Month: July 2014

Chapter 16: Rushing

NOTE: If you only check once a week, there were two chapters posted before this one!

“I don’t get it-it, why do I have to stay inside-side?”

Rachel sighed and looked at her younger brother pouting at the kitchen table. “You know why. Until you get your voice under control you’re at risk. Most civvie’s might not know what it means, but if you run into a prowler or a jaunter outside of costume, they wouldn’t hesitate to take you out.”

Of course she didn’t mention the other reason, he looked enough like his father that a lot of speed or skywalkers would figure it out if they knew about his powers.  (‘But I can’t tell him that, not yet.’)

Mitchell huffed angrily and stalked off to his room, slamming the door behind him.

“MITCHELL THOMAS CHASE YOU BETTER NOT DO THAT AGAIN!”

Rachel slumped in exhaustion. She had gotten her first lead on the Elephant in the Room in weeks the night before, and she didn’t get back home until well past midnight. “And to make it worse I have to go into the coffee house today. I can’t wait until Tina can work unsupervised, even if it’s only during the slow hours.”

She straightened herself out and walked to her brother’s door. She listened closely, hearing his TV playing on the other side. With a small smile, she knocked on his door.

“Mitchell, I need to head to the coffee house soon.  I left a sandwich in the fridge for your lunch, and remember you’re supposed to meet with Mr. Writer at three. You can stop by the coffee house after you eat if you want to wait there, okay?”

A muffled voice came from the other side of the door. “Okay-kay, I don’t think I’ll go to the store though-ough.”

“Okay.” She started to turn away, but she hesitated, thinking about the conversation she’d had with Will six nights ago. (‘He isn’t ready yet, he’s not mature enough. But…’). “Mitch?”

On the other side of the door, Mitchell paused. His sister hadn’t called him Mitch in years, and she was the only one who could get away with it. Something had to be going on. “Yeah, Rachel-el?”

“I-I just want you to know that I’m sorry about keeping you inside like this. I know you don’t understand right now…but there’s a really good reason for it, okay? Just, just trust me for now. I’ll make sure you understand after this thing with Will is over okay?”

Mitchell felt a small tug in his gut. “Okay, sis-sis. Stay safe-afe, I’ll see you tonight-ight.”

“I’ll see you tonight, Mitch. Don’t forget your helmet.”

Mitchell listened closely as his sister walked away. In truth, he had been planning on sneaking out once she left, but after that conversation he decided it might be better to wait after all.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Will sat down on the bench by the lion’s cage. It was a shame that they couldn’t have this meeting on a rooftop but this section of the zoo was still being repaired from Tigroar’s last fight so they wouldn’t be interrupted. He checked the clock hanging in the middle of the path through the safari zone. (‘If Red Racer’s anything like other runners…’). “Three, two, one, hello Red.”

“Awww-www,” The thirteen year old hero sat on the bench next to Will. “Being able to surprise people is half the fun of being a runner-ner, and you have to ruin it-it.”

Will smirked. “Kid, I’ve dealt with runners for longer than you’ve been alive. Trust me when I say you’ll never surprise me with a trick that simple.”

Red Racer gave an exaggerated pout before he spoke. “So what are we here to talk about anyway-way.”

Will waved his hand dismissively. “We’re not here to talk about anything in particular. The fact is that there are things you may not feel comfortable discussing in the group, and there are things that I would not feel comfortable revealing to the group without your permission.”

“I guess that makes sense-se. So do I start or do you-ou?”

“You first. Are you all right with the group so far?”

Red nodded. “Yeah-eah. Everyone’s real nice-ice!”

“Good.” Will smiled. “You guys need to be able to trust each other for this to work, especially if you want to keep going.”

“Okay-ay.”

“Now…is there anything bothering you? Something you don’t feel comfortable talking about in the group?”

Red Racer stared into the lion cage. “Well-ell, I wanted to ask you something about Unimportant-ant, but I wasn’t sure if I could-oud.”

“Don’t worry about being rude here, but don’t be surprised if I can’t answer.”

“Alright-ight. It has to do with that thing you said at the end of the sessions-ions…Tread softly-ly?”

“He was the only one who responded yes. He is likely remembering something from another world, like he mentioned.”

“Right-ight. But if he remembers that, then does that mean he knows other usses-es?”

Will sighed. (‘So the kid picked up on that did he?’). “You’re smarter than you let on aren’t ya kid? Fact is, he might, but you shouldn’t ask him about it.”

“Why not-ot?”

“Alternate universes get…tricky. Knowing what you could have been can drive people insane. Take you for instance, say in 20 years you find a you who never got powers. Maybe he became a billionaire, maybe he died, maybe he gets the girl you never had the courage to ask out. Might-have-beens cause enough trouble when you don’t know how it would have turned out, knowing the truth usually only makes it work.”

“But-ut, I’ve heard a lot of stories about heroes teaming up with their alternates-ates. I thought it was a normal thing-ing.”

“That’s only part of it. There are as many good yous as bad yous, as many dead yous as living yous, as many that never existed as exist. Infinites get weird, if you ever get the chance to ask Zero, he’ll tell you. Runners are notorious for it.”

Red Racer went wide eyed at the thought of meeting a member of The Council, especially another runner. “Have you met her-er?”

Will shrugged. “I’ve met a lot of people, but that’s not a conversation for now. This is supposed to be about you, is there anything else bugging you.”

Red shook his head. “Nope-ope, is that it-it?”

Will grabbed Red Racer’s shoulder before he could run off. “Not quite yet kid. I have a few things to ask you about first.”

Red nodded.

“First of all, why did you really become a hero?”

“Why not-ot?”

“What?”

“Why not be a hero-o? I have the power-er, I don’t want to be a villain-ain, so why wouldn’t I be a hero-o?”

“Did you think about your age? Your sister? Your friends? Being a hero requires you to give up so much, don’t you think it deserves a better reason?”

Red Racer shook his head. “That would be boring-ing. I waited years to get my powers­-ers, why would I wait to use them-em?”

Will took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair. “I understand where you’re coming from kid, but you have to understand too. Being a hero takes more resolve than ‘I have powers’, you need something bigger, something to fight for.”

“Why would I need that-at? I can help people fine as now-ow. I don’t think I need a better reason than that-at.”

“Look Red, I know you think that, but what you’re saying is childish. As good as ‘good for goodness’s sake’ sounds, people can’t live like that. Heroes especially need to have something special, something selfish they can take on themselves. Otherwise, the pressure gets too much, you start blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault. It’s nearly driven some good people insane, and I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Red smiled brightly. “Don’t worry, it won’t”

“That’s not-“

Red Racer had already run away.

“…enough.”

Will stared at the empty seat where Red Racer had just been.

A few minutes passed before he stood up and walked out of the park, just outside was Jim Hob’s cab.

“So, how’d it go?”

Will leaned back in his seat and stared out the window back into the zoo. “He’s got a good heart, but he’s still thinking about this like a kid.”

“He is a kid, Will.”

“With the mask off, maybe, but heroes can’t afford to be kids. It gets people killed.”

“Maybe.” Jim glanced at Will in his mirror. “Maybe heroes can’t be kids, but sometimes kids make the best heroes.”

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Chapter 15: Rusted Armor

A loud crash echoed through the empty gym.

Jack Rider stood with his fist held in front of him, staring in frustration at the punching bag he had embedded into the wall.

A voice came from the punching bag. “Oh come on, Jack!”

The bag slowly moved out of the wall and crashed on the floor in front of the tank. A short, pudgy man crawled out from the hole in the wall. “We can only afford to fix this shit so many times before someone starts wondering why an abandoned gym keeps being renovated.”

Jack glared at the man. “Well if you would hold onto the bag like you’re supposed to then we wouldn’t have this problem now would we, Phil?”

“I did hold onto it! That’s why I’m crawling out of the wall instead of kicking your teeth in!”

Jack grumbled and helped Phil get back on his feet. The short man tore his arm away from his grip and stalked over to the punching bag. “For gods’ sake kid, what the hell crawled up your ass today. You haven’t been this pissed since you started coming here.”

Jack muttered a few words and hefted the punching bag back onto its hook.

“What!? I can’t hear you kid!”

“I said it’s none of your business, old man.”

“Bullshit. You come in here, you ask for my help, you wreck my stuff. You’re either my responsibility or you’re family, and my family’s long gone. It’s sure as hell my business.”

Jack glared and Phil. “Just hold the bag.”

Phil glared back and crossed his arms. A few moments later, Phil sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Look kid, I know you’ve been through some tough shit, even if you don’t wanna talk about it. And I know that that group or whatever you’ve been seeing has been making you think more than you have for the months I’ve known ya. But if you’re just gonna bottle up everything any way it ain’t doin’ shit. Now, are you gonna keep putting holes in my wall or are you gonna actually talk about it.”

Jack lightly tapped the bag, sending it swinging. “Hold the bag, then maybe we’ll talk.”

Phil grumbled and set himself behind the bag again. “Just go easy on me, I’m not 200 anymore.”

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Half an hour and two punching bags later, Jack plopped onto a bench and drank heavily from his water bottle. Phil walked over rubbing his back.

“Okay kid, I held up my part, now tell me what the fuck’s going on.”

“He thinks I should quit.”

Phil raised an eyebrow. “He said that?”

“Might as well have.” Jack emptied the bottle and tossed it across the room into a trash can. “He said that people who become walkers because someone died never end well. He said I’d either go out for vengeance, and kill someone, or end up killing myself because I didn’t.”

“Well,” Phil thought about his words. “you’re definitely not the type to kill yourself.”

“So you think I’d go all prowler too? Thanks for the support, jackass.” Jack got up to leave.

“Sit you’re ass down, mopey. That’s not what I’m sayin’ and you know it. Look, I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve met more heroes than anyone alive today as far as I know. This Writer dude of yours, he might not be talkin’ about it the right way but he ain’t stupid. You need more than someone dyin’ on ya to be a hero. Ya gotta have conviction, and death ain’t no way to go about it. Now, answer me good and honest, is the only reason you’re doin’ this because that little girlfriend of yours kicked it? Or do ya have conviction?”

Jack scoffed. “Nice try Phil. I told you already, just like I told him, I missed being able to use my powers, so I put together a costume. She’s got nothing to do with it, and I’m not interested in finding some cause or philosophy. I fight because it’s what I know how to do, because it’s what I was raised to do. I may not have a sword anymore, but I’m still the Knight, and my armor sure as hell ain’t gonna shine. The only difference now is what I paint on my shield.” He held up his gloved hand with the spades patch facing Phil.

Phil shook his head. “That’s your problem kid, that’s why he’s buggin’ ya. You keep trying to play the dark hero thing, and anyone with half a brain can tell ya don’t believe it. I’ve seen if before, and I’ll see it again, people like you don’t last long because your playacting gets ya killed before you grow out of it. The way I see it, you need to take a look at yourself and figure out what makes you a hero. ‘Cause it sure as hell ain’t your muscles, and your head ain’t doin’ a good job of it either.”

“Whatever you say, Phil. But for now I’ll settle for another round at that old punching machine of yours. One of these day’s I’m gonna break it.”

Phil laughed. “Stronger men than you have tried, kid.”

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Jack walked into his apartment and casually tossed his gym bag off to the side. “Dammit, Phil, you’re supposed to be on my side about these things.”

“Maybe if you listened we wouldn’t have to repeat everything.”

Jack groaned and grabbed his head in pain. “Not this again. Just leave me alone.  I promised Phil I’d at least think about this shit.”

“Come on, we’re the good guys, stop worrying so much.”

Jack fell to his knees. “Get out of my head. I don’t need to remember this; I just want to be by myself.”

An image flashed across Jack’s mind, a red-head about his age held her hand out to him on the ground. “Jesus. I can’t leave you alone for a second can I, Knight?”

Please. I’m not a kid anymore; I can take care of myself. Just let me rest.” Jack felt wetness on his cheeks.

In his mind, he was back in the club. Bullets were flying all around him. He watched as her shield failed and bullets tore through her.

There had been a break in the gunfire while the shooters waited for the smoke to clear; he had a moment to kneel by her.

“We did good, didn’t we Jack? We were worth it right? We made it better?”

He hadn’t been able to answer her.

“I don’t know Paige, I don’t know. But I’m trying.”

He stayed on the floor all night, but it was finally quiet.

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Chapter 14: Unseen Sacrifices

“Come on! He has to be somewhere around here!”

Three men fanned out from the center of the room, leaving the table abandoned. One of them slowly approached the aisles of crates. He slowly reached into his coat and pulled out a revolver. He approached each aisle cautiously, staring down into the shadowy recesses of the warehouse.

“Why the hell is he here? I thought we were supposed to be safe during the day?”

There was no answer.

“Guys? If you’re fucking with me, now’s the time to stop. Guys?”

He slowly turned around towards the table. Nothing. A long crash came from the other side of the warehouse and he rushed towards it.

“This fucker’s not getting me. I’m gonna put more holes in him than a box of donuts.”

…He was not a particularly smart man.

He circled around the building’s office and hugged the wall. He breathed heavily from the short jog before jumping around the corner with a shout.

“HA! Got you now you…”

Two men lay sprawled on the floor. Both were breathing deeply, but their hands were crudely tied behind their backs.

“Tony? Jake?” He whirled around. “YOU THINK THOSE TWO GOT ANYTHING ON ME?! COME OUT AND FIGHT ME LIKE A MAN!”

why…would i do that?

The man spun to his left and fired into the warehouse. The bullets rang off the crates. “COME ON COWARD! I COULD TAKE YOU OUT WITH BOTH HANDS TIED BEHIND MY BACK!”

possibly. but i don’t think we need to find out. after all i already know everything i need to. you are peter lawson, you are in charge of any crates that go in and out of this warehouse, including no less than fifteen shipments from donald baker, a known associate of asclepios.”

“I GET HUNDREDS OF SHIPMENTS! WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ME?!”

true. in fact, i almost wrote you off. but then i saw you personally escorting the most recent shipment onto an ice cream truck. in fact i have pictures of it, including several of you receiving payment from the driver, who was arrested three days ago.

Peter backpedalled towards the table in the center of the room. “S-so what? You think any of that will hold up?”

no, but the crate you ‘misplaced’ will be very useful.

“What are you?”

Peter heard a loud thud and then he was on the ground.

no one important.”

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John Andros sat on a building across from the warehouse, watching the lights dancing on top of the patrol cars.

“Feeling proud, Unimportant?”

John quickly turned his power up a little higher. “I didn’t hear you…Slipstream…sir.”

Slipstream quietly landed on the roof next to him. “There’s only a few people who can. I heard you and Will had a one on one last night.”

“We did…He asked about my reasons for joining the group.”

The mecher nodded. “He does that, the man was always better at asking questions than answering them.”

A questioning aura rolled off of Unimportant.

“Sorry. Personal stuff.”

Unimportant nodded. “Nevertheless…he made me look more closely at my reasons…He asked about my memories too.”

“Understandable. I assume he’s trying to make you focus on your reasons for leaving instead of your reasons for staying.”

“Why is that?”

Slipstream shook his head and sat on the ledge next to the young speedwalker. “Make no mistake, Will is trying to make sure you guys do what you think is best, but he’s never been the kindest at that. He’s the kind of man who focuses on the negatives, and it blends into this more than he knows. I can’t really explain more but…make sure you think about why he’s asking questions instead of the questions he asks. And remember that he wants you to find the answers.”

“I…can understand that…I suppose.” Unimportant stared down at the warehouse, the cops were just now placing crime scene tape across the doors. “But, I don’t know anything about my powers. How can I answer those questions?”

“Talk. Talk to him, to the other members, to anyone. This may sound strange from a mecher but…you don’t always need to know why something works to understand that it needs to. Look down there.” He gestured to the warehouse. “You may not realize it, but you’ve gotten farther up Asclepios’s ass in these last few months than the cops have in five years. You’re doing good work.”

“Maybe…But I have family whose faces I barely know because I remember dozens of families. I nearly used a phrase that only makes sense if lizards are mammals because I’ve heard it said more times than I’ve seen a lizard outside of a cage. The last time I saw a dog I nearly had a heart attack because it looked too much like one I remember ripping my throat out. At this rate I’ll barely be able to order a drink without somebody noticing something wrong with me. How can that be worth it?”

Slipstream didn’t speak for a moment. Then he held his hand straight in front of him and one of his engines popped off and hovered in the air before them. “I could sell one of these for hundreds of thousands of dollars, because any number of companies would love to know how they work. Those blimps up there rely on designs so intricate that I had to train a dozen people on individual components just to make sure someone could replace them if I couldn’t. The fact is, I don’t have the types of problems you do, my power lets me take it off and throw it in a drawer.

“I’ve met a lot of walkers kid, and most of them have to make a lot more sacrifices than I did. Some of them crack, and some of them learn to move past their problems. Some of them make it years without a hitch, and then one day they realize they’ve gone too far. The one thing that stays the same is that no two of them ever have the same experience. I can’t tell you whether what you’re doing is worth it, because I’m not you.

“If you keep this up, you may become something that lowlifes like those guys down there whisper about around their campfires. Maybe you’ll finish off Asclepios’ business in the city and decide that’s enough for you, or maybe you’ll just move on. Maybe you will go crazy, maybe you won’t. In the end it’s all up to chance.”

Slipstream reached into a pouch on his suit and pulled out an old coin.

“An old friend gave me this. She asked me if I was willing to bet my life on whether or not I could guess which side it would land on.” He handed the coin to Unimportant. “I told her she was crazy, but she told me that our chances weren’t any better than that anyway. And you know what? I helped bury her three years ago. Our job is dangerous no matter what else is going on. I always figured that if I was going to risk my life, then any other sacrifice I made was nothing in comparison. Others disagree.”

Unimportant held the coin up against the sky. “And…Mr. Writer…Is that why he quit?”

“I don’t know for sure. Personally, I think he cheated on that coin toss one too many times. It made him start regretting too many things that weren’t his fault.”

“What does that-” But Slipstream had already flown away.

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Chapter 13: Keep to the Code

George Sadler woke up with a groan. He lifted his head off the table and felt a sharp pang in his back.

“Never again”

“If you’d been back sooner you’d’ve had a place on the couch.”

George slowly turned his head. “Mike fell asleep in front of it, couldn’t get there without waking him up. You have any pain killers on ya Steph?”

Susan shook her head, sending her blonde curls whirling around her face. “You would’ve been fine if you hadn’t bailed last night. We only have two weeks before its due you know. We barely have enough time to get the thing built. And once that’s done your program has to work right away or we’re screwed.”

“And I told you, as long as you get all the moving parts hooked up to where we told you our code will make it work.”

“If you say so.” Susan set a large box down on the table in front of him. “BREAKFAST!”

There was a loud shuffling front the other room and three more people stumbled in. George quickly opened the box and snagged the first jelly donut he saw.

“Hey, no fair. You can’t get a jelly before the rest of us even get there.”

George took a large chunk out of the donut. “Thure I cann.” He swallowed. “And they’re so much better when they’re warm too.”

George looked around the table. Mike, Susan, Tim and Tim, they had formed this warbot team half a year ago, and Susan had recruited him less than a month ago to finish off the bot’s programming. He still had no idea why, but he was grateful for the distraction. It was easier to keep the fire in check when he had other people to worry about.

Tim and Tim started arguing about the bot’s nailgun, trying to figure out if shrinking the tube anymore would put the nail over the safety limit. George tuned them out, physics was never his strongpoint.

Susan and Mike were in charge of the wiring, especially when the Tims got lost in the weapons, and they’d already had to swap them out four times to keep up with their improvements.

George had been brought in to help with Mike’s code. He wasn’t bad but he had no idea how to work with the type of chip they needed to and George had had to rewrite half of his code.

Mike looked over at George and Susan. “Do you understand what those two are saying?”

Susan shrugged. “I get every few words, but those two tend to skip half the equations I have to run through to understand that stuff.”

George shook his head and took another bite of the donut. “I stopped trying on the second day, I barely scraped by physics, and that was only because I did well on the electrical stuff, air pressure doesn’t make much sense to me. I’ll stick to the code, and I need to get back to work if I want to make up for leaving last night.”

“Speaking of which,” Tim interrupted. “Where did you go last night?”

“Good question,” said Tim.

George looked at the two of them. “I had to meet up with my old guidance counselor. My mom asked him to talk to me after what happened last summer.”

“You mean that earthquake you were caught in? The one that made you miss the first couple weeks of school?” Susan asked.

George nodded. “That’s it yeah. He’s just making sure I’m not letting it get to me, I guess. My mother thought I was letting it make my decisions for me, and he wanted my opinion on it.”

Mike scoffed. “Come on! Of course it affected you, doesn’t mean you’re gonna be controlled by it.”

“Maybe, but I have to admit I started acting differently around then. I can understand if they thought it had something to do with it. Hell, if you guys had asked me to join in last summer then I would’ve said no flat out. And I changed pretty quickly too.”

Tim spoke up. “That’s just college getting to you. You think you became a different person overnight when you just met people you get along with better.”

“Yeah,” Tim said. “I barely talked to anyone in high school and now look at me. I just can’t shut up.”

“I guess so.” George smiled. “I wasn’t much of a talker in high school either.”

“I doubt any of us were. There’re too many high schools in this city, and it’s not like they organize us on who we’d be friends with; it takes some doing to find people with hobbies like this, even in a city this big,” Susan said.

“Hear, hear,” Tim and Tim said.

“Yeah.” George nodded. “I guess you’re right.”

The topic switched back to their bot and they finished up breakfast, but George felt Susan’s eyes stay on him throughout the meal.

“Well,” Mike said after they had finished, “back to work.”

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Two hours later, George collapsed back into his chair. The code had finally compiled, but he couldn’t test it until they finished wiring up the bot.

“You look happy with yourself.”

George swiveled in his chair and looked at Susan. “I’ve got it as close to done as it can get until you guys finish. Now I get to sit around and hope this works. I’ve never written something this complicated before, especially without external inputs. I hope it can work with that camera like it’s supposed to, everything hinges on the recognition routine working out, and I don’t have enough room to make it much longer.”

“What happened to all that confidence from earlier?”

“It disappeared about the time I had to rewrite the reload function on the nail gun for the fifth time. I hope those two didn’t mess with it much, I had to base the timing off the-”

“Don’t bother; I barely understood when Mike talked about this stuff. You’re a bit above my level. I’ll stick to the electrical side of things I think.”

“I can live with that.” George grabbed a water bottle and drank deeply from it. He took a moment to set the code compiling again. “Just to make sure.”

Susan nodded. “So are you going to tell me what that guy really said?”

George gave a start. “What do you mean?”

“You’re guidance counselor. He had to have more to say than that.”

“Not really. He just wanted to make sure I was comfortable with what happened.”

Susan eyed him and sighed. “If you say so. Just make sure you listen to him okay? He wouldn’t have that job if he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

George looked at his hands and saw a small blue spark on one of his fingers. “Yeah. I guess you’re right about that.”

 

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Chapter 12: Confidant

“Rose. Rose. Rosie!” He took a deep breath. “Lilliana Rosenthal!”

A loud bump sounded from inside the office and he chuckled. He waited a few moments as the angry brunette peeked her head out of her office.

“Baron Regan, work doesn’t start for another two hours and I’d like to get at least half of a regular night’s sleep. If you don’t have one hell of an excuse or a lot of coffee I’m going to turn your desk into mulch.”

Barry just smiled. “Come on Rosie, you think I would enter the lair of the forest queen without tribute?” He held up a large cup of coffee. “Especially when you won’t have time to run out and get it before work like you did yesterday.”

Rose quickly grabbed the cup from his hand and turned back into the office, leaving the door open behind her. Barry took that as an invitation and cheerily walked into the room.

The woman looked back. “You know, if I knew you were a morning person I would never have talked to you right?”

“Yes, yes, I love you too, but I really think we should keep this platonic. Inter-office romances with your underlings should wait until you actually have enough power to make it worth their while. Plus it’s kind of weird that you sleep in the office more often than at home.”

Rose casually tossed a paperweight in his direction, he caught it easily. “An unexpected meeting came up yesterday, I had to stay late to make up the lost time.”

“Rosie, you’re in charge of a few sales reps, all of whom actually manage to make quota more often than not. As long as you get the reports in by the end of the week the guys upstairs don’t care how much time you put in.”

Rose shook her head at her old friend. “That’s the reason I was promoted before you.”

“Yep. Now, are you gonna tell me what the big bad wolf said?”

“Are you really gonna keep insisting he’s a werewolf? I told you, if he was an alter we would have noticed something by now.”

“Maybe, maybe not. If he was born with it then he might have better control than Tigroar.”

“No one has better control than Tigroar. Plus, I don’t think you’re even supposed to know the group exists. I doubt I should tell you about the meetings.”

Barry shrugged. “I’ve kept your secret since college, I think I can manage to keep this one for a few more weeks, or however long this thing’s gonna last. You might as well tell me, it’s not like this has anything to do with the others.”

Rose sighed, “All right. He said that I was fine.”

The two stared at each other for a moment.

“Nope. Never has a therapist called anyone fine. He said more than that. What did he really say?”

“He’s not a therapist,-”

“Yeah right.”

“he’s just retired. But, if you insist…he said that I should stop worrying so much. He asked me about my reasons for being a hero, and my reasons for quitting. I don’t get the impression he was asking for himself though.”

“Think he was trying to get you to think about it? Told ya he’s a shrink.”

Rose ignored him. “Then he started talking about slowing down, going to emergencies instead of waiting around for them to happen. He said that a lot of speedwalkers keep a low profile when their starting out, and that most of them have to figure out how to keep up with their job at the same time.”

“Well yeah, heroes gotta eat too. Did he give you any advice?”

She shook her head. “Not really. It’s not like I can tell him where I work or anything. He did mention that it gets easier if you stick with it, but…”

“But you need sleep now, right? Maybe you should join a team or something, take some of the pressure off of you.”

“Sure, let me just look in the classifieds. ‘Hero team being formed, manip or alter preferred, but all welcome. Please contact 555-5555.’ That should work out nicely. Or maybe you could be my sidekick. ‘Hawthorne and the Red Baron’ has a nice ring to it.”

“True, but I think I’d just get in your way. You see, the non-walkers like me tend to stay away from fights like that. Natural selection and all that shit. But I guess you’re right about the team thing, they never exactly go through how they met on the news, do they?”

“Of course not, too much information. You have to know people before that would happen, you have to get your name out there to meet people, you have to work hard to get your name out there, and you can’t work hard and have a steady income at the same time. How the hell did those guys pull it off?”

Barry checked the office outside, people would start showing up soon to try and scrounge any of the donuts that popped up whenever someone had a late night meeting.

“Well, mechers get to sell their tech, so they don’t need a job. I guess a few people take shift work so they can switch off with someone else in a hurry if they need to or keep hours that they can work around. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few were just rich already. So basically-”

“Nothing that helps me.”

“Yep. Maybe you just need to take a break until we get a few more people down here. I heard their expanding a lot of the sales departments for some new product.”

Rose shook her head. “Not that I’ve been told. And you know better than to place faith in the rumor mill around here. Are they still blaming you for the coffee maker?”

“Of course. And thank you for that, by the way. Nothing better than being public enemy number one for three weeks straight.”

“You shouldn’t have torched my book.”

“It was an accident. How was I supposed to know it would put me to sleep? You shouldn’t let people borrow such boring books.”

“I liked that book. You dropped it into a fire pit.”

They both heard a door shutting down the hall. Rose ushered Barry out the door. “Hurry, we don’t need a new rumor. Half the office already thinks we’re sleeping together.”

Barry rolled his eyes, but he turned to walk out the door. “I’ll leave, but you better think about that whole break thing. You’ve been sleeping here or at the hospital for months. I’m surprised you’ve bothered to pay rent.”

“I will, I will.”

“And comb your hair, you look like you’ve been skydiving.”

Rose grumbled a response and dug around her desk for a hair brush. It wouldn’t quite be tamed until she managed to shower, but it would be presentable for today.

Someone knocked on her door. She quickly organized the files on her desk into a more presentable stack.

“Come in.”

Guile Richards walked in, apparently he had some issues with the customer warranty. Rose flipped her computer on and got to work.

It was going to be another long day.

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Chapter 11: Play the Part

Tina Kovac stared sadly at her hair in the picture. When she was younger, she had kept it cut precisely at her shoulders. It wasn’t until she turned twelve that she let it grow to the full, immaculate length in the picture. The black strands drifted behind her, rolling out like black ocean waves.

She reached up and felt her hair, now barely reaching the middle of her neck. She hadn’t wanted to cut it, but it had gotten in the way one too many times. Plus the time she saved on washing it had added up quickly this last year.

A voice called up the stairs. “Tina! I’m leaving for work! Make sure to lock up before you leave okay?”

Tina smiled. “Of course! Have I ever forgotten? I’ll see you tonight, mom!”

A chuckle drifted up the stairs and Tina heard the door close behind her mother. She checked the clock, 6:30; she had to be out the door ten minutes if she wanted to make it on time. She spared another glance at the photo before hurriedly stuffing her things into a backpack and heading out the door.

It was only a short walk to the coffee house, but Tina had been late to work more than enough when she couldn’t help it, she didn’t need to be late today too.

The walk today was, thankfully, uneventful, so, for the first time in weeks, Tina was early to work.

“Hello! Rachel! Janet!”

“Tina that you?” A muffled voice called out from the back. “Be out in a second, I need to get the next set of grounds out before the second rush comes in.”

“Okay, Rachel.” Tina wandered into the back and grabbed an apron. “Is Janet working today? I thought she was scheduled all week.”

The other woman appeared from behind the shelves, carrying a large box. “She’s been working herself too hard lately. I shoved her back into her apartment and told her to get some sleep.”

“Yes, because she was the one passed out in back yesterday.”

Rachel frowned. “I told you I had a busy night. And what about you? Didn’t you have to leave early because of some ‘important appointment?’ What would she say if she found out you left the second she walked out the door?”

“If I had to guess? ‘Good for you. Rachel shouldn’t be the only one sneaking out.’”

The two stared at each other for a moment. Tina broke first and started giggling, and Rachel soon joined in. A bell rang from the front and the two made their way back.

“So, is your brother going to stop by today? Or do you have him locked up again?”

“Mitch’ll probably wander in eventually.”

A cough sounded from the counter. Tina smiled happily at the customer, a business woman with light brown hair. “Sorry for the wait, what can I get for you?”

The woman nodded her head. “Just coffee please. Leave about an inch off the top.”

“Coming right up. Name?”

“Rose.”

Rachel turned to get the coffee ready and the woman stepped to the side. “So what did you need to sneak out of here for?”

Tina waved her off as she helped the next customer. “Nothing too big, I have been going to this group thing to help out with my acting. The instructor meets us all for evaluations.”

“Oh? How’d you do?”

Tina hesitated. “It…it was not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I think it will help me out in the long run. I have been thinking of a way to add something new to the way I work. He told me about a few people who had done something like it before, mentioned how many of them ended up worse off because of it. He asked me what I wanted to be known for in the next hundred years.”

“Like who?”

“Well, not that I would go for horror, but have you ever heard of Boris Karloff?”

Rachel gave her a flat look.

“Right. He was the original Frankenstein’s Monster, the movie one. He was actually in a lot of movies, but a couple years after that and suddenly all he was in was horror. Now nobody even remembers him for anything else.”

“So the point is?”

“He was just saying that some choices aren’t things you can go back on. Karloff managed to have things work out for him, but if I became a niche actress like that and it went wrong then I would be stuck.”

Rachel nodded. “Okay, I get it now. Hey, at least he compared you to that Frankenstein and not ol’ metal mouth. That guy musta been nuts to do that to himself.”

Tina looked away before she nodded. “Y-yeah.”

The next customer awkwardly scratched the back of his head as he pulled out a list. “Class project, sorry about this but we’ve been up all night already. Name’s George.”

Tina kept the look of frustration off her face as she carefully entered the order into the machine. “We have had worse. At least you cannot come back and complain about your own hair in the drink?”

“Hair?”

Tina gestured to his crew cut. “He had blonde hair too.”

George nodded and stepped to the side. The next customer looked annoyed at his back.

“If you will just wait a moment, this will go faster if I help her with the previous order.”

The customer nodded silently and Tina walked over to Rachel.

“So is that all? Or is there a reason you haven’t looked me in the eye since you mentioned the meeting?”

Tina hesitated. “Well…he asked me about something else. He-he wanted to know why I decided to become an actress.”

“And?”

“Well, I could not think of an answer for him. Or rather, I could not give him an answer that satisfied me. He told me to think on it.”

“Bullshit.”

“Huh?”

“If people needed a good reason for doing what they want to then everyone would be bored. If you want to be an actress then be an actress. I don’t know what he was looking for, but you don’t’ need a better reason than that.”

Tina tried to respond, but Rachel cut her off. “Nope. You’ll just argue yourself into a pit. Conversation’s over.”

Rachel smiled brightly at Tina. “Come on, we have to finish this order.”

The two had almost completed the order when Tina caught a glimpse of a head of hair sneaking past the counter. She stared at the open end until the redhead peeked around the edge. She waved cheerily at the boy and he nervously waved back. “Your brother’s here.”

Rachel nodded. “Just make sure he doesn’t wander in back. He knows not to interrupt now.”

The two finished up the order and Tina returned to the register.

The customer handed her a note with the order on it and gestured to his throat. She glanced down and called the order back to Rachel.

“Thank you for your patience. And I hope you feel better soon John.”

The customer nodded and spoke in a scratchy hollow voice. “Thank you.”

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

It was close to 10 when the rush stopped and the store almost emptied. Tina wandered from behind the counter and slumped into the closest chair. She glanced over at Mitchell and saw him playing on his phone with his ear buds in. She nodded and rested her head on her arms. She had two hours before the next rush came in, and she was going to milk it for all it was worth.

A loud clunk sounded from the table and she glared at Rachel. The other girl chuckled and took a drink from her own cup. “Don’t worry, its cold.”

“How did you two keep this place running by yourselves?”

Rachel shrugged. “You get used to it. Plus, the breaks tend to be longer in the school year, not so many kids wandering in.”

“I suppose. Speaking of which…”  She nodded toward Mitchell. “is it okay for him to be staring at that thing all day? He barely even talks.”

Rachel shook her head. “He doesn’t use it so much at home. He’s just shy so he keeps his nose in it out here. Doesn’t like it when people look at his face.”

“Okay. I suppose I can handle that.”

Rachel looked out the window. “And speaking of shy, your boyfriend’s here again.”

Tina blushed and glared at her friend. “Shut up.” She hastily stood and put the counter between her and the taller blonde man walking in.

He smirked at her and she forcefully kept the smile off her face. “What do you want today? Seeing how far off the menu you can get again?”

His smirk deepened a little. “Well, maybe I’m just making sure you aren’t going to put brown M&M’s in my bowl. If I can’t trust you to make this stuff right, how am I gonna trust you when it’s actually important?”

Tina rolled her eyes and took his order. “Just make sure you never come in during the rush and we might care enough to keep it straight, Jack.”

“Oh? On a first name basis are we? And here I thought you didn’t care.”

“Yes because I’m going to go around calling you Mr. Rider, you’re barely older than I am.”

He smiled and she quickly turned away to make his order. “Here’s your super specific order. I hope it burns your tongue.”

He clasped his shirt. “Your words hurt me, Tinkerbell.”

Rachel coughed from across the room.

Tina stared him down. “What did you just call me.”

“You heard me, Tink. I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

He turned and walked out the door. Tina huffed and stomped back to the table. “Tinkerbell?”

Rachel smiled. “I thought it was clever.”

“Well I do not. I cannot believe he just called me that.”

Rachel grin grew wider. “If you hated it so much, why didn’t you tell him to stop?”

Tina didn’t respond.

 

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