I found Chloe talking to Starfall about a block and a half from the crime scene. Bright teal radiated from Chloe’s mask, indicating that she was crying, while Starfall stood with practiced confidence. It was as clear Chloe’s mother had the upper hand in the conversation.
Every protective bone in my body screamed that I should jump in, but I reminded myself Chloe had followed Starfall of her own volition. As much as I wanted to, I knew better than to jump into their private conversation. Even without superhuman politics complicating the matter, it wasn’t my place to interfere.
I didn’t have long to wait before Chloe looked over at me. Starfall took that as the end of the conversation, walking toward me. I considered my options for a moment, wondering how much she suspected or Chloe had told her.
It was a given that she’d know who Chloe was staying with, and not much of a leap to conclude I was Damascus from that point. Though, given how my armor hid every conceivable feature and distorted my voice, one might assume Beatrice was the Imbued in the family.
I was more concerned about Starfall’s secrets, how many of them I knew, and if she could extrapolate what I knew by my behavior.
I put myself into a position of asking how I’d react if I met Starfall like this, without knowing she was a Nazi, or Chloe’s mother. I couldn’t give her the cold shoulder without arousing suspicion.
“H-hello, ma’am. Umm, Eldritch said she was done with me and I could go now.” With any luck, she’d just imagine I was a nervous kid in the presence of a celebrity. “Uh, if you’re done with Daybreak?”
“For the time being.” Starfall didn’t so much as turn her head. There wasn’t a single note in her voice that conveyed malice, or anything more than casual conversation, but my pulse quickened in fear. We passed each other without another sound.
How is it that I’m protected by four hundred pounds of solid steel that I can reshape to my whim, and I’m frightened by a woman half my size?
Part of me wanted to blame Nanna and Pavlovian Conditioning, part of me wanted to imagine Starfall had some weird emotion control power, but in truth it was both more and less than that. Starfall all but told me I was nothing more than a temporary obstacle between her and her family in those four words. She believed she’d win, and considering her powers and position, I couldn’t be sure she was wrong.
I set those thoughts aside as best I could; if it was going to happen there was little I could do to stop it, and part of me hoped I was overthinking things. For right now, Chloe herself was who I needed to be concerned about.
I approached her in silence. What do you say to a girl who just burned a man’s hand to the point where only powers could save it? What can you say to make what we saw back there make sense? What possible words or actions can comfort someone after today? The best I could think of was to be strong for her.
I reached my hand out to her, aware that I was shaking beneath my armor. “Let’s go home.”
She reached out for my hand. “I changed my mind. You were right about the costume.”
Clothes seemed a bizarre thing for her to focus on under the circumstances, but I didn’t argue. I bid my metal to spread across her arm, making contact with the rest of her costume. In a few seconds, I managed to add some modesty to her outfit. It wasn’t a perfect design; in fact it weighed at sixty pounds and some of the joints would have sliced open any ordinary person, but it did the job.
Chloe looked down at her now fairly conservative metal dress, then back up to me. “Thank you.”
I led her into an alley going the wrong direction from home, then ducked through another dark yard and a final alley that took us through the yard of an abandoned house. If any of the druggies or prostitutes inside noticed us passing through, they pretended otherwise. It was the sort of place I would have liked to bust up myself, but it was close enough to my home that I was afraid of people guessing we lived in the neighborhood. The best laid plans of mice and men, or something to that effect.
It took almost half an hour for us to make it back home. The garage that now doubled as my bedroom didn’t have windows, but I had been doing a bit of remodelling. I pressed my hand against one of the boards that comprised the siding, took control of the metal I’d installed, and peered through.
“Okay, we’re in the clear.”
Chloe bolted around the corner to the door in record time. In the haste to get to the party, I’d forgetten to lock it earlier, so she was in and grabbing her real shirt and pants instead of what barely qualified as a bikini that she’d had on under her costume. I still wasn’t sure if I should hug or strangle my sister for talking her into buying it. In much the same way I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or worried she wasn’t at the party.
When Chloe came back out, she was appropriately dressed and carrying an empty garbage bag. “Okay, that’s phase two taken care of.”
“We need to come up with a better plan some day.”
“Well, you could probably hide the metal under really baggy clothes?” Chloe offered. “Wait a few months, and you can just claim you’re playing Santa for something.”
“Black Santa? You know, the strangest thing about that idea is it’s not yet a movie. Someone should tell Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock will play each and every one of the elves.” It was around that point that I realized Chloe didn’t get the joke. “Well, let’s get going. With any luck they’ll just think we’re dumpster diving.”
We turned and went back to alleyway I’d hidden the metal. After the shootings and the sirens, it had been deserted, and was still deserted when we came back. I asserted my control and made it flow into the garbage bag. A quarter ton of steel sounds like a lot, but it’s only about fifteen or so large bottles of pop, so it all fit in the bag, and we got back without incident.
A fringe benefit of a bad neighborhood; the neighbors were used to kids out doing much worse.
I plopped down in my chair, while Chloe opted to sit on the edge of my bed. She looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn’t find a way. I picked a safer topic, hoping it would prompt her. “We need a better plan next time. I bet with some effort I could create a secret door in the back where it’s dark.”
“Next time?” Chloe looked at me, the glint of blue lightning in her eyes. “There’s going to be a next time?”
Huh, I guess that is the closest thing to a promise I’ve made on the subject. One more minefield to slowly back myself out of. “Well, I guess I can help some.” If I don’t, you might end up hurting someone even worse. “I don’t plan to make a habit-”
Tears had started falling from Chloe’s eyes. “I don’t know if I want to.”
Oh. “It was a bad night.” One of the reasons I’d never take Nanna’s ever-so-subtle hints that I join the ministry: I didn’t know how to work with people. Machines, including the human body, I could understand and touch and mend; when it came to the soul, I was clueless.
“M- Starfall told me it…” she stopped to take a breath. “She said stuff like that happens all the time in neighborhoods like this one. That only animals could do such things to each other. Is she right?”
I had to admit, after tonight, I wasn’t about to consider Ian a human being. “It’s not usually that bad, but it does get ugly at times.” I felt like I was watching the light in her eyes die in front of me. “Some people don’t deserve to be called people.”
“I… I didn’t expect you to say something like that.” There was a hurt in Chloe’s voice, as if I betrayed her with my words.
“I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.” I hated to admit it, but it was. “It’s just not the whole truth. That’s the problem with people like your mother; it’s not that they can find evidence of blacks who are, frankly, subhuman. It’s that they ignore all evidence of whites who are also subhuman. You can take any population of people and name monsters that share their ancestry. Look at what happened to the natives of America, or Australia, or anywhere else for that matter. More recently, things like the French Revolution, or the real Nazis.”
Chloe didn’t look like my answer made her feel any better, so I backpedaled. “But it is getting better. Slowly, yes, but it is getting better. With each generation the monsters get less successful, the outcry louder, the horror stories less common. When the French Revolution happened, they decapitated nobles and paraded their heads in the streets while people brought their children out to watch and cheer. We’re moving in the right direction, and we’ll keep moving in the right direction until evil only exists in history books.”
Chloe forced a smile. “You really think so?”
“Of course I do.” It’s either that, or fall into the same spiral of depression and self-destruction that’s turned my neighborhood into an example of all that’s wrong with humanity. “It’s why I’m working so hard to become a doctor, so I can help in my own way. Just like you becoming a hero.”
She stood up. “I’m such a bitch. I see one bad thing and I want to give up and run back to my parents, knowing they do things just as bad.”
“There’s nothing wrong with loving your family, even if they’re not the best people.” She wasn’t wrong about them doing horrible things. Not Starfall herself, perhaps not Quash either; supervillains tended to control gangs rather than do the grunt work. It was only in battle against other superhumans that they walked the streets with the rapists, murderers and drug dealers they commanded and protected.
I stood myself, taking a couple steps toward her. “Besides, you’re still here, right? That means a lot.”
Her smile was still forced, but at least it was a smile. “Thank you.” She reached out for a hug that I was more than happy to return. The smile changed to something more genuine, if a little strange. Perhaps it was the light glow of her using flight so her face was at shoulder level instead of mid chest. “You’re so good to me.”
“Nothing any other decent human being wouldn’t d-” I was interrupted when her lips pressed into mine. For the first second, I was too shocked to think. For the second, I marveled at how soft her lips felt.
Somewhere around the fifth, I finally tried to push her away. I say ‘tried’ because I may as well have been attempting to push the moon out of orbit for all the effect I had on her.
She pulled her head back, a look of hurt in her eyes. “What’s wrong? I thought you wanted…”
Oh fuck, she’s going to cry again. “Of course I want to!”
“Then why?” She was still so close that I could feel the heat off her skin. After the excitement of the day, she had an undeniable feminine smell that I could learn to love as much as the rest of her.
“You’re not into it, not really. You’re just doing it out of obligation, not because you want to.”
“But I do! You’re smart, sweet, and I know it’s hard to put up with my bullshit sometimes.” A bit of a blush started forming. “Straight girls experiment with each other all the time, right? I can do it, too, with you.”
Oh god, she means. If I wasn’t aware of her body pressed against mine before, I very much was now. More than just the small head was begging me to take her up on the offer.
She wasn’t doing anything insane, just offering to try something other people liked in case she did, too. If it turned out it didn’t work for her, we could still be friends and I’d still have the memories.
God damn everything. I closed my eyes. “Chloe, please, I’m not strong enough to say no a third time.” Part of me wanted to end the statement at that point, with the near certainty she’d make the offer one last time and I could absolve myself of responsibility. That part of me almost won. “It’s been an emotional day. Let’s go to bed, and if you still feel this way in the morning, I’ll be up for anything you want to do. If not, we don’t have to talk about it ever again. Okay?”
“Okay.” I felt Chloe’s weight as she dimmed her power to drift to the ground. “I guess we’ll talk tomorrow.”
It was all I could do to watch her go without running after her and saying I changed my mind, but she was gone before my willpower broke. I sat down on my bed and settled in for a long night. I knew tomorrow I’d need to talk to Chloe, and maybe find some way to confront Beatrice about the party she wasn’t at. I drifted off still uncertain about either problem.
I awoke to knocking on the door. I jumped out of bed fast enough to hurt my still not-quite healed ribs and rushed for the door. “Chloe?” I pulled the door open to the concerned face of my sister.
“You need your eyes examined, Dom.”
I turned my head back into the garage, looking for my sun glasses before Bea realized how different my eyes were. “Sorry, still got problems with bright light.” I found them on my desk. “What’s up?” I am so stupid!
“Well, your fake girlfriend came downstairs, then turned around and is now locked in your room crying.”
What. My head snapped back toward Bea. “Why!?” I thought she learned her lesson after that last stunt!
“Fuck if I know!” Beatrice raised her hands out. “All I know is Nanna was in the kitchen making breakfast and I was still in my room and now Chloe won’t come out. I figured if anyone knew what was going on, it’d be you.”
“I’ll see if I can find out.” I couldn’t imagine last night would be enough to cause her to act like that, but the girl was hard to understand at times. I followed Bea to the house, still wracking my brain. It wasn’t until I was in the house that I had my answer, in the form of the newspaper on the coffee table.
A STAR GOES OUT
Starfall slain in altercation with unknown Imbued. Perpetrators still at large.