Powers had a way of impacting the individual in general terms, beyond the way the Wretch affected me or Kenzie’s situation affected her. In the classes I’d taken and watched about parahumans, it had been painted out in broad strokes, partially but not wholly based on the PRT classifications. The generalized thinker mindset. Masters and sociology. Changers and identity.
When one could fly, it was easy to feel disconnected. Movers in general had issues when it came to feeling or being rooted in things. Being someone who had to run, walk, drive, and navigate the city on a day to day basis meant being in the city. It meant being on the roads and cooperating with others, watching out for them, and paying attention.
To fly was to be like the celebrity that was chauffeured everywhere. It meant not getting that daily dose of social give-and-take, good and bad. When I’d caught a ride to Ashley’s just a day ago, I’d suggested flying while everyone else rode. I’d told myself I could do stuff to help out while waiting for them, like we’d done with our detour. In the end, though, Kenzie was probably the only person in the world who would have been so happy to sit wedged in between Sveta’s hard prosthetic body and Chris, and I’d sided with the option that helped me stay connected and in tune with the group.
Now I felt the disconnect as profoundly as I had since flying over a flooded Brockton Bay. I navigated the air above a gridlock, a sea of red brake lights on a gloomy morning muting the color of much of the city.
I couldn’t stop for every incident I saw. More disconnection, that I had to see wrongs in progress and ignore them, because there were other priorities, or because I needed to look after myself and things immediate to me.
Once upon a time, in a land a universe away, I’d told Amy that she couldn’t be Scion. I’d had to tell myself much the same, in those hectic days after dad’s head injury and the devastation of my hometown.
Traffic being outright stopped for ten minutes of me flying was a bad sign. Normally I would take my time, zig-zagging, looking for fire and even mundane situations where I could touch down and ask a question or two before taking off again. With this and the unrest it was causing, I wanted to get to whatever the source was.
People had headlights on in the fog, and it made for a stark image, with a crowd of people that had abandoned running vehicles now collecting in a mass. Some cars were pulling away, driving across fields to circumvent the situation, but they were mired, stopping because-
I had to fly closer to get a look.
A group of people were blocking the road. Students. It reminded me of the situation we’d expected with the construction workers planning the demonstration, but this… it was a little more insane. The students were blocking the highway and interrupting movement across the city, and people were pissed. Capes were already on scene, guarding the narrow no-man’s land between the groups.
The shouting between the two groups drowned even the howling of car horns as I got closer to the scene. I chose one place where the divide was especially narrow to set down. No cape-erected barriers here to keep the peace, no Master pets, no effects. The mob was held at bay by people in costume who couldn’t or wouldn’t use their power on civilians, and by police who were stretched too thin. Stretched thinner, I could see, because they were trying to get the student protesters to break up. Too few, and the students too stubborn.
Some cars had left the road and were trying to drive around, but students were putting themselves in front of the vehicles. Some of those vehicles inched forward, students sitting or sprawling on the hoods, and others had been stopped from running through the crowd by capes.
Capes, combative already, flinched as I descended, even though I’d cut my speed to a crawl. They relaxed slightly as I raised my good hand.
It was a dangerous position, because the gap between the students and the mob was only a matter of ten or so feet. The Wretch could extend out far enough that I was liable to clip one side or the other. I couldn’t keep my forcefield up, and I was wearing nice clothes.
It was hard to breathe here, between the thin line of students -roughly three deep, locked elbow to elbow- and the mob of over a hundred people that I couldn’t see around or past. I couldn’t see everything of importance at the same time, and I couldn’t hear because protester and irate bystanders shouted at each other with neither group showing any inclination to listen.
In a lot of places, here in particular, it was only costume and uniform that kept people at bay. Fear, and the threat of the unknown- just about every cape present serving as that unknown, with powers or capabilities the crowd couldn’t know. Some of the ex-drivers were close enough for me to touch with my fingertips, had I extended my arm fully. I stood with my body twisted, injured arm turned away from them, my arm half-raised, and they backed off some, men and women studying me and figuring out if they could get past me to get what they wanted.
Fog meant humidity and humidity meant I could smell the chemicals of shampoos, mouthwashes and soaps, the sweat and the breath of people pressed in close to one another. There was a faint warmth, even, as if they were so heated that it had become manifest.
Through it all was the noise of them. I was pretty sure a megaphone was blaring but I couldn’t make out words in the chaos.
Someone pushed in close to the cape nearest me, a guy with a costume I didn’t recognize. That gave others the courage to join in. Every cape had been ready to act, and powers flared out. Some people stopped, and some pressed on.
I was young, I was wearing nice clothes rather than a costume, and I had my arm in a sling. People weighed their options and they pressed on, pushing in close, one grabbing my good arm. Someone else reached past me, arm brushing past my chest so they could grab the strap of my sling, which was a dickish, dickish move.
I didn’t flinch, using flight to stay upright. I made eye contact with the guy, someone with glasses, a mustache, and a khaki jacket, and saw the moment of hesitation.
I set off my aura, and drove that moment home.
Both he and the other guy let go, backing off, and others reacted as well. It got the attention of people who were trying to squeeze past a cape who had his cape draping down from wrists to ground, transformed into a fence-like barrier, and past a self-duplicator with a luminescent filament webbing connecting each copy of themselves that they’d made. It bought a moment and a moment mattered. People continued to struggle and deal, but nobody tried to grab me or press past me again.
A cape sent their minion trotting between capes and the road ragers. People backed off, seeing it coming, and in its wake, the five to ten feet of gap remained.
The crowd was cowed by the failure to push through, and with that came a lowering of volume, just enough that the megaphone could be heard. A new voice. “The situation is resolving. Return to your cars or they will be rolled off the roads!”
Some people left right away. Others lingered. They wanted to stay for the same reason the students were here, I imagined. It was for the same reasons the construction union had wanted to act.
“You okay?” someone asked me. He was tall, broad shouldered and narrow waisted, with white armor that seemed to exaggerate the facts, his shoulders flaring out into sweeping points. His helmet had the same sweep worked into the top, a man’s face worked into the front, hyper-realistic but for the lack of eyebrows and lashes, the eyes closed. The costume served to exaggerate proportions and joints in a way that made him look like he was put together wrong.
Nice quality, though. Ornate, with an artistry that suggested a craftsman had helped to put it together.
“I’m fine,” I said. I brushed at my outfit. “Thank you.”
“Emotion powers are volatile,” the cape said.
“I’m well aware,” I said.
“You have to be careful with them in situations like that. Even if the effect is something you think you understand, it isn’t always simple. Two people can have different reactions to the exact same feeling.”
“Yes. I do know that. I assessed the moment.”
“She’s aware, Ambrosius,” I heard a woman say.
I turned to look at my mother. She’d been no more than fifty feet away from me and I hadn’t even seen her. She was wearing her costume, modified since I’d last seen it. There was some shoulder decoration, decoration around the gloves, and the emblem at her chest, brass tracery decorating and elaborating on the seams and the divisions between colors. Light from car headlights flickered as it found gaps in the retreating crowd to dart through, illuminating diagonal lines and ‘x’ marks that broke up the plain white of the costume.
“She’s been a cape for three times as long as you,” Brandish said. “She’s a good cape.”
“Three times?” he asked.
“Well, not really,” she said. She smiled. “It’s something I tell myself, that she was a born heroine. The powers and the costume came later.”
“That’s your daughter, Brandish?” the filament duplicator asked.
“One of them,” she replied.
The duplicator turned to the big guy in armor. “Ambro, her group helped save some of the stations from the portal fuckery.”
The big guy in armor turned his molded face with the closed eyes my way. There was a pause, and then he said, “Thanks.”
“Yeah. I wish we could have done more,” I said.
“I know that feeling,” he said. He turned to Brandish. “I’m going to go. Watch things?”
“Yeah. Of course,” she replied, smiling like there was a joke in there.
Maybe the decade or two of seniority.
“You look nice,” Brandish said. “Not in costume?”
“I’ve got somewhere to be,” I said.
“Your friend’s appointment at the court?” she asked. When I raised my eyebrows, she said, “I do pay attention, Victoria.”
“I’m running late,” I said. “She needs backup, and if this traffic thing keeps anyone, she might not have many people on her side.”
“Don’t run,” she said. She reached out to touch my arm. “Talk for a minute. We can talk about little things that don’t matter, if you want. I miss my daughter.”
I sighed. I took in the scene. A field of weeds had been turned into mud and uprooted plants by the passage of a few hundred road ragers. Behind us, students were resisting the ones who were telling them that it was time to pack up, that they’d gotten their message across and there was no reason to stay.
“You’re in costume,” I noted. “An updated costume.”
“I dabble,” she said. “A little while after I started working, I saw an article about the refugees and how children were getting lost in transition. It struck a chord with me. Because of what happened to your aunt Sarah and me, and because I’d lost my own children, in a way, in transition.”
I shifted my stance, giving her a warning look.
“I’ll be good, don’t fret. I haven’t joined a team, but I have connections. I get out and do what I can when I’m not working, and right now I’m only working half-days, four days a week.”
“What happened to the missing refugee kids?”
“That’s not the kind of cape work I excel at, I’m afraid. I relieve some capes and watch their neighborhoods so they can investigate it more. They give me updates, and I try to keep track and collect information.”
“Which is what you’re good at.”
She smiled. She touched my sling. “You got hurt.”
“Power nullifier in the mix.”
“Of course,” she replied, in conjunction with the same smile she’d given Ambrosius earlier.
She seemed so much more like herself here, in costume.
“You did good work, Victoria, doing what you did at Fenway Station, and tipping people off about the other stations. We’ve been so stunned in the wake of it all that I think we’re all still processing it. Still, as people come to grips with it, I’ve tried to let them know about the role you and your team played in controlling the damage.”
“Thank you,” I said, quiet. “You made it out okay?”
“Some of my coworkers were working late. It’s part of the reason for me working half-days. We’ll put pieces together and find a way forward, but it’s going to take a week or two at a minimum.”
“Did you make it out okay, Victoria?” she asked. “Your team?”
“More or less. We’re not really a team. We’re mostly going our separate ways.”
“Your two friends with the court appointments. The others are attending court? Sitting together again?”
“Yes. Probably. Are your colleagues going to be the ones prosecuting them, down the road?”
“I’m a lawmaker more than a prosecutor these days. But no, nobody I know directly, I’m fairly sure. That wasn’t what I was driving at. For a team that’s going its separate ways, you seem to be traveling in the same direction with regularity.”
I raised my hand, my thumb hooking on my sling in my best folded-arms posture. I gave her a frown to match.
“I don’t know the reasons for the group breaking up, Victoria, and I’m not going to pry, but I get the impression you want to stay together. We need heroes and we need heroes that work together. Really.”
Great. The mom lecture.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, Victoria.”
“I wasn’t,” I said.
“You wanted to. Am I right? Does the group have gravity that pulls you all together?”
“To some extent,” I said.
“Most groups naturally fall apart despite the work they put in to stay together. To some extent, your group wants to stay together despite the work it’s putting in to fall apart. It’s rare to have ties or bonds like that, and that’s something I’ve missed every day for the past four years.”
“I can tell you that the Victoria I had a heated conversation with a few weeks ago wouldn’t have held her own in that crowd just now.”
“It’s not really progress,” I said.
“I’ve noticed it,” she said. “Two steps forward and one step back is infinitely better than standing still. I know you and I think you know deep down what you need to do to truly take off.”
“Speaking of,” I said. I saw her smile change. “I should go. I don’t want everyone to be late for her. The motherly pep talk was… nice.”
“I’ll settle for nice. I’m working with limited information, you know.”
“It was nice,” I said, stressing the was, and I actually meant it. “It’s just hard to find the words for it.”
Hard to articulate, really, when we walked a razor’s edge. She’d toed or tested the waters. I had no idea whether it was inadvertent or not. I didn’t feel like I could have another conversation with her and know it could be this… inoffensive?
“You are strong, brilliant, capable and beautiful, Victoria. You know what you need and want to do. For reasons you haven’t shared with me, or for reasons you have shared that I’ve apparently failed to understand, you’re holding yourself back from that.”
“This is getting out of the territory of the pep talk and into the realm of criticism.”
“Take care of your team, Victoria. Just… take care of yourself too, you deserve it. Work to make sure it carries on being a positive thing, and don’t make the mistakes I did.”
My mom, admitting to mistakes?
“Don’t let this stuff interrupt or override you and what you need to be focusing on. I can tell you, that leads to disaster and regret. Okay? Don’t ignore what you need and want, like this team of yours, and don’t lose sight of what matters, of you. Promise me that?”
I raised up off the ground, because I really did need to be going. “It’s not a team, really.”
“If you insist. Still, Take care of yourself, prioritize yourself. Promise?” Her tone was pointed.
“Sure. I promise,” I said.