Home 16-Vignette


One day ago, or thereabouts.

The shadows swirled, disturbed despite the perfectly still light, and a man stepped forth from their depths. He wore a pale blue button-up and slacks, and had a thin, pure white tie. He was met almost immediately with a knife hurtling towards his face.

A wave of shadow rolled out of nowhere, washing over the blade only inches before his face. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, taking the weapon with it. The man smirked, a flat expression that was at odds with the complete lack of emotion in his eyes. “I suppose I should have expected that.”

The other man in the room sighed, lowering the outstretched arm that had thrown the blade. “Oh,” he said, “it's you.” His voice was mildly irritated, and he turned back to the desk he was standing in front of. “What do you want?” He was dressed in dark blue combat fatigues, a heavy vest covered in various pieces of military hardware hanging from the back of a chair next to him. A balaclava, pulled back from his face, covered his hair, leaving only a few strands of wiry blonde hanging below its edge, and his face was square and thick, with an improperly-set broken nose.

“I thought we could perhaps have some tea, have a chat, catch up.” The words were wry, joking, but the tone was flat and emotionless. It had scared the other man, the first few times. Now, it just unnerved him. Then again, everything about the man in the white tie did that, so he supposed it fit.

“Jokes? From you?”

“A fair point. As always, I am here because I require your services.”

“Yeah, I don't know why I asked. What's the job?” He didn't bother turning around to face him; he wouldn't care either way.

“Are you aware of the events currently ongoing in New Chicago?”

He nodded. “Yeah, the whole thing with the robbery, and the school. Disgusting, that one.”

The other man made a noncommittal noise at that. “I, and those I represent, have a vested interest in the outcome of the situation. Up until this point, it was hoped we could steer events without direct intervention, but sadly, they have progressed to a point where that is no longer possible.”

“So we're to intervene, then?”

He nodded slightly in confirmation. “Arrive in New Chicago as soon as possible; I can provide transport if you do not have a quicker alternative.” He knew they didn't. “Once there, you will link up with another group currently furthering our interests in the city. They are not particularly savory individuals, but I assume you and yours can deal with that.”

“I imagine we've dealt with worse,” he replied, although internally, he wasn't particularly happy with it. The main reason he'd gone independent in the first place was so that he could surround himself with the people he picked. But a job was a job.

“Good. From there, your main objective is a datapad.” He gestured, and the shadows below the desk swirled up over the surface for a second. When they retreated, a thick, heavy folder was sitting there. “Its current location is unknown, but evidence suggests it is in the hands of a vigilante group known as the Outliers.”

The man picked up the folder, flipping through it. Sure enough, the first section contained brief dossiers of nine or ten individuals. The information was sparse, but it was something. “Kids?”

“Mm. Until now, irrelevant, but their stumbling into possession of this datapad has catapulted them into being central.”

The man shook his head. “What is the world coming to?” he said ruefully. “Any other people to worry about?”

“Yes. You have never been to the city” - it was freaky how he knew that - “so you are probably not aware, but the Tower has a strong presence there. Stronger, perhaps, than anywhere else. They too are pursuing the datapad, in their own inept way, although I doubt they are aware of its true significance.”

“Which is?”

“Classified. Additionally, there is the group responsible for creating this opportunity, the Cabal of the Enlightened Savior. Small fry, smaller even than the vigilantes, but ruthless, and desperate, a combination not to be dismissed.”

The man gave a grunt of acknowledgement as he continued flipping through the pages. It seemed to contain dossiers on all the relevant figures, duplicated five times over, one for each of his team. The man in the white tie scared him, but if there was one thing to be said for his employ, it was that he was thorough and organized. “This doesn't mention any location for these Outliers.”

“No. We leave that to your efforts.”

“Hmm. And payment?”

“Standard.”

“This job is far from standard.”

“So is the work we have done for you,” he countered, “allowing you to stay free and out from under Blacklight’s yoke. You would do well to remember that.”

The man gritted his teeth. “So you're sinking to threats now.” It wasn't a question.

But the other man shook his head. “No, no threats. Just a reminder.”

“If you truly believe that, then you're far more deluded that I had thought possible.” He leant over the table, staring down. “We'll have it done.”

“See that you do.”

He held out a hand without looking back. “Knife, please.” He felt a weight drop into his hand, and when he turned, the room was empty.

“Oh, and Porter?” came the man's voice from nowhere. “If you or any of your team look at that datapad’s contents, you will not live to regret it.” The shadows swirled one more time, then settled back into their natural shapes.

Porter sighed. “Fucking Broker,” he said to the empty room. Then, he picked up his vest, strapping it on, then tucked the folder under his arm and walked into the next room.

His team sat, waiting for him. They'd obviously heard him talking, and when the room only had one entrance and had a locked door, that could only mean one thing.

“Broker?” Schaus asked him. The wiry man stood over a disassembled rifle, his hands blurring impossibly quickly as he cleaned the parts.

“Broker,” Porter confirmed. There was a large metal table in the center of the room, and he strode over to it and dropped the heavy folder with a thump. “We're headed for New Chicago.”

“Oh cool,” Cole said, with a grin. “I haven't been back in ages.” She was their newest member, and he still had trouble not thinking of her as a kid. But she had some incredibly useful skills, and had more than proven her worth, so he was doing his best to get over it.

“What's the job, Porter?” Khan had her arms folded, displaying her impressive muscles. She'd always been the wariest of taking work from the Broker, as they called him.

He sighed. “We're to retrieve a datapad. Some vigilantes have it. They're just a bunch of kids, though, so try and have some nonlethal options.” That would be hard for Khan, he knew. Her power had saved all of them many times, but it was all-or-nothing.

“A datapad? What's on it?” Tall and lanky, Jensen would've looked more at home on a basketball court than in combat. “Also, who uses datapads?”

“Governments,” Cole answered. “And people who are perfectly happy using up most of their processing power on encryption and security.”

“I asked the Broker,” Porter said, answering Jensen's question, “and he shut me down flat. Classified.”

“Well, I guess that's what you get when you work for the spooks.”

“He also warned us not to look at the contents. Said we'd die if we did.”

“So he's threatening us now?” Khan asked, sounding angry.

He shook his head. “No. Well, yes, but that wasn't one, I don't think. I'm pretty sure he meant that looking at it would kill us.”

“Well, let's not do that, then,” Schaus replied easily. “Problem solved.”

“How could looking at a datapad kill us?” Cole wondered out loud. “Oh fuck it's an information weapon, isn't it? Those nutjobs at DARPA finally did it.” She clasped her hands together, squeezing tight, actually looking worried.

“Whatever it is,” Porter said hastily, “it's irrelevant. All that matters is that we've been paid to retrieve it. So that's what we're going to do.” Although, if Cole was right, he dreaded the thought of an information weapon in the hands of whatever shady branch of the U.S. government the Broker worked for.

But… a job was a job.

“Get your gear together,” he said as he turned to leave the room, “and go over those dossiers. We leave for New Chicago in an hour.”

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Home 16-V

Miss You Most Of All.

A shower of concrete clattered and bounced off the floor as I withdrew my fist from the wall. A small cloud of dust poofed out at the same time, but a quick wave of my hand dispersed it before it could get to me. The hole itself was about 3 inches deep, and heavily compacted, but the area around it hadn't suffered the direct impact, and so it crumbled instead, like hard cheddar. That was annoying, so I stomped on the fragments and ground them down into dust. Then I hit the wall again, a few more times, leaving more indentations in a roughly circular pattern. I took a step back, frowning as I considered it, then stepped forward and kicked as hard as I could. The ensuing crater completely absorbed all the other smaller one I'd made, and sent cracks racing through the rest of the wall. The cloud of dust it produced was much larger, and some of settled on my bag where it was sitting, off to the side. My regular clothes were inside, but my goggles, scarf and poncho/cape thing on top, so they got a bit of dusting. I'd donned the basic trappings of the costume and bound my hair back into a bun, but I hadn't really needed the rest of it; I wasn't going anywhere, I was just trying to break some stuff.

The docks district of New Chicago had been a bad idea from the start. Sure, the old city had had a pretty decent shipping industry, bringing stuff in across the Great Lakes, but 9/11 kind of changed that. It wasn't that there wasn't any need for shipping: the supply and demand didn't just disappear. But even though New Chicago is on the complete opposite bank of Lake Michigan, far enough away that you can't even see Old Chicago a lot of the time, there was still a stigma. People don't really think rationally about things like radiation. So although the city planners, desperately accelerating plans they hadn't expected to use for another decade because of 9/11, had included a shipping industrial area to rival or surpass the old one, it got maybe one tenth of the use they'd projected it would have. So now a decent stretch of the harbourside, pretty much a good two-thirds of the western side of Ogontz Bay, was covered in abandoned warehouses, empty docks and emptier offices. Some still got use, obviously, but for the most part, it was a ghost town. I could see why the Outliers had set up shop here.

I'd not returned to the same warehouse I'd used last time, when I was first testing out my powers. It was probably paranoia, but better safe than sorry. Instead, I'd basically wandered around until I'd found one that had a bunch of stuff inside. And then I proceeded to destroy all of it.

There was a large metal shelving rack nearby, and, finished terrorising the wall, I stalked over to it, rubbing my hands together, shoulders clenched. To keep myself safe from debris, I'd left my real body sitting just outside the door, in the intermediary portion between inside and out. If I died because I accidentally hit myself with a piece of shrapnel, I'd never live it down.

Because I'd be dead.

I bent down and grabbed the bottom of the rack, still dense, and lifted. There was basically no resistance, but there was a loud screeching, warping sound, and the rack didn't move in the slightest. I looked down to find myself holding two handfuls of compressed metal, and two vertical trails of destruction through the rack. Well, that was just unsatisfying. I grabbed one of the vertical beams with both hands, about a meter in length, and pulled it off, leaving me with a crude spear. There was a large wooden crate on the other side of the room, so I hefted my new weapon, careful not to destroy it in my grip, and hurled it at the box. It blurred through the air in a blink, and the old, rotting wood shattered as it pierced it all the way through, sending fragments flying away. The spear itself got buried almost halfway into the concrete, glowing a little with heat.

I was breathing heavily. When had that happened? I didn't even need to breath. Stupid.

The contents of the crate had spilled out, little rubber bouncy balls, and I walked over and began methodically compacting each one to about the size of a marble. I had done about ten when a phone rang from inside my bag. Not mine, the burner Flatline had given me.

I pursed my lips, and walked over and answered it. “Hello?”

“Jesus flipping Christ,” swore the voice on the other end. “Are you going to kill me?”

“What?”

“You sound like you've just killed someone, and I don't think it's a stretch to assume I'm next when you're talking like that.”

“Who is this?” I asked flatly.

“Wha- seriously? It's Kai. With the sunglasses?” Oh right. Mirror.

“What do you want?”

“Are you kidding me with this- I'm trying to help you, you mood-swinging psychopath. Christ! Did someone kill your family?”

“What do you have?” I asked, ignoring her waffling on.

“F*** me, lady, you really know how to show gratitude. I found your godd*mn supervillains, the least you can do is thank me.”

“What?! Where?!”

She rattled off an address. It was on the north side of town; pretty much as far away from me as it was possible to be. “Don't rush, though: they're gone now.”

Some of the anticipation bled out of me. “Where were they? What were they doing?”

She sucked in air through her teeth. “It's probably easier if I show you.”

“I'll be there in like an hour?” I said, immediately hurrying over to my bag.

“An hour?”

“I'm on the other side of town,” I snapped. “I don't exist at your convenience.”

“And I don't exist at yours, so rein in that attitude a couple of hundred degrees, or we’re going to have problems.”

“One hour,” I repeated, and hung up.

I reached down for my bag, but saw the goggles on top, and paused.

“...she does have a point, you know. This whole business is insanely stupid.”

I'm helping people, I snapped back. She'd see that if she pulled her head out of her own butt for just a second. 'ooh, look at me, I'm Sabah, and I'm so mysterious with all the secrets that I can't share with my best friend, even though she immediately told me everything about her big secret. Also, I'm way prettier than Hannah, and I'm going to subtly lord that over her forever’.

“You're being idiotic now, and you know it. Do you reallythink she's doing it to spite you? No, of course not, because that's dumb. And even putting that aside, she's still right. We're technically a criminal, and we just keep on digging this grave.”

I. Am. Helping. People.

“You're running around butting your nose in situations that people much more experienced and competent than you are having trouble handling.”

Comet asked me to help her. I'm doing this for a legal authority, and to help Kai.

“Do you even listen to yourself? You're changing the goalposts constantly. You're just trying to justify your own half-baked decisions any way possible.”

I leant down and picked up the bag and the stuff on top, moving it over to next to my real body. Yeah, well, you're an imaginary voice that's probably representative of all sorts of unhealthy mental issues.

“That's not a defense! That's not even a good-”

I poofed, suddenly back in my body, sitting on the floor, back against the wall. I stood up, donned the rest of my costume, and stalked out of the warehouse, leaving nothing behind but the devastation, and a lingering, almost but not quite quashed, feeling of uncertainty.

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Home 16-IV

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore.

The recap was as comprehensive as I could make it. I started basically just after I'd last seen her, with the abandoned Disciple hideout, Mirror and… Carnage, that was it. She raised her eyebrows when I described getting poofed. “I thought you were invincible?”

I shrugged awkwardly, lying on my back. “Apparently not? You're the power nerd, you tell me.”

“Heroes, not powers,” she corrected absently. It was an old bit between the two of us. “Hmm. It could be that you're physically invincible, or very tough at least. Was there anything, uh, distinctive about his hands? Apart from the rubber wrists.”

“Oh! Yeah, they were glowing.”

She nodded. “That'd be it, then. Oh, wait, was his name Carnage?” I nodded. Of course she knew that. “Okay, so… powers can sort of... short-circuit other powers, sometimes?”

“What?” I asked, sitting up straight. “Are you kidding me?”

“Nup.” She shook her head. “It's not very well known, and it frankly doesn't come up very much, especially because it's pretty inconsistent. Basically… hold on, you can’t do anything external, right? Like, affecting other people?”

“I can hit them?” I offered.

She snorted. “Yeah, hah hah. But no, okay. Powers with an external component, so anything directly affecting other people, don’t function as well when trying to affect someone or something that another power is already affecting. It’s based on the amount of power on each side, though, so you can overcome it just be being stronger or pouring more energy into it. Conversely, if a power that’s way stronger, or an attack or something that has more energy poured into it, comes into contact with a weaker one, it can basically short it out. If I remember correctly, Carnage’s power basically made his hands completely invulnerable to powers, turning them into wrecking balls, effectively. I actually think they had him in the Pit for a little while, and they did some studies on him, and found that…” she began to rise, heading for her desk, but I hooked one leg around hers, stopping her. “Right, sorry. Later. Anyway, the point is that on top of that, his powers are specifically tuned to not be affected by other powers, and invulnerability takes a lot of energy by default. So while you were probably pretty close to physically invulnerable, he wasn’t actually attacking your physical form.”

“I… don’t get it,” I admitted.

She sighed. “I might not be doing the best job of explaining it. Here, try this. Imagine that the physical aspect of a power is a puppet, and the power is the strings controlling it. So your puppet is the weird smoke clones, but for someone else it might be… fog, say.” I made a face. “Your puppet is strong and dense and stuff, but Carnage didn’t attack the puppet, he cut the strings.”

“Hmm. Yeah, I think I’ve got it now. That was a nice metaphor, by the way.”

“I try.”

“So then, could I use that somehow?” Being able to break other people’s powers would be pretty useful.

She pursed her lips. “Probably not? It generally only happens with external, directed powers without an intermediary component, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Carnage is sort of an exception there. It does probably mean you’ll be mostly safe from that, though? Maybe even this you-” she poked me in the chest, and I swatted her hand away, “-as well, because of the invisibility. Probably not as much, though. Less physics-bending, less power. Power as in energy, not as in super-. Sorry, confusing terminology.”

“S’okay, I got it.” A thought occurred to me. “I think you’re right, actually. When I was down in the sewers, that blurry woman tried doing something, and it was like-”

“Woah woah woah, slow down. The sewers?”
“Oh, right.” I kept the story going, the arrival of the two heroes, my latching on to them, the encounter in the sewers, the trip to the Tower, the whole thing with the Outliers. Oddly, she didn’t ask any questions during it, just sat there with a sort of pensive look on her face.

“So,” she said slowly once I’d finished. “You… you, after saying you were going to stay away from the illegal, dangerous vigilantes, did the exact opposite of that. Not only that, you broke one out of prison?!

“Well,” I said awkwardly, “it sounds bad when you put it like that.”

“It sounds bad any way! It is bad! You’re already a criminal for not registering, which, by the way, I have not forgotten about, and now you’ve aided and abetted known fugitives! Do you want to get yourself thrown in jail?!”

“It’s not… I wasn’t…” I protested weakly. “I just wanted to… and I-”

“You just rushed into it,” she said flatly, “without thinking. Like always.”

“...yeah,” I replied, the wind gone from my sails. “I didn’t mean to, it just… sort of happened, you know?”

“And you keep doing it anyway.” She’d lost the fire, though, and she just sounded tired.

“I don’t mean to!” I repeated. “From my perspective, there’s a very logical chain of decisions going on here. It’s just when you take a step back that it seems dumb, and it’s hard to take a step back when you’re in the thick of it. It’s just… it’s just me.”

She sighed. “I know, Hannah. But before all… this, the worst that could happen was you’d lose money, or embarrass yourself, or end up in charge of a club you have no idea how to run. But now, there’s a not-insignificant chance you’re going to get killed.”

I snorted. “You're exaggerating-”

She cut me off, slamming her hand down besides her. The effect was lessened slightly because it was a soft surface, but it got the meaning across. “No. I'm not. The Dre- those people from the school, they were going to kill people. They almost killed you! And now you’re trying to find them again, so they can have another shot at it!”

“I’m trying to stop them.”

“Yeah, and how effective have you been? You destroyed a random building, let them get away again, and then aided illegal vigilantes.” She glared at me. “Great. F***ing. Job. Wisp.”

I stared at her, shocked. “Sabah, I…” this was… I’d never seen her like this.

“Nope. I’m giving you an ultimatum. Join up with the Tower, get yourself registered. Or stop.” And she pulled out her phone. “Because sh*t like this? It cannot keep happening.”

On the screen was a news report of the battle in the bank. And in the background, clearly visible, in some suspiciously costume-esque clothing, was me.


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Home 16-III

A Place Where There Isn’t Any Trouble.

Sabah’s room was at the very top of the house; not quite an attic, more of a loft. On the way up the rickety wooden stairs, I passed Nadia again, sitting on the second floor landing, nose buried in her book. As I gingerly stepped past her, she made another swat at my leg with the heavy hardback, and I yelped and jumped out of the way. “Nadia!” I scolded. “If I'd fallen, you could've really hurt me!”

“Sorry,” she said, not sounding very apologetic as she reopened her book. I glanced down at the open pages, and…

“Are you reading that upside down?” I asked her incredulously.

She groaned, like I'd asked something stupid. “Duhhhhhh.”

“That… just seems like you’re making more work for yourself?”

“If I have to concentrate on reading it,” she said like it was the most obvious thing in the world, “I learn it better.” Remember, this is a six-year-old.

“...okay then. I’ll, uh, leave you to it,” I said awkwardly as I stepped past her onto the landing. She huffed dramatically and turned her attention back to her upside-down calculus book. I dreaded the time when she’d become a teenager; no matter which way she went, she was gonna be a terror.

On the landing were two doors, one open and one closed. The closed one, on the left, had some art on sheets of paper, flowers and statues and other miscellaneous stuff, and the name 'Nabil’ in fancy cursive. The other door sat half-open, revealing an extremely messy bedroom, with a half-open window letting in a chill wind. Sitting on the bed was a girl with the same olive complexion as the other kids, but long, kinky blonde hair the color of straw, doing up the laces on a pair of heavy boots and dressed in a hockey uniform. Hanan looked up at me, gave a quick nod of acknowledgement, which I reciprocated, then returned her attention to the laces. Hanan was cool. We didn't talk much, and I think we were both happy with the situation as it stood.

The ceiling at the top of the stairwell was low enough that I had to duck down to avoid hitting my head. I'd been doing it for a few years, now, though, so I barely noticed. It didn't bother Sabi, that's for sure. Apart from the attic hatch above me, the door to her room was the only thing on the level; the landing was so small it was practically a square. I knocked lightly on the door.

“Sabi?” I called out. “You still being weird, or can I come in?”

After a second, I got a muffled reply. “Yeah, come in.”

The door squeaked as I twisted the handle and pushed it open. Her room wasn't meticulous, but it was tidy, with only a few bits and pieces laying around. A bed sat on the far side, below a super old-style circular window, through which I could see the patchy clouds in the sky. The roof was angled, moving up from left to right, so as long as I stayed on that side, I could actually stand up straight. A desk sat on the left, books and pens scattered across it, and posters of various heroes were pinned to the wall above it. A small pot, with some leafless brown plant in it, held a position of prominence, in the very centre. That was new.  On a shelf, just behind it, sat various pieces of memorabilia. I noticed with some satisfaction that the napkin signed by Awestruck held a prominent position.

Sabah was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at her phone as she awkwardly finished pulling a black sweater over her head. She was wearing the gloves again, like she had been yesterday and hadn't been just downstairs. Okay, something was up with her hands. Had they been injured or something? But no, she'd said her absence was a family thing. Maybe it was nothing.

“What was that about?” I asked, cutting straight to the point as I leant against the doorframe, arms folded.

“I wasn't expecting you,” she said, irritated, slipping her other arm through the sleeve. “And I almost blurted out something.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really?” That didn’t seem like her.

“I'm tired, okay?” And she did have fairly heavy bags under eyes.

“Yeah, your mom said. What happened yesterday, that you're so exhausted?”

“Stuff,” she said, glancing to the side. She was… embarrassed? Sad? Angry? Maybe all of them, maybe none.

I sighed, walking over to the bed and dropping down next to her, slinging an arm over her shoulder. And she flinched. She flinched. “Sabi,” I said hesitantly, “what's going on? Really.”

She tensed, then sighed. “I can't tell you, Hanners. I'm sorry, I… can't.”

“We,” I said, trying very hard to not snap, “have been friends since we were wearing diapers. Why and or how can you not tell me?”

“Because I can't,” she snapped at me. “Hannah, I promise I want to tell you, I really do. But I. Can. Not.” She was staring at me now, and there was fire in her eyes. “Do you think I’m doing this as a goof? You think I’m enjoying it?!”

“N-no,” I stammered, taken aback.

“This is not fun for me, you get that?” she continued, running over me straight for me. “But I have to.”

“Okay, okay,” I said, mollified. “But… you know I’m here for you, right? If you need to talk.”

She sighed again, not looking at me. “That’d be the day.” With no idea what to do, I just squeezed the hug a little tighter, but her posture remained stiff, her arm & shoulder solid. Really solid. I gave it a bit of a squeeze, and found absolutely no give.

“Have you been working out?” I asked incredulously.

She laughed nervously, and pushed my hand off. “Something like that.”

I whistled, surprised. I’d been trying to get her to do something, anything physical, for years now. Gymnastics with me had been out after the first time she broke a set of parallel bars, and from there we’d gone through pretty much every sport there was. I winced as I remembered the Football Debacle. I’d liked that field. “Well, congrats. What finally lit the fire under your butt?”

She shrugged. “Looming specter of reality?"

“You’re 16, not 60,” I chuckled, “I don’t think you get to be that morbid.”

She waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll be as morbid as I like. Enough about me, though; you’re obviously chomping at the bit to tell me something.”

“You bet your butt I am,” I said. “Oh, hold on.” I sprang up, and closed the door, flicking the lock down. “Just to be safe.” I returned to the bed and plopped myself down. “Now,” I began, “you would not believe the day I had yesterday.”

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Home 16-II

Lions And Tigers And Bears.

Frost crunched under my boots as I strolled along the path. It had been another night of almost-but-not-quite snow, and the sky was still mottled with inconsistent grey and white tufts. Despite it being late morning, the sun was only barely up: less than half of its mass poked out above the distant forest behind me. That was winter for you, I suppose. I personally found it annoying. Made the days feel way too short.

But now the sun was up, and I'd eaten a breakfast that had been thankfully Mom-absent. Dad had successfully defused the tension the night before, but that didn't make it go away, and if I hadn't been avoiding her all morning, it would've come right back up again like spoiled meat. So I'd gotten up early (comparatively speaking, for a winter’s Saturday morning), scarfed down a bite, scarfed up and walked out into the pre-dawn chill. Not just to get out, although sometimes I did do that when the weather was a little more hospitable; no, I had a purpose.

I was making a house call.

A left turn took me onto a familiar street, rows of houses of varying sizes stretching until a T intersection a couple of hundred meters further down. These houses weren't shabby, most of the Wedge wasn't, but they were… more cramped, and maybe ricketier, a little less well-put-together. The street was a lot narrower, for one. Most of the houses didn't have lawns, or very small ones, and there was a lot more verticality to them than around mine. And I know, comparatively speaking, they still had it well off, but it had been kind of an uncomfortable realization for me as I grew older. I know, I know, rich people problems, I get it.

The Anders household was the fifth on the left, a three-story that was familiar to me like the back of my hand. More, actually, because I don't think I could actually tell you the first thing about the back of my hand. I mean, the back of the hand isn't exactly a distinctive area anyway; it's not like it has a lot of detail to set it apart. That's actually a really weird expression, now that I think about it. Does it come from an idiom, or something? Did it originally mean something else and just got poorly translated or just shifted? Maybe knowing something like the back of your hand used to mean that something was generic and not that interesting.

The point is, I knew the house really well. About a meter of grass, dead and covered in frost, on either side of the path leading up to the front door, three steps up to the porch, wooden, an old rocking chair on the left that Mrs. Jackie, Sabah’s grandma, used to sit in. On the right, some potted plants covered by a see-through plastic tent, and a bike with the wheels missing. The door, pale tan plywood that had replaced the old, darker one when Sabi had tried jumping her bike up the stairs and gone straight through it instead, had a small, opaque glass window in it, and through that I could see little flashes of movement.

I reached for the doorbell, paused, reconsidered, and rapped the wood lightly with the back of my gloved hand. The movement behind the glass stopped for a moment, then resumed again, and a second later, the door creaked open, and a small head with a shaven scalp poked around it. Nadia, the youngest of the Anders kids. A bucktoothed grin spread across her face as she recognized me.

“Haaannnahhhhh!” she squeaked excitedly, pulling the door open all the way. “Look at my new book!” She thrust her hands out towards me, and in them was, indeed, a book. A very, very thick book, bound in dull green, with the words 'Advanced Calculus’ printed across the top.

I smiled weakly. “That's… great?”

She nodded, her entire body practically vibrating. “Uh huhhhh! It's super cool, and it's reaaaaaaaallllllly heavy so I can hit people with it!” She promptly proceeded to demonstrate this by whacking me on the arm with it. “See?”

I winced, drawing my arm away. “Haha, I believe you. Please don't do that, though.”

She frowned. “Sabi says that too. She's just being mean, though.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but she'd already turned and run away, carrying her heavy book in front of her and making whooshing noises like it was an airplane. “Moooom,” she called as she ran around a corner, “Hannah’s here!”

I never knew how to deal with Nadia. She’s an, uh, unique child: I don't doubt she'd already read that book cover to cover, despite being six years old. I wasn't great with little kids anyway, so that just compounded the issue.

I stood awkwardly on the porch for a few seconds, listening to the sound of Nadia running around, before louder footsteps heralded the arrival of someone else.

“Oh, Hannah! How are you, dear?” Elizabeth Anders, Miss Elizabeth as childhood instincts still insisted I call her, had a default setting of ‘bone-tired’. With dirty blonde hair swept back into a ragged ponytail, and a thin, lined face and similar figure, she didn't really look like any of her kids, with the exception of maybe Hanan, the second-oldest, who had her hair. All of the other kids took much more strongly after her wife, Maha, especially Sabah, who was her spitting image.

“Good morning, Miss Elizabeth,” I said politely. “I'm good, thank you. How are you?”

She laughed tiredly. “Same old, same old. Come on in, you must be freezing.”

I was. “Oh, it's not so bad,” I said as I stepped inside, shedding my boots and layers, hanging the latter on the rickety coat stand. “I see Nadia has a new obsession.”

“Mm-hmm,” she said with a tired… you know what, just assume that whenever she did anything, it was tired or tiredly. A little smile, is what I was saying. “She's read that thing twice through already, and now she's running around whacking people with it. Some days I almost wish she was a stereotypical gifted kid, all quiet and studious.”

I laughed politely at that. “Where would the fun be in that?”

“True enough,” she acknowledged. “Maybe I should print that out and stick it on the fridge.” She ushered me into the kitchen, where a pot of beans bubbled on the stovetop. “Have you eaten, dear?” she asked me as she picked up a cup of coffee and took a sip.

“Yeah, I'm fine, thank you. I wouldn't mind a cup of-” A mug was pressed into my hand before I even had the chance to finish the sentence. “Oh, thank you.”

“So, how are you holding up?” she asked me as she leaned back against the counter. “With the… ah, incident at school.”

“Well, it's been nice to have the time off,” I joked, half-heartedly. “But mostly I've just been trying not to think about it.”

She nodded sympathetically. “And your hand? Sabah said it got injured.”

I stared at her blankly. It had?

“With the copy, remember?”

Ohhh, right. “Uh, yeah, it's fine.” I held up the hand that had been 'injured’. “Right as rain, see?”

She leaned over, frowning, to take a closer look. “Are you sure? This doesn't look like anything happened to it.”

I shrugged, trying to conceal my nervousness. “I dunno, it wasn't very deep?”

“Lizzie?” asked another voice, interrupting our conversation. “Are you in here?” Walking round the corner was a woman who looked like Sabah, aged up thirty years and with a few extra kilos, wearing a dressing gown and fuzzy slippers. “Oh, Hannah! Good morning.”

“Good morning, Miss Maha,” I said to her with a slightly relieved smile. She returned it, then turned to her wife. “Liz, I can't find Hanan’s-”

“It's under the stairs,” the other woman replied instantly. “Second drawer on the left.”

“Ohh, of course. You're a lifesaver, you know that?” They shared a little chuckle. “Now I just have to get her out of bed.” She turned to leave again, but not before taking the silently offered cup of coffee. “Lifesaver." She blew an air kiss to her. "Sabah!” she called as she exited through the doorway.

“No need to shout,” replies my friend’s voice from out of sight, “I'm right here.” She rounded the corner from the left, saw me, and froze, her body still hidden by the doorway. “Hannah?” Her eyes darted to the side. “Uh, hold on, I just remembered I left the tap on. Back in a sec!” She dashed away back the way she came.

I looked quizzically at Miss Elizabeth, who shrugged. “Well, I guess I'd better go find out what that was about. Thank you for the coffee!”

“You're welcome, dear.” She pursed her lips. “Maybe… just be gentle with Sabi, okay? She’s been having a rough time recently, especially yesterday. And I know she hasn't told you that, because she doesn't want to make you feel like you have to help, but isn't that what friends are for?” She sighed. “I don't know.”

I gave her a thumbs-up as I ducked out of the kitchen. “Ten-four. Friend powers, activate!”

A rough day yesterday? I thought to myself as I ascended the stairs. When she was home doing nothing? Combine that with the reaction I'd gotten just then, and...

What is going on with you, Sabi?

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Home 16-I

HANNAH
No Place Like Home.

Dinner was not fun.

The three of us sat around the table, eating in silence. It was a square, one side for each of us and the spare facing towards the kitchen. Mom sat on the opposite side of it, the closest thing to a head, Dad on her left side, me on the right. The only sound, above the barely audible humming of the central heating, were the clinking of cutlery and the subdued chewing noises that people make when it feels like even eating too loudly would be heavily out of place.

Sadly, we were eating nachos, so that was a bit hard. Mom and I were managing to keep the sullen mood going, but Dad looked like he was just barely resisting cracking up every time someone took a bite.

By the time I'd made it to the train station and gotten home from there, it was well past dark. I'd been greeted at the door by Mom, arms folded. I'd thought the train ride home would've given me the opportunity to calm down, but instead I'd spent it simmering, staring grimly out the window at the passing buildings. Evidently, she’d been doing the same, because her face had been still at 'Marjorie’ levels of angry. I glared at her, she glared at me, Dad honked excitedly as he pulled into the driveway. Pretty standard stuff.

I think she was going to try and inspect my bag, but his sudden arrival distracted her enough that I slipped inside and quickly made it to my room while she dealt with the running hug my dad surely launched at her. Locking the door had helped calm me down a little, but after a little consideration, I grabbed the chair from the desk and tucked it under the handle as well, just to be sure.

I didn't have a good hiding place for my ‘costume’, but neither of my parents came into my room often, so I just stuffed it into the back of the closet, behind an old pile of books. Then, I reconsidered, took it back out and neatly folded it before replacing it. It looked bad enough without being crumpled.

And then… well, then I sulked. Like a little girl, I threw myself across my bed at an angle and just lay there, staring angrily up at the creme plasterboard of my ceiling. Why was she being so horrid about this? She got to leave home for ages unexpectedly and not respond to calls, but when I did, it was like I'd robbed a bank! She was being a hypocrite.

As much as I would've liked lock myself away for the rest of the evening until things had cooled down, though, it was an ironclad rule of the Eiling-Kingsford house that if we were all home, we ate dinner together. No exceptions. So now I was sitting across from my mother, doing my very best to remain sullen while crunching on a mouthful of nachos.

“So, Hanners, how was your day?” Dad asked brightly.

I sighed loudly. “You know, Dad, it was fine. Sabi and I went thrift-shopping. It was fun.” As I said it, I stared straight at Mom, who met my gaze with one equally as chilly.

“And where exactly is all the stuff you bought, Hannah?” she asked icily.

“It's not about buying, Mother, it's about finding. Which you'd know, if you'd ever listened to me when I talked about it before.” Technically true.

“So,” Dad interrupted hastily, “did you find anything cool, then?”

“Not really. Well, I didn't. Sabi got this cool, uh,” I pretended to try and remember while I desperately scrambled around for something she'd buy. “Scarf,” I decided, “yeah, that was it. Cool patterns. I think it was silk?”

“Oh, well, that's good. How is Sabah, by the way? Are they all okay?”

“Yeahhhh, I dunno,” I said, getting drawn into the conversation despite my anger. “She says she's fine, and she's acting mostly fine, but there's been a few moments of… weird. And she doesn't want to talk about it, but she said it was a family thing, but she's not acting like someone died or anything, so…” I shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Hmm.” Dad looked pensive. “Sammy, do you think we should visit them? Check everything's okay.”

“Ohhh no,” I interjected before she could respond, “we already had this conversation. You're not gonna be weird about this.”

“Hannah,” Mom said condescendingly, “Elizabeth and Maha are our friends too.”

“Not that you ever show it,” I muttered under my breath. “Look, I was gonna head over there tomorrow anyway. If I think something's seriously wrong, I'll let you know. But there won't be.”

Mom frowned, but I took the opportunity to change the subject. “Dad, how'd your Oldtown thing go?”

He perked up immediately. One thing I really admired about my dad was that he loved his job. Really loved it. It was the sort of thing I hoped to have one day, if I ever managed to figure out what I was passionate about. “Really well! Sammy, you remember how I was telling you over the phone about the Titan-class they got in?” Mom nodded, hiding a little grin behind her hand. “Well, he worked even better than we'd hoped! We actually got right up near the epicentre, only a few blocks away!”

“What?!” Mom and I asked simultaneously, leaning forward in our chairs. I glanced over, realized we were mirroring each other, and leant back. “That's a big deal, right?”

He nodded, grinning. “I actually got to see it: we set up a temporary research centre at the top of the building. It was…” his expression sobered. “It was… heavy.”

I frowned. “Was that a gravity pun?”

The grin broke back through. “Wasn't sure if you'd get it.” Mom sighed as I groaned, exaggeratedly.

“I’m ashamed, Dad. Just ashamed.” His grin grew wider, and I immediately realized what I'd done. “No, no, don't you dare-”

“Hi ashamed,” he boomed over my protests in a hammy voice, “I'm dad.”

I groaned again and slumped down on the table as Mom began laughing. “David,” she admonished, “I thought we agreed no dad jokes until the second kid.”

“Is this your subtle way of delivering the news?” I asked, head still on the table. “Because if so, it sucks.”

“No?” He glanced at Mom, who confirmed it with a nod. “No, it is not. See, in my misspent youth, I promised my second-born child to a leprechaun, and now-”

Anyway,” Mom cut him off. “This discovery, it's a big deal, then?”

His smile died down a little. “Sadly, no. The Titan class had to be with us the whole time. He was just holding the radiation back temporarily, not cleaning it up. But, we did still get some excellent readings! Should be enough to get funding for another few months.” He gave a nervous little laugh at that. “Hopefully.”

“I'm sure it will, dear,” Mom reassured him.

“Yeah, Dad, it'll be fine. Besides, if they don't, you can just turn to a life of crime to get funding! Happens all the time.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Someone's been reading my old comics.”

“Actually, Mom’s. Yours are all gritty Dark Age crap.” I winced as soon as I said it. “Sorry.”

“That was very cruel, Hannah,” he said mock-stoically, lip trembling. “Very… very cruel.”

“Hannah, don't make your father cry,” Mom said, spearing a nacho with her fork and scooping some beans onto it. “It's too easy a target.”

“Okay, I've changed my mind,” Dad said, “we’re having another kid. I need an ally around here.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “you'll finally have someone on your level of intelligence.”

“Yeah, exactly- wait, no!”

“Too late,” I teased, “you have the intelligence of a toddler, you admitted it.”

“Well, then, I guess it's in character for me to do this!” He flicked a nacho at my face, and I jerked back and knocked it out of the air. “Nacho shuriken!”

“David.”

“Sorry, hon. They're just so perfect for throw-” I hit him square in the mouth with one. It bounced off and landed firmly on his plate. “...well played.”

Mom sighed, resting her head in her hands. “What did I do to deserve you two?” she wondered aloud.

And, just for a little while, things were okay.

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Fight 15-Vignette


And When It All Comes Crashing Down.

1 year and 8 months ago, or thereabouts.

The musky scent that wafted up into Flint’s face was enough to make him gag. A few steps away, Edith wrinkled her nose in distaste. “This is a trick, isn't it,” she said with absolute confidence.

“Trus’ me, you prissy bint, I've never bin more sincere about anythin’ in my life.” With another grunt of effort, Lisette slid the manhole cover all the way off. It clanged against the concrete, rattling and rolling around, and she stood back up and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Would it have killed one of ya’ to help?” she demanded of the two of them.

“Yes,” they said simultaneously, then smiled small smiles at each other as they realized they'd done it.

Lisette rolled her eyes, and mimed throwing up, which ruined the moment a little. “Ya done? We got places to be.” The older girl was decked out with a truly ridiculous amount of weaponry, even more than what Flint had figured was her usual. She made clanking noises whenever she moved, and he noticed that she kept at least one hand close to something at all times. Clearly, she still didn't trust Edith, which he supposed was fair.

“And those places involve going down a manhole into a sewer.” Edith’s face was haughty, but she still wasn't  entirely together. She was doing better than two weeks ago, when they'd found her in the room with the corpse, but 'better’ and 'good’ were two different things. He'd convinced his parents to let her stay at their place (not that it had been a hard sell, with how little they were there anyway) and he'd spent more than a few nights holding her while she cried. But then, once the sun was up, she would be back to acting like nothing was wrong. She was wearing the same white shimmery jumpsuit, with only the slightest hint of crimson on the sleeves signifying where they'd been covered in blood. He wasn't sure how comfortable he was with that, but it was probably more practical than street clothes.

“Yeah, they fuckin’ do,” Lisette snapped at her. “Gon’ be a problem, Princess?”

Edith sniffed, and then immediately made a face that signalled she regretted it. “It is if you're just doing it to screw with us.”

“Oh, yeah,” she replied, rolling her eyes, “I'll play a feckin' prank by telling two people to hop in a sewer and then hop in myself.” She paused, then reconsidered. “Okay, I'd do that to you, but I kinda half-like Clint over here, so nah.”

He sighed. “One: gee, thanks. Two: I know you know it's Flint.”
“See,” she said with a bit of renewed cheer, “yer assuming that wasn't intentional. 'sides, what sort of crappy name is Flint anyway?”

“Says the girl named Lisette?” Edith asked sardonically.

“Says the girl named Edith?”

“Okay,” Flint said, holding up his hands. “I think it's clear no-one here has the right to throw any shade.” He wasn't sure what the dress etiquette for 'trying to save your sort-of-girlfriend’s sister from her insane cultist mom’ was, so he'd played it safe and just worn comfortable black clothing and shoes. After a bit of hesitation, he'd grabbed the shorter sword and its sheath from his dad's display case and strapped it to his side. He'd considered the shuriken as well, but figured that would be overdoing it. Besides, the sword felt weird enough on its own.

“'least my names aren't the same letter,” Lisette muttered. Clearly, the crack had gotten at her.

Flint glanced at Edith, who had narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, and shook his head. She grimaced, but held her tongue.

“Lisette,” he said as diplomatically as he could, “would you mind explaining why we're going into the sewers?”

She sighed, rolling her eyes again. “Fine, whatever. Ya said they're set up in one of them apartment blocks near the Park, yeah?” Edith nodded grudgingly. “Right, well that's a feckin' nightmare right off the bat. Apartment block means they're probably set up near the top, because upper ground advantage an’ so on. Plus, the way that place is set out, no way they don't see us coming if we go in on the streets.”

“Plus lots of civilians?” Flint asked tentatively.

“Don't try and talk professional, ya sound stupid. But nah, area’s mostly abandoned. The other worry is that that's actually Chainbreaker territory, so it's weird that yer Cabal is set up there. Do they have some kinda deal or arrangement or somethin’?”

Edith laughed bitterly. “You clearly have no idea how racist they are.”

Flint sucked in air through his teeth. “Ohh, is that why she was all…”

“Yep.”

“Well, damn. I thought she just didn't like me as a person.”

“You're used to that, though,” she teased.

“Ughh,” Lisette groaned, “enough with the cutest bullshit! Christ. The point I was makin’ is, the only way we're even getting close is if we sneak in. Unless one of you has a helicopter for us to skydive out of? Yeah, din think so. So we gotta be sneaky, and so, sewers.”

“Leaving aside all the other issues with this plan,” Flint said, “can we even get from here to there through them? Can we even fit?”

“No, I'm just pickin’ a tunnel and guessin’, and I've never done this before. D’ya think I'm stupid?!”

“If it quacks like a duck,” Edith said, under her breath but still loud enough to hear.

Lisette flipped her the bird. “Can we just get goin’, please? I got a bounty waitin’ for me.”

“And also my sister,” Edith snapped.

“Sure, whatever,” she shrugged, then hopped into the hole.

Flint looked at Edith, and shrugged helplessly. “You're sure we can trust her?” she asked him skeptically.

“I don't know,” he admitted, “but I saw her in action. I'd much rather have her on our side than still trying to kill you.” She frowned at that, but didn't disagree. “Come on,” he said, gesturing at the hole, “glory awaits.” He offered her his hand, and she took it with a smile and climbed down together.

The level of liquid was lower than he'd been expecting, but it was still enough to splash when they walked. Lisette had pulled a small flashlight from one of her many pouches, and by its light, they strode through the tunnel, doing their best to breath through their moves.

“A’ight,” Lis said after a few minutes, “before we get into this, imma need to know your abilities. Don't want you screwing up my bounty.”

“Ability, actually,” Edith replied. “Just the one. It's just… I can turn into salt. That's really all it is.”

“Yeah, no shit, Bible Belle, I know that already. How fast can ya move, how much force can ya put behind it, can ya seperate, can ya fly. Shit like that.”

Flint glanced nervously at her as she clenched her fists. “I can punch clean through a person's chest,” she said through gritted teeth, voice wavering. “Want a demonstration?”

Lisette laughed sardonically. “Try it, bitch.”

Flint hurriedly placed one hand on Edith’s shoulder, intervening before they tried to kill each other. “What about you, Lisette? What can you do?”

She mimed shooting a gun, making a pew noise with her mouth. “I don't miss. That's all you need to know.”

“Oh, so when it's my power, you need every last detail, but you get away with one sentence?!” Edith demanded.

“Yep,” she said, blowing imaginary smoke off her finger-gun. “What about you, little guy?”

“What, Flint?” Edith scoffed. “He doesn't have a power, his dad's just a crazy fighting nut.”

Lisette actually turned around at that, raising an eyebrow at him. “Ya mean ya haven't told her?” she asked incredulously.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, uh, it… never really came up?”

Edith spun on him. “You have a power?! What? When? How?”

“It's… it was that thing with Crusade and Schism, I think? And it's not anything special, really. It's, uh…” he began rummaging through his pockets, trying to find something for a demonstration. “Ah, okay,” he said, pulling out a crumpled-up wrapper. “Watch.” He tossed it up in the air, their eyes following it, then hit it with his power. It changed course flying to the side and bouncing off the wall. He laughed awkwardly. “So yeah, it's not great, but-”

Edith enveloped him in a crushing hug, cutting off the rest of the sentence. “It's so cool,” she said, muffled by the fabric. “This is… it's so cool.”

He blushed, and she released him, stepping back with a broad grin. “That's a weird reaction.”

“You’re the first non-garbage person with powers I know,” she answered. “It's just nice.”

“Aww, Edith, you're not gar-”

“What,” Lisette snapped, “did I just say about sappy shit?! How limited is that momentum stuff?”

“Uh, fairly.” He let the interruption go. “It's only 90 degrees redirection, and nothing else. No stopping stuff, no super-hits or anything.”

“Oh, cool! Well, with powers like this, there's no way we can lose!”

“Really?” he asked, surprised.

“Nope,” she said bitterly, “you're a salt-shaker and a wiffle bat. We’re gonna fuckin' die.”

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If you support sappy shit,  vote for Outliers on Topwebfiction, or rate or leave a review on Webfictionguide. Every bit of support helps keep the story going, and, more importantly, stroke my ego.