I feel tired. Well, it’s not that I feel tired, not that I want to go back to sleep or anything, not quite that fluishness or hangover-style not wanting to move around that much, not even feeling achy like I’ve overtaxed my muscles. I just don’t feel well-rested, and I wish there were more words in English.

Relevant ones, preferably.

Anyway, it’s times like this that I’m happy I can just shake off most of the symptoms, times when I have to be dealing with both Perry and Red. Times when I would like to be at my most alert but will, in a pinch, settle for my most awake, and just pray to all that is holy it will be enough.

I maybe need better taste in friends.

“What, you’re not going to arrest them?” Perry winks at me, picking salt off her pretzel.

I follow my gaze over to where she’s shaking her head, seeing nothing but a bunch of nerds in human-sized bird costumes talking to some kids who look maybe way less unnerved than they should be, but also like they’re super excited to learn. I roll the fuck out of my eyes. “I’m off duty.”

“What about you?” Perry asks Darren, who walks up to our table and sits down next to me, and also has no idea what she’s trying to intimate with subtle nods of the head.

Darren hands me my own pretzel, that I leave the salt on, because why would I ask for one with salt if I didn’t want salt, what would even be the point of that. “What about me what?”

“Are you going to arrest the wicked and disreputable bird-men?” she gasps, fluttering her eyelashes and making some sort of stylized swooning gesture.

Priscilla snorts.

“The Parliament?” Darren asks, glancing over and seeing literally the exact same thing I saw, because it’s been like three seconds, and thinking the exact same thing, too, I can tell, because he’s making the same expression, “why, what are they doing now?”

“Eggs, today, I think,” Priscilla says, taking a dainty nibble of her pretzel that she got made without salt if she fucking wanted it that way, “or, at least, they’re handing out little bits of eggshell along with all the stickers.”

Walker sets down his lemonade and tears his pretzel in half. “What stickers?” He got salt, too, but I don’t think he cares. If he didn’t want salt, he would probably just eat the salt anyway. Actually, if he did want salt and hadn’t gotten any, he probably wouldn’t notice until he’d already finished eating the entire pretzel, but he damn well wouldn’t peel it off.

“Bird stickers,” Priscilla says, at the same time Perry says, “say, you could arrest them.”

Walker glances over, at still the same not remotely dubious or illicit scene, raises an eyebrow, and says, “oh, hey, I’m just some shmuck from out of state. I don’t know about your weird bird-gangs.”

“For some reason, Perry really wants to take The Parliament down,” I tell him.

She throws a grain of salt at me. “You’re the one who said they were vigilantes.”

“I said they were classed as vigilantes,” I say, and then chew on my pretzel, because, I mean the classification system is like 75% bullshit anyway.

She laughs uproariously at that. I wonder if she’s been drinking, I really do.

“For the record, I’m against classing them as criminals,” Darren says, sliding his Sprite over to her, “but to be fair to everyone who does, those costumes are pure nightmare fuel.”

Priscilla purses her mouth skeptically. “That’s just Maggie the Magpie and Rocky the Rook; the kids love them all dearly and you ain’t hauling them off in chains while I live and breathe, mister.”

“I wasn’t hauling them off at all,” I mutter into my own drink, which seems to be just a whole bunch of different things mixed together, I can’t even tell what that is, and I’m no longer letting Perry decide what drinks will go with our food, I mean this might even be spiked, Darren and Walker agreeing.

Priscilla nods sharply. “Fucking A you weren’t.”

Perry glances behind her again. I don’t know what she sees, but I’m still chalking this one up to some kind of alcohol madness. “Do you think we could get them to do a show or something?”

“A show,” Darren repeats. “You want to expose even more children to whatever those costumes are meant to represent, honestly, I don’t know, I feel like we need a lot of big literary words here.”

“Dark Double comes to mind,” Walker says, “also, Death Drive.”

“I’m pretty sure those aren’t relevant,” I tell him.

“I didn’t say they were,” Walker agrees, with a shrug, fixing the birds centered between his hands, like he’s framing a picture, “I have no idea what’s up with those guys any more than Darren does, but I sure as fuck would cross the street, you know?”

“Well, really,” Priscilla says. “They are just bird mascots for an education initiative.”

“Edutainment,” Darren says, “the key word is edutainment.”

“Why is that the key word?” I ask, but Perry interrupts me with, “edutainment is always evil.”

“Staying out of this fight,” Walker says, shaking his head and stuffing the entire rest of his pretzel in his mouth at once, which is about half a pretzel, and is gross.

Priscilla and I share a Look. Not about Walker, I mean, about whether edutainment is evil. Or maybe about whether the Parliament is evil, actually, I’m not sure. Maybe it is about Walker. I’m not following any of these conversations anymore.

“At least they’re not the PLC, though,” Darren says, and I smack myself in the face.

“Why them?” Walker says, at the same time I’m either thinking or chanting the word no repeatedly, not that it helps any.

“Foxie ran into Klepto,” Perry happily informs him.

“You should get a dog,” Walker tells me, to Perry’s ecstatic display of his advice with her outstretched hand like a game show host. Who says she’s better behind the camera?

Also, how the fuck did Red not already hear about that, because it’s not like it wasn’t wildfiring through the building on Friday.

“Dog?” Darren says, and I actually can’t believe I’m about to have this conversation again.

prev | next


Hello to you too, Paragon

“Holy Fuck,” Paragon says, when I answer the phone.

“Uh, hello to you too, Paragon,” I say.

“Put me up on the computer,” Paragon says.

I stare daggers at the phone, while he still can’t see me, but I head over to the computer and pull the call up there, anyway.

Paragon just stares at me for a while.

“Okay, did this have a point, or…?” I shake my head at him.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” Paragon says. With a glare. And he stares at me some more. Tilting his head a little.

“Are you seeing anything besides me being alive and only mildly injured,” I ask him, “because I think that’s enough staring for now.”

“Yes,” Paragon says.

“You say that,” I tell him, “but you’re still staring.”

Paragon’s gaze drifts back to mine. “No, I mean, yes, I’m seeing something besides your aliveness and your relative good health.”

“You are,” I say.

Paragon nods. “I have this giant screen, right, I can see your heart rate and, like, your musculature, and did you know there’s a hairline fracture in your jaw?”

“I did,” I tell him, “it’s healed more on the inside than it looks like from your view, probably.”

Paragon grimaces slightly. “Yeah, other people’s powers kind of fuck with what I’m looking at here, I mean, I can’t even get a look at – has someone been rummaging around in your brain?”

“Manipulative Bitch,” I say.

Paragon looks affronted for a second, then says, “well, now I can’t make sure Klepto didn’t do anything, so thank her for me, will you?”

I really won’t.

“And stand back a little,” he adds.

I do.

“No lasting damage, anyway,” Paragon relents, “no spots where nasty little extranormal surprises are waiting for you.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t look through my brain like that,” I tell him.

Paragon huffs. “It’s not like I can see what you’re thinking. It’s practically the same scan they gave you when they checked you over, only, you know, better.”

“Sure,” I agree, “better.”

“I didn’t look over your medical file or anything,” Paragon reassures me, and now I’m kind of worried that he did, “but I have this. You know. Sentient computer robot entity.”

“Sentient computer robot entity,” I repeat. I feel like this conversation is even less normal than the other conversations I’ve had with this dude.

“She’s calls herself SAL,” Paragon says. “I don’t really know how to describe her.”

“Okay,” I say, “moving on.”

“Moving on,” Paragon agrees, “what updates have you added to your home security?”

Oh my fucking god, people, what the hell. “Are you going to tell me to get a dog?”

“A dog?” Paragon looks confused. “No, I was going to tell you to add some sort of field neutralizers into the walls or something.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” I tell him, “I already have those.”

“Huh,” Paragon says. “You know they have to be always on, or it’s potentially illegal? Do you live near anyone with regenerative powers?”

“They turn on automatically,” I assure him, “they turn on automatically if you breach any of the entrances, and yes, Paragon, I did, in fact, know that.”

“I’m just saying,” Paragon huffs. “What’s the response time on your alarm system?”

“Twenty-seven seconds,” I tell him.

His eyes go wide.

“Fast enough?” I ask.

“That’s,” Paragon says, “um.”

“Yes,” I agree, “I pay a premium for my health and safety. There’s a virtual tour of my apartment with coordinates and everything.”

“Okay,” Paragon says. “I was just going to offer to get you an emergency injector or something because we have, like, so many extras.”

“I would rather not risk the lawsuit on that one,” I tell him.

“Or the charges,” Paragon says, rolling his eyes, “I heard he has good lawyers.”

“I have not heard that,” I tell him.

“I don’t know if it’s true,” Paragon backtracks. “I just heard they had a couple of warrants for a while, and then, poof, gone.”

“Okay,” I say. “I mean there are a lot of things in his file that could account for that.”

“Oh, you mean, where he has regular access to memetic powers?” Paragon says, “or the thing where he’s probably got a guy on the inside or an astral projector or who knows what?”

I stare at him for a minute.

“Look, this guy killed his lieutenants,” Paragon tells me, “I would watch out.”

“He what?” I ask.

“The latest one’s been missing for a while now,” Paragon says, “and I would place good money on the idea that it’s because he wasn’t up to Klepto’s standards.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Klepto is bad news, Teke,” Paragon says. “He is bad news.”

I nod solemnly at him.

“Hey, do we still have any frosted flakes,” Darren asks, walking up behind me, “oh, hey, Paragon. How’s the boring part of the country?”

“Pretty steady on the dastardly fiend count,” Paragon says. “And we’ve only got the one dastardly mastermind, who’s laying low until the trial.”

“So, keeping busy?” Darren asks.

Paragon shrugs. “I have a lot of homework, so it works out okay.”

Darren offers him a thumbs up and turns back to me.

“They’re in the container with the orange lid,” I tell him. “Top shelf.”

Darren waves bye to Paragon, who waves back.

“Was it a setup?” Paragon asks.

I stare at him. “The cereal?”

Paragon rolls his eyes. “You. Line of fire. Kids involved, tragic sacrifice, whatever.”

“He ran away,” I tell Paragon, who frowns.

“Klepto ran away,” he repeats.

I shrug.

“He doesn’t run away,” Paragon says, “he doesn’t run away unless you play mind games with him, or defeat him in some sort of noble contest of skill. Did you play mind games with him?”

I laugh. “What, I couldn’t beat him at chess or something?”

“Well, not at chess, no,” Paragon says, “he’s ranked really high, there’s whole conspiracy websites about it, did you challenge him to single combat or something?”

“Does that work?” I ask.

Paragon shrugs. “I don’t know, he’s got this whole honor-among-thieves chivalry and valor thing going on, and he will hella leave after first blood if you challenge him to it.”

“That’s good to know,” I say.

“But also he’ll probably win, though,” Paragon says. “He usually wins.”

“Also good to know,” I say.

“If you’re going to challenge him,” Paragon says, “challenge him to that shooting arrows through hoops thing; he has really bad aim.”

I sigh.

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Brain Scan

I open the door to invite two people in, both in business casual. The man is some generic white guy with close-cropped hair and an expression of concentration who I swear looks exactly like the action figures. The familiar-looking woman seems bored, has her black hair in a long and precise braid, and is carrying an elaborately locked briefcase, and, oh, yeah, has a dark green ribbon around her neck. She relaxes when I notice it.

I don’t, because the thing about telepaths is that, upon meeting them, you immediately think of all the things you would least like them to know.

“Hi,” she says, with a gentle smile, holding out her hand. “I’m Manipulative Bitch.”

I immediately think of all the things I would least like her to know.

She laughs a little. “Relax. I have seen way worse, believe me.”

I shake her hand. “Hi. Teke, Travis, or Fox. You’re here about Klepto?”

The man leans in slightly and I lean back reflexively, but offer him my hand, too.

“This is Aquamarine,” Manipulative Bitch says. “He’s here to take notes.”

“I’m sure that will be amazingly helpful,” I say. Which, wow. There’s nothing like a telepath to make you not watch what comes out of your fucking mouth.

Aquamarine scowls at me. And don’t think I didn’t notice he doesn’t want me to know his real name. With the scowl on, he looks barely twenty, and I wonder if ‘man’ isn’t exactly the accurate term, and it isn’t at all helped by the fact that his shoes look too shiny to have been worn more than a couple times, and his shirt looks almost like he’s playing dress up in someone bigger’s clothes.

“Just tell us what you know about him,” Aquamarine says.

“I’ve already been debriefed, like, four times,” I tell him. “Can’t you just read the notes?”

Aquamarine makes some sort of sound of frustration and looks even younger.

Manipulative Bitch sighs. “I’m mostly here to see if he’s left any presents inside your brain. Especially anything on a time delay. Now relax, or this might hurt.”

“Hurt,” I repeat, with an incredulous look.

“Hurt,” she agrees. “Anyone with any ESP has the potential to feel what’s going on while I sort through your thoughts, and you’ve never done this before, so I don’t know if you will.”

Aquamarine looks at her with a triumphant sort of grin. “You’re not supposed to reveal information like that. Where’s your mandated confidentiality now?”

“Shut it, dumbass,” Manipulative Bitch says, “I let you come here as a favor. If you don’t know all TK comes with at least some ESP, that is not my problem.”

Aquamarine scowls at both of us.

“Relax,” Manipulative Bitch reminds me. “Also, feel free to call me Amanda.”

I try to relax while Amanda pulls out a sheaf of papers and starts ticking things off.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” she adds, “I’m very good at keeping secrets.”

“Ha,” Aquamarine says, “has he been doing something illegal?”

Amanda gives him a disparaging look.

Aquamarine crosses his arms. “You should really say something if people are doing something illegal, you know.”

“And I certainly will, if I’m subpoenaed on the topic,” Amanda says.

I try really hard not to flinch at that, and also not to think of any unregistered technopaths or memetics I know or even suspect.

Amanda rolls her eyes at me.

Then there’s a weird sort of swishing sensation as thoughts roll through my head. Starting out with my encounter with Klepto, which Amanda dutifully explicates (leaving aside anything I might have been thinking or feeling at the time), moving on to everything that’s happened since then, and then backwards through my memories, almost at random. I wonder if she’ll be looking into Darren’s memories for corroboration as long as she’s here, and there’s a sort of slight affirmation. And a sense she’ll be looking through other people’s memories, too.

“I haven’t gotten to any of the kids, yet,” she tells me, once she’s done. “They thought you were the best bet, and they wanted me to make sure of that first off.”

“And?” I ask.

She grins at me. “You’re fine, Teke, Travis, or Fox.”

Aquamarine looks a little disappointed. “No ticking time bombs? No false memories or implanted suggestions? They weren’t secretly colluding or something?”

“For fuck’s sake, what’s your problem, dude?” I ask him.

He glares at me. “Maybe I don’t like Klepto, did you ever think of that?”

I scoff. “I don’t think anyone likes him. I mean, he’s some asshole supervillain.”

“Maybe I don’t like him more than most,” Aquamarine says. “Maybe he blew up my friend one time. Maybe I was out of commission for years because of him.”

“Nothing,” Amanda says. “Nothing in there. Clean as a whistle.”

She locks her papers back in her briefcase. Then she asks to see Darren and we kind of wait awkwardly for a couple minutes until he comes home, which is a relief, because it could’ve been a lot longer than that. He’s not particularly surprised – he did set up a whole bunch of security measures yesterday – and he goes off to…be interviewed, I guess is the best way to put it.

Aquamarine stares at me.

I stare back at him. “What?”

“What do you know about him?” he asks.

“What, Klepto?” I say, “he’s afraid of dogs.”

Aquamarine scrunches up his face. “He’s afraid of dogs? Why is he afraid of dogs?”

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “People on the internet tabulate information about his movements and actions and whatever, and they say he’s afraid of dogs.”

“Dogs,” Aquamarine repeats, thoughtfully.

I nod in agreement.

“Where on the internet?” Aquamarine asks.

I reluctantly – not that reluctantly, since it’s basically just forwarding one of Perry’s emails – send him the list of links. Hopefully that will help. Or make him leave me alone, anyway.

Amanda returns to the living room, shaking Darren’s hand, and gesturing for Aquamarine to follow her, then more handshaking all around.

“You good?” Darren asks me.

I nod.

Amanda grins. “Clean bill of health. Do you want a sticker?”

I kind of do want a sticker.

Amanda pats one onto my chest. It has an official crest and everything.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Oh, and send me that link when you get a chance,” Amanda tells me, with a wink. “That sounds fucking hilarious.”

One of the things I least wanted her to know is that there’s this fansite where people ship Teke and Manipulative Bitch.

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Cheese Toasties

Jenny stares dubiously at Cheese Toasties, who gives a tentative tail wag. They’re standing about three feet apart, just sizing each other up. It’s about the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.

“Is she just going to stand there all day?” Chelsea whispers to me.

“She’s never met a dog before,” I whisper back.

“Ever?” Chelsea incredulously almost doesn’t whisper.

I nod.

Chelsea holds her hand over her mouth to prevent either laughter or d’awwing, I’m not sure which. She blinks slightly, takes a deep breath, and adds, “she’s doing pretty well, then.”

Half-frowning at the beagle, Jenny slowly reaches out a hand. Cheese Toasties licks it, and Jenny makes a disgusted face. She doesn’t move away or anything, just stares, horrified, at the dog, who’s now wagging his tail in earnest, repeatedly licking her hand.

“Um, hello,” Jenny says.

Cheese Toasties makes a sort of ‘boof’ sound. Or maybe a ‘hoomph’.

“Cheese Toasties, shake,” Chelsea says.

Cheese Toasties obligingly holds out a paw for shaking.

Jenny greets him awkwardly. “Um, good wolf. Good wolfie. That’s a nice wolf.”

Cheese Toasties licks her again.

Ursula falls out of a tree cackling, because apparently she can’t keep herself perched up there when there’s something this funny to fall/float towards. I wonder how long she’s been there and if maybe I should be at least a little surprised.

“So,” Jenny says to her, “I met a dog.”

Ursula, still laughing, offers her hand up for a hi-five.

“Congratulations,” Chelsea mutters to me, still uncertain about the whole thing.

I figure a trained dog is a lot better than a pet dog, though. With an excited yip followed by a tongue loll and a lot of panting, Cheese Toasties runs straight into my leg. Then licks it. Then makes a face, and goes inside.

“Nice to see you, too, Cheese Toasties,” I say, following the dog into the house, where he comes back to greet me again, this time dribbling water onto my shoe. I give his scruff a scratch.

“So that’s a wolf,” Jenny says, sitting down at the table. “I mean, a pet wolf. A dog.”

Ursula snickers again, and then says carefully, “you did a good job, hon. Very brave.”

Jenny glares at her.

“You can give him commands,” Chelsea says. “If that would make you feel more comfortable with him, I mean. He’ll sit or beg or roll over for you.”

Jenny screws up her mouth again, staring for a while. Finally, she says, “Cheese Toasties, sit.”

Cheese Toasties sits. On my foot. He’s not very heavy, so it doesn’t bother me, but I can’t imagine it’s all that comfortable for him.

“No,” Jenny says, amused, and points in front of her, “no, sit here.”

Surprisingly, the beagle actually wanders over to her and sits in front of her. She starts patting his head. Extremely carefully, and with only a small amount of enthusiasm, but she pets him. Ursula gives him ear scritchies, and he seems pretty happy with that.

Chelsea laughs, almost spilling her tea. “Yeah, I wouldn’t expect that to work on all dogs. We’ve been training this pup to follow pointing commands.”

“Who’s a smart doggie?” Ursula asks, “who is? Cheese Toasties is!”

Cheese Toasties yips.

“Pointing?” I repeat, “what for?”

“Well, usually for if we can hear something and don’t want to risk losing track of it,” Chelsea says, “but it also works when it’s really loud and someone’s afraid of dogs.”

“Afraid of dogs,” Jenny mutters, “that’s hippie-talk. Who would ever be afraid of, you know, a carnivorous apex predator that lives in your house?”

“It’s okay,” Chelsea says, with a sympathetic nod, “Cheese Toasties only eats fish.”

I laugh, especially at the head turn at hearing his name, and then the perked ear at ‘fish’.

“And processed fish at that,” Chelsea adds, to the other ear perking, “so you can rest assured you’re not in his sights as a potential meal.”

Jenny blinks and clears her throat. “Do they actually eat fish, too, or are you fucking with me?”

“What?” Chelsea says. “Yes, they do. I mean, it’s not usually most of their diet, the pup’s on a special diet, but yes, why wouldn’t they?”

Jenny makes a noise of consternation and pets Cheese Toasties with more assurance.

“I heard something like a third of search dogs are extranormal,” Ursula says.

Jenny shakes her head. “Kitty, are you asking if the, uh, the beagle has powers?”

“Yes,” Chelsea says, refilling their cups. “I mean, no, not a third, it’s closer to a sixth, and even then, not quite, but yes, he does.”

“Aw, he’s a superdog, yes he is,” Ursula says, flapping his ear again. “Where’d he get it?”

“Natural outgrowth of the training, near as we can tell,” Chelsea says, with a shrug, seamlessly handing me a lint roller as Cheese Toasties runs back over to me and jumps into my lap.

I sigh, accepting the lint roller and hoping all the hairs will stick to it, once I get Cheese Toasties off my lap. He sighs happily and drops his head onto his paws as I pet him. I think he’s fallen asleep, because his paws twitch occasionally. Then he starts snoring.

Jenny and Ursula are both laughing now. Chelsea is very stoically holding the teapot poised above my mug and asking if I’d like more tea. I grin as I nod. Ursula takes a picture.

“So did you just sneak after Jenny to see how she’d react to a dog,” I ask her, “or did she invite you here, and you decided to burst out of the trees for a different reason?”

Ursula looks at me for a beat, then turns to Chelsea. “What powers?”

“Oh, he can track five separate scents at once without getting confused,” Chelsea says, “it’s great for following multiple people, especially if the trail is patchy.”

“Oh, hey, I have that,” Jenny says.

Chelsea looks at her, looks at me to see if she’s joking, to which I have absolutely no response, and says, “you can smell people?”

Actually, Ursula’s staring at her incredulously, too.

“No,” Jenny says, with a laugh, “I mean, I can keep track of several different trails at a time. When I’m following people. I can look for, you know, separate clues. At once.”

At that, both Ursula and I nod, and Chelsea shrugs, handing around tea cakes.

prev | next


“Travis,” Perry says, and throws her arms around me.

I hug her back. “You didn’t have to cut your trip short, you know.”

“Are you kidding me?” Perry snorts. “You run into that maniac and you expect me to, what, just, oh, la-dee-da, I’m sure he’s alright.”

“I sent you a message,” I protest.

“Yeah,” Perry agrees, “you sent me a single text message that said the word ‘fine’ in all lower-case with no punctuation, and you never responded to the follow-up message.”

“Sorry,” I say.

Perry throws her hands in the air. “I had to ask Darren what the hell had happened when he sent out the safety guidelines, and he didn’t even fucking know!”

“So,” I say, “coffee?”

Perry sighs. “Yes, fine, Travis, fine. Coffee.”

We order our usuals, while Perry keeps giving me sidelong looks. Constantly. Over and over again. I shuffle quickly out of the way (to get my coffee), hoping she’ll give up staring all anxiously in the time it takes me to get over to a table. I take a sip of my drink, but no, she’s still looking. Now she’s kind of frowning while she side-eyes me, too.

The cap slips as I pry it off to add sugar, and I catch it before it falls to the ground.

“Freak,” someone says.

I snatch the lid out of the air and press it down with my fingers. When I turn, whoever it was is standing right in front of me, very much in my personal space, glaring right at me.

“I can’t even believe they’d just give you food.” Eyes boring into me that hard seem like they should be red or on fire or something. They’re just sort of…brown.

Then the coffee comes tumbling out of my hands. I’m not even sure if it’s shock or an attempt at de-escalation or I just don’t want that hand passing through my awareness again, but I draw my field in tight and the coffee crashes to the floor while the entire room just stares at me uncomfortably.

A quirk of the lips, that ‘what are you going to do about it’ expression. I brace my feet apart, fingers itching for my gun, field twitching toward it. I’m not going to pull it, not in a room full of random people, not even if this asshole turns out to have one, there’s no threat, nothing is happening right now, it’s fine, it’s all fine, and damn it Travis you do not need your gun.

Perry comes to my rescue, long moments of tense silence later. “Hey, fuckface, how about you fuck off and leave NORMAL people to their NORMAL lives.”

Mostly people are looking away at this point, a few interested, sympathetic, or judgmental grins aimed at the three of us, but nobody jumps to the douche’s defense, and one huffy storm-off later, everything is back to normal. My coffee is all over the floor, but people are not paying attention – or ‘not’ paying attention – to it anymore.

“Fuck,” I say, wondering if the stain splashing up my leg is going to set.

“In San Salvador, really?” Perry mutters next to me, shaking her head.

The barista inhales sharply and pulls her hand back when I go to hand over my card, but she takes my order. I consider asking for extra syrup this time, but someone’s already rushing to make it, and he shoves it across the counter at me without even calling my name. I pick it up and take a sip.

Whatever, there’s enough sugar. “You want to take a walk?”

Perry shrugs as I step outside.

“So, you know a lot about the whole Klepto thing,” I say.

“Thing?” Perry repeats. “I literally have no idea what you mean by ‘thing’.”

“You know about him,” I abstract.

Perry laughs at me. “You have the official files. What, you want fan theories?”

“He didn’t attack us,” I say.

Perry points at my face.

I shake my head. “He distracted us, and he ran away.”

Perry bites her lip. “Well, there’s one.”

“Please,” I say, “by all means, keep me in suspense.”

“Well, there’s this theory.” Perry shrugs. “He doesn’t hurt kids.”

I frown at her.

Perry waves me off. “Okay, so, we have none of the diabolical kidnapping of schoolbusses amidst maniacal laughter, that could just be PR, whatever.”

“Sure, as far as I know, he’s never attacked a kid,” I say, “why was he after us, then?”

“Keep you on your toes?” Perry says, “or else he’s after you in particular, but it’s probably just a coincidence. Anyway, he seems to avoid interacting with, you know, interns and junior agents and new agents, and stuff. To, you know, not look like an asshole, I guess.”

“A coincidence,” I repeat. “You think it was a coincidence.”

“Look, he has to go into the city for supplies or whatever sometimes, right?” Perry asks.

I take a sip of my coffee and consider that. “Does he, though?”

“What, does he have a whole bunch of teleporters working for him just stealing all the things he needs day to day?” Perry asks.

I consider that, too.

Perry sputters. “Really?”

I shrug. “He’s got a lot of people who obscure any kind of location-tracking, anyway; I’d expect a lot of those can do something in the way of moving supplies around.”

“I have the power of SUMMONING MILK,” Perry says, with a cackle.

“He wasn’t carrying groceries,” I tell her.

“He was probably on the way to the store, Travis,” Perry says.

“Or he’s after me, specifically,” I say.

“Yeah,” Perry agrees, “watch your back.”

“Thank you, Perry, I don’t know what I would do without your sage advice.” I clink my coffee cup against hers.

She scowls. “I’m upgrading your alarm system and buying you a dog.”

“Good luck with that,” I say, “my security system already has the fastest response time in the city, and you know I have an agency transponder built into every exit.”

She pokes me in the chest. “Dog.”

I poke her in the nose. “Allergies.”

“Fuck allergies, what good are allergies if you’re going to be stalked by some insane supervillain with a penchant for torturing people with their own powers?” Perry says.

“I don’t think allergies are ever any good for anything,” I say. “And I don’t think a guard dog is helpful if you’re just going to go into anaphylactic shock, anyway.”

“He’s afraid of dogs,” Perry says.

“Klepto’s afraid of dogs,” I repeat.

“Well, I don’t know, he always runs away from K-9 units, doesn’t he?” Perry says.

“What, really? Why?” I ask.

Perry gives me a Look.

“Okay,” I say, “fine, he’s afraid of dogs. That still doesn’t do me much good.”

Perry sighs in frustration. “Fine. Whatever. No dog. We’ll get you one of those little barking robot toys, maybe that’ll act as a deterrent.”

“Sure,” I agree. I think Darren already has one of those, actually.

“So, guess who wants to be in my movie?” Perry says, with a grin.

“Apogee,” I say.

“Zenith, Warrior Princess,” Perry says at the same time, and then glares at me, “hey, fuck you.”

“I was the one who gave her your email, Perry,” I say.

Perry grins at me again. “Alright, forgiven. We’re going to win so many prizes or make so much money on this.”

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Case File: Just Say Normal – recent incidents

A bunch of the local public schools are buying into their most recent scam. We can’t touch any of the charters – the old bill is still in effect – but most of them aren’t going all out anyway. The private schools going along with this have claimed religious exemption; most of the public schools have been trying something along the same lines (really???). They’re mostly in the same area, so populations are low, but keep in mind you can’t escort any of the kids to school unless you stick with them all day (liability reasons). Some lawyers are pro bono’ing petitions to change schools and some social workers are checking things out; you can go with them if they need protection and you’re free to leave whenever they dismiss you.

The thing with the statue (click here to sign the petition to keep it)

The thing with the other statue (the horse one) (click for incident report)

Convenience store robbery (alleged) (click for incident report)

They’ve managed to file an injunction against three separate clinics and one hospital not to X-test newborns. Because that will stop them from ever getting powers. Keep in mind, this is in addition to getting the bill passed about testing not being a routine part of physicals, and now insurance won’t cover it unless you can prove a likely ‘inciting incident’, even if it’s already been determined that someone has powers. (link removed) (link removed) (click here to donate to the Extranormal Testing and Education Fund) (link removed) (click here to subsidize X-tests for newborns)

Museum arson (click for incident report) (FBI says they don’t like them for it) (we don’t like them for it either – patterns) (Addendum: hey, if these morons want to go to jail over something they didn’t even do, I’ll take their confessions)

Speech we’re keeping on file because you know it’s going to come up at a murder trial at some point (click for video) (click for transcript) (click to volunteer for surveillance detail) (Addendum: is it really hate speech though?) (Addendum: click for proof of why, yes, it is hate speech) (Addendum: watch the video again, actual threats at 2:21 and 9:43) (Addendum: and 16:55)

The thing where they push the little girl into the puddle – is anyone pressing charges for this? Have we identified her? (click for video)

Vandalism (car) (see incident report)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Harassment (see list)

Stalking (see list) (see class action) (add yourself to the class action) (I know this one’s not going to go through, either, but the look on their faces is priceless)

The ‘licensed’ demonstration where we couldn’t arrest their asses for obstructing traffic because it looks like it has a political motivation. (Oh, but see corresponding incident reports for, let’s see, assault, assault, assault, assault on an officer, and this guy punched a dog WTF) Also, are we establishing a presence at the special needs school once it opens again? (Addendum: you guys are overreacting, none of them were even injured) (Addendum: “special needs school”) (Addendum: the look on the dog’s face, though) (Addendum: dog okay confirmed) (Addendum: Oh? Where’s our ‘kids okay confirmed’? Note: all three kids are fine, Detective Keller is also fine, Agent Keller wants to know why you none of you care about his broken arm OR his brother)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Vandalism (store) (see incident report)

Assault (see incident report)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Assault (see incident report)

Sexual assault (see incident report) (Note: disavowed, and he’s chosen to step down “while this heinous allegation is being investigated”) (Addendum: yeah, but you know their platform) (Addendum: they managed to add the hate crime charge) (Addendum: I wish they hadn’t. They’ll never get a conviction now) (Addendum: can’t be that hard to prove he’s a bigot) (Addendum: who cares as long as we’ve got his DNA? I promise you he’s going to solve at least a dozen cases for us)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Vandalism (cars) (see list) (see incident report)

Theft (some paperweight thing with historical significance?) (see incident report)

Fraud (see incident report) (this was the pyramid scheme – updated)

Fraud (see incident report) (this is incorporating as a non-profit; look out for a ‘change in leadership’ any time now)

Fraud (this is them claiming they can lay on hands and fix people) (Addendum: not actually illegal) (Addendum: since when is assault and child abuse not illegal) (Addendum: imagine if the people who do it are actually mirrors tho) (link removed) Related: what are they doing with all those latents – are they telling them they can prevent them from manifesting or something?

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Thing with the duck (see video) (see incident report) (see final report from Fish and Wildlife)

Unlawful recordings (see incident report) (see related incidents)

Unlawful use of powers (see incident report) (bet the kid had fun explaining that one) (Addendum: no joke – see incident report) (click for fund)

Kidnapping (three counts) (see incident report) (see kidnappings w/ similar MO)

Vandalism (church/school) (see incident report)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Vandalism (statues) (see incident report)

Naked drunk guy yelling (see incident report) (see video) (see autotuned video) (see dance remix) (see remix with clips of Weathervane looking horrified)

Selling CDs (see incident report) (Addendum: hope you busted their asses) (Addendum: Plead out, got community service) (Addendum: operating unlicensed should be allowed to be a hate crime) (Addendum: their music would be a hate crime even if you took out the lyrics)

Okay, a couple of them have been caught out infiltrating that support group, so now it’s down to an actual blood test for membership to prove you’re at least a latent, plus they have at least one memetic on site asking if your motivations are sound, and I hope we’re posting a couple of guys because that shit is ripe to turn into a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Addendum: shit, they have a mirror now, sensing people out, and she can tell what kind you have, fyi in case anyone used that group; also, they caught the other one

Bullying latents into signing that vow that they’ll never get (or use? Not sure Note: who could even tell Note: who cares the shit that goes through their minds it’ll never make sense) powers. Some of these kids are barely old enough to know how to write their names. (Addendum: sending someone out after the adopted/foster kids, but not much else we can do) (Addendum: there’s a lawyer who’s up for custody disputes with any of those kids) (link removed) There seems to be some sort of class or classes they can sign up for while they’re there, and the kids keep going back 3x weekly.

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Petition to make all powers public record (for the love of god, go out and vote, people)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Vandalism (car) (see incident report)

Vandalism (house) (see incident report)

Vandalism (fountain) (see incident report)

Assault (see incident report)

Giant inflatable dildo (see video) (Addendum: not actually in any way illegal or relating to anything that is or might be illegal, and also not their dildo) (Addendum: hilarious though) (Addendum: not so! See threatening letter) (Addendum: god, I can’t believe this is actually evidence of something)

Theft (car) (also vandalism of same car) (see incident report)

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FiendPuncher meets us in medical, arms crossed, looking furious. “Apparently I’m the only one smart enough to actually run from one of the most terrifying people in the city.”

Jailbait flips her off. “I was actually helping. Thanks for making us look bad.”

“It all just happened so fast,” Caffeine says, with a shit-eating grin.

Their teammates are busy getting treated, and both just groan at us from beds on the opposite side of the room.

“Twice in one day?” Time says, “really, Travis.”

She looks over the scrape and cut on my cheek, but doesn’t do anything to it. I really wish I’d gotten someone whose powers didn’t interact with hers. My cheek feels like a branding iron.

“Next time,” Psybeam says, quietly, almost into my ear, “we should go over evacuation procedures or something.”

Next time, I think I’m going to literally inject the kids with beacons, and make them carry extras, and get someone to sign me out an emergency teleport for each and every one of them.

“Whoa,” Caffeine says, “when did you get here?”

Jailbait looks at him quizzically, too.

“I brought him,” FiendPuncher grits out. “I thought this was obvious. The people who can move fast move fast and carry along whoever they can with them.”

“Huh,” Caffeine says. “I guess.”

“Enigma Machine can move at almost 100 miles per hour, and can carry at least one person while doing it,” FiendPuncher hisses, “and you, you can move how fast?”

Caffeine shrugs.

“Well, let’s say faster than that, anyway, and I doubt it would slow you down all that much to carry someone,” she spits.

“Can’t,” Caffeine says, shrugging again.

“Can’t?” FiendPuncher snaps.

Caffeine shrugs again. “I can’t take anyone else with me. Not allowed.”

“You’re not rated to take anyone with you, Caffeine,” I grumble, “are you seriously saying you’re going to adhere to that in a fucking emergency?”

“Didn’t see you doing anything,” he tells me.

I put a hand to my head, and let the kids go back to fighting each other.

Of course, I get debriefed by no less than three separate people, and I’m sure more will show up later, or over the weekend, or on Monday.

And, of course, the good doctor demands I see him at my earliest convenience.

And, of course, the rumor mill is up and running, and I have no idea how many times I say I’m fine, but it is a lot, and it is to a lot of people. Including people I have not seen nor talked to in years. Not including my parents, fortunately, although yes including my uncle, who I kind of have to beg not to tell them. And send photographic proof that I’m only mildly injured. And also he’s pulled the incident report and the medical report (on the kids, not that he didn’t try to pull mine).

Who are fine, as it turns out, shaken up, but fine. Playing checkers in the gym with Dr. Skye. Hunch comes by to turn on that little feed for me while I wait in administrative purgatory.

Saint comes by to refresh the patch on my cheek, grumbling about how even if it doesn’t bother me I’m still setting a pretty bad example. It goes numb.

Sensei Domino comes by to ask me if I want him to take over training for a little while, if the kids are even going to show up next week, because I can always tell them to take some time off, and should do it myself if I need to. I decline. Then he sits with me for a while, dealing out a couple hands of cards. Vector is playing, too, and Bartok. I think we play Gin.

Or maybe Go Fish. I don’t know.

Eventually, some little machine in the corner beeps and I drop all my cards in my lap and curse and try to catch my breath. I guess I’m not a memetic hazard, though.

Someone tells me this weekend someone else will be dropping by to comb through my head.

Someone hands me a cup of coffee.

Someone warns me about upping my security measures at home for the time being.

Someone gives me a ride.

Darren’s at the door supporting me once I get there, already having gotten the updated threat level, already having set up the extra precautions, already having checked to see that I was okay, and, I assume, sent the necessary messages to friends and relatives about being careful. I wonder if he texted me. Or called. Or emailed. I hope I mentioned to him that I was fine.

“Travis?” Darren says, again, and I nod at him, and my head hits the pillow.

I’m asleep within minutes.

I dream of Klepto singing nursery rhymes, counting rhymes as he points to body after body. I recognize the gravesite, I’ve seen enough pictures. The bodies don’t look like bodies, though, they look like little zombie dolls blown up to life size, and sometimes they grin and sing along. I shoot them and shoot them but they don’t go quiet or stop laughing and I realize that I’m aiming wrong but I can’t remember where I’m supposed to hit, the head or the heart.

I wake up crying in the middle of the night and it takes Darren sitting through almost the entirety of Night of the Living Dead with me before I can go back to sleep, and even then only after tea and then soup and then cocoa and only because he threatens to call Dr. Waters.

And only because he stirred a sleeping pill into the cocoa and led me back to bed.

I wake up late on Saturday and can only remember dreaming about whales.

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This is just fucking awesome.

“Run,” I say.

And then I repeat it louder because I have no idea whether I whispered it or what, but they weren’t moving, and now they are. Now they’re scrambling all over each other, falling, and I extend my field out to steady them – I really hate having whole people running around in my field but they’re my kids what am I supposed to do – and I can feel one or more of them send blasts of power his way. Not Gatling, not Enigma, because you can tell what bullets are, but someone.

Klepto kind of cocks his head. I mean, he doesn’t make some sort of terrifying expression like he’s amused or angry now but, hey, I’m still terrified.

I extend my field out toward him, I can reach that far at least, and it intersects with his with a sickening oil on water sensation. Not his. Mine. Mine mirrored, but one that feels just like mine, only out of my control. I gag and shove my field farther towards him, wishing he just had TK of his own, wishing I could just pit our powers against each other while I fought through the prickles down my spine – not that and this.

His doesn’t reach as far as me, thank god, just about halfway across the street, but I don’t know. It could start expanding any minute. Or he could yank out a power I or any of the kids never knew we had. Maybe powers he’s brought along with him. I have no idea whether he has an invisible powerhouse standing behind him, but I would bet on it, because that would be a treat.

My field shifts under his touch and I want to throw up.

He’s pushing mine back, now. He’s got my field under his control, he expected me to throw him off the roof or something, and he’s actually bending it, turning it off inch by inch, and my gun is out, in my hand, I don’t know when it got there, but it’s shaking and I have no idea whether that’s him moving it or just me fumbling it while he’s tearing my powers apart and, oh god, tossing something else at us, who knows what, best case one of his signature EMP neutralizer flash-bangs, worst case –

Enigma Machine shoves forward, batting his arm out, and all the kids go down in a heap. One of them catches the edge of my coat, pulling me down with them before I can get it off, and I barely catch myself, smacking my cheek on the lip of the building. Same cheek, too.

Across the roof, Klepto’s eyes widen.

“Um,” Klepto says, staring at me. “Mwahaha, mine is an evil laugh?”

And then he blurs away.

Caffeine’s power. Caffeine, who I very explicitly told to run, because he’s by far the fastest of any of them, and with his power gone, there would be at least one of my students Klepto couldn’t chase down. And if he hadn’t been able to run so fast, we might have had a chance of catching him.

Oh, great, now I’m having delusions of grandeur.

Enigma Machine groans. He went down hard. His armor is dented. I feel around it carefully, trying to ignore the exciting new sensation of my TK getting pins and needles, figuring out whether I need to pry it off him. He’s in one piece under there, nothing went through his skin, although I can’t say anything for bruising, or even cracked ribs. He seems to be breathing okay, though, so I’d guess they aren’t broken, at least. I wonder if the armor is salvageable.

Jailbait is tugging Caffeine to his feet and brushing him off. Aside from a scrape on her arm and the way he’s limping slightly, I think they’re probably fine, though. I have a fleeting moment of panic for Gatling, who’s completely still, but then he sits up, and I feel bad for panicking over him. Then I feel bad about feeling bad, because he’s still a person, and he’s still just a kid.

Then he leans over and throws up, and I actually feel bad for him, getting my field up around him to support some of his weight. He coughs a little, and sniffles, and grabs his head. Oh, kiddo. There’s a gash down the side of it.

“Hey, Teke?” Caffeine asks, hobbling over to me, which looks swollen and bruised where his pant leg’s ridden up.

“Yeah?” I say, trying my best to have it come out within human hearing range and also not accompanied by either sobbing or hysterical laughter.

“Can you tell if my leg is broken? Is that a thing you can do?” he continues.

I nod, still not taking my attention off Gatling. It’s been a while since I’ve done this, and I should probably be explaining either that we’re heading for medical right fucking now or that really, really, he would know if his leg were broken, can he not see one of his teammates has a serious head injury at exactly this moment, but I just lace my field through his leg – it takes a minute, because, augh, through his leg – and check whether any of his bones are broken.

“No,” I say, “you’re good.”

He smirks over at Jailbait. “Watch this.”

Then he shimmers a little, and his ankle goes back to normal.

Which is a neat trick and probably ought to go in his file.

“Where’s FiendPuncher?” Enigma asks, finally prying off his chestplate, but still not sitting up.

I look around, all sides, listen, even slam my TK just about as far as it will go, but she’s not there, not anywhere around us. I wonder if she fell to the ground. My hand only shakes a little as I pull out my phone and pick out her icon and call her on the brand-new just-issued communicator she better have on her and on.

“Hello?” FiendPuncher says, after one ring.

I breathe. “Where are you?”

“Where am I?” she repeats, “where the fuck are you?”

I stop breathing again. “FiendPuncher, I need you to tell me, as best you can, where you are.”

“What the fuck do you mean, tell you where I am?” she huffs. “You told us to run. I ran.”

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this isn’t happening

not during daylight not during training not with the kids not the kids on their first patrol not the kids know how to fight well not well enough for Klepto not well enough to fight but not well enough to not Klepto’s going to

some of the things Klepto’s done some of the times some of the places the motivations the rationalizations the way Klepto leaves the bodies mangled broken bruised abraded cut gouged torn ripped smashed crushed shot stabbed bitten beaten and the blood never messages Klepto never leaves unless the bodies are the message and even then

i wonder if they’ll find enough of us to identify

what does Klepto want does Klepto want with the kids does anyone want with kids these kids or just Klepto isn’t that even Klepto wouldn’t stoop to the graveyard that wasn’t Klepto and you’re just overreacting and they were kids all kids but younger too young except for fiendpuncher maybe too young and not his or i have to say something tell someone those were Klepto’s if that was Klepto’s fault Klepto really killed him maybe unless I’m wrong maybe i need to calm down just calm down calm down before Klepto

doesn’t have to be Klepto plenty of villains people kids just kids think they’re dangerous creative halloween costumes in every store and the goths punks metalheads maskheads some of the hipsters with the poor taste shop in the city imagine Klepto at hot topic if Klepto buys gear there it changes always changes fashion not battles not burning not shooting not stabbing not getting torn apart in deranged fights just vanity insecurity obsession or boredom trying to get the blood pumping again by torturing to death a bunch of

rooftops are far away from you to jump easily unless Klepto can fly ha don’t be stupid two of your kids can fly two of them and maybe only enigma isn’t a problem Klepto isn’t a robot can’t be a robot can’t borrow robot would a robot how would a robot gain sadistic pleasure from

i wonder if this was a setup too

what weapons do i wish arsenal were here with an empty utility belts all around mine and one gun all brandishing notecards and dog treats maybe Klepto wants salmon a nice bit of smoked salmon and Klepto’ll turn and caffeine can run on his own probably carry maybe what would slow them down or fast away fast and Klepto can’t follow Klepto can’t follow if Klepto can’t go fast enough to save some of us if not jailbait’s ready to lay down her life learning how to fight and hold them off just a kid was going to join up once she hit her birthday could be a year from now you don’t know it could be today happy eighteenth are you ready to

think fucking think stupid bullshit teaching supposedly safe is never safe you know that violent dangerous shit for brains teacher who doesn’t bother setting backup plans doesn’t bother planning escape routes doesn’t bother routing emergency beacons to shit fuck goddamn Klepto’s jamming signals Klepto’s jamming communications Klepto’s jamming powers isn’t Klepto a fucking genius always

your job and you can’t even do one thing can you even keep a couple kids safe for a few hours watching not even half a dozen of them gatling the only one with a weapon to give her your gun wait what idiot put you in charge what moron what dumbass what imbecile of a boss let you have any kind of chance this team thought kids should walk around like no transponders being jammed remember this city was never a safe place some braindead politifuck picked the costumes least equipped no that’s you isn’t it you who set the kids up for failure

you with your grand plans and your bold claims and your shitty teaching no one wants to listen to learn from you no one wants you leading an expedition around the city no day no how no one is surprised is it any wonder the way you

i wonder which uniform they’ll pick

front and center whizkid attack formation is a stupid fucking word when there’s only one pair of us if she remembers the training at basics she’s not supposed to be using in combat yet the point should be over quick anyway quick always the secret to dealing with Klepto over quick and don’t get dead against throwing a neutralizer over there with oh no think of how illegal the white hat we always bring always white hats fighting why box ourselves in if we could just turn off Klepto the way Klepto turns off

get gone get them gone hold off for a while for as long as forever until the end of your report or warn or call for help where the fuck is your phone unprepared fucking hell did anyone okay when breathe do you think they breathe arrive if they breathe what are the breathe odds of the fuck does Klepto think Klepto is the worst one of the worst most dangerous one of the most dangerous maybe in the country how many contingencies not even invulnerable all of the time a bad choice you make bad choices could’ve been anyone any supervillain just had to find a way to make your kids careful what they wish for in a pleasant perfect

way several ways always lots of ways depends on what you’re looking for not like you’re trapped on the roof all sides open and just the one enemy one Klepto just one

throw them to safety how far can your field extend and still have any level of nuance when was the last time i even bothered to test that why would

some makeshift weapons down in one of the alleys they always

could be down the fire escape already if

black lacquer shines off Klepto’s nails

no no no no no

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