I sit next to Twin Cities Paragon for dinner. He’s changed out of uniform, back into casual clothes, and he looks more like himself – or at least the pictures I’ve seen of him – even if his sweatshirt has our logo on it instead. His halo of curls doesn’t look any more luminescent than it did on the roof, though. He looks up from his book, gives me a slight smile, and puts it away. Our Paragon shoots either him or me a slightly dirty look, although I couldn’t give you a reason on that one (in either case).
“Good book?” I ask Paragon.
He shrugs one shoulder. “Summer reading.”
I glance at his backpack. It’s black, nondescript, and completely full. “How old are you?”
He gives me an amused smile. “Over eighteen.”
“I can probably just look you up in the database,” I threaten, brandishing my fork.
He grins. “Oh, I’m sure you have the clearance, but I’m technically a vigilante.”
I just stare at him.
“What, Minnesota’s going to say no?” He waves it off. “It’s not for anything bad, I just don’t trust your security. You can check out the newspapers. I’m clean as a whistle.”
“Yeah, because they’d report on anything you did wrong,” I say.
“You see my point,” he tells me, and digs into his salmon.
“They let an adjunct use the name,” I say, shaking my head and clucking.
“Oh, I’m a full member. Because of reasons.” He frowns slightly. “There’s precedent. And anyway, I didn’t pick it.”
“You’re a deputized vigilante,” I clarify. “Oh, this is going to end well.”
“Eh, I’m sure I’ll get unmasked soon enough,” he tells me. “Or I may just legally change my name and register. Either way. You know they don’t like that term, anymore, right?”
“Law, or extranormal history?” I ask, amused. With that kind of pedantry, I’m not surprised he wants to keep his name out of our notes.
He hesitates, then says, “biology, actually. Minor in philosophy.”
“Oh, ethics, nice.” I pry the lid off a cup of grapes. “They make you read all the old casefiles?”
“No.” Paragon stirs his mashed potatoes, drawing little designs across the top. “I did that on my own. I mean, I know I’m not formally enrolled in the program, but, I figure, I may as well learn the basics if I’m going to be capering.”
“Sure,” I say, wondering why the hell he looks so guilt-ridden. “Makes sense.”
Paragon sips his soda. “I mean, I know they let me get away with a lot more than anyone else just because they don’t have a choice, but I don’t want people signing warrants just on my say-so.”
Well, I understand that, at least. “You have the whole self-study course?”
“The official one?” He shakes his head. “Yeah, but it’s shit. It’s okay. I’ve got a tutor.”
I laugh. “I was going to give you some book recommendations, but, hey, if you’ve got it covered. You’re welcome to call me with questions. I’ve got to get used to it, anyway.”
“Oh? Are you going to be teaching the course?” He finally takes a bite of the potatoes.
“Sort of? I’m in charge of the junior version, anyway,” I explain.
“Oh, god,” he says, “I’m so happy Minnesota outlawed that.”
“Why, so kids with powers can’t get guidance?” I ask.
“More like they can’t get guidance from me,” he says, “because I don’t even know what I’d be filling their heads with, and no alternatives there, am I right? Besides, there’s always school.”
“Because the school programs did so well for you,” I say. I stab a grape.
His eyes flick from side to side. “Didn’t get my powers ’til college.”
“College,” I repeat, quietly enough that he doesn’t panic.
“I mean, don’t go spreading it around, but, yeah, I didn’t exactly grow up with them.” He shrugs.
“You’ve got the White Hat Complex, and you didn’t get it until college?” I say.
“Well, it was more of,” he says, “well, you know, someone had to take down Villain, right? One day I’m arguing ethical obligations, next day bam.”
“Oh my god,” I say. “You Kanted your way into powers.”
“That wasn’t even my argument,” he tells me, twisting the cap on his bottle back and forth. “But, I don’t know, it had to have been something like that. I woke up with them.”
“You’re kind of chatty for someone who’s afraid to even write his real name up on the board,” I say. Because, wow, maybe I’m developing a psychoactive power, instead, and wouldn’t that suck.
He laughs. “It’s not people like you I’m afraid of. It’s people like that douche, and that douche, and that douche over there.”
He doesn’t gesture at anyone in particular, but I get his sentiment. I don’t even know if he had anyone in particular in mind, except maybe Paragon.
“You ever get the feeling some of them are out to murder you?” he asks.
“What,” I say, not quite laughing, “me in particular, or everyone here, or what?”
He frowns. “I meant you in particular. With. Um.” He gestures at me.
I pat my hair down self-consciously.
He shrugs. Frowns. Avoids eye contact. “Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
I turn my attention to my food.
“I really didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” he reiterates.
“Yeah, of course not,” I say, “it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“I look different, under the mask,” he says.
I just stare at him, trying to parse his hint.
“Very different,” he says, emphasizing both words. When I still don’t say anything, he adds, “it’s some stuff the AI came up with, for, you know, better keeping a secret identity.”
“You have an AI?” I ask.
He frowns. “What, you don’t?”
I shake my head.
“I thought that was probably standard equipment in State towers.” He runs a hand across the back of his neck and laughs. “Maybe just mine.”
“People have played with automation before,” I tell him. “If someone was going to implement it without exhaustive testing, it probably would’ve been a tower like yours.”
“Damn,” he says. “Are you sure they’re not just keeping it from you? The AI told me not to tell the armors, and I’ve heard you only recently turned mask…so?”
I shrug. “I’m sure there are things they’re not telling me, but you do know the clearance levels aren’t different across divisions? So…. Very good computers, but, no, not a real AI.”
“Huh,” he says. “Well, don’t pass it on. Only way I’ve been winning my fights.”
“I won’t,” I assure him, with a bit of a raised eyebrow, because at least that explains how he got so good so fast.