“I really don’t see how that’s your fault, Jess,” Jake spoke over the phone, his voice soothing her upheaved mind. “It’s not like they told you and you gave permission.”
”But I’m in charge of them, Jake. I’m supposed to notice this stuff and reign them in,” she countered, putting her head down onto her desk – well, it was Rounds’ desk, usually, but since she didn’t have an office of her own, she’d been using his – while still holding the phone to her ear. “I’ve been a pretty horrible leader, but this, this is beyond the pale. Rounds is going to put me on a spit and roast me over a fire. Slowly.”
”Now there’s an image I’d rather do without,” a mellow, smooth voice butted in.
Jessica, known to most as Amazon, fearless melee fighter of the New Lennston United Heroes, screamed like a little girl and nearly fell off the office chair she’d been sitting in.
”Jess? Jess, what’s going on?” Jake asked through the phone, though she was too focused on the new arrival to reply.
Percy Norton was an odd sight amongst superheroes. He was tall – that was quite common – with naturally messy dark blonde hair, muddy dark-blue eyes and a body that could best be described as scarecrow-ish: tall, thin, the limbs seemingly a little too long to really fit. Wearing thick winter jeans, boots and a red sweater, he looked like any guy you might see on the street, especially now, leaning against the frame of the door to his own office, his arms crossed, his mouth smiling.
”B-boss,” Jess stammered, shooting up onto her feet. “I, I didn’t know you were back already! Where are the others? Did you have a nice journey? Why didn’t you tell me you’d arrive sooner, I’d have welcomed you all back, and probably organised the ju-“
She stopped when he raised a hand, making her blush as she realised how she’d run her mouth.
”Jess, breathe,” he spoke calmly, walking closer to pick up the phone. “Hi! Jake, right?” There was a response which Jessica missed and Oh God my Boss is talking to my boyfriend.
”So, did Jess finally get the nerve up to asking you out?” Rounds asked, making Jess blush furiously.
”I’m still in the room, you know…” she mumbled, embarrassed.
”You were the one? Good for you, young man,” Percy continued as he walked around his desk, shooing her out of his office chair and sitting down, sighing as he did so.
It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.
”Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” he kept on talking, leaning back on his chair, while Jessica moved around the desk, self-consciously fiddling with her sleeveless red bodysuit.
Then he suddenly turned serious, the cheer leaving his face. “But just to be clear – break her heart, and I’ll break you, got it?”
Jessica sputtered and threw herself across the desk to get the phone, but was stopped when he raised a leg and pushed against her shoulder, pushing her down onto the desk instead.
”I’m not a little girl!” she complained, flailing weakly, the phone out of her reach.
Of course, Rounds ignored her as he listened to Jake’s response, breaking out into a smile again. “That’s the spirit! Anyway, I actually have some business to attend to with your beau, but we definitely need to meet soon. I’ll introduce you to the folks around here and we’ll tell you every embarrassing story relating to Jess that we know of.”
“Hey!” said woman protested in outrage, but was summarily ignored.
”Have a nice day, Jake,” her boss finished. “Yes, I’ll pass it on. Goodbye!” And he hung up, before he focused on her ag ain. “I’m to pass on his love and the promise that he’ll prepare your favourite dinner food tonight.”
The thought of Jake’s molten-cheese-and-jalapeno covered nachos made Jess’ mouth water and slightly eased her outrage and embarrassment. Slightly.
”That’s nice, but I’m not some little girl that needs to be protected!” she complained petulantly, only to receive a sharp sting to her butt, making her yelp and leap off the desk, her hands flying to her butt.
”I don’t know, you’re still pretty defenseless, as usual,” a sultry voice all but purred at her.
”Rachel,” Jess said, recognising her without even needing to turn around. Though she did that, to keep her butt out of the older woman’s line of fire. “You suck.”
Despite her words, she was honestly glad to see her again. Rachel was the true second-in-command of the team, Rounds’ right-hand woman and his most probable heir, once he moved up to take the Feral Family’s place as a Shining Guardian (that he would, none of his team members doubted). It was doubly impressive, because Venatrix had been a villain, once, until she ran into Rounds and he recruited her for their team, about two years before Jess herself joined.
Even though she’d changed sides, Venatrix – Rachel to her friends – had kept the basic style of her old costume (as a reminder of how far she’d come, she said), wearing a one-piece sleeve- and legless bodysuit in black with blood-red accents, mostly arranged to emphasise the curves of her slender figure. Her arms were covered in black gloves reaching up to her biceps, leaving only a little skin exposed, and matching thigh-high spandex socks covered her legs. Her feet were bare, the socks only extending into stirrups for the feet, rather than cover them fully. She wasn’t wearing her equipment, other than her right gauntlet, a slim metallic one which glowed with an inner light, a glowing, crackling whip – like electricity – dangling from her hand.
Jess’ butt was intimately familiar with said whip, as were those of all the other team members – Rachel really enjoyed whipping them into shape, as she called it – save for Rounds himself.
Rachel’s ruby-red lips stretched into a grin, her mediterranean features currently free of her usual mask, her blonde hair tied back into a simple ponytail. “I’d make some lewd joke about just what I’m sucking or would like to suck, but honestly, I’m just glad to see you again, Applebutt,” she replied, letting her whip retract back into the glove as she spread her arms.
Jess rolled her eyes, but complied and walked over to hug her. “I’ve missed you, Gutterbrain,” she said, feeling misty-eyed.
Rachel chuckled and rubbed her back. “I’m back now. We all are,” she said softly, before pulling back a bit to kiss Jess on the cheek. “And what is this I hear about my third-favourite butt having found a boyfriend?”
Jess blushed again, looking aside. Oh God, I have to keep her away from Jake, no matter the cost!, she thought in quiet horror, while she replied out loud, “It’s not such a big deal. M-me and… Jake… got together.”
“Finally!” her mentor-slash-molester exclaimed, rolling her eyes while holding Jess at arms’ length. “I thought you two would never get to it.”
”I’ll say!” bombastic voice exclaimed, followed by steps that shook the floor.
Before she knew it, Rachel had let go of her and Jess was enveloped in a literal (and two-fold) bear hug, lifted clean off her feet by the huge figure currently busy squeezing the life out of her.
Ursa Gemini was a giant of a man in any sense of the word – his manifestation had caused him to grow to a good two and a half metre in height, his frame filled by enough dense muscle to make a whole Mister Universe pageant feel inferior and his body covered, mostly, in dense, yet not coarse fur, leaving only his hands (except for the backs) and his face uncovered. As well as his butt, as he liked to joke, but Jess tried not to think about that. He was followed everywhere he went by the other reason for his name, a silvery glowing after-image which was actually bear-shaped, usually mirroring his actions – currently adding onto the hug, partially phasing through him to hug her tightly.
”Marcus… air… breathe…” she gasped, even while trying to return the hug – though even on the best of days, her arms didn’t fit even halfway around his mighty torso.
“Sorry Jess,” he replied, though he neither sounded nor looked sorry as he put her down again.
She looked up at him with a grin and gave him a hug around his (slightly slimmer) waist. “Glad you’re back, fuzzball.”
”Glad to be back,” he replied, scratching the back of his head. “Wall duty is not the way I wanna spend my time. Nevermind that Faith and the kids are ready to put me in chains so I can’t go away again.”
”Have you seen them yet?” Jess asked, then looked at Rachel. “What about Tony?”
”Of course,” Rachel replied, snorting in mock indignation. “We arrived here in the morning, we just didn’t tell you so we could surprise you.”
”Well, Rachel was supposed to call you,” Marcus corrected her with a grin. “But I guess she was so busy sobbing over finally being with her master again she forgot.”
Said crybaby hissed at him and kicked his shin, to no effect – it’d take armor piercing rounds just to tickle the furry giant.
Jessica chuckled, and turned away from the two of them and their antics to look at Rounds, only to turn and come face-to-face with another member of her team.
”Eeeeek!” she cried out, as he’d moved up to stand right next to her, his face only inches away from her own when she turned. “Laurence! I’ve told you not to sneak up on me!”
The slender man with the blindfold sporting his eye emblem over his actual eyes – or rather, the lack thereof – stood there in casual jeans and a black sweater, having eschewed his usual costume much like Percy had (even Marcus was wearing his customary armoured silver-and-green briefs and boots), having of course managed to sneak in unnoticed, at least by her. He liked living up to his name, Eyespy, in more ways than just the one his power allowed him to.
”You told me so,” he agreed, nodding his head with a sly grin. “I never agreed to it, though.”
She tried to slap him over the back of the head, but he ducked under it with a cackle, easily dancing out of her reach.
Still, she was feeling way too happy to get too annoyed at him. Looking around at her friends, grinning, she noticed that one was still missing. “Where’s Bismuth?” she asked about their team’s heavyweight; using her cape out of habit, as she preferred it over her real name.
”She’s on her way,” Percy assured her. “She’s visiting her sister, first. Seems like there’s not much time left.”
That put a stop to the good mood in the room, as they exchanged looks.
”Have you heard about what happened last night, yet?” Jessica asked in a subdued voice.
Percy’s gaze turned stern. “I have, in general. But I’d like you to give us all the details.” He looked around the room. “Well, almost all of us. We can fill in Bismuth later.”
She nodded, feeling a weight return to her shoulders, and sat down on a chair in front of his desk. The others sat or leaned against the walls.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
The key slipped into the door’s lock, but she stopped there.
I shouldn’t have told Heck to leave, Dalia thought, though it was really too late to reprimand herself for refusing her friend’s offer to accompany her and help her explain everything.
Vasiliki had enough on her plate, already. Who would’ve thought Amy’s Mindstar? And B knew.
That was another thing on her mind. She’d been crushing on Amy – though she’d told no one – pretty heavily, ever since that night at the club (even if she’d been too drunk to remember most of it). Now she knew that that gorgeous, witty, sexy, nice older girl was a major supervillain. That put a damper on her fantasies. A bit.
Is my crush even real? Or did she make me feel that?
She wanted to believe that Basil’s sister wouldn’t have done that to one of his friends, that she wouldn’t have done that, period, but considering her reputation…
So much for supernatural luck, she thought, and that brought her back to her current problem.
She closed her eyes, lowering her head. Deep breaths. Opening them again, seeing her current getup – she’d switched her costume for some clothes she’d stashed at Vasiliki’s place (at B’s insistence) for emergencies, in her case skinny jeans that she’d thought were sexy when she bought them but right now just seemed ridiculous, especially since she couldn’t bend over in them without half her ass sticking out. Her top was similarly tight, showing more cleavage than she’d intended to show, when she’d bought it and she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to button up her jacket if she’d tried. The only sensible part of the outfit were the winter boots she was wearing, and that was because the shoes she’d stored there weren’t up to the weather at all, and so Vasiliki had lent her one of her many, many, many pairs of boots.
I’m just procrastinating, she thought at herself. C’mon Dalia… you weren’t nearly so skittish attacking a floating city full of mass-murdering supervillains…
B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.
She took another breath and turned the key, unlocking the door, pushing it open with the same motion.
The apartment was a mess, as always. Maybe a little less so – at least the dirty underwear wasn’t present, currently.
”M-mom? I’m home,” Dalia said, her voice nearly breaking as she couldn’t immediately see her mother on her customary spot on the couch in front of the TV.
Was she alright? Had her power done something worse than usual to her? Surviving at the villain’s city, getting away safely… that must’ve taken huge amounts of luck.
Oh God… Her eyes filled with tears. I-is mom even, is she, did my power…
Her arms began to shake, tears running down her cheeks as she started to hyperventilate…
”Dalia?” a rough voice spoke, as the door to the bathroom opened, and her mother walked out, dressed in her night clothes and an alcohol-stained bathrobe. Her hair was a mess and her face blotchy and she was the most beautiful sight Dalia could ever remember seeing.
Her mother’s eyes widened when she saw the tears on her face. “What’s wrong, b-“
She was cut off when Dalia all but leapt across the entire room, throwing herself into her mother’s arms, nearly bowling her over.
Percy was drumming his fingertips on his desk, his gaze never leaving Jessica’s face, his own utterly unreadable.
”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.
”I’m not sure whether those kids deserve a pat on the back for their achievements, or a thorough spanking for their misdeeds,” Laurence spoke up next. “Either way, though, this is going to be Hell of a shitstorm.”
Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.
Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…
”I am disappointed, Jessica,” he spoke gravely, using her full name as he rarely did. “You handled the crises that befell this city well enough, but I am disappointed in how you dealt with our juniors.”
Every word was like a slap in the face, and she felt tears threaten to leak out of her eyes. Stop it, stupid eyes! Don’t cry! You want them to stop treating you like the team kid!
”That they came up with this idea, that is on them,” he continued, leaning back on his chair, folding his fingers in front of his mouth. “That they went through with it, also on them. That you did not foster a relationship with them in such a way that they would at least have tried to gain your approval. That you didn’t impress unto them the discipline and forethought needed to see what a colossally stupid idea it was. Those, those are on you.”
”I… know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. You trusted me to deal with these things… and I failed.”
”That, you did,” he agreed, his voice soft. “Learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again next time.”
”N-next time?” She looked up, surprised, only to find him smiling sadly at her.
”Jess,” he began to reply, and she felt herself instantly relax again, as he went back to using the short form of her name, “I am well aware that I left you in a difficult position. And that many of the things that happened under your watch were beyond your control. Even if they’d been and you’d genuinely messed up this badly, I’d still refuse to condemn you for it.” He sighed, parting his hands to run them through his hair. “There will be consequences for this… Patrid will become utterly horrid, at the very least, and there’ll be consequences both for our juniors and for you, personally,” he continued, making her flinch again. “Child Protective Services, the DMA, our own Board of Directors, all those and more are going to raise a stink over it.”
She paled, especially at the mention of the DMA. They could very well have her locked up, if they determined that she’d been negligent in her duties to oversee the juniors to the point of criminality, or at least ruin any prospect she might have to advance her career as a hero anywhere in the United States…
”We’ll stand behind you, of course,” he pressed on, his eyes remaining focused upon her face. “We’ll do whatever we can to smooth the, ah, ‘shitstorm’, as Laurence would say, out.” He stopped taking a deep breath.
She looked up at him again, feeling just a little hopeful that this would be it, for now – she really needed to get to Jake and have him hug her a bit to feel better – but his gaze only became more stern.
”Now let’s get to these youths. Brennus, Hecate and Tyche,” he moved on to the other subject, and she felt her bowels clench up. “What were you thinking letting them run around freely?”
She clasped her hands tightly, lowering her head once more.
Then a pair of arms wrapped around her, from behind, as Rachel leaned over the back of said chair and gave her a hug.
Jessica had seen this one coming a long time ago, though, and she did have a response prepared.
“I did talk to them about joining up,” she replied calmly. “Only Hecate showed the faintest interest, but she claimed that she had personal reasons to refuse. Tyche showed no interest in joining any group which didn’t involve her friends and Brennus wasn’t interested at all. While I could’ve pushed to force them in, it’d likely just have driven them further towards the villain side and I didn’t want to risk that.”
Percy frowned. “I know it’s rather… customary to turn a blind eye towards vigilantes who toe the line, but I’ve always tried to impress upon you that just because something has become a habit, perhaps even a necessary one at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Vigilantism is illegal and teenager vigilantism doubly so.” He took a deep breath, then let it out. “I’ve often butted heads with certain parts of our organisation which prefer to toe the government’s line and be lenient over this, and I stand by my point – children should not be on the frontlines. When I left you in charge in my stead, it was with the understanding that you’d do your level best to do with it as I would, which you haven’t.”
Jessica turned pale, averting her eyes from him. If he’d slapped her, it’d have stung less.
He wasn’t finished yet, either.
“This isn’t just your fault, Jessica and believe me when I say that I’ll make my opinion known to everyone else involved in this, particularly that stunt with the Rabid Eight.” His eyes grew even harder. “Though I would like to know why you let them talk you into allowing the juniors to confront a group of super-powered serial killers.”
“I…” she started to speak, but cut herself off. It felt so long ago, even though it had only been a scant few months. “We-“
“We decided that a show of force was necessary,” a new spoke up, startling everyone but Laurence.
Jessica turned around and looked at the newcomer. Patrick Patrid, in his customary white three-piece suit, of course.
What was not customary, though, was the heavy frown on his attractive face (she’d had a crush on him, when she’d first joined the team, until she’d realised just what an asshole he could be).
“A show of force… involving children,” Percy replied, locking eyes with the man.
“Brrr,” Rachel shuddered, still holding onto Jessica, and she felt she had to agree with the sentiment. When these two met, the room temperature always seemed to drop. They almost always clashed in terms of ideals and opinions as to matters at hand. They both wanted to do the right thing, but Percy cared about doing the right thing right, and Patrid wanted to do the right thing and have it look right. PR clashing with morals.
It didn’t help that Patrid was such a damn enigma. What the sense was behind a PR manager being one of the most powerful members of the US division – and by extention, the United Heroes as a whole – Jessica could not, for the life of her understand. Nor how such a sly man – watching him give interviews and manipulate everyone without anyone noticing was as creepy as it was impressive – apparently stood high in Lady Light’s trust.
“The children were all we had,” Patrid replied, unfazed by Percy’s glare as he stepped in, carrying a file folder under one arm. “I told you that going to the Wall was a mistake, did I not? But no, you said dodging the draft would’ve been wrong.” He threw the folder onto Percy’s table. “Here’s some uncomfortable truth, Rounds. New Lennston was on the verge of a gang war. If it wasn’t for the Hastur Incident wiping out the majority of the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children, said war would have happened. While you all were off playing soldier. We had to make a show of force. Show people that even with the adults gone, the juniors could still hold the fort.”
He stopped, smirking as he adjusted his tie, before unbuttoning his jacket and sitting down on the sole remaining chair facing Percy’s desk, to Jessica’s right. “Besides, with Irene finally cleared for action, we just had to take advantage of the chance to give her one hell of a debut. That we managed to do the same for our pop princess was a bonus. And before you complain, Mrs Whitaker was there the whole time, merely invisible. None of those crazies would’ve come close to actually hurting any of the children.”
“I don’t care if all the Shining Guardians were there as well!” Percy shouted, slamming a hand on the desk. “You put those children into battle against serial killers! Then you allowed them to assault an Acre with nothing but a bunch of other children as support! The Hastur incident was out of your control, perhaps, but don’t you think all that contributed to them thinking last night’s stunt was a good idea instead of a suicidal one?”
Patrid’s smile turned into a frown again, and he put his hands together in front of his face, almost as if to pray; one leg crossing over the other.
Even his shoes are white, Jessica noticed, having decided a long time ago that it was better to stay quiet whenever these two clashed.
“There’s something you and me agree on, for once,” Patrid groused. “Last night was a disaster in too many ways to count. However, I still stand by my decision to advise the director towards the fight against the Rabid Eight; and the Acre had to go down before they managed to grow a Blossom – I would have loved to call in reinforcements, but there simply was no time, Rounds.”
“And is that why you didn’t call in adult professionals to deal with the Rabid Eight? To discourage the gangs? There’s roaming teams specifically for such situations! When I left New Lennston, I thought you’d call in one, maybe even two of them,” Percy replied, calming down as well.
“We – by which I mean, the Director, Jason and I – considered but dismissed the idea,” Patrid explained. “For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that all our roaming teams are currently tied up, we chose not to dislodge a team from another crisis herd.” He tapped his fingers together, looking around at the others in the room. “You all know about Irene Whitaker by now?”
Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.
“That girly seems to be pretty amazin’,” Marcus hollered. “I thought people were dreamin’ it up at first.”
“It’s all true, the good and the bad,” Patrid said. “She’s incredibly powerful, even more versatile, occasionally unstable and very much dedicated to being a hero. Numerous parties within the UH expect her to become one of our top capes within a few years, so the director wanted to give her as impressive a debut as possible. After a long discussion on the subject, we decided that the Rabid Eight, while dangerous, where not a serious threat to her, nor to the other children while both she and her mother were present.”
He stopped, looking up at the ceiling. “To be fair, there’s barely anyone in the Northern Americas who’d be a threat with Mrs Whitaker around, but that’s beside the point.” He shifted a bit on his seat, turning slightly towards the others. “Anyway, we decided it was worth the minimal risk, for the sake of showing the gangs that we don’t even need outside support to overpower them. This whole discussion is quite thoroughly beside the point, however,” he pressed on, glaring at Percy. “It’s not their lawful, if risky, deeds that we should be focusing on, but the utter catastrophe of last night. Whether or not you agree with me on whether or not we should employ teenagers in combat against supervillains, we both agree that last night should not have happened and we must make sure it does not get repeated. Can we prioritise that, for now?”
Percy glared at Patrid, who only gave him a smirk in response, the air between them crackling with tension.
Jessica sat there quietly, all but holding her breath as she waited to see what’d happen next. Leaning against her back, Rachel was doing the same, and she was pretty sure the guys were no more relaxed.
Patrid’s and Percy’s arguments had a tendency to drag on for a while, and jump from subject to subject, over and over. The last time, they’d ended up shouting at each other for nearly four hours.
This time, however, it seemed like they’d be spared the experience, as Percy averted his eyes and sighed, leaning back on his chair again.
“Fine,” he replied. “This isn’t over, though.”
“It never is,” Patrid agreed, looking almost pleased.
At some point, her mother had pulled Dalia over to the couch and sat down, guiding the girl to lie down on the couch, her head on her mother’s lap as she sobbed bitterly.
Jana was looking down at her baby girl, her face showing both worry and affection, stroking her hair and humming some half-forgotten tune to her, trying to soothe her.
Strangely enough, she hadn’t felt this good in a long time. Not that she was feeling all that well, but compared to the alcohol-fueled, half-conscious nightmare that the last few months had been, being able to just be a mother to her child was like a balm upon her soul.
Even the pain that seeing her baby girl so broken up caused her was welcome, because it meant there was something she could do. It was a good pain, a pain that was not a punishment but a signal, that she had something important to do.
Taking care of her baby, as it were. Something she’d neglected for far too long, to the point where she’d nearly killed herself.
Her heart still clenched up at the memory, when she’d found her baby girl on the floor in her bedroom, an empty pill bottle beside her. Sleeping pills, which Jana had bought to help herself sleep between shifts at work. According to the doctors, her baby had survived by sheer, incredible, stupendous luck – that it was more than just luck was something she’d realised later, not that it had made her feel any better.
That her own life had fallen apart shortly thereafter, even as her baby girl was met by such a string of incredible luck, had felt… just. She’d deserved worse, for failing her so.
But the cuts, the bruises, the occasional broken bone, the lost tooth, the hangovers and the burns… none of it hurt as much as realising how badly she’d failed as a mother. None of it continued to hurt as much as seeing her baby pull away from her, just when she’d realised how much she’d neglected her, when she’d finally seen that she had to make amends and be a mother again.
She’d been happy for her, of course. To hear that she’d made friends, that she’d won entry into the most prestigious school of the entire state, and that her marks were up near the top of her class.
Even when she’d realised that her baby girl had become a hero – oh, she hadn’t told her, but neither had she been too careful about what she’d said and what she’d held back, and Jana had drawn the connection the first time she’d seen ‘Tyche’ on the television – she’d been relieved, not worried. Her baby had found something good to do, something to dedicate herself to.
She would never begrudge her that.
Now her baby had walked in, wearing clothes that were far too tight and revealing, both for the weather and for Jana’s heart, and looking like the world had ended.
But she was unharmed, and she was there, with her.
Jana gave her as much time as she needed, stroking her hair and humming the melody to a lullaby she’d used to sing her, back when she’d been little, before she’d screwed everything up. She didn’t even remember the text to it, or the title. Something about a bridge.
It took over half an hour for Dalia to calm down. Finally, she pulled back, kneeling on the couch as she rubbed her face with her hands. Jana only pulled her hand back slowly, letting her fingers run through her gorgeous red hair.
“S-sorry,” Dalia said, before hiccuping the way she usually did, after crying.
“You have nothing to apologise for, sweetie,” her mother said, standing up carefully – she didn’t want to ruin things now by stepping on a shard or something, she had to worry about Dalia, not be worried over by her – and leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead, just as the younger redhead hiccuped again. “Let me get you a cup of water.”
She walked over to the kitchenette of the decadently large apartment that they shared – said kitchenette being a corner of the huge living room which was larger than the whole kitchen in their old place had been – to pour some water into a plastic cup – she’d locked all the glassware away a while ago, not that it’d helped much, as she’d just found other stuff to break and hurt herself on – and take it back to her hiccuping baby, picking up a towel along the way that she wetted in the sink.
Dalia was still kneeling on the couch, looking miserable as she leaned against the backrest, so Jana held the cup to her lips rather than hand it to her, and helped her drink. Once the cup was empty, she used the wet towel to clean Dalia’s face up with gentle touches, sitting down and turning so as to face her.
“There we go,” she spoke softly once that was done. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
Dalia looked away from her. “You’re not even asking why I’m wearing this costume…”
Jana chuckled, brushing some strands of hair away from her face, pausing to look at them – she really needed to take better care of her hair, it was starting to look truly horrendous and she had neither Dalia’s youth nor her power to make up for the lack of care. But that was for another time.
“Dalia, I may not be the best mother out there, but if you think putting on a skintight outfit and a mask is enough for me not to recognise you, then you’re quite thoroughly wrong,” she replied, putting the towel and cup aside. “So, what’s got you so tied up in knots? You know you can tell me anything, right?” She reached out to touch Dalia’s cheek, but her baby flinched back. “Dalia?” she asked, worried.
Dalia started to take deep breaths, almost as if about to hyperventilate as she tried to look everywhere but at her.
Jana was about to try and calm her down, to prevent her from actually hyperventilating, when she something seemed to give in, and the words began to spill out.
She stared at her daughter as she shared everything that’d happened since she’d gone out to be a superhero the first time. Everything, even things she probably shouldn’t have told her, about her friends and other heroes, but she let her speak anyway, as it was clearly important to her to tell it all.
When she heard about the insane stunt they’d pulled last night, she almost shouted at her for being so reckless, but her outrage quickly got lost in the rest of her tale.
And then, the true reason she’d been so broken up.
Jana listened in quiet horror as Dalia explained to her how she now believed her power to truly work. What it’d done to the girls who’d tormented her. What it’d done to Jana, herself.
She felt a pain in her heart, hearing of what’d happened to those girls, though she couldn’t find it in herself to feel too bad, not after what they’d done to her own daughter. Though she did sympathise with their parents, even if they’d been responsible for raising those girls to be what they’d become.
But what it’d done to her, and why Tyche believed it had happened…
“No,” she said, simply, firmly, and pulled her startled baby into the tightest hug she could manage, crushing her against her chest. “You’re wrong, baby girl,” she spoke, sobbing, as a huge weight fell off her heart.
“W-what?” Dalia gasped, surprised by the sudden gesture and the words, wiggling to tilt her head up and look at her.
Jana looked down at her baby, and smiled. “I thought… what I was going through, that it was just punishment for having failed you… but instead, instead it something much, much more important.” She leaned down, kissing her baby on the forehead. “I’m not angry at you, Dalia. I’m glad. If me suffering like this is all it takes for you to be safe and happy… then I’ll take that bargain, and be grateful as well.”
It had taken nearly an hour before Percy had sent Jessica out of his office, to pick up the juniors.
Now she’d brought them back, all seven of them. From the stoic (as usual) Tartsche all the way to Gloom Glimmer, who was looking incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting around and looking at everyone and everything but Patrid, as if afraid of what he’d say or do.
She wondered about that – Irene had never shown herself to be uncomfortable around or fearful of Patrid; then again, she’d never screwed up like this before.
They filed into the office, the space in front of the desk having been cleared of its usual seats – those stood by its sides, so the adults could face the juniors, and were currently taken by Rachel and Patrid – with seven simpler chairs standing there in two rows, upon which they sat down quickly, Harry sitting front and centre.
Jessica felt proud of him. Whatever anyone might say, Harry had been a great leader, after Bismuth had graduated from the juniors. He’d taken to it with the same calm determination that ran through every aspect of his life, from the way he made breakfast in the morning to how he’d wooed and won over Thomas.
She wasn’t so sure that’d help him now.
“Hello, kids,” Percy greeted them with a pained smile. “Especially you four,” he looked at Irene, Melody, Goudo and Aimihime, the four who’d joined after he’d left the city. “I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Percy Norton, also known as Rounds.”
They all replied with variations of ‘welcome back’ and ‘nice to meet you’, except for Irene who just nodded, fiddling with one corner of her heavy cape while chewing on her lower lip, and Goudo, who barely inclined his head, sitting on his chair with a rigidity that belonged on a statue, not a human.
She didn’t get that boy, at all.
Jessica walked around their group and joined Marcus and Laurence, leaning against the wall on the left side of the office, from Percy’s point of view.
“In case you don’t know yet, these are the other members of our team – that’s Rachel, also known as Venatrix, Marcus, wo’s clearly Ursa Gemini and Laurence our Eyespy. Some of you may remember Bismuth, though she’s not currently present – she’s visiting family,” he introduced them all, with each adult raising a hand or just plain smiling at the teens when their turn came up. “And you already know Jessica, Amazon, and Patrick, who’s our public relations manager.”
Percy didn’t leave time for any further pleasantries, though. “Now, while I’d love to take the time to talk to each of you and get to know you better… and I’d certainly like our first real gettogether to be under a better star… I must say, what I feel primarily right now is disappointment.” And with that, his mirth at seeing the teens faded into sadness and anger, making almost all of them cringe. “What in God’s name where you thinking!?”
The junior heroes exchanged looks, briefly, before Harry spoke up.
“We wanted to help, Sir,” he said, his voice betraying the nervousness his face so stoically hid. “We talked to each other and… we decided that it was worth the risk, since the director said that it would take time to verify the information and muster a proper strikeforce, but Dusu’s victims were, are, dying now.”
“So you set out to assault the fortress of a group of mass murderers capable of creating city-destroying monsters, without verifying the information, without adult supervision, relying on the words of a boy you barely know, whom as it turns out you didn’t know the first thing about, according to this report!” Percy stabbed said file on his desk with his finger, before flipping it open, leafing to a particular page. “Reacts with unstable berserk state to Osore’s power… possible split personality… supposedly Mindstar’s brother, if that’s even true as we don’t have the means to check whether they actually are related, or she just made him believe so. Did any of you have any inkling of any of this?” He looked at everyone in turn, getting headshakes one after the other, except for Osore – who’d obviously known of Brennus’ response to his power, to use it deliberately – and, perhaps not so surprisingly…
“I knew about that,” Irene admitted in a small voice. “Not the split personality thing, but him being Mindstar’s brother. It’s true. Daddy told me, shortly after I first met him.”
Jessica gulped, crossing her arms as her hands clenched into tight fists, trembling as the mention of that bitch brought up memory upon memory…
Not now, Jess, she admonished herself, taking deep breaths to force that down. She could have a meltdown later, when she was with Jake again. Right now, she needed to focus.
Meanwhile, Irene shrank a bit into her chair under the looks she got from the others, including the juniors, except for Melody, who just reached out to take and squeeze her hand.
It’s not her fault, she’s just twelve, no matter what she looks like…
“And you didn’t think it was necessary to bring that up?” Percy asked in a soft voice. “Irene, please look at me,” he pressed on when she didn’t respond. When she did, he continued to talk softly. “According to this file, there used to be a standing order to consider Mindstar for a death warrant, if she was found to try and subvert the boy; which may appear harsh to some, certainly to me, but makes some modicum of sense, seeing how she is based in this city, he is unaffiliated and she’s subverted many people before. Don’t you think you should have told us, to prevent a tragedy?”
“W-we’re not supposed to… talk about secret identities,” she stammered, looking both guilty and… distracted? What did she have to be distracted about. “I would’ve told people, if it’d come to that, I swear.”
Percy pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is such a mess… and on top of the disaster this turned out to be…”
“Disaster?” Melody spoke up, her artificial voice sounding confused. “I know we failed to find a cure, but we have Dusu. She can be tried for her crimes now! And the Dark’s probably pulling the rest of those villains apart as we speak, if he hasn’t already. And we all got away safe and unharmed. This was far from a disaster, in my opinion.”
Percy focused on her, but she didn’t flinch back, looking at him with polite defiance on her face.
“That’s one way to look at it. May I tell you how I see things?” He waited for her to nod, then said, “You assaulted these monsters without a plan, got captured, broke out purely because they underestimated you, then you only survived because, let me enumerate – the gods-damned Godking of Mars happened to be in a generous mood; Brennus turned out to have a hidden, violent personality that could mop the floor with some mooks who were otherwise taking you apart; Mindstar flew in to protect her brother; a complete unknown showed up to fight off some manner of time-and-space-bending mad science creation-” For some reason, the teens all flinched or threw confused looks at each other, but Jessica didn’t have time to ask what was wrong, before Percy pressed on, “and then the Dark happened to save you because Irene’s power, against her will teleported her to him rather than face what appears to be a major combat esper. There was so much luck involved in you surviving this, if you hadn’t also found out that Tyche’s power is literally supernatural luck, I’d seriously recommend you each buy a hundred lottery tickets right now!” He leaned back, nearly throwing his own chair over as he tried to calm down. Then he looked at them again, still furious. “Nevermind that two of you violated your parole – you are aware that this may cause Goudo, at least, to be convicted of violation and be sent to juvenile prison, are you?” Most of them paled at that, looking at the Japanese teenager – who showed no reaction at all, looking calmly ahead. “As for capturing Dusu – Mister Patrid, don’t you want to take that one?”
Patrid nodded, as Jessica felt her stomach drop. It was not a good sign that the two of them were together on this. Poor kids…
“So, you captured Dusu,” Patrid said in his usual calm, smooth tone of voice, looking no more agitated than ever, even slightly amused, as was his default expression. “Did any of you bother to consider what to do with her next?” He stroked his chin with one hand. “While she does have more warrants on her head than I can easily enumerate, the fact of the matter is that now, publically prosecuting her is going to be a clusterfuck,” he spat the curse like a grenade, making everyone but Percy and Goudo flinch. “You took her from Japanese territory, during an illegal, unsanctioned assault on a villain base. You are all underage and mostly untrained, two of you being on parole for being members of a criminal gang in one case, as well as that and a number of offenses in another case. When all that comes out, the press, the justice system, perhaps even the Japanese government are going to go on the warpath.” He ran his fingers through his hair, showing agitation for the first time. “Kids, we’re already on incredibly thin ice with the Japanese, for numerous reasons,” Laurence’ head snapped up, suddenly, turning towards the door of the office, but no one but Jessica seemed to notice. “They’ve only been waiting for an excuse to boot us out of Japan, and you may have just given them a perfectly legit one! We may well l-“
Running steps came closer to the office, and then Widard all but tumbled inside, stumbling as he nearly fell over. “Rounds!” he shouted, white-faced. “Bismuth! The police precinct! Dusu!” he gasped the words, bending forward to put his hands on his knees, as everyone stared at him in surprise.
Jessica felt her stomach drop down into her feet as she almost instantly made the mental leap to what was going on.
Percy didn’t seem to be far behind. “But… she’s visiting her sister…”
“She’s dead,” Irene whispered in a small voice. “She’s dead and Bismuth…”
Jason nodded, looking up at Percy. “She walked into the precinct’s metahuman containment cellblock and, and sealed the entrance up. There’ve been screams heard, from inside.”
Percy leapt up from his seat. “Everyone, costume! NOW!” And just like that, the adult heroes all rushed out of the room.
Widard finally caught his breath, standing up and looking out over the juniors, as Melody looked at her friend, squeezing Irene’s hand. She didn’t know why Irene was so torn up – or why she’d edited Diantha out of the report like that, it had to have been her – but she was clearly distraught.
“Kids…” Mister Widard said, looking at each of them in turn with great sadness in his eyes. “I’m… so glad you’re all alright. Please don’t do that again.”
Somehow, Melody felt worse about saddening him than she’d felt about being chewed out by… damn near everyone else, since coming back. Even Steph and the other handlers had been outraged.
He didn’t give them a chance to apologise, though. “I’ve got to go… help take care of this situation. You all… we’ll talk later. There’s going to be a big meeting, I’m sure.” And with that, he, too, left, leaving them alone with Patrid.
Whose mere presence was still making her skin crawl, especially now that he was just quietly sitting there, studying each of them in turn.
“You are dismissed,” he said, finally. “Go to your rooms, I’ll… also need to take care of this. Another nightmare…”
They all filed out as she shook his head, looking calm yet seeming quite tired, somehow.
“Patrick,” Irene said with a soft voice, not moving from her perch atop her chair, drawing his gaze to her, even as she let go of Melody.
I’m sorry, but please, I need to talk to him alone, she whispered into Melody’s mind.
Feeling even more worried, Melody nonetheless did so, getting up and leaving the room, listening to both Jared calling everyone else idiots for going along with the raid, and the two in the room, as they walked away…
“What is it, Irene?” Patrick asked, his voice far gentler than she’d ever heard it be.
She couldn’t see Irene, but she could just imagine her fidgeting on her seat, holding her cape in her hands like a security blanket, or a comfort one, avoiding his gaze.
“W-we need to talk,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s…”
And then they were too far away to hear, and Jared too loud, especially since no one felt up to telling him to shut up… it wasn’t like he was wrong, really, either…
The entire UH New Lennston division, minus Bismuth, entered the building that served the central police precinct – a fortress-like building itself near the centre of New Lennston, with a wide, open area around it covered in cobblestones, rather than being squeezed in amongst other buildings – as a prison to hold super-powered criminals until they could be processed and sent to wherever they were to be held.
It was generally considered to be one of the most secure and heavily defended buildings in New Lennston, but it was mostly designed to keep criminals in and villains out – not to prevent the lawful heroes of the city from entering and talking to the villains, for whatever reasons they had.
Clearly, Bismuth had had no problem getting past the considerable outer defenses and into the building, which was currently swarming with police officers.
They approached the Chief of Police, an older, broadly built man with a broom moustache. He stood in front of one particular wing of the small, compact prison, whose entrance was blocked by thick, irregular crystals that seemed to have partially fused with the concrete around them – or rather, been grown out of it – shimmering in all colours of the rainbow as light reflected off of the grayish growths.
The whole place was almost eerily quiet and there were certainly none of the screams Jason had been talking about.
Jessica felt sick to her stomach, praying quietly to God that her friend and teammate was alright, that she hadn’t…
“Rounds, you know what’s going on?” Chief Mason asked, glaring at the arriving heroes like this was all their fault.
“I’m pretty sure I do, Sir,” Rounds replied, resplendent in his shining knightly outfit, silver and gold armour atop a royal blue bodysuit, a shield and lance-sword strapped to his back. “Please, we’ll explain everything presently, but we should get in there first and get Bismuth out before-“
“Less talking and more breaking through,” the Chief agreed, stepping aside. “Everyone, clear the area! Let the capes handle their own!”
The police officers grumbled, though some, at least, didn’t look too broken up about what was going on. Jessica didn’t have time to wonder about that, though.
Instead, they gathered in front of the crystals, and turned towards Eyespy.
The slender man frowned, crossing his arms. “Everyone in there is either dead or has their eyes closed,” he said. “Can’t see a thing.”
Rounds looked at the Chief. “Dusu was the only prisoner held in this wing?”
The Chief nodded.
Their leader looked at the team. “Amazon, Ursa, Venatrix, break through the crystal.”
They nodded in unison, stepping forth. Jessica reached for her power, pulling up her trusty translucent armour, feeling herself instantly relax and become calmer as it sprang up, protecting her from the rest of the world.
Rachel’s equipment – her boots, both of her gauntlets, her visored helmet, her chestplate and armoured skirt, it all flared and crackled with electricity, as she clenched her heavier left gauntlet into a fist, building up energy.
Ursa Gemini just flexed briefly before they began to pound the crystal, quickly joined by the two women.
It was no easy work – no one of them could have broken through Bismuth’s crystal on their own, not when she’d grown it apparently as thick as the entire doorway, and anchored so firmly in the surrounding concrete – even when they broke it, it just grew whole again, and again, and again.
But all together, they managed to make headway, slowly digging through, destroying it faster than it was regrowing…
Then it suddenly shattered, all at once, shards flying inwards as it all crumbled away, Jessica having to briefly fight to be stay on her feet. Ursa Gemini just stumbled into the floor outright.
They didn’t waste a second, all of them rushing in in coordinated fashion, Rounds ahead of the others. They could see Dusu’s cell, and the blood-red crystal’s growing out of it, wrapping around the doorway, the door that was supposed to seal it off so that not even air could escape lying in crystal-covered shards nearby…
Rounds and Ursa Gemini, who’d made up the vanguard, froze as they reached the cell, looking inside.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Ursa Gemini gasped, staggering back and blocking Rachel from getting a look by accident.
Behind them, in the foreroom, Eyespy bent over and vomited.
Jessica didn’t want to see what was inside… but she had to, and so she did, stepping around Ursa Gemini to take a look.
She immediately regretted doing so.
Dusu wasn’t dead. But she certainly wished she was, that was for certain.
She was there, clothed in tatters of an orange prison suit, all but crucified upon a crystal growth. One that was as red as blood. Her blood.
A single clear, rainbow-hued crystal pierced her sternum, next to her heart. That was not what had killed her, though.
Her body had been… pulled apart, from the inside out. Crystals of various red hues had literally grown out of her, tearing, cutting, pulling… It was the most grisly sight Jessica had ever laid eyes upon, and that included everything Hastur had done to her victims.
The crystals had pulled the cadaverous woman apart and spread her out over the wall. The crystal she’d seemed to have been crucified on was actually numerous, branch-like growths come from her back, connecting her to the wall and lifting her up. Her limbs had been pulled apart, stretched, the nerves visible, fused to the crystals. Her muscles torn, her bones turned almost entirely into bloody white crystal branches within the mess of red branches. Her torso… was open, her heart still there. Still beating, somehow, even though crystals were growing out of it, leaking blood, connecting it to other crystals. Blood flowed through veins that had become like transparent, rigid tubes. Two jagged, long branches grew out of her eye sockets, branching out, like a stag’s horns sharpened into points. More crystals stabbed out of her gums, giving her a bloody grin.
Worst of all were her nerves, spread out throughout the entire construction, interwoven with the branches and her body… clearly still functional, as she twitched soundlessly, her lungs all but entirely gone, her brain sustained… barely… somehow…
No, not anymore. Her twitches grew faint as they watched; within seconds, just as Jessica was starting to take in the entire scene, she expired with a last shudder.
Almost as one, they all turned away from it, the others looking as numb as Jessica felt. Looking at the cell opposite of Dusu’s, whose door was unlocked, open, giving the one sitting inside free view into the cell to watch Dusu’s suffering.
The crystal Dusu had been crucified upon extended like red veins along the ground, leading into the cell, towards a pair of bare feet, attaching to them.
Moving up the bare shins and knees, they joined the thin sheet of crystal which was currently the only clothing Bismuth had, a kind of one-piece bodysuit that covered her torso entirely, almost like a second skin of symmetric crystals, looking like her namesake, covering her from neck to thigh and halfway down to her elbows.
Red hair hung over her face as their teammate looked up at them, her uncovered face blotchy with tears, eyes red and… empty.
Jessica’s heart went out to her, even as she felt disgusted and horrified at what her friend had just done to a defenseless prisoner.
“Bismuth… what have you done?” Rounds asked in a heartbroken whisper.
She looked at him with those painfully empty, despairing eyes. “I couldn’t… couldn’t stand it. The thought that, that she was alive… alive while my sister… while all the others, died… I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I’m not sorry. I can’t be. I had to kill her, else I would have killed myself, because I couldn’t… couldn’t stand to know, to even think, that she would live, while… while my… while Prisca is dead,” Rosalie Fion spoke in a soft, broken voice.
In the distance, and nearby as well, the emergency sirens went off. The special ones, made specifically to announce DiL’s appearance. Then another set, announcing that she was here.
Not one of them could bring themselves to react, as they stared at their teammate in horror and sadness.