Case file: Baron Someday – Unauthorized use of powers (ref.)

Note: Guys, please stop adding in forerunners to the other crimes. We aren’t charging him with any of them. Hell, we didn’t even manage to call dibs on the murder charge; if you want to talk about it, go complain to the other TLA’s.  We are seriously only talking about the zombies, here.

Addendum: Remember that it’s against policy to call them ‘zombies’.

 

Timeline:

  • First developed the virus while still working for the university. Original version had an incubation period of three months, lasted two weeks, affected ~3% of the population (extranormal only).
  • Recruited either techie or memetic (journal unclear, but consistently says ‘we’).
  • Incident with the TA. (See 6Aref, see interviews with other faculty)
  • First live trials of infection mechanisms within six months. (See list of statistically anomalous hospital and doctor visits, see list of unusual diseases, see list of outbreaks) (See list of likely events – patterns) Definitely had techie by this point.
  • First generation mechanism found. (See incident report 7C)
  • Second generation mechanism found. (See incident report 7D, analysis)
  • Auxiliary lab found. (See incident report 3, catalog of items)
  • First and second memetic events in the two days after Baron figured out the lab was found (probably). (See incident reports 5A and B) Obviously had memetic by then.
  • Third memetic event within one week. (See incident report 10A) (See list of injuries by method)
  • Third generation mechanism found, first sample of virus found. (See incident report 7F, analysis of mechanism, analysis of virus) At this stage, the virus only infected ~2% of the population, but across the board, other features similar to first version as reported.
  • First outbreak. (See incident report 8, see list of news articles)
  • Modified second generation mechanism found. (See incident report 7E)
  • Mobile lab found. (See incident report 4, catalog of items, analysis of hypnotic triggers)
  • Second outbreak. (See incident report 9, see list of news articles, see vaccine analysis)
  • Fourth through tenth memetic events within two months. (See incident reports 10B-10K)
  • Main lab found. (See incident report 6, catalog of items, analysis of virus) Virus with up to 10% of the population susceptible at this point, faster rate of infection, lasted 28 days
  • First viral propagation of the memetic ability, four hours (See incident report 11, external links)
  • Second viral propagation of the memetic ability, two days (See incident report 12, external links)
  • First use of ‘zombie’ on the news (See clip, see corresponding article) (list of following articles)
  • Baron Someday’s first public address and manifesto. (See clip, see manifesto, see list of addresses and articles)
  • Third memetic outbreak, one week (See incident reports 13 – 17) (list of coverage)
  • Fourth memetic outbreak, one week (See incident reports 18 – 26) (list of coverage) This is the one where the three deaths occurred (mall, park, middle school) nearly simultaneously. (list of conspiracy sites) Vaccine effective, cure 38% effective (airborne)/76% effective (injection).
  • Techie caught. Dies in custody in 14 hours, hypnotic trigger. (See incident report 27)
  • Re-hypnosis of some victims. (See incident reports 28 – 31)
  • Memetic caught. Time-delayed virus neutralized, dies in custody in 12 hours, nanites corrupting cuffs to cause psychic overload. (See incident report 32)
  • Baron Someday dies.
  • Various incidents with reinfection and memetic suggestibility. (See incident reports 34 – 43)

 

Abilities and MO of hypnotized victims:

Generation one: human normal abilities, slight increase in one or more facets of extranormal traits. No biting yet; scratching very common, but mostly kicking and punching. Victims exhibit use of athletic or martial arts abilities commensurate with their personal histories.  Little use of weapons.

Generation two: human normal abilities, slight dampening of extranormal traits. Still no biting; scratching more common. Kicking, punching, and use of weapons typical, but generally in synch; all victims acted in groups and attacked the same way. Attacking comrades common.

Generation three: human normal strength, speed, increased perception/knowledge of human anatomy, increased ability to anticipate and complement each other’s movements, no use of extranormal abilities noted. Still no biting; little scratching; use of martial arts that one or more members of the group had trained in common (by all members of the group); use of weapons common. Somewhat resistant to pain.

Generation four: human normal strength, speed, increased awareness of human anatomy, increased cooperation, no use of extranormal abilities noted. Mainly biting and scratching; frequent use of martial arts; infrequent use of weapons. Resistant to pain

Generation five: increased speed, strength, alertness, and stamina (presumably due to the virus), complete suppression of extranormal abilities. Massive jump in number of individuals, increase in coordination of groups, some planning ability exhibited. One bite per individual, 7-9 minutes to join in; scratching infrequent, use of weapons infrequent. Nonviolent holds common. Ignore pain.

Generation six: increased speed, strength, alertness, and stamina (not up from generation five), some use of extranormal abilities. Coordination still pronounced in physical attacks, including setting traps, extremely uncoordinated use of extranormal abilities. Accidental injury to other hypnotized common. Multiple bites to individuals, no bites to unconscious individuals. No scratching, no weapons, no nonviolent holds, nonlethal severe injury common. Ignore pain.

Generation seven: increased speed, strength, alertness, and stamina (barely significant increase from generation five, debated (see analysis)). Increased efficiency of use of extranormal abilities, seemingly shared between the hypnotized. Coordination in both physical and extranormal attacks, planning abilities muted/sloppy and plans less long-term. Specifically avoided attacking teammates and the unconscious. Bite patterns more erratic. Some use of weapons, nonlethal severe injury common. Ignore pain.

Generation eight: increased speed, strength, alertness, and stamina (about twice generation five). Complete suppression of extranormal abilities. Coordination and planning extremely effective: reemergence of funneling, trapping, etc. No longer communicate verbally or through gestures. Plans employed in synch across whole group, regardless of distance or number of individuals. Specifically avoided fellow hypnotized; did not avoid attacking the unconscious. Constant biting. Frequent use of weapons. Frequent severe injury. Frequent lethal attacks. Complete immunity to pain.

Note: aside from slightly increased coordination ability, reinfected/rehypnotized individuals reflected same traits as initial during their initial infections

 

Addendum: combination vaccine now 100% effective at preventing all types. Cures holding steady at 53% for first four generations, 91% for last four. Reprogramming effective in ~40% of remaining population. High dose antivirals ~60% effective destroying virus; targeted antibody stimulation ~5% effective, but consistently doable with sample antibody; efficacy increased with sample antibody from people with similar extranormal traits. Hypnotic triggers 100% reversible (within 2 days).

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Greetings from Minnesota

My phone buzzes at me, and I need a break, so I check my email, wondering whether I can skip out before my shift is officially up, because it’s not like anyone’s doing anything right now. They don’t need me.

But I do still have work I could be doing, work that has to get done some time, so.

(Ha. No. So bored.)

Paragon’s sent me an email, just saying hi. I guess he’s back in Minnesota – I didn’t see him around at all yesterday, so that makes sense. I message him back, figuring I might as well, and he immediately replies, asking if he can call.

I wake my computer back up, and his face appears. He waves at me.

“Hey, Paragon,” I say, “what did you need?”

He shrugs. “Mostly I’m just bored. I have to be here enough to help if they need me, but they don’t need me.”

“You can probably get alerts sent to your phone,” I tell him.

He makes a face. “Yeah, but then I’d have to carry my costume around with me, which is such a pain, and anyway, they get hells of antsy if I’m not here a sufficient portion of the time.”

I raise my eyebrow at that one. “How’d they deal with you taking the summer off?”

He scoffs, “I said they were antsy, I didn’t say they could keep me here, and, anyway, I had an agreement with Will.”

“Who’s Will?” I ask.

He stares blankly at me for a while. “Only the traveler with the longest range on record.”

“What kind of traveler?” I ask, because I’m sure I’ve heard about this, but I can’t recall.

He makes a face like he thinks I’m fucking with him, but he says, “makes doorways?”

I nod. “Kind of square windows, feels like you’re going through a tunnel?”

“That’s the one,” he says, “the tunnel thing is because it automatically corrects for atmospheric changes – pressure, difference in oxygen levels, things like that.”

“Okay,” I say, “it’s weird that you know that.”

“It’s not weird,” Paragon defends, “I got to know him while we were working out logistics. Anyway, you should know him, he’s your coworker.”

“I do know him,” I admit, “or at least we’ve met before. I only remember him because he’s the only one who’s not a touch-teleporter.”

“Is that some kind of thing with you?” Paragon asks.

I stare at him. “Is what some kind of thing?”

“I mean, is it a thing that you’re only comfortable being touch-teleported?” Paragon asks, “because lots of people can teleport at range, plus tunnelers, location shifters, and distorters.”

“No,” I say, still staring at him, “I’m pretty sure we only have touch-teleporters on staff.”

“See, that doesn’t make sense,” he informs me, “because that’s actually the least common traveler power by far, even excluding the ones that are exclusively autolocative.”

I resist the urge to sigh, because I know he’s going to go into it whether I want him to or not. It’s like asking Vector an architectural history question.

“Okay, so the most common,” he starts holding up one finger, “there’s group teleportation, that’s the thing all the shipping companies want, I get why that’s not up there in your staffing.”

I nod.

“And, obviously, travel agencies and stuff want doorways if they can get them,” he adds, “I mean, not that that’s common, because I would say that’s the second least common. I can check.”

“No, that’s fine,” I tell him.

“Okay, but location shifters,” he holds up a second finger, “is even more common than that, I mean, obviously, that includes some of the small range ones, not useful, so, second.”

I nod again.

“Right, but tunneling and distortion are really common too,” he says, with two more fingers up, “and that’s leaving aside all the rarer stuff, and then we get to range teleportation, then touch.”

“Okay,” I agree.

“So how the hell can all your staff be touch-teleporters?” he yells.

I shrug.

“Is it, is it just, are you like some sort of collection point or something?” he demands, “is JC like a gathering place for all the touch-teleporters of the world?”

I shrug again. “As far as I know, it’s most of the staff in Gates, too.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” he snaps. “Most of the travelers here are shifters, like normal.”

“Okay,” I say.

“If I draw a map of powers by location, is it going to drive me nuts?” he asks me. “Like, is it going to be some arcane symbol that unleashes eldritch horrors or something?”

“Probably,” I say, with a grin.

He lets out a frustrated growl. “Well, tekes are all even by population density, and muscles are pretty uniform, and camouflagers break down by type a little, but they’re all pretty much….”

“Look, Paragon, I really don’t think you need to worry about it,” I tell him, “if it really bothers you, you can probably look up papers on it, but I think it’s just a coincidence.”

“Yeah, unless it turns out I get put on a watch list for it,” Paragon says. “Wouldn’t be the first conspiracy around there people are touchy about.”

“It’s probably going to turn out there was historically a good touch-teleportation program here, or something like that,” I tell him.

“You don’t worry about that at all?” He shakes his head at me.

“Well, your school has a library,” I say, “use it.”

He grins. “What, so I can do all the research without checking out a single book?”

I grin back at him. “Only if you’re paranoid.”

He shoots me a ‘who, me?’ look, but I get the feeling he’s going to look it up, although maybe a little less covertly than all that. He twiddles his thumbs for a minute. “So how are the kids?”

“Horrible,” I say.

“I expected as much,” he sympathizes, “oh, the humanity.”

I shake my head. “They’re really not that bad, actually. We have the one that keeps hurling slurs at everyone and everything, but just the one, the rest are okay.”

“Not all screaming slurs from the rooftops at the top of their lungs?” he asks me.

“A little,” I admit, “but they’re high schoolers, so I give them some latitude.”

“Or you could tell them all to shut the fuck up,” he suggests, “never too early to learn they need to shut their bigot faces.”

“I guess not,” I say.

He frowns, looking apologetic. “You worried you’re going to get in trouble? Never mind, forget I said anything. Let them be bigots, if that’s what the administration expects.”

“Paragon,” I say.

He holds up his hands. “No, really, I didn’t mean anything by it, I don’t actually expect you to fix them when all they’re shooting off is their mouths.”

“I’ll say something to them,” I assure him.

He gives me a wary look. “Really, don’t, not if you’re going to get in trouble. I don’t want what happened to him to happen to you.”

“I’ll say something to them,” I repeat, more forcefully.

“Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” I agree.

He smiles brightly. “Did you hear that Apogee hooked up with Amos the hostage negotiator? You guys have so much more interesting gossip than we do.”

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Are you coming to dinner, or not?

“I’m back,” Vector sing-songs at me, sauntering up to my desk.

I grin up at her. “Chair’s taken. No room for feet on the desk, this time.”

She shrugs. “Oh, well, I’ll just go then.”

“Alas,” I say, “you will be missed.”

She hooks a thumb over her shoulder. “Are you coming to dinner, or not?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” I tell her, waving a hand at all the files I have laid out on my desk. “However would I get through all of this?”

She glances down at them. “What the hell are you looking through all that shit for?”

“Training in emotional manipulation,” I explain. “I’ve got two, you know.”

“What, and you think someone’s figured out all the secrets to it, and it’s lying in wait in some half-assed old paperwork?” Vector shakes her head at me. “You need to eat, Trav, starvation is doing funny things to your brain.”

“Found a few good pointers,” I tell her, but I get up anyway, stretching carefully when I get caught short by the cramps in my legs.

“And still reluctant to take a break,” she says, tsking at my foot – the one that’s turned out to have fallen asleep – and shaking her head. “You can’t be waiting for Darren, I know he’s still in chambers with the Hush-Hush Brigade.”

“Actually, I thought Hunch might show up again,” I tell her.

She raises an eyebrow. “Why?”

“To tell me to eat fast and change faster,” I say.

She makes a face. “I thought surveillance was tabled until Monday?”

“Who knows?” I shrug. “Could be we find enough null mirrors by tonight.”

“No,” Vector says, grinning.

“No, probably not,” I agree.

“Come on, they’ve got pot pies tonight,” Vector says, “you love pot pies.”

“I do not love pot pies nearly as much as everyone keeps telling me I love pot pies,” I remind her, “it’s not my fault we showed up the same time as a chef obsessed with them.”

“They’ve got the mashed potatoes on top,” she adds.

My stomach grumbles. Of course it does.

She grins at me and waits for me to break.

They’re actually really good; they’re the only thing you can guarantee just from reading the menu won’t be microwaved. (Obsessed.)  “I couldn’t finish reading that book, by the way.”

Vector crosses her arms at me. “That book is amazing and you know it.”

“Slow in the middle,” I say, and scoop potatoes off of my pie.

“Yeah, it was a little,” she agrees. “Do you want the other one? It’s faster.”

“Maybe,” I tell her, and give her the look she knows means I don’t like the author.

“Bah, you’re no fun,” she says, and quickly adds, “don’t look up. General Pain-in-the-ass just walked in.”

“Is he heading this way?” I mutter to her as, sure enough, I see Sunspot out of the corner of my eye, sauntering into the cafeteria.

“Why the fuck would he be heading this way, Travis, you didn’t actually pee in his shoes, did you?” she hisses back at me.

I give her a Look.

She shrugs.

“He wants me to switch teams,” I inform her.

She snorts into her soda. She quickly regains her composure, but she snorts into her soda first.

“Really, Vector?” I sigh. “Really?”

She stifles a grin. “Well, I mean, you have to admit, that was just too funny to pass up.”

“Well, it’s true,” I say (a little testily, maybe).

She snorts again. “I know. That’s why it’s funny. He really wants you to sit C-string on Flagship?”

“I do not know what he wants,” I tell her, “I never know what he wants. No one does, I’m sure.”

But he doesn’t actually walk over to us. He doesn’t even notice us (I actually think he doesn’t recognize me without a label, and I’m sure he never thinks twice about Vector). He goes to sit with Artemis and Apollo instead, across from them, so he doesn’t have to deal with Apollo’s glare (even though he still inches protectively towards her). And they continue just talking to each other. I’m getting a little dizzy watching things in my peripheral vision by the time I find myself relaxing.

“Are you really training memetics?” Vector asks me, finally.

I shake my head. “Just emotional manipulation, and it doesn’t even look that fine-tuned.”

“Too close for comfort,” Vector grumbles, “what sort?”

“As far as I can tell, Jailbait can do them all,” I say, “she seems to have an affinity for calming.”

“Girl needs a new name,” Vector says.

“Psybeam does something or other with psychosomatic bullshittery,” I add, “sort of like a taser and a flash-bang at the same time, but, you know, psychosomatic.”

“Can he separate them out?” Vector asks.

I waggle my hand.

“Is Jailbait any good at explaining how to separate them out?” Vector asks.

I waggle my hand.

Vector tilts her head. “You may want someone who actually has that kind of power, you know, notes may not be doing it.”

“Awesome if you could find me one,” I say.

“I can look into it,” Vector says, looking way too serious for me to take her seriously.

“Yeah, I’ll put out a stickie,” I tell her, running through my mental list of everyone who works with emotions. “I doubt we’ll find much help.”

“Oh!” she says, “I’m finally on the reserved list for real. Just got the email, like, an hour ago.”

“Hey!” I say, hi-fiving her.

“At the bottom, though,” she adds, “probably next litter.”

“Is this for the Australian Shepherds?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Decided to go with a Border Collie, so people won’t make me explain what my freak dog is. I hope it does the funny eye thing.”

“The funny eye thing is adorable,” I agree.

She opens her mouth to add something.

“Allergies,” I remind her.

She snickers. “You should get one of those ugly hairless dogs, you know, Chinese Crested.”

“You know, they used to be used like hot water bottles?” I tell her.

“What, really?” She laughs. “Yeah, I can see that. St. Bernards make great foot warmers.”

I glance up when Artemis and Apollo walk by, and he shoots me that stare like he’s planning on asking what my intentions are, but then they just nod at us. Sunspot doesn’t even notice.

“Also, they’re not ugly, they’re cute, even if they do seem afraid of their own shadows,” I tell Vector. “They just have sort of a weird haircut.”

Vector fluffs her hair. “Yeah, I feel for the little guys. I always get mask-hair.”

“I’d say use the adhesive ones, but they give me rashes,” I tell her.

“The thing that makes it conform to your face is a beta test away from being able to adhere to your face,” Vector says, “although I’m sure they could move up the production schedule if every single techie didn’t seem to inherently distrust the thing.”

“I don’t know what that’s about,” I tell her, “it’s techie tech, right?”

Vector shrugs. “Could be aliens.”

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Snacktime

“Really?” FiendPuncher asks, picking up a carrot stick, “no one’s going for the fruits and veggies?” and she dips it into a little carton of dressing. I wonder if liking carrots is one of her powers.

I look at the apple slices, thinking that’s a little more surprising, especially since there are caramel and chocolate dips sitting right there for the taking. I never could stand snack vegetables, so when there are other options to be had, I’m not surprised the kids don’t like them, but I was kind of under the impression kids loved dipping apples in frosting or whatever. Chips and cookies are pretty much normal fare, but they’re not exactly good for you.

I mean, not that frosted apples are good for you, but still.

I wonder if maybe I should get some sandwiches or something in here instead.

“Yeah, sorry we’re not all anorexic, Pom-poms,” Gatling sneers, and then looks her up and down, “not that it’s not working out for you.”

I’m so caught up between being horrified that he’s advocating eating disorders and horrified that he’s looking that way at someone who might not even be thirteen that I completely miss out on my opportunity to bitch him out for the derisive nickname.

FiendPuncher just widens her eyes and lets out a giggle. “But I’m not anorexic?”

“Good,” I manage to say, “and you’re right that fruits and veggies are healthier for you and we should all try to eat more of them and if you have any problems with eating disorders of any kind or anything else you can talk to Dr. Jerry and he’ll be happy to talk to you.”

FiendPuncher raises an eyebrow at me, then cocks her head and giggles again. “Oh, good!”

“Dr. Jerry is an asshole who makes issues out of anything he can think of,” Jailbait informs us. “He thinks I have self-esteem problems even though I’m the hottest bitch you’ll ever see.”

I politely refrain from saying anything about any part of that sentiment, although she gets snorts from the rest of the team, including FiendPuncher, who  notices I heard and gives me that smile all little kids do when they’ve been caught stealing cookies, even though she might be a little old for it. (But maybe not. Seriously, Gatling, seriously?) Caffeine is the only one who doesn’t, but he seems like he’s off in his own little world again; I can tell he heard what she said, but he isn’t agreeing or disagreeing, just considering it.

I think maybe I ought to tell Dr. Jerry to be less heavy-handed with Jailbait, and a little more heavy-handed with Caffeine, because the only reason I can think of that he’s acting that way is that he hasn’t actually mentioned his problems yet.

Also, if he talks to Dr. Jerry about it, he definitely won’t talk to me.

Just because I have no idea how to deal with sped-up perception problems and things like that or whatever kind of normal people problems he has, not because I have anything against Caffeine, I’m sure I could give him advice if he needed me to, he just doesn’t need me to, because that’s why we have Doc Jerry. I’m going to advise these kids on picking a college, and that’s it.

And also extranormal stuff, obviously, but hopefully only the how and not the why of it all.

“So are you, like, really shitty at karate, or what?” Gatling asks, ripping open another bag of chips and shoving a couple in his mouth.

I blink at him. “I had different close combat training.”

Gatling snorts. “So you don’t even know karate.”

I shrug.

“Typical.” Gatling shakes his head. “I don’t know how they expect us to learn when we’re smarter than the teacher, but I guess they don’t hand out these jobs on talent.”

I kind of want to yell at him for being a disrespectful little shit, but I’m mostly happy he didn’t ask who I blew to get my job; it looks like Ultraviolet did some good, after all.

“Really?” FiendPuncher says, all wide-eyed innocence, “he doesn’t seem that stupid.”

I catch the way she’s looking at Gatling, though, and I almost cackle, because, wow, kiddo, that was ice cold.

“He’s too stupid to want a piece of this,” Jailbait says, jutting out her chest. Then, winking at me, “or smart enough to fake it.”

I instinctively take a step back, but she’s already ignoring me again, apparently enticed to the apple slices by either my or FiendPuncher’s PSA. I feel like Hunch needs to set up a sexual harassment talk for the kids, honestly, because ‘just kids’ always grow up into ‘just adults’ which doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it.

“Hey, gaytard,” Enigma Machine says to Caffeine, and now I definitely think they need one.

I miss the rest of the conversation, but it doesn’t look like it’s led to a fight, which seems to be the only thing I can hope for with this crowd. Those three are chasing each other around (Caffeine only using human-normal speeds), and the girls are talking over the carrot sticks FiendPuncher has now convinced Jailbait to eat some of, and Gatling just keeps glaring at me.

“What?” I ask, staring down at the brat, really happy I’ve still got almost a foot on him.

“Nothing,” he says, curling his lip at me.

“Look, you know what, you want to take classes in Gates, I will file a special fucking request to get you traveled there every afternoon,” I tell him, “but if you’re in my class, show some respect.”

“Whatever,” he says. “Like I’m going to take classes in your gay city.”

But he stops glaring at me.

Caffeine appears behind me in a way I’m sure he thinks is mysterious and shocking, and might be if I didn’t feel the rush of air when he stopped.

“Hey,” he says, gruff tone probably calculated for maximum effect.

I peel the wrapper off my own cookie, because I can’t be setting an example for every fucking thing, “you really shouldn’t sneak up behind people who are trained to react quickly, Caffeine.”

“Whatever, I’m quicker,” he says, with a shrug.

“Which does fuck-all for you if someone manages to slap a cuff on you or stick you with a tranquilizer before you’ve noticed they’re going to,” I explain.

He rolls his eyes, but he also rubs the back of his neck like he’s thinking about it. “Are you supposed to swear at us that much?”

“I’m not swearing very much,” I say, thinking that he can’t seriously be all that surprised by it and if he is that’s hilarious, and also thinking of the drill sergeants that end up training a third of agents.

“I wanted to ask a favor?” he says.

I nod at him.

“So if I spend too long, you know, sped up,” he says, and waits for my nod, “I kinda get hungry.”

I nod again. “I was thinking of getting them to send up sandwiches or some more substantial kind of food, anyway. How much do you need?”

“I don’t know, not more than normal,” he tells me, “it’s not like I actually need to eat more to function, or anything, I just get hungry.”

“Huh,” I say, wondering if he’s talked to any of the medical staff about that, and if there’s anything I should know to accommodate him, and whether they’re allowed to tell me if there is.

He shrugs at me and runs off, and I pull out my phone to amend the order for snacks, considering whether it’s worth it to take the elevator up to my office just to avoid spending a few extra minutes dealing with buttons that aren’t intended for an interface this small.

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Target Practice

“Heya, Teke,” Vector Analysis says, from in my office, on my chair, behind my desk, which her legs are resting on, and I’m so glad I put all the paperwork in the drawers so she can’t kick it all to the floor. I’ve seen her trick the baby agents into playing 52 Pickup.

(When they mouth off, though.)

“Vector,” I say, and drop my bag down next to her.

She grins at me. “You can say it if you want.”

I cross my arms.

“Where’s the Travis we know and love? You know you want to,” she tells me.

“Get your feet off my desk,” I snap.

“Aha, I knew you were enjoying your promotion.” She waves a hand to encompass the desk and chair. “Already so possessive of your furniture.”

“Your feet are still on my desk,” I remind her.

She affects a wide-eyed expression and gestures at her boots. “But I’m using a coaster.”

I glance down involuntarily, and there is, in fact, a coaster underneath her boots. It’s actually a pretty nice coaster, too, some enameled design embossed in brushed steal. I kind of wonder where she got it, or if she just carries them around in her utility belt for some reason. I mean, I don’t know, I apparently carry dog biscuits around, just in case. Also I found a nine-sided die in one of the pockets.

“They were a gift,” she says, following my gaze, “you’d know that, if you bothered to ask. We haven’t talked in ages, Travis.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her, “I’ve been so busy what with it being all of four days since I talked to you.”

“Promotion’s gone to your head,” she says, with a sad sigh.

“Feet,” I say, “desk.”

She shrugs, swinging her legs down to the floor and standing in one smooth motion, and I have to think she practices that specifically to look cool. “Come on. Target practice.”

I check the schedule, in case there’s any last minute meetings people have set up, but it’s still just as open as it was before. I leave a sticky note on my computer in case anyone comes looking.

“So who are the coasters from?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Apparently a friend of a friend of a friend is an artist and does metalworking. Everyone involved figured, wouldn’t Vicky Alice love some coasters.”

I stare at her for a second.

“No, they don’t actually call me that, but shame on you for catching the reference,” she says.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her, “if it helps, I’ll probably get my own by Monday.”

Vector laughs at me. “That’s right, you are friends with JCitySkies, aren’t you.”

“You’re the one who made the reference in the first place,” I huff at her.

“Oh, yeah, that,” she says, with a mild glare, “so the friend of a friend keeps sending me links to these awful stories, which, I think, is supposed to be flattering or something.”

“Don’t look at me,” I tell her, “I’d never recommend any of the things my friends write, and they’re actually proofread.”

“The thing is,” Vector shakes her head. “The friend of a friend of a friend wants an open license for power use at a show. The friend, by the way, is actually my brother, the friend of a friend is the guy he got arrested with that time they stole the Porsche.”

“And sending you creepy fan art is the way to win you over,” I reiterate, “charming.”

“The fan art’s actually pretty good,” Vector says, “it’s the fic that’s creepy.”

“Are you sure?” I ask her, “because I’ve seen the way they draw, and costumes generally cover at least a little bit more than that.”

She laughs again. “Yeah, I think he figured out that I don’t appreciate naked drawings.”

I snort. “Are you going to help them?”

Vector waggles her hand. “I don’t know. The artist’s pretty good, but these guys….”

“Well, an artist that’s friends with your brother,” I say, and just let it hang there.

Vector snorts at ‘friends’. “I get the feeling one or both of them is playing the connections card to try to get a date.”

I share a look with her. “Do you ever consider just showing up in costume and scaring the shit out of them? Maybe at work?”

She slings an arm around me. “All the time, Trav, all the time.”

“I swear I will fake up paperwork for you,” I add. “Make everything seem copacetic.”

When we get to the firing range, it’s empty, though, and Vector has to rifle through her pockets for the key to the storage closet. I pull out my card to swipe it after she wrestles the lock open, holding it so it doesn’t bolt closed on us again before I can get the alarms disarmed.

“We need to get this thing replaced,” she grumbles.

I shrug. “Oh, you know, we get all these shiny new powers showing up all the time, no one wants to train up silly old Deadeye enhancements.”

She smacks my shoulder. “Help me look for the fucking clay airplanes, will you?”

We dig around a while, and finally find a box of them in the back. The box is pretty much falling apart, but the targets are fine. I find myself grinning sheepishly at Vector while I pull the targets out one by one with my TK so I don’t have to touch the box, which I almost never do, but she only gives me a judgmental look for as long as she’s at the wrong angle to see the box herself. Then she just raises her eyebrow and makes a note for the quartermaster to order more damn it, because some of us like to practice with actual bullets and all the other targets are a little expensive for that, unless you’d like me to shoot the holobots, because I can, Sid.

Because old school can be a lot less hassle. Even if you do need a teke to run a drill with these.

I find it amusing that they’re built to be particularly lightweight, because they would’ve felt light anyway, all being the same size and shape. I’ve never found an opportunity to share these observations, because only other tekes (and some research staff) know what I mean when I say it, and they always look at me like they don’t know what my point is or why I’m talking to them.

“Did you hear Sideswipe finally got moved to our SWAT team?” Vector asks.

I probably would’ve if Arsenal could string two words together at me, but it’s not exactly prime gossip – I can actually barely remember this being an ongoing issue. “Should I be jealous? Are you going to start practicing with her, instead?”

Vector stretches, then pulls a pair of pistols off the rack. She grins at me and pretends to stomp over. “It was taking for-fucking-ever to get the paperwork to stick. Turns out, going missing.”

Well, that’s some bullshit. I fling a few of the targets up into the air, clustering them fairly closely and setting them into a spin. “Which asshole was responsible for that?”

“Your favorite asshole,” she tells me, and then empties both clips into the targets.

I let the pieces fall when she hits them, but keep the largest shards floating off the ground, so I can reuse them for the next round. “Nice. Is she filing a complaint, or are we just peeing in his shoes?”

She shoots me a skeptical look as she reloads. “Peeing in his shoes, really, Travis?”

I laugh at her expression, trying to randomize the shards’ trajectories. “I didn’t mean us, personally, I meant that Chelsea got transferred to the K9 unit and Cheese Toasties is a good dog.”

She picks off her targets more carefully, this time. I’m not really sure what pattern she’s using to pick them, but it’s not really the point of having me here, anyway; I’m just keeping them moving. Probably more difficult for her when I don’t know, actually; I’ve never asked her whether she’s got that hint of esp with her aiming, for obvious reasons, but it’s always harder to practice while it talks to you.

Finally catching one that was eluding her, she tells me, “Cheese Toasties sounds like a good dog, if she’ll pee in his shoes for us.”

“Absolutely.” I pull out some more of the whole targets, floating them downrange, while Vector grabs an actual rifle and sets up. “You have to train them to pee on command, anyway, you know.”

“I did not know that. That’s sounds profoundly useless except in this one instance.” She proceeds to fire on the targets as fast as she can.

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Habanero Fries

I haven’t even gotten to work yet and I’m so ready for my week to be over. Plus, P&P have strong-armed me into meeting them at the diner again, because it’s their new favorite, and they’re going to eat at it every day until forever.

Which means, probably, sometime next week, and I’m sure I’ll be obligated to show up until they get tired of it. I hope they don’t just stand me up one of these days; that is my absolute least favorite way of learning that they’re tired of a place. Or maybe second, after getting chased away by the chef that time that they still won’t give me an explanation for.

(I have such weird friends.)

But for diner food, it’s not bad, and I hate my new schedule, so obviously I’m not going to be able to bring myself to actually make breakfast (lunch (brunch)) for a while.

Priscilla hands me a maple mocha and I realize I’m just sitting here silently staring at the menu. From the intent stares, more than a few minutes have passed since I sat down. I don’t even remember walking in here, I swear.

She stifles a laugh. “Poor baby. Work got you down?” then she makes a face like maybe she shouldn’t have said that much, and, honestly, she’s more paranoid than half the people I work with.

“Get the garden omelette,” Perry tells me.

I sort of scowl at her, but there’s not much force behind it, because I’m only a quarter of the way through my mocha.

Perry grins at me. “You have to try the habanero fries; they’re amazing, and you’re not going to get them if you load up on carbs again.”

“Hash browns,” I mutter, “you get hash browns with omelettes.”

It totally doesn’t matter, though, because Perry orders for me, and she goes ahead and orders the garden omelette and the habanero fries.

Which is bullshit, because I wanted pancakes.

Also, I’ve finished my mocha now, so I do actually manage a scowl.

Priscilla distracts me with another mocha because she is a traitor to every cause in the entire world, especially the ones that contradict each other and now I can’t remember what I was going to say.

“You need to eat more vegetables, Fox,” Priscilla tells me, in that same voice that she uses – and I know, I’ve heard her do it – to get the kids to stop crying while they do their makeup.

Perry grins at me and spreads her arms.

Yes, fine, Perry, you’re queen of the fucking world, I will eat my goddamned vegetables. Of course Pris agrees with her; they’re only joined at the fucking hip. I can’t believe they eat lunch together every single day, isn’t it bad enough they work together? Not that I’m one to talk.

I mean, vegetables in omelettes is way better than the whole wheatgrass thing, though.

“Pendergast is being an asshole again,” Perry tells me.

I don’t know why she’s surprised. Pendergast is always an asshole.

“We just saw the honest to goodness worst movie,” Priscilla tells me, after Perry finishes her rant, and proceeds to describe the honest to goodness worst movie I’ve heard about in a while.

The omelette actually isn’t bad, though, and the habanero fries are probably the best I’ve had at a diner, which is surprising, and I’m grateful for the recommendation/eminent domain, because I probably wouldn’t have gotten them with pancakes. The ladies know I like me some spicy fries. So I forgive them.

“Are you coming over this weekend?” Perry asks me, apropos of we-both-know-exactly-what.

I nod. “But it’ll have to be tomorrow; party Sunday.” If I can make it, with Darren sick.

“Ooh, exciting,” Priscilla says, batting her eyelashes, “you’re a wild one, Travis.”

I make a grumpy face at her, and she pushes my mocha back into my hands. I can’t properly roll my eyes, because I’m laughing too hard to aim them. “Birthday party. Eugene’s youngest. Well.”

Priscilla claps her hands over her mouth, while Perry says, “yay, cape gossip.”

“Yes, what scintillating gossip,” I say, “Sinead’s pregnant. Also, she’s announcing already, so.”

“Yay!” Priscilla says, at the same time Perry says, “amazing, which one is Eugene?”

I sigh at them, because I don’t know why they still get a kick out of that game.

Priscilla nudges me. “Are we invited to the shower?”

“I don’t know, that depends on how big it is, and also how much you offended the hosts last time you were at their house,” I tell her.

Perry gasps at me. “I would never offend the host of anything, ever!”

“Talk show hosts exempted,” Priscilla whispers. Then, staring at me, “wait, we’ve met the lucky soon-to-be-a-dad-again?”

“When was this?” Perry asks me.

I drop my head into my hands. “They’re the ones that throw my birthday parties. They also show up to cookouts and stuff all the time, you know.”

“Oh, right,” Priscilla says, looking like she’s trying to picture their home.

Perry smacks a hand down on the table. “Yes, okay, I know them. Oh, yay, Eugene’s having another baby!”

“That seems like odd timing,” Priscilla says, after she figures out who they are, too, a minute later, “was it planned?”

I give her a Look.

“Whatever, as long as they’re happy,” Priscilla says, “then it’s just another excuse for me to go buy more of those tiny socks that look like shoes.”

“Speaking of babies,” Perry says, raising an eyebrow at me.

“What about babies,” I deadpan.

“Are you planning on?” Perry asks, full on smirking now.

“Are you?” I shoot back, because I didn’t even manage to bring up Eugene’s without getting a terrified look. And also because Perry knows my parents, but I know hers, too.

“Sure, you can knock me up,” Perry says, while Priscilla gives her a scandalized gasp.

Personally, I have to agree with that one.

Perry pouts and turns away from me to stage-whisper, “he doesn’t want to be my baby-daddy.”

“Good,” Priscilla says.

Perry pouts at her, too, then, and for some reason looks to me for backup.

I sigh. “Fine. I’ll father your children. How many babies are you planning on?”

“Seventeen,” she says, without a trace of a grin.

Priscilla crosses her arms on the table in front of her and thunks her head down onto them. “Wake me up when it’s all over,” she mutters at us.

“Uh-huh,” I say, munching on a fry, because if she’s going to get going, I may as well not stand in the way. “I suppose you have names picked out?”

Then the grin does come out. “Oh, sure, Punctuality, Penitence, Practicality, Perseverance, Perfectionism, Passive-Aggression, how many is that now?”

“Six,” Priscilla tells her, from inside her arm-fort.

“Hmm,” Perry says, “Permafrost, Purple, Private Eye, Proportional Force, Parole Hearing, Particle Accelerator, Permeable, Predictable, Pizzazz, Pinecone, and Pilot Inspektor.”

“And the best part is,” I say, “that they work for boys AND girls.”

“I know!” Perry beams at me.

“I hate you,” Priscilla mutters.

“Me or her?” I ask.

“Both of you,” she says into her arms, “but you most of all for going along with it. Bitch.”

I stifle a laugh just long enough to say, “I’m sorry, Pris, I’ll father your babies, too.”

She lifts both her middle fingers out of their protective cover, but not her head.

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Case File: Incident Report: Hunch’s goddamn kid causes an international fucking incident again

This fucking kid, are you kidding me? I swear, Hunch, if he pulls this fucking shit again, we’re booting him right out of the program. And, you know what, if he tries to use it in a fucking college essay, I will take it upon myself to make goddamn sure that HR breaks protocol and says, no, in fact, that fucking kid was kicked out of the fucking program for being a fucking asshole. Again.

I mean, look, the ambassador is a pompous blowhard, I get that. I think we all get that. I think we all get that, actually, most diplomatic events are completely mindnumbingly boring, and everyone there is boring for days, and no one actually wants to be there except to try to make contacts with important people or whatever, or in our case, present our organization and our country’s best fucking face to people who could make life fucking difficult if they wanted to. You do fucking realize the international fucking community fucking exists and happens to have fucking news media to sway popular fucking opinion?

For someone who begged to be there, that little asshole sure didn’t put a lot of effort into making a good impression. Addendum: He didn’t actually beg to be there. Addendum: Thank you for that, Griff, I’m sure that’s a really fucking important distinction. Why the hell did his dad work so hard to get him onto the list in the first fucking place, then? Addendum: I was trying to get him to see a little bit of the bigger picture, and I would appreciate you not calling my kid an asshole. Addendum: Well, I would appreciate your kid not being an asshole! Addendum: Sorry, Hunch. That was uncalled for.

Whatever. I was on duty. He was on duty. He should’ve been on his best behavior like we all know Hunch told him to be, and not making fun of both my name and my costume, but whatever, the kid is a little shit. We all know that. (Addendum: Also, your name and your costume both pretty much suck.) We’re mingling, watching for anything suspicious (Addendum: Not drinking, too, I hope? Addendum: Skyrocket wasn’t, not that underage. I may not have been supervising Top Dog, but trust me, I was supervising the kids. Addendum: Hey, Coach, does that mean you let the seventeen-year-olds drink, or what? Addendum: To all interested parties: No, I do not let any of the kids drink.) and even though he’s meant to be checking the exits, he’s checking out the guests instead. And I do mean checking out, in at least a couple instances. Whatever. I had the exits covered, plus whoever else was there, not the point. The point is, who the hell decides a snail needs to explode?

Addendum: The point is, this kid is completely incompetent, and we really should drop him from the program, punishment aside. It’s not like he can’t join up in a few years when he gains some perspective. Addendum: Will they still let him in? We all know who he is. Addendum: We’ll let him in. We’ll want proof that he’s cleaned up his act, but we’ll let him in. (Or put in a good word.)

So he makes nice, and, mark my words, this kid is going to make a fucking amazing con man someday, and snags a snail for the ambassador, because look, we’ve got to try it, it’s so great. Mine did not explode, by the way, so thanks for that at least, you little bastard.

That shit was not fucking subtle! The guy got third degree burns (Addendum: they were only second degree, and even then only along one finger. Addendum: Oh, so that makes it fucking okay then?), okay, that was a massive pyrotechnic display. It’s not something you can play off all that fucking easily, not when it’s that noticeable of a power, not when it looks pretty fucking unique from where I’m standing, where, hey, it looked like fucking fireworks. So the whole room is lit up in dazzling fucking technicolor, and who’s standing there with a smug fucking smirk on his stupid face? (Addendum: It did look pretty spectacular.)

Ambassadors toppling like fucking dominoes, champagne everywhere, broken glass flying, fist fights started, and it’s a goddamn good thing someone turned on the fucking suppressor fields, because a couple of us react instinctually, and I’d include myself among them if I hadn’t been about to fucking knock him out the second I caught up to him. And that’s what, thousands worth of damage or something? And what if someone fucking filmed it or some shit?

Addendum: no evidence of recordings Addendum: We found one, but it wasn’t distributed at all. Confiscated. On an unrelated note, we’ve made yet another attempted blackmail arrest.

So everyone’s shoving everyone around, but at least there’s no powers flying, and I swear to fuck, I saw the kid steal a wallet. I don’t know whose wallet, I was trying to do fucking crowd control like I was supposed to, but the fucking thief stole the fucking thing. Also, he smashed the other champagne fountain, even if he says he ‘triped’. Addendum: I got it back. We’ve returned it. Addendum: Yeah, a couple hundred dollars short, I bet. Addendum: He’s grounded forever, what more do you want?

Addendum: Top Dog, you are super shit at writing reports. I have no idea why they let you attend major events like this. Addendum: Look, you want a fucking legible report, go read Coach’s. He was supposed to be the one in fucking charge. Addendum: I thought you were supposed to be in charge? Addendum: Of the kids. He was in charge of the kids.

Addendum: How many thousands of damage? Addendum: Don’t worry, insurance covered it. Addendum: Ours, or the hotels? Addendum: Man, does anyone think we would be this blasé if ours had to cover it? Addendum: A whole bunch of different sources. We covered about $500, I think. Addendum: If you’re worried, not that anyone seems to be, good look on you, guys, there weren’t any serious injuries sustained. Addendum: There were four healers there, and that’s just counting the local players. Of course there weren’t any serious injuries. Addendum: I meant before the healers. Addendum: Yeah, and I meant they would clean it up either way. And they did. Problem solved.

Addendum: Problem not solved. Problem still a pyromaniac in the program.

Addendum: Thought the problem was an international incident?

Addendum: I thought the problem was that Hunch’s kid is an asshole.

Addendum: Is there any reason this thing is classified level 3? Addendum: Yeah, it’s so Prime Mover can’t access the file. He’s friends with Skyrocket. Addendum: I can still access the file. Addendum: Yeah, but you’re not about to tell him what it says, are you? Plus Top Dog’s not exactly going to classify it 8, is he? Addendum: Actually, I was the one who bumped it up to level 3, you’re all very welcome. Also, do you think you could be any more vague? Do you even once specify who the ‘little bastard’ is? Name the asshole.

Addendum: All parties successfully convinced this was a simple accidental use of powers. Now a lot of people think our training program is for shit, and we may lose funding, but there are no civil or criminal charges pending. Also, Skyrocket better pay back costs. Addendum: I thought it was only $500? Addendum: about $670, plus damage to some of you guys’ personal items, totaling ~$3180 Addendum: He’ll pay back costs.

Addendum: Someone clean this shit up before Leroy sees it, goddamn.

Addendum: Also, someone add a fucking header, for fuck’s sake, you can’t even tell which ballroom it was in.

Addendum: Guys, why does this file still exist?

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Loose Lips Sink Ships

By the time we’re finished going over our notes (we know which warehouse it is now, anyway, so night shift can go with that contingency), I’m exhausted enough to consider sleeping here, and the meeting only took fifteen minutes. And that was only because Hunch brought us snacks.

“Hey,” Darren says, and I nod back at him.

Then I trip myself face first into the wall, and turn to look at him. “What the fuck are you doing here right now?”

He holds up a duffle bag. “Thought you might need a change of clothes.”

I laugh and run my hand through my once again wind-matted hair. “Really?”

He shrugs.

“Ironically enough, I needed to remember that on my own, today, for patrol,” I tell him.

He frowns at me. “What required plainclothes patrol?”

And then I pause, because, really, what’s the point of pretending we have any kind of security if we’re going to trust anyone we think is trustworthy? I mean, isn’t that how leaks happen in the first place? So even though Darren sure as hell isn’t a leak and wouldn’t say a word –

“For fuck’s sake, Travis, don’t tell me, then,” Darren says, “and stop giving me the whole ‘maybe I should break protocol’ look; I have no idea how you get read into anything.”

“You have the same clearance I do,” I mutter. Sullenly. And also maybe while pouting I don’t know for sure.

“Higher, actually,” Darren reminds me (smirking his ass off), “that doesn’t mean tell me what you’ve been explicitly told not to tell me.”

“It’s not actually very interesting,” I explain.

He shrugs. “I didn’t really expect it to be; night shift’s been quiet, but they’re not acting any smugger than usual.”

I make a face.

“Oh, don’t be that way,” Darren says, features schooled into seriousness, “the kids are still better than Sunspot, right? So be happy you can laugh at them instead of with them.”

“People are going to notice you’re here,” I tell him.

“Right, because I’ve never picked you up before,” he scoffs. “And anyway, I’m here still not again, so I’m pretty sure it’s not going to bother anyone.”

“Shit,” I say, “what are you working on?”

He grins at me so wide his teeth actually sparkle (or at least they get that sickly sheen under the fluorescent lights). “It’s not actually very interesting.”

“Fuck you, Darren,” I say.

Darren spreads his arms wide. “And that’s why I’m king of the tower. Because I didn’t even consider giving into your puppy-dog eyes.”

“I should be so lucky, your highness.” I don’t even laugh while I say it.

“Shut it, butthead,” he says, poking a finger into my nose, because he knows I’m laughing inside.

I raise an eyebrow, and then we’re both laughing, trying not to look each other in the eye because it just sets us off again. I take the duffle to my locker. At least now I’ll have a change of clothes the next time I forget.

“How are you so awake, anyway?” I ask.

“Nothing illegal,” he says, but kind of frowns while he does.

“Not illegal like not ever illegal,” I ask, “or not illegal like you have the paperwork for it?”

He frowns more grumpily at me.

“Not that interesting, right,” I say.

“Don’t think too hard about it; we’re just at a delicate stage of research,” Darren explains. “I’m not risking a crash out there on top of a skyscraper.”

“Hey, what do I know, I cut through a meth lab tonight,” I tell him.

He grins. “Not that interesting.”

“Well, nothing exploded,” I sigh, “alas.”

He continues to grin at me.

“Look, I don’t know what reasons you’re spinning in your head,” I grouch at him, “but you’re better off sticking to them, because once I explain you’ll be bored stupid.”

“I’ve actually decided you’re a secret agent,” Darren says, chuckling. “After some sort of spies with powers, so you’re pretending to be one of us while you’re in the city.”

“I feel like the case isn’t going that well, then,” I tell him. “Been here a while.”

Darren waves it off. “Maybe you’re on a different case, now, since there happened to be one in the area, I don’t know, the CIA must have more than one thing it’s supposed to be doing.”

I grin back at him. “And Edelstein isn’t on the team, why?”

“Well, I didn’t picture it being your whole team, just you,” Darren explains.

“Okay,” I agree, “but shouldn’t I at least be partnered with him?”

Darren looks at me like some sort of small animal that keeps walking into the same object over and over. “That would be too obvious.”

“Or would it?” I tap my finger to my chin. “No one would expect us to be that blatant.”

He crosses his arms and stares down his nose at me, eyes narrowed. “Something I should know about you and Edelstein, Agent Kuiper?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” I say, wide-eyed.

“You’d think you could at least call the man by his first name,” Darren says, shaking his head.

“Maybe he likes it when I call him ‘sir’,” I try to say with a straight face, but don’t quite manage.

“Awwww, no, Travis, no,” Darren says, covering his eyes, “too far, ugh, I’m never going to get that image out of my head now, thanks for that.”

“Sorry,” I say, but I’m not really sorry at all, and Darren flips me off.

“I was going to ask if you wanted to grab a bite to eat on the way home, but now I think I won’t,” Darren tells me, “especially if you’re going to give me more brain-bleach fodder.”

“Please, you’re the one who wants to eat,” I tell him.

He shoves his hands in his pockets. “How do you figure?”

“Uh-huh,” I tell him, “if you’ve got her on the team, you really shouldn’t have told me.”

His eyes widen.

I grin. “Maybe not so awake after all.”

“Oh, fuck you, Fox, no fair using your inside knowledge to weasel around security,” he whines.

I shrug. “Shouldn’t make me crash-sit every time, then.”

“Not until Sunday,” he says, with a sigh. “That’ll be fun times.”

I frown. “How long –”

“You know I can’t tell you,” Darren says, then relents. “Longer than a week, anyway, you know what that means.”

“Fuck,” I say.

“Tell me about it,” he says.

“I guess you’re not making it to the party,” I say.

“Oh, fuck me, don’t have a party,” Darren says, “you’re not having it at our place, are you?”

“No.” I give him a pointed look. “Not that kind of party, anyway. Birthday party.”

Darren frowns. “How much trouble am I going to be in for having forgot this one?”

“No one important,” I tell him. “Okay, shouldn’t say that, one of Hunch’s kids.”

Darren makes a gesture around chest height. “With the red hair? Baseball hat?”

“That’s the one,” I say, and don’t bother to specify his name, because Darren’s going to forget by Sunday, anyway, if he’s cogent enough to even be out then.

“None of my friends bother inviting me to their kids’ birthdays,” Darren says.

“All your friends’ kids are, like, two,” I say, “they barely even have parties.”

“I don’t know.” He tilts his head. “I thought that was what made you invite all your friends? Because the kid doesn’t care? Then you can all get drunk.”

“That sounds super responsible,” I deadpan.

He holds his finger up like he just had an idea. “Lightbulb! It’s because you’re a teetotaling asshole and they don’t want to risk my inviting you along. Or you inviting yourself along.”

“Yes, just because I’d like to not get hammered when I have a two-year-old to take care of, that makes me a total white ribbon killjoy.” I put my hands on my hips. Then I put them in my pockets, because what the fuck. “So what, now I’m fascist counterintelligence?”

A grin slowly spreads across his face again. “You know what you need? You need a drink.”

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