I woke up with all the grace and elegance of a walrus falling off the back of a truck. Before I could think, I punched the floor and respawned in a standing position.
It was then that I realized I was in Laura’s bedroom, and wearing absolutely nothing. There was a set of men’s clothes sitting next to my costume on Laura’s desk. Rather than risk wearing some other dude’s pants, I just put on my costume.
Laura was sitting at the kitchen table, with Beth in her Anima costume, and a guy I didn’t recognize. He was the shortest person here, aside from Beth when she was out of costume, and even that was a close call. A few fresh scars crossed his face, leaving pinkish lines in his medium brown skin.
On the table was a map and a bunch of bright plastic blocks that I recognized as legos.
“Told you he’d pick the costume,” Laura said with a smile. “Y’all better pay up.”
I tried to think of something, anything, to say. I wanted to ask about everything after I was bathed in steel-melting fire. “Umm… who’s the new guy?”
Said new guy hid a smirk, but it was Laura that answered. “He’s my husband.” What. “Zach, you’ve been unconscious for almost two years.”
I just shook my head and laughed. “You almost had me going for a second.”
“Told you it wouldn’t work,” Glen’s telltale rumble echoed through the apartment.
“Aww,” Laura pouted. “What gave me away?”
“Your hair. You can’t keep the same style for two months, let alone two years.” She was currently sporting temporary red and green stripes for Christmas. “Now, if you told me you met some dude and eloped to Vegas after stuffing me in the trunk of your car, that I’d believe.”
Laura rolled her eyes. “Don’t be silly, we both know my car wouldn’t even make it to Chicago, let alone Vegas.”
“Uh, if you want, I can take a look at it later,” the new guy offered. He had a deeper voice than I expected, but the way he carried himself was so small and timid that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he sounded like a chipmunk. He stood up and faced me, extending his hand. “I’m Daryl. We’ve met before, in costume.”
“Well, nice to meet you again.” I shook his hand and concentrated on ignoring my power. He seemed healthy enough, other than a racing heartbeat. “I’m sorry, but I guess you have a really good disguise.” I didn’t know that many Imbued, and most of them were villains. The guy didn’t have the right kind of tan to belong in Lightbringer or Los Fieles.
“To be fair, the last time you saw me I sorta came down with a sudden case of death.”
It’s depressing how little that narrows it down. “Flux?” He gave a nod. “Dude, how? Kitten…” I let go of his hand.
“Turns out, Cura’s power is a whole lot stronger than anyone knew,” Glen said. I had no idea who this ‘Cura’ was. Some kind of video game themed hero? “She might be the most powerful healer since they started keeping accurate power ratings.”
“She’s not,” Flux- Daryl, I reminded myself- said. “Or, maybe she is, but there are some heavy impediments to its use. I’m not sure what they are, but Vertigo often let her own people die rather than have Cura heal them.” Oh. One of Los Fieles, then.
“Food for thought,” Glen replied. Won’t be long before Muwth gets news of that.
So, now that we’ve found the elephant. “What happened? Y’know, after I got taken out of commission? Is Kitten dead?” I glanced over at Beth and wondered if she blamed me for my part in killing Kitten.
“Seems to be,” Glen answered.
“What is that supposed to mean?” My voice cracked in a way that would have been humiliating any other time. “She’s either dead, or she’s not!” Christ, we hit her with twelve of the top twenty Imbued in the area.
“Crucible managed to get his power to full strength thanks to you,” Daryl answered. “He alters the nature of thermodynamics in a localized area, distributing…” He stopped for a moment. “Sorry, Techs like to talk tech, just remind me to stop. Layman’s terms? Crucible’s power heats things way faster than normal flames will. The equivalent of hours of burning in mere seconds, at three times the heat needed to cremate a body.”
“She said something about a third stage never being able to stop a fourth,” I said. Daryl looked down, unwilling to say anything.
“Kitten was deranged,” Beth spoke for the first time, walking over to me as she talked. “Maybe it works out that way more often than not, but every power has its gaps and flaws. Guardian, for example, is either a two or three, and he would beat me every time. She’s dead, she can’t hurt anyone ever again.” Beth put her hand on my shoulder and then gave me as much of a hug as her robed costume allowed.
“I’ve already checked around,” Glen added. “We’ve got a pretty high Esper Value that she’s gone.”
I just have a hard time believing, after all the effort I put into stopping her, that it’d be over like this. “I guess she got into my head, sold me on that ‘destiny’ bullshit of hers.”
“Trust me, she’s damned good at that,” Daryl agreed. “And even if she’s gone, she left one hell of a mess behind for us to clean up.”
Wait a second. “Us?”
“I… umm….” He shrank back down again, like he expected to get yelled at. “I’m done playing supervillain. I was just in it for kicks, that’s all. Toying with the heroes, making a few bucks to pay for the suit. I never did anything serious; if they ever caught me it was just probation and a career change. But after, it’s stopped being fun.”
Daryl was clearly older than me, and it was just weird seeing someone older than me act so young.
“Just so you know, I’ve already invited him to join the team,” Laura chimed in.
I looked over at her. “And who put you in charge?”
She just radiated smug joy. “I did. We’ve been going over stuff while you were passed out in my bedroom. Oh, and that reminds me: I have to burn my sheets now. So anyway, we’ve been working out all the details, and I’m clearly the only one who can lead this team.”
I glanced at Beth and Daryl, and not for the first time wished I could find a way to look at Glen. In a way, it made sense for Laura to take charge. She was probably better friends with all three of them than I was.
She also actually planned things and knew how to work with people. I just brute forced it by being unstoppable. “I hate you so fucking much sometimes.”
“Only sometimes? Damn, I’m gonna have to step up my game.” She smiled with sadistic glee. “By the way, guess how many people in this room saw you naked earlier?”
Daryl and Beth looked away. And they say the awkward grew three sizes that day. “You unbelievable bitch.”
“And the winner by sheer awesome.” She pointed to herself with both thumbs. “Now that that’s out of the way, Daryl’s been giving us all kinds of info on the inner workings of Los Fieles. To start with, it stops existing in less than a month.”
Daryl perked up a bit, and moved toward the table. “Pretty much the moment after Kitten died, Vertigo was killed by her second in command, a guy by the name of Lanza. He’ll blame either Kitten or Lightbringer for the murder. It won’t matter, he doesn’t have the charisma, planning, or intimidation necessary to hold such a gang together. It’ll fracture in no time. Lanza’s Cuban, so chances are he winds up here.” He tapped a red house that came from a monopoly board.
“With Lightbringer waiting to pounce, there probably won’t be a violent civil war,” Glen added. “But Lightbringer lost both Recoil and Wither in the fight, which means Crucible is their last remaining heavy hitter. When they do start fighting, it’ll be done mostly by the nonpowered muscle.”
Which means guns, and abusing their territories even harder for the money to buy those guns. “And a lot of people are going to be caught in the crossfire.” Things were supposed to get better with Kitten gone, not worse. I took a slow breath. “Okay, we’ll need to step up our game plan, get in the way of their plans.”
“Hit them in the money,” Daryl added. “Take away the cashflow, and the gangs die. With my knowledge of their inner workings, and Genius Loci’s ability to operate undetected, and whatever power you use to predict crimes, we can do a lot of early damage. I’d start with Bethesda.”
“Not much we can get away with,” I said. “There are laws against breaking into houses, and if ‘a psychic said so’ isn’t enough to get a warrant, I don’t think it’ll work for us. Our most legal option is to show up where there’s going to be trouble and make ourselves visible.”
Daryl just sighed and shook his head. “This is why every group of heroes needs at least one criminal. I’ve got a plan for that, using myself as bait. I’ll run in, you’ll call the cops to tell them I ran in, and I’ll be gone before you can say ‘what’s your emergency’. If the police just so happen to stumble across a drug den while pursuing a wanted criminal, it’s admissible in court.”
Laura’s smile threatened to make the top of her head fall off. “That is god damn devious. I love it.”
Beth cleared her throat. “Uh, won’t that get suspicious after a while?”
“Probably, but what are they most likely to say? ‘We should stop letting the petty thief help us screw over the gangs’, or ‘it’s an election year, and voters hate drugs’?” Daryl even picked up a couple lego figures to voice the sides. “Worst case, a good lawyer might get some of the crooks off on technicality, but they can’t get the product back.”
Daryl went on for a while, with occassional questions by Glen and Laura. Beth and I generally stayed silent, though we dropped down an idea every so often. It was an hour later when Glen spoke up. “There’s some girl coming up to the door.”
“On it,” Laura stood up. “Ugh. Okay, first investment for any future stolen drug money: more comfortable chairs.” She got to the door, then waited for the knock before opening it a crack and looking out.
“Oh! Hi, Cassie.” My heart jumped. “I didn’t expect to see you. You should be getting some rest…” Laura looked back at me.
I stood up and spoke loud enough for Cassie to hear. “It’s okay, I’ll talk to her.” Laura let me through and I stepped outside. In part because I didn’t want her to see Daryl or Anima, and in part because I didn’t want Beth to see my ex. “Okay, Cassie, what do you want?”
“I should probably give this back.” Cassie offered me the spare coat that went with my costume. Her coat came open, letting me get a look at her too-tight tanktop, and the figure it did nothing to hide.
I took my coat and forced myself to remember how badly she fucked me over. It was easier when I could stay mad at her. “Okay, thank you. Is that all?”
She smiled, faintly. “And I wanted to say I’m sorry for everything. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just-”
Oh, sure, now you apologize, after I save your fucking life. If she did it yesterday, it might even have worked, but I just wasn’t in the mood to hear this right now. Besides, she still went to Adams with all its gangs, where I wouldn’t be able to protect her. After the holidays, I’d have to find a school where I didn’t just cost them their star athlete and football championship. It was better this way. “You didn’t hurt me. I don’t care about that.”
Her smile widened. “Really?”
“Well, yeah.” I swallowed the regret for what I was about to do. “You’re a groupie, simple as that.”
Don’t give yourself a chance to change your mind. “You telegraphed it from, like, a mile away. But you were attractive and fun to be around, amazing arm candy. So I figured what the hell? You used me, but that’s okay because I used you back.”
What? Don’t think about it, focus on the bullshit she pulled. “But then you had to stab me in the back. No explanation, not even a warning. I just come to school thinking everything’s fine, and the people who are supposed to have my back screw me over. You’re a traitor.”
She stepped forward, and pressed up against me. Even through the costume, I could feel her curves. Or maybe I was just remembering earlier times. In effect, the exact opposite of everything I was trying to accomplish right now.
“What can I do to convince you I mean it?” The look in her eyes was smoldering. “I’ll do anything you want.” She ran her hand down my stomach, and for a moment, I saw Kitten’s face.
My arms snapped up and grabbed her shoulders. It was more luck than anything that I didn’t grab her by the throat. I squeezed, perhaps a little harder than necessary. “What I want is for you to turn around, walk away, and stay out of my life.” I pushed her back as gently as I could, and she didn’t fight me. I turned and went back inside, barely managing to close the door before my power activated and restored me.
I almost hurt her. I took a deep breath, grateful for my power’s ability to calm me down. Damn I’m fucked up. On the plus side, at least this means the shrink isn’t a complete waste of time.
I forced myself to smile. “Sorry, I promise the ex drama is over now. So where were we?”