Doors 14-Vignette | 2


The Only Currency Worth Anything Is Being True To Yourself.

“It wasn't her.” Stump’s voice was drawn and tired as she leant over the table. The gum rounds had completely covered her right arm, and after a few unsuccessful attempts to remove it, she'd given up and detached the entire thing instead. It currently lay on the table, the off-white goo slowly sticking it to the wooden surface.

“That's going to completely ruin the table,” Instance noted mildly. He was sitting in front of the television, which was currently playing the news, the volume muted. Right now, they were looping that same bit of canned helicopter footage that was going around between all the major networks. It showed the moment the fighting had spilled out onto the street, when Vortex, the forcefield-creating Outlier had come crashing out through the glass doors at the front. “You really shouldn't have done that, Eric,” he noted, absently watching the screen.

Chain, Eric, ignored him, continuing to patch up his wounds. He was shirtless, the tattered remains of the top half of his costume sitting on the bench next to him, as he applied cream and bandages to the more serious of his many lacerations. Even bruised and battered, he was still incredibly fit, and Stump found her eyes dragging their way back towards him every few seconds. She was pretty sure he hadn't noticed, but Instance definitely had, even if it was just because he was doing the same thing himself.

“It really changed the dynamics of the whole fight,” he continued, undisturbed by the lack of response from the other boy. “Gave them a lot more room to work with, and let Freefall set us up. Actually, most of their powers work better in open environment. Moving it out into the square really-”

Stump sighed dramatically, dropping her head onto her one remaining hand. “Would you give it up?” she groaned.

“Sorry, sorry. I just think it's important to take note of these things. It helps us improve.”

“Yeah, but that's what the after-action reviews are for. We don't need to talk about it here and now.”

“The after-action reviews,” said a whisper-quiet voice. Chain hadn't raised his head or stopped his actions, but there was a quiet intensity to his posture now. “The after-action reviews are so they can look at our ratings and our image. They don't care about tactics, or that we lost, they just care that we looked bad doing it.”

“Can you blame them?” Instance replied evenly. “That is what they pay us for. I really don't think you can complain about that. You signed the contracts, after all.”

No response. Instance looked at Stump, an expression of amused exasperation on his face, and she returned a little commiserating half-smile. “Well, putting that aside. You were saying something, S?”

“Yeah. It wasn't her.”

“It wasn't…?”

“Her. I know what you're thinking, you and Lucia and especially Tasha. But it wasn't her, I know it wasn't.”

“By her, you mean… Wisp?”

“Yeah, of course I mean Wisp!” she snapped. “Who else would I be talking about?”

“Ado?”

“Why would I be talking about Ado?”

“Why are you talking about Wisp?”

“Because she didn’t do it!”

“It?”

“Letting Ado out!”

“I thought you weren’t talking about Ado.”

“I wasn’t, now I am. Is that so hard to understand?!”

“Maybe,” he said innocently, and Stump glanced over to see a cheeky grin plastered over his face.

Allah,” she exclaimed, “do you have to do that? It’s not nearly as funny as you think it is.”

“Do you have to do that?” he countered.

“Do what?”

“Swap out random words. It’s like you saw a badly written foreign character on TV do it and now you feel you have to too.”

She spun on him. “What the fuck, dude?! Do you have any idea how offensive-”

She saw the look on his face, and stopped. “See,” he said with a happy grin, “I knew that would work.”

“Seriously?” she asked flatly.

“You were in a funk,” he said. “I wanted to help.”

“That is the worst possible way you could help-”

The door hissed, and Comet (she didn’t like being called Lucia while she was ‘working’) strode in. Her helmet was off, but she still wore her jumpsuit. Her hair, long and black, was bound up in a tight bun, and the lines of her face were drawn tight. “Explain it to me again,” she snapped, “in a way that makes me not want to strangle you.”

“Er, well, it’s still complex…” Thrust followed her, wearing slacks and the most hideous button-down in existence. “Basically, that thing that I said I could do, using the UM signatures to selectively remove Wisp from the cameras? Yeah, it turns out I can’t actually do that. Well, I can, it just didn’t work, and-”

Carlos.

“It should have worked, okay? I don’t know why it didn’t. There was no reason it shouldn’t have.”

“So was this a ‘didn’t work’ didn’t work, or a ‘went catastrophically wrong’ didn’t work?” Stump asked, amused despite herself.

“...the latter.”

“What happened?”

“Instead of selectively excising our ‘friend’ from the cameras, it… just shut down the entire network whenever it could sense her.”

Instance looked incredulous. “How the hell do you get from the former to the latter?”

“I. Don’t. Know. There’s no reason it should’ve happened like that.”

“And yet it did.”

“Lu- Comet, I promise, this was not my fault. I just need to figure out why.”

She frowned, and Thrust winced. “Not good enough.”

Stump went to stick up her hand, realized it was currently sitting on the table, and quickly raised the other one. “Uhh, boss? Not to get all up in your business, but I think you’re being a little unreasonable to Carlos.”

The full force of Comet’s glare turned onto her, and she withered a little, but continued. “L-like, what more do you want from him?”

The frown deepened, but the glare lessened, and Stump let out a quiet breath. “I apologize, Carlos. My temper got the better of me, and I was being unreasonable.”

“No problem,” he said weakly.

“Unfortunately,’ she proceeded, addressing the room, “we still have the issue of Ado’s escape and- ...where is Fog?”

They all glanced around, noting her absence for the first time.

“Training room,” Chain said quietly. “Pay attention.”

Comet sighed. “Of course she is. Stump, go fetch her. I would rather not have to deal with her… her, right now.”

She didn’t really want to either, but she couldn’t exactly say no. She glanced down at her arm, now firmly stuck to the table. Oh wait: yes, she could.

“Sorry, boss,” she said, as sincerely as she could manage, gesturing at the arm, “but…”

Instance pointed at it and waggled his fingers. “Scourgify,” he intoned mock-solemnly. The white goo shivered like something had hit it, then dissolved into a clear gel that evaporated away into nothing.

She stared at him. “Did you just… do a magic spell?”

He shook his head. “Liquidate, supervillain in Orlando, dissolves non-solids. But that was a pretty good reference, right?”

Stump glanced at Thrust, who shrugged. “It was a reference?”

“Yeah, Harry Potter!” They both gave him a blank look. “Seriously?”

“I got it,” Comet said mildly. “It just wasn't funny.”

As Instance deflated, Stump picked up the arm and pressed it against the wooden stump that protruded from her shoulder, blending smoothly from flesh-pink into dark brown. As soon the two met, awareness and control of the limb flooded back into her mind, and she took control of it again, splitting the ends up into tiny strands that wove together and sealed it back in its rightful place. She stretched, and swung it around a few times to test the range of motion. All good, thankfully. It was nice to have two arms again.

“Just so you know,” she said as she trudged towards the door. “You’re all dicks for making me do this.”

-----

The first thing that came into Stump’s mind when she saw the training room was ‘winter wonderland’. The second thing that came into her mind was that she pitied the person who had to clean it up.

Fog had coated the entire room in a thick layer of ice, uneven and opaque. In centre places, she’d brought it up into the approximate shape of a person, some larger, some smaller. It didn’t become apparent why she’d done that instead of using the existing training dummies until a second later, when a blur came speeding out from one corner of the room, wreathed in fog, and spin-kicked one in half.

Stump raised an arm, just in time for a pencil-sized shard of ice to bounce of it. The figure came to a stop, hovering a few feet off the ground, surveying the damage it had done. The cloud of fog fell away, revealing a black girl in what looked like black thermals, with high-tech silver boots on her feet that glowed green from the seams.

“New tricks, Tash?” Stump called out towards her.

Fog turned to face her, and Stump was surprised to see that she was actually smiling… sort of. She could never tell what was genuine and what was just anger when it came to the other girl. “Yeah, you like? Took ‘em up to Graves, got an upgrade. Now it’s like, shboom when I kick stuff. S’awesome. Now the next time we go up against those fuckers, I can get up close and personal.”

Nope, she wasn’t touching that one. “Do you actually know proper technique?” she asked instead.

The smile faded a little. “I’m hitting things with my foot. What technique?”

Definitely not even going to try with that one. “Never mind. Come on, Comet wants us all together.”

She snorted, floating down toward Stump. “Ooh, lemme guess, so we can talk even more about fuckin’ Wisp.” She didn’t set down, instead just following behind Stump, still suspended in the air.

“What’s your issue with her?” Stump asked. “Not a rhetorical question, I really wanna know. Why do you have so much of a problem with her?”

Fog harrumphed and folded her arms, staring at the walls as they passed by.

“Tash, come on. You know you’ve got no good reason to be acting like you are towards her.”

“Oh, I don’t? Some rich little white girl, comes strutting into my turf, trying to do my job and thinking she can do it better than me, and acting like she’s just oh so fuckin’ friendly and nice and FUCKIN’ REASONABLE!” She took a deep breath. “But no, I’m fuckin’ out of line. Of course. That makes sense!”

Stump blinked. “I don’t… I don’t think her race really has anything to do with it?”

“Oh, you don’t, do ya? Then I guess you’d better think harder, huh?” And with that, the glow on her boots increased, and she shot on ahead.

Stump stared after her until she disappeared from sight. “I should’ve gone into construction,” she grumbled to herself. “Agriculture. Whatever. But no, I had to have wanted to be a hero since I was a kid. And now not only do I have to deal with the nutjobs out there, I have to deal with the ones in here.”

She sighed. I guess that’s how it goes. You signed the contracts after all. 

So suck it up, Sabah. You’ve got a job to do.

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Doors 14-Vignette


They Like Surprises. Almost Always.

With a small grimace, Edith Ellis shook her hand, trying to rid it of the blood that covered it. A few droplets scattered outwards, but her hand remained crimson. She'd known it would do that: when her salt form got absorbed blood, it stained her skin a faded crimson when she transformed back. Still, she shook anyway. It was, she had decided, simply one of those things.

She gave an irritated sigh, lowering the hand. It would bleed out in a day or two, but until then she'd have to deal with being literally red-handed. There was a time where she'd have found that amusing.

The man standing in front of her managed to choke out a breath. One of his arms, the one with the hand with the gun in it, rose jerkily towards her, one trembling finger on the trigger.

She pursed her lips, and took the hand clean off at the wrist in a flash of white. He gaped at his now-severed wrist, then slowly toppled to the side. He hit the ground shortly after his gun did, and lay there, still as a puddle of blood began to spread from the baseball-sized hole in his chest.

Without looking down, she stepped over the now-corpse, an expression of distaste flitting across her haggard face. People never knew when to just lay down and die, and now she had even more blood discoloring her hand. It was irritating, is what it was.

No alarms blared out as she walked briskly through the steel corridors of the Tower. No red lights flashed, no one rushed down the corridor to apprehend her. She didn't doubt that an alarm had gone off, though: she knew the Tower, and there was no way a containment failure in a wing of the cells wouldn't have prompted a response. The most likely explanation was that after seeing her encounter with that security employee, they were holding back until a proper force could be assembled. She couldn't see any cameras, but she had no doubt that she was being observed.

She took turns at random, keeping a brisk pace and darting glances over her shoulder every other second. That, and the twitching of her hands at her sides were the only things that betrayed her calm facade. She didn't know where she was going, and any corner could hide a force attempting to kill her. And they would try to kill her. Frankly, she was surprised they hadn't already.

She thought for a moment, then amended it. They'd sent the kiddies after her, not the full kill squad that they had the nerve to call 'Valiant’. She didn't know whether the younger 'heroes’ were unaware of their colleagues’ behaviour or not, and she didn't really care. It occurred to her that perhaps she should grant them at least a little more respect, considering they'd soundly defeated her, but she dismissed that thought almost immediately.

It had been the element of surprise and luck, nothing more. Edith had been halfway home from her… conversation with Flint, stalking through a back alley, when a stream of red had shot across her vision, narrowly missing her head. She'd immediately shifted, but the two heroes, Thrust and Fog, still had the advantage. They'd hemmed her in, Fog creating ice faster than she could tear it apart until the threat of the torrents of red liquid Thrust’s power generated had forced her to switch back, lest her form got completely dissolved. From there, they'd easily bound her in ice, knocked her out with a stun round, and when she'd woken up, she'd been sitting in that damn cell. Food had appeared when she wasn't looking, with no obvious method of delivery, so she'd had no human contact for the last two days. That part didn't particularly bother her, though; it was par for the course for her these days.

After a few minutes, she had to admit it: she was lost. Well, not 'lost’. Lost would imply she knew where she was going at some point in the process. She'd just tried to head in one direction as much as possible and hoping it would lead to some sort of window or something that would be easier to break through. Once she was out in the open air, the rest was easy. The winds at these heights would prevent her from flying properly, but she could still float down until it was weaker. She just had to find a way out first.

Well, there was nothing for it. She let loose an angry sigh and shifted forms.

For the briefest of moments, it was like coming apart. Like every bit of her was being pulled in a completely different direction to every other bit. She'd never managed to get over how unnerving it was completely, but she'd become inured to it. The first she'd done it, gone all the way, she'd spent an hour crying in a corner in abject terror. Just thinking about how weak she'd been made her feel sick. Now, it just left her unnerved for a second or two.

She hovered at about chest height above the ground, a swirling, glimmering cloud of white. When she was in this form, she couldn't stop it moving any more than she could stop blood pumping in her 'real’ body. It wasn't just her body that shifted, either. Her consciousness spread out, becoming more diffuse. She wasn't in the swarm. She was the swarm.

With a thought, her form bunched up, and then shot away down the corridor, far faster than she could have even run. She swerved and spun through the corridors at blistering speed, and yet the steadfastly refused to transition into any sort of window or exit, or even a room with people she could force to show her the way out. Who had designed this damn maze of Tower? How was there even this much space in it?

Distracted by the thought, she wasn't paying attention when she rounded another corner, and was thus caught by surprise when a gust of wind slammed her against the wall. Before she could recover, a cushion of swirling wind settled around her, holding her in place against the cold steel.

The man standing in the corridor in front of her was dressed in a sharp, three-piece suit in glossy silver and blue. A red sash was slung over one shoulder, and a turban of a matching color wrapped around his head. If she'd still had eyes, she'd have rolled them.

The man twisted his hands in some complex gesture, and the pressure of the wind increased, pushing her harder against. “Windstriker to Dispatch,” he said, tense. Despite the howling noise, she could still hear him fine, probably a side effect of the alterations her power made to her senses. “I have her contained. If you wouldn't mind sending a team down here, that would be swell.” He spoke with a slight British accent, masked underneath the terseness. An expat, Edith thought despite herself, possibly a recent one. It explained why she didn't recognize him, at least.

She, of course, had no intention of going back in a cell. And if this suit-wearing poseur thought she was going to just roll over, then he had another thought coming.

She switched back into her human form, the wind whipping across her skin instantly as she suddenly became bigger than the 'cage’. The pressure that had been enough to keep her salt form in place was barely an annoyance to her now, and she leapt forward at the man, fingers spread and nails bared like claws.

He jerked back, shock written all over his face, his hands coming up to try and stop her. That was the worst thing about first-gens, it was so easy to catch them by surprise. He'd had to concentrate to make a simple bubble of wind. There was no way, caught off guard, that he could muster up anything-

A gust of wind hit her from the side, blowing her hair out in that direction, but doing little else. There it was. Unfazed, she grabbed him by the throat, and brought her other hand up close to his face. With a little mental effort, it broke apart into fragments of white, which quickly began spinning fast enough to be audible. “Try anything,” she hissed at him, “and I cut off both your hands and flay you alive.”Sweat ran down his brow as he gulped. “Where's the exit?”

“Dispatch,” he choked out, “I-”

She pursed her lips, then lowered her hand to his arm and gouged out a chunk at least an inch deep. “How. Do I. Get out. Last time.”

He screamed, and she tightened her grip, cutting it off. “Keep doing that and I'll give you a real reason to scream.”

“T-two lefts,” he stammered, “a right and then up the stairs. Oh god, please don't-”

He screamed again as she sent the whirring blade of salt down to behind his knee and cut the hamstring there. She tossed him to the side and kept walking, ignoring the whimpering from behind her.

Sure enough, following the directions brought her to an empty hangar-like space with an open space at the end. Wind howled outside, and the light of the setting sun casting shadows off the buildings. Another hero was waiting there for her, but she just smothered him, blocking his airways until he passed out and collapsed.

She stepped out over the edge, shifting into a spiralling cloud that buffeted and spread with the wind, but already her thoughts were miles away. She'd been so close, before, so close to finding Eve. She'd tracked down the chain of deals and half-unspoken connections her mother had made when she'd hidden her away. She'd taken her Cabal and raided it, but had found nothing except a lab, running experiments far stranger than anything she'd ever seen. There had been all sorts of fail-safes and procedures and security features, but instead of Eve at the end of it, all they'd found was a bag of bearer bonds and a datapad. Her subordinates were happy with that, but it had nearly crushed her. To be so close, and have it snatched away. And then, to add insult to injury, even that little she had had been taken away from her. Taken by those goddanned ‘Outliers’. She was going to make them - him - pay for that. But not right now. Now, she needed to plan.

I'm coming, Eve. I'm almost there.

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Doors 14-XI

It’s The Distance Between The Two Where The Mystery Lies.

I opened my eyes, and immediately regretted it. My vision spun, tilting to the left, and I staggered, nearly smashing into a vent block. I managed to catch myself, and slowly lowered my body down to the ground, propping my back up against the block and sitting with my knees in front of me. I squeezed my eyes shut, and took deep breaths until it felt a little less like I was standing on a surfboard on top of an exercise ball.

I sighed, pulling my goggles up so I could rub my eyes, resting my elbows on my knees. I was still a little queasy, but the worst had passed, and my vision no longer swam alarmingly. Looking up, I stared at the Tower in the distance, the fading light casting it in orange and red and pink.

Now that I was safe, or at least far away, the whole thing seemed unreal. Like a distant dream, or a movie I watched. It barely even seemed like I'd been the one to do all that stuff. I mean, I'd pulled the fire alarm, setting off a superhuman smackdown! I'd broken a vigilante out of jail! I'd been sort-of-not-really inducted into the Guardians! I'd fought of a woman made of salt using strange powers and a half-understood grasp of dubious physics! I snorted out loud as I recalled the last one. Gosh, it was stupid. It still seemed like it shouldn't have worked. Turbine mode, activate!

The humor faded quickly, the nausea following soon after, but I stayed sitting there, staring off at the skyline. So, I asked myself, what now?

“Now we go home and fall asleep and worry about it tomorrow.”

But-

“No buts. We have done a crap ton already today. Cram any more stuff in here and I'll suffocate.”

Wh-

“Don't even quip about it, I'm not in the mood. We've faced off against three, three, separate sets of supervillains today. That is a 300% increase from literally any other day. We're going home, we're lying down, and we're watching some garbage cartoons until we fall asleep. Hot chocolate may be involved.”

That did sound pretty nice right about then. Especially the hot chocolate. I wasn't quite tired, but I was fatigued, if that makes sense. And if I kept sitting there, the latter was probably going to transition into the former.

Alright, fine. I stood up, stretching, and strode over to where I'd hidden the bundle of my clothes, back before I'd even stepped foot in that now-ruined building and set off the whole chain of events. The thermal underwear meant I wasn't really stripping down, but I still crouched in between two blocks while switching clothes, just to be sure. With that done, and my costume tucked safely away in a bag slung over my shoulder, I pulled out my phone to check the train times-

Hold the bleep up.

I stared down at the phone in my hand. My phone, six by four inches of sheer black plastic. The phone I'd recorded the DoM agent on. Except it wasn't, was it? Because that had been a copy me, not this me. This phone wasn't the same one I'd had, because it had never moved from my pocket here on this rooftop. So…  my powers had created an entire, functioning phone? What the actual frick?

I woke the phone up, ignoring the messages and notifications and going straight to the camera. Nothing. The most recent photo was from almost a week ago, a crappy low-light pic of a terrible attempt at a new hairstyle. I'd kept it to send to Sabi, but it had sort of slipped my mind.

I leant back against the block, mind racing. I guess it made sense. If it could make a human body that could breath and bleed and (presumably) eat, I guess there was no reason it couldn't replicate a phone. But when I poofed out, that phone essentially ceased to exist. There was no reason that the data from that one would come back to this. So unless the Guardians had made a copy of the video, and I dearly hoped they had, I'd essentially deleted my evidence. That could be problematic.

It was a longer-term problem though, and as I exited the camera, I realized I had one that was much more pressing. Because leaving aside a few apps and games, all the numerous notifications were missed calls and texts from my mom.

Oh dear.

She picked up on the first ring, which was a first for her. “Young lady,” - hoo boy- “where have you been! I've been worried sick!”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, hello. Me? Oh, I'm good. And yourself? Well, that's just fantastic. How was work? Oh, that's good, that's good. My day? Well, it’s been pretty nice, thanks for asking.”

“Hannah Marjorie Eiling-Kingsford,” (yeah, my middle name is Marjorie. Laugh it up, chuckleduck), “do not sass me!”

“Try phrasing it like we're on this side of the century,” I shot back, “and maybe I'll consider it.”

I think I could actually hear her teeth grinding. “Where. Have. You. Been?! I come home-”

“Twenty-four hours after you said you would,” I interjected.

“-and find my daughter gone, without a trace! No note, no message on my phone, nothing!”

“Well, I'm sorry, but can you blame me for thinking that you wouldn't be back before I would?”

It was like she hadn't even heard me. “This behavior is irresponsible, disrespectful, and completely-”

“God, mom, cut it out. You're just lashing out because you feel like you're responsible for this by not being a good enough parent.” That shut her up. Thank you, optional-credit psych class. “I was hanging out with Sabi, going thrift store diving.” As I said that, I switched the phone to speaker and began frantically tapping out a message to her. “If my mom calls, we spent day clothes shopping, k?” It whooshed away, and I returned the phone to my ear. Hopefully, she'd see it before my mom could check that.

“And if I asked Sabi, would she say the same thing?” Mom asked suspiciously.

I spluttered indignantly. “Wh- seriously?! Do you actually trust me that little?!” A little voice told me in the back of my head that she was actually correct, but I ignored it. “What else would I be doing, mom? Where else would I be, who else would I be seeing? I have one friend and no social life! What else could I be doing, huh?!”

“You're being awfully defensive about this,” she noted, not sounding nearly as calm as she thought she was. “It comes off like you're hiding something.”

“Oh, sure, sure. I'm defensive because I'm hiding something. That must be it. It couldn't possibly be because my own mother doesn't trust me enough to believe I spent a day with MY ONLY FRIEND!” I practically screamed the last bit into the phone, bits of spittle flying onto the screen.

There was silence for a moment. Then, “Come home, Hannah. Now. We'll talk once you're back.” And then she hung up.

I stared at the screen for a moment. I wanted to scream, shout, smash the phone into itty-bitty little pieces, but none of that would make me feel better.

I spawned a copy, stepped into it, took two steps to the right and threw the duplicate phone as hard as I could at the ground. Glass and plastic fragments shattered violently, and I watched them spin away, breathing heavily. Okay, I lied, that did make me feel better.

I dismissed the copy, and the phone fragments poofed away into the same smoke as it. Guess that confirmed that theory.

The sun began to set, and I sighed, setting aside my anger. I'd need it when I got home, though, so I tucked it away and kept it stoked for the inevitable confrontation.

So much for cartoons and hot chocolate.

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Doors 14-X

I Told You What It Is, It’s A Horrible Monster.

I could've just left. Poof, gone, problem solved. I'd like to be able to say the reason I didn't was something cool or sensible or pragmatic or something like that. Gather information, get the dangerous criminal back in a cell, that sort of thing.

The truth is, though, in the panic of the situation, I forgot I could do that. Look, I was stressed, and sort of used to only having the one body. You'd have done the same.

The woman stared at me, still trembling with rage. The tears were gone from her eyes, but they were still red and swollen. Her hands hadn't moved from her sides, though, so I assumed that for now, she wasn't going to try and kill me. Which was nice.

“So, uh-”

“Who are you?” she interrupted me. I could barely make out the words, her voice was so raspy.

“W-well,” I stammered, “that's, um, a bit of a long story.” The black wall was still there, darn it. Why the heck did he do that?

“Panic, obviously. So logically, the guy who took on three hardened criminals is scared of this woman.”

Gee, thanks. That makes me feel better.

“Oh, would you prefer I lied to you? Would that be better? Well, then, I'm sure he did it because she's going to give you lots of presents, and he was nice enough to make sure you have them all to yourself.

...I hate you.

“You should see someone; self-loathing is not the sign of a healthy mind!”

Hate. You.

“You were with the heroes,” she noted coldly, “and now you're here. Breaking out… an Outlier.” She spat the word like it was a curse. “It’s only the first part that's stopping me from killing you right here.” For all the rage she was clearly feeling, her voice was icy calm, with just the nearest hint of brittleness. Step lightly.

“I… don't think you could do that,” I replied, entirely honestly.

“You're not acting like someone I can't hurt,” she sneered. “And you would be amazed at how good I've gotten at hurting people.” Shivers ran down my spine. Regardless of proficiency at causing pain, she was clearly very good at creating fear.

“Well,” I said, faux-casually, “we can't always control instinctual reactions. And so while logically I know you can't hurt me,” I absolutely did not know that, “the brain still does what it does.” I offered up a half-hearted grin, realized she couldn't see it and dropped it, then realized she could probably still read my facial cues and pulled it back up again. I imagine it made me look quite schizophrenic.

Her face was blank as she stared at me, but I think there was some confusion there. She hid it well, though; probably because of her whole 'murderous psychopath’ thing. Not that I was trusting Stump blindly on that assertion, but seeing her behaviour made me inclined to agree. “Who are you,” she repeated, “and why are you here?”

I sighed, standing up straight. It was becoming clear that the barrier wasn't going anywhere. “Look, I'm not with the Tower, okay? Or the Outliers.”

“Then why were you with both of them.”

“I'm…” I cast around for an explanation. What would make the murderous criminal psycho likely to let me go slash be? “I'm… playing them off each other.” Huh. Not quite what I'd meant, but I'd take it. I mean, it was technically true.

In a general sense.

When viewed from a distance.

At night.

She raised an eyebrow, but there was no warmth or mirth in it. “You are,” she said disbelievingly, not quite a question.

Oh, there was no way this wasn't coming back to bite me. “Mm-hmm,” I nodded. “With all this…” I searched around for a word, failed to find one and compromised, “...this, going on, they were already on a bit of a collision course. I'm just... helping it along a little. Keep them both busy.” Spin, spin, spin.

“Why?” I didn't get the sense she believed me, but she wasn't attacking either.

Okay, motivations. If I could reach back in time and strangle the Past Me who'd opted out of drama classes, I totally would. I decided to stick close to the truth, an experience that was becoming depressingly routine. “The Dresden Four- you know, those guys from the school thing a few days ago? I have beef with them.”

“What kind of 'beef’?” Was that a hint of curiosity beneath the sardonicism? Golly, I hoped so.

“Part personal, part professional,” I said curtly. So far, I'd managed to avoid either confirming or denying whether I was a criminal or not, and I planned to keep it that way.

That got a laugh, a hoarse snicker that teetered right on the edge of cackling. “How could you have a grudge with four hardened criminals?” She knew about the blurry woman? Now that was interesting. “You can't even be out of high school. You're wearing ski goggles. Gardening gloves.

“Not everyone can afford fancy-schmanschy outfits. You're not exactly looking haute yourself right now.” She glanced down at her flimsy prisoner’s garb as if seeing it for the first time.

“Fine,” she said grudgingly, but didn't move. “But if you're playing both of those groups of idiots and children against each other, and I am not saying that I believe you, why are you admitting it on camera?”

“The Guardians are operating under the assumption I'm helping them.” Because I was. “That comes with certain perks, such as a personal camera blindspot.”

Now that got a reaction. It was an angry one, but it was a reaction. Something in her snapped, and she began striding towards me, coming apart at the edges. I pressed up again the barrier, willing it to disappear, but no dice. “What are you stalling for?” she snarled.

“W-what?” I stammered, confused.

She snarled again, but anger made it kind of incomprehensible. All I caught was something about 'stupid, stupid story'. So I don't think she believed me.

“Whaaaaa, but you were so good at it?”

Therapy, and meds. That's what's waiting for you if you keep this up.

“Look,” I said doing my best to stay calm, “I know it sounds a bit crazy, but-” Oh, why was I even bothering? I went solid and threw a punch at her.

Her eyes widened: I don't think she'd been expecting that. Heck, I hadn't been expecting it. As my fist made contact, though, the pertinent section of her body shifted into salt, and my fist just passed right through. The wind it generated did move her form around a little.

Her eyes narrowed, and suddenly the salt began whirling like a razor, trying to cut into the arm that was currently halfway through her torso. It didn't tear off my forearm - yay - but I could actually feel it, which probably wasn't good. I jerked the arm back out of the hole, and again the air currents pushed it away a little.

There I was, cornered by a madwoman that I couldn't actually hit. Would've been a good time to remember that I had no reason to be there, right? Haha, no, that would've made sense. Instead, my stupid brain took it as a challenge. There must be some way that I could affect her. A half-formed theory niggled at the back of my mind, but I was distracted from following it to its conclusion by Ado exploding into a cloud of sodium nitrate crystals and swarming over me.

I flailed around weakly as the blurring storm began to cut into me, but it was about as useful as trying to punch a cloud-

And suddenly, I figured it out. It was all about displacement. I stopped flailing, then lashed out as quickly as I could with both arms. The gusts of wind it generated were enough to disrupt the salt cloud, and I kept repeating the action until I'd actually driven her off me.

Okay, this is either going to be really cool, or really, really dumb. As the swarm bore back down on me, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, extended my arms, and spun around as fast as I could.

Immediately, a wind picked up, quickly growing stronger and stronger as I spun. It howled in my ears, and I could feel myself getting dizzier. I'd have to assume it was working, because I was not opening my eyes.

After a few moments, when I felt like I was about to fall over, I stopped. The wind immediately lessened, but didn't die out completely. I leant one hand against the wall and opened my eyes. Ado was down the other end of the corridor, and judging by the way she was braced, it hadn't been willingly on her part. Her teeth were bared, and one hand was covering her eyes. She must've been blown at least twenty meters back. Which was good, because if I did something that stupid for a minor effect, I would be pretty darn pissed.

As she realized that I'd stopped, her arm came down, and her form began coming apart again. But something interrupted her, a noise from out of sight, and she spun around to face it.

Taking advantage of her distraction, and finally remembering how to use basic logic and self-preservation, I closed my eyes and poofed out. The whole situation was probably going to come round again with a vengeance, but at that moment, I was too tired, dizzy, and sore to care.

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Doors 14-IX

Doors Are For People With No Imagination.

Ha. I like your style, 'Wisp’. I didn't know how he knew what I was looking at, and I didn't ask. I'll give you a cue.

I nodded, sidling over to the wall next to the switch and resting my hand on it. Okay, the light flashed. Three. Two. One. Go.

I pulled the handle down. Immediately, a siren went off, almost painfully loud, and red lights began flashing. Sprinklers began going off, spraying a thick deluge of water down over the patrons. A wave of shock and alarm shot through the crowd as the unexpected noise jolted them out of watching the confrontation. The participants of said confrontation reacted similarly, but no-one did anything to break the tense standoff.

Except Fog. Of course. If I didn't already have a nemesis, I think she'd probably be it.

As soon as the noise began, her hand shot out, and spears of ice formed, hurtling towards every Outlier she could see. It was so quick that there was no way it had been off-the-cuff: she'd clearly been preparing to do that ever since stepping in the room.

As the screams began to sound, and the crowd began streaming towards the door, the frozen projectiles hurtled through the air towards their targets. Not a single one made it. It happened too fast for me to see what happened: the only one I managed to catch was the hunk with the orange armor. He casually raised an arm, and a shimmering forcefield appeared in front of him. Oddly enough, it was concave, looking for all the world like an oversized contact lens. The ice hit it and shattered, but the fragments didn't fall to the ground. Instead, they stuck to the shield, quickly swirling inwards to the centre of the disc and forming a large, solid clump. He waved again, and the clump shot forward back towards Fog with nearly as much speed as the original. What happened beyond that point, I don't know, because everything erupted into chaos. The Outliers and Guardians were fighting, forcefields and energy projectiles and bullets and wind and seemingly everything else under the sun flying around. The civilians were streaming towards the exits, some calmly, some less so, and managing to block my view despite the fact that I was taller than most of them.

“Alright, 'Wisp’, lead the way.”

“Gah!” I leaped to the side, away from the figure suddenly standing next to me. “How did you-”

“Is that important right now? Let's go.”

Right. Right. Okay. I nodded and lead him towards the door back into the Tower’s innards. “Wait here,” I said once we reached them, and faded through. On the other side, I quickly re-donned the rest of my costume, then pulled on the handle, opening it for Foresight. He strode through, glancing at my costume and raising an eyebrow, but saying nothing, just closing the door behind him.

Okay, so to get back I'd have to go past the situation room, as it was the only way I knew. I titled my head, and broke into a quick jog down the corridor, the Outlier following close behind.

“Why couldn't you do this yourself?” he asked suddenly, as we were passing through the five consecutive 90 degree turns.

I saw no point in trying to lie. “Plausible deniability. I have a… relationship with the Tower I'd rather not violate.”

“And yet you're still here in view of the cameras.”

“Part of that relationship involves being removed from the cameras.”

“Ah,” he breathed. “That sounds… useful. So will I not appear as well?”

I shrugged. “Don't know, don't care.”

“Fair enough.” His voice was dry. It occurred to me suddenly, probably far too late, that he really should have known who I was. Unless Skew hadn't told the other Outliers about their encounter with me, which seemed… possible, I suppose? I couldn't really guess why she might do that, but it didn't seem outside the the realms of plausibility.

Well, nothing for it. “Why didn't you know who I was?” I asked back. “I would've thought Skew, Freefall or Flatline would have told you all.”

At that, he gave a pained, forced chuckle. “The others, maybe. Skew doesn't tell me shit, that insufferable prick does whatever Skew does, and Freefall’s too new to know better.”

“Oh.” I hadn't gotten that impression from them at all. “That sucks.”

“You have no idea.” Despite the subject matter, his time was still calm and measured. Almost… too measured? Like he was timing each syllable precisely. I glanced back and saw that although he was moving normally, eyes ahead behind a thin mask, he had that blue glow surrounding him again. Perhaps it had something to do with that.

Another abrupt turn that I almost missed, and then we were standing just outside the cell block from before. I sighed an internal sigh of relief. I'd been pretty sure we'd been going the right way, but all the corridors looked exactly the same. It was nice to know I'd been right. Very validating.

I came to a stop just outside the room, and though it was abrupt, Foresight did the same easily and calmly, like he'd been expecting it. It was exactly how I'd left it… geez, probably only fifteen minutes ago. It felt like longer. I turned to gesture to Foresight that we needed to be quiet, but he'd already moved past me, striding up to Stonewall’s cell- no, past it.

What?

He stopped outside a cell further down, one I couldn't see into, and peered in. “Well hey there,” he said, sounding oddly cheerful, “you psycho whore.”

“Whoa-oa-oa, back the heck up. Not cool, guy.”

There was a snarl, and suddenly I knew which cell it was. In hindsight, I could've guessed; there was only one other occupied, but it did happen very quickly. “You,” a voice hissed. Husky and hoarse, it had the distinct ragged quality of someone who did a lot of screaming. My old gymnastics teacher had sounded the same way, and I don't think she ever said a single word that wasn't louder than a barking dog.

“Aww, you managed to remember me. I'm touched.” His voice dripped with condescension. What the heck was with this guy? He'd seemed… normal up until now, but this was just unpleasant. “I see you've managed to f*** up your life yet again. How many times is that now? Three? Four?”

I couldn't help myself. I strode over until I could see inside. The woman was standing right up against the barrier, staring at Foresight. Her hands were clenched by her sides, blood and salt falling from them in equal measure. Fury radiated from her, so much that I reeled back even behind the barrier. Her eyes, though… they were burning with white-hot rage, but tears were welling in them. I blinked, and checked again. Yep, definitely tears.

“Let's see,” Foresight continued gleefully, “there was… your mother, your sister, Flint,” and she stiffened at that last one.

Okay, this is screwed up. I grabbed Foresight's arm and dragged him away, cutting him off halfway through a word. Shock let me get a few steps before he started resisting, and then I just upped my density until I couldn't feel him pulling away. “What the flipping heck was that?!” I hissed at him once we were a safe distance away.

“Let. Me. Go.” he snapped back, futilely pulling on his arm. I didn't relax my grip. “I said-”

“And I asked what that was.”

He gritted his teeth. “That… girl is a terrible human being who has killed more people than I can count, and attempted to do the same to me multiple times.”

“One you apparently have a personal connection to,” I noted, “seeing as how you knew the exact details you needed to flipping take her to pieces!”

“That's not relevant,” he sniffed. “Consider it revenge for all the times she’s tried to snuff me out.”

“One, revenge is stupid and pointless. Two, there's no scenario where that is justifiable. Never.

He sniffed again, this time dismissively. “Whatever.”

I stared at him mutely. I think I was starting to see why Skew apparently didn't tell him anything. “You're a real piece of work,” I said as I released his arm. He rubbed the spot I'd held him by gingerly. “Now are you going to get your friend out or not?”

He didn't answer, instead closing his eyes and beginning to glow again. “I can't just shut off the cell, the control panel is too far away and too complicated for me to shut off. There are some power essential power circuits built into the wall, if you're willing to use that freakish strength to break them-”

I cut him off with an emphatic shake of the head. “Nuh-uh, nah, nope. I'm not gonna leave any evidence I was here.”

He sighed, still glowing. “Fine. I'll do it the messy way, then.” He pulled something from his belt, a small white hemisphere.

“Which is?” I asked.

He reached up and carefully placed the object above the cell doorway. “Shaped charge, blow the circuit, door opens.”

“And… you just have a shaped charge ready to go?”

He shrugged, stepping away and slipping a small controller from another pouch on his belt. “I need one now, so I'd say it was a sensible preparation.” He began fiddling with the controller. “Stand back.”

“A.) That logic is terrible, and B.)-” He slammed one finger down on a trigger, and everything went white for a moment. The smell of acrid smoke immediately filled the air, and even through my scarf I still had to cough.

The explosive had gouged out a chunk of the metal wall about the size of a basketball, leaving exposed wiring sparking and smoking. The blue field blocking the cell flickered, and then shorted out entirely. Some of the other doors were flickering as well, but they all remained solid.

There was a beat of silence as the dust whirled around us. Foresight turned to me as if to say something, but before he could, a giant brown blur barrelled out of the cell and slammed into him.

I started forward, going dense, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn't an attack. It was a bear hug. The giant figure of Stonewall had lifted Foresight clear off the ground, and was squeezing him so hard it looked like he might burst.

“You all came,” he rumbled, with such sincere happiness it was hard not to smile. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Foresight managed to squeak out. “Could you put me down now, please?”

“Oh,” he said, abashed, immediately loosening his grip. “Sorry.”

Foresight leant over, taking a few deep breaths. “Just don't do it again.”

I glanced up at the destroyed chunk of wall. “Shouldn't that have set off some kind of alarm?”

Stonewall spun towards me. “Who are you?” he said, alarmed. His fists clenched tightly by his sides

I unconsciously took a few steps back. “No-one important,” I said hastily. His eyes narrowed.

“She-” Foresight began to say, but he was cut off short. Abruptly, the lights above us flickered, and the exposed wiring sparked again, even harder. On a hunch, I spun around, just in time to see all the remaining shields waver one last time, then disappear.

There was a noise from behind me, one that stopped unnaturally, and I turned to find a wall of black had filled the hallway. “Oh, what?” I yelled, slamming a fist against it. “Come on!” It didn't feel like something solid when I hit it. There wasn't any connection, my hand just… stopped, like all the energy had been drained out of it.

I remembered just too late. I heard footsteps behind me, gulped, and slowly moved to face them. The woman from the other cell stood in the hallway, blood still dripping from her hands, salt still flying around her. Eyes still full of fury, and locked directly onto me.

“Hi,” I said weakly. “How's it going?”

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Doors 14-VIII

Tides Do What Tides Do.

The bank was reasonably busy; at a guess, there were maybe 300 civilians in there. Most of them were crowded around the edges of the room, behind the intangible barrier that the pillars created. A few were trying to get as far away as possible, but most seemed to be fairly intent on observing the situation now taking place in the lobby. Which seemed kinda stupid to me: it didn't really make sense to prioritize spectacle over your own safety. But people were strange, and it wasn't like I could really criticize, considering my actions over the last few days.

The way the crowd had moved had created an arena of sorts, the rectangular space within the pillars and bookended with the main desk and the glass doors at the opposite end. It was… it was almost like a painting, actually. Within the arena stood the superhumans, larger-than-life figures in colorful costumes, bearing strange abilities far beyond those of mortal… people. Then the regular, ordinary, baselines, eagerly peering in on the spectacle but unable to connect to it on any level.

Or maybe I was just being an overly-academic prat with her head stuck up her own butt. I think it could go either way.

The Outliers were spread fairly evenly around the space. Skew stood in front of the desk, a duffel bag at her feet, talking to the Guardians with an insouciant grin on her face. They’d assumed a fairly tight formation, facing outwards so that they could observe all of the vigilantes. Comet was at the head, facing Skew, evidently having a conversation with her. I could actually hear them, as could everyone with their smartphones out, but I was tuning it out. The other Outliers were facing half towards the heroes, and half towards the crowd, keeping a watchful eye out but otherwise just standing there. Seemed Skew did the talking for them, which fitted with what I'd seen. As well as said dark-skinned woman, I recognized the other two I'd met, Freefall and Flatline, the former surly with crossed arms, the latter a small smirk and relaxed posture. The others were an interesting bunch. There was a woman clad entirely in white, with crimson trim and metal gloves and mask, hovering slightly off the ground, and one in black loaded with more weaponry than a Russian militia. A faint blue glow emanated from a lithe figure with heavily-armored gloves as he stood off to the side with his eyes closed, while a short blonde with blue, sculpted armor tapped her foot impatiently, sending ripples through the ground. A tall, square-jawed… I can't really not describe him as a hunk, in an orange plated armor vest, was watching the crowd closely, absentmindedly rubbing at bruised and bloodied knuckles and- was that a mummy?! The fabrics were all different sorts, but the style was definitely that of a classic mummy, with the exception of the tendrils of fabric that twisted and snapped in the air around her. It wasn't hard to guess what her power was.

Skew had said there were ten of them, and I'd done my research, but seeing it was a whole nother matter. It was frankly scary that they'd managed to stay completely under the radar for well over a year, while apparently being effective enough to more than halve petty superhuman crime in the city.

I couldn't help but wonder what they were doing here. I mean, it made no sense. Not that I knew their motives or anything, but they were essentially wanted criminals, and they'd walked into the home base of the city’s heroes because of a…

A duffel bag. A large duffel bag. The Outliers were suspects in the case of the missing $200 million in bearer bonds. I'd looked at it the wrong way. They weren't walking into the Tower. They were walking into First United. On one hand, that probably meant they were trying to return it, which was good! But on the other, it meant they'd had it in the first place, which was… not so good? I dunno.

The more important thing, though, was that it was… well, to be kinda blunt, it wasn't really my problem? I mean, I didn't really have any investment in whatever this was, and considering I was on semi-friendly terms with both of the members of the conflict, I really didn't want to spoil that by getting involved. So I guess I could just leave.

That was a first.

I closed my eyes, began to will this body away- and stopped. The image of Stonewall sitting upstairs in his little cell appeared in my mind, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make it go away. It wasn't right.

“Dagnabbit,” I muttered sourly under my breath. I couldn't leave him there, I just couldn't. It'd be wrong. It was wrong. “Dag. Nabbit.”

Unfortunately, freeing someone from their cells would not endear me to the Guardians, or the Tower in general. Bu-ut… it seemed like the Outliers didn't know the whereabouts of their teammate, based on the attempted phone call I'd seen Skew make. But the Guardians didn't know that, did they? And it would make sense for the vigilantes to mount an offense and try and rescue their friend. All I had to do was fill them in, and they'd do my job for me, with no possible connection back to me. Assuming I got it right, that is.

So I had to get the attention of one of them, without also alerting the heroes to my presence. No problem, right? It's not like they were out in the open, and would easily be noticed if one of them disappeared.

I was seriously considering starting some chaos to let one of them slip away, when blue light filled my vision. It covered my eyes for a brief moment, before forming the shape of letters. You're different, they spelled out.

I paused, not sure what to do. The letters quickly reformed. Speak under your breath, I can hear you. Who are you, and why are you here?

“I could ask you the same question,” I whispered, barely audible.

Immediately the words changed again. You first.

I bit my lip, but complied. “Wisp. I presume you're one of the Outliers?”

Correct. Foresight, the one glowing blue. Ah, interesting. Some kind of astral projection? Why are you here?

“Not important,” I answered, then continued quickly before the letters could change, “but I know something that is. Stonewall, your teammate is being held in a cell upstairs.”

The letters froze halfway through reforming. Interesting, they said after a moment. Why are you telling me that?

“It's not right,” I answered without hesitation. “He didn't do anything to deserve it.”

Ah. So you're one of those. Alright, fine. Can you lead me to him? I mentally reviewed the trip I'd taken. Assuming the corridors worked the same way backwards, I should be able to. I nodded my assent. Okay. Then I just need some way to slip away. I can't exactly just walk away.

I frowned, glancing at the scene unfolding in the 'arena’. It seemed tense now, with the exception of Skew, who was as relaxed as ever. She was currently tossing the duffel bag onto the counter, her teeth bared in a mocking grin. “How likely,” I whispered slowly, “would you say it is that this situation devolves?”

100%, the words answered instantly. Or 1, depending on how you're representing probability.

Okay, then. I wouldn't be starting anything, I'd just be… helping it along. To help someone else. That was okay, right?

Right?

I glanced over to the other side, and at the red fire alarm on the wall. “In that case, I think I have an idea.”

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