Heroes Fail

Bridges Brightly Burning

Maddy is working on repairing something when Ang walks up with a cane.

“God, I hope this is you, Maddy. Is that you?” Ang questioned. Hopefully not the air, she thought.

Maddy turned around when she heard the signal off Ang’s pin: its GPS pinger had a distinctive voice that Maddy likened to a prairie dog chirp. She wasn’t surprised when Ang walked through her door a few beats later. In fact, Maddy had turned off her bench grinder and was already on her way to the door when Ang arrived.

“It’s me,” Maddy said quietly on her left, not wanting to startle her newly-blinded friend. She was grateful Ang couldn’t see her wince. The ruination of Ang’s eyes was tragic and Maddy suppressed the impulse to blurt the inane social noise people normally made in awkward moments like this. Instead, she focused on the immediately practical. “There’s a table on your one o’clock, three steps ahead, and … Hmm. It’s a bit of a minefield in here, actually. Would you like to take my arm?”

Ang reached out for Maddy’s arm and without thinking about it turned the grasp into a hug. Ang buried her head in Maddy’s shoulder, and for a moment, just let the grief flow.

“I … they … they’re hurt. Nina’s …. she’s gone! It … I … oh my god …” Her voice trailed off as the sounds of her sobs flowed out.

Ang eventually sat down, not being able to see Maddy’s expression. Her blindness left her feeling that everyone was silently judging her, judging her failures. Young leader fails disastrously … what were we thinking leaving her in charge of the ship? the voice in her head says.

Maddy staggered under Ang but recovered, giving a doorside bench a wild sweep to clear it. She flinched as her tools protested the treatment but she steeled herself against their complaint and got her friend sitting down. After that it was simply a matter of holding Ang until the woman was able to speak again.

“I’m so sorry …,” Maddy whispered as she stroked Ang’s back. God, she felt so incompetent in situations like this. Not that she needs that from you right now. As usual, Maddy’s fix-it nature kicked in. “What do you need? How can I help?”

Ang subtly shuddered for a moment, forcing herself back into a mode she long ago learned was her leadership mode. It was emotionally agnostic, critical, and forced her into a zone wherein her thoughts and logic were all that were left. She never told anyone about it, because she hated it—she never really considered it to be her. But it was what people had come to expect, and it had saved her life a couple of times.

“I need you to build something for me. I need to talk to Louis.”

Louis had been one of the Young Bloods with the most serious of conditions. He was on life support, in critical care, and wasn’t conscious.

“He probably won’t make the night, and I need to talk to him now. I believe he was the one who let Devastator in.”

Maddy had seen Louis when they limped back to base—dreadful though Ang’s condition was, Louis’s was even worse. Unable to do anything to help her teammates, Maddy had retreated to her makeshift workshop, her comfort zone, and tried to cope. But now …

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”


Ang watched in awe as Maddy worked on a communication device to be able to reach Louis. Ang tried to repress the thought that she was doing this simply to interrogate him, but actually to contact him before he passed on.

Maddy gave the screw the tiniest of turns, feeling it grin at doing its job. Running her fingers over the device, checking every joint and connection, she silently asked the pieces and parts if they were good to go. Their feedback was green (!). Maddy turned to Ang and said, “They’re—It’s ready. All you need to do is get this a yard or less from his head and they’ll—It’ll take care of the rest.” Pronoun confusion. It happened sometimes. Maddy regretfully gave her newest creation a mental farewell and carefully folded Ang’s fingers around it. “Give it a minute. It needs to get a baseline of your waves, okay? Once it’s got your head, you can link to Louis’s.”

The world narrowed down to just the room, and then just to Louis in the bed. Ang, due to her training, did not freak out when reality shifted. She held the device tightly, knowing it was an anchor, and walked up to Louis. He woke up in his bed and he looked very frightened. The tubes coming out of his arms turned into chains and shackles. Ang wondered if she’d made that happen, or if it was Louis that did that. In the end, Louis knew he was trapped. Ang sighed. She’d been dreading this moment, and really wished she wasn’t alone.

“Louis …,” Ang nearly stuttered. Before she could speak again, he spoke to her.

“Is this heaven or hell?” he asked, and his face showed that he knew the answer already.

Ang felt the truth was best. “You’re in a coma, Louis. We are working to help heal you, but a lot of your body is close to shutting down.”

Louis started to cry, and Ang realized that in this world, she had eyes, too. They started to well up with his.

Maddy led Ang to Louis’s bedside and retreated to stand just inside the door. Louis lay in a ground floor room hastily converted into a medical suite. Maddy had set it up and she automatically did a status check of everything in it: monitors, drips, power lines, connections—they all hummed right along without a glitch. She could sense them as a web of energy, entwined together in their tasks, and behind her eyelids the room was aglow. Ang and Louis were dead spots in the light, punctuated with sparks wherever mechanical or technical things touched them. Maddy’s new device was lit up like a Christmas tree in Ang’s shadow-hands. As Maddy watched, tendrils of energy streamed from it to Ang and Louis, weaving a bridge between their heads … and before she knew it, a wisp reached out and drew her head into it, too.

:: Warm. Light. Cold. ::

Nailed to the spot, Maddy couldn’t pull away and she heard everything.

Ground Loop

Summer 2022

Maddy was dreaming …

The summer night was soft and the moonlight sparkled off the lake. Sitting on a rocky outcrop just above the water, Maddy took in the sounds all around her: the hum off the power lines 100 yards away, the contented ticking of her watch, the whisper of a radio two backyards distant. All the man-made and mechanical souls in the area lent their music to the background of the night, an oddly soothing counterpoint to the chirp of cricket and tree frog and the splashing of fish.

A faint snap sounded to her rear and she didn’t have to check her watch to know the neon sign at Christy’s Bar had finally turned off for the night. The neon sign sighed itself to sleep with an almost contented note and a moment later, Maddy felt Christy’s car wake up at the chip a split second before it told the engine to turn over. Maddy listened to the car as it drove past.

Hmm … She’s late for her factory recommended diagnostic and tune up again.

Maddy sent it a mental pat, a tendril of therapeutic touch from the heart, and the burr in the engine’s throaty roar smoothed out. Maddy maintained the contact until the car moved out of range. Another month, maybe two, and Maddy expected to see Christy’s car at Tinker’s ….

 Another night, another body of water.

The Mississippi slid below the bridge. The stars reflected dully on the muddy water and the cars that had yet to be removed. Some would never be cleared, being impossibly melded to the bridge itself to safely remove without affecting the integrity of the bridge. Some were the final resting places for the dead and the crews were reluctant to disturb their remains.

Maddy wove her way from one side of the bridge to another, listening hard for a single note, a simple hum, a solitary chirp … something that would signal the return of the background symphony of her childhood, the music that had always been a part of her and was now achingly missing.

Nothing but the sigh of the wind met her ears. The air breathed through the blackened struts and burned out cars. It fluttered through remnants of canvas and clothing, making slack seatbelts slap. Surrounded by machinery, Maddy’s only company was silence, a leaden muffling of head and heart.

Surrounded by the dead and the silence. All alone in the night.

Not alone … Here … You … We … Here …

Maddy spun at the whisper in her mind, saw nothing but the ruination of the bridge and her innocence.


She turned around and in a blink, it was daylight on the bridge. Memory poured into her head then, and in the odd nature of dreams, she knew it was a mere week after she woke from the Fugue State. She saw without looking the spot on the bridge where she had torn herself away from the metal, knew that her blood and flesh still marked it.

Surrounded by the dead and the noise.

Screaming, stabbing, searing noise … all the cars and chips and radios, every watch and phone and handheld device, every rivet and strut and span of metal … every single thing shouting for her attention.

Maddy crumpled under it, her hands over her ears, struggling to breathe.

Stop! Please! One at a time—!

The world screamed on … and Maddy screamed with it. All alone in the light.

Not alone … Here … You … We … Here …

Blessed silence. Warmth. Touch. Soft.

Maddy uncurled and rose from the asphalt and saw it was night again. All alone in the night.

Not alone … Here … You … We … Here …

Crickets chirped. A bird called. All around her was the bridge and the stars … and something she could not put her finger on: a presence not of man or machine, but a presence nonetheless.

Soft. Warm. Reassuring.

Hello? she thought at it.

Here … You … We … Here … it answered back.

Maddy was dreaming. She knew it. Nothing was real and yet … this touch, this voice, it had to be real. She clung to it, hugged it tight, and let herself drift.

In the dark. Not alone.

And it was enough for now.

Not alone.

Not alone … Here … You … We … Here …


Standing on the front porch clad in jeans and a hoodie against the brisk October breeze, Natalie called in through the open door, “Melody, hurry up! C’mon, I’m dying here!” Her tone is full of amusement. “If we don’t get there early, we won’t have time to finish the whole maze. And I’m bound and determined we’re gonna beat the guys this year!” The corn maze race was becoming tradition, with a haunted hayride and mulled cider by the bonfire afterward. She’d dragged everyone on the team who was willing to be dragged to the thing the first year she’d lived in St. Louis, and it was her very favorite activity for the weekend before Halloween.

“Hold your horses Nat.”. Mel pulled on her coat and came outside with a wide grin. “We’re gonna get em this time. But I’m not going to freeze to death out there.”

With her eyes rolling theatrically in her head, Natalie practically bounced in her tennis shoes. “We have to. If I have to hear Ryan crow one more time about the fact that they beat us by like three minutes last year, I’ll lose my mind,” she grinned. “Score’s tied, and Grace has a whole bottle of hot buttered Scotch for us at the bonfire if we win.”

“So who’s driving?” Melody grinned with a wink. “Or shall we fly there? We can take our van if you want to just be normal.” She winked. “Save our strength.” She pursed her lips. “Of course super hero flying drunk isn’t a crime unless you crash into something. But driving drunk is. That butter scotch is never just enough at one.”

Glancing back into the house, Natalie grins. “The rules are only no powers in the maze. Not no powers to GET there. Fly!” She slips her arm through Mel’s and teases, “Mush!”

Natalie’s glance at the four men waiting on the porch — Joe Gresham, the Guardians’ resident dispatcher and butler/nanny/overwatch; Erik Strauss, AKA Firebird; Deuce Jones, AKA Nightmare; and Jared Norris, Natalie’s partner from FEMA — and wiggled her fingers in a taunting kind of wave. “You’re gonna lose,” she sing-songed.

“Honey, we’re leaving without you.” Melody glanced at the group of men milling around on their porch waiting. “The boys are waiting for you. Love you!”

“I’m not far behind babe,” came her husband’s voice from the hall. “Tell Nat she’s getting hosed again.” Ryan then poked his head out the door and nabbed a quick kiss.

“My fat ass you are winning again!” Melody retorted. Ryan grinned and popped her on the said anatomy.

She gave the appropriate squeal and then with a toss of her head, Mel took Nat skyward.

The sight of the corn maze — all 15 acres of it — was pretty impressive from the sky. And Natalie pointed out, “Oooh! We’re going to have to watch out in that corner. There are a lot of little cul-de-sacs.” They weren’t really cheating — the owners of the maze gave out postcards with the aerial image, after all. Not really meant as a map, but certainly could be occasionally helpful. Once they were on the ground again, Nat grinned. “What are you going to bring Toby from the country store this time?”

“Candy apple and that homemade fudge he loves.” She took them down to the entrance so that they could pay. “He’s outgrown the maze, but he’s all about the dessert. I swear the kidling’s on the edge of a growth spurt. We’re going to go broke feeding Tobs.” She pulled out her cash from her jean pocket and got into line. “I swear he’s looking like Ryan more and more each day.”

Natalie laughed. “He really does — you can see his big-kid face starting to peep out of those cute round cheeks.”

Once they had gotten their tickets, she turned to her friend, her fists akimbo. “So what’s the plan? Ryan is still faster than we are. . . . bastard was brilliant at every sport he tried, even before he turned on,” she fussed, her eyes twinkling with love. “We don’t have Toby to slow him down this year. So boss, what’s the plan?” Mel raised her eyebrows and quirked her head as the rest of their group and the other men landed to cheers and their own happy laughter.

Looking toward the beginning of the maze, Natalie grinned a wicked little smile. “Maddy went through and mapped it. I told her she can’t tell us where the punch stations are, BUT…. she can nudge people in the right directions and be cheerleader!” She raised her voice toward the rest of their crew. “The guys have to enter from the exit and work the maze backward! And we get a five minute head-start because Ryan is too fast — we don’t have a speedster.”

The men had arrived by then and overheard Natalie’s comment. When Jared ribbed back, “You don’t need a speedster, woman, you need to learn to read a MAP!,” the other guys guffawed and teased good-naturedly about women and directions. Natalie simply stuck out her tongue at him.

Inside the maze, with Maddy in their ears, the team of four women were able to strategically attack the maze. Or… well, as strategic as such fun passtimes really get. At one point when the groups met in the middle of the maze, Natalie rounded a curve to find Mel and Ryan smooching in the path. Rolling her eyes, she accused, “Fraternizing with the enemy!” and dragged her teammate the other direction.

“Slowing him down!” Melody protested, red-faced but allowed herself to be pulled away. Grinning, she added, “We may have a chance this time!”

Natalie snickers. “I know we do. We’ve got six of the eight punches. I just saw Erik’s card and they’ve only found four. So if you keep your tongue out of Ryan’s throat, we have less of the maze to finish than they do.” She winks. “And I’m dying for some of that fudge!”

It was actually a close race — but the advantage of Maddy having scouted the area helped out the women’s team, and they emerged quite literally 90 seconds ahead of the guys with all punches accounted for. Candies and treats from the country store obtained, they all regrouped at the sand pit used for their bonfire. Natalie and Heather Dean, one of their LEO contacts who joined them, pranced in the firelight and did the Happy Snoopy Dance (to much teasing and laughter) for winning, claiming bragging rights over Ryan for the next year.

When the group was settled around their bonfire with hot drinks, glowing jack-o-lanterns, and Erik playing his guitar softly in the firelight, Natalie studied her friends. “I love this time of year,” she murmured to Melody.

“Me too, Nat, me too.”. She smiled and waved colors through the flames, playing with the gasses. After a moment, she sighed. “You know, we have these Powers and like I’ve told Ryan, you know what I use mine most for?”. She paused and shook her head. "Vacuuming. So I don’t have to move the furniture. You’d think I’d find a way to change the world or something, huh. ".

Ryan kissed his wife’s head. “That’s my girl, sucking up evil dust the laziest way possible. And making the fires pretty.”

“Jerk.”. She grinned, wiggling deeper against her husband’s torso, and winking at her friend. “Sometimes it’s nice to just be normal.”. She waved at the group around the fire. “Good friends, good drink, good times. Just being people.”

Natalie chuckled at Ryan’s comment. Leaning back in her beach chair, Natalie admired the colors in the fire. She caught Jared’s eye across the blaze and lifted her mug in a silent toast, which he returned with a faint grin before resuming his perusal of the group as a whole. “Normal is pretty amazing,” she agreed with Melody. She savored a long sip of her drink. “You know Joyce Ling? She told me she’s retiring from the Guardians. She’s tired of all the fighting. Said she’s going to go be a bartender in the Bahamas.” A grin chases across her features. “I wonder if she’ll do it. That would so rock.”

Mel grinned, “Ryan would be a professional beach bum.”. Her nose wrinkled. “Too much sand for me.”

Ryan stretched, cuddling his wife. “Nah, with great power comes blah de blah,” he quoted badly. “Can’t save people and the world from themselves from a beach blanket.”

Melody frowned, gazing into the flames. “I don’t love it,” she admitted softly. “All the fighting. But we can’t give up. It’s what we do. We’re heroes.”

Natalie considered those words, her eyes on the fire as she swallowed a mouthful of the mulled cider spiked with buttered Scotch. “How’s that movie line go? ‘Heroes are just frightened men who make bad decisions at good moments’ or something like that?” She smiled faintly. “I’m of the firm belief that those of us who do what we do… it’s like any other service-oriented profession. We have a calling. Whether it’s one of overwhelming responsibility or one of altruism doesn’t, in the end, matter… we’re still called. But sometimes… just once in a while… it’s nice to leave it all behind.” She shrugged. “That’s why I like nights like tonight and like barbecues at your house,” she told her friend with a laugh. “Staycation!”

Sitting around the bonfire with a cup of hot buttered Scotch, Jared grinned at the good spirits of the group. Ryan was taking the loss of their team in the Corn Maze Race with generally good grace, Melody assuaging the prick to the man’s pride with – whoa, those two might need to get a room! Too much Scotch! And he couldn’t help but laugh at the glee with which Heather and Natalie did their ridiculous dances around the fire. Those two were hysterical. And just plain fun to be around. Which was beginning to complicate his life just a little.

He’d opted for a seat next to Erik – Firebird was both a good friend and an excellent distraction with his Nordic good looks and his mellow baritone accompanied by the guitar. It let Jared watch everyone unobserved because their attention was on the music, the guitar player himself, or their own conversations. And he did like to watch.

He liked to watch when she tore someone a new ass for being a dick in the field.

He liked to watch when she healed people, the expression on her face so intense and focused.

He liked to watch when she sat at her desk working on reports.

He liked to watch when she laughed, when she hiked, when she worked a crisis scene.

He liked to watch her tease Toby, encourage Heather to come out of her shell, and whine at Joe about which route he sent them on a chase.

His objectivity was beginning to suffer for how much he enjoyed watching Natalie Tessier. He hadn’t quite decided what he wanted to do about it. It was bad policy to get involved with a protectee to start with. And then lay on top of it the fact that she had no idea that he was technically assigned to the Guardians and that SHE was part of his mission… he had a notion she would be pissed if she found out that she was considered that valuable. Not because he hadn’t told her he was watching her – she was a big one for privacy and wouldn’t hold it against him that he’d kept his own Powered status and his job quiet – but knowing her, she’d worry that “babysitting” wasn’t a good use of his talents.

Hell, that’s what he’d thought at first too.

But honestly, he really enjoyed working on the crisis response teams that backed up the Guardians. And getting to interrogate the bad guys after the fact to make sure they were just crazies working alone and not terrorists? It was an added bonus. Uncle Sam didn’t want those loons coordinating some kind of mass strike or biological attack on anyone.

Erik chose that moment to kick Jared’s ankle and start playing a melody line on the guitar. “Stairway to Heaven” was a song that everyone knew without even trying, so Jared rolled his eyes and began. “There’s a lady who’s sure… all that glitters is gold…”

Voices joined in from around the fire as people picked up the tune. He could pick out who had some practice at this kind of thing and who couldn’t carry a tune. But he noticed that several people – among them, Deuce – slipped a little farther from the fire as the singing began. He’d have to talk to the Guardians’ head-shrinker and to Ryan. Deuce’s ability to bring other people’s nightmares to life was a hard one to live with, and he suspected the man was self-medicating. For tonight, he simply made a note to keep an eye on him and turned his attention back to the fire.

(Somewhere late in the spring, maybe? Just before D-Day)

“You know,” Ryan offered mildly as they rounded the curve in the park’s path that marked the first mile of a three-mile course, “I’m more than happy just to keep pace with you if you want, but it’ll probably be easier all the way around if you just spit out what’s on your mind, Jay.”

Jared smirked faintly. Leave it to Ryan to just throw down the gauntlet. He kept moving, even now unsure he wanted to broach the topic at all. Finally he pretty much did the same thing. “I think I’m getting too involved with Nat, and I don’t know what the hell to do about it. I haven’t been completely honest with any of you, and I don’t have the option of walking away.”

To his credit, Ryan didn’t break stride. He nodded, letting the air between them absorb his friend’s admission. That everyone had already noticed exactly that the man was crazy for Nat. . .well, he didn’t think that Jared would appreciate his mentioning that little fact. “So Jay,” he finally asked. “How serious is it? Like or love man?”

Shooting his running partner a dirty look. “How the hell would I even know that?” Jared demanded in a disgruntled tone. “What’re you, a girl? Look… I admire the hell out of the lady. She’s fast on her feet; she’s got a drive to help people that just won’t quit, even when it should; she’s calm under fire. And she’s willing to go toe-to-toe with me!” Relatively few are willing to do that when he turns on the Iceman face. His jaw moved back and forth as he ground his teeth while they continued their pace. He didn’t have permission to read anyone into his actual orders, but Ryan was more than a team leader. He was a friend. Finally, he said cautiously, “Ry, how much do the people who organize and run the Guardians keep you in the loop about the stuff they do?”

“Far too much and far too little.” Ryan slowed down, his gaze distant. “I think most of the time I’m on a need to know basis but I’m sure they’re never quite certain what they can hide from us supers.” He ran for a few more strides and then added, “I know that between us, we usually can piece together quite a lot. The youngsters like to spy. Test their limits. Why?”

“My job title is Assistant Liaison between FEMA and the Guardians, right? But my job description is both more and less than what’s on paper. I was sent here to help Nat… but more than that, I was sent here to protect her.” Jared paused. “And more… to protect her ability and keep it from falling into the wrong hands.” He kept his eyes on the trail. “I don’t work for FEMA.”

At that, Ryan had to stop to laugh. “No shit Jay,” he finally managed. “Unless FEMA has secretly been planning SWAT actions against tornadoes and floods.” He shook his head. “So what agency and who do you think has designs on our Nat?”

Ryan’s easy acceptance isn’t a surprise. Jared grins slightly as they stop. “Anybody who knows what she can do would have designs on her,” he grunted. “Her original assignment wasn’t going to be to you guys — she was supposed to go on a more front-lines team. Overseas with a military unit.” He glances at his friend. “You know as well as I do, the woman just plain doesn’t stop — they’d have run her into the ground in weeks, if she managed to hold on that long. I’d been her bodyguard about a year by then, and my boss agreed with me that she was too valuable an asset to burn out that way. He got her assigned here. And got me assigned to stay with her. Generally speaking, all I really have to do is keep her from killing herself.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s tougher than you might think.”

Ryan rolled his shoulders, swinging his arms for a moment before settling back into an easy jog. “Yeah, ding bat totally forgets that she’s taking on the wounds she heals. You’re good for her.” He was silent for a moment and then added, “We have stubborn women. I think Mel holds back. I think she’s capable of a hell of lot more than her tricks. But there’s no forcing either one of them.”

Resuming their forward motion, Jared snorted. "At least you’re not pulling punches with some shit like calling ‘em “strong-willed.” Those two, especially together, could out-camel a camel." They ran for another half a mile without chatting. Finally, he sighed and slowed to a walk. "Look… I’ve been told to look into two of the new members on the Guardians by my bosses. And I need you to have my back while I do it. Homeland suspects someone’s leaking intel about the Guardians to an overseas buyer, and the two most likely candidates are Frost and Thumper. I need you to call them in and let me question them with you in the room so that it doesn’t look like anything more than a quick touch-base."

The scowl that darkened Ryan’s face would have frightened a lesser man. “I hope you’re wrong,” he stated solemnly. “We have to be able to trust one another on our team.” They walked down a curve on the path and he watched two squirrels playing. “Do you want to have Dr Mesmer listening? He’s best face to face when he can do his thing, but he has a good sense of the thoughts behind the words, even is he’s just hearing someone speak”

Annnnd now comes the part he’s been debating for weeks. “No,” Jared said quietly. “I need to question them myself and I need to know you’ll keep everything you see confidential. Because they’ll tell me everything I need to know… and if one of them is guilty, they’ll never even remember that they did it.” His tone is matter-of-fact, but he’s watching Ryan carefully.

A muscle twitched in Ryan’s smooth cheek before his gaze glued itself to his friends eyes. “How much do I and Mel not remember Jared?” he asked softly. “Or the rest of the team?”

“Nothing,” he replied evenly. “Not that there aren’t occasions when I want to do something about the great hairy ape,” he admits with a faint quirk of a grin creasing one cheek. “I have never used my abilities on you or any other member of this team. And I can’t use it on Nat, much as I’d like to when she turns into a mule. She’s immune.” He meets Ryan’s eyes squarely. “I give you my word.”

Ryan kept the gaze and then shook his head. “Hell, I trust you. Maybe I shouldn’t but I do. Mel’s always said I was an oversized pushover, but I want to believe in the best of everyone and sure as hell the best of my best friend. I’ll be there for your questioning. Make it legit.” He pushed his hands through his hair and sighed. “Still haven’t answered me about when you’re going to tell Nat you’re in love with her.”

“I don’t even know if I am,” Jared objected, his ears turning red along with his face.

Ryan merely grunted “Uh-huh.”

“Besides, I can’t tell her that shit before I tell her that I’m a Power and her frigging bodyguard and have been lying to her all these years.” He eyed Ryan. “You can’t tell Mel, man. My status is classified.”

The big man smiled sadly. “I won’t. I’ll hate it but I won’t.” He put his hand over his heart dramatically. “You know, the Falcon. . .justice, fairness, truth. . .hero. Except when it’s a matter of national security. Mel will kill me if she finds out I held out on her. I think the last thing I kept from her was what I got her for her birthday.” He gently slugged his companion. “Hey, if you blush anymore, they’re gonna have to name you the Scarlet Pimp.”

“Asshole,” groused Jared, taking the mild hit to the shoulder in good grace. “I don’t know how you do it,” he commented as he shoved his friend back into a jog. “Not going nuts when Mel pulls her shit. Cuz when Nat pulls one of hers, I really wanna hit something. I gotta keep my head on straight or they’ll reassign me. And that I’m not having.”

Ryan gave him his million dollar smile. "Whenever I just want to scream, I hug her and tell her I’m going for a patrol. It gets me up and out of the way to give me enough time to remember how damn much I love her. That and remember that she can totally transform my big screen tv into so much goo with a thought.

Jared laughed outright. “Wow. Talk about incentive — messing with a man’s TV is just plain wrong,” he quipped as they ran.

Standing with his feet spread and his arms crossed, Jared glared through the one-way glass at Thumper, real name David Greene, and pulled in a breath. He glanced at Falcon. “You’re not going to like what you hear,” he told his friend. When Ryan’s only reply was a grim nod, Jared uncrossed his arms and headed into the room on the other side of that glass.

Entering the room with a friendly smile, Jared said, “Hey, Thumper.”

“Oh, hey man,” the blond, 5’10" sound manipulator replied easily. “Falcon ask you to meet him here too?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Jared replied easily. Plopping down in the chair on the same side of the table as his quarry, he sprawled comfortably. Although his tone was casual, his ability was fully activated on the target in front of him as he spoke. “You know how it is — the higher-ups always checking up on all of us to make sure there’s no breaches of security and stuff. Guess we’re the random picks this week. You know, though, as long as you tell the truth, there’s no problem. Everything’s always better with the real truth on the table. So if you know anything, you should definitely talk about it and not waste your time lying to me.” The powerful Suggestion now in place on his target, he asked casually, “They’re looking for someone selling real identities of some of the Powers. Know anything about that?”

There was an interesting moment where Thumper looked like a deer caught in the headlights, but the very casual tone of his interrogator soothed any panic that might have caused him to react strongly. “Sure. I know about it.” Then Thumper’s brain caught up with his mouth and alarm blazed across his expression.

Jared nodded slightly, still seeming very casual. “I didn’t,” he informed Thumper easily, one ankle propped on his other knee. “I’m glad you’re so willing to tell the truth.” Managing interrogations was a piece of cake once he’d learned that his own expectations would guide his powers. As long as he wanted the actual truth and not just what he THOUGHT the truth was or what he might want the truth to BE, the information he’d obtained in the past several years was all solid. “Do you by any chance know who’s doing it?”

Thumper struggled. “N.. N… No…” He couldn’t force the words out of his mouth and instead attempted a deflection. “Why would you think I’d know?”

Jared smiled faintly, taking an almost mean kind of pleasure out of the attempt to lie. “Don’t hurt yourself, now,” he admonished Thumper with an easygoing smile. “The harder you try to tell a lie to me, the bigger the headache you’ll give yourself.” The power of suggestion was a wonderful thing. “You sure you don’t know anything?”

Thumper’s face was turning white as he realized what kind of deep hole he was suddenly in. “C’mon, man… you know me. You know I’m a good guy.”

“Oh definitely,” Jared agreed immediately. “A great guy. One who sells the real identities of some of our nation’s most valuable assets.” He nodded sagely. “Treason makes a person a terrific guy.” He was in some ways quite sadistically amused as he watched Thumper flounder.

Thumper started shaking, fighting to deny the charges but unable to make the words come out of his mouth. Finally, it burst out, “I accidentally told a reporter who Raven was in her real life, and two weeks ago these Chinese guys paid me a ton of money to get them the identities of three more people. One of them I already knew, but the others I didn’t, so I had to look around the computers.”

Which, of course, is what triggered this little investigation, Jared thought. Leaning forward, no longer the nice guy, he rose to his feet and rested his hands on the table. “Who’d you give them, Thumper?”

The audiokinetic bit his lip and tried not to answer.

Jared slammed his fist on the table and demanded, “WHO. DID. YOU. GIVE. THEM?”

Thumper nearly wet his pants, unable to fight the compulsion to tell the truth. “The only one I knew was Firebolt! They wanted to know Nightingale, though, and Angel. They were more interested in the healers!”

Jared glanced toward the window, knowing what he did next might change forever the way Ryan dealt with him. But it had to be done. He backed off Thumper, far more calm now, and nodded. “Thanks, Thumper. You did a great job.”

The audiokinetic gaped at him blankly.

Jared nodded. “You did,” he assured. “That’s what we needed to know. Now…” He jacked his ability still a little higher and made himself lean down. This was honestly the one aspect of his ability that he hated. His voice got very low. Jared could be intimidating enough all on his own, but now he instilled true fear along with his words, “You are never going to talk about this conversation with anyone. The consequences of mentioning me, this meeting, or that you’ve confessed could well be fatal. An agent will meet you in the hallway, and he’s going to set you up on a sting. And once that’s over, you’ll deal with them about your punishment.”

Episode 21
Season 1 Epilogue

A lot of discussion and argument about what to do with Toby, oftentimes in front of him. Toby wants to be treated like an adult, especially with powers, but is still a 14 year old boy, even if a mature one. Should they be letting him use his powers? He’s still growing into the full set and it could be dangerous to be using them. And could they even stop him if he decided he needed to?

After losing an argument with his mom and Ang, Toby declares he’s going to talk to Wolf. When they say they don’t know where he is, Toby searches for him with his mind and gets very angry. He ports out and comes back with a severely injured Wolf who has been shot multiple times. And then he ports again and comes back with a dead Mrs. Wolf. With the help of Natalie, Toby heals Wolf, although working on small patterns is not something that fits his power well as he knows it.

A lot of discussion and argument about whether to march on City Museum and take it. Natalie argued against, saying that just taking what they wanted because they could put them on the wrong side. Others argued that City Museum struck first and that the group desperately needed the space. Eventually they decided yes and marched on City Museum in caravan. There were 3 people there and Toby ports them out one at a time. The final one, Richard, is the one who knows things. He shows them to a tunnel in the lower levels that leads to a nearby basement where a computer sits. Richard explains that it is his AI, Sandra. But that she’s different since Destruction Day and that he doesn’t completely understand her. Maddy, curious, goes over to the computer. When she touches it, she hears the machinery talking to her softly for the first time in 2 years. Then those voices are silenced by a louder one in her head saying, “You have finally arrived. I have been waiting for you.”

Episode 20
Toby Rises

As the episode begins, there is a lot of debate about next steps. The group is low on food and Ang is convinced that they have to get back to Refuge Point, no matter what they have to give up. Others disagree, thinking there might be a way to give Langston more time to find an inhibitor or some other solution that will give them more leeway. The solution is decided that the 6 who volunteered to leave due to the experiments could go back to Refuge Point – assuming they would be accepted. That would reduce the amount of food being used.

They go to meet with Refuge Point, being represented by Santae and Rick. They inform the group that Mary Fran has been taken off the council and there is a temporary vacancy. They say they were worried or thought the group didn’t want to continue discussions, since they hadn’t seen Wolf in a couple of days, which is worrying. In addition, Rhiannon Alba, who has a hatred for powers and a desire for revenge, snuck out of Refuge Point a couple of days before.

Then the sound of automatic gunfire comes from back at Clean Tech. When the group rushes back, they find the place surrounded by City Museum, with Rhiannon at their side, seemingly having led them to the location. A desperate gunfight ensues. During the battle, Langston crawls into the building, taking multiple gunshot wounds in the process. He finds Toby and uses electroshock to bring him out of his state of unawareness. Toby teleports to the middle of the air and makes all the living City Museum folks vanish. He then heals the friendlies before coming to the ground.

Questioning Toby, he seems to have an awareness of all living things within a very large radius and can manipulate the patterns of those living things. Langston and Ang (mostly Ang) get to work trying to teach Toby how to focus in and stay in control of powers, which he seems to do, but with the short hand patience of a 14 year old boy. It definitely seems to be hard for him to not be tempted to use those powers. Complicating matters, he seems to think he’s still got more powers to grow into. How is that going to play with the plan to go back to Refuge Point?

Episode 19
Information Dissemination

Toby is an odd state – not a pure coma (he can eat and drink if fed) but he’s generally non-responsive. The prime theory seems to be he’s processing his power and that is using every part of his system.

Natalie gets roped into the role of Information Dissemination, making sure that everyone knows what’s going on. She tells the group about Toby and how she had her powers restored, but despite thinking she would tell the whole truth, Natalie fudges slightly, in order to keep order in place.

The group meets with Isiah Spears from the Harris Stowe community. They work out a deal where the group (and perhaps Refuge Point eventually) will provide labor to the small Harris Stowe in exchange for food, which is something that Harris Stowe has enough thanks to a full growing wheat field and a still large supply of food from the original college.

Also with Isiah is Cindie Goliger – she was an early childhood specialist at Harris Stowe. Maddy had also saved her life pre Destruction Day – preventing an energy beam Power from killing Cindie by using the St. Louis bridge itself against him. But then it turned against Maddy, which might explain some of the metal shrapnel embedded within her.

Langston does some blood work testing – as part of that, he discovers that Maddy’s blood is different, that she is somehow incorporating the nanobots that make up the virus into her system. What that means for Maddy is uncertain.

Unhappy that she missed potential dissent before it showed up on her doorstep, Ang recruits Olivia to be her spymaster, making sure that anything important gets back to her. When Olivia asks if this sort of thing would continue on in Refuge Point when they returned, Ang demurs, basically saying until that happens, not much point in thinking about it.

A meeting with Refuge Point is at hand – coming up the next day and a lot has changed in the last week – will that matter in this discussion?

Episode 18
Mea Culpa OR Don't Tickle My Brutal

Natalie goes to Toby and guilts him into opening his door and talking. He’s scared and thinking a lot about what it means to have this kind of power level, whatever it ends up being, in a world without powers. He tells Natalie that he saw a video of his mom doing some serious hurt during the D-Day craziness and he’s worried that it could happen to him. Natalie reassures him that he’s a good kid and that powers won’t change that. He thanks her and then goes back to seclusion.

Anthony, Doreen, Lisette, Ronald, and Gordon come to Ang and tell her that they are planning to go back to Refuge Point – they are unhappy with the experiments that Langston is running and they could try and serve as a bridge for the rest of the group to come back. Ang disagrees and suggests they stay, because Refuge Point will reject them and they will die out there on their own. They reluctantly agree but ask Ang to do something to reign Langston in.

Langston, having agreed to let Melody to serve as his own personal IRB board, also gives a public apology to the group. It doesn’t go as smoothly as he would like but the powers seem to accept it. Natalie gives a dramatic speech about how it isn’t that they WERE heroes but that they ARE heroes and it’s time to start acting like it. There is general applause and an agreement to let Langston continue doing what needs to be done, within limits.

Ang and Maddy have a long discussion about who they were before and why people are afraid of getting their powers back. And Ang admits her eyes are starting to fail, once during Dr. Metamorph and one during the Toby aftermath. Was the Redemption Angels gas responsible? Maddy thinks maybe Ang is growing her eyes back. Ang disagrees and just wanted a list of things to get on their next run and suggests her eyes are maybe just breaking down. They plan to get the stuff and think about where they maybe could do some maintenance/repair work.

Langston experiments with Natalie using lower doses of the Twisted mushroom. They manage to get her power working, healing the injuries she had taken from Toby, but they use up most of the mushroom and cause her to glow brightly in a way that she doesn’t normally do. Natalie feels great afterwards but begins to wonder if she might have suffered some side effects.

Lisette Pound is asked to be the next volunteer so that she might be able to use her power to calm Kofi and keep him from using his ability again. She, in a southern accent, politely declines, saying she doesn’t want her power back and she’s not even sure it would work on Kofi in the way they think it would.

Eventually Toby comes out of his room – he has a headache, one that he has had since waking up. He talks with some people and then starts to slowly grow incoherent before his eyeballs roll back in his head and he collapses in a seizure. After it stops, Toby doesn’t wake up. Is he processing his new powers? Or has he been affected by a different version of the nanobot virus? His mother sits by his side, waiting to find out.

When Your Magic Ruby Slippers Don't Work
Natalie/Melody RP

Plagued during what little sleep she does manage to get by nightmares made worse by lack of painkillers, Natalie is both exhausted and awake. She struggles to find a comfortable position where she lays, but she gives it up as a lost cause after a few minutes. With both a broken leg and an arm that is still not healed from the piercing, each movement feels like shards of glass rubbing on her nerve endings as she stretches to try to reach the water that Langston left close to her when he slipped out to catch some sleep. She knocks the bottle over as she fumbles for it and gives up the effort until she hears footsteps coming across the floor. “Langston?” she asks quietly. “Could you hand me the bottle of water? It rolled.”

“Sure,” came the flat answer. After unscrewing the cap, Melody hands it over and nods for Natalie to drink. “So how are you feeling?” she asks once the bottle is put down.

Well, hell. Melody’s voice is not unexpected — she rather expects to be reamed up one side and down the other and then that they’re not going to be talking for a long while. She kind of wishes she were still on the mushrooms. Blowing out a slow breath, she takes the bottle of water and sips from it. “Fine,” she replies. It was always her standard answer when she overused her abilities in the past, and it doesn’t seem as if now will be any different…. although she has the sense that she’s not going to be healing very quickly at all. “How’s Toby?”

“Dunno. He’s locked himself in his room. I thought about waiting outside, but that just seemed wrong.” She bit her lip. “He’s freaked, scared and healed. That’s as much as I got.”

Frowning, Natalie set the bottle of water back down and used her undamaged arm to try to push upright despite the searing flash of agony across her nerve endings. Sweat instantly beaded on her face. “I’ve healed him any number of times. What’s he freaked by? What happened?” she demanded through clenched teeth.

“He’s a Power now according to Langston. You healed him of his injuries and of the virus it seems.” Her voice had risen in volume as she spoke and she stopped, biting off the last word to regain control. Don’t know what kind or how it will manifest, but very strong Langston said. Just like his parents." She started to sit down and then stood up again realizing that she couldn’t maintain any semblance of pleasant anymore. “Damn it Nat, what the fuck were you thinking? Did you think that just because you’ve healed him a few times, that makes you equal to me to making decisions for him? I gave birth to him, carried him for 9 months and watched every baby step and every triumph he had. And all the losses too including the worst one of all that I gave him. What right did you think you had to just take him and see what the fuck would happen? Neither of you knew what would happen, did you? And worse, you didn’t consider what the consequences of failing might have been.”

The last sentence was a soft scream of words, modulated so the building didn’t hear everything, but more intense because of the emotion that was being held back.

A multitude of thoughts go through Natalie’s mind. Wearily she closes her eyes. “I couldn’t afford to let him try it on anyone whose power might be destructive. We had already seen what mine would do out of control — the only person it hurts is me,” she said simply. “I couldn’t leave him hurting… not after healing Elana right in front of him. This damn life is unfair enough.”

Melody closed her eyes. “Why not start small? Broken toe, broken arm. Something that was a wound that wouldn’t further break you in the process? You didn’t think at all. You say the only person it hurts is you but what if it didn’t? Overactive immune systems cause lupus, MS. . .you could have hyper activated his immune system Nat. Caused spontaneous cell growth. Cancer,” she finally snapped. She sat down abruptly, filled with panic. There was no way of knowing what the repercussions of what they had done. Not for a while. Maybe too late. Looking up at Natalie, she shook her head, her eyes glistening with un-shed tears. “He’s not always right you know. Langston is a smart, brilliant scientist. But even he makes mistakes. Even he is human.”

With a small quirk of her lips, Natalie replies softly, “No he’s not. He’s a monster. And so am I.” She finally opens her eyes to look at her friend, a wealth of regret in her expression. “You’re right. I had no idea what I was doing. For just that one second of desperation, I wanted it back — I didn’t want her to die. And as soon as I had it, look what the hell happened.” " The emotional toll of everything that’s happened is actually making her physical pain worse. “In the past few weeks, Mel, I feel like we’re living a nightmare all over again. I thought we were geting past this mentality, but it’s us versus them…. again. I just …” She clenches her jaw. “I’m so TIRED of not being able to fix what we broke. And I’ve tried repentance and doing everything anyone asked… I’ve tried to just not care. My God, I even told our own people to hack up that body for bait.” It makes her sick to remember. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Melody stared at her, time only marked by their breathing. At length, she shook her head and said softly, “It’s always been us against them. We’re the good guys. We have to strive for the higher ground. We just have less tools to use to get to it this time.”

The reluctant laugh that comes from Natalie is clearly painful. “You know…. when Toby was taken, you were willing to do anything — ANYTHING — to get him back. I understood that, despite the hell I gave you. Because that’s how I feel about ALL of you. And sometimes Langston actually makes sense, even when I don’t want him to. I can’t do this his way, and I can’t always find the high road, either.” She looked away from her best friend. "I don’t have anything left but all of you. Not just the Guardians, but Charlie, Santae, Elana…. Refuge Point isn’t perfect. But until the day we left there, I didn’t feel threatened. And now…. " She trailed off, just shaking her head.

“You don’t let your fears get the better of you. You’re stronger than that Natalie.”. She shook her head. “You’re too weak for me to truly ream you the way you oughta be reamed so I’ll just tell you this: we are stronger as a whole, all of us, not just us Powers. There has always been fear and prejudice, it’s biologically wired, and now it’s our turn. Segregation doesn’t help combat their fears or ours.” She scowled. “We’re not helpless woman. God help us we’re just like them finally. Are you so weak that being human with all the mortality and ickiness involved is too much?”. She tossed her head. “Please! That’s not the Nat I knew.”

Rolling her eyes, Natalie retorts, “It’s not weakness to just want to protect yourself and your loved ones from the insanity outside the door or to be tired of and overwhelmed by the big picture. We’ve been living in the world’s biggest disaster for three years — occasionally even the most positive of us have breakdowns. I desperately want a break from feeling like because our powers ripped the world apart, it’s our responsibility tofix the damn place. It’s too big a job.” When she looks back at Melody, though, there’s a kind of amusement. “And don’t twist my words and make me sound like a whiny brat just because you’re pissed at me.” She winces slightly as she shifts in the bed and takes a moment to breathe before ending in a weary tone, “You’re right, though. It’s time to find the balance again. Leaving Refuge Point wasn’t the answer… I know that. I knew it then. But I didn’t have a better idea, and neither did you. I guess it’s time to find big-girl panties again and figure it out.”

Melody nodded and went to the door. “Yeah,time to put on the hat, Elphaba. Oz needs the flying monkeys to help fix everything.”. She smiled lightly and then her face got still. “I love you Nat. But we’re not done. Not by a long shot. You broke my trust and it will take a while. I won’t forbid Toby from seeing you; he needs us all now. But I haven’t forgiven you.”

Natalie simply nods, her eyes closed. That makes two of us. Staying away from her friend’s son was the least she could do. “I’ll see you later.”

Melody/Langston RP

There was an art form to dealing with teenagers. Melody had always thought that she had mastered it with her students, that frighteningly hard mix of adult in charge and “I was once your age,” coolness. But no one, no one at all had told her that when it came to her kid, she had mastered nothing. She had considered sitting outside Toby’s door but had finally left the stubbornly closed piece of wood with a mournful stare and more than a bit of abuse to her lower lip.

There was no way that a stalker, even if it was your own mom, was anything other than downright creepy. She had willed her legs to carry her away and then spent a useless hour trying to think up conversational segues to expertly make him open up to her when and if Toby finally emerged. None of them were right, none were clever, and every one of them screamed worried mom. That and were guaranteed to make him withdraw from her faster than the speed of light.

He would probably feel more comfortable talking to one of the other adults, she reassured herself and then was stunned by the wave of anger that pulsed through her. She hadn’t thought that Nat would do that, that Ang would lie to her. The depth of her sense of betrayal surprised even her. That Langston would conceive of that, well she wasn’t surprised. It was good hypothesis, brilliant even. And she had not been surprised to find him watching with a cold clarity that was noting the resulting events and cataloging them for further analysis. Langston had always had a hunger for knowledge that was deep, compulsive and dangerous to himself and others. She was sad to realize that she had accepted that about him.

But Nat…that had hurt her. Her power had always been to heal but what if it had gone wrong? On her son? Her only child! She would have been willing to break her arm, break a finger and be the test rabbit. But not Toby. Not Toby, not at his age, not knowing what would happen. And they went behind her back and pulled Ang into it.

She had hoped that Ang would have been as confused as she, but she hadn’t been. Worse, she had tried to stop her. A subtle signal that the younger woman knew more about Toby than Mel did, was certain that what was being done behind closed doors was okay.

Her fists clenched, her nails digging into her palms. Well it wasn’t okay. It damn wasn’t okay at all. And neither was the aftermath. Forcing her fingers to uncurl, she inhaled deeply, savoring air that was clean and untainted by the pollution of civilization, and desperately wished for a cigarette.

The day after his conversation with Ang, Langston shambled down the dark hallway towards Melody’s room. The close, musty smell of nature consuming CleanTek evoked memories from the near past. Of a massive tree growing through an apartment building. Of a lioness lying in the darkness, shielding her wounded family. He was venturing into another mother’s den today. Even without her impressive power set, Melody still had claws. He paused to lean against the wall and slow his labored breathing. Working for hours on end without sleep was punishing his frustratingly frail form. He could not appear weak before Melody. Repentant, certainly. But never weak.

What concentration of Twisted mushroom would allow Natalie to heal herself without completely losing herself in the drug? What was the tolerance at which the virus stopped suppressing powers? It seemed plausible that there was a point where the subject was in control but the virus was not. After all Githa had regained some control at the end. Though her powers were waning by that time. But even a quarter of Natalie’s normal healing rate might allow her to be walking weeks ahead of schedule…

Langston startled awake, grunting softly and barely catching himself from an awkward fall by scrabbling his hands across the cold tile. His muscles were cramped and on fire. Falling asleep like a doddering old fool, he thought. How long had he stood here? Likely not very long. He didn’t think he could stand much of anywhere for very long. He hobbled the last few feet to Melody’s door, one leg stiffened against the racing pins and needles. He paused at the door and croaked, “Melody?” Clearing his throat he tried again, “Melody?”

Melody knew he was there but she waited, hoping he would give up. She found herself wanting a cigarette again. She didn’t smoke, but there were always good times to start. Especially when one of the people you wanted to strangle was at your door.

Langston trailed off as he caught sight of eyes in the gloom. For a moment, through the lingering haze of his sleep deprivation, he sees the eyes of a great cat. Glowing. Watchful. Smoldering. As his vision adjusts, he discerns Melody’s face framing the eyes. So, not that far from the truth, he thinks wryly. “We should probably talk. About Toby and other things. An apology is in order, if you are willing to hear me out.”

Probably. Melody thought to herself. Nope. Oh you betcha one is and I’ll hear it if I don’t strangle you first.

She counted down from ten, trying to find the old Melody, the one who tried to always be positive, the one who was willing to listen. Closing her eyes, she inhaled again slowly, reflecting that Langston sounded utterly exhausted. Poor thing. She had forgotten how ravaged his face had become; her fury had hidden her shock when she lifted his mask. There was no telling how ravaged his insides had become. He most likely was in a lot of pain now that she thought about it.

And he had come to find her of all things. It was odd and slightly disconcerting. He really said apology. Huh?

“What?” she asked, now curious, and waited.

Langston tried to read her tone as he sagged his frame against the door’s. The s-curve of his spine rolled sharply over the jam and he scrubbed his hands across his face to hide the wince. She was guarded, but curious. Surprisingly fair, considering that he doubted Toby was speaking to her yet. “Yes, I do apologies,” he said wryly, the crooked grin slipping from his face as he continued in a serious, level tone. “I know everyone here thinks that I’m an unfeeling brute, but you know me better than that. It’s not that I don’t feel, or that I don’t understand, it’s just that emotions are rarely relevant. Blubbering and hand wringing typically gets in the way of important things. But this time is an atypical case. Melody, I truly am sorry that I hurt you and Toby. I wanted you to know that. You two are important, and I did not intend for either of you to be harmed.”

She scrubbed her hands through her hair, wincing as a nail caught and pulled a strand and inhaled hard to make time to gather her next words. “I know Langston, I know that you didn’t mean to harm him. But your choice of your experimental subject was wrong. Your parameters were too expansive and your controls were lacking.”

Rising to her feet, she came to the door. “And if you had caused him irreparable harm, I don’t know what I would have done.” Her eyes fixed on his. “I don’t know yet if you haven’t Langston. Why not break someone’s finger or God forbid, an arm? That would have hurt Nat less in the trade and gotten the result you were seeking. Now she has all of Toby’s injuries and none of his youth to help her heal. You showboated your research Langston. For no reason.” She was quiet for a moment and then added, “And you did it with the only person I have left.”

To live for, she added silently to herself in a moment of brutal honesty and she shuddered lightly.

He cocked his head and regarded her quizzically. “Showboated? You suggest motives that I lack. The choice was based on clear logical reduction. Toby was chosen precisely because he was young and injured. Given the power level at which Natalie previously manifested, our assumption was that Natalie would heal his wounds and then nearly immediately absorb his affliction. I actually think that’s what happened. The unexpected element was her healing the nano-virus. My guess is that she spent all of her energy absorbing that. We’ll know more after the next round of tests,” he holds up his hand to forestall her objection, "on Natalie. She’s not useful for much else at the moment.

“Speaking of Natalie, she agreed with my conclusions. She agreed because they were correct. She also expressed no need to notify you of our intentions. Because we were going to heal him, not harm him. That was both our intent and the effect. I considered the risks Melody. Toby is just as important as the rest of us, if not more so. It was the right decision. I’m sorry if it upset you.”

She was silent, studying him with a critical eye, trying to master the wave of fury that rolled through her, trying to be as abstracted as he could be. It was a blessing that she hadn’t accidentally activated. Ryan had always said that she had no impulse control and she had never been able to argue with him about that assessment.

But his calming hand was gone and she knew at the core of her heart, she would have made and remade Langston in parts and materials with a cruelty that the Falcon would have been horrified by. It would have made her feel better until she realized what she had done. Then her inner angel would have drowned in its grief and guilt.

But for right now, the angel was holding the devil back in a tsunamic litany of justifications. Langston was a valuable resource. . .Toby would need him. . .it all was about Toby and trying to survive to the next day. . .he and the group would need Langston. . .in a world where everyone was potentially super, you needed experts like Langston Science had made the world that they had destroyed. . .maybe science could bring it back.

She un-clenched her fists again slowly and carefully. She really needed to take a knife and cut off her ragged nails. A bit of stickiness let her know she had given herself a light cut. Blinking to clear her vision, she finally took in that the man sagged against the door frame as if it were the only thing holding him up and finally felt a salvation of pity for him.

“Glad to know that Toby is important,” she managed to reply through tight jaws. “Guess that’s nothing to having given birth to him. Really even happier to find out that you found an unexpected element in the experiment. That’s just dazzling. I’m giddy with the discovery. A bit stunned that you didn’t think about her over-activating but hey, that’s what science and experiments are for.”

Her nostrils were flaring and she leaned closer after a pregnant pause. “I don’t care what you do with Nat. That’s between you and her. Light her up like a glowworm and see if she heals the world. But Toby is mine, Langston. My son! Dammit it all, he’s a person and that person is a bit freaked out and terrified. A person who is mine to worry about, love and care for until I die. Not yours, not Natalie’s, not this goddammed world’s. Mine.”

And fuck if I know what’s going to happen to him now or how to help him. And I’ll need you and Nat to help us.

She took his hand and pulled him gently inside her room, letting the mom inside take over finally. “Come sit down before you fall over or I strangle you. I’ve got some warm water and a few Triscuits. Have you eaten?”

Langston hesitated. He had just witnessed a tornado of emotions, and was uncertain if he was in the eye or if the storm had passed. “Triscuits are indeed a bounty,” he ventured. “And no, I do not recall the last time I ate. Either because it was so long ago or because it was so little food as to evoke no memory.” He paused to carefully chew the sharp crackers between his uneven teeth and paused for a drink before continuing. “I do care about the powers in this community, as hard as that is to believe, it is all I care about. And to that end, I need your help.”

He hesitated, before continuing. This was a large gambit and it depended on which Melody he was talking to. But it was the only way out. “I know you will care for Toby and for Koffi. I would like to care for them as well. Regardless of my methods, my intentions were, and always have been, to help this community survive. Unfortunately, my methods have proved less than popular.” He halted again before pushing the next words out. “Melody…I am so weary. Of this life. Of this body. In my eagerness to find a way out of this hell, I have lost sight of the boundaries that were once so clear to me. I still see the destination, but I no longer notice the maze of society you all have constructed between here and there. If I am to remain in this community, if I am to find a way to return us to Refuge Point, then I need a guide. Someone who will allow no shortcuts. I think that someone must be you. No one else is strong enough.” He took a deep breath to stop from stammering and bulled onward. “And…for the community to accept this imperfect solution…you must accept my apology. Likely publicly.” He sat back and took a drink of the water. More exhausted by the admission, and by offering to willingly wear a bridle, than by days on end in the lab. Whatever it takes, he thought grimly. He awaited the far edge of the storm.

He never lied. She stared at him in the darkness and tried to gauge the truth of what he had just said, knowing that it was true because it could be nothing else. The last of her anger dissipated as a surge of sympathy swallowed it. She could hear Ryan’s voice soft in her head.

Just try to see the other side, Mel. Put yourself in their shoes.

She had come out of the virus pretty much the same minus powers. Toby hadn’t died and until this evening, seemed unscathed by it. They had been lucky.

But the man before her hadn’t. She reached out for his shoulder, her fingers light and gentle as she touched him.

“You make me feel like a schizophrenic nutcase Langston. One minute I want to throttle you and the next hug you. I’m sorry, I really am. I guess I just didn’t think of how much the internal changes had to have matched what the virus did to you externally. I can’t imagine how you feel or understand what depth of desperation you must feel to escape the prison you’ve been put into. I am truly sorry.”

She pulled away and a deep sigh escaped her. “But I don’t know if I’m the best arbiter of wrong or right. I don’t seem to have a good track record and I sure as hell don’t have the best temperament. At least when dealing with what happens to my kids.”

“Understand that while your sympathy is appreciated, truly, it is not necessary. I can bear almost anything to see this community to the other side. I have invested so much…” he trailed off and shook himself. Forgetting where he was again. Doddering old fool.

He massaged his temples and sighed before beginning again, “Your temperament aside, it must be you. Precisely because of your children. Precisely because you are often the only one to object. Who else would it be? Natalie is easily swayed. Maddy is a doormat. Ang…I do not think any of you truly grasp the depths of her ruthlessness. I must stay in this community to save it. In this regard, the scientific regard, I’m the only one left who can. To do that work I need to conform to some arbitrary set of rules that I no longer understand. Will you help? Will you publicly accept my apology? Will you publicly accept my leash?” He spits the last word, wrestling his embarrassment and anger. “I must warn you that it will not be an easy task. I will test the limits and question every restraint. I cannot do otherwise. Too much is at stake.”

Her smile, mostly hidden by the darkness was wry. “So I’ll have three teenage boys to attempt to control and grow into adulthood?”

“Basically. Except I will never learn.”

Melody could only shake her head. “You totally suck honey,” she stated softly. She gave herself a moment to think about refusing the Herculean task ahead of her and then her shoulders slumped. “I’ll do it. Just remember, I still think you ought be beat black and blue. I’m not condoning what you all did, but God help me, I understand.”

She pointed a finger at him. “Not forgiven. But I’ll try to forget. Ryan was Mr. Forgiveness. The best I can do is just press the reset button on us and try to make sure you stay good. I’ll find a way to tear you to molecules if you don’t. Slowly.”. Her eyebrows raised. “Deal?”

“Deal. If we’re lucky, you’ll be able to tear me into molecules one day. And don’t even try to keep me ‘good.’ It’s such an abstract concept. Try to keep me…” He trailed off, seeking the word before finishing with another tired smile, “Honest.”

Sunset at Noon
Langston/Ang RP

Ang rapidly left the room. The arguing was just becoming too much, and they just couldn’t be dealt with. She found herself outside of the Clean-Tech building, and climbed to the roof, relieving the guard. She sat down, legs in an upside down V shape, and looked out over the dimly lit area.

It felt like the fighting in the room was causing the power to go out. That’s when Ang realized that they were doing it again. Her eyes … they were shutting down. Before anyone would realize she was gone, she had to get to someplace where she could think. This wasn’t just a fluke, like it had been before. Was it the nanovirus? Was that the cause?

As soon as Melody lost sight of Langston, he fled. Awkwardly, and without the intention or acquisition of stealth, but it was fleeing nevertheless. The woman was on the warpath. Langston understood at an abstract level why she was angry, but his mind was blurred by lack of sleep and he did not have the patience for her irrational emotions. Driven by simian instincts, he lurched up the stairs in fits and starts, wrestled with the rickety door out on the roof, and stumbled out into the bright sunshine. He immediately saw Ang and laughed a rough laugh.

“You too, eh? I didn’t even notice you leave. I wonder how long before they notice we’re both gone?” Langston wobbled awkwardly to the ground before continuing. “Ang…” he trailed off and started again, “I don’t remember the last time you fled a fight. And I know you’re not up here to escape me. So, what’s driven you up here?”

Ang assumed that Langston already knew the answer to his question. He almost always did. But she welcomed his outreach, because … because his motives weren’t bound up in anything. They weren’t a lie.

“Tactics, battles, heroes versus villains … that’s understandable. Surviving had begun to make sense. But back there? Those are adults who can’t hold back their feelings, and they aren’t going to listen to me if I tell them to calm down.”

Like she always did in times of high stress, Ang clenched her hands, back and forth, wishing for her blades and something to slice in thirds.

“I tried leading the Young Bloods when I had lost my powers, and I can tell you … it’s not going to be pretty if I start stepping in on these squabbles. My place is on the battlefield, or in planning out who to hit next.”

“I would volunteer as leader,” Langston replied, “but something tells me I wouldn’t be very popular. Besides, they rarely listen to reason or logic. They do listen to you. Whether you like it or not, you’re the elected official.” Plus, you’re the only one I can trust to do the right thing, he added wordlessly. “Tell them to set aside their sentiment and focus on survival. They’ve shown flashes of abandoning the more worthless trappings of society. I’m sure that with the right prodding they can be convinced to do what is necessary rather than what is palatable.”

“You’re not getting the risk, Langston.” Or are you? she thought. “The more I get them to conform to our way of thinking, to squash down what they hold dear, the more likely they are to go rogue when we need them the most. I’d be creating deserters, rogue agents, independent actors. They have to think they have their free will, or they will take it.”

“The most efficient way to herd them is to cast what you want in terms of what they want,” Langston lectured. “That will be difficult but not impossible. Of course, I have made things worse with the accelerated pace of my research. I miscalculated Melody’s response because of how readily Natalie agreed to utilize Toby. She didn’t even hesitate, which I find slightly odd in retrospect. Since you covered for me, you have breached Melody’s trust. I doubt it was possible for her to trust me any less, but your relationship with her is now in peril. Normally I would volunteer for some sort of public punishment from you, and still will if that is deemed necessary. Something inconvenient that will still allow me to pursue the research. Presumably I will also need oversight in addition to my current lab ‘assistants’ since they were so easily swayed into doing something that, in hindsight, was a political misstep regardless of its success. All of that is a given, but I’m not sure how you repair things with Melody. The trick is to use their humanity and heroism to align them with your goals. It’s worked well for me in the past.”

“I’ll think on the best political methods, and see what I can do,” Ang replied. “That’s not the biggest reason I’m out here, though.” She paused, and sighed heavily. “My eyes, Langston. They’re beginning to fail. I’ve been turning them off when I can, but …” She left all of the implied consequences hanging in the air like lost dandelion wishes fluttering away on the breeze.

Langston sits quietly, but as Ang speaks terror boils up inside him. To imagine, in this world, to be truly helpless, nearly pitches him over a precipice into a pit of dread. Even his frail shell is preferable to blindness. Not just disability. In this place it would be inability. Death. The silence drags on as Langston excoriates these emotions with calm reason and logic. When he finally speaks, his voice is its usual, dry rasp.

“We have more resources here than ever. And will obtain even more once we rejoin forces with Refuge Point. Have you discussed this with Maddy? If not, you must tell her. Perhaps she can slow the degradation, even if she cannot halt it.”

“I will speak with her soon,” Ang replied. I’ve just needed time to come with grips with this. I still haven’t, but … I need to act." She furiously tried to cry, but couldn’t. “We have to rejoin Refuge Point, now. I want you prepared to speak with them as soon as possible, and let’s collaborate on making the strongest entry point in we can. I meant what I said … we do not want to return in a position of weakness.”

“OK,” Langston replied hesitantly, trying to ignore the emotions rolling off Ang. “To do that I’ll need to actually finish my research, and see if we can accelerate Natalie’s healing. Continuing research after what the community witnessed today…Not coming to you first was a misstep, but what’s done is done. I can speak with Melody. If she will agree to forgive me, publicly, that may buy enough good will to continue. Other than learning more about this virus that afflicts us, I’m worried about Koffi as well. Refuge Point will certainly not accept us if we do not have a foolproof strategy to control his outbursts. I’m concerned Mary Fran may just want to kill him outright rather than risk his powers being used by either us or the museum. Although his utility is declining, we did promise to keep him safe.”

“We can’t be the Guardians of Koffi without Koffi. I made that stand, and we’ll have to live with it,” Ang replied firmly. She paused for a bit, feeling the wind on her face, her eyes closed. “Let me know if you run into any trouble.”

The conversation over, Langston sat beside her quietly in the bright sunshine, letting the warmth seep into his aching bones and trying to convince himself that he wasn’t hiding from the storm below.


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