, enhanced visualization and an intimate understanding of the vectors and forces involved allowing me to extrapolate its entire arc the instant it began moving. An idea occurring to me, I stuck my hand into the floral printed armrest and formed a coin of slate-grey metal. I flipped it into the air with a practiced motion, the coin’s trajectory unfolding before my eyes in an instant. My hand was already in place to catch it as the coin reached its apex, right up until it landed and everything went wrong.

        My fingers closed a second too late to prevent it from bouncing off of my palm with the majority of its latent momentum. The coin landed on the carpet between myself and the individuals across from me with a muted thump. I blinked, letting go of the icy clarity. Mortification welled up immediately, though I was surprised to note that my face was already heated. When had that happened?

        Playback smirked. “Having fun playing with your shiny new thinker power?”

        I tilted my head inquisitively. “How would you even know? You been using your shiny thinker power?”

        He leaned forward, taking on an almost lecturing tone. “Don’t need to. Wasn’t exactly subtle, the way you suddenly changed stance and your eyes started tracking things I couldn’t see. Something to do with trajectories, maybe?”

        “I think it’s more like, uhm.” I struggled for a few moments to bring the right terminology to mind, eventually giving in and looking it up on my phone. “‘Enhanced spatial-temporal reasoning and memory.’ I can remember every place or thing I’ve seen or sensed with my power and can visualize physical systems quickly and accurately.”

        He nodded, making a thoughtful sound as he leaned back in his chair. “Do you think you’re ready to talk?”

        I sighed. “I don’t really know what to say. Given what- what happened, I think almost anyone would be like utterly fucking devastated. My life, such as it was, is ruined. I’m ruined. I’ve become a-” A freak. A monster. A killer. “A cape. I have no context for- I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to do! It’s all, it’s all horrible and wrong and I’m terrified that I’m going to- I never wanted to hurt anyone! And now-” My voice twisted bitterly. “Now hurting people’s all I’m good for.”

        I was breathing heavily, I realized. I hadn’t been intending to rant like that, but I was a fucking pressurized powder keg of emotions right now. If a little ranting helped relieve some of the roiling restlessness within me I was more than happy to let it.

        “You know that’s not true,” Playback said, his voice gentle but firm.

        I balked, my anger and self loathing pushing me to argue. Instead I forced myself to take a breath and actually think about what he said. Did I really, honestly think that more hurting, more pointless violence, was all I had to offer the world? I focused my attention on the floor right in front of my feet, well within range of my power. I formed a block of stone a few feet tall, kneeling in front of it to get a better view, and began to sculpt it with my power.

        I didn’t really have any practical sculpting experience aside from messing with play-doh as a kid and a few scattered pottery projects, but my power was able to compensate for any personal incompetence in that regard. It was akin to tracing an image in three dimensions, visualizing the finished product with my thinker power and patiently iterating until the stone in front of me broadly matched what I’d had in mind. The finished product was lumpy and unrefined, but even so I found myself grinning ear to ear as I looked over my handiwork.

        She wore a hooded cloak with a mask, head high and hand held in front of her as if to ward away. Her pose was unyielding, but somehow gentle. Could that be me someday, after I’d mastered my power? Someone who was powerful and confident, but equally gentle and thoughtful? Someone that could truly help people? The notions I’d had about my own potential, or lack thereof, had gone out the window the moment I’d become a cape. It was time to stop dreaming small dreams in the hope of avoiding disappointment, time to rise to the challenges before me instead of shying away from them.

        When I was done, I moved her to an out of the way corner of the room, reasoning that I owed the landlady some sort of apology for causing so much damage to the apartments.

        I sat back down, dusting off my hands as if I’d used a chisel and hammer. It was so satisfying to make something, to improve things just a little. Maybe I could come to like this power.

        Deep breaths. I rubbed my hands together, forcefully reminding myself that I was here and not there. “Alright, I feel a little better now. No I don’t really think hurting’s all I’m good for, I just said that out of self-loathing and frustration. I do think I can bounce back from this with enough emotional labor and therapy, but my primary concern right now is keeping my power from hurting anyone else.”

        I paused.

        “Are there any books on parahuman psychology you’d recommend?”

        He blinked. “Uh, well, there’s the Parahumans 101 textbook. If you want anything more advanced than that you’ll want to talk to the local PRT office’s resident expert. I think she’s still on site actually, you’ll probably be able to talk to her once we’re finished.”

        “Thank you Playback, I’ll do that.”

        “So, do you think you’re ready to talk about what happened?”

        I paused, but eventually nodded. It really had helped to get some of my feelings out there. Was that what he’d been intending?

        “Where do you want me to start? This morning, or what ultimately lead to the shitshow sitting before you? Do you wanna know about my childhood?”

        Hard Reset chuckled at my weak attempt at humor, for which I awarded him twelve Carmin points.

        “I just need context for the event itself. Why do you think it happened when it did instead of earlier or not at all?”

        “Bits and pieces of it have been around for as long as I can remember. But the thing with the roommates started about two and half months ago, when the people I’d been living with during the summer moved out and three new people moved in. One of them was a former dormmate, someone I once considered a friend. I didn’t know the other two beforehand, but I figured I could trust him.”

        You’re pathetic. So stupid. Spoiled. Worthless. Why can’t you do anything right?

        Thanks for the pep talk, Ray, I thought bitterly. Just what I needed right now.

        “Bill and his girlfriend, I can’t remember her name. Anyway. It started with little stuff at first. Them being mad at me for leaving the lights on, me being more stubborn about it than I probably should have. Things escalated. They worked each other up about me I think, feeding on each other’s anger. There was always more stuff that was somehow my responsibility to deal with right now or I’d be a terrible roommate.

        “I tried, you know? I really wanted it to work out, because I sure as hell didn’t want to move back in with my parents. They’d loudly complain about me right outside my room, tell me to my face I was a disgrace or worthless, harass me every time I had the nerve to show my face. Which was every fucking day. I don’t know how many times they made me cry. They cut off my access to the internet and then gloated about it in front of me, and Bill had the nerve to call me crazy after I screamed at him.”

        I took a deep breath, trying to keep hold of my anger. I emphatically did not want to make any more spikes.

        “And so we come to this morning. I’d- I’d already agreed to move back in with my parents, told my roommates it was going to happen. Despite this, I wake up to find they’ve hidden the fucking toilet paper because apparently I didn’t contribute enough to the apartment or some horseshit. I had absolutely had it with their shit at this point, so I decided to get a little revenge.”

        I smiled humorlessly.

        “You see, when they cut off my access to the internet all they’d done was change the wifi password without telling me what it was. And so all I had to do was press the button on the back of the router, which reset it. It was briefly satisfying. A few minutes later Ray burst into my room to berate me, refusing all requests to leave; eventually, I tried and failed to push him out. He pushed back a lot harder, and now here we are.

        “Gotta say, in retrospect? Wasn’t fucking worth it.”

        “You specifically triggered when he pushed you? Not before or after?”

        “As far as I’m aware, yeah. Do you want me to go into what happened after?”

        I really hoped he’d say no.

        “Please do.”

        Fuck.

        “I’m not totally sure what happened right after that, I was pretty preoccupied with my brain leaking out of my ears from information overload. I saw Bill snatch my laptop from the bed but that’s about it. Once I came to the entire apartment was changed.”

        He gestured for me to go on. I sighed.

        “Alright, alright. After I got my bearings it didn’t take long to figure out that the effect had spread through the entire apartment building. I dealt with the hazards in my own apartment pretty quickly, but I was conflicted about going into other people’s apartments. I was forced into action when I heard someone getting caught in a trap in the apartment below mine. I helped as best as I knew how, but I realized I couldn’t afford to wait for emergency services to arrive. Everything’s sort of a blur after that, rushing around desperately trying to keep anyone else from getting hurt.

        “I remember the injuries though. A man with a spear in the side. A woman tangled up in razor wire. A couple trapped under rubble. A young boy who fell in a pit and broke his legs. Some seemed grateful for my assistance, while others were… upset.”

        Let go of me you fucking freak!

        Please don’t hurt my son.

        You killed him.

        I shook my head, reaching for a little more of the focus I found in my power. The roiling mass of pain and confusion inside of me seemed less daunting, something I could regard analytically instead of being pulled under and losing all perspective.

        “Anyway,” I continued, voice flat and cold. “After I got the boy back to his parents, I jumped into the next apartment and collided with a woman living there. I apologized to her and explained the situation, and she told that she heard screaming from the apartment next door.”

        My cup was shaking ever so slightly, threatening to spill water on me. I made my hands stop. My foot began to tap rapidly almost immediately, which I reluctantly decided to allow.

        “So I went there. And there were two people in the apartment, a man and a woman. The man had a leg caught in a small pit. It was lined with spikes, angled downward to punish all attempts to escape with further injury; unfortunately, he’d obviously tried very hard to escape. He was pale, and-”

        Come on Carmin, Some part of me thought, Just a little further, you can do this. Then you can rest, for real this time.

        I didn’t believe me.

        “I think I knew he was dead the moment I saw him. He’d just lost so much blood. I tried to help, tried to bandage the wounds, but I don’t think there was anything I could have done. Then I left. The last apartment didn’t have anyone hurt so after that I climbed onto the roof and called 911.”

        What I didn’t add was that before I’d left, I’d started being able to sense the body with my power. And I never forgot anything I sensed with my power. Not that I wanted to, really. I didn’t deserve to.

        “I’m sorry,” Playback said, turning off the recording device. He curled his lips down in a way I didn’t recognize. “You didn’t deserve any of this.”

        There was a moment of panicked confusion before I let go of my thinker power and was suddenly able to interpret his expression again. A sympathetic look, that was all. What…?

        “Thank you,” I said, mostly to cover my confusion.

        “As someone that saw the whole thing from your perspective? You did everything you could have. Like Snap said, you couldn’t have known something like this was going to happen, you had no context for how to act in that sort of situation. Considering the circumstances, I think your actions were downright heroic.”

        “Laying it on a little thick there, don’t you think?” I said, my smile making it hard to hit the cynical tone I was aiming for. “Hero this, hero that. You can just say you want me to join the Protectorate.”

        Hard Reset snorted, giving me a small smile. “Smart girl.” Despite everything, I felt a small thrill at being gendered correctly.

        Playback gave me a grin that seemed more genuine than the polite smiles I’d seen from him earlier. It made him look a little younger.

        “You’re right of course, the Protectorate is always looking for more members and I’m certain Snap would appreciate some more help around town. Even if you decide not to join, your conduct today gets you a lot of points in our book. This easily could have been a complete disaster, but your work containing it prevented serious injury or death to at least several dozen people. We need people that can keep a level head in a crisis and respond to constantly changing situations; we need people like you.”

        “What’s the health insurance like?”

        He blinked, but recovered momentarily. “The Protectorate’s policy is to provide full support for its LGBT members, including any necessary medical interventions. If you mean the health benefits in general, we’ve got some of the best in the nation. Dental, therapy, access to regular testing at some of the most advanced facilities in the world. Trust me, it’s covered.”

        “Can they help get my name changed? Like officially, I mean.”

        He nodded.

        “Alright, I’m willing to hear you out. But I’ll wanna see some statistics.”

        There was that grin again. He reached behind under his chair and pulled out a briefcase, retrieving a smattering of paperwork from inside. A pause, eyes searching for somewhere to put them down. I obliged, growing a simple wooden coffee table between us with my power. He nodded gratefully, and started to lay the papers out in front of us.

        “So the first thing you’ll want to look at is the relative risks…”

        -||-

        Nearly an hour later I’d exhausted all the basic questions I could think of. Pay, the risk of death or injury, what my legal status would be were I to join, whether I’d be able to relocate to Seattle -to which the answer was a surprisingly emphatic yes-, where I’d be staying -at a house kept by the PRT for precisely this sort of thing-, and all manner of other logistical minutia. My hand was sore from filling out a seemingly endless stream of forms, which I’d forced myself to go over in detail. Mostly just admonitions about the terrible consequences of exposing confidential information. Not that I would have anyway, that would be horribly rude.

        Everything I’d heard and saw so far had been promising, but I’d be a fool if I didn’t at least take a day to think about it and get a second, third, and fourth opinion.

        “Thank you,” I said, meaning it. “You’ve given me a hell of a lot to think about. If I do decide to join, who should I call?”

        “Myself, Snap, the local PRT office, any of them would be fine. Here.” He laid a business card with his logo on top of the intimidatingly large pile of papers in front of me. “Feel free to call me if you ever have questions or need help with something.”

        I thought for a moment. “Well it’s not really, like, relevant, but I was sort of wondering what brought you guys over here? Olympia’s not exactly a hub of criminal activity, at least compared to whatever important thinker shit you’re usually doing.”

        “Excellent question. I was in the area as part of an ongoing investigation, and when the call came in I felt that HR and I had relevant skill sets for the situation. And I’m quite capable of doing my ‘important thinker shit’ wherever I happen to be sitting, thank you.”

        I was curious about what could have possibly been happening here that was worthy of his time, but I figured he’d have told me about it if he could. He had a forthrightness I admired.

        “Very well,” I said. “Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s all a lot easier to deal with when I know what my options are.”

        He nodded, looking serious. “It’s the least I can do. Is there anything else before we wrap up?”

        I stared at the floor for long moments. When I looked up to speak, my voice was nearly a whisper. “The man that, that-” That I killed. “That died. What was his name? Who was he?”

        “Carmin-” Playback started, sounding pained. “Carmilla, please don’t do this to yourself. It wasn’t-”

        I met his eyes, jaw clenched stubbornly. We stared in silence for long moments, both willing the other to give in. I needed to know, and some part of him must have seen that. He turned away first, letting out a soft sigh.

        “His name was John Powell. He was studying to be an environmental biologist, and from what I can tell he was a kind person loved by his friends. His death was a terrible tragedy Carmilla, but it wasn’t your fault. I know that doesn’t change how it feels, but you’ll drive yourself crazy if you hold yourself responsible for things out of your control. I say this from personal experience.”

        “Thank you, but how do you know all that stuff about him?” I would think about the stuff he was saying, I would, but right now I needed a topic change.

        “Ah,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but my power can still get some information from the recently dead.”

        I nodded, thinking about the implications of that little factoid.

        “Now to our final piece of business, what to do about your former roommates.”

        I sat up, suddenly alarmed. What was going to happen?

        “What are my options?” I asked.

        “Well you could try and prosecute them, but I’m afraid there’s very little evidence either way. And with their injuries considered, it all adds up to a big legal mess.”

        I thought for a moment. Did I really want to go through a whole court battle, getting my name dragged through the mud on the stand? Months of work for what would probably amount to a slap on the wrist? Was it really worth it?

        “Is there an option that let’s me avoid seeing or talking to them ever again?”

        He smiled. “That’s exactly what I was going to suggest. Some PRT personnel could impress the importance of discretion on them and provide assistance with finding somewhere else to live.”

        I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

        “That would be wonderful. Thank you so much for your help. Is there anything else?”

        “No, ma’am.” He replied sharply, offering a hand to shake,“I hope we can meet under better circumstances someday soon. And thank you for being so cooperative. It makes our jobs much easier.”

        “Me too,” I said, taking it, “It’s really been a pleasure.”

        He gave me a grin and a nod and picked up his briefcase, heading toward the door. Hard Reset gave me a nod of his own before following. Playback paused briefly in the threshold.

        “Oh right,” he said, turning my way. “And I’ll make sure to get your laptop back.”

        I was left alone with my thoughts and a pile of paperwork, one clear idea piercing through the haze of regret and painful emotions.

        I’m going to be a superhero.

 

Chapter Text

   I paced. To say it was a habit of mine would be a bit like saying swimming was a habit for sharks. The movement helped me think, or so I reasoned to myself, and thinking helped me avoid drowning. Particularly, I was thinking about how I was avoiding thinking of the thing I was trying not to think about instead of thinking about the thing I was avoiding trying to think about. I thought.

   Blinking, I paused my movement across the floor. With growing horror, I realized that I had quite literally worn a groove into the carpet. My marching had left visible footprints, as though the concrete foundation were as malleable as mud. I growled in frustration, forcing myself to take a few moments to gather my composure and control my breathing. Once I’d built up a semblance of calm I did my best to fix the damage. It was imperfect -the parts of the carpet my power compressed had fused together in a way I didn’t know how to pick apart- but I tried getting it as close as I could manage.

   I snorted at the ridiculousness of it all. Powers! And I almost wished I’d never gotten them. Meeting heroes! Because of a disaster I’d caused. Moving to Seattle! Because I was afraid I’d tear the house apart if I moved back in with my parents. The thought of my power hurting one of the cats -or worse, one of the people I cared about- was almost too much to bear. I had to keep that from happening, but that was a hell of a fuck of a lot easier said than done. The simplest option was to just put some distance between them and me, but I didn’t think I could bring myself to never talk to my friends again. To never talk to Ajay again. He was going to move back to Texas anyway, so what I could or couldn’t do in that regard was pretty much irrelevant.

   I’d decided to become a superhero, but what did that mean? Just going out and getting in fistfights with criminals and supervillains? Being a particularly obedient cog in a soulless bureaucratic machine? Or maybe it could mean making the deliberate choice to be more , to use whatever resources at my disposal to reduce harm. To use my influence to steer the future toward a universe of growth and prosperity for the earth and all its children. I could almost envision it, the world that could be , the world where no one had to die scared and alone, where-

   There was a knock on the door. I emphatically did not screech, but I might have jumped a little. Or several feet into the air, propelled by the ground I was standing on. And I might have, perhaps, screamed in terror as I fell back down. The landing was quite soft, thanks to my power. Thank you, power. Thank you so much.

   And so it was that Ajay opened the door in alarm and found me sitting on my ass on the ground, making a sincere effort to not die of embarrassment. Ajay, the little rat bastard, was making no effort at all to hide his amusement. And, I suspected, relief.

   “You’re a dork,” he said, helping me to my feet. Seeing my face, his demeanor became concerned. “What the fuck happened, Carmin? You look like you’ve been through hell. People have been saying there was a villain attack or some shit, and all you said was to meet you at the apartment’s main office. There were PRT guys outside, and they didn’t let me through until I showed them the text you sent me.”

   I swallowed. He didn’t say it, but he must have seen what had happened to the apartment complex. I was still holding his hand, and that helped give me the strength to say what I’d asked him to come here for.

   “I have powers now,” I said flatly, with no preamble. My voice quivered a little on the word ‘powers’.  The next part would be the hardest. Ajay was my best friend, and I trusted him more than anyone, but it was still really hard to put it into words and share them with someone else. It made it more real somehow.

   “That’s awesome!” he said, giving me a wide smile. His enthusiasm warmed me, and I reciprocated as best as I could manage. Apparently the best I could manage wasn’t very good, because he immediately sobered up. “What happened?”

   I took a deep, slow breath. “We should probably sit down first, it’s kind of a doozy.”

   “I’ll bet.”

   “Thank you. For coming, I mean.”

   "Of course Carmin, you’re my best friend. I love you.”

   We sat down on one of the cheap couches, turning to face each other. He looked uncharacteristically serious, contrasting with his carefully put together fashion and artful make up. He was pale, with red hair in a modern style I knew he’d cut himself. His ears were pierced with little jingly spiky things hanging down. I was procrastinating again.

   “Right, so my roommates attacked me.”

   His eyes widened at the blunt statement. I hurried to clarify.

   “It was… well. So you know how they cut off my access to the internet?”

   He nodded.

   “Well this morning I got fed up and reset it. And when Ray noticed, he burst into my room. He yelled at me, insulted me, and ignored my repeated requests to leave. So I tried pushing him out. It didn’t work, and he pushed back a lot harder. That was when I got my powers.”

   I went silent. Unwilling, or maybe unable, to address the question I knew was on his mind.

   “Carmin, what happened? I’m worried about you.” The quiet concern in his voice nearly broke me.

   Blinking tears out of my eyes, I started going over what had happened for what felt like the hundredth time today. My voice was mechanical as I explained losing control of my powers and trying desperately to fix things. How I’d saved people, but someone had still died. How I’d met Snap and been invited to join the Protectorate. My conviction to become a superhero.

   He listened intently, nodding and expressing sympathy as I told my story. When I told him about the man that died -about John- we both cried. The emotional reality of what had happened was starting to sink in, the feelings I knew I’d be wrestling with for years. It was daunting. At the same time, being able to talk to Ajay and know for sure that my powers hadn’t changed anything between us was a huge weight off my back.

   “What are you going to do?”

   “I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “I’ve considered a few options, but they’ve all got their downsides. And upsides, of course.”

   He nodded. “You’ll figure it out, you’re smart as hell.”

   I looked away, unable to hide my flustered smile. “Thank you, Ajay. I was actually hoping to get your take on it. After everything that happened, I’m not sure if I’m in a state of mind to decide all on my own.”

   “Of course I’ll help. What are you thinking?”

   “In terms of superhero stuff, the main options are joining the Protectorate, joining a corporate or independent team, or striking out on my own. I could also try to make money off my power and then donate it, or just do low-income housing projects directly. Although really, the most efficient thing might be traveling to a third world country and using my power to build basic infrastructure.”

   Ajay looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well you wanna be a superhero, right?”

   “Yeah, definitely.”

   “You could still do charity and housing projects and shit if you were a superhero, right?”

   I tilted my head, thinking. “I definitely could, yeah. That’s a good point.”

   “So why do you wanna be a superhero?”

   “I want to help people,” I said without a moment’s hesitation, “And I want-” I paused for a moment, struggling to articulate the thought. “I want to matter. I want to have an impact, to make a difference, I want little trans girls that don’t know who they are yet to look at me and feel hope. What I want more than anything is to fight back against all the evil and pain in the world, with every tool and trick I’ve got. That’s why I want to be a superhero.”

   Ajay smiled. “Sounds like you’ve got that part figured out. So uh, what were the options again?”

   “Protectorate, corporate, independent. I could also go out on my own, but that would be stupid; it’d be like scaling a cliff with no training or back up just because I found some climbing equipment. I’d only do it if I had no other choice.”

   “But you’d still do it?”

   I thought for a moment. “I’d take my time, prepare as best I could, but… yeah. I think I would.”

   He looked troubled. “What if you just… didn’t use it?”

   “What, like pretend none of this happened? Act like I’m normal? That ship sailed a long time ago.”

   “No- I mean, aren’t you afraid of it hurting someone else?”

   “Of course I am. But it’s not as simple as just not using it.” I paused for a moment, looking away. “I can’t control it, not completely; when I’m agitated it just flares up without warning, like a ring of spikes sprouting from the ground when I get mad or traps or- or whatever! Ignoring it isn’t an option, so my only choice is to get all the help I can to master my power.”

   Ajay went quiet, and for a few moments the only sound was the steady ticking of a cheap wall-mounted clock. Eventually his face broke into a grin. “Let’s do this, bitch.”

   I gave him a high five, relieved beyond measure that he wasn’t afraid of me. “So the first option is the Protectorate, they’re sort of like cops with superpowers.”

   He rolled his eyes. “I know that.

   “I just figured I’d give ‘em all a one sentence summary to like, I dunno, frame the discussion or whatever. I wasn’t—” I stopped myself with a shake of the head, taking a moment to refocus. “Anyway, the next option is joining a—” I repressed a sigh. “—a corporate team.”

   He gave me an amused look.

   “What, there something on my face?”

   “Just you being you, Carmin. What’s got you so worked up about them?”

   “Corporate teams, you mean?”

   He nodded.

   “Well.” I looked over at the statue I made earlier. “I just don’t like the idea of being beholden to like, a completely profit driven organization. Their nature incentivizes them to focus on what ends up getting them wealth or fame instead of what does the most good.”

   “Yeah, but doesn’t the Protectorate have the same sort of shit? Corruption, coverups, whatever else.”

   “You’re right, it’s a flawed organization. I guess what I’m worried about is not having any teammates whose primary concern is making things better. Like, what if helping the people who most need help isn’t profitable? At least with the Protectorate I wouldn’t have to worry about pleasing shareholders.”

   “Alright, what about the last one? Independents, right?”

   I nodded. “There are a lot of ideological teams in and around Seattle, and I’m pretty sure I’d fit in with some of them. The only problem is that none of them offer the same access to healthcare and resources that a large organization can; as far as I can tell, Protectorate capes have the best overall survival rate of any group aside from rogues.”

   “The Protectorate seems like the best option,” he said, sounding disturbed. Maybe by the talk of survival rates?

   I reached out and squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry Ajay, I’m not going to be reckless or take unnecessary risks. You know how careful I am, right?”

   He nodded, giving a subdued smile.

   “I’m going to do this right. Take every reasonable precaution, seek out knowledge and advice, make sure I have back-up at every point. I don’t plan on being another statistic.”

   “Just don’t get hurt, okay Carmin? I love you.”

   I gave him a short, fierce hug. “So wanna see what I can do?”

   “Hell yeah!”

   -||-

   “This fucking sucks,” I said, aiming for a conversational tone. My breathing might have been a little more labored than I’d prefer, the result of a short uphill hike through dense, coniferous rainforest. We’d wandered through this area dozens of times and I’d always loved how peaceful it was; now the trees were confining, endless rows of living columns, blocking the sky and burying stumbling blocks in the soil. After only a few hours, my sense of the environment around me felt as natural and comforting as breathing. Whatever feeling of security it had provided had been taken as soon as I passed under the shadow of the trees.

   The dense creeping roots beneath our feet broke up whatever signal my power used to map out my surroundings, filling it with blanks and ambiguities I hadn’t learned to compensate for. Standing on one of the larger roots poking up through the ground had resulted in my environment sense cutting out completely, as though as far as my power were concerned I was standing on thin air. It was like having floaters in my eye that were specifically designed to block my vision of obstacles.

   Ajay was, on the surface at least, amused at my clumsiness and frustration. He was just ahead, leading me to a spot he was confident wouldn’t have any unwanted onlookers.

   “You were the one that wanted to keep your power secret, Miss Complainy Pants.”

   “I reserve the right to bitch about every single part of my life,” I said, giving him a Look. “And if I bring trouble on myself because of my own shitty attitude, I’ll bitch about it even more.”

   “Oh I know you do, Carmin, I know.”

   “Oh yeah?” I asked, meeting his eyes. “Well you know what? You know what!?”

   “What?”

   “You’re right.”

   We both broke into fits of laughter at the same time, our voices lost between the trees. That was when I tripped again.

   It was a good, proper trip too. In a single step I hooked my foot on a root I hadn’t noticed and transferred all my momentum from moving forward into falling face first into cold, mossy soil. My hands instinctively shot out to break my fall, and before I quite knew what was happening the ground rose up to push me back upright. I stumbled back a couple steps before refocusing and flattening it again, trying to put the displaced plants where they were before. Unfortunately several of them had gotten pulped when the ground had risen up.

   Ajay stared at me for several long seconds. “That was fucking awesome!” He said, all breathless enthusiasm. “Carmin, that was amazing. Oh and yeah, we’re here.”

   Here didn’t look any different from the rest of the forest, save for being further away from the main trails. I rotated in place, looking for an out of the way spot relatively clear of trees. There!, I thought, spotting a clearing nestled between a hill and a verdant curtain of pine trees that obscured it from casual observation. People probably wouldn’t come this way, but I wasn’t going to bet my secret identity on it. God, that was weird to think about. I had a fucking secret identity .

   Like a lot of things in my life now, it was really awesome and really scary at the same time.

   “A’ight bitch, we’re here. Show me your power!”

   I rolled my eyes at him. “Your will is my command.”

   With that, I strode into the center of the small clearing, gesturing for Ajay to back up further. With the trees messing with my power, he didn’t have to go very far before I was confident he was safe from any flare ups. I gave him a thumbs up, loosening my grip on my power at the same time. I didn’t do anything big, just made the ground I was on ripple a little. It was a little like standing on a trampoline or bouncy house, except made of dirt. I frowned, I’d intended to push a little harder than that. Why…?

   Oh of course, it was all those stupid root systems. They were going to regret having the temerity to be in my way when I just so happened to get powers they interfered with. I couldn’t affect them with my power, but as long as they were there I’d be half-blind. Or half-numb? Either way the roots were a problem. I thought for a moment, face scrunching in concentration. When I’d tripped earlier, I’d been able to move plants with the dirt around them. Perhaps all I needed was a push.

   My power was more than happy to oblige. A slow wave of crushing, inevitable force rippled through the ground at my command, overturning the earth and pushing the offending flora well outside of my range.

   “Holy shit, that’s awesome!”

   I smirked. “I haven’t even started yet.”

   Now all I needed to do was to figure out what I was going to do. Absent other ideas, I made the ground ripple again. This time the effect was much more pronounced, actually lifting me off the ground a little. It really was a lot like jumping on a trampoline. Except the trampoline was alive, and willing to vigorously assist with both the take-off and landing. Each time I hit the ground my power absorbed the force of the fall, safely redirecting and adding momentum to throw me back upward. After only a few bounces I was in danger of smacking directly into the canopy overhead, wind slicing past my ears, caught between terror and excitement so intense I couldn’t even scream.

   I landed awkwardly, my breath pushed out by the force of my landing. Pushing myself up onto my elbows, I realized that my landing had created a comically large -and distinctly Carmilla-shaped- crater. I started laughing, a chuckle quickly turning into an almost unhinged cackle. Ajay rushed over, and my breathless explanation or pointing got him laughing too. It wasn’t all that funny, really, but something about the situation had us literally rolling on the ground.

   “We shall call it the Carmillian Impression. An example of the postmodernist medium of inverted statues,” I said after dusting myself off, audibly struggling to keep my voice serious.

   “Oh, wow,” Ajay said, affecting a higher-pitched know it all voice. “I get it, it’s a metaphor for the emptiness in your soul caused by the suffering of mother earth!”

   “Oh my god,” I deadpanned. “You’re right. How did you guess my completely deliberate and planned out intentions for this art piece?”

   “Guess it just spoke to me.”

   “Right. So, wanna see me make a bunch of spikes and shit?”

   “Fuck yeah I do!”

   “Excellent. I’m gonna need you to back up again.”

   While he retook his position behind a big tree, I took the time to remove all traces of my impromptu art piece and return to my place at the center of the clearing. Slowly, carefully, I relaxed my grip on my power. It seemed to do some things almost automatically; as soon as I’d started releasing control, stone flooring had begun spreading out from underneath my feet. It crept slowly over and into the freshly turned earth, burrowing like roots being played in time-lapse. With the foundation in place, walls could be erected, but it wouldn’t do to block Ajay’s view; instead I pushed my power toward traps, the flashier the better. Small spikes poked up from every inch of the floor, evenly spaced to leave no safe surfaces.

   The ground began to rise under me, a cylindrical column a few feet wide displaying me like a pedestal. My balance wasn’t quite up to the task of dealing with the sudden shift; I fell to my knees, watching in fascination as radially symmetric rings of metal spikes sprouted along the sides of the column. They curved upward like talons scrabbling at the sky, sharp edges pointed outwards. I was definitely gonna need to take this down before we left; it’d tear me up inside if some innocent wildlife got injured or killed because of my carelessness.

   In less than a minute the spikes had finished growing, the highest tall enough to extend high above my head and curved enough that their tips met at a single point. There was room to extend my arms and flail them around without hitting a wall, but not a whole lot more than that; it looked like some kind of giant, incredibly metal birdcage. An idea sparking in my head, I threw myself up to the ceiling and grabbed on. As I’d hoped, I was able to shape it to hold onto my arms and keep me from falling back down. With some effort, and a lot of swearing, I was able to get my feet onto the ceiling too; I took a deep breath, silently cursing myself for having ideas, and released the ceiling’s grip on my arms. The primary effect was that I flopped down like a fish on a hook, the secondary effect was that my dress fell down onto my face.

    Good thing I decided to wear pants today, I thought.

   “Holy shit! Carmin, this is amazing!”

   “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I shouted back, smiling.

   With an annoyed sound, I pushed my dress out of my face and reached down with a tendril to keep it from falling back down. Once that was dealt with being upside down was surprisingly comfortable; even after hanging there for a full minute I didn’t feel even slightly light headed. Did that have something to do with my power?

   “You still with me, hun!?”

   Oh, right. Two lengths of chain emerged from the ceiling at my command, a carefully chosen distance from each other. My hands guided them to rest, suspended in the center of the bulb-shaped cage; my feet, held tightly but gently by the surrounding metal, let me sense only a few feet down the chains. My hands, touching the other end, were close enough for their ranges to overlap with the ones from my feet, letting me extend my control all the way to the end of the chain. Slowly, I began to grow a carefully shaped length of wood connecting the ends of the chains.

   Once that was done, I tugged on the whole assembly experimentally. It seemed sound enough, so I unceremoniously flopped down into the seat I made. I immediately started swinging; Ajay laughed and waved at me, and I grinned and waved back. Maybe my power wasn’t so bad. It let me make things, change things, and now no one could trap me ever again. Then Ajay moved, there was a rustling of leaves, and I heard a cry of alarm.

   Everything fled my mind save the determination to not let my best friend die. At the apex of a swing I let go, my momentum carrying me into and through the bars of the cage. The metal writhed around me, pulling me back toward the center of the cage for a few frozen moments; all at once, it returned to its former shape with a suddenness that cracked loudly against the air. I shot forth like an arrow from a bow, impacting the ground next to Ajay with enough force to make it ripple like the surface of a pond before it settled back down to something like its former shape.

   “Ajayareyouokayareyouhurtpleasebeokay-”

   “Carmin, Carmin, I’m fine,” Ajay said soothingly, interrupting my panicked babbling. “Calm down. Breathe.”

   I did so, forcing myself into a steady rhythm despite my panic. In a few moments, I’d calmed enough to speak clearly.

   “What happened?”

   “Ah, while you were on your little swing, I noticed a spike creeping up through the leaves behind me. I was bending down to look, and they started popping up all over the place! That was when I yelled.”

   “So you’re not hurt at all, not even a little?”

   He gave me a fondly exasperated look and shook his head. “I told you, I’m fine.”

   My whole body relaxed, releasing a tension I hadn’t realized had been there. “Right, I’d better start getting rid of these spikes.”

   It took awhile, but having Ajay there to chat with made it easier. After half an hour or so we were getting ready to leave; it felt like the right time to address things.

   “I’m probably headed to Seattle tomorrow or the day after, and you were already gonna move back to Texas…” I trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.

   I let the words hang there between us, the all-encompassing forest bearing witness to the exchange. The air was wet, thick with the smell of pine and moss and rain. I put my hand in my pockets to warm them, my gaze on a rock I’d been poking around with the toe of my shoe.

   “Yeah,” Ajay said eventually, voice subdued, “It’s gonna be awhile before we’ll be able to see each other again. If we ever see each other again.” With each word, he seemed to sink lower into himself.

   “Hey,” I said, holding out a hand toward him. He took it, giving me a small smile. “I’m gonna be a superhero Ajay, that means I can actually have the money for vacations and shit. Even if you can’t move back, I can still visit you.”

   He brightened a little. “You promise?”

   “Fuck yeah I do. You’re my best friend, I love you.”

   I gave him a hug, and he returned it with gusto.

   “Let’s start heading back,” I said, noting the time on my phone.

   Ajay still looked troubled.

   “What’s wrong?” I asked.

   “What are you planning to tell your parents?”

   I winced, looking away again.

   “The truth.” I said, a little miserably. Judging by my attempt to stay in the closet with them, trying to hide something this big would probably backfire.

   “Good luck,” he said, giving me another hug. I really hoped I wouldn’t need it.

   The way back to campus was a lot easier than the way there. I remembered the route for one thing, and for another I could use my power to help me traverse difficult terrain. And to cover our tracks, of course. I wasn’t a complete idiot.

   Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered if I’d be this close to someone on the Seattle Protectorate someday.

Chapter Text

   My eyes fluttered open, sunlight filtered through the blinds playing across my face. I shot bolt upright, some animal part of my mind certain of impending attack. I sat on the unfamiliar bed and fumbled desperately for my bearings, trying to get my breathing under control. In a few moments the panic had passed, leaving me to try and remember what I was doing here.

   The memories fell into place as I woke up, each one weighing me down further. Right, my roommates, my power, the… other things. All of that happened, it wasn’t a dream or a fleeting nightmare. The weight of it all made me want to lay back down, but trying to sleep right now would probably be futile. I’d locked the door last night, and then barred it when that hadn’t felt like enough. Now it seemed terribly inadequate-  anyone could get through the plaster walls with nothing but a pickaxe and determination.

   The temptation to start fortifying my room warred with the basic fact that I wasn’t going to be sleeping another night here and the PRT would probably like to use it for other things. Eventually I settled on a compromise, reinforcing the door but otherwise leaving the room be. I needed to get ready anyway.

   I’d taken a quick shower last night, but I desperately needed to find some way to relax before going to Seattle. A luxurious bath seemed like just the ticket. Before too long I’d managed to find where they kept the towels and spare toiletries, which were better stocked than I’d have dared to hope. The towels were fluffy and soft and delightful. It was nice having the place all to myself, not worrying about stepping on someone’s toes or getting harassed about some bullshit. Not to mention getting to see a new place instead of wearing a groove in the floor. Though come to think of it, I didn’t need to be in a place for very long to do that now.

   I headed to the bathroom, eyes still leaden as I waited for the bathtub to fill up. It was obviously going to take a bit, so I set my phone up to play music. While I waited, I took the time to thoroughly floss and brush my teeth. It was nice to exert some control over my life and presentation, even if only a little.

   Soon enough, I was ever so carefully lowering myself into the just-this-side-of-hot water. It took a few attempts before I was able to get a whole leg in without recoiling from the heat, but the feeling of being enveloped in the water like a warm, comfy blanket was well worth the effort. I let my head loll back, closing my eyes and just floating. I focused on my breathing, letting all my concerns and pains go for a little while.

   Not touching anything except the water wasn’t like standing on one of the big roots in the forest or being in the air. I could still sense it, still sense the bathtub and a bit of the floor, but it was blurry and vague. As an experiment, I tried making a small spike sprout from the lip of the tub. Nothing happened. I tried shaping part of it upward, but all that accomplished was splashing the water around a little. My arm brushed against the side, and my awareness of the surroundings snapped into focus. Just like that, I could affect the tub again.

   I deliberately pulled away, happy to reduce the burden on my poor, overworked brain. I let myself drift for a few more minutes, but I didn’t have all day to lay around soaking. I washed and conditioned my hair, steeling myself for my most difficult challenge yet: shaving.

   I lathered my face with conditioner and shaving cream, letting it soak for a bit. At that point I recalled I’d left my razor back at the apartment and very nearly smacked my forehead. Before I could start castigating myself over it I realized I could just make a new razor with my power, easy as breathing. It was funny how natural it felt to just reach into the wall next to me and pull out a classic folding straight razor with a wooden handle. This time I was slow and careful enough to avoid getting any new cuts on my face. First impressions were important, and I wanted to put my best foot forward for my new team.

    Speaking of feet, I thought, looking down. I should really shave my legs.

   -||-

   Back in my room with a towel wrapped around me, I basked in the feeling of cleanliness. After yesterday I’d seriously wondered if I’d ever feel clean again, and not just metaphorically either. Turns out that doing improvised first aid on a half dozen bleeding and screaming people in quick succession was dirty work, who’d have thought?

   I gently ran a few fingers over my chin, reassuring myself there wasn’t any stubble long enough to be noticeable. If I’d had my way there wouldn’t be even the tiniest hint of facial hair, but there was just no way to get that close a shave without slicing half my face off. I sighed, letting my hand drop.

   There was no point in obsessing over something I couldn’t control. I deliberately directed my attention to the meager collection of clothing I’d managed to rescue from the old apartment. Not that there’d been much before, really. Now I was down to a grand total of one dress, two pairs of pants, and my purple jacket.

    How could I possibly decide what to wear? I thought drily.

   I pulled on my clothes, going over my mental checklist for this morning. I’d washed up, taken some time to relax, so all I had left before getting driven to Seattle was doing some serious research on the cape scene in general and my future city’s in particular. The safe house had WiFi, thankfully, so I just pulled up my laptop and logged onto Parahumans Online.

   The first thing I saw when I went to the Seattle area subforum was a thread speculating on the romantic relationships of various local capes. Not only was it a mind-numbing sixty pages long, it was apparently the eighth such thread judging by the title. I’d always found sincerely shipping celebrities with each other vaguely creepy. Did they forget there were actual living human beings under those masks, with their own hopes and desires?

   The second thing I noticed was a thread titled ‘Villain attack on Evergreen!?’. I hemmed and hawed for a bit about whether there was anything to gain from reading about something that literally happened yesterday, but eventually I gave into my curiosity and clicked it. Apparently someone had already posted a video of my apartment building’s transformation, starting from when it was about a third of the way through.

   It happened so much faster than I’d remembered. That moment when my powers manifested had felt like an eternity, but if this video was anything to go by the whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than a couple measly minutes. How the hell had my power worked so quickly? I’d never been able to make more than one thing at a time every few seconds when experimenting, and that rate only got slower as I tried affecting surfaces further away from me.

   Eventually I scrolled on, promising myself I’d investigate the apparent contradiction later. It took about two pages of baseless speculation before any kind of official information was posted, a brief message from Snap explaining that the ‘attack’ was in fact a new trigger that temporarily lost control of her powers. There was no longer any danger, she explained, the cape in question was cooperative and managed to gain control of her power fast enough to prevent the situation from becoming a disaster.

   I almost laughed. My hand clenched, tight enough that the fingernails dug into the flesh of my palm. Tight enough that it started shaking ever so slightly from the tension. How the fuck was that not a disaster? Who did she think she was, acting like it was no big deal? Part of me was tempted to tell people what it had really been like, how close I’d been to just giving up and running away from the maimed, screaming people. The way I could still feel the tacky sensation of blood on my hands, blood in my hair, blood fucking everywhere .

   My eyes screwed shut against the phantom images, as though I could somehow shut out my own mind. I forced myself to count, to breathe, to rock in place, anything to keep my powers under control. Inch by bloody inch, I pulled myself out of the spiral of thoughts that always led to the same destination. There was no reason to be angry at Snap when I was only really angry with myself and my power. Besides, I’d need to make a new account for my cape identity and go through the whole rigamarole of getting it verified. If I made some kind of public acknowledgement of what happened I’d need to think through exactly how to phrase it, how to pay my dues to the people I’d hurt without getting bogged down in self-recrimination.

   Alright, Carmin, let’s move on, I thought. You know this isn’t productive. Or healthy.

    With deliberate slowness, I opened my eyes and started moving the cursor toward the new tab button. It would probably be a good idea to stick with the parahumans online wiki for now. For one thing, it had a much higher density of useful information; simply reading the first few paragraphs of the article on Seattle was enlightening. There were over two hundred capes in the Seattle Metropolitan area at any given time. It was mind numbing. Now that I had some idea of what having powers actually meant the numbers had stopped being a fun little factoid and started being completely fucking terrifying, to put it bluntly. How the hell hadn’t society collapsed already?

   That, at least, I knew the answer to. Systems, both formal and informal, kept the phenomena of powers from turning into a total war of all against all. The PRT and Protectorate, the masks and costumes, the Birdcage. A lot of it was imperfect, even horrific, but I had to admit that even that black hole of human rights violations served a vital function in keeping things running. Maybe -once I’d had some time to understand the cape scene in its current form- I’d be able to find a better way.

   Most of the capes in and around Seattle stuck to the outskirts and nearby towns, not powerful or influential enough to take territory in the city proper. That was locked down by a handful of major factions and a few particularly potent individuals. The heroes were outnumbered two to one, but they were organized and coordinated enough to keep things more or less stable. The enormity of the challenge they faced made me respect them even more, and made me equally determined to do what I could to help them.

   The biggest criminal organization in the city, counting both capes and the unpowered, was probably the Westlake Bastards. They had a strong grip on the lower income areas, but the real secret to their success was a cape named Menagerie. He could give people the ability to temporarily take on traits and natural weapons from animals, with the catch or bonus (depending on one’s perspective) being that repeatedly making use of the power causes the changes to slowly become permanent. Having permanent and visible animal traits was a sign of status to them, and even their leader -Brimstone- had a set of goat horns sprouting from her head. I wasn’t too proud to admit it looked really badass on her. More importantly his power meant that even their basic unpowered thugs had a noticeable edge in a fight, and its effects were varied enough that you wouldn’t necessarily know what that edge was going to be just by looking at them.

   The faction with the most capes aside from the Protectorate itself was the League of Insidious Villainry, founded by none other than Professor Silica, the self-proclaimed greatest supervillain in the world. She, and by extension her League, was all about embodying the classic idea of villains from before there even were people with actual powers. They had a code of sorts, holding back more when fighting heroes or other villains with a similar modus operandi, but they were capable of being utterly ruthless against those that truly raised their ire. They had a feud with the Bastards going back years, even before Silica offed their last leader -and the second Space Needle- in her own inimitable fashion.

   There were some up and comers I hadn’t heard of: an eco-terrorist neopagan cult called the Wildflower Coven, a handful of powered thugs that styled themselves as ‘Hospital Pass’, a guy that made fear lasers, an actual giant troll, a mysterious drone tinker, the list went on and on. Unfortunately most of the wiki articles were sparse on vital information like the details of their powers and motivations. The PRT databases had to be more extensive than this, right? Getting into a fight with an honest-to-god supervillain without at least having a decent idea of how their powers worked struck me as a bit like suicide with extra steps. Well, not necessarily that bad. Some villains preferred not to kill, and would instead gently maim me in whatever manner suited their fancy.

   Before I could start reviewing the publicly available information on the heroes, I heard a sharp knock on the safe house’s front door. I flinched, but I didn’t jump out of my seat or yelp especially loudly. Hopping to my feet, I literally walked through the door to my room rather than bothering to undo all the bars and locks and then pulled the front door open normally.

   It was a sharply dressed blonde woman holding a briefcase, standing straight enough to give off a military air. She smiled, offering her free hand to shake. The briefcase was in her right, so there was an awkward moment of reaching forward and then having to switch hands at the last second. The woman took it in stride, her grip firm and smile unwavering. Her skin was softer than I’d expected, and I couldn’t help noticing how small her hands were compared to mine. Her fingers were even shaped differently, tapering in a way mine didn’t.

   “Hey!” I said, voice bright. She was just the sort of driver person I’d been hoping for. “You’re here early.”

   “Sure am! Guess who gets to do a shitton of paperwork before they can even get in the van.”

   “Ah gee, let me take a wild guess. Is it you? Did you decide to bring your tax returns?”

   She rolled her eyes, “God save us, another one with a sense of humor. Presto’s gonna love you.”

   I perked up at that. “Really? What do you mean?”

   The woman chuckled, “You’ll see. Let’s just say she likes surprising people and leave it at that.”

   “Vague, but alright.” My eyes flicked to the briefcase. “What’s the damage? If my repetitive strain injury comes back because of this I’m gonna be mighty peeved.”

   “If a little thing like this scares you you better put in an order for a wrist brace, because I swear on my ass they were making up new forms just for me after Efface got her claws in me.”

   “What? What happened, are you okay?”

   She waved away my concern, setting her burden on the bare coffee table in the middle of the living room and unceremoniously flipping it open. There was a depressingly thick stack of papers inside.

   I sighed, pulling up the most comfortable looking chair I could find and using my power to create an improvised lap desk.

   “Damn,” she said, eyeing my work. “Wish I could do that.”

   I smiled. “You want one? Not that hard to make, really. It’s a pretty simple shape.”

   She looked at me for a few moments with an unreadable expression. Whatever she saw on my face seemed to pass muster, since she nodded and let her body language relax a little. I had the lap desk sprout from a spot right next to her on the couch, and she hesitantly made use of it.

   I smiled, getting to work on yet another non-disclosure agreement, relieved to have someone to go through all of this with.

   -||-

   Laura -the PRT’s liaison/escort/driver person- was a woman of many surprises. We’d both gotten into our seats after putting away my luggage, and she asked -all pleasant professionalism- if it were alright if she put on some music. ‘Of course,’ I’d said, and then there was noise. The drums pounded out through the speakers and reverberated through the car, crisscrossing themselves and compounding and combining until everything washed together into an incomprehensible wall of sound. I reflexively covered my ears with both hands, but that didn’t do anything for my overloaded tremor sense. I fumbled clumsily against the car’s stereo system, trying to find- there. As the volume finally -finally!- turned down to a reasonable level, I registered a new soreness in my jaw. I hadn’t realized I’d been clenching it.

   “Shit! I am so sorry about that, I can barely tell how loud it is anymore. Didn’t even think about it.”

   Her sincere distress mollified me a little, but I was getting really fucking tired of this whole sensory overload thing. Still, I took the time to take a few calming breaths and think through my words. “I’m not mad at you or anything, but loud noises have always bothered me. I would really appreciate it if we could keep it at a lower volume.”

   “Yeah, yeah, don’t even worry about it. Won’t happen again, I promise.”

   “I appreciate it, thank you.”

   The next couple hours were spent scribbling out notes and ideas at a furious pace, intermittently looking up information on my phone and asking Laura for her perspective. With her help, I was able to compile a list of Seattle’s major publicly known capes along with what was known about their powers. I was pretty confident it was already more useful than the wiki, not that that was saying much. I couldn’t wait to start filling it out once I had access to the PRT’s databases.

   Designing a cape persona, or at least a name and the broad strokes of a costume, still took up the largest chunk of my time. I’d heard somewhere that the most important part of character design was having a distinct silhouette, and I picked out the primary features of my costume with that in mind. A hooded cloak with a sort of poncho shape, covering the arms and angling down on both sides to a point just below the knees. The mask was full face, a lopsided smile and permanently quirked eyebrow giving it a quizzical air. More practically, I sketched out a few armor designs that I definitely needed to run by some actual experts before wearing to a fight.

   My visualization abilities had improved so dramatically that drawing designs from imagination was barely any different from tracing an image. With the paper in front of me, I could imagine the exact structure and shape of a mechanism and know exactly how it should look projected onto the page. My power didn’t provide any help with the actual muscle movements, but having it as a guide meant that as long as I doggedly kept at it long enough the drawing would eventually start to look right.

   Before I got past the preliminary sketches on my first set of non-lethal, non-maimy traps, I noticed a change in the passing scenery. Tighter packed and taller buildings had started appearing, slowly crowding out the seemingly endless forests between towns.

   “Are we almost there?” I asked, keeping my voice calm with an effort.

   “Someone’s keen. Yeah, we’re almost there. You can tell because the traffic starts out shitty and then gets worse.”

   “God, you sound like my mom. Though admittedly with a lot more swearing.”

   “I’ll try and take that as a compliment.”

   Sadly she wasn’t wrong about the traffic. It took another twenty minutes before we finally pulled into one of the squat parking complexes serving the Space Needle and some surrounding businesses.

   “Whelp, this is our stop,” Laura said, putting the car into park. “You think you’ll need any help with the luggage?”

   “No, I should be fine,” I said, most of my attention on the route I’d take out of the parking garage. “Thanks for taking the time to-”

   There was a stranger where Laura had been a second ago, feet idly propped up against the dashboard like she’d been relaxing there for hours. She was wearing a tux, and that was about all I had time to register before my body caught up with my brain and launched me screaming through the car door without even bothering to open it. The second I was clear I leapt over ten feet in the air, colliding with the concrete ceiling in a mutual embrace. I trusted my power to support me, a spear forming in my hands even as I turned to face whoever the hell had just teleported Laura. At least I hoped it was teleportation, I didn’t really want to think about what else it could be.

   My dress hadn’t flopped down onto my face this time, I’d buttoned up my jacket and cinched it tight, so I could see she wasn’t anywhere near the car. I spun around as suddenly as I could manage, but there wasn’t anyone behind me. What the hell was going on?

   “Damn,” said a voice from directly behind me, and even expecting something like it I still nearly jumped out of my skin a second time. It was, unsurprisingly, the masked tuxedo wearing woman from the car. Her skin was a dark tan, and her full lips curved up in a smile that was mischievous without being mocking. “I have to admit, that was pretty impressive.”

   I blinked owlishly at her, a low wall hanging between us like a blocky stalactite. I was still holding the spear. “What was?”

   She laughed -and she had a very nice laugh- like I’d just made a hilarious joke. “What do you mean, ‘what was?’. I’m talking about you walking through a closed door and flipping onto the ceiling like a fucking ninja!”

   “Oh,” I said, taking a moment to kick my brain back into gear. “Thank you, but that stuff is easy with my power. It’s not really that- wait, you’re on the ceiling! How are you on the ceiling?”

   The moment the question was out of my mouth I realized the answer. The tuxedo, the pranks, the casual and varied defiance of the laws of physics.

   “You’re Presto!” I said barely a second after the question left my mouth. “Holy shit, you’re Presto. What the fuck was that for? Where did Laura go?”

   “The one and only,” she said with a grin, sitting on the bottom edge of the wall in casual defiance of gravity. Her mask had an operatic look to it, covering the top half of her face and somehow mimicking her expressions in a startlingly lifelike way. “Laura’s fine, she’d been complaining about missing Donut Thursday anyways. I promise it wasn’t just for my own amusement, I wanted to know how you’d react to getting blindsided.”

   I glowered at her, still not entirely mollified. “Did I pass your little test at least?”

   She chuckled, shaking her head. “Ain’t no pass or fail, I just wanted to see what your first instinct was.”

   “Okay,” I said slowly, digesting her words. “What did you learn from your little experiment, then?”

   “That you’re defensive. That your first, second, and third responses were reactionary, and that you didn’t do anything to keep me from getting the drop on you again.”

   I flushed, and then wondered why the blood hadn’t rushed to my head already. “What would you have done differently in my position, then?”

   She shrugged exaggeratedly, hands off to the side. “I’d have hidden, but I ain’t got your powers. Just keep it in mind, yeah?”

   I nodded, but to my horror the gesture caused my poor battered glasses to slip off my face and fall toward the concrete surface below/above us. Before I could so much as cry out Presto gestured, and the next thing I knew my glasses were in her hand. Falling in their place was a colorful blur I was about eighty percent sure was a rose.

   Presto walked up and gently placed the glasses back on my face before I could even think of protesting, taking the time to make sure they were sitting securely. “Uhm,” I said, my flush this time having very little to do with embarrassment. “Thank you, but you could have just handed them to me.”

   “I could’ve done lots of things. I could’ve given you this.” She handed me a generic cloth mask emblazoned with the PRT’s logo. “Welcome to the Seattle Protectorate. Got a name yet?”

   “My actual name is Carmilla, but you seem like the type of person that already knows that somehow.”

   She snorted, but didn’t say anything as I fit the mask on over my glasses. “But I think as a cape, I’m gonna go by Sepulcher.”

   “Sepulcher, huh? Kinda grim, but I like it. Good sound.”

   “It’s kind of a grim power, figured I’d roll with it.”

   Her response was interrupted by the sound of someone jogging through the echoey confines of the concrete parking complex. I put the spear into the ceiling point first, letting it meld into the surrounding material until no sign of it remained. A few moments later Laura turned the corner at a brisk jog, holding a white paper bag in her hand.

   “You,” She huffed. “Goat-fucking,” Huff. “Inconsiderate,” Huff. “Piece of shit. Do you have any idea how far I just had to run because of your stupid prank?”

   Presto grinned, opening her arms wide. “Laura! I see you brought us donuts, that’s so considerate of you.”

   “Oh, no,” Said Laura, wagging her finger at her. “Don’t even think about it. I brought an extra donut for her, not you.”

   Neither of them seemed the least bit put off by having a conversation upside down, but I was honestly getting a crick in my neck from looking up/down at her. I gently lowered myself, dropping the last few feet.

   “Thank you so much.” I said once my feet touched the ground, genuinely touched by her thoughtfulness. “What flavor did you get me?”

   “Chocolate with chocolate frosting, I figured everybody likes chocolate.”

   “My brother doesn’t like chocolate,” I countered, taking it from her. “But thankfully I do.”

   She raised an eyebrow at that. “To each their own. You ready for the grand tour? Figured I’d show you around the publicly accessible areas while we wait for your meeting with the director.”

   I nodded, taking a fortifying breath. “I’m ready.”

   “Either of you mind if I tag along? I wanted to get to know the newest member of the team,” Presto cut in, having made her way back onto the floor at some point.

   “I doubt we could stop you,” said Laura, deadpan.

   “I don’t mind at all, I was actually hoping you could answer some questions for me.”

   Presto grinned, eyes sparkling with amusement. “Haven’t had enough of me yet? Ask away, I know practically everything there is to know about the Seattle cape scene.”

   “Guess I’ve just got a masochistic streak. Here’s something I’ve been confused about, how does the whole secret identity thing work when there are capes like you that can figure them out without breaking a sweat?”

   “Ah, that one’s kinda complicated. Basically how things work is that if word gets out about you going after someone’s civilian identity you get rendered persona non grata as far as other capes are concerned. And even if you don’t give a shit about other people, doing it is usually a big enough hassle that it’s not worth it.”

   I nodded, taking that in. “There’s something else I need to know.”

   “What is it?” She asked, voice sobering at my serious tone.

   “Did you and Bullrush really used to date?”

   For the first time in the entire conversation, it was Presto that was rendered speechless. That was lovely enough, but what really made it was Laura’s breathless laughter.

Chapter Text

   My whole life had been spent waiting for something. I’d always hoped that someone would come along and reveal that I was destined for something greater, like being a secret wizard or the heir to a fae bloodline. Or even a superhero. There were so many times when I’d just stopped whatever I was doing and wrestled with the idea that this was my one life, that I actually was who I was. A lot of that had been because I was trans, knowing something was terribly wrong but not being able to describe or point to it.

   A lot, but not all. As we entered the diffuse light of late autumn, eyes blinking against cloud cover that seemed to glow with an inner light, I saw the vast bulk of the Space Needle rising above us like a glistening giant. After the second Space Needle had been destroyed, it had become a matter of civic pride for practically everyone in the state to keep it from ever happening again. All sorts of solutions were proposed, but ultimately it was decided that the newly rebuilt and redesigned Space Needle would become the headquarters of the Seattle Protectorate. Even though it was still a tourist trap, knowing that it now served such a vital function in keeping the city running gave it a gravitas it hadn’t had before. It meant something now, and that meaning elevated it from an architectural gimmick from the sixties into something I could be proud to be a part of.

   Laura chuckled. “It really is something, isn’t it? Even after four years it still takes my breath away.”

   I nodded, a big grin on under my mask. “It’s beautiful.”

   “It’s dull,” Presto cut in, in a tone of voice you’d normally reserve for someone saying sand was good to drink. “Give it time, you won’t be so excited once you see most of what’s happening in there is pencil-pushers pushing pencils.”

   “Well, sure, it is probably mostly cubicles. But not being interesting isn’t necessarily the same thing as not being important. Society can’t function unless someone does all the dull-but-vital stuff that keeps everything running.”

   “Thank you!” said Laura, giving Presto a look of mock judgement. “It’s good to know at least one hero in this city appreciates us.”

   “Of course I appreciate you guys,” Presto responded, sounding genuinely hurt. Then she grinned. “Without the PRT, who’d be there to get us coffee? No one, that’s who. It’d be a damn tragedy.”

   “That’s so good to hear!” said Laura, giving her an apparently gormless smile.

   “Oh yeah?”

   “Yup. If that’s all you need us for, I can just let the director know we won’t have to renew your budget for next year. Not sure how familiar you are with the logistics of tinkering, Sepulcher, but it’s probably not a surprise that nanotech super materials and specialized microprocessors are a hell of a lot harder on our budget than a little coffee. Or a big head.”

   “Don’t listen to her, Presto.” I chimed in. “If anything your head is noticeably smaller than average.”

   “The nerve!” Presto gasped in a perfect haughty noblewoman voice, holding a gloved hand to her breast in mock offense. “Whatever happened to cape solidarity?” I met her stern expression with one of my own, looking into amber eyes sparkling with hidden amusement. She broke first, a few giggles becoming full blown snorting laughter as I visibly struggled to control my face. I laughed too, relieved in a way I couldn’t quite articulate that they didn’t think I was annoying.

   We made it to the front entrance, where Laura’s badge let us completely bypass the lines and security the public had to deal with. Perks. Once we got checked in I received a plastic guest pass with ‘Sepulcher’ printed on it. I put the lanyard around my neck, feeling a little tingly at the prospect of literally hanging my cape name over my chest. It reminded me a bit of how it felt to start going by Carmilla last year. This time, though, the new name was supplemental rather than replacing one that no longer fit. I’d goddamn earned being Carmilla, and no one could ever take it from me.

   “Alright, Sepulcher,” said Laura, putting extra emphasis on the name. Reminding herself? “Where do you wanna go first? We’ve got like an hour and a half before the director’s available.”

   “Hmm…” There were a lot of different places I wanted to see, but none of it struck me as particularly more urgent than anything else. “What about the gift shop? I haven’t been here since it got rebuilt, I’m kind of curious what’s changed.”

   “Excited to get your hands on an official Presto action figure?” the woman herself asked, smirking at me. “Or are you just really raring for a mug?”

   “I already have your action figure,” I corrected. A second later my brain caught up with my mouth and suddenly my entire face felt like I'd just opened an oven and shoved it right in. The unrestrained delight lighting up Presto's face emphatically did not help. This was going to be a thing, wasn't it? Fuck.

   I cleared my throat with all the grace and subtlety of a bird breaking through a window, its broken, twitching body scattering everything on the dinner table. “Anyway. Shopping isn't really on the agenda, I've got approximately none money until whenever I start getting paid.”

   “And if it were, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that. To be completely honest, I’ve got more than a few action figures myself. They’re neat,” Laura said, narrowing her eyes at the smirking magician in preemptive disapproval. Presto adopted such a look of cherubic innocence that I almost bought it myself, despite having endured one of her tricks already. Laura rolled her eyes at Presto’s antics. “Assuming everything goes well, you should be getting an advance on your pay either tonight or early tomorrow. That’ll be enough to take care of all the basics.”

   “Is there a chance of it not going well?” I asked, suddenly nervous.

   “Hypothetically,” Laura responded. “But-”

   Presto interrupted with a laughing snort. “Ha! The Protectorate is absolutely desperate for capes, you’d basically have to be a serial killer to get turned down. I mean shit, how do you think I haven’t gotten kicked out yet?”

   “Not quite how I’d have put it, but she’s basically right. Especially the last part,” Laura said. If she was upset at being interrupted there wasn’t any sign of it.

   “Huh.” I said eloquently, processing all that. “Good to know. Though I have to wonder what that says about my future teammates.”

   “They’re good people,” Laura reassured me. “I’ve worked with most of them for years, long enough to know who I can count on when the chips are down. With a couple exceptions, that’s all of them.”

   “I wonder who those exceptions might be,” I said speculatively, giving Presto a significant look.

   “She’s saved my life, actually,” Laura said seriously.

   For the first time I’d seen her, Presto seemed out of sorts. She’d taken off her top hat, running her hand over dark hair slicked back with something that emphasized the curliness rather than hiding it. It was in a butch, modern sort of style, the sides and back shaved short. She noticed me looking at her and smiled, idly spinning the hat on her finger. “Like what you see?” she asked, putting a hand on her hip and twisting her body just so.

   I wrenched my gaze toward the floor, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.

   Laura playfully punched Presto in the shoulder. “Leave the poor girl alone. We were supposed to be giving her a tour, remember?”

   “You’re just jealous that she doesn’t have your action figure.” She threw back, holding her arm like she’d just been grievously wounded.

   “I don’t have an action figure.”

   “Exactly.”

   The entrance to the gift shop was as impressive as the rest of the building, fancy-looking automatic doors leading into an artfully designed storefront. The products were mostly the sorts of things you’d find at any gift shop or major store that licensed Protectorate merchandise, but every effort imaginable had been made to attract the eye or present them in an unconventional way. A detailed statue of one of Dragon’s mechs guarded a pile of collectibles like a hoard of gold, a plastic ‘stone’ platform holding the classic Protectorate lineup was seemingly held up by an Alexandria action figure below it, and Armsmaster stood guard over the video game section. Before we were more than a few steps inside a crowd of tourists materialized from thin air in front of us, voices overlapping each other as they clamored for autographs or pictures or just attention.

   I froze, brain struggling to keep up with the separate actions of over a dozen excited people. Before I could start well and truly panicking, Presto was there among them shaking hands and flashing that smile of hers. She signed autographs and took pictures, doing her best to direct the crowd’s attention away from us. The second they were distracted Laura took my arm, leading me off to the side.

   “Not a fan of crowds, I take it?” Laura asked quietly.

   I shook my head. “It’s just too much for me, you know? I can handle public speaking or performing, but being surrounded by that much noise drives me up the fucking wall. No pun intended.”

   “I get it, we can’t all be social dynamos. What did you want to look at? This place is pretty big, we could probably spend the whole hour here if we wanted. I’ve gotten lost in here like three times.”

   “That definitely won’t be a problem. I wanted to see the stuff dedicated to local heroes, you can get Legend bed sheets or whatever anywhere.”

   Laura smiled, turning to lead me on a meandering journey through the oversized gift shop. Shelves rising twice as tall as me blocked our view at each turn, a consumerist labyrinth pulling my attention from every angle on every wall. It took a few detours to make it, despite the section dedicated to the local cape scene being by far the largest and most lavishly presented. A huge grin split my face as I took it all in, dozens of heroes and a smattering of defeated foes arranged in a sort of diorama at the center of the largest open space in the store. Shelves radiated out from the central point in a pleasingly geometric arrangement, each focused on one of the power categories the PRT used.

   I brushed my fingers over each piece of memorabilia as we passed them, making absolutely sure that they stuck in my power’s memory. Not just because I wanted to mentally come back here without the people or annoying music, but also because I figured it’d be a lot easier to remember all these capes and their powers if I could visualize their places on the shelves. Unfortunately there were plenty of ambiguities when it came to what categories a given power was in, and that had required them to make clear distinctions where there hadn’t necessarily been any. Like, for instance, whether I’d be considered a shaker or a striker. My power required physical contact -the basic definition of a striker power- but its effects could be applied in a large radius around me, which was very much a shaker thing. Where would I fit in here?

   To my surprise, a number of local hero teams with only loose Protectorate affiliations at best were represented. The Mercer Island Pioneers had their own display, a poster with all six of them arranged together prominently posted on the side of one of the aisles. Voxel and Flicker -the leader and heavy hitter, respectively- stood in the center with heads held high. I knew the armored tinker beside them was Amalgam, and the human-shaped window to space floating above them had to be Vagary, but I didn’t recognize the cocky looking woman in a comparatively casual costume or the dark haired girl all but hiding behind the others. Were they new additions or had I just not been paying enough attention?

   The Protectorate’s display was the largest by far, no surprise considering the sheer number of capes they had. Not to mention it was literally their own gift shop. A life-sized statue of the local team’s leader Mesh loomed over it, brandishing twin hard-light tomahawks represented in translucent plastic. He was a tinker specialized in cybernetics, his whole body a carefully honed instrument that represented literal decades of fighting and self-improvement. Presto and Bullrush lead a stealth focused sub-team that already had a few prominent captures under its metaphorical belt. They’d worked together since before they graduated the Wards two years ago, often enough that it was no surprise rumors had started spreading about the two of them. False ones, if Presto was to be believed.

   I very purposefully didn’t pick up any Presto action figures, knowing in my bones that the second I touched one she’d appear out of nowhere and smirk at me. I grabbed one of Monster Mash’s instead, noting how it disappeared from my power’s awareness the second it wasn’t touching the rest of the shelf. I read the blurb on the back of the box, hungry to learn everything I could about this new part of my life. He was a tinker with a classic mad scientist look that made creatures instead of technological tools. Stitched together monsters were his forte, but over his and Mesh’s decades long cape career he’d made everything from giant cybernetic dogs to specialized bacterial colonies that safely ate fire. As capes went he was practically ancient, and they’d somehow stayed together through the whole thing. There was so much I wanted to ask them.

   “Penny for your thoughts?” Laura asked, leaning on the shaker aisle. “You’ve been quiet.”

   “Are they worth so little to you?” I quipped, flashing a grin at her. Then I sighed, looking for the right words to express what I was feeling. “It’s just that I’m worried. I have a history of being given promising opportunities and letting them fall apart. What’s gonna happen when I mess up again?”

   Laura gave me a sad smile. “You’re being too hard on yourself. And anyway, it’s not like you fuck up once and then get sent home. There’s an adjustment period, tutors, teammates to support you. You’ll have room to make a few mistakes.”

   “I’m mostly worried about someone getting hurt because I fucked up.”

   “Sepulcher, relax. You’re not going into a life-or-death situation on the first day, or even the first few weeks. And besides, your team is gonna have your back no matter what. Trust them.”

   I nodded, taking the words in. It was too easy to fall into a pit of self loathing and hopelessness that kept me from improving myself or making any forward progress. This was the best opportunity I’d ever had to finally be free from all the baggage I’d accumulated over my life, a way to forge a new self that I could be truly happy with. I just had to take it one step at a time.

   With that thought I put him back on the shelf, flashing Laura a smile.

   “Want to go find Presto?” I asked. “I think we’ve seen about everything there is to see here.”

   “Were you gonna get anything?”

   I shook my head. “No money.”

   “Right, sorry,” she said, rubbing her chin. “Say, how about I get you one of these things? Consider it a welcome present.”

   I blinked. “Are you sure? You really don’t have to.”

   “Don’t even worry about it, this has been a hell of a lot more fun than filing incident reports. Which one did you want?”

   “Well, thank you then. I’ve been meaning to get Flicker for a while, her power is so fucking cool. She sees into other dimensions and shit.”

   Laura nodded, grabbing one of the Flickers off the shelf. “Sees into them, pulls stuff from them, and on top of that she can fly. Damn shame she never joined up with us.”

   I nodded absentmindedly. “Fuck. Strange to think I’ll probably be meeting her at some point.”

   Laura nodded. “Where are we headed after we grab Presto?”

   “Up.” I said simply.

   -||-

   I patted my bag as we entered the large, crowded elevator, reassuring myself Flicker was still there. The elevator was tinker stuff -smoother, faster and more expensive than it had any right to be- and it gave a perfect view of the city despite being in the middle of the building. I could feel the walls passing rapidly outside the elevator, noting exact distances in my mental map of the building as the city spread further and further before us. Fifty feet, two hundred feet, four hundred feet, eight hundred, and before I knew it we’d stopped right at the observation deck nine hundred and fifty six feet in the air.

   “You’re fogging up the glass,” Presto noted cheerfully.

   I glowered at her, moving my hands and face from where I was leaning against the wall-spanning ‘window’. The crowd of people we’d had to share it with were finally thinning out, making their way to the observation deck or the restaurant or the publicly available parts of the Wards and Protectorate headquarters. Crowds always, always put me on edge.

   The elevator lead out directly onto the outer ring, which was completely open to the public and contained the aforementioned restaurant and observation deck. The floor looked like some kind of structural glass, letting us see all the way down to the parking lot we’d come in from half an hour ago. With my power, however, I could tell it was the same technology that was on the inside of the elevator. Laura looked a little green in the gills, grumbling to herself as she stepped onto the surprisingly grippy surface and marched mechanically to one of the benches opposite her.

   “Are you not a fan of heights?” I asked as she sat down, tentative. “We can go somewhere else if you really want.”

   “I’ll be fine as long as I don’t try looking around and moving at the same time. I’m just gonna sit here and make a few calls. You two have fun, yeah?”

   “If you’re sure.”

   “She literally works here, Sepulcher.” Presto said drily, a slight smile on her lips. “I’m pretty sure she can handle it.”

   “It’s called being polite. Not that you’d know anything about that, oh great and powerful Presto. Or should I say… Pest -o?”

   Laura and Presto met each other’s eyes in silence, then looked back at me. There was a pregnant pause as the flow of people parted around us. After a seeming eternity, it was Laura that let out the first giggle. Soon all three of us were laughing, presumably more at the ridiculousness of the situation than my lame joke.

   “You’re alright, Sepulcher.” Presto said, giving me a little poke in the side. “But don’t think you’re getting away with that pun scot-free.”

   “Oh? You planning to punish me?” I grinned at her, eager to see her reaction.

   “Alright, I was asking for that one.” She stabbed a finger at me. “But no more freebies, you hear me? New girl only gets so much slack.”

   “God, get a room already.” Laura said, not bothering to look up from her phone.

   “We’re already in a room, technically.” I noted.

   Presto rolled her eyes violently and all but dragged me away from the bench.

   “Where are we going?” I asked, letting myself be pulled along. People were staring at us as we passed by, but that was probably just because we were obviously both capes and had nothing to do with my appearance. Could they tell I was trans? Would they have a problem with it if they did?

   “The observation deck. It’s got this view of downtown that’ll knock your socks off.” Presto responded, flashing me another smile.

   There were large windows regularly spaced along the outside edge, letting us catch glimpses of the Seattle skyline we’d come up here to see. They weren’t glass, however. As we approached I could see that they were forcefields being projected from the wall, and though they felt solid and slightly tingly to the touch I couldn’t affect them with my power at all. Like solidified air.

   “Come on already,” Presto said testily, pulling me away from the window. “We’re basically here, all we need to do is wait for the telescopes to open up.”

   “If we still need to wait, why did you drag me from the window? It was neat.”

   She rolled her eyes. “We need to get in line, duh.”

   I raised a finger in protest, before slowly lowering it as I failed to think of a rebuttal. “Alright, you got me. You’re right.”

   Presto didn’t bother hiding her smug grin as she pulled me along, full lips pushing back her cheeks and making her eyes sparkle with amusement. She seemed so at ease in her own skin, the smooth movement of her shoulders and hips reminding me of the way a cheetah’s shoulder blades languidly shift up and down as they walk. She navigated a course through the sea of bodies, pulling me along in her wake. Tourists looking to ask questions or get autographs from her were diverted with a few carefully chosen words and a smile, never drawing her into a long conversation.

   I almost groaned aloud when we finally made it to the southern observation deck’s entrance. The line extended well past the area marked off for it, the area dense with people making use of the tables and chairs. We took our place at the back of the line and I concentrated on my breathing, trying to ignore the bubbling babble of noise smacking against my ears and the floor. My foot started tapping, and I let it.

   Should have brought my headphones, I thought.

   Presto was saying something, but I was only half paying attention. My eyes tracked each person in turn, but there were enough people to make following all of them an exercise in futility. What if one of them wanted to hurt me? How would I be able to tell or prepare against it? You never knew who’d take a dislike to you and decide to make something of it, couldn’t tell where resentment lurked beneath the surface. Something moved in front of my face, and I squawked.

   “You alright Sepulcher?” Presto asked, lowering her hand. “You seem kinda tense.”

   I was tempted to deflect, but her concern gave me pause. I sighed. “Hate crowds, always have. I think my power makes it worse.”

   She gave me a searching look. “This feels like more than that. It’s okay if you wanna do something else, you know.”

   I looked up, a thought occurring to me. “Are there any forcefields between the ceiling and the roof?”

   “Don’t think so, why?”

   In lieu of answering, I walked up the side of the internal wall and unceremoniously pulled myself into the ceiling. Since I could control it and didn’t need to see to know where I was, the metal encasing me from head to toe was comforting rather than confining. It buoyed me, carrying me skyward like a strong current. After a few moments of silence I crested the surface of the roof, immediately feeling a cold wind whipping at my hair as I did so. I slowly rose the rest of the way, wishing fiercely that my peacoat had survived the apartment’s destruction. My feet were still covered with concrete, a precaution against getting knocked off the building.

   I quietly gasped as I took in the entire city from nearly a thousand feet in the air. Downtown Seattle was to the south, glass and steel skyscrapers stabbing up from the hilly ground like a patch of crystal. Surrounding it on all sides were a chaotic mix of trees and buildings spreading out past the horizon. Mount Rainier towered in the distance, more occluded by atmosphere than not.

   This is my home now. I thought, plopping down on the edge of the sloped, circular roof.

   None of it felt real. Not my roommates attacking me, not John dying, not being here, and especially not my powers. If I wanted to, I could just jump off this thousand-foot building and be fine. I’d be able to feel the wind in my hair again, that sense of freedom I had when I’d soared all too briefly in the forest. It was so tempting to just run away and hope things would eventually start making sense again.

   I took my glasses off, and the world blurred to the point that I couldn’t pick out individual buildings on the skyline any more. They went in my bag, which I hugged close to protect it from the wind. I shut my eyes tight, focusing my attention on my sense of the surrounding material. The roof was mostly concrete and metal, which were both of a higher quality than what my power was capable of making. There was an elegant latticework of steel just under the surface, and imagining how it might extend throughout the rest of the structure helped calm me down and ground me.

   “Hey,” Presto said just loud enough to hear, standing a comfortable thirty three and a half feet behind me. “Room for one more?”

   I nodded, wary.

   She approached with surprising carefulness, sitting down a few feet to my right without making any sudden movements. Probably trying not to startle the dangerous, unstable parahuman.

   “You wanna talk about it?” she asked, apparently casual.

   I thought for a moment, body tensed against the wind. Eventually, I nodded.

   Presto produced a card from somewhere and positioned it directly between us. When she let go it remained, somehow suspended in thin air. My ears popped as the air pressure shifted, wind dying down to almost nothing and making the cold much easier to manage.

   “What is that ?” I asked, realizing too late that I didn’t need to raise my voice any more.

   “The four of diamonds, obviously.”

   “Could you not be a smartass for five seconds? I was just curious.”

   She raised her hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. It uses specialized telekinetic projectors to normalize air currents around it. I made the thing to keep people from hearing anything in its area of effect. The wind stilling was just a happy accident.”

   “And floating in the air? Is that also the telekinetic projectors?”

   She nodded. “If it can move that much air, it can lift itself. Just a matter of tuning the vectors.”

   I nodded, promising myself I’d get all the details about her tech I could later. “So when you asked me if I wanted to talk, what were you referring to exactly?”

   “I was referring to how you almost got everyone in the lobby doused with containment foam.”

   “Oh fuck,” I said, scrambling onto my feet. “I’m an idiot. I didn’t even think of that! Did anyone get hurt?”

   “No, no, it’s fine,” Presto said, waving me back down with gentle motions. “Nothing happened. The security systems in the public areas aren’t sensitive enough to detect your power. Please, sit, I promise everyone is okay.”

   I reluctantly gave way to her prodding, lowering myself back onto the cold roof next to her.

   “Do you know?” I asked after a moment.

   “Know what?”

   “My- my trigger event. What happened after. Do you know?”

   “Only what’s publicly available,” she said. “Incident at Evergreen State College, powers going out of control, new cape joining the Protectorate. Playback didn’t deign to share his notes with anyone but the director, and she’s onto me by now. Can’t hack info that’s only in her brain.”

   I hugged my bag tight, sinking further into the roof. My body felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the chill. “So you know I’m a killer.”

   “Putting aside the debate about who’s responsible for what, I’d say there’s a pretty fucking big difference between someone that’s killed and a killer.”

   I hesitantly nodded. “I’m worried I don’t belong here. You know I’m a mess, right? For fuck’s sake, I couldn’t even make it through college. How am I supposed to keep up?”

   She shook her head, amused and sad at the same time. “We all are, Sepulcher. You don’t get powers if you aren’t at least a little messed up. I say stop thinking of why you can’t do this, and start thinking of all the reasons you can. You’ll be surprised how much longer the second list is.”

   “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.” After a moment’s hesitation, I took off my mask and put my glasses back on. “Can we just sit and talk for a bit? I don’t think I’m ready to face the crowds yet.”

   Presto took off her mask, flashing me another brilliant smile. She held out a gloved hand to shake. “Liang. Glad to officially meet you, Carmilla.”

Chapter Text

   Flicker soared through open air faster than the eye could track, held aloft by forces unknown. A shock of red hair poked through the open top of her mask, blowing freely in the wind. She went into a dive to put falcons to shame, air roaring past her ears as she readied an earth-shattering flying kick. The action figure poked Liang -Presto now, she’d put her mask back on- in the cheek, prompting her to look up from the card trick she’d been practicing and give me a thoroughly unimpressed look. Undeterred, I brandished Flicker’s fist and booped her lightly on the nose.

   Presto scrunched her nose up and pushed the much cooler superhero away, but she couldn’t hide her smile completely. “Am I gonna have to take that thing away from you?” She asked, trying very hard to sound serious and threatening.

   “You’re just jealous that she can fly,” I taunted, holding up the miniaturized brute to demonstrate.

   “Three things to keep in mind out there, tunnel girl. One: teleporting is way better than flying, anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Two: being jealous of another cape’s powers is a waste of time, not least because they always have a catch.”

   “Weren’t there supposed to be three?”

   “People aren’t just going to tell you everything they know if they can help it, kid. Knowledge is power.”

   “Is that the third thing or are you just messing with me?” I didn’t bother protesting that I was a year older than her at twenty-one, it would be a waste of breath.

   “The third thing is that your little taunt doesn’t really work when you can’t fly either.”

   “Never claimed that I wasn’t jealous, just that you were . All my best taunts bring people down to my level.”

   She paused for a second, then rolled her eyes. We were sitting in the lobby outside the director’s office/meeting room in chairs that were more floral print than they were cushion. The secretary guarding the entrance had politely but firmly asked me to stop pacing, so I’d gotten Flicker out to pass the time and distract myself from my nervousness. The quality was better than I’d have expected, every detail of her black and grey armored bodysuit faithfully represented. The icon on her chest was crisp and clear, a simplified outline of her mask overlapping itself. Her mouth was set in a determined line under her visor.

   “The director will see you now,” the secretary said, voice harsh over the intercom.

   I scrambled to put Flicker back in my bag, my mind flipping through a hundred disaster scenarios like a fucked-up viewmaster. Laura gave me an encouraging smile as I settled my canvas book bag on one shoulder, patiently waiting for me to finish. I followed her past the secretary’s desk, twin panes of frosted glass looming like the broad side of a glacier. Presto hesitated before going in, hat held lightly in her hands.

   “You ready?” she asked after a moment.

   I nodded.

   “Knock ‘em dead, Sepulcher,” she said with a grin and a wink.

   I stared at her blankly for several seconds, caught between the half-formed thoughts and feelings that phrasing brought up and the idea that someone I’d had a crush on since high school just winked at me. The memories welling up nearly brought me to my knees, threatening to shatter the frail calm I’d managed to cobble together in the aftermath of my trigger. I shook my head vigorously, tapping into my thinker power for some perspective. Every sense seemed to sharpen, relevant details snapping into focus with uncanny speed and precision.

   I noted the physical characteristics and estimated threat levels of every individual in the area, keeping in mind that I could walk through the walls of the building more or less freely. The tinker was the most dangerous, her teleportation abilities could prevent me from escaping before other assets were brought to bear. The soldier had no chance of catching me, but I was still vulnerable to the gun strapped to her hip. As a just-in-case measure, I sketched out their cones of vision by tracking their eye movements and extrapolating from my own, mentally collating potential escape routes based on my incomplete knowledge of the building and more limited knowledge of the greater area. There was no way to plan further without more information, so I reluctantly let go of my power.

   Images of faces snarled in rage and hatred immediately started intruding on me, but this time I had the tools to temporarily wrestle them into submission and focus on the present. Laura lightly punched Presto in the shoulder, leaning in to whisper something in a harsh tone. The levity drained out of Liang’s face like it had never been, leaving her looking pensive and uncertain. Her hat was held loosely in her right hand, while her left rubbed the back of her neck.

   “Aw shit, I didn’t mean it like that. I was just trying to riff off your name,” she said, sounding sincerely upset. She seemed to struggle with herself for a few moments before letting out a sigh. “I’m sorry. Sometimes my mouth moves faster than my brain, especially when I’m trying to be clever.”

   “The apology is very much appreciated,” I said, honestly finding the situation more surreal than upsetting. “But it’s a pretty common phrasing, and I’ve been guilty of the very same sort of thing in the past. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we’re good.”

   “Glad to hear it. Since we’re good and all, may I add that you’re drop-dead gorgeous?”

   I stared at her incredulously for a few seconds before blushing furiously and breaking into laughter in that order.

   “Quit screwing around you two, the Director is waiting on us,” said Laura, exasperated without being really upset. With that she slid the frosted doors of the office aside, giving us a full view of the interior. Most of the light was provided by a single large window replacing what would normally be the back wall, backlighting a solidly built -and currently unoccupied- wooden desk stacked with papers. The room was dominated by a compact conference table set on a slightly lower level, no less than five nationally famous individuals sitting around it.

    The two sitting closest to me were Snubnose and Gasconade, the former actually outside of her trademark powered armor for once. Gasconade sort of hurt to look at, his body was a vaguely human-shaped collage of two-dimensional abstract drawings. The costume he wore over it was simple and could have passed as normal clothes on someone else, a take on the classic private eye outfit in earthy colors. At the head of the table directly opposite me was Director Kiyana Moore. She was black, her hair coiled into braids tied back into a loose ponytail, and something about the way she held herself gave her a presence to match anyone else in the room. Sitting at her right was Mesh, visor focused on his laptop as he typed something out. On her left was Bullrush, her costume an interesting mixture of sleek aerodynamic combat armor and geometric paneling that gave her an almost low-poly look. She wore a full face mask with a build and profile reminiscent of a motorcycle helmet, molded on the sides to suggest horns. I’d almost missed the sharply dressed blonde man standing behind the director, clipboard in hand.

   Mesh was the first to notice us, turning to give a small smile nearly the instant the door started opening. Bullrush was inscrutable, her helmeted face locking on me just a second longer than the others. The director surprised me by getting up from her chair with a broad smile and coming right to me.

   “Sepulcher,” she said, offering a hand. “It’s good to finally meet you. Playback had a lot to say in his report.”

   “Good things, I hope,” I joked feebly, taking it. She gave Presto a curious look, but her handshake was textbook and her attention was back on me a second later.

   “Mostly,” Bullrush cut in, her conversational tone at odds with the terse statement. I could practically feel Presto’s hackles rising behind me. Over the last hour I’d gotten used to the minuscule shifts in positioning and how she held her weight that characterized her, making her sudden stillness as notable as it was alarming. I resisted the urge to keep my eye on her, instead turning to address the source of her ire.

   “Could you elaborate on that?” I asked, unable to hide my nervousness. Was she upset with me? Was I in trouble? Did I do something wrong? The director hadn’t seemed angry, but maybe she just didn’t know whatever it was and I’d just been thrown under the bus.

   “Let’s table that for now,” the Director said, her voice calm but firm. “Why don’t we all introduce ourselves? My name is Kiyana Moore, I’m the director of the Seattle branch of the PRT.” She turned to the blonde man with the clipboard who’d followed behind her. “This is Assistant Director Matthews, among other duties he’ll be acting as the PRT’s primary representative during missions.”

   “They call me Snubnose, heroine extraordinaire!” said Snubnose loudly, standing up and letting out a few antigravity sparks from her fingertips. At full height the top of her head would just barely reach my chin. It bothered me, but it was a bother I’d gotten used to. She elbowed Mesh, prompting an indecipherable look from him. To my shock, he pressed something on the side of his visor to make it retract. With his full face visible I could tell he was Native American, and that his entire face was etched with what looked like tron lines leading to various augmentations in his eyes and other senses.

   “I’m Kiyiya,” he said simply, giving me a small smile. I returned it, relieved somewhat by the show of trust.

   “It’s good to meet you, Kiyiya. I’m Carmilla,” I said, stumbling over the unfamiliar syllables of his name. I’d need to figure out how to pronounce it correctly.

   “Oh, you meant our actual names,” Snubnose said, taking off her mask. She was Asian, with a broad face to match her stocky build. “It’s Zoe. Carmilla’s a pretty name.”

   “Thanks!” I said, “I picked it myself.”

   I heard Presto snort behind me.

   “Jaager Charles,” Gasconade spoke up, voice surprisingly normal and surprisingly hesitant. I tried to meet his gaze. “It’s my name, or at least it used to be. Glad to have you aboard.”

   I offered a hand to shake, but he actually backed away from it. I gave him a perplexed look.

   “Careful,” he said, head turned towards me. “My power affects anything I interact with, can’t turn it off.”

   “Is it harmful?” I asked, a little disturbed.

   He was silent for a few seconds. “Nah, just inconvenient. You get reset to how you were before I touched you after thirty seconds.”

   “That doesn’t sound too bad. Do memories get reset?”

   He shook his head.

   “Neat. That offer of a handshake is still open, if you’re interested.”

   He was. We were both hesitant, and his hand felt strangely smooth and cold, but he seemed to appreciate the gesture. I didn’t feel anything to suggest the power taking hold, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

   “Please, take a seat,” the Director said, gesturing to the chair next to me as she returned to her own. I did so, setting down my bag and taking off my mask with the reasoning that they’d figure out I was trans soon enough if they hadn’t already. I noted the way Bullrush held herself as she kept her gaze on me and occasionally on Presto. There was a tension in her shoulders, a distinctly stubborn cast to how her arms were folded. Presto sat down on my left, very deliberately meeting her stare for stare. Laura put a hand on her shoulder, briefly whispering something before sitting on my right and beginning a quiet conversation with Gasconade. Or, no, Jaager.

   “Now that everyone’s settled,” Bullrush said, leaning forward with her hands on the table. Her voice was quiet, but each word was delivered with the sharpness and finality of nails being driven into a coffin. “Would you mind explaining what the fuck you were thinking, Sepulcher? You used dangerous, completely untested powers on delicate equipment in full view of the public. What if you’d lost control again? What if there’d been an adverse reaction with one of our security systems?”

   I wanted to argue, to push back, but I’d already come to a similar conclusion. The realization was a leaden weight in my stomach, bringing me down until it took deliberate, conscious effort not to literally sink into the floor. She might have thought I was mocking her or something and I’d fucked this up enough already. What could I say to convince her it won’t happen again?

   “Well?” she asked, when I didn’t answer immediately.

   I found myself paralyzed, every possible response too risky. My mouth opened up, but no words came out. The next thing I knew, I was standing up again and had my arm out as if shaking hands with the air.

   “What the fuck?” I practically squeaked, prompting a tension-breaking chorus of chuckles from the room. A second later I realized the obvious, Gasconade’s power had just reset me to the moment before I’d touched him. It still took me a bit to get my bearings, and by the time I made my way back to my chair I’d flushed all the way to my hairline. Presto surprised me by pulling it out as I approached, smiling encouragingly despite her obviously foul mood.

   My eyes searched the oblong table as I sat down, and when that failed I leaned toward her and whispered. “Have you seen my mask?”

   Her face softened a little with amusement. “You’re wearing it, dingus.”

   “Oh, right.” I took it off again, feeling less certain of that decision as I faced down Bullrush again.

   “You gonna answer the question?” she asked, impatient.

   I gave an annoyed huff. “I was thinking . I’m just trying to figure out how to articulate my response, okay? Could you quit with the pushiness? It’s really not helping.”

   For a moment it seemed like Bullrush was gonna get into it again, but a look from the Director made her swallow whatever she had to say and sit back again with her arms folded.

   Presto piped up, apparently unable to hold herself back any longer. “Could you stop being-” she cut herself off, calming down with visible effort. “Bullrush, could you just drop it? I talked to her about it, she gets why it was risky and she knows not to do it again. What else is there to say?”

   “I don’t know, maybe the fact that she’s demonstrated the ability to twist this entire building into a deathtrap in minutes?” Bullrush countered, gesturing at me.

   Presto leaned forward in her chair, looking about five seconds from climbing onto the table and punching her partner in crime-fighting in the face.“Could you have some tact for once in your fucking life? She’s been through a lot. And this is coming from me, of all people. That should have you worried.”

   I really didn’t like where this was going. “Hey guys, could we take it down a notch? I don’t think this is worth getting into a big fight over. Bullrush, I’m sorry I messed with the building. It was just the first idea that occurred to me to get away from the crowds, and I knew from practicing with my power that as long as I don’t change anything it puts stuff back exactly how it was before I passed through. Although I admit I do sometimes change stuff unintentionally. Anyway, I promise I won’t do something like that again, at least outside of an emergency or testing or whatever.”

   Bullrush regarded me silently for a few moments, thoughts completely concealed by her costume. Then she reached up and pulled off her helmet, shaking a blonde bob cut back into place. She didn’t smile, but she didn’t seem as stern as before either. “Beth Rawling. Welcome to the team, Carmilla. I look forward to seeing what you can do.”

   I nodded sharply, mirroring her terse demeanor. Presto was uncharacteristically silent, her expression unreadable. I wanted to help her out of the funk the argument had put her in, but it was hard to judge the right action having only known her a couple of hours. After a few moments thought I took out my notebook, flipped to my initial designs for armor and costume and placed it between us. She quirked an eyebrow at me, looking briefly amused at the rough drawings before suddenly leaning in with more interest. The Director cleared her throat, instantly getting the attention of everyone in the room save Presto.

   “Let’s get down to business,” she said, prompting a chorus of nods from the room. “Mesh, I’ve approved your proposal for a series of patrols deeper into Westlake territory.”

   He nodded, not seeming surprised or relieved in the least. “I’m open to suggestions on team composition. We’ll need to be mobile if we want to avoid getting penned in.”

   A fast-paced discussion opened up, terms and jargon I struggled to keep up with casually thrown back and forth. Everyone -with the surprising exception of Presto- seemed to have something to say on the matter, and I found myself with a sinking pit in my stomach as I realized just how much I had to learn. I took a pencil from my bag and retrieved my notebook. Presto had torn out and arranged a number of pages around her, and was furiously scribbling notes in the margins.

   I did my best to follow along, writing down terms and names I wasn’t familiar with so I could look them up later. There was an undercurrent of worry behind the professionalism and experience they were trying to convey. The Bastards had been around for a long time, and they only seemed to get more entrenched each year. How effective would this new effort really be? Their new leader Brimstone was, if anything, even more of a pain in the ass than Moondancer had been. She’d started having her unpowered enforcers trained in firearms and small squad tactics, making them that much harder to deal with.

   Eventually the consensus fell on Mesh bringing Halcyon and Bolster along with him and he took his leave. There were a few more discussions on the specifics of patrol assignments, but it didn’t take long before the only ones left in the room besides the Director and her assistant were Laura, Presto, and I.

   “Presto,” said Director Moore, in a tone not entirely unlike a disappointed parent. “I seem to recall that you were going to be investigating the latest reports on ‘Dr. Mantis’ today, not bothering our newest recruit.”

   “Someone’s in trooouble,” taunted Laura. The Director only looked at her, but she instantly became formal and contrite. “I’ll be quiet, ma’am.”

   “I had Music Box cover for me,” Presto drawled, seemingly unconcerned with her boss’ ire.

   “She killed six people in a public rampage, including a former lover. You can’t just blow this off for the sake of one of your pranks,” the Director said, meeting her stare for stare.

   “If it’s okay,” I said hesitantly, addressing the Director. “Presto’s actually been really helpful. I’m glad she decided to greet me and Laura.”

   “Your input is always welcome, Sepulcher,” she responded, voice gentle. “But Presto is our only cape with the full set of skills needed to address this case, at least if we want to catch the individual responsible before she kills again.”

   I nodded.

   “Fine, fine, I’m going,” Presto said, rolling her eyes. “But for the record, Music Box is perfectly capable of handling it on his own. I trust him.”

   She pushed the papers she’d written all over back to me with an encouraging smile. Then she winked and disappeared in a puff of smoke. I leaned in to see what the damage was, half expecting an elaborate joke at my expense or unflattering drawings of everyone in the room. The primary idea behind my costume was ‘plate armor, but more’, larger plates transitioning to finer plates at the joints; no weak-points that had to be shored up with chain mail or thick layers of cloth. Presto had expanded on the basic concept, sketching out designs for fine mechanisms in the gauntlets that could hug my fingers as closely as thin leather gloves and still open up if I needed to use my hands. There were less developed drawings outlining an elegant temperature regulating system and suggestions for the overall aesthetic. There was a longer note on the back of the page with my initial costume designs on it.

   ’PR should be fine with name and costume once they’ve talked to you and realize you ain’t going for the edgy anti-hero persona. Purple/gold fits, don’t go too crazy on the maze thing. Remember people need to draw you for the games and comics or whatever. They’ll like the mystical aesthetic, they’ve been pushing for it recently to contrast with all the futuristic tinker teams. They won’t like the spikes and scary death labyrinths, sorry to say. The armor’s great, it’ll look properly heroic once it’s all polished up. Keep being you Sepulcher, I think you’re gonna be one of the good ones.’

   The Director cleared her throat again and I jumped a little in my seat, scrambling to push the papers away and look like I was paying attention. My face felt like it was on fire, but she only smiled genially at me.

   She took a paper from her assistant, reading off it in a practiced way. “You’ve got a full day ahead of you, Sepulcher. First you’ll need to visit security to get keyed into the system, then you’ll have your initial psychological and medical examinations to guide the process from there. Generally that’s followed up with an assessment of your physical fitness and coordination, and after that we’ll start the process of power testing. If we’re able to complete the testing before the day is over you’ll have a combat readiness assessment to determine what sort of training you’ll need to get up to par. Whatever time is left over will be spent on your first meeting with PR, which should at least get you a few ideas to think over for your costume and tactics. Any questions?”

   I stared at her, not even sure where to begin. That was a lot, and a lot of it was hard stuff like meeting a bunch of new people in quick succession or performing a task while people in lab coats were watching me and writing stuff down. “Could I get that list written down? If that’s okay.”

   “Of course it’s okay,” she said, getting up from her seat and handing me the paper she was reading off of. Then after a moment’s thought she pulled a fancy looking cellphone out of her pocket, handing it over to me too. “Might as well give you this, since I’m already standing up.”

   “Oooh,” cooed Laura, leaning over to take a look. “Those are tinkertech, you know. Us PRT grunts don’t get to play around with toys that fancy.”

   The Director ignored her, continuing to talk. “When you first turn it on, all you need to do is place your thumb on the box to get your print scanned in. After that you just need to touch the screen to log in.”

   I did so, turning the screen so she could see.

   “Good,” she said, nodding and starting to make her way back to her chair. “Any concerns about the scheduling or testing? We’re happy to accommodate any special needs you might have.”

   I thought about it. “It’s only one day, right? I think I’ll be fine.”

   -||-

   My face collided with the unfamiliar bed with a satisfying thump, followed up by a quiet but passionately miserable groan. Six hours after the meeting with the Director I’d finally -finally!- gotten a chance to see my new room. Although ‘see’ wasn’t really the right term, more ‘briefly glimpse before collapsing on the bed without even taking off my jacket.’

   An indeterminable amount of time later I was roused from my slumber by a crystal clear knock on the door. Grumbling profusely, I stumbled out of bed and snatched my glasses from off of the floor. Then I used my power to remove the heavy bar keeping the door closed, undid the latches near the top and bottom, unchained it, and finally unlocked the perfectly ordinary doorknob. There was a steady tapping on the floor outside the door that stopped as soon as I opened it. It was Presto, striving to look relaxed as she greeted me with a smile and wave.

   “You know I could just teleport in there, right?” she observed, eyeing the hasty protections I’d added before conking out.

   I glowered at her, just barely stopping myself from growling. “My room is off limits. If I get so much as a hint of someone breaking in I’m gonna start hiding traps in it. I’m dead fucking serious about this, Liang.”

   She blinked, looking a little taken aback. “I ain’t gonna mess with your room Carmilla, that was supposed to be a joke. I swear I’m not trying to be an asshole, I ain’t got much practice at...” She gestured vaguely.

   “Apologizing?” I suggested.

   Liang chuckled. “I was gonna say being nice, but that works too. The therapists would probably say I got issues with feeling vulnerable or something. Anyway. I’m sorry for the scare earlier, by the way. Laura made it clear how stupid I was being afterwards.”

   “She worried about setting off the unstable parahuman?” I asked, shooting for a joking tone and landing somewhere bitter and cold instead. I sighed, shaking my head to try and banish that train of thought. “That came out wrong. I accept your apology under the condition that you don’t jump scare me again, in person or otherwise. And that you tell me what you want already. I have some very important sleeping to do.”

   She grinned, holding up her hands in surrender. “I accept your terms, oh Lady of Traps and Tunnels. Your domain shall henceforth be sacrosanct, your person unfrightened, and if you let me know something I’m doing is bothering you I’ll stop. I promise.”

   “Dorky, but acceptable to her ladyship. Although you haven’t answered my question yet.”

   She cleared her throat, looking more out of sorts than I’d ever seen her. “I came here because I wanted to invite you on an off the books patrol slash scouting mission. It’s not obligatory or anything, I was just thinking I could show you around town and later we maybe possibly bag a few low-level crooks. Or we could just practice rooftop running if you wanted, your power seems good for that sort of thing. And like I said you don’t have to go if you don’t feel like it. Yeah.”

   “Uh,” I said eloquently, eyes searching the small lounge behind her. “What time is it?”

   Presto looked amused, but she answered promptly. “Eight fifty-four. You’ll probably be able to sleep in tomorrow, depending on whether they need to redo any of the tests or get more medical scans.”

   I made a face like I’d bitten into an unripe fruit. “More tests. I better not have to do anymore shuttle runs, they’re hell on my knees. Although I guess my new fitness training thing is gonna have a lot of running anyway, so… fuck I guess.”

   She snorted. “It’s not so bad, once you get into a routine.”

   I nodded reluctantly. “I hope so. Could I think about the thing you asked? I’d need some time to get ready anyway.”

   Presto smiled. “Of course, but you only got like twenty minutes before I need to run. I’ll be waiting on the couch when you’re ready.”

   “Twenty minutes, got it. I’ll see what I can do.” I smiled back before closing the door and flipping the lights on, surveying my available resources. I’d been asleep for over two hours and I hadn’t exactly been in a state of mind to tidy up before my impromptu nap, so things were a bit of a mess. It didn’t help that there was no furniture aside from the bed and a barebones writing desk. I sighed, rummaging through the pile of assorted costume pieces PR had given me, looking for something protective but suitably -heh- feminine.

   I went through what must have been a dozen different sets of tights before finding a decently armored bodysuit. It was padded to reduce impacts -and emphasize a heroine’s most cherished qualities- without interfering with movement. Pulling it on was more of a struggle than I’d anticipated, but after some improvised aerobics I managed to zip the back the rest of the way up. It covered everything up to the neck except for the feet and hands, but it was surprisingly breathable.

   Pairs of gloves and boots were selected based on their sturdiness and fit, easy to extrapolate with my power. Once I was suited up I closed my eyes, trying to focus every fiber of my attention on my power. Tendrils emerged from the floor around me, snaking around to encase me in rough edged grey-black metal from the toes of my boots upward. Each piece connected to the one below, supporting each other and partially transferring their weight to the ground. The design was simpler than the armor I’d planned, there wasn’t enough time to make all the fine mechanisms it would require. I focused on functionality, protecting my most vital areas, and trying to compensate for the low quality of the iron my power created. I added a mask to my helmet like the one I’d drawn out, a smiling woman’s face in polished metal.

   As a final touch I tossed on a generic purple cloak, the right shape but with no patterns or colors besides the base. I looked in the bathroom mirror, briefly struggling to connect the person I saw with me. The overall effect was way edgier than I’d initially intended, but for the first time I was starting to feel like a real, actual cape.

    You can do this Sepulcher, I thought. I opened the door.

Chapter Text

   Presto examined me through a frame of thumbs and pointer fingers. Her head tilted, lips pursed, and one eye closed as though she were a connoisseur judging a sculpture. I shifted awkwardly under her scrutiny. Would she judge my look and find it wanting? Was there some critical weakness her tinker abilities let her discover? Had she decided that I wouldn’t be able to go?

   “You look badass,” she declared. “Can’t wait to see it once you’ve got it all polished up and shit.”

   I clenched hands sheathed in grey-black metal, feeling the poor quality iron creak ever so slightly. Each finger came to a sharp point, the ends curving inward like talons. “I’ll need some better materials before I even think about shining it up. The shit my power makes is, well, shit. No sense in polishing a turd.”

   She waved a hand dismissively. “I consider that kinda stuff included under ‘and shit’. Could I see it without the cloak?”

   It was starting to feel like we were cutting close to the deadline she’d set. “Sure,” I said, taking it off and handing it to her. She draped it over an arm, giving me that speculative look again.

   Her face broke out into a smile. “You look great. Love the feminine touches, all the curves faithfully represented.”

   “I may have exaggerated them a little,” I admitted, twisting to look down at the metal skin encasing my hips. It was a relatively subtle effect, or so I’d hoped, pushing the part of the breastplate raised to deflect blows up a bit to let everyone know I had boobs without resorting to boobplate. It tapered down toward the waist before flaring out to cover the hips in an exaggerated skirt of plates.

   Presto shrugged. “I figure everybody should get to choose how to present themselves. What costume to wear.”

   I sighed. “Wish more people felt that way. Like my parents, to name a totally random example.”

   “Parents can be hell,” Liang said slowly, voice strangely small. She cleared her throat. “You ready to go? Moonlight’s burning.”

   I hesitated. “Would we get in trouble if we’re caught? Do you have some fancy tinker bullshit to hide us?”

   She snorted. “We’re not prisoners, we can just go out if we want. You’d be surprised how often supposedly straight-laced heroes get in a little off the book patrol time. The thing is to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. If someone sees us while we’re out we can just tell them we were practicing mobility techniques or whatever the fuck.”

   I sighed. “You’ve got a talent for making me feel worse and better at the same time. I’m not very good at lying.”

   Presto patted me on the helmet with an indulgent smile, somehow managing to look down at me while being three inches shorter. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, I can do enough lying for four of us. Besides, we’ve got my ‘fancy tinker bullshit’.”

   “You really think I’m pretty?” I asked in an exaggeratedly simpering voice, covering the cheeks of my mask with my gauntlets like I was trying to hide a blush. That I was in fact blushing was neither here nor there.

   She grinned, stepping ever so slightly closer. Her eyes caught the bright lights of the lounge for a brief moment, giving them an amber shine that made me think of a cat on the prowl. “Did I stutter? You’ve got nice hair too, even if I can’t see it right now.”

   “I’ve always loved your hair,” I blurted out, my brain apparently too distracted to do its damn job and keep my mouth shut. I paused several seconds too long. “Oh, right. Thank you. I mean for the compliment.”

   Liang smiled, fondly shaking her head. “You’re too damn nice to be in this line of work. You really think you’re ready for what cape life has to throw at you?”

   I puffed up, drawing myself to my full height. “You’d be surprised what nice is capable of. I’m ready.”

   “I was hoping you’d say that,” she said, putting a hand on my arm.

   The next ten or fifteen seconds was a dizzying series of shifts, each lasting only a brief moment. I caught glimpses of unused stairwells and obscure supply closets, eventually finding myself next to Presto on the roof of a nearby building.

   My knees crumpled as my stomach violently protested the experience. For a few moments I laid curled up on the roof, all of my effort spent on not throwing up with a full face mask on, a task I clawed a hard-won victory from. Eventually I stumbled back onto my feet, only needing a little assistance from the rooftop.

   “What the fuck was that?” I asked, voice coming closer to a whine than I’d have preferred.

   She slumped, actually looking a little ashamed. “I can’t do one big teleport. Not in the cards for me. Gotta do a bunch of little ones in quick succession. I kinda forgot how disorienting it could be if you’re not used to it.”

   I made an annoyed sound in the back of my throat. “Okay, new rule. Warn me what you’re doing next time instead of trying to make it some dramatic gesture.”

   She gave a small bow, sweeping off her hat. “Your wish is my command.”

   I rolled my eyes, making sure to exaggerate the head movement so she could tell what I was doing. “Where are we headed? I think this building is a couple blocks southwest of the Space Needle, but I don’t know the city very well yet.”

   “No, you’re right. I was thinking we’d head a bit closer to downtown. It’s safe, has lots of densely packed buildings, and there’s this really great Thai place I wanted to show you.”

   I perked up at that last one. “I love Thai food, but first things first. Return my cloak posthaste, or face the wrath of Sepulcher!”

   “Please spare me frightful sorceress,” Presto said, voice shaking with mock fear. She held the cloak in front of her as if warding off an evil presence. I snatched it from her hands.

   Once it was properly settled on top of my armor I faced her again, striving to look stern. “You are forgiven for your transgressions this day, but be forewarned! Sepulcher may at times forgive, but she does not forget.”

   “And you called me a dork.”

   I generously elected to ignore her comment, instead clanking towards the edge of the building we were on. Downtown Seattle loomed in the distance, a loose mountain of glass and steel sliced through with irregularly spaced rivers of light. Streetlights, cars, lit windows and signs bathed everything in a perpetual twilight that didn’t quite touch the rooftops making up our path. I’d always loved the feeling of a city at night, that hinted sense of mystery and adventure glimpsed through the window of a car and given life in my imagination. There were horrors out there, I knew, things I could potentially put a stop to.

   Presto leaped off the edge with a running start, turning around to give me another wink. The next instant she teleported up and forward, reappearing halfway to the building facing me. Her fall was slower than it should have been, making what should have been a deadly plummet into a graceful glide. The toes of her wing-tipped dress shoes alighted on the edge of the building’s rooftop as though she were light as a feather. She turned around, beckoning me over with a grin I could see all the way across the street.

   I took a deep breath. Then another. The rooftop beneath my feet began to ripple and warp, a spring slowly being pulled taut. It snapped back into its proper shape, launching me into the air far faster than I’d intended. I flailed as I completely overshot the building Presto was on, foregoing screaming entirely in favor of a sort of panicked gurgle. My face smacked directly into the next building over, and without even looking I could tell the impact had created a fucking Looney Toons crater right where anybody could see. Right in front of Presto.

    At least I didn’t land on someone’s car, I thought.

   Once I’d taken a few moments for self pity, I extracted myself from the apartment’s facade and started making my way up to the roof, making sure to repair the damage as best I could. Here my talons and the spiky bits at the ends of my boots proved their worth, making the climb just a little bit easier. Presto was there by the time I reached the top, surprising exactly no one. I gingerly accepted a hand from her, constantly careful of the rough-edged iron clinging to my fingers. She pulled me up with surprising ease, helping me get my feet firmly on the roof.

   Presto looked at me, expression unreadable. Her lips twitched, and what started as a chuckle quickly devolved into graceless snorting laughter. “The fucking sound you made! And then with the you-shaped crater, oh my god. That was perfect.”

   “Thanks coach, I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” I deadpanned.

   “I can hear you smiling,” she taunted in a singsong voice. “What advice am I supposed to give except keep practicing? It’s your power.”

   She had a point, much as it galled me to admit it. I walked to a side of the building adjacent to an apartment of similar size, this time using my thinker power to visualize the arc of the jump I’d need to take. As my thoughts clarified it became easier to parse my tremorsense, and this time I carefully tuned the amount of force stored in the twisting coils of concrete under my feet.

   Again, it snapped back into its proper shape and flung me toward my destination. Again, I flailed through the air with my cloak in my face. This time, though, I was actually on the right trajectory. My foot clipped the short wall topping the apartment building I’d been aiming for; I landed face first, carving a small furrow in the concrete rooftop as I slowed to a stop. The material surrounding me rose up and set me back upright, flowing to repair the bumps and grooves my sloppy landing had created.

   “Nice one!” Presto said, suddenly sitting on the wall next to me. “That was definitely an improvement.”

   “Not that high a bar but I’ll take it. I guess I’ll just have to learn on the way.”

   “There’s the spirit!” Presto announced, grinning and giving a little air punch. “Being a cape is all about adapting to what life throws at you. Think you can keep up with me?”

   “Nope. Still gonna try, though.”

   With that an impromptu ‘race’ began, though it mostly consisted of her staying just ahead of me and offering her unique blend of encouragement and mockery. Whatever else I might have said about Presto’s methods, she was definitely good at making me want to catch up with her and wipe the smug grin off her face. It took almost half an hour to reach downtown, though the majority of that time was spent getting my jumps to land where I actually wanted to go. The way I moved my body also took practice, over time I learned that turning my side toward the direction I was moving reduced air resistance and the risk of spinning out. The buildings started getting taller, and I eventually started running around the sides and jumping off rather than going through the trouble of reaching the top.

   They got shorter again as Presto lead me to a slightly more out of the way area, mostly squat apartments and a few strip malls. I recognized a sandwich shop from my hometown, feeling a strange sort of melancholy as I was reminded of a place I didn’t miss but wished I had reason to. Presto pointed, and I saw a place with Ayutthaya printed on the cloth overhang above the entrance. Under that were the words ‘Thai Cuisine’, presumably making this the place she’d been referring to. I was pleased to see a rainbow flag prominently displayed in the window.

   “So are we both going in?” I asked breathlessly, both more and less winded than I’d have expected. More winded because my power did most of the work of moving me around, and less winded because my chubbiness and general lack of interest in physical activity made me pessimistic about my athletic ability. My armor had never really felt heavy per se, but over time I’d started to feel the extra weight slowly sapping my energy. A detriment now, but hopefully over time wearing it would help build up my endurance.

   Presto shook her head. “Nah, just me. PR would wipe us both off the face of the earth if I let someone leak pictures of you in an unapproved costume. I was thinking we’d eat while we did our stakeout thing. What did you want?”

   I gave a thumbs up, plopping onto the ground. “Could I get vegetarian Pad Thai with some spicy curry sauce?”

   “You mean white people spicy or actual spicy?”

   I snorted. “Actual spicy, if you please.”

   She grinned and returned the thumbs up, strutting out onto empty air and gently gliding out of sight.

   -||-

   I landed dead center on the darkened office building, stumbling slightly as I made impact. Presto followed shortly behind, sticking the landing as casually as most people walked down the street. She leaned over the guard rail, pointing toward an ostensibly abandoned warehouse with a suspiciously large number of street toughs hanging around it. Really I was just assuming they were street toughs; they were too far away for me to make out much detail.

   “Do you have binoculars?” I asked, but before I even finished the question a pair had appeared in my gauntleted hand. “Oh, thank you.”

   With the binoculars I could see that more than a few of them sported horns, claws or inhumanly muscled physiques. The Westlake Bastards.

   “This is supposed to be one of the Bastards’ minor warehouses,” Presto explained, watching them with a quiet intensity behind her eyes. “Probably gonna be a little bit of cash, drugs, or weapons stored here at any given time, but far as I can tell it's mostly used in human trafficking operations.”

   I didn’t bother hiding my shudder. “That’s fucking horrible. Are there people in there right now? Like, ones they kidnapped or plan to sell off?”

   “Not sure,” she said, voice hard. “It’s probably just used as a brief pit stop. If there are people there would only be a handful; they don’t want to risk losing too much ‘merchandise’ at once.”

   “So what are we going to do?” I asked, anxious but determined.

   She casually sat down on the gravel rooftop, her back against the short wall separating us from open air. “Stakeout, like I said. We wait and watch, trying to pick up as much information about their operations as we possibly can. If something happens while we’re watching we might, I repeat might , intervene.”

   I tapped my chin in thought, jumping slightly in surprise when it made a loud clink. “Depending on what?”

   She answered with a distracted air, most of her attention on an array of small holographic screens floating in front of her. “How dangerous it is, mostly. If I got you killed on your first day out I’d never hear the end of it.”

   “You’re all heart,” I said, sitting down next to her. I leaned over to peek at whatever it was she was working on. The screens showed a live feed of the warehouse, security cameras she’d presumably hacked mixed in with indecipherable readouts I assumed were from whatever tracking or scanning devices she’d planted inside. With time and patience, I’d probably be able to use my power to correlate the changing spatial states of the screens with each other and eventually start to infer what they were tracking. Or…

   “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a screen that was covered with a mass of rhythmically blinking dots.

   She raised an eyebrow at the offending digit but otherwise ignored it. “Biometric sensors I snuck inside the place a few nights back. The dots follow people’s hearts. Best person tracking thing I’ve got, at close range it can get a readout of their entire cardiovascular system. Surprisingly useful to have when you’re fighting someone.”

   I took a few moments to process that information. “It’s a little creepy, but on the other hand it’s a lot useful. And these guys are human traffickers? Fuck them.”

   She smirked. “Don’t get too excited now, party hasn’t even started yet. How about we eat night lunch and I tell you what all this crazy tinker nonsense is supposed to be?”

   I fumbled with my mask for a few moments, pulling it off to give her a look of purest incredulity. “Seriously? Not a late dinner, a fucking night lunch? No way I’d say no to eating and learning things, but I’m never going to let you live ‘night lunch’ down. Not in a million years, not even if the world ends.”

   “Good enough for me,” Presto said, pulling off her hat and pressing her other hand flush with the inner brim. She lifted it up, revealing two cardboard to-go containers with drinks balancing on top that were both too wide and too tall to have fit inside the undersized top hat. I felt the heat through my gauntlet as I took my box of noodles, which was remarkable given that the trip from the Thai place had taken nearly an hour. Something to do with how they’d been stored, maybe?

   Finishing night lunch was something of a task with my gauntlets and the spiciness of the food, I ended up taking big gulps of water between bites while Liang laughed uproariously at my expense. When she wasn’t getting a kick out of my reactions she explained the various sensors she used and how they covered for each other’s weaknesses. Much like her teleporters, they were strictly limited in scope, narrowly focused, or both. The graphs were pretty intuitive once I knew what they were supposed to be, maps of electrical circuits or air currents.

   We finished with our food and cleaned up, quickly getting back to business. After a few minutes without conversation I started talking about my power, partly to fill the silence and partly because I just wanted to talk to someone about it. She listened while we watched the feeds, nodding at appropriate points as I rambled. She noticed something on them that I didn’t see, springing to her feet in the blink of an eye. I was a second behind, eyes roving for whatever had drawn her attention.

   My tremorsense picked up the sound of vehicles a minute or two before my ears did, and with my thinker power it was relatively easy to figure out approximately where they were relative to me. We ducked down as a trio of featureless black vans came into sight and smoothly pulled into the building. I nearly dropped my mask in my haste to get it back on, taking deep calming breaths to try and keep my cool. This was absolutely not the time to panic.

   “What’s going on in there?” I asked, looking over to Presto.

   Her brows furrowed in concentration as she paged through a dozen screens showing nothing but static, trying fix after fix that failed to pierce through. Eventually she dismissed them all with an angry gesture. “Fuck! I don’t even know who these bastards are. The new bastards, I mean.”

   “What if we got in close?” I asked, not quite realizing what I was suggesting until the words were out of my mouth.

   She grunted. “How good are you at being sneaky?”

   “Not very,” I admitted, anxiously recounting the minions on guard. There were six pairs of them forming a loose perimeter around the warehouse, casually talking or playing cards while acting as lookouts for a human trafficking ring. Plausible deniability, I remembered. “Especially since I’m wearing full plate right now. Although I could lurk underground, landshark style. Bet they won’t expect that.”

   She got a sort of pinched look on her face, staring at nothing in particular for long moments. Before I could work up the courage to prod her she spoke. “Closest backup is ten minutes out. We’re gonna very carefully sneak up and check out what’s going down.” A card appeared in her hand, and she handed it to me. The four of diamonds. “Put this under your armor or something, it’ll keep you quiet.”

   I fumbled around for a few moments before finding somewhere to slide it under my breastplate. The building we were on wasn’t nearly as tall as the Space Needle, so there was no sudden change in pressure.

   Presto stepped a little closer, her professional demeanor betraying a hint of worry. “You know what to do if we’re separated?”

   I shook my head, too nervous to respond.

   “You hide and wait for Bullrush. You got me? No going off half-cocked and getting yourself killed.”

   I nodded.

   She fixed me with a glare. “So, one more time. What do you do if we’re separated?”

   I placed a hand on my chest as though reciting a solemn oath. “If we get separated, I will completely disengage and hide until Bullrush arrives. No getting killed, promise.”

   Presto responded with a sharp nod, making her way to the side of the building opposite the warehouse and starting to slide down. I did my best to follow suit, the grooves my talons made in the side of the building akin to the wake left behind by a boat. The wall was as much a part of me as one of my legs or hands, but moreso, my tremorsense vastly more precise than any merely human sense of touch and proprioception. With it I controlled my body’s descent to match speeds with Presto, impacting the ground with a small ripple just a heartbeat after her.

   The moment she’d confirmed I was there she teleported to a slightly closer building, gesturing for me to follow. I took a deep breath, sinking beneath the ground until I was confident there wouldn’t be any noticeable ripples. Navigating underground was no trouble with my tremorsense and thinker power to guide me, so it only took a few brief moments before I popped up next to Presto. Her head turned my way and she actually jumped a little in surprise. I felt a flash of satisfaction that dissipated like a drop of water on a hot pan when I reminded myself where I was.

   She recovered an instant later, blinking to the next bit of cover and indicating for me to follow. We made our way toward the warehouse with painful slowness, the anticipation thrumming through my body making the short journey seem to take hours. Incongruously I was reminded of my time in high school theatre, that strange calm I’d always felt in the moments before I went on stage. For a brief time I’d had a place and a role, and knew exactly what I had to do down to the word and gesture.

   Presto stopped abruptly a couple buildings away from the warehouse, holding up a hand. I’d gotten so used to the rhythm of moving from cover to cover that I almost kept going anyway, just barely managing to stop myself before walking into her. We stood there in complete silence for a few tense seconds, just long enough for me to start wondering if it was another false alarm. Presto’s eyes widened, giving me a small shove before vanishing.

   I froze, losing precious seconds as I struggled to get my brain back in gear. The ground beneath me began moving too late, and I screamed as something reached from above and picked me up by the leg. My view shifted and I screamed even harder as I got a good look at just what had grabbed me.

   It was like a deer taken straight from the depths of hell. Antlers sprouted from a head that was too predatory and streamlined, with teeth far too sharp. Worst of all were the legs, long and spidery and tipped with wickedly curved claws. I thrashed with all my might, but its grip in one limb was more than enough to overpower my entire body. Soon I was level with its face, some primal part of me convinced I was about to be made a meal.

   It sniffed me. Then, in a surprisingly normal woman’s voice said, “You’re new, aren’t you?”

   I didn’t know how to respond and she wouldn’t have been able to hear me anyway, so I kept my peace. There was someone on the roof with her, either a rat-themed changer or the most thoroughly Menageried individual I’d ever seen. They were short, the tips of their ears not even reaching up to the deer lady’s knees.

   The next thing I knew I was in cover again, by the building we were at before I got grabbed. This time I walked into the nearest wall immediately, hiding myself behind the brickwork. Through a small window I saw that Presto had swapped herself in my place, apparently unconcerned at the prospect of being in the claws of a giant horror-monster.

   “Shrike, Ratking! I was wondering what that smell was.” Presto said, just barely audible with my tremorsense.

   Shrike snarled, leaning forward until she was nearly nose to nose with her. “Where did your little friend go? I have her scent, trying to hide her is a waste of time.”

   “Back to the Space Needle,” Presto lied flawlessly, somehow managing to give a casual shrug upside down. “She wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, so I figured I’d tag myself in. Newbies, what can you do?”

   “You’re gonna regret fucking with the Bastards,” said the rat boy, his voice cracking halfway through the sentence.

   Presto held up her hands as though in surrender, but I could imagine her grin. “Guess I’m beaten. But before you kill me, how about a quick game of 52 card pickup?”

   That was all the warning I got before the night briefly lit up brighter than a summer day. I instinctively withdrew further into the abandoned building, taking the time to get my bearings and blink the spots out of my vision. I heard shouts of alarm and sounds of struggle through the wall I leaned on, further fueling my worry. Paranoia drove me to climb up a few floors in case they decided to start searching buildings and then form a little peephole in the wall to check if Presto was okay.

   The dim light made it hard to sort out details, but with my binoculars I could see that Ratking was tied up in something brightly colored I was pretty sure was a really long chain of ribbons tied together. That would fit the magician theme, at least. Shrike was on what passed for her feet, tatters of the probable ribbons hanging off of her like garish ornaments. She struggled to make headway, a wasted strike on a hologram giving Presto the perfect opening to trip her up with more ribbon. Before she had a chance to capitalize on the opportunity Ratking managed to slip out of his bonds, turning toward Presto and projectile vomiting an impossibly large amount of bright green fluid at her.

   She blinked away easily, but her distraction gave Shrike enough time to get her bearings and start scuttling after her. Ratking followed, slipping into the closest edge of the puddle he’d just made and immediately reappearing from a stray bit of the spray that hit the building Presto teleported to. As the chase continued, something that had been niggling at me came to the forefront of my mind. Presto could travel much, much faster than she was acting like she could.

Chapter Text

   I watched with a strange melancholy as some of the first capes I'd met ran off into the distance, leaving me to wait for Bullrush alone. I closed up my little window and started to pace, unwillingly imagining how I'd explain to her that I decided to go on an unauthorized patrol because I was restless and a pretty girl smiled at me. And worse, that I'd screwed up our infiltration by getting caught and forcing Presto to bail me out. It almost made me feel sick, just thinking about it.

   Far worse was the uncertainty those creepy vans had planted in my mind when they’d come out of nowhere and made Presto's screens cut out, the feeling I couldn't shake that there was something bad going down in there. Something that might have been stopped if Presto hadn't been drawn away. Ten minutes could be a long fucking time in the wrong circumstances, and every bit of instinct and intuition I had was screaming that those black vans were bad news beyond even what you'd expect for someone involved in human trafficking. I'd said I would stay put, but the last time I'd ignored that gut feeling had ended with my roommates barging into my room and attacking me. Presto might be upset, but I knew I'd never forgive myself if someone got hurt without me having even bothered to look. Besides, more likely than not it would be mundane criminals better dealt with by a professional capable of effortlessly running down vehicles on foot and stopping them in their tracks with her bare hands.

   I slid down the outer wall in utter silence, letting the ground flow up to my chest as I reached street level. Concrete and metal parted around me with the ease of a shark slicing through water, only the top of my head visible to allow sight and breathing as I approached my target. The grimy wall of the dilapidated warehouse towered overhead, and I hesitated briefly before parting it like a bead curtain and surveying the interior. The creepy black vans were parked near the garage entrance, a fitting backdrop for the eerily still and well coordinated group of mercenaries opposite the brightly colored Bastards. They were lead by a cold-eyed man in a suit, looking utterly unperturbed at being surrounded by over a dozen power-enhanced mobsters.

   "Is this disturbance going to interfere with our transaction?" he asked, sounding like he was talking about the weather. I suppressed a shiver.

   The man leading the Bastards shook a head of hair that was more like a mane with an air of impatience. "I told you there's no problem, Shrike chased the magic bitch off. The merchandise is in perfect condition as agreed, not a hair on their heads disturbed."

   I slinked around the edge of the warehouse as the suit considered his response, making sure no part of me was easily visible to those inside. The ground beneath one of the mercenary's vans made a suitable hiding place.

   "Very well," the suit continued, not bothering with either gesture or inflection. "My employer would prefer me to get visual confirmation before the remainder of the funds are transferred."

   "Ah ah, there's rules to these things," said the lion man, waggling a clawed finger. He smiled in a viscerally unpleasant way. "The deal was more than just money. You show me yours, and I show you mine."

   The suit was taking some time to think of his response, so I touched the underside of the van to expand my tremorsense. Something I hadn't expected bloomed in my mind, an indecipherably complex device with the shape and dimensions of an egyption sarcophagus. It wasn't built into the van, but it rested on a set of rails carefully fitted for hauling it. I heard a door open and realized I'd missed whatever the suit had to say, too distracted by my power to keep my ear on the ball. Two bedraggled looking people were dragged out of one of the warehouse's side rooms, looking simultaneously terrified out of their minds and utterly drained. It was obvious they hadn't been able to take care of themselves, even from this distance. As I watched one of the hostages -a woman with her hair tied back in a messy bun- tripped and fell before being roughly hauled back to her feet by the bestial Bastards on either side of her.

    It took every fiber of my self control not to let my power off its leash, forcibly reminding myself of the consequences not just for the Bastards but to their victims. Even still, the ground around me rippled in a distinctly sharp way, spikes almost but not quite being formed before sinking back into the ground. I tensed, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble, but it didn't seem like anyone had noticed my momentary lapse. A smidgen of my thinker power helped me regain my focus, and with the clarity it granted I realized something that should have been obvious. The strange device in the van above me was perfectly fitted to the woman they were holding hostage, and I'd bet my left boob that one of the other vans had one just like it for the old professor-looking guy they were holding. It wasn't clear what they were supposed to do, but whatever it was probably wasn't going to be good for the poor people getting shoved inside.

   "Everything appears to be in order," said the suit, interrupting my thoughts. "My employer will transfer the funds imminently."

   The lion man nodded, gesturing for his men to hand over the hostages. There's no way Bullrush is getting here in time to stop this , I realized.

   With a deep breath to steel myself, I drew on that clarity of purpose more deeply than I ever had before. Emotion fell away, the soreness I'd felt from leaping halfway across the city folded into a value-neutral awareness of my body. My thoughts shifted all at once, irrelevant priorities set aside in favor of a razor-sharp focus on rescuing the hostages and taking down the individuals responsible for hurting them without death or serious injury. Before they'd advanced a single step, my hand touched the underside of the van once again and I used my power to seal it completely shut. I slipped underground and advanced to the next vehicle in the line, but there wasn't anything inside besides the seats the mercenaries had presumably rode in on. I sealed it anyway, fucking with the engine block for good measure. As I'd suspected, the last van had another tech Sarcophagus perfectly fit for the other hostage. I slipped back beneath the ground before anyone had time to notice my sabotage, head popping back up just outside the warehouse.

   The time spent observing with the tinker proved its worth. Memories of each pair's patrol route effortlessly sprung to mind as I slipped from cover to cover. There , I thought, homing in on a pair of enhanced individuals that seemed more focused on speaking to each other than watching for potential threats. The smaller of the two had some mouse in him, rounded ears twitching periodically as he shifted his weight from foot to foot. The individual next to him was more still, sharp teeth and scales akin to a crocodile's giving her a dangerous air. One of her claws rested on the handle of a gun strapped to her hip.

   "I'm telling you I smelled something," said the mouse-faced one, wringing his hands in a steady pattern. The motion served no purpose I could discern.

    The crocodile person moved her head in a small circle, apparently in response. "And I'm telling you it's gonna be a homeless guy pissing in an alley. Again."

   The mouse hunched in on himself further, but he wasn't able to respond before being bowled over and immobilized with a wave of stone. Crocodile was quicker on the uptake, backing off before I could ensnare her. I rushed in before she sounded an alarm, getting close enough that the silencing device's range encapsulated her. With my armor and the awkward angle she couldn't get in more than glancing blows before the ground beneath her became more liquid than solid, disturbing her footing and letting me get in a few solid hits with fists sheathed in metal. Once she was suitably distracted the concrete beneath rose up to immobilize her, successfully this time. Iron tendrils sprouted from the material covering her up to the neck, forming an improvised muzzle to keep her from revealing my presence the second she could make noise again.

   I stowed them in one of the nearby abandoned buildings, behind a door that looked like it had rusted shut before I’d been born. Back in the cool night air, I started my search for the next patrol. With my knowledge of their routes the area I had to search was reduced to a fraction of what it would otherwise be, and before too long I came across a pair of nearly identical young men wielding knives and a baseball bat respectively. They slinked more than they walked, graceful in the way a predator on the hunt was graceful. Scales glistened under the streetlights, poking out from beneath sleeves and collars.

    There was no reason to rely on my fists, particularly against foes that were armed themselves. I pulled a stout wooden pole almost as tall as I was from the ground as I silently sliced through concrete behind them. With the poor light, my cloak, and the tinker’s silencing device sneaking close enough for a solid blow should have been trivial. I’d failed to account for enhanced senses. In a whip crack motion, the knife wielding twin turned around and threw one of his weapons at me with blinding speed.

    “Cape!” he shouted, movements smooth enough they seemed languid despite their suddenness.

    With my thinker power I could trace the knife’s path through the air before it even left his hand, allowing me to completely fail to move out of the way before it rang my metallic mask like a bell. I staggered back, momentarily dazed. Long enough for his accomplice to close the distance, lips pulling back to reveal sharp, stark-white teeth as he probed for weaknesses with his improvised bludgeon. He swung at knees and elbows, seeking to disable them before I found my bearings.

    Layers of armor and padding reduced the blows from potentially crippling to largely irrelevant, particularly since he’d lost this fight the moment he’d stepped within a few feet of me. The next swing met wood instead of body, and I felt the vibration travel up my arms as his bat rebounded off an anchored quarterstaff. As with the crocodile, I commanded the ground to liquefy and seize his legs the moment he was most distracted. There was a ping only I could hear as another knife rebounded off of my shoulder, forcing me to take cover behind my assailant’s relative while I imprisoned him and took measures against any more noise.

   A vibration brushed the edge of my tremorsense, and before I’d fully registered what was happening a wall sprung up on my flank just in time for a third knife to ping off of it. In an instant, I extrapolated the knife snake’s position based on the trajectory of the throw. The ground under my feet swelled up, and I rode it like a cresting wave straight through the wall I’d created. Momentum lent strength to the simple wooden pole I swung, but he twisted out of the way like a ribbon in the wind. Another swing was similarly fruitless, and he used the opening to drive a dagger into my unarmored armpit. It caught in the dense weave of my bodysuit, giving me the momentary distraction I needed to form a small field of blunted spikes beneath and around us. He stumbled, and in that moment of weakness I tackled him with the full force of my power behind me. I reshaped the ground as we made impact, preventing the spikes from stabbing into him and potentially causing life-threatening injury. I stepped back from my assailant, breathing far harder than I had from the journey here.

    I hid the twin snakes in the dusty basement of a gutted apartment building, climbing up onto the roof once they were secure. I all but collapsed the second I allowed myself to stop moving, greedily sucking in the cool night air. Out of danger for the moment, I let go of my thinker power. A half-yelp, half-groan forced its way out of my throat the second I started feeling the full extent of my injuries. A chill ran down my spine. I sat bolt upright, iron talons clumsily pushing back layers of cloth to check for signs of blood, breathing a sigh of relief when I saw the knife had failed to penetrate the last few layers. I couldn't afford to be that sloppy if I wanted to make a career out of this. Hadn't I promised Ajay I would be careful?

   Pushing aside memories of blood and failure, I commanded the concrete I stood upon to come alive with thick tendrils. They surrounded me, embraced me, working to shore up and repair as much as possible in the short time I had before the absences of the people I’d hidden away were noticed. The slash in my bodysuit was sewn up with iron thread and sealed with thick staples, damaged armor plates replaced or bent back into shape. An abortive attempt at shoring up the gaps in my defenses with chainmail made it clear I’d need a lot more practice before I could make something that complicated in a reasonable timeframe. How to protect myself?

   I held the quarterstaff I’d made earlier in front of me like a spear, tapping my chin in thought. The end was dipped into the concrete rooftop, emerging with a two-pronged iron head akin to a medieval man catcher. No more personal space invasions, I thought.

   Another deep breath, and I snapped back into full Thinker Mode. Fear and pain fell away, leaving only a mechanical clarity sharp enough to cut. Retrieving the binoculars I’d received from the tinker, I walked to the edge of the rooftop and began the search for my next target. Across the street and a block away was a pair of horned Bastards conveniently leaning against the wall of a dilapidated corner store as they conversed, seemingly unaware of the predicament they’d put themselves in. I decided to enlighten them, putting the binoculars away and leaping from building to building in utter silence. Soon I was perched on the roof directly above them, cloak the color of midnight hanging out over open air.

   One threw an antlered head back, closing her eyes and making a strange repetitive noise. In that moment of distraction I slid down the side of the weathered brick wall, a wave of conjured stone -chemically similar to basalt, according to the power testers- gathering in my wake. The instant before I would have impacted and revealed my position I came to an abrupt stop, allowing the material behind/above me to continue forward on latent momentum. It parted around me like the course of a stream splitting around a rock, and similarly I reshaped it to immobilize my erstwhile opponents rather than crushing them. Practice made the muzzle set-up a trivial exercise, and before a minute had passed I stowed them in separate rooms and went back on the prowl.

   The next group I came across was four strong, presumably a pair of pairs that rendezvoused with each other. Two had wolf-like features, one limber and clawed and the other with sensory organs twisted and augmented by Menagerie’s power. The latter was conversing with a short, bird-like individual that shifted in place with sharp, sudden movements. She had a wild head of black feathers instead of hair, hands and feet twisted into wickedly curved talons. Watching over her was a massive individual with equally massive bullhorns sprouting out the sides of his head, muscle piled on more muscle to the point where it would take two of my legs to make one of his arms.

   “-don’t like how this night smells,” sense-wolf was saying, her voice a perpetual growl. “We should’ve heard from Jaws and Squeak by now, not like them to miss an opportunity to bitch about having to do watch again.”

   Claws-wolf grunted, apparently in response.

   “Those icy-eyed assholes give me the chills,” said the crow person, head twisting further than should have been possible to look behind her. “Like they been hollowed out with a spoon or somethin’. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they got the pigs up in the Needle on our tail with whatever fucked up shit they’re doing.”

   “Do you think Presto might have come back around?” said the bull, voice softer than I’d expected.

   Sense-wolf snorted, head moving back and forth. “You wouldn’t ask that if you’d fought her. Trust me, if that bitch were here she’d make damn well sure we knew about it. Can’t help herself. Hell, there was this one time a few years back-”

   She stopped abruptly, ears perking up. Without a word she and her fellow Bastards formed a loose circle in the dimly lit street, each facing out with their backs to the others. A moment later my tremorsense picked up the sound of footfalls, and with my binoculars I could pick out another pair of Bastards coming our way. In the lead was an individual with legs and ears akin to a hare’s, an eight-eyed spider person hot on his heels with well timed leaps from building to building.

   “Someone took out the Taipan Twins!” he blurted out the moment he was within sight of the other Bastards.

   “Holy shit.” “What happened?” said the crow and the sense-wolf at the same time.

   The rabbit shook his head. “I don’t know. I heard a shout and by the time I got there they were just fucking gone .”

   The leaping spider arrived and all six of them huddled up, conversing in voices too quiet to pick out even with my tremorsense. I gripped my polearm, considering and discounting different strategies at a mile a minute. They seemed content to stay in one place, so I slipped ahead of them to find the most attractive escape routes. With methodical care, I twisted each road leading away from their current position into a tortured, treacherous landscape indistinguishable from its former shape at a distance. For good measure I hid small pitfalls here and there with no particular pattern, just the right size to catch a foot and not let go. I doubled back, slinking behind them to block off the only other escape route.

   My face poked up from the ground, and I noted that they’d formed up and armed those among them with enhanced senses with guns. No time to do this in a subtle way, and I couldn’t risk getting shot either. I let go of my thinker power, gritting my teeth against the pain while I thought of a way to send them running. An idea occurred to me, and a grin spread across my face before winking out the instant I reactivated my thinker power. I let my power off of its leash for a short burst, a chaotic collage of iron spikes, wooden limbs and stone bones bursting forth from the ground like a mushroom unfurling in timelapse. The Bastards reacted immediately, just as I’d hoped. But even fully immersed in my thinker power, my entire body froze up when I realized that some of those shapes hadn’t come from the statue I’d made earlier.

   John…

   A crack like a hundred fireworks shattered the stillness in the air, but with my discombobulation it took several precious moments to connect the dots and realize I’d just been shot at. The bullet hadn’t gone anywhere near me, bouncing off a human shape I refused to recognize pulling itself out of the ground. I redoubled my efforts, shifting position erratically as I continued to harass them with the images selected to intimidate and baffle. My opponents seemed to be less certain now, so I swept in close and hooked one of the legs of the sense-wolf with my improvised mancatcher. She screamed, and the group broke. The earth I swam in pulled me back, and she was pulled along with me below the street. I stopped before her head was covered, moving to pick off the rest of the ill-begotten gang.

   The Bastards and mercenaries in the warehouse had almost certainly heard the gunshot, I didn’t have much time. Throwing stealth to the wind, I leapt after the scattered members of the group, harrying them until they stumbled into my traps in a panic. One by one I immobilized them, not bothering to waste time with muzzles or stowing them somewhere they wouldn’t be easily found. The bull person actually surrendered, though I still made certain to beef up his restraints in case he decided to try using that raw strength of his.

   Five down, I thought, turning toward the warehouse. Should I grab the hostages now? No telling how long that seal will last.

   Before I’d taken more than six steps something slammed into my back, sending me sprawling face first into the road. I started reshaping it the moment I made impact, turning around just in time to stop the spider’s second leap, pronged polearm catching her on the leg and slamming her down into the ground. I immobilized her with a wave of stone, heading to the warehouse as fast as I could manage.

   Two of the mercenaries guarded the entrance, easily dealt with by using the very walls they hoped to protect to hold them still. I ran around the perimeter of the building, sealing every point of ingress and egress. Poking my head inside, I saw that the lion had organized everyone into a defensive perimeter with guns ready to fire at the first sign of trouble. My goal sat in the center, guarded by layers of trained killers and animal-twisted mobsters. I bypassed them,  burrowing beneath until I was directly under the two individuals I’d done all this to rescue. A thick circular wall rose up around them, cutting off the access of the mercenaries, and I poked my head above the ground just long enough to take a few deep breaths and offer each of them a hand.

   “I’m with the Protectorate,” I said, voice cold and flat. “Please take a deep breath first.”

   They looked at each other with wide eyes for a moment, but eventually took the offered hands. The second I had a good grip I pulled them away, using my power to destroy their bonds in the process. We sank deep underground, propelled forward by the material around us until we eventually surfaced just outside of the warehouse. The individuals I’d just rescued fell more than sat the moment my power wasn’t supporting them, staring forward silently. Uncertain what to do, I let go of my thinker power.

   “How are you holding up? Is there anything you need?” I asked them, leaning in close enough for them to hear me.

   Unexpectedly, both of the middle-aged academics threw their arms around me and started weeping, babbling unintelligibly about what they went through. I comforted them as best I could, repeating that it would be okay in a soft voice again and again, that Bullrush would arrive soon and she’d take care of all of this. My heart nearly broke at the fear in their voices, at how desperate they were that they’d confess their fears to a near stranger. It was distracting enough that I didn’t notice the loud cracking sounds in the wall of the warehouse until it was too late.

   A chunk of the side large enough for two people to walk through fell outward, crumbling as it hit the concrete. I sent the hostages running with a push, turning to face the new threat. The lion man, larger and more feral-looking than he was before, stood just inside holding a small battering ram. He had the darkest of looks in his eyes as he saw me, savage fury compressed into something that made me take an involuntary step back. I advanced regardless, hoping to cover the hole before we were overwhelmed by greater numbers. My opponent threw the battering ram to the side like a piece of trash and charged, moving far faster and more suddenly than I’d anticipated. I tried twisting out of the way as he attacked, but he adjusted and smacked his fist into my breastplate hard enough to make me see stars.

   My back hit the ground with a muffled impact, and I involuntarily curled in on myself with a groan of pain. Immediately following that was a crushing pang of failure at getting Presto’s quieting card thing broken. The lion man reacted to the sound, seeming briefly surprised before something clicked behind his eyes.

   He spoke, anger turning into smugness. “Of course, the magic bitch sent you in with one of her toys. Was wondering how you’d snuck around all my guys.” He cracked his knuckles, that vicious smile making him look more monstrous than the rage had. “Guess newbie needs to learn a lesson about minding her own business.”

   I stood up with painful slowness, using my polearm for support. I held it out with a wobbly stance. “Not done yet. Think you -ugh- got what it takes, Mufasa? Bring it the fuck on.”

   “With pleasure,” he said, taking a step toward me. On the next, a portion of the street I’d strategically weakened with my power caved in under his weight and dropped him into the sewers below. There was a deeply satisfying splash, some lovely swearing, and a completely repulsive smell.

   With grim determination, I advanced on the building without reactivating my thinker power. A portion of the warehouse’s wall detached from its surroundings and acted as a piece of mobile cover while I advanced on those inside.

   “I’d recommend you surrender,” I announced with theatrical projection. “The lion’s been caged, and none of your other friends did any better.”

   One by one the Bastards put down their weapons, leaving only the question of the mercenaries. They weren’t making any aggressive motions but they weren’t putting their weapons down either. I gave them a challenging look, spikes stabbing out of the ground around me. The suit gave no reaction, slowly turning to survey the scene as a whole.

   “Well?” I prompted.

   He turned to address the Bastards, ignoring me. “Prodigy will be notified of this failure.”

   Then all at once he and the mercenaries he brought with them began to twist and shudder like broken engine blocks, smoke and blood pouring from eyes and mouth and spine. They fell like puppets with strings cut, enormous holes in their bodies where parts of them literally disintegrated in front of us.

   That, of course, was exactly when the wall burst from outside in. Bullrush skidded across the floor in her slow, invincible form. She was like a statue of black crystal or a low-poly model of herself that reflected the light in strange patterns.

   She shifted back into normal form, regarding the Bastards and mercenary corpses with a completely unreadable look. Her helmet slowly turned to look at me. “Sepulcher.”

   I waved at her, face breaking out into a nervous -almost manic- grin under my mask.

Chapter Text

        10 Years Ago

        Dad taught Liang her first card trick on her sixth birthday. Dead simple, since she was just a kid back then. All it took was some counting and pretending like you were shuffling when you really weren’t. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, like mom used to say. All the kids at school loved it, and after she’d showboated a little -or, well, maybe more than a little- she’d taught Maddy and Lee how to do it too. Soon enough everyone that cared to learned it, and she couldn’t use it to show off anymore. But she did it first and that made her special.

        After that, whenever he really wanted her to be good, Dad would promise to show her another one of his tricks. Like how he’d gotten so many coins out of her ear, or how to shuffle cards so they wooshed between her hands without flying everywhere, or how to hide a ribbon up her sleeve so she could pretend to pull it out of her nose. Whenever mom had one of her ‘family gatherings’ with everyone in the neighborhood she’d have Liang get in front and show everyone her new tricks. She was all too happy to oblige.

        After dad got sick, he couldn’t do tricks very well any more. But he could still tell her stories about when he was a sailor, and he could still explain how to shuffle the cards so they ended up where she wanted them. They could both pretend that things were fine, that he’d get better and start showing her tricks and making mom smile again. Pretend like she hadn’t seen him sitting on the couch in silence, staring at the ceiling like he thought it might swallow him up and eat him any second. They’d started going to the doctor more and more, and he moved from the couch to a thin white bed.

        He didn’t get better, and he never showed her any more tricks. There was a moment burned into her memory, one of many visits to the private rooms they gave people who weren’t going to be around much longer. She’d struggled to make out the tiny whisper his voice had been reduced to, but she and mom had both noticed when it finally went silent. Something behind his eyes left right then, vanishing like one of his coins. There one moment, and then gone the next.

        Mom got her a book of magic tricks, though they’d stopped doing the gatherings a long time ago. Liang read it cover to cover, and when the cover fell off from her reading it too many times mom got her another one. Every time she practiced a new trick she’d imagine him guiding her through each step, teasing her fumbles and praising her successes. She didn’t bother trying to be popular anymore, didn’t bothering showing any of them off. That wasn’t what they were for.

        Not too long after dad died, mom started dating a guy named Steve. Steve had a lot of opinions on what was appropriate behavior for a young woman. Like what to wear, who to talk to, how to talk, what to think, and most importantly how to keep her mouth shut and look pretty. The final straw was when he decided her card tricks weren’t ‘ladylike’ enough or whatever the fuck and tried taking them away.

        A telltale creak on one of the stairs was her only warning, more than enough time to hide her little rebellions away. Everything in the room was immaculate, her preferred decorations torn down and put in storage during one of Steve’s little tantrums. Not that he’d call them that, of course. The cards were placed behind the false back of a desk drawer, along with a tattered copy of her first book of tricks.

        Steve opened the door as she was standing up, not bothering to knock. His head swivelled like a desk fan in fast motion as he scowled at every corner of the room. He was white, with balding red hair, and no matter what time of day it was he always smelled like old sweat and cigarettes. Liang pasted on a smile and took on an appropriately fucking ladylike posture as she endured him pawing through all her stuff, opening drawers and turning over covers. She made sure to get in some really nasty looks whenever his back was turned, throwing in rude gestures she’d seen some older kids make every now and then just to spice things up.

        He spun around, and she had to work extra hard to keep the sick feeling in her gut from showing on her face. Had he seen? But he just stalked past her, clumsily pulling open her desk drawers. The knot in her belly unfurled a little when he didn’t notice the false backs, and the clear frustration in his posture made it hard to keep from smirking. She kept up the pasted, patient smile while he looked for an excuse to punish her. He turned from the desk and loomed over her.

        “Do you understand who’s in charge of this household little missy?” He said, tone angry.

        “Yes sir,” she said, keeping the flare of anger hidden behind a brittle smile.

        He sneered. “Well who is it then?”

        Liang bit back some choice words she’d recently learned. “It’s you, sir. You’re in charge of this household.”

        Fucking Steve nodded like the response was barely acceptable. “What are you doing standing around? Get back on your homework.”

        She’d already done her homework, but she sat down at her desk with an appropriately demure ‘Yes sir.’ anyway. He didn’t like it when she corrected him. The door slammed shut, and Liang listened carefully to make sure he was really going back downstairs.

        The second the coast was clear she burst into motion, moving her mattress aside to get to the clothes she’d hidden away. Practical stuff, none of the frilly crap Steve thought girls should wear. A few loose floorboards hid a spare backpack filled with supplies, slowly saved up and hoarded over months. There was money too, but not that much. Having too much cash on her would make her a target, or at least that was what she’d heard.

        A few minutes to get changed, a few more to gather up all her supplies. She told herself again and again that the pulse pounding in her ears was from excitement, that the sick feeling in her gut was just nervousness about being caught sneaking out. It was enough that she didn’t stop until she stood in front of an open window, the preparations she’d made suddenly seeming woefully inadequate for a life on the streets. But well, she’d always done her best work thinking on her feet. Besides she was ten now, basically almost a grown up.

        She tossed five months of work into the night air to force herself to move, quietly closing the window behind her. Careful positioning of her hands and feet kept her perch on the window sill, and little by little clambered down to the ground. Her backpack and duffelbag had landed in a bush, muffling the sound of their fall. There was a hiding spot she’d already picked out for them closer to downtown, though she didn’t look forward to the walk there.

        Now or never, she thought, treading fearlessly into the dark. She chanced a look back before the house was completely out of sight, knowing it might be the last time she’d ever get to see it. I’m sorry mom.

        Her vision blurred and she lost sight of her former home, forcing her to turn back toward the dark. She scrubbed away the dampness in her eyes with a sleeve. No more time for kid stuff.

        -||-

        8 Years Ago

        Grown-ups had no appreciation for the value of money. Take watches, for instance. You could get a perfectly functional watch for like ten or twenty bucks, but apparently that just wasn’t good enough for some folks. Like the snooty business man she’d ‘acquired’ a fancy gem-studded timepiece from, waltzing down the sidewalk without a care in the world. Hopefully this would teach him to be a little more frugal with his accessories in the future.

        Liang hid her grin as she pushed open the door to the pawn shop, putting on a pensive, defeated air. It was important not to lay it on too thick, a classic mistake she’d fallen prey to early on was getting so caught up in selling the character that she forgot real people didn’t like being seen like that. They tried holding it in, keeping it inside, trying to keep a strong facade even at their weakest. It was those glimpses of her ‘true self’ beneath the surface that really drew people into the performance.

        She made a show of meandering through the small shop, trying to give the impression that she was putting off approaching the counter rather than eyeing the merchandise. It was a pretty typical assortment of ostensibly valuable junk, most of it too unwieldy and distinctive to be worth trying to make off with. There was some jewelry that briefly caught her attention, behind a shoddy glass case she knew would be a cinch to pop open and swipe something from before anyone was the wiser.

        Tempting though it might be, she knew it wasn’t practical. There weren’t that many blasian girls around town, if she got clocked taking something that valuable her distinctive appearance would get the cops on her ass before she could say beluga. Picking pockets and running cons was easier, safer. Less chance of getting caught. If she played her cards right they’d never realize anything was amiss, at least not until she and the rest of her gang were long gone.

        Enough dilly dallying. Liang approached the counter with hesitant steps, pawing through her bag like she didn’t know exactly where the watch was. At the moment she was dressed in a ‘poor but preppy’ sort of style, a worn out cardigan over a skirt that was just a tad too big. Her shoes were good for running of course, but they could also pass as dress shoes for someone without much money to spare. The shop’s owner was an old balding Asian guy in a dress shirt with rolled up sleeves, wiping at a counter that already looked plenty clean to her. He looked up as she approached, squinting at her behind worn out glasses.

        Liang gave him a nervous smile, unwrapping the watch from the cloth that covered it. The other kids made fun of her for always brushing her teeth and flossing and everything even though there wasn’t anyone to make her. They didn’t get how important it was to not look like an urchin. She made a point of letting her touch linger on the watch just a bit, like it had sentimental value. This was the most important part, whether or not he bought what she was selling. Both literally and figuratively.

        “Excuse me mister, can you tell me how much this watch is worth?”

        The old man behind the counter leaned forward to examine it, brow furrowed in concentration. “May I see it?” he asked, holding out a weathered hand.

        Liang nodded, her reluctance to let go of the expensive accessory only partly feigned. He took it in gentle hands, grey-sprinkled eyebrows scrunching together over thick lenses as he held it up to the light. There was a minute shift in his expression. Surprise.

        Next would come the obvious question. Where did an obviously not well-to-do girl get such an expensive watch, particularly one styled and sized for a grown man? The first things most people thought of for an incongruity like that tended to be pretty obvious, driven into them by stereotypes and popular culture. Or life experiences, but those were hard to make use of without a lot of really boring reconnaissance -a word she made sure to teach her whole gang when she learned it last week- or pretending to be their friend long enough to learn something juicy and then stab them in the back. She might have been a thief, a congirl, an urchin, and a wannabe magician, but she’d eat garbage before she’d ever do something that gross .

        Thankfully that wouldn’t be necessary. This bit would only need to handle one conversation’s worth of scrutiny, it didn’t need anything but a strong backbone and a little razzle dazzle. She took in a quiet, slow breath, something he’d only notice if he was really paying attention.

        “It’s- that is, it was my grandpa’s,” Liang said, striving for a forced casualness. A little more roughness leaked into her voice than she’d intended, making her worry she’d overplayed the part.

        He got that look in his eye a lot of grown-ups did when they saw kids like her, that kinda-sad, kinda-helpless look like they wanted to make things better but didn’t know how. It was useful -she’d been aiming for it, even- but it hadn’t taken long for her to start getting real fucking tired of those looks.

        She pasted on a sad little smile, twisting the knife for both of them. “Mom sent me to sell it so she can pay the bills while she’s looking for another job.”

        The old man’s face seemed to droop a bit more with each word, a good indication that he’d been hooked. Now all she had to do was reel him in and clinch the deal.

        “It’s genuine, as far as I can tell,” said the squinty old man, which Liang pretended she hadn’t already known. He paused just a little longer than felt natural, eyes flickering between her and the watch. “I’d value it at around $5000. I can only part with half of that I’m afraid, have to keep the lights on in here.”

        Liang tried not to gape at him before realizing that would still be in character, too flummoxed to muster any sort of response. That was over twice what the thing was actually worth, she’d looked it up herself before coming here. There was no way he didn’t know that.

        “I...” she started, words failing her yet again. “Thank you.”

        He smiled, counting out the bills with wrinkled hands and pressing them into hers. “Go help your family.”

        “I will,” she said simply, meaning it.

        -||-

        It was almost dark when Liang got back to the hideout, she’d had a bunch of errands to run once they were finally flush with cash for a bit. Food for everyone, new clothes, Jessie’s medicine, it was disheartening how fast it got used up. She fumbled the door unlocked and shouldered it open, blinking at the sudden change in brightness while she tried to close the door behind her with a foot. Laughter drifted from the living room, putting a smile on her face even through the exhaustion that had settled over her like a thick blanket. The seven of them rented space in a shitty house in a shitty neighborhood that didn’t bother asking questions about who you were or why you were living there so long as you paid on time.

        She set the pizza she’d gotten from the place across the street on their already extremely crowded table, displacing more than a few empty soda cans and other assorted bits of junk onto the floor. She did a sort of squat thing while leaning against the edge of the table, carefully lowering the heavy grocery bags onto the floor next to it. By the time she stood up Monica was leaning on the doorway leading to the family room, giving her another one of those ‘concerned looks’ she was so fond of. She was a year older than Liang, Mexican, with long black hair she liked doing up in different braids, though right now it hung freely to just below her shoulder blades. Liang idly imagined brushing her fingers through it, remembering the way it always smelled a little like flowers because of her shampoo.

        A loud harrumph from Monica brought her back to the present. “Hey dummy, were you listening?”

        “Of course I was,” Liang lied. “You were asking me about today’s haul, which I have to say went swimmingly.”

        “No you weren’t and no I wasn’t. Have you eaten today?”

        That brought her up short. “Well I had a bowl of cereal and a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast, and earlier today I ate a bag of cheetos.”

        “Uh huh. Come on, let’s get you something to eat.”

        Liang grabbed a slice of pizza and some breadsticks to mollify both her stomach and her best friend, following her into the living room where a couple of the other kids were hanging out and watching some dumb cape cartoon. She made sure to sit down next to Monica on the big couch, trying not to make too much noise and ruin the show. Jessie had her own chair she liked to sit in while she watched her shows, religiously recording them on tape and drawing pictures of her favorite characters. Alex lounged in the beanbag chair next to her, occasionally scratching at the horns sprouting from his head in between his mocking commentary on the ridiculous situations the characters kept finding themselves in.

        She leaned back into the surprisingly comfortable couch, closing her eyes and letting the comforting noises of home wash over her.

        -||-

        This “Morning”

        The harsh blare of her alarm clock almost gave Liang a heart attack. She shot bolt upright in her chair, a half-disassembled card gimmick still strewn across the workbench in front of her. A yawn cracked open her jaw, accompanied with a stretch for her arms and neck.

        Christ, she thought. I’ve got to stop doing this to myself.

        Whatever stray bits of sleep she’d managed to steal felt painfully inadequate, but she pressed onward anyway. Take a quick shower, brush her teeth and hair, put in the hair gel, and then all it took was a thought for her suit to snap into being around her body from the pocket of twisted space she’d hidden it in. A device surgically implanted in her left forearm monitored and maintained it, giving her constant access. Minute twitches of her fingers and eyes controlled a heads-up display that jacked directly into her optic nerve, bringing up diagnostic reports from all the devices she had active.

        Sensors, trackers, relays and the like she’d scattered across the city formed a sort of mesh network with each other, letting her access basic information from far outside their normal operational range. It had been slow, careful work to extend her network into the territories of nearby villains, listening devices and the like carefully disguised as mundane objects and placed in key locations. Hiding them well enough to avoid Professor Silica’s watchful eye had been a particularly interesting challenge, one that would be almost impossible to know whether she succeeded in.

        More pressingly, the holding for the displacement engine in her right arm mirroring the specialized space twister in her left had gotten a little loose during the night. With barely a thought she drew a specialized screwdriver from another pocket of twisted space and brought up an augmented view of her arm’s internals. The screwdriver was phased just a little bit out of reality, passing through flesh and bone as though they weren’t even there while still being able to work with the material making up her cybernetic augmentations. It took a few tweaks to get everything back into working order again, and she wiggled her fingers to make sure there weren’t any other issues.

        Once that was done she could finally get up to speed on the day’s happenings. A message from the Director caught her eye almost immediately, notifying the whole team that they were getting a new recruit today. Liang’s eyebrows crawled up higher and higher as she read through the barebones description of the cape’s particularly colorful trigger. How the hell had she missed this? Whoever this girl was, she was powerful enough to be really dangerous and either had control issues or a serious temper. A bad combination, either way.

        Maybe she was being too pessimistic. The Director had said she’d been cooperative and not much beyond that, but Liang was starting to trust the things the PRT told them less and less as time went on. Had they recruited another villain and hoped to cover it up? Had she been more complicit in the apartment’s destruction than the report implied? Liang didn’t know, but she might be able to find out.

        She retrieved her mask from the coffee table, carefully settling it on her face while she tried to get her head in the game. The beginnings of a plan formed in her mind, and as Presto started the process of chain-teleporting to the Space Needle a smirk slowly worked its way onto her face. Her last stop was a broom closet on the top floor, with just barely enough room for her to appear inside without intersecting anything. There was an automatic position-adjuster built into all her teleportation tech that always popped her in with an appropriate pose, compensating for some of the inherent problems with teleporting blind. She ducked under a broom barring her path, opening the door into one of the Needle’s less-trafficked hallways.

        Her exit was carefully timed to avoid the gaze of the hall’s security cameras, the door opened and closed without a sound. In her eyes the hallway was overlaid with ghostly images representing the ranges of each and every sensor and security device in the building, information she’d painstakingly pieced together over years of working there. A lot of it was her work, or at least based on her work, which was as easy for her to avoid as it was to avoid tripping on her own legs when she walked down the street. She took a moment to refamiliarize herself with this area of the building, bringing up a three dimensional map in the corner of her augmented vision. The moment before a camera swept back to where she was standing she teleported, quick as a thought.

        Presto had started implanting tech into herself basically the moment she’d turned eighteen and didn’t have to ask permission any more, her first and favorite of which was a series of teleportation relays evenly spaced throughout her entire body. Her initial non-swapping teleporters had been limited to only a few feet for objects as massive as people, but that distance was a lot less limited for small things. After some tweaking, she’d created a design that distributed the work of teleporting her to a network of smaller devices first embedded in her costume and then eventually throughout her body. They had to be perfectly synced up -lest she end up with chunks of her teleported to a bunch of slightly different locations- but her effective range had been increased tenfold. Fifty feet was as far as she could go at the moment without risking desyncing, but she already a few ideas for increasing that even further.

        Her first blink was aimed at the wall opposite the door she’d emerged from, appearing standing sideways on the wall while seemingly leaning on the ceiling. The suit she was wearing had some tech based on Snubnose’s power, largely negating the planet’s pull and creating a weak artificial gravity effect in whatever direction she chose. The weave making up her costume -including her gloves and dress shoes- could shift on a microscopic level, letting her change its surface friction to match anything from oil slick to the pads lizards used to cling to walls. It only took a couple minutes to make her way to the staffroom without being noticed by either man or machine, the relatively small room still crowded with those on a pilgrimage for pastries. Presto popped into an obscure corner of the room, hidden by a vending machine on one side and a beaten up armchair on the other.

        Not much time. Presto checked her network again, a grin splitting her face when she saw they’d just arrived in the parking lot. Just as she’d suspected Laura had been sent to pick up their new recruit; the director wouldn’t have trusted anyone else with this. There was still a teleportation relay in her car, probably left from when Laura helped her move into her new apartment. Not a calculated move on Presto’s part; she’d genuinely forgotten that was still in there. Alright, enough dawdling. She activated the displacement engine in her right forearm, using Laura as a sort of interdimensional counterweight to swap their positions. It still took multiple blinks, but not nearly as many as her other teleporter would have.

        She popped in with her feet leaning on the dashboard, which might not give the best first impression. Maybe she should have put her pose-adjuster into serious mode first?

        “-be fine,” the girl she’d popped in next to was saying, sounding distracted. The young woman Presto had done all this to get a private conversation with was white, almost pasty, wearing a purple jacket that was cut like a light, feminine trench coat, peering out the window from behind a pair of worn out glasses. She was kinda cute, hair cut short on her left side and shoulder length on her right, the bottom half bleached blonde. “Thanks for taking the time to-”

        She’d stopped speaking abruptly as she turned Presto’s way, freezing up like a deer in the headlights for a full second. Some part of Liang noted that she had a simple piercing in her right nostril, putting another point in the ‘probably gay’ category. Before Presto could even open her mouth to explain herself, the newly triggered cape next to her let out a shriek of abject terror and somehow pushed through the car’s closed door like it was made of jello before jumping directly onto the ceiling.

        I’m a fucking idiot, Presto thought.

        -||-

        Now

        I’m a fucking idiot, Presto thought -not for the first or even the twelth time today- as she saw the destruction around the warehouse with her own eyes. Of course she’d go in. Carmilla was a little naive and a lot anxious, but she’d obviously been itching to get out there and do something. The whole point of inviting her on this clusterfuck of a patrol had been to let her blow off some steam in a reasonably safe way, not throwing her into the first deadly situation they came across completely alone. Blinking to the ground, Presto could see that apparently ‘doing something’ involved making a lot of creepy abstract sculptures.

        She found Bullrush talking to a small squad of PRT troops, apparently coordinating with them on how best to contain the zoo people. Presto waited politely for her to finish and emphatically did not teleport in behind the stick-in-the-ass speedster. She really didn’t want to risk another reflexive gut punch. Her eyes wandered as she waited, augmented vision showing just enough information from her sensors to pick out Carmilla’s slumped form leaning against the wall around the corner. Shit. Was she hurt or just exhausted? Presto blinked, realizing that they’d finished up their brief conversation while she was distracted. Bullrush turned her way, somehow managing to glare at her in a faceless helmet.

        “Presto,” she said in a flat tone, warm and welcoming as ever.

        Presto grinned, slowly counting down from ten in her head and and striving to keep her breathing steady. It wasn’t Bullrush she was pissed at tonight. “What the hell happened here? Looks like an art exhibit came alive and decided to try sculpting people for a change.”

        Bullrush shrugged, seemingly unaware of Presto’s agitation. “About what you’d expect. She got restless and decided to scout out the warehouse, allegedly finding incriminating tinker devices concealed in the backs of the vans that would utilize the hostages for some unknown purpose.”

        “What do you mean, ‘allegedly’? You can’t check?”

        She shook her head. “It’s all melted down to slag, Monster Mash is gonna have to take a look at the bodies to figure out whether they’re kidnapped people or disposable drones. Anyway, at that point Sepulcher took it upon herself to single-handedly immobilize every Bastard around the warehouse and rescue the hostages from the middle of over a dozen trained killers. Afterwards, one Eric ‘the Proud’ Jacobson burst through the wall of the warehouse and punched her in the chest, knocking her to the ground. She dropped him into the sewers and went back to the warehouse, at which point the mercenaries started to shake violently before dropping to the ground completely dead right before I burst in through the wall. Other witnesses on the scene have confirmed the timing.”

        Presto stared at her for a few seconds, completely at a loss for words. “Is she okay?” she managed eventually.

        “A little banged up, but she’ll mend. Be grateful this didn’t go as badly as it should have.” The last was said with a nod in Sepulcher’s direction, the small gesture almost throwing Presto for more of a loop than her entire last statement. She started to leave, briefly pausing to whisper directly into Presto’s ear. “The two hostages weren’t supposed to be missing, they’ve both been seen going to work within the last six hours. We’ll learn more at the debriefing.”

        With that, she shifted. Bullrush’s speedy form was insubstantial, almost wispy, and it was sped up enough that it seemed to vibrate constantly even when standing still. She zipped off at just below sonic speeds, effortlessly navigating around cars and crowds like a silent bolt of lightning.

        Part of Presto’s mind raced with the implications of that; potential avenues for investigation, capes that might be able to pull something like this, brief flashes of inspiration for new scanning tech flickering through her mind. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, centering herself and bringing her focus back onto more important things.

        She found Carmilla a little ways away from the larger group of PRT personnel, sinking into a little hump of upraised concrete like it was a beanbag chair as she leaned against the wall of the warehouse. She stared up at the night sky with an unblinking metallic mask, seemingly oblivious to Presto leaning against the wall a little ways away from her. It was hard to reconcile that anxious, vulnerable girl she’d spoken to at the Space Needle with Bullrush’s terse summary and the calculated destruction she’d witnessed on her way here. There was something Presto had missed about her, something important. It was time to find out what.

        She gently rapped on the wall she was leaning on with her knuckles, causing Sepulcher’s head to suddenly whip towards her. “Seems I underestimated you,” Presto said, flashing a grin.

        “Presto!” said Carmilla, clumsily stumbling to her feet. Even with the wall reshaping itself to support her it was obviously a struggle, the newbie hero heavily favoring her left side and trying to hide quiet grunts of pain behind her teeth. It hurt Liang to see her like this, each uncomfortable shift and sharp intake of breath a pointed reminder that Presto hadn’t been there when it really counted. “I didn’t- that is, I wanted to say I’m sorry for getting us caught earlier. And uhm, I sort of broke your telekinetic silencing card thing. Or at least got it broken. I’m really sorry.” She held out the tattered gimmick, no doubt extracted from a heavily dented breastplate.

        Was this bitch seriously apologizing for getting punched in the chest? Presto rolled her eyes violently, unable to contain her frustration. “I didn’t come here because I was worried about the damn card gimmick, I came here to ask what the hell lead to this shit. And more importantly, what happened to you? You’re hurt.”

        Carmilla seemed taken aback by her vehemence, spending long moments collecting herself before she managed a response. “Uhm- well first there were these snake guys, I think they were twins. One of them had a baseball bat and he hit me a few times before I managed to grab him, and the other one tried to stab me and I got a couple bruises from that. Or well, he did stab me but it didn’t penetrate my bodysuit. Then this lion guy, I think he was the leader or something, burst through the wall like the goddamn kool-aid man. Fucker punched me right in the boob.”

        “Okay there’s gotta be something I’m missing here. Why didn’t you just grab them from a distance?”

        “My tremorsense- that’s the feedback I get from surfaces I’m touching, it only extends six to ten feet away from me. I can still conjure stuff past that but it’s slow and clumsy, only limited to a few patterns unless...” Carmilla trailed off. A few long moments passed, Carmilla apparently having completely spaced out.

        “Unless?” Liang prompted.

        Carmilla shook her head like a dog trying to shake off water, focusing back on Liang. “Unless I let my power just… go. It spreads out in every direction, unpredictably drawing from my emotions or subconscious or whatever. And apparently things it remembers.”

        Presto quirked an eyebrow. “You care to elaborate on that?”

        Carmilla took a slow, deep breath. “I have a perfect or near perfect memory for objects and locations, which works best on things I’ve sensed with my powers directly. Earlier I wanted to scare a group of Bastards into some traps, so I tried making a bunch of parts from a statue I made earlier and while it did do that it also made uhm- it made other stuff too. I think they’re from when I ki- when I found John.” She stopped, unwilling or unable to elaborate further.

        John? That must have been the guy she couldn’t save. “Alright. So what made you go in in the first place? You had a perfectly good hiding spot. And sit down, you look like you’re about to fall over.”

        She sat, flumping onto the ground like a sack of potatoes thrown onto a pile of mud. “Well I was sitting there feeling like an idiot for fucking up and forcing you to come and rescue me, especially since at that point I knew I’d have to explain the whole thing to Bullrush and I get really nervous around strict authority figure types. And it’s hard to explain, but those black vans really seemed like bad news to me. So I told myself I’d check it out and decide whether Bullrush would be better suited to handling it or not, and then I checked it out.”

        “And found weird tinker shit in the vans,” Presto added.

        Carmilla nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah it was like this weird sarcophagus thing with tubes and wires going into it, I could sense the whole thing with my power.”

        “Could you draw it out or something?” Presto suggested.

        “I can do you one better. Just give me ooooooone second.” Carmilla stuck both hands into the wall she was leaning on, forming something just under the surface. It took a minute or two of work, with her occasionally taking out the half formed piece to get a look at it. Eventually she presented a scale model of the fucked up tinkertech coffin with a quarter of it removed to display the interior, casually handing it over.

        Presto leaned in for a closer look, her augmented eyes highlighting every key detail. “Sepulcher, this is amazing. Seems you’ve already found us our first lead.”

        “Thank you! I’m really glad I can help,” she said, sounding genuinely floored by the praise. Then she paused for a moment, seeming to struggle with herself. “So uhm, are you mad at me? For like, sort of breaking my promise.”

        Is that what she thought? Shit. “No no, not at all. I would have done the same thing and been smug about it afterwards. I’m mad at myself for not being there.”

        “Oh,” said Carmilla, apparently not up to responding.

        “Hey,” Presto said, giving her a little punch on the pauldron. “You did good tonight, saved two people from a real ugly fate. How about we get you home? We could both use some rest after tonight.”

        “Uhm,” Carmilla said, sound reluctant. “You might have to go without me. I don’t think I’m up for anymore rooftop running right now.”

        Presto shook her head, smiling despite herself. “I meant we hitch a ride on a PRT van, I wouldn’t expect any acrobatics from you after your poor tit got caved in.”

        Carmilla snorted. “That would be totally fine by me. I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

        Liang helped her new teammate to her feet and headed back towards the Space Needle, tired enough this late in the day that she ended up leaning on Carmilla as much as Carmilla was leaning on her.

Chapter Text

        “I’m honestly not sure where to begin,” I said, sitting on the supple faux-leather couch the Seattle protectorate’s current in-house therapist kept for her patients, mask in my lap. It was sturdy, reinforced inside and out to accommodate capes with particularly heavy bodies or gear. The woman whose couch I was occupying sat cross-legged on a large office chair across from me. She was on the younger side of middle aged, with light brown skin and dark wavy hair tied back into a bun; her look gave off a sort of ‘cool english teacher’ vibe, thick glasses and a cardigan festooned with pins worn over a brightly colored dress that was nearly a match for my own. “Uhm- what was your name again? I’m sorry, I’ve just been so busy this last week that I keep losing track of things.”

        “There’s nothing to worry about,” she said, waving off my concern with a genial smile. “My name is Dr. Adelina Oliveira, but everyone here just calls me Ina,” she continued, seeming completely at ease in her quiet office on the western wing of the Needle’s fiftieth floor. It was decorated with the sorts of knick knacks I’d come to associate with therapist’s offices, little Buddha statues and uncut gemstones decorating shelves and tables. The only item of note was a small bird skull on her desk, mounted on a metallic stand right next to a miniature zen garden. “Take as long as you need to formulate your thoughts, okay Sepulcher? Or would you prefer Carmilla?”

        I shrugged. “Either one’s fine I guess, they’re both my name,” I said, immediately contradicting myself with my next statement. “Let’s go with Carmilla for now.”

        Ina nodded. “Carmilla it is.”

        I looked down at the golden heart-shaped mask in my hands, impenetrable black lenses meeting me stare for stare. A few meetings with PR had resulted in a look with a lot more thematic coherence, the eyes and nose resembling a barn owl’s. The rest of my armor still hadn’t been finalized, more because I hadn’t really had the time to work on it than anything else, but once it was finished it would be etched on all the edges to resemble feathers.

        Right now I was just wearing one of my new dresses for my costume -bright and summery in utter defiance of the season- along with the official security card I’d gotten on my first day here. Laura and Liang had taken me shopping the day after the whole warehouse thing, probably to keep an eye on me as much as anything, but I couldn’t deny how nice it had been to be able to just get things I liked without having to worry about scrimping and saving for every purchase. “It all just feels so strange. Like- like this is a dream I’m gonna wake up from at any moment. That’s normal, right? After such a big upheaval?”

        Ina nodded again, face breaking into a gentle smile. “I think almost anyone in your position would experience some disconnect while they adjusted to their new normal. Considering what you’ve gone through I’d say you’re doing an admirable job of coping.”

        I smiled back, hesitant. “I’d guess the first thing to note is that I’m trans. Like, a trans woman. There were signs going back as far as I can remember, but I only like consciously realized it when I was eighteen, after high school. I started HRT a bit over a year ago, in March 2008. My parents aren’t supportive, and I was basically forced to come out to them when my mom found one of my bras back in january,” my voice grew in intensity as I continued, a familiar bitterness rising to the surface. “They don’t even say my name, you know. I don’t mean they insist on using my dead name, I mean they don’t use any name or pronouns for me at all. They do fucking conversational gymnastics to avoid it, since they know if they used my dead name or called me ‘he’ I’d correct them. It makes me feel like a- a fucking non-person!”

        A distinctly sharp ripple moved through the couch at my displeasure, bringing my rant to a sputtering halt. I took a moment to breathe, trying to tamp down the indignation and sorrow to more manageable levels before continuing. “Anyway. I also have a history of depression, with some pretty severe episodes preceding my dropping out of college.” I sighed.

        “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of, Carmilla,” Ina said, frowning in sympathy. “You were going through a tumultuous time in your life, with very little support from your parents, it’s understandable if some things fell by the wayside.”

        “More than some things,” I muttered. “Back when I was in the dorms I basically holed up in my room for days at a time. Once I’d missed a bunch of calls from my mom because I was basically only eating and sleeping and she was so worried she ended up calling the campus police to check on me after knocking on our front door failed to rouse me. That was embarrassing, to put it mildly.”

        “It sounds to me that you were in a pretty severe depression, like you said. Is it really reasonable to blame yourself when you did the best that could be expected of someone placed in, to be frank, really shitty circumstances?”

        I frowned in thought. “The thing is that I’m not sure if I did do the best I could have. There were so many times I could have walked a few minutes from my dorm to class and just… didn’t. Or even if I did walk to class sometimes I’d just stand outside the door or pace. Or if I did go to class and get myself to go inside I’d find it almost impossible to focus or take notes. And I procrastinated almost all of my homework to death anyway.”

        You’re pathetic, echoed a sneering voice in my mind.

        “I just don’t understand what’s wrong with me,” I said, the words popping out of my mouth unbidden. “Why am I such a fuckup?”

        Dr. Oliveira frowned, sitting up straight and placing her sandaled feet onto the cheap carpet. “Carmilla, you are not a fuckup. And there is nothing wrong with you. What you’ve learned is that that’s not a good learning environment for you, nothing more and nothing less.”

        I sat there in silence for several moments, mind whirling in tight circuits of self-loathing, eventually giving her a reluctant nod. “It’s just so frustrating when I know what I need to do and why I need to do it but can’t bring myself to actually, you know, fucking do it.”

        With a chill, I wondered if my thinker power had been a twisted way of resolving that frustration. Which, come to think of it, was probably something I should bring up with Ina.

        Ina was already responding. “There will always be a gap between what we envision ourselves doing and what is practically possible; expecting yourself to march in perfect lockstep with what you imagine you should be capable of is only going to lead to disappointment.”

        I tilted my head quizzically. “Well sure, but shouldn’t we still strive to be better?”

        “There’s a difference between setting specific, achievable goals and setting yourself up for failure.”

        I slowly raised a finger until it was level with my face, slowly lowering it again when I failed to think of an adequate response. Eventually I nodded. Now or never, I thought. If I brought up the emotion damping thing it’d probably take up most of the session, but… it was probably for the best. There had to be someone I could talk to about this, to make sure I wasn’t losing perspective.

        “Okay,” I said, realizing immediately that that probably wasn’t the best opener. “So you know how I have a thinker power?”

        Ina nodded. “I was sent your file the day you arrived here, I seem to recall you had an enhanced awareness and memory for locations?”

        “That’s pretty close, yeah. I can also visualize things with almost perfect accuracy and consistency, predicting the arcs of thrown objects and the like.” I sat there uncomfortably for a few moments, silently bargaining with myself. I sighed. “There’s something I haven’t told anyone else about yet. So I can turn its intensity up and down sort of like a dimmer switch, all the way down to almost nothing. The catch is that the more uh, thinker… juice? I use, the more disconnected I get from my emotions. It gets to the point where I can’t even interpret expressions when it’s all the way up. Or feel pain, or exhaustion, or hesitation. Everything gets reduced down to concrete, specific goals.”

        Ina nodded, not seeming put off by that little revelation in the slightest. “First I want to congratulate you for reaching out to someone about this, it obviously wasn’t easy for you.”

        I nodded, silent.

        “What are you concerned about, specifically? It’s not uncommon for powers to have mental or emotional side effects, I know or know of quite a few capes that have learned to live with them in a healthy way.”

        I took a moment to get my thoughts in order before responding. “It’s just, I’m scared of how cold I get when I’m like that. What if I go too far and don’t even realize until it’s too late?”

        “Let’s elaborate on that. What would going too far look like?”

        “Well… as an example, let’s say I set myself the goal of stopping a robbery. Unless I specifically note to do so non-lethally my emotionless self would have no compunctions about just like, stabbing them to death if it’s is the most efficient option.”

        Ina made a thoughtful sound, pulling her legs up as she leaned back in her chair. “How much nuance is there in these goals? Could you set a rule that requires you to check with your emotions or a teammate whenever hurting someone seems like a good option, for instance?”

        My head tilted as I considered that. “That could help. I’m not sure if there’s a limit to the number of conditions or subgoals I can set at once but I’ll give it a try.”

        I closed my eyes, drawing in a deep breath as I drew more deeply on my thinker power. Not so much that I lost myself, just enough to visualize my intentions in full detail. The texture of the world still seemed to change, shifting to something sharper and colder. Alien. I hadn’t realized how uncomfortable suspending myself in the middle of the two states could be, still having just enough feeling to realize something was off with my perceptions. Best to make this quick.

        Normally when I set a goal with my thinker power I just visualized the result I wanted and used that as the standard to judge potential courses of action. What if I reversed that? Visualizing exactly the result I didn’t want and keeping it suspended in my power’s ‘working memory’ as a contingency, applying to every future goal I set.

        It was so much easier to set reasonable limits in a specific context, with known variables. How could I explain something as abstract as the value of human life to someone that understood everything in terms of physical systems? It wasn’t like there were a whole lot of examples I could pull up from my power’s memory, I couldn’t sense living things. Maybe it’d be best to wait until I’d studied anatomy and constructed a decent mental model of the human body, unless- I froze.

        “That’s certainly an interesting expression,” Ina teased, bringing me back to the present. She gave me a small smile tinged with motherly concern. “Penny for your thoughts?”

        “John,” I said, devoid of context. My voice was mechanical, my eyes locked onto the carpet. “I was there when- when it happened. I was kneeling right next to him in a pool of his own blood, and uhm. When he d-died, my power could sense him just like how I can sense the couch I’m sitting on or the floor under my feet, and I never forget anything I sense with my power. Ever.”

        Ina’s voice was gentle but firm. “What happened to him wasn’t your fault, Carmilla.”

        I blinked, shifting back to my normal self. The pain in my heart and the wrenching in my gut sharpened in a distinctly unpleasant way, but fully experiencing it let me understand it. I sighed, almost going limp on the couch. “I know that like, intellectually. Almost none of what my power did when it manifested was under my control, and neither were the actions of the other people in the apartment complex. From an outside perspective I’d consider it a tragic accident.”

        She nodded.

        “But… my power is part of me. Its actions are my actions, and it’s my responsibility to keep it from hurting anyone else. If I don’t try to learn from every mistake I made, no matter how small or understandable, it’s like the suffering I -or at least, my power- inflicted on them was for nothing.”

        “Please be kind to yourself,” Ina said, brows knitted in a serious expression behind her glasses. “Making mistakes is part of being human, you don’t need to self-flagellate for not knowing exactly what to do in a completely unfamiliar crisis situation.”

        After a moment I nodded, managing a smile. “You’re right. It’s just hard, you know? I think even without my power I’d never be able to forget my roommates attacking me, let alone everything else.”

        Ina smiled back, though there was a sad look in her eyes. “We have time. You’re a kind, intelligent, self-aware young woman, I know you can find your way to a better place.”

        Something still sat uneasily with me. “I need to tell someone about my power. On the team, I mean.”

        “Maybe this week you can work on finding someone you’re comfortable knowing about your thinker power; not to necessarily tell them right now, just find someone you think would be a good candidate. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time on things like this, making certain you have someone worthy of trust.”

        I gave her a tight smile, trying not to worry about how they’d react.

        -||-

        I sat alone in the Protectorate headquarter’s dining area, a bowl of microwave cheesy spiral noodles and broccoli in front of me. My only company was Gasconade’s cat, Merlin, who was currently napping in the box my new desk had arrived in. He was majestic -as fluffy and grey as his namesake- and according to Presto there were persistent rumors that he had powers of his own. Knowing her, she was probably the one that started them.

        There was about half an hour left before I had to meet Bolster for my daily humiliation session -or combat training, same difference- and I was struggling to work up an appetite. Maybe it’d be more appealing if I added some spices? I stood up, ambling over to the Protectorate’s shared kitchen space. It was bizarre how quickly living in the Space Needle was becoming ordinary, even boring. My standards for normal had gotten a pretty thorough kicking, and I doubted they’d ever be quite the same again.

        As if summoned by the thought Gasconade -no wait, Jaager- walked into the kitchen from the PHQ’s lobby, wearing a dress shirt and suspenders without his customary hat and jacket. I gave him a smile and wave, uncertain what to say or how to approach him. He seemed distracted, casually waving back as he passed into the dining area.

        “Merlin! I was wondering where you’d run off to.” Sounded his voice through the doorway. Following that were the sorts of gushy nonsense noises any reasonable person made around cats, particularly while petting them. It endeared me to both of them immediately.

        The spice cabinet was depressingly bare, something I swore to myself I’d rectify on my next grocery trip. There was salt and pepper at least, and I made certain to add a particularly generous helping of the latter. I needed a ton of the stuff for it to really register as spicy. I warmed it back up in the microwave and gave it a vigorous stir with my fork, nodding in satisfaction when I took another bite. My newly upgraded meal in hand, I made my way back to the lounge.

        Jaager was sitting in a booth with Merlin resting comfortably in his lap, typing up what was presumably a report on one of his patrols on a laser keyboard. Clever, I thought, his power obviously doesn’t transfer through light, or else anyone that looks at him would get reset . At the same time there was something profoundly sad about it, that he couldn’t even type on an ordinary computer without his power undoing all of his work. I wasn’t even sure I could call it a power, it was more like a mummy curse or the work of an evil genie. My heart went out to him, but I wasn’t sure how to help or what he needed.

        For the moment he was as relaxed as I’d ever seen him, judging by his body language and Merlin’s persistent purring. Maybe all he needed was another friend? As far as I was aware we were the only two Protectorate capes actually living on-site, we’d be seeing a lot of each other regardless of what I did. Might as well try and get to know him.

        -A darker, more cynical part of me figured that if this was another situation like the one with my roommates it’d be best to find out sooner rather than later. Jaager seemed nice but well, Ray had seemed nice too.-

        I sat in the booth across from him, carefully setting my food on the table. He was using some kind of holographic screen, presumably provided by Presto, translucent enough for me to make him out pretty clearly through it. More like looking through a tinted window than anything else.

        “Hey Jaager,” I said once I’d settled down. “What are you working on?”

        His head snapped up, seeming to notice me for the first time. “Oh, hello Carmilla. Just some after action reports, nothing too exciting I’m afraid. It’s been quiet these past few days.”

        “Probably for the best.”

        He ‘hmm-ed’ in agreement, continuing to type away with Merlin purring up a storm in his lap. I smiled.

        “So how did you two meet? We’ve had a lot of cats over the years, but there have only been a couple willing to sit in my lap like that.”

        Jaager chuckled, giving Merlin a scratch behind the ears with hands that looked like they’d been painted by Monet. “Well that’s a hell of a story.”

        I smiled at him. “I’ve got time. Besides, it’d be nice to have something to think about that isn’t my upcoming combat training.”

        His face didn’t really have expressions per se, but I still got the impression he was smiling. “It was a few years back actually, only a few months after the Leviathan attack in ‘03. I was on one of my patrols, trying to keep things from getting too out of hand, when I heard a sad little meow coming from a bit of piping that had busted open. There was a kitten stuck inside.”

        “How did you get him out?” He couldn’t very well have just picked him up.

        “Time and patience. I couldn’t touch him directly, but I could still widen the hole he’d fallen into and coax him out. Took me almost an hour. I’d been intending to call a shelter to take him in afterwards but he wouldn’t stop following me.”

        I smirked at him. “Uh huh, the classic ‘he followed me home’ line. He’s been living with you ever since?”

        “Yes ma’am,” he said, voice sounding like he was trying to hold back a smile. “Merlin likes coming with me on my patrols sometimes, I’ve got a leash for him and everything.”

        “Aren’t you worried about him getting hurt?”

        “Of course I am, but there’s not much risk when I can just let go of his leash and let my power do its thing.”

        Oh, duh. “That makes sense. How old is he? About six right?”

        “That’s a harder question than it sounds. He hangs around me often enough that no one’s quite sure how old he really is, regularly getting sent back in time will do that to you.”

        I ‘hmm-ed’ in understanding, thinking about the implications of that. “He reminds me a lot of Blazer. Adventurous, friendly, completely covered in fluff. He like playing with laser pointers?”

        “Oh he loves the damn things. Or hates them, not totally sure. Haven’t met many cats that don’t.”

        “He’s- that is, he was a really good cat.” I sighed, scrubbing at my eyes with the back of my hand. “I really miss him. Maybe it’s silly, but I wish he’d been there to see me finally come out and start being a girl in earnest.”

        “Sounds like he means a lot to you, I don’t think it’s silly at all.”

        I gave him a slightly watery smile. “It’s- well. Whenever my dad would get mad and start yelling, which was a lot, Blazer was always there meowing at him and distracting him. It’s- it’s like he was protecting me. Maybe he didn’t understand the significance of what he was doing, but him being there helped get me through some of the hardest times of my life. Without him, I don’t know if I’d have made it through high school.”

        Jaager went silent, apparently not quite sure how to respond to that. There was a pregnant pause, just long enough for me to start wondering if I’d overshared and made everything awkward.

        “Do you want a hug?” he asked in a surprisingly uncertain voice, interrupting my frantic mental search for a topic change.

        The question threw me for a bit of a loop, but it didn’t take long to decide. “I would. Are you sure?”

        In lieu of answering he saved his work and started standing up, prompting me to do the same. It was a lot like how I imagined hugging a statue would feel, his body unyielding and slightly cool to the touch. Maybe it wasn’t quite on par with the hug I got from Snap, but Jaager made a damn good effort.

        -Maybe this wouldn’t be like Ray after all.-

        “Thank you,” I said after we’d disconnected. “Sorry for dumping all that on you.”

        “Don’t worry about it,” he responded, waving a hand dismissively. “That’s what friends are for, right?”

        My response was interrupted by the sound of a door opening on the other side of HQ, just barely picked up by my tremorsense. “Someone’s here.”

        “Oh? I wonder who it could be.”

        An idea occurring to me, I returned to my spiral noodles and devoured the remainder as quickly as I could before returning to the location I’d be getting reset to. Jaager gave me what I liked to imagine was an amused look.

        “I see how it is,” he said, voice taking on a wry tone. “You only accepted the hug because you wanted free food.”

        I very nearly asked him how he ate when he didn’t have a mouth or anything, but I had a sinking feeling the answer was he couldn’t. Instead I smiled, raising up my hands in mock surrender, “You caught me red-handed chief, but in my defense it was really good.”

        That prompted a snort from him as he directed his focus back to writing. I’d never seen him eat, drink, sleep, or do much of anything besides working in the week we’d been living in the same space. Most of our interaction before this had been him jokingly offering to help us move furniture before going off on another one of his patrols. My room wasn’t all that big, so we’d kicked the boxes out into the lounge while we put the furniture together, which were quickly colonized by Merlin. I could have used my power to make all my furniture, but I could also have chosen to live in the sewers as a mole person. Both scenarios had a similar appeal.

        My view suddenly shifted to a slightly different angle, arms awkwardly hugging the air. Part of me was certain whoever it was would walk in at just that moment, but sadly life didn’t always have the comedic timing we wished it did. I sat back down at the booth, noticing for the first time that one of the cups scattered about the table wasn’t getting picked up by my tremorsense. It was a really fancy chalice, made of what looked like polished metal shaped into elegant patterns and decorative spikes. I leaned in for a closer look, gingerly picking it up.

        It was surprisingly light, but covered in sharp edges to the point I was nervous about handling it, let alone actually drinking from the thing. Honestly I was reminded of those stupid “ninja” weapons they sold in malls that were always completely impractical and covered in superfluous spikes. I held the cup into the light, marvelling at how intricately put together it was. As far as I could tell it was made entirely of blades, the flat surfaces of progressively finer and finer blades approximating a rounded surface.

        Part of the bowl-thing popped out, making me jump a little. It had unfolded into what looked like a mechanical spider leg, and before I’d quite processed that it gave me a little wave. I shrieked, scrambling back with enough haste and raw panic that I tripped and tumbled ass over tit. The first thing Bolster had taught me was how to fall, and with the ground’s assistance I was able to turn my bumble into an improvised backwards combat roll. In the same motion I summoned a short wall and pulled a mancatcher out of the ground, coming to a stop in a low stance I’d been practicing for the last few days.

        The ‘cup’ had rearranged itself into something resembling a spider, constantly retracting and replacing its limbs as it moved. Almost like a liquid in how smooth the movement was, how precise.

        “Hey Edgar,” Jaager said absently, not even looking away from his work.

        I growled in frustration, barely stopping another ring of spikes from forming.“What the hell is it with capes and jumpscaring people? I’m getting really fucking tired of the surprise introductions.”

        I liked to imagine the spider apparently named Edgar looked ashamed, and as he started moving I realized who I’d been yelling at. True to his name, Music Box made almost melodic sounds with every movement, just ever so slightly off from being a true song. Like something halfway between a xylophone and a violin.

        He landed on the ground and started reinflating, for lack of a better word. Dozens of tiny limbs constantly retracted and readjusted, bringing his skin back into place and closing up all the gaps. Sharp mechanisms worked beneath the surface, visibly distending the skin of his face as it made the necessary adjustments.

        “Gonna be completely honest with you,” I said, swallowing uncomfortably. “That was much worse than the cup turning into a spider thing.”

        “So I’ve heard,” Music Box intoned, a slight accent to his voice. He was tall and spindly, dozens of different tools and implements hanging off of a dark grey costume with white highlights. He sighed, craning his neck down to look at me. “I’m sorry for scaring you, Sepulcher. I have to confess that I’d been planning to play a prank on Jaager, but I hadn’t wanted to interrupt your conversation. And then you picked me up and I didn’t know what to do, so… uhm. I’m sorry.”

        I let out a sigh of my own, the tension slowly bleeding away from my shoulders. I smeared the mancatcher into the wall I’d made, moving and reshaping it around one of the room’s concrete support pillars where it hopefully wouldn’t bother anyone. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, really. I’m just… I’ve been high strung lately. It’s been a stressful few days.” Stressful few months, I mentally corrected. Years.

        “You’ve had a lot of changes thrown at you at once,” Music Box said, “I know a bit of how stressful that can be.” He cleared his throat awkwardly, turning toward a deeply unimpressed-looking Jaager. Changing the subject about as gracefully as I would have done. “Gasconade, duty calls. P and B are calling a meeting, I think we’re finally getting some new assignments.”

        “You really oughta leave the pranks to Presto,” Jaager said with a wry tone, gently shooing Merlin off his lap while he got up. He put his coat and hat back on, straightening his shoulders and his tie. “It was good talking to you, Carmilla. I’m glad you joined the team, it’ll be nice to have some decent company around here for a change.”

        I smiled, waving the both of them goodbye. They kept up a stream of banter as they exited the PHQ, voices slowly fading from my ears and then my tremorsense. After a few moments I sat back down at the table, poking at the noodles I’d made.

    -||-

        The gym’s double doors were far more imposing than their size would indicate, more because of my knowledge of what was behind them than anything else. I took a deep breath. And then another. One more.

        Okay, I was being ridiculous. Setting my jaw, I leveraged a bit of my thinker power to overcome my nervousness and push the well-worn wooden doors aside. Bolster stood in the center of the spacious and well-appointed gym, a precariously tall stack of chairs next to him. He looked toward the source of the noise, face changing from careful concentration into a bright grin as he saw me.

        “You’re late,” he said cheerily. “Again.”

        “I am,” I responded, not really sure what else to say. “My only excuse is that I’ve been exhausted lately, been staying up too late.”

        He waved away my concern, gesturing back toward his stack. “I’m good at finding ways to amuse myself while you pace outside the door. Now, how about we practice returning to your stance immediately and instinctually?”

        I groaned internally, getting my limbs in approximately the right configuration. The very instant my feet were in place he kicked out with eerie efficiency and precision, almost gentle, knocking me back off balance immediately. It was like fighting a chess computer, his power guiding him unerringly toward structural weaknesses with near-perfect accuracy. There was no possible way for me to match his skill in close combat.

        I set my jaw, getting back into place.

Chapter Text

        I armored myself in femininity. There was a reason I’d shaved my legs before being driven to the Needle despite not normally bothering. Whenever I felt anxious -which was admittedly most of the time- one of my biggest worries was always whether I was passing or not. Even in the most unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations I could at least touch my chin and breathe a sigh of relief that there weren’t any stray hairs poking up. Thing was, I’d been busy these last few days.

        On top of the stubble I’d accumulated on my face and legs, I was wearing an uncomfortably tight-fitting set of athletic clothes. Not even I was stubborn enough to insist on sparring in a dress. - Yet. - The clothes fit just fine, it’s just that I was used to wearing things meant to hide how I was shaped or emphasize the few parts of my body I liked. I felt exposed, lopsided, distorted, like some horrible gremlin creature meant for hiding under bridges. Bolster’s presence was profoundly not helping; a scary bearded man that could shatter my skull like fine pottery with a single superhumanly precise punch.

        I stood up from the last set of stretches he and the other coaches worked out for me, trying to contain my nervousness. It wasn’t fair and I knew it wasn’t fair, Bolster hadn’t done anything to hurt or even offend me. It was just… hard to relax around him.

        “Finished?” He asked, looking my way. Did he think I’d taken too long? Was he upset?

        -”You’re like a fucking child.”-

        “Uh yeah, I think so.” I hated the uncertain quaver in my voice, hated that I couldn’t bring myself to meet his eyes. I cleared my throat, forcing myself to stand up straighter. “I’m ready. What did you want to cover next?”

        He smiled, but it looked fake. Strained. “I was thinking we’d try some basic holds.”

        I swallowed, my throat suddenly feeling dry. “Alright.” I responded stiffly, cringing internally at the awkwardness of the situation. “I know we’re probably not far along enough, but I was wondering if you could teach me some momentum redirection techniques? Like you know, someone charges at you and you judo throw them even if they’re bigger. I wanna know how to do that.”

        He blinked. “Do you mean throws? They’re easier than they look, once you know the trick to it. You’re good with angles and stuff right?”

        I nodded.

        “That’ll help a lot. What’s gonna take time is building up your muscle memory so that you do the right motion at the right time automatically, without even a moment’s thought.”

        “That’d be nice,” I muttered. I’d never been very physically coordinated, not really taking to any of the little league sports my mom signed me up for and never really having the will or motivation to do more than the bare minimum of athletic activity since then. The best I could say for myself in that regard was that I walked a lot, a consequence of my pacing habit and having to rely on Olympia’s painfully inadequate public transportation to get around. At times my body felt more like an overgrown meat-muppet I was clumsily piloting than any sort of extension of myself.

        Maybe I could change that? I stood up straighter, deliberately focusing on the practicalities of the situation. Lives, mine and others, were going to rely on my athleticism and endurance. Until I was at least as skilled and physically fit as the average cape I’d be at a constant disadvantage, a half-step behind my peers and rivals in every fight or crisis. I wanted to feel comfortable in my body so very badly, to make up for years wasted in despair, dissociation and daydreaming. I’d do everything I could with training, effort, and conventional medicine.

        After that? I thought back to the Bastards I’d fought last week, the huge variety of mutations and body types they’d sported. With the right powers in play I could get exactly the body I wanted, no compromises or years-long waiting lists. A long-term goal maybe, but it was hard to think of a better motivation to push myself.

        “Sepulcher? You still with me?” Bolster asked, derailing my train of thought.

        I blushed furiously. “Uh yeah, just zoned out. What was that last thing you said?”

        He sighed, almost too quiet for me to hear. “I was asking if you wanted a demonstration. You rush towards me, I flip you. I’ll explain how I did it and then we’ll switch places and run through it a few more times. Make sense?”

        I nodded. “You can flip me, my power protects me from fall damage anyway.”

        “Well ideally you’d go into a roll to disperse the force of being flipped, but we can work on that later. I’ll stand at the center of the mat, then on my signal you rush towards me and try to push me over.”

        I gave him a thumbs up, taking an aggressive stance where he indicated. It was remarkable how he managed to look competent and dangerous even when just standing still and waiting for me to come at him. I was a little jealous, I wasn’t very good at being intimidating.

        Alright, enough dillydallying. I ran towards him, arms out in the vain hope of pushing him over. The flip happened fast enough that I had to reconstruct it in retrospect; he somehow hooked my leg with his, grabbed one of my arms and leveraged his entire body to send me flying. I did my best to roll with it, reshaping the floor of the gym to soften the impact and slip out of reach. Except I miscalculated or misstepped somewhere, stumbling and tripping instead of falling into a stable stance.

        I fell backwards, landing with an audible ‘oof’. The fluorescent lighting hanging above us was blurry, appearing more like pools of liquid light than rectangular panels. A moment later I sat upright, still a little dazed from the fall, belatedly realizing that my mask had been knocked off in the process of being thrown. The padding and laminated wood around me moved in a gentle wave, pushing my armor back into reach. I hurriedly put it back on, making doubly sure it was strapped securely this time, hoping that none of the PRT guys training elsewhere in the gym had seen my unshaven face.

        I looked up just in time to see Ray looming over me, hand outstretched. I yelped, smoothly shifting into an upright combat stance with my power before I’d even registered what was happening. I was holding a mancatcher I didn’t remember making, my hands gripping the worn wood of the polearm like a pair of iron manacles cinched too tightly. Bolster stumbled back, eyes wide behind his dark visor. We stood there staring at each other for long seconds, the rest of the gym eerily silent compared to the earlier clamor.

        I was the first to break eye contact, mortification welling up until it felt like I’d choke on it. Everyone was staring at me, and why wouldn’t they? I’d just freaked out over nothing and perforated the training mat with spikes. They needed to get cleared up, I knew that, but I found myself unable to move, paralyzed with indecision and anxiety. I squeezed my eyes shut, measuring my breathing as I relaxed shaking hands and slowly lowered my arms to my sides. Another breath and the spikes were pulled down into the floor of the gym, the padding repaired as best as I was able. The mancatcher stayed loosely held in my right hand, a constant reminder of where I was. -And more importantly, where I wasn’t.- 

        My eyes snapped open, taking in the gym with a quick glance. There weren’t as many people looking at me, thank God, but Bolster still seemed confused and upset. What should I say? Should I say anything? Fuck.

        “I’m sorry,” I half-mumbled, not sure how to articulate that it wasn’t his fault I was so jumpy. “My power- it flares up sometimes. When I’m...”

        “Scared?” He asked in a surprisingly gentle voice, just barely loud enough to hear.

        I looked away. “Yeah.” Or angry, I added mentally.

        “I think I’ll demonstrate on someone else next time,” Bolster suggested, sounding less confident than usual.

        I sighed. “That’d probably be for the best.”

        -||-

        I trudged back toward my room, trying and failing not to focus on my embarrassment and outright anxiety. There was a locker room with a shower and stuff but, well, I really didn’t feel that comfortable yet. Besides, my room actually had a bathroom with a showerbath. It was outright luxury compared to my last set of accomodations, I figured it’d be a shame not to make use of it. Afterwards I‘d finally have the time to make the finishing touches on my armor, hopefully fast enough for my first official patrol.

        My power picked up the sound of voices coming from the kitchen before my ears did, though I had trouble making out exact words unless they were loud or close enough for me to hear anyway. I tried to ignore it, I didn’t have any right to overhear conversations not meant for me. -Not that it stopped me from worrying what they were saying about me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.-

        The direct route to my room passed through the dining area, guaranteeing that I’d pass by whoever was talking, possibly more. Being around people -particularly men- was so exhausting, I couldn’t stop myself from searching every face for signs of anger, every movement for signs of incoming violence. I didn’t know what I’d do if Bolster was in there getting a snack or something, and that thought was enough to make me consider taking the long way around. On the other hand, Presto could be there.

        The door to the dining room opened automatically as I approached, making a cute little ‘ding’ sound to indicate I was authorized. It turned out Presto was there, but so was Music Box and their teammate Djinn. The latter two were in the kitchen, presumably making small talk while they were cooking a meal I didn’t recognize. Smelled good though.

        Presto sat in the booth much like Gasconade did, typing something up on a holographic keyboard with a mug of coffee next to her. She and caffeine were constant companions, it seemed.

        “Hey,” I said, trying not to sound as exhausted and anxious as I felt.

        Liang looked up, a genuine smile lighting up her face when she saw me. I tried to respond in kind, belatedly realizing I already had a slightly dazed looking grin plastered on my face. And then a moment later I realized it didn’t matter either way, since I was wearing a mask. “You sound tired,” She said, somewhat hypocritically. “Why don’t you stay for lunch? Music Box is helping Djinn make a pot of his famous Maqluba, and there’s always plenty left over.”

        “I’d love to, but I just got back from combat practice and I’m all clammy and gross. I was heading back to my room to take a shower. Maybe I can come back after? There’s still some time before my first official patrol with Gasconade.”

        “I’d like that,” Presto said, and then she smirked. “And you can sit next to me, if you want. I remember you had some questions about my tech.”

        I swallowed, abruptly clearing my throat. “Uh yes, I did. And I… I really like hanging out with you. You’re nice, and funny, and when you’re around all this terrifying power shit feels a little less overwhelming. I guess what I’m saying is thank you.”

        “You don’t need to thank me, I like hanging out with you too,” Presto said after a moment, sounding strangely uncertain. “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, even with all the shit you’ve been through. That’s worth a lot.”

        Not knowing how to respond I smiled awkwardly and nodded, turning somewhat abruptly and starting back toward my room. I gave the cooks a wave as I exited.

        My room was just down the hall, along with the other guest rooms. Most were unoccupied, but I’d heard it wasn’t uncommon for heroes to sleep here after a late shift rather than going home. The short walk was still long enough for doubts to start creeping in, whether I’d misstepped and made Liang uncomfortable or bothered her. They stayed with me as I took a perfunctory shower, followed up with a painstakingly thorough face shave and a hasty combing to get my hair in order.

        All-in-all it was about half an hour before I returned to the Protectorate’s kitchen/dining area, hair still damp. I’d switched out my workout clothes for one of my new dresses, closely fitted on the bust and rib cage but flaring out along the waist. It was purple and knee length, perfect for spinning in. Liang helped me pick it out, and I had to admit part of my motivation for wearing it was the way she’d looked at me after I stepped out of the changing room.

        The three of them were sitting at the same booth Presto was working in earlier, a big platter of fried rice and vegetables taking up the center of the table. It smelled delicious, garlic and onion and unfamiliar spices layered over each other. Liang looked up as I entered, eyes lingering on my new dress for a moment before she cracked a smile and waved me over. I waved back and approached, blinking in surprise when she extracted herself from the booth to greet me.

        “Love the look,” she said with surprising sincerity. “Damn shame you can’t wear that dress on patrol.”

        I smiled, blushing under my mask. “I’m hoping my armor isn’t too much of a downgrade; I’ve been putting a lot of effort into styling and shaping it.”

        “You’ll look great, I’d bet money on it.” She gestured to the booth behind her. “Wanna take a seat? We were just about to start eating.” 

        “How chivalrous,” I observed, scooting in front of an empty plate. Liang sat down next to me, and I was quietly grateful I’d gotten a seat on the inside of the booth rather than the edge.

        “I am very glad you could join us Sepulcher,” said Djinn, holding out a hand to shake over the table. I took it, a little bemused. “I had hoped to speak with you earlier, but this week’s schedule conspired against me.”

        “It’s okay,” I said, finding myself reminded of Snap for some reason. “I’ve been pretty busy this week, I’m not sure if I’d have been a very good conversationalist for most of it.” I paused, pointing at the platter of food between us. “Is that vegetarian?”

        Djinn nodded enthusiastically. “It’s what’s called vegan here, I think. No meat, no eggs. My mother taught me the recipe before we left Palestine.”

        “Cool. Can I have some?”

        He laughed. “Of course, why else would I have put a plate out for you?”

        “Fair point,” I conceded.

        “You planning on eating with your mask on?” Presto asked, audibly smirking.

        I rolled my eyes at her, exaggerating the head motion to make it obvious despite my mask. I undid the straps at the back, careful to avoid tangling them in my hair as I took it off. The room immediately went blurry without the benefit of corrective lenses, but that didn’t last long before I returned my glasses to their customary perch. “Hey, I’m Carmilla. Nice to meet you again.”

        Djinn grinned, taking off his goggles and headwrap. He was dark skinned, his hair black, curly and long enough to touch the nape of his neck. “My name is Amir. I suspect we’ll be working together quite a bit in the coming months.”

        The last was said with a knowing look at Liang, and in case that was too subtle he playfully elbowed Music Box-or Edgar now, I supposed- in the side. I blushed, and this time there wasn’t a convenient mask to hide it. Failing to come up with a suitable retort, I instead covered my embarrassment by shoveling some of the delicious-smelling rice-and-whatever-else onto my plate. 

        Liang removed her own mask to give Amir a thoroughly unimpressed look, flashing him a mirthless smirk that gave nothing away. “More talk like that and Carmilla might be the one doing your job. You wanna end up like Overpass?”

        “We both know you’re bluffing, Liang,” Edgar piped in, oddly normal looking when he wasn’t a weird spider blade robot thing. “You can’t even make a sandwich without setting something on fire.”

        “Oh for fucks sake!” She snapped out, sounding more exasperated than angry. “You gotta bring the grilled cheese thing up again? That was years ago. And besides, it only happened once. Not like I go around burning sandwiches everywhere I go.”

        “You burned a lot more than a sandwich,” Amir added, further stoking my curiosity. “As I recall they had to cancel the next two tours to the wards headquarters while they replaced the cabinets and wallpaper. And the couch.”

        “How the hell did you end up burning the couch when making a grilled cheese sandwich?” I asked, hesitant. 

        Liang groaned aloud, burying her face in her hands. “You’re damn savages, all of you. I’ll talk, but don’t think you boys are getting away with ratting me out to the new girl.”

        I felt a small thrill, knowing she cared about my opinion of her. Hearing her call me a girl was just icing on the cake.

        “It happened four years ago,” Liang said, sounding like a woman forced to read her own execution writ. “The three of us were all Wards back then, Bullrush too; we’d just moved into our new headquarters in the new new needle. I had this plan, you see? I got out ahead of everyone and started putting together a surprise lunch thing, nothing too fancy. Just some grilled cheese sandwiches.”

        “Well,” Amir said after a moment’s pause. “You certainly surprised us.”

        Edgar snorted, loud enough to make me twitch a little in reaction. “I’m still surprised a time traveller didn’t appear to warn you of the terrible consequences.” He paused. “Not that it would have stopped you, mind.”

        “Gasconade was out of town,” Liang deadpanned. “We were under the not-so-watchful eye of Snubnose that day.”

        The kitchen door beeped, smoothly sliding open to admit none other than Gasconade himself. I hadn’t heard him approaching the door with ears or tremorsense. Not even Liang walked that quietly most of the time.

        “Speak of the devil,” I quipped, almost immediately regretting my phrasing. “We were just talking about you, Jaager.”

        “Well I’d say my ears were burning, but I don’t think I really have ears anymore.” His phrasing and dry tone startled a laugh out of me. “Your first official patrol is in twenty minutes, Sepulcher; I’d suggest you start getting ready.”

        I swallowed, suddenly nervous in a way I wasn’t even when sneaking around a warehouse full of atavistic mobsters. I’d only barely started on my food, so I made a little wooden container for the leftovers with my power and replaced my mask and jacket. “I’ve gotta head out,” I said, surprised at the genuine regret in my voice. “But it was really nice talking to you guys, even if it was only for a bit. Let me know if you’ve got time later, okay?”

        “Still curious about all the mischief Liang got up to in the Wards?” Edgar asked, sharing an amused look with Amir. “But don’t let us keep you, I’m sure you’re very eager to answer the same four or five questions for four hours.”

        Liang moved out of the way, offering a hand to help lift me out of the booth that I accepted in a properly ladylike manner. That is to say, blushing furiously under my mask.

        “Where are you headed?” She asked, surprisingly mellow and low-key compared to how she acted as Presto. The contrast was stark enough to make me wonder which persona hewed closer to her true self. Of course it could just as easily be that they were both her true self, or neither were, or the idea of a singular immutable self was complete nonsense in the face of minds as dynamic and multifaceted as ours were. “Carmin?”

        “What? Sorry, I got distracted. I was gonna go put the finishing touches on my armor before my patrol.”

        She smiled. “Mind if I tag along? Maybe my tinker brain’ll come up with some improvements.”

        “Not at all, I’d actually been hoping to get your feedback on it.”

        Liang smiled lazily, gesturing toward the doorway. “Then lay on, Macduff.”

        I paused just before I’d activate the sensor that automatically opened the door, four feet and three inches away. My head turned toward Liang with deliberate slowness. She looked back, quirking an eyebrow at me while she struggled to keep a straight face. Or a serious expression, rather, given that neither of us had ever been very good at keeping straight.

        “You were a theatre kid, weren’t you?” I asked, striving to keep my voice deadly serious.

        Liang smirked. “As a matter of fact, I was.”

        “That’s awesome! What plays were you in? Did you do any musicals?”

        “I’m not really the type to sing in front of other people,” she admitted. “I did have a lead role in a lesbian version of Romeo and Juliet, though.”

        “Wow, that’s way cooler than anything my school would have been willing to do. Is there a story behind that?”

        “It wasn’t gonna be a lesbian production orginally, but I auditioned for the part of Romeo and stuff kinda proceeded from there. Aside from switching pronouns and calling the play Romana and Juliet it was pretty much the same as usual. The real trouble was getting them to let me audition for the part in the first place.”

        I gave her a searching look behind my mask. “And how did you pull that off?”

        “A true magician never reveals her secrets,” she replied airily. “But I didn’t blackmail anyone, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

        “That’s an oddly specific denial,” I said in a dry tone, putting my hand on a scanner to open the door to my workshop. It wasn’t like the movies, with a slow line moving up and down the palm; instead the moment after I pressed my hand to the pad it beeped, and the door slid open. I could have just walked through the door, of course, but this was less liable to set off alarms and/or get both of us doused with containment foam. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

        I walked through the doorway, holding up a hand when Liang made to follow. She stopped, giving the offending appendage a distinctly unimpressed look. “I wanted to get ready first,” I explained. “Don’t want you to take any peaks before curtain call.”

        “Your wish is my command,” she said, giving me a lazy smile while she sat down in one of the chairs across from my workshop. The door closed behind me as I fully entered the room, my steps quick so as not to keep Liang waiting too long.

        My armor was holding vigil to my right, just outside of view from the doorway. I'd worked hard to make sure it had a feminine silhouette without compromising its protective ability, giving it an hourglass shape in the bust and hips and a nearly knee-length skirt of plates. It was gold-colored except for the edges of each plate, which were purple and etched with geometric feather patterns. Each of the larger plates was connected to the next with progressively smaller ones, fine enough to cover each joint of each finger without a single gap that needed to be shored up with chainmail or leather. Another benefit was that the armor could hold up its own weight, with no need for a stand to keep it in place. 

        The only major blemish was the big hole in the front of my armor’s helmet where my mask was supposed to go; aside from that, all that was left to do was finishing up the edges on a few of the chest plates and adding moisture and temperature regulating systems. Finishing up the last few edges only took a few minutes with the prep and design work done and my power to assist, but there wasn’t nearly enough time for everything else. Thankfully I’d come up with an ad-hoc solution to my moisture and temperature problems; I just repeatedly opened and closed all the plates, fanning myself. It made me look a bit like a bird ruffling its feathers, but it was better than getting a heat stroke or smelling like old socks the whole day.

        I undid the straps holding my mask to my face, pulling out the improvised ribbon-based construction to keep it from getting in the way and tossed it on a cluttered work table without fanfare. The floor rose up around my armor and popped open the back, utilizing a mechanism I’d hidden under the core backplate. I hiked up the skirt of my dress and stepped into the armor, my power sealing it shut behind me. With a gauntleted hand, I picked my mask back up and put it into place on my helmet with an audible click .

        -||-

        I blinked my eyes open, readjusting to viewing everything through the darkened lens of my mask. There was a mirror on the wall to the right of the door; I had to make sure I hadn’t missed anything important before I showed it to Liang. Stepping in front of it, I found my eyes were drawn to the long black hair attached to my helmet. It was a high quality synthetic wig, practically indistinguishable from just having natural hair poking out. PR had suggested adding it as a way to make me seem more "relatable" or whatever, but I had to admit it really rounded out the whole "femme knight" thing I had going on.

        People had been calling me Sepulcher all over the place, but this was the first time in over a week I’d actually felt like her. Me. 

        Alright, enough dillydallying. I opened the door, making sure to keep my hand on the pad for a few seconds so that it would stay open, and then struck a heroic pose. Hands on hips, long black braid flipped over my shoulder, feet shoulder-width apart.

        Liang practically leaped out of her chair when she saw me, breaking out into the biggest, goofiest grin I’d ever seen on her. She seemed lost for words for several long moments, apparently overwhelmed with admiration for my craftswomanship. “You look amazing! God I love the owl thing, it’s so adorable.” She paused, giving me a searching look. “Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of knight wizard ? Where’s your cloak?”

        “Oh, right,” I said, running back into my workshop to grab it off of a coat rack I’d made with my power. I threw it on over my head, pulling my braid out through the neck hole. “I’ve got it right here.”

        Liang nodded appreciatively. “Very nice, very nice. Got a logo on your chest and everything. I like the geometric designs around it, very mysterious. They supposed to be wing-shaped?”

        “Yeah,” I said, glancing at the clock nervously. There were still a few minutes left. “Didn’t want to lay it on too thick, though.”

        She made a thoughtful sound. “Looks fine to me. Can I see your hair?”

        “Sure,” I said, pulling my braid back over my shoulder. Liang reached forward, her fingers stopping just short of the thick black hair and staying there for a long moment. “Uh, Liang?” I asked.

        She shook herself like she’d just woken up from a nap, taking a deliberate step back. “Oh, what? I’m fine. You should probably get going on your patrol thing, don’t wanna keep Jaager waiting too long. I’ll catch up with you later, okay? See ya.”

        I blinked, struggling to keep up with the deluge of words. “Oh okay, bye,” I said, but by the time I’d managed a response she was already gone. What the hell had that been about?

        With nothing else to do, I started making my way towards the Protectorate headquarter’s lobby area where Gasconade was waiting to accompany me on my first official patrol. 

Chapter Text

        “Killer!” sounded a voice thirty three feet and eight inches to my left, with a tone that could have been accusatory.

        The word cut through my train of thought, leaving me floundering mentally and nearly making me trip over my own feet in front of Seattle’s esteemed public. Well, not all of them, but Gasconade and I were making our way through one of the really crowded plazas in downtown Seattle. Being capes in full costume, with one of us looking like a Picasso painting that had a bad run in with a glitch artist, we naturally attracted a lot of attention. I’d been focusing on the beautiful newly constructed skyscrapers around downtown Seattle as a way to distract myself from the churning crowds surrounding us, but I found my gaze pulled inexorably toward the source of that damning voice.

        It was a man in his mid-to-late twenties, six and a half inches taller than me. He was looking at me with a big smile on his face -I suppressed a shudder.-, excitedly waving for my attention. I swallowed, closing the distance just enough to talk comfortably, “Wha- what was that?” my voice came out quieter than I’d intended, less confident, but I was honestly proud that I’d managed to speak at all.

        He laughed. “I said, ‘Your costume is killer!’. That cloak is dope as fuck.”

        Relief washed over me like a bucket of cold water, stark enough that I laughed out loud. “Thank you! Or rather, thank the tailors that worked so hard to finish the embroidery in time for my first patrol.” My first official patrol, rather, I thought. But eh, toh-may-to toh-mah-to.

        “Did they design it, then?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.

        I stood up straighter, placing my hands on my hips heroically. “It was a team effort. I did the initial designs and got feedback on them, and then made adjustments in response to their suggestions. The embroidery was done by the very talented people working in the Space Needle’s branding and costuming department, but the armor was made by yours truly.”

        I demonstrated by lifting both arms in front of me and wiggling my fingers, showing off the fine mechanisms at each joint. After how important stealth had been to my success at the warehouse I’d gone through considerable effort to make certain the action of my armor was almost completely silent; the result of well oiled joints and carefully placed padding wherever plates intersected.

        He whistled appreciatively, in what I dearly hoped was enthusiasm for the quality of my armor. “Very impressive. What’s your superhero name?”

        “I am Sepulcher, heroine extraordinaire,” I announced theatrically, smiling under my mask.

        “Sepulcher, huh?” he said, rubbing his chin in thought. “What kinda power goes with a name like that?”

        I smirked. “Let’s just say the walls have my back,” I replied airily, leaning back on a short stone fence that hadn’t been there a second ago.

        “Woah!” he all but yelped, taking a step back and leaning forward for a closer look at the same time. “That’s amazing, you can just make walls out of thin air?”

        “Well, only from solid surfaces actually,” I corrected instinctively. Almost immediately after the thought occurred to me that it would be useful for people to misunderstand exactly how my powers worked. Oh well, I guessed I’d just have to keep it in mind for the future. “But essentially yes. Anywho, I’m afraid I must be off; Gasconade and I have a city to protect and whatnot.”

        “Oh, no problem,” he said, sounding like he genuinely meant it. “Thanks for taking the time to talk.”

        I nodded. “It was no trouble, I promise. Have a good rest of your day!”

        I waved him off, joining back up with Gasconade. He’d been hovering just inside of hearing range, apparently content to let me handle the conversation while he kept watch and took pictures with people. His expression was unreadable, of course. He didn’t really have a face, just a collection of features scrapbooked together seemingly at random. A nose that looked drawn on in pencil here, an eye there, part of a mouth somewhere else, covering his oddly proportioned body like a broken texture.

        “You handled that well,” he said once there wasn’t anyone in earshot. “I know how much you hate crowds.”

        “It’s easier when I think of them as an audience,” I said, just loud enough for him to hear. “Performing in front of a crowd doesn’t drain me in the way that being part of one does. Maybe it’s because I can perceive them as a single abstract entity instead of trying to track every individual.”

        He ‘hmmed’, keeping up his fast walking pace as he thought. Gasconade had a way of looking like he was on his way to an important meeting everywhere he went, which had the useful side effect of repelling all but the most determined picture seekers. “You sound so much more confident now, you’ve even been walking more self-assuredly.”

        “Thank you,” I chirped cheerily. “I guess it’s a lot easier to feel impressive and heroic when I look impressive and heroic. And no one’s misgendered me today, which I consider its own sort of victory.”

        Gasconade chuckled. “Well I’m glad you’re having fun, at least.”

        “I guess this isn’t your favorite part of the job,” I noted, not quite a question.

        “I can’t say it is, no,” he said quietly. Then he sighed, gazing at the crowd around us. “It just… it feels like I’m an animal in a petting zoo sometimes. Everyone wants to touch me, everyone wants a picture, and no one seems very interested in what I have to say.”

        “I think I get that, a little. A lot of people treat trans folks like we’re circus freaks or something, figures of ridicule and pity rather than full members of society. It sucks.” I paused. “Do you want a hug?” I asked, not sure how else to offer support.

        “I kind of do, actually,” he said, surprising me. “But now probably isn’t the best time. We don’t want people getting the wrong idea.”

        I nodded, making a mental note to give him a really good hug when we got back to the Needle. “So where were we supposed to go next? Please tell me it’s somewhere with less people.”

        He chuckled. “So not completely immune to crowds now, are we? We’re gonna be skirting the edge of Westlake territory, I wouldn’t expect quite as warm a welcome as you got in the touristy areas.”

        “Good to know,” I said, considering the implications of that. “Do you think we’ll be attacked?”

        “Probably not. We might run into some petty crimes, though.”

        I nodded. “Is it weird that that’s almost a relief?”

        We’d left the crowded plaza behind a few minutes ago, taking crosswalks and occasionally answering questions or signing autographs for passersby. It seemed strange that anyone would be interested in my autograph before I’d actually done anything of note, but I supposed they were just planning for the future. Or they thought my armor looked cool? I’d take it either way. We passed by a beautiful looking library building with glass panes for walls, arranged like polygons on an early 3d model. I made another mental note to go inside there at the first available opportunity and memorize every inch of it with my tremorsense.

        It was going to take a while before I filled out my mental map of Seattle in full detail, potentially months or years of work even with my power. Thankfully these regular patrols were a goldmine for new locations and architecture. Even after hours of walking around downtown Seattle I still found myself constantly craning my neck up at the absurdly tall buildings surrounding us. Their sheer mass and scale and number left me awestruck, my thinker power letting me know precisely how much larger the city was relative to me. Parts of the city I’d glimpsed in the distance during my little foray to the top of the Needle were still represented in my internal map of Seattle, but most of it was hidden behind buildings and so far away that even the parts I could see were vague blurs at best.

        It was still enough to make me uncomfortably aware of just how small I was in the grand scheme of things, even when just considering Seattle and its surrounding locales. On impulse, I tried visualizing the entire earth relative to me. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t actually fill it out with more than outlines, since I was just trying to visualize exactly how large a not-quite-sphere with a circumference of 24,901 miles around the equator was relative to me. Shockingly, it turned out to be really fucking big. The image my mind kept circling back to was a single mote of dust compared to an entire mountain, the intellectual knowledge that the vast mountain was made up of innumerable tiny particles comparable to the dust mote becoming concrete fact as certain as the concrete I walked on. It was akin to walking through the shallow waters next to a beach and finding the soft sand under your feet drop off abruptly into a seemingly endless black abyss.

        “Oh yeah?” A man snarled nearby, making my heart skip a beat and startling me out of my thoughts. “If you care about the city so much why haven’t you liberal ‘heroes’ locked up that damned hippy Lenin statue haunting Fremont in the birdcage where it belongs?”

        I blinked. “I’m sorry, the… Lenin statue? Why would we lock up a statue?”

        Gasconade sighed audibly. “A couple years back the quote unquote League of Insidious Villainry rigged up the hollow bronze statue of Lenin in Fremont with a robotic frame, and then subsequently programmed it to rampage through the Westlake Center while shouting communist slogans in a bad russian accent. Thanks to the efforts of Presto and the other wards we were able to remove the tinker device before anyone was seriously hurt. Afterwards we repaired the statue as best we could and returned it to its former post, though not before being thoroughly examined for further tampering.”

        The slightly grubby bearded man confronting Gasconade snorted, folding his arms. “You expect me to believe that horseshit? Everyone knows the PRT’s been in cahoots with the commies since day one.”

        “I’m still confused about why there’s a statue of Lenin in… Fremont, you said?” I added, ignoring the conspiracy theorist.

        “It’s a long story,” Gasconade said. “But suffice it to say it’s on private property, so the Protectorate and PRT can’t do anything about it being there.” 

        I turned to face the ‘concerned citizen’. “I’m sorry, sir,” I lied, affecting a grave tone. “But our hands are tied, there’s nothing we can do.”

        “Oh I see, you capes flaunt the law all you like and smile for the cameras; a guy like me points out a weapon in the middle of the street and suddenly the law says it’s supposed to be there?” he harrumphed, pushing past us and continuing along the busy sidewalk lined with trees.

        He’d presumably reappear there half a minute later, given that he’d shoulder-checked Gasconade. We didn’t bother staying to find out, picking up our walking pace in unspoken agreement as we continued up the street. Wandering around a couple hours in downtown Seattle had lead to a delightful discovery; walking up hills was almost effortless for me now, since I could use the ground under me like an escalator to lift my feet up with each step. I’d even figured out a gait that barely relied on muscle movement at all while still looking natural. It helped that my armor could stand on its own and had enough cushioning inside for me to lock the joints and rest my weight on it like a really weird chair.

        Even with the occasional weirdo and the constant, nerve-wracking presence of crowds I still found myself enjoying my time patrolling the city. Gasconade’s presence was a big help, he knew Seattle in a way I wasn’t sure I could ever match and had a sense for when and how to step in and defuse a situation. Whether it was a brewing fistfight or an interaction with a civilian taking a bad turn, he knew what to say to get everyone to calm down and go their separate ways peacefully. I admired how patient and on task he was even after hours of being gawked at and asked profoundly stupid and/or intrusive questions about his life and power.

        I turned toward him, a question about his plans for after this shift on the tip of my tongue. Before I could voice it the commlink in my ear buzzed with a harsh staticy sound, startling me enough to make me jump a little.

        “We’ve got a reported sighting of a known Westlake enforcer a few blocks from you,” said the PRT officer on the other end. “He was on 6th Avenue and Prospect Street, headed North. He’s a giant half-lion guy, you can’t miss him.”

        “Did you hear that?” I asked Gasconade, trying to contain my nervousness.

        He nodded. “Go get him, I’ll finish up here.”

        “See you back at the Needle,” I said, giving my partner a quick salute before leaping onto the side of the nearest skyscraper, cloak fluttering in the wind. I’d never been to the area the comms guy had mentioned, but thankfully I’d taken the time to encode the names of most of Seattle’s major streets into my mental map. 

        To my dismay, it turned out I couldn’t use my power to interpret text; it memorized the shapes of letters just fine if they were engraved or scratched into a surface, but in order to understand what they spelled out I needed to physically recreate the object and then read them normally. That wasn’t practical in a situation like this, so I’d been forced to come up with another way to reliably store speech with my power. Numbers were translated into simple blocks with the appropriate amount of grooves in them, the oft accompanying ‘th’ sound represented by a twisted shape resembling a snake’s tongue stabbing upward. Each phoneme in the english language had its own distinct shape, forming a sort of cipher for translating specific words and ideas into something my power could understand and remember. My mental map of Seattle had sequences of these shapes lining every street I knew the name of, abstract sculptures being used as a glorified labeling system.

        With this technique translating the sounds of a street name into a specific location I could route to was a cinch. It wasn’t too far away, all things considered; before more than a couple minutes had passed I was already honing in on the Bastard’s last known location. Skyscrapers and shopping centers transitioned abruptly into patchwork suburbs punctuated by the occasional low-rise apartment or strip mall, forcing me to adapt my movement style. I focused on long jumps with low arcs, getting as much horizontal distance as possible to pass between more distant buildings. My thinker power was indispensable for planning out movements in unfamiliar terrain, it was probably the only thing keeping me from accidentally launching myself through someone’s kitchen. Again.

        Unsurprisingly there was no lion man to be found at the intersection we’d been given over comms, which meant I’d need to track him down. The report said he’d been heading north, so I continued up the street with renewed fervor, keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of mob-affiliated lion men. I was in Westlake territory now, which meant every second I stayed here increased the odds that one of the Bastards would try and pick a fight with me. As confident as I felt in my new armor, I wasn’t willing to risk engaging in fisticuffs with some of the deadliest capes in the city.

        It turned out that Menagerie was a rather prolific cape. I’d heard that he didn’t keep his power exclusive to the Westlake Bastards themselves, but I hadn’t expected minor animal traits to be as common here as tattoos or piercings were in most places. Individuals or small groups bearing more extreme mutations appeared on occasion, the crowd usually parting around them to leave a small bubble of walking space. It wasn’t clear whether it was out of fear, reverence, or both. After several minutes of frantic searching I was nearly ready to call it quits, my eyes sweeping across a busy street one last time. A group of feline… mutates (would it be mutates? I wasn’t sure what term they preferred) caught my eye, one of them seeming strangely familiar even this far away.

        He shouldered past a pedestrian that had failed to move out of the way fast enough, knocking her onto the street. The memory clicked into place, and just like that I knew the Bastard enforcer I’d been hunting was the same lion guy that punched me in the boob last week. Before I quite realized what was happening, I launched myself from the building I’d been perched on with a trajectory that would land me right between Mufasa and the woman he’d just pushed over. My landing was a classic three-pointer, though somewhat rougher than I might have hoped. It was forceful enough to create a visible ripple in the ground that disturbed footing and upturned old newspapers on the other side of the street.

        “Mufasa! Fancy meeting you here,” I quipped. “How’ve you been? Didn’t spend too long trapped in the sewers, I hope.”

        He growled and took a swipe at me the second he regained his composure, but this time I was ready. A clawed hand collided with the stone wall I’d raised to block it, sinking into it like clay as I manipulated its material properties with my power. He remained in the suddenly resolidified stone when I stepped away, shifting the ground under his feet to entangle him and draw him further under.

        “What are you doing to him?” asked a scandalized voice behind me, drawing my attention away from the struggling lion man. It was the woman he’d knocked over, her face subtly elongated with two stubby horns poking out of her forehead. The legs peeking out past the hem of her skirt were digitigrade and covered with soft fur, ending in cloven hooves like a deer’s rather than feet. I offered her a hand up, making an effort not to stare. It was probably nearly impossible to tell where I was looking with my mask on, but that was no reason to develop bad habits. 

        She gave me such a sour look I could swear she’d have sooner spat on my hand than taken it, but after a few tense moments she begrudgingly accepted my assistance. Gasconade really hadn’t been kidding when he said we wouldn’t have a warm reception here. The second she was on her uh… hooves again she wrenched her hand back toward her like it had been burned by the brief contact with me.

        “Well?” she demanded. “You Flats are always barging in, patting down anyone with a blessing, taking fathers from sons and mothers from daughters. Now this? You demean him, constrain him, joke about trapping him in the sewers. Is this your idea of being a hero?”

        “Didn’t he just knock you down?” I asked, uncertainty leaking into my voice and bearing.

        “I mean, yes. But it wasn’t...” She sputtered for a moment, and in that pause we seemed to simultaneously realize just how many people were looking at us. A loose ring had formed around the restrained Bastard, locals staring us down with at least a half-dozen different kinds of eyes all bearing the same resentful expressions. The deer girl regained her composure, squaring her slender shoulders as she faced me. “That’s not the point. He’s one of us, that means we stick up for each other. I bet you think you’re so original with that ‘Mufasa’ bit, you have any idea how many people just decide they can call me Bambi? It really pisses me off. Bambi was a boy!”

        I raised my hands in surrender, taken aback by her vehemence. “Alright, I admit that Mufasa comment earlier was over the line. I know it’s not much of an excuse, but I genuinely hadn’t considered how hurtful it would be. I’m sorry.”

        She went silent for a few moments, eyeing me skeptically as if to determine whether I was sincere. “Not a lot of people do,” she groused. “But I guess it means something that you’re willing to try. Not that it’s not appreciated, but shouldn’t you be apologizing to him? Or explaining why you attacked him with the sidewalk?”

        I looked back over at the leonine mafioso to make sure there was no chance of him escaping again, briefly watching him futilely trying to pull his limbs from the architecture they were embedded in. “Yeah, I’m not gonna apologize to him. He’s an enforcer for the Westlake Bastards with a criminal record longer than your average airport novel; just last week he punched me hard enough to lay me out flat and put a dent in my breastplate shaped like his fist. I’ve still got a big bruise from it, the PRT doc said I was lucky my ribs didn’t crack.”

        She stared at me wide eyes as I spoke, not even seeming to blink until after I’d finished. “Oh,” she said. “Is that why you trapped him in the sewers?”

        “Sort of?” I responded, moving my gauntleted hand in a so-so gesture. “It’s more that I needed him out of the picture as quickly as possible. There were hostages I had to protect, and every moment I spent dealing with him could have been when the rest of his goons came bursting out to perforate us with bullets.”

        She blinked again, absentmindedly moving a lock of hair behind a distinctly pointed ear while she collected her thoughts. “Alright, that does sound pretty serious. How do you know you got the right guy? And how do I know you’re telling the truth?”

        “Same gait, same weight, same height, same style of mane,” I rattled off absentmindedly, shifting the lion man’s bonds to make him easier to transport. “And besides, I’ve got a lot of experience with guys like him. I recognized the way he liked throwing his metaphorical and literal weight around. As for your other question… I guess you don’t. I wish I could do more to help reassure you, but I can’t stay here too much longer without risking a cape fight.”

        The deer lady’s brow furrowed for a few moments as she thought it over, eventually letting out a soft sigh. “I guess that’s fair enough,” she allowed. “You’re not as bad as most of the Flats that come barging into our neighborhood. Could I at least get your cape name before you go? I’m Adeline.”

        “It’s Sepulcher,” I said, handing her one of the business cards with my logo and work number on it from the stack PR had given me. “Let me know if you ever need help, have questions about power stuff or just need a listening ear. I’ll do whatever I can.”

        Adeline nodded, looking a little thrown by the gesture.

        “Just one last thing,” I added. “What exactly is a ‘Flat’?”

        Adeline winced a little at the question, the one ear not hidden by her hair drooping a little. “A Flat is like most folks not from around here; someone that keeps their body the way they got it and thinks other people should too. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything, I just got so frustrated with all the people who won’t let us be who we are that I painted all outsiders with the same brush.”

        I took a moment to process that. “Well it’s not really… accurate, for me. Being a trans woman, I’ve spent most of my adult life desperately trying to get my body into a shape I’m comfortable with. It hasn’t been easy. If getting a ‘blessing’ from Menagerie is what makes you happy, I say go for it.”

        “Trans folks have always been welcome here,” she said, giving me the first genuine smile I’d ever seen from her. “I guess you’re not an outsider after all. Goodbye, Sepulcher. Be safe out there.”

        I nodded, giving her a quick salute before carting off the Bastard lion man somewhere more secure. As I was leaving I added a life-sized statue of Adeline to my mental map of Seattle, labelled with the shapes I used to store speech with my power. I’d made a sufficiently shaky (Shakery?) first impression that I didn’t want to risk forgetting her name on top of that.

        -||-

        A few minutes later I stood waiting on a rooftop on the edge of Protectorate-controlled territory, waiting for a van to come pick up the lion man. He hadn’t been very forthcoming while we were travelling here via the Sepulcher Underground, generally grunting or telling me to fuck off when I tried prodding him for information.

        “So,” I said, breaking the awkward silence. “How did you become part lion? Is there like a waiting list or something for Menagerie’s services?”

        He continued pouting in stubborn silence.

        “I have to admit I’d be tempted if he offered me the chance to become a bird woman. Not that I’m not one already mind you, but I’d appreciate being able to actually fly and turn my head a hundred and eighty degrees.” Not to mention getting to be slender and graceful for once, I thought wistfully, thinking back to Adeline and others I’d seen with one of Menagerie’s ‘gifts’.

        The lion man audibly grit his teeth, leaning his head back against the wall he was bolted to.

        I decided to continue talking. “On the other hand, the shedding would probably be its own special kind of hell. Just growing my hair out is bad enough, I can’t imagine dealing with having feathers always floating around my room. Would I have a beak? Would I want a beak? This is probably gonna take some serious thinking to figure out.” I took on a theatrically contemplative pose, resting my right elbow on my left hand and tapping my chin with a repeated clink. “Any thoughts? I’m all ears.”

        “Eat shit,” the lion man spat, following it up with more literal spit that fell well short of my armored feet.

        “Now is that any way to treat a lady?” Presto chided, perched on the short wall next to him. She gave his ear a light flick as if to emphasize her point and casually dropped onto the gravel rooftop, waltzing over to stand next to me like she didn’t have a care in the world.

        I surprised myself by not yelping or jumping at her unexpected appearance, instead shifting instinctively into a defensive stance with mancatcher in hand. It was a struggle not to make more, not to surround myself with layers and layers of defenses until nothing could possibly get through and no one could hurt me. Keep steady Sepulcher, I thought, don’t let your fears control you.

        I reasserted control over my power inch by careful inch, my armor helping to anchor me in the present moment. The only visible sign of my internal struggles was a distinctly sharp ripple that dissipated just before reaching Presto’s feet. She tensed, briefly freezing in place mid-stride before recovering and taking the last couple steps to stand awkwardly besides me.

        “Presto,” I said, voice pitched to keep the lion man from hearing us. If it also helped disguise some of the reproach in it that was just a bonus. “I see you’re as skilled at communication as ever. It was so courteous of you to let me know you were gonna pop in like that instead of say, suddenly appearing out of nowhere and nearly giving me a heart attack. Again.”

        She winced, raising up her hands in surrender. “I should’ve called ahead, I won’t lie about that.”

        “Yeah,” I said, voice flat and cold, “you should have. We’re going to have a discussion about this later, but for now you should probably tell me why you’re here. ”

        Presto grinned, though it was noticeably dimmer than usual. “Ah, well I was thinking I’d help you ask Eric here a few questions while we’re waiting for the PRT vans to arrive. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I get the impression you ain’t got much experience with interrogations.”

        As upset I was, I found myself returning her smile. Not that it mattered, really, with my mask. “Well you’re not wrong, I haven’t gotten anything out of him except swearing so far. Wait... his name is fucking Eric?”

        She chuckled. “What were you expecting, Lionel?”

        “I don’t know, I guess I just figured he had a cape name or something. It feels less lame to get knocked off my feet by like… Claw or whatever the fuck than some two-bit loser named Eric.” Or Ray, I added mentally. “And besides, doesn’t he have powers? They’re not quite as dramatic as ours, but he’s still definitely stronger than a normal person.” My hand drifted unconsciously toward my breastplate, where I could feel the still-healing bruise Eric had given me last week.

        The lion man in question sat quietly in his power-made bonds, his expression dark and shuttered. I wondered if he had enhanced hearing. The sky over us was grey and cloudy, casting the whole city in a diffuse light. Presto stared at him with a hard expression, holding the wand in her left hand with a white knuckled grip. She stood eerily still, like a cat getting ready to pounce.

        “So you’re that Eric,” she said, flashing him a smile that was more like baring her teeth. She circled around him like a cat playing with a cornered mouse, her wand flicking back and forth unpredictably. I found myself transfixed, face heating up in defiance of the chilly breeze whipping at my cloak and cooling the metal of my armor. “You make a habit of arranging kidnappings?”

        He snorted. “I know better than to talk to cops.”

        “Not a fucking cop--”

        “--We’re not cops,” Presto and I said at the same time, voices overlapping each other. We stopped talking, sharing a brief surprised look before turning back toward Eric. I gestured for Presto to continue.

        She flicked her wand at him, making his bonds disappear. He immediately lunged for her, but before he’d crossed half the length she sent him back to where he’d started with another flick. It took him about ten tries before he finally sat back down, somehow managing to make his exhausted panting sound angry. “Starting to get the picture, pal? You’re outmatched.”

        “This supposed to scare me?” he asked breathlessly, leaning on the wall of the roof.

        “Nah,” Presto said, gesturing with her wand again. The next instant Eric was ten stories above us, screaming as he fell back toward the hard gravel rooftop. The second before he made impact she used her wand to teleport him upward again, making him fall in a continuous loop for the equivalent of hundreds of feet before he appeared safely back on the building with none of his latent momentum. “That was supposed to scare you. Ready to talk yet?”

        “Eat...” he wheezed out, between desperate gulps for air. “Shit...”

        She raised an eyebrow at him, idly fiddling with her wand. “Is that your final answer?”

        He held up a clawed hand, taking a few more moments to catch his breath. “Fine,” he grumbled, sounding like he was getting his teeth pulled. “What do you want to know?”

        I took a step forward, standing alongside Presto. “When the creepy suit was paying you guys you said the offer was for more than just money. What else did this… ‘Prodigy’ person give you?”

        He was silent for a few moments, long enough that I started to worry he’d changed his mind. “The suit, he was giving us dirt on the other gangs on an encrypted hard drive. Weaknesses, plans, secret headquarters, shit like that.”

        Presto shook her head, quietly chuckling. “I gotta appreciate the balls it takes to try and con me of all people, but you really ought to leave it to the professionals.”

        “The fuck are you talking about?” Eric demanded, his anger hiding an undercurrent of worry in his voice.

        She rolled her eyes at him. “I have lie detector tech, numbnuts. How about we try this again?” Another flick of her wand and he was sent high up into the air yet again, falling back down over and over and over again. His screams shifted in pitch and volume as he fell, the genuine terror in his voice sending chills down my spine.

        “Presto,” I said, voice coming out quieter than I’d intended.

        She turned away from the eternally falling lion man, seemingly having no trouble timing his teleports while looking at me. “You need something, Sepulcher?”

        I took a deep breath, steeling myself. “Can we… can we talk about this? It doesn’t feel right.”

        “Sure,” she said, sending Eric back to his place on the rooftop. He laid flat on his back, greedily sucking in air. “You just sit tight, the two of us are gonna have a little chat and then we’ll be right back with you.”

        I stepped away from him, toward the other side of the rooftop where he’d be less likely to hear us. Presto followed, looking bemused. “Can you make it so he can’t hear us?” I asked when she got close enough.

        “Already done,” she said casually, spinning her wand around her fingers. “So what’s the problem? You worried I’ll slip up and make him go splat?”

        “I… well, kind of,” I said, struggling to get my thoughts into order. “But that’s not really the primary issue.”

        She ‘hmmed’, tapping a finger on her chin. “If it makes you feel better I’m not actually teleporting him with the wand, I slapped a device that does all of that on him when I flicked his ear earlier. It’s got a bunch of redundant safety features, I had it vetted by the PRT and everything.”

        “That’s a relief to hear,” I said, wondering if the wand actually did anything or if it was just a prop. “But like I said that’s not the primary issue. It’s more that this whole method of interrogation seems kind of… fucked up. Isn’t this essentially threatening him with death in a really visceral way?”

        She snorted. “I think this guy can take it. You realize he’s a killer, right? More than a few people on the Bastards’ shitlist ended up mauled to death while he was in the area, not to mention participating in kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment of innocent people. Oh and yeah, he almost caved your fucking ribs in!”

        “Well yeah,” I said, finding myself strangely warmed by Presto’s protectiveness. “But… that still doesn’t give us the right to hurt him more than strictly necessary to protect others.”

        “It’s not like I’m beating the shit out of him,” Presto said, impatience leaking into her voice. “I’m just scaring him a little. Besides, it’s not like I get off on terrifying people or something. This is important information, shit that can save lives. Why should this asshole’s convenience get a higher priority than that?”

        “I’m not saying it should,” I said, keeping my voice level with an effort. “It’s just that I think we should exhaust more options before resorting to something that seems like a short step from waterboarding someone.”

        Presto groaned aloud, violently rolling her eyes. “What ‘options’? I don’t recall you having any particularly useful ideas before I showed up to interrogate him for you. And seriously, this is coming from the girl that gave a half dozen Bastards the Hannibal Lector treatment last week? Where the fuck is this coming from?”

        I froze, replaying the actions I took while in the throes of my thinker power in my mind’s eye. Suddenly everything shifted, taking on an entirely new light. I thought I’d managed to reign my power’s worst tendencies in sufficiently, but in retrospect it was obvious that my lack of emotion had colored every choice I’d made that night. Fuck, it was no wonder the Bastards I’d captured had all been so strangely cooperative afterwards. I’d terrorized them into compliance.

        “That’s not...” I started, voice coming out weakly. There really wasn’t any way forward aside from telling her about my thinker power, but I just couldn’t think of what to say. Would she think I was frightening? Inhuman? I didn’t know if I could stand getting rejected like that.

        She sighed and squeezed her eyes shut, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry Sepulcher, that wasn’t fair. You were in a life or death situation for the f- for one of the first times. There wasn’t time to carefully plan everything out, you had to go on instinct. I get it.”

        “No, you have a point,” I said, gathering my strength for what came next. “There’s a reason I acted so… differently last week. It’s not that I panicked, the truth is actually sort of the opposite. It’s that when I use my thinker power, my thoughts and actions get disconnected from my emotions. The more deeply I use it the stronger the effect is, to the point where when it’s all the way up I’m sort of like a Terminator. Just single-mindedly pursuing the goals I set for myself, with no concern for fear or pain or hesitation.”

        Presto rubbed her chin. “A Terminator… you mean the movies with those robots from the future that look like Sylvestor Stallone?”

        I nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, from the 80’s.”

        “I kinda see what you mean. So you didn’t actually realize you were scaring the shit out of them?”

        I made a so-so gesture. “It was partly that and partly that I’d tunnel visioned on rescuing the hostages to the point where the Bastards didn’t really register to me except as obstacles. Even when I turned my power off briefly to check myself for injuries I still didn’t think of it.”

        “That… explains a lot, actually. You’ve been using this pretty regularly while we talk, haven’t you? I remember a lot of times you got this weirdly distant look in your eye.”

        “Well, yes,” I said, blushing under my mask. “It’s useful when I need to think clearly or talk myself down from a panic attack.”

        “Does that happen often?” she asked, voice oddly gentle.

        “Yeah,” I said. “More since… since my roommates and everything. Are you worried? About how my thinker power works, I mean?”

        Presto shrugged. “Nah, I figured there was something like that going on. Sometimes with powers you just gotta accept that things ain’t always gonna be clean and pretty. And besides, if there’s anyone I’m not worried about having a power like that it’s you.”

        “You really think so?” I asked, completely failing to hide the skepticism in my voice.

        “Of course,” she said, fondly rolling her eyes at me. “You’re one of the nicest people I know. And maybe more importantly, you actually think shit through before you do it. Unlike some other folks also standing on this roof.”

        “Are you referring to yourself or Eric?” I asked, amusement coloring my voice.

        She smirked. “Can’t it be both?  Anyway, you wanna keep going? You can lead the rest of the interrogation.”

        “Sure,” I said, walking back toward the lion man and taking up what I hoped was a sufficiently intimidating heroic pose in front of him. “Are you ready to talk now? Presto’s awfully eager to practice some more of her juggling, I’d suggest you cooperate.”

        He sighed, head leaning back against the short concrete wall. “It was some kind of tinker shit. It’s shaped kinda like a gun, you’re supposed to jab it into someone’s neck to copy skills from them and then give them to someone else. I swear that’s all I know, now could you please stop it with the fucking teleporting?”

        “Well if you insist,” Presto said, practically radiating smugness. “Just sit tight and the vans will be here before you know it.”

        I leaned back on the concrete railing, mentally preparing myself for the talk I’d promised her once we got back to the Needle. I had a feeling it was gonna be a real doozy.