Homework Help

“Don’t be mad,” says the voice on the other end of the call.

I stare at what looks to be the camera pointed at the ceiling, assuming everyone’s ceiling was weird and futuristic, and take a minute to remember who the fuck I just accepted a call from. The camera adjusts, and oh, yeah, Paragon.

“You know,” I say, intensely conversationally, “that’s a horrible sentence to start a dialogue off with, and now I might be mad at you just for the hell of it.”

He grins. “Roundabout way of asking me what I did.”

I shake my head and try not to laugh. “You’re several states away, kid, what could you do?”

“Homework,” he says, seriously.

I stare for a minute. “And how is your homework supposed to negatively impact my life?”

Paragon sighs and rubs his head. “No, just. Can you help me with my homework?”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Is this a meme?”

He laughs. “No. I just have to take some insufferable English class, and I wanted to know how familiar you are with Dickens.”

“You,” I say, jabbing a finger at the screen, “actually want help with your homework. Actual help. With your actual homework.”

“Yeah,” he says.

“Help with Dickens,” I say.

He sighs. “I dunno, apparently I signed up for a Dickens course this semester, I think it was the only one that would fit in my schedule, it’s terrible. Help.”

“Oh, well, a masked hero can never ignore a citizen’s cry for help,” I tell him. “What are you studying? Or do you need help even being able to get through the books.”

He drops his face into his hands. “Honestly, it’s not even that bad, I mean, it’s slow as fuck but he’s not even that bad a writer, I just. They’re so long.”

“That’s true,” I say.

“I wish I hadn’t done this,” he tells me.

“Yeah,” I agree, “I don’t have great expectations for this course.”

“I hate you,” Paragon says.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “what did you actually need help with?”

He waves a hand, twirling it for long enough I actually wonder if he’s forgotten that it’s his turn to speak, and then he says, “do you think I should switch classes?”

I shrug. “You can if you want. If it’s really that bad, better to get out now and find something that will get you an English credit you can actually stomach.”

“Are there any good ones?” he asks, making a face.

“Yeah, but they’re probably full by now,” I tell him.

He leans against one hand, making morose faces. It takes me a minute to register that he’s not wearing his domino, which barely alters his appearance, when he carefully specified he looks radically different without the mask – I wonder if it’s on top of a prosthetic, or some kind of smart clay, or alien tech, or what. Hell, maybe Paragon is an alien. That would explain the spaceship.

“Do you live in a spaceship?” I ask.

“What? No. This is just SAL’s – what, office?” he says, looking up.

“Office is a reasonable descriptor,” a vaguely feminine voice says, “although it is technically a spaceship, albeit repurposed and heavily restructured to integrate into the tower. Hello, Agent Kuiper.”

“Uh,” I say, “hello, SAL.”

“What kind of English classes did you take?” Paragon asks, bouncing – is that a rubber band ball?

“Uh,” I say, only kind of expecting the robot to interrupt me, “I mostly took genre literature classes, the vampire and golden age science fiction and stuff.”

“Wait, what?” he says, sitting up, “is it normal to have those?”

“At a bigger school, yes,” I tell him, “but you probably have to make friends with the teachers so they let you sign up early, or at least, that’s what I did.”

He laughs. “You bribed your way in?”

“No,” I tell him, “I could tell you some good stories about bribery, but it might be considered, oh, corrupting the youth or something.”

He shakes his head. “This. This is what I get for trying to get advice on fucking Oliver Twist from someone who’s supposed to be a respectable adult I can look up to. I get treated like a kid.”

“You’re literally asking for homework help,” I remind him.

“Have you read it or not?” he asks.

I shake my head. “Yeah, I’ve read it.”

“Do you,” he waves a hand vaguely, “have a study guide, or…?”

“I could provide you with any number of study guides,” SAL says, peevishly, how does a robot sound peevish, even? Is that real? Is that a programmed feature, or an emergent trait of managing to program a sentient computer?

“That sounds good,” I say, “listen to SAL. Or just use Sparknotes.”

“Like, I don’t – what am I supposed to even think about Oliver Twist?” he says. He sounds baffled, and I wish I could help.

I try to think back to high school. “I really don’t think this will in any way be good for your grade, but all I remember is the sanitized sexual abuse.”

“Wait, what?” he says.

I make a face. “There’s a bunch of scenes where it seems like it’s trying to imply, you know, people trying to molest Oliver.”

“I thought there was just,” he tosses the rubber band ball from hand to hand, “some gay stuff with him and Dodger?”

“Sure,” I say, “only Dodger’s, like, 35, and isn’t Oliver twelve or something?”

“What, no,” Paragon says, “Dodger’s sixteen.”

I roll my eyes. “You’ve seriously never heard that theory?”

“What, that Dodger’s secretly an adult?” he squeaks, “what the hell for?”

“Because,” I say, waving my hands, “the whole thing where he, like, picks up kids off the streets to convince them to – no, you know what, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“What the hell did you even study in school?” Paragon shrieks at me.

I shake my head. “Mostly about the history of characterization of women, actually, you can see here a bunch of characters who become hateful and spiteful because they can’t be mothers.”

“Ugh, never mind,” he says, “this book is awful.”

“It’s,” I say, “pretty good about class inequalities?”

His face goes oddly blank when I say that, just a slight downturn of his mouth on one side, and he sighs, flicking through a paperback copy of the book.

“I tell you what,” I say, “look for some kind of graphic novel class. They might be under the art department, but if you kick up enough fuss, you can get English credit for one, probably.”

He tosses the book behind him with a cheer. It sails pretty far – I almost wonder if the used-to-be-a-spaceship has low gravity, before his superstrength registers.

“Hey!” SAL says, very clearly snapping, wow, that is sophisticated, “do you know how long it took to print that up?”

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Why is everything blue

I flail around next to me, groaning, but by the time I actually find what I’m grabbing for (the blanket) I’m pretty much awake. And my feet are entirely tangled up in it, so I’d have to take the time to untie it even if I wanted to put it back on, and at that point, I may as well just get the fuck up. My entire lower half is sticky with sweat, and my upper half feels clammy. I doubt I can fall back asleep at this point anyway.

Darren is obviously making breakfast, because I can smell like seven different kinds of food, and I try not to retch. It’s an effort to stumble my way into the shower, but I manage, and then everything smells like steam and fogged glass instead of food, and, eventually, mangoes. I have to kind of ruin it with the scent of this shitty Too Much Sandalwood (MANdalwood) shampoo, but I can still feel the sweat clinging to my scalp as I try to scrub the dreams away.

I mean, not that it actually does anything besides fuck up my hair. It’s fine. I’m pretty sure I have a haircut today, anyway, so how bad could it honestly be?

I dry off with some scratchy horrible towel, which means I forgot to do laundry, and it barely soaks the water out of my hair. I run a hand through it to straighten it out a little, and my fingers get caught. Yeah, definitely time for a haircut. Sometimes I wonder how I would look bald.

…which would have even more of the problem of remembering to take care of my haircut, but there you go. And they’d probably make me add some kind of decorative ribbon onto my mask, because these things are designed to blend into hair, and like I need some sort of blue spiderweb on the back of my head?

Darren is fucking humming by the time I give up finding a shirt and wander out in just sweatpants. I stare at him for a minute, watching him make fruit smoothies.

“Have you been up all fucking night?” I ask.

He grins at me as we wait out the horrible blending noise. “Maybe.”

“No, seriously, Darren,” I ask, “are you just up early because my schedule got fucked at some point, or did you literally not sleep?”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m sleeping…less. But fine.”

“You can’t just sleep less,” I say, helplessly accepting some drink that looks blueberry flavored, god, everything looks blueberry flavored, “have you asked about it?”

“I’m fine,” he says, “I’m not tired. I’ll go to bed early, okay?”

I take a sip. Yup, all the berries. I eye the solid food warily, wondering if my stomach will stop churning at some point. “Why is everything blue?”

“Uh, they were out of the blueberry yogurt,” he says, “so I got the vanilla, and also blueberries. Only I got too many blueberries. But then I had an idea!”

“Was it breakfast?” I ask.

“It was breakfast!” he says.

I nod. “You know we can’t possibly eat all this, right?”

He hands me a stack of French toast. There are only a few blueberries on top. I brace myself, cutting into one, and, yes, blueberry filling. It’s not bad, though.

“It’s fine,” he says, “I’m meeting the guys in, like, an hour or something, I’m going to box everything up and take it to them. Most of it’ll get eaten.”

I look around the kitchen. “Did you make cookies?” I finally ask.

“Yes.” He nods enthusiastically. “But those will keep. So I’m not bringing them.”

“How the fuck do you make blueberry cookies,” I ask.

“It’s just an oatmeal raisin recipe,” he says, “only I used blueberries instead, and they kind of maybe exploded, I’m not sure. They taste okay.”

The cookies are extremely blue.

“Do you want any of the pancakes, or should I box them all up?” Darren asks. Grinning.

“Oh, god,” I say, and wave them off. I’ll maybe get through my French toast. Although the muffins look really good. I remember what happened last time Darren tried to make his own muffins, but it was a learning experience, and these ones look like I won’t necessarily regret eating them.

Darren shrugs. And packs up the pancakes in literal cake boxes, where did he even get these, did he open a bakery while I wasn’t looking? Did he befriend a mysterious neighbor who happens to own a bakery? I should ask him if he’s been talking to any friendly woodland creatures.

“Fox?” Darren says, tying this, like, perfectly bakery bow in the string.

“Why,” I say, “why do they want you to bring them pancakes. Why.”

Darren sighs and brushes the back of his hand against his bangs. “Okay. There’s…not sure if I mentioned this, but there was kind of…a thing, and, anyway, I wanted to apologize.”

I narrow my eyes at him, because he’s quite clearly very sure that he didn’t mention anything, and conspicuously failing to mention it now, but I don’t call him on it. Whatever he’s trying to apologize for, I can’t imagine boxes full of scones are a bad way to do that.

“You okay?” I ask, instead.

He sidles over, bumping his shoulder against mine, and says, “aw, you know them. They never really hold a grudge for long.”

I spin him so I can give him a quick hug. “If they give you trouble, call me.”

“Yes, yes, my masked hero, you can save me from all the evildoers,” Darren says. “If you really want to save me, you can figure out what the hell happened to all the containers I used to have.”

That explains the cakeboxes. “You have this thing where your friends have no manners and always forget to give those back to you if you bring them anything.”

He thinks that over for a minute. “Okay. That tracks.”

“Also,” I add, “you forget them at work sometimes.”

He tilts his head. “Which you know how?”

“Because I find them,” I say, “or someone tells me because they forgot to tell you or something, and honestly, I’d rather toss them than wash them.”

He points a finger. “So it’s your fault! Fuck you for throwing away my perfectly good containers.”

“Okay, like, a ton of them used to be butter tins or something,” I say, “and a lot of them are cracked, and anyway I don’t want them smelling up my car.”

“You can throw out the broken ones,” he says, sullenly, “but now I have no place to put all my pancakes, and this is your fault, and you owe me a ton of new ones of these, I hope you’re aware.”

“I’ll get new ones,” I say. “I’ll get an assortment of brightly colored ones, how about that, then we can color code our leftovers. That’ll be fun!”

Darren laughs. “Fine, rainbow colored leftovers it is, asshole.”

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Time for a rant

I stare at my computer, trying to figure out what the hell I was even planning on doing. I could’ve sworn there was another video or something I wanted to watch, but I can’t find it (either in an open tab or written down anywhere), and I have no idea what it was about. I also kind of don’t want to watch any more videos, but hey.

My computer starts yelling at me and I breathe a sigh of relief.

“Hey, Fox,” Ash says, tugging at a necklace I haven’t seen before. “Got time for a rant?”

“Always,” I say, “can you step back a sec?”

Ash laughs, spinning around for me, so I can take in his jean jacket and cargo pants. “So, I don’t know how much you’ve been following agency politics?”

I make a face. “As little as I possibly can.”

“Just your tower, then?” He shrugs expansively. “More’s the pity.”

“God, not even that if I can help it,” I grumble, “why?”

He scowls. “Okay, basically, this is going to be a bunch of people you don’t actually know, so maybe ignore the names for the most part, yeah?”

I nod.

“Okay,” he says, and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes. “Paragon’s pretty much sulking and refusing to do any work, because he’s convinced people are stealing his credit and Hunch is distinctly not helping with that by, basically, he keeps doing this thing where he’s, like, trying to prank us or something, but in this way that isn’t funny, because he thinks people know when he’s being sarcastic but he always talks completely deadpan,

“and Wizard wants the whole team reorganized, because he’s obsessed with not being on a team with an actual magic user, and consistently tries to one-up him during, I don’t know, meetings and even when they run into each other in the hall, not just practices, meanwhile Teke is being such a fucking asshole about not being team lead when Guardian’s been at it a decade longer because she’s convinced they brought him in just to keep from promoting her,

“and he keeps making fun of her for it, which is not helping anyone’s opinion of how this actually went down, because goddamn I hate Teke, but this guy is a whole nother level and let’s not even get into the sexual harassment thing right now – he’s constantly saying that this isn’t how they do it in Agapolis and we have to change everything, which, like, yeah, here works exactly like there, and Smoke keeps demanding all these special rituals and stuff,

“none of which we have any convenient way of handling, and he won’t even tell us which of them actual need to happen and which of them are just, like, superstitions or weird stuff that he does but we don’t have to, and he always insists that Techie can’t be in the room because their energy messes up, whatever, everything, which obviously pisses them off

“and I already feel really bad for Techie because Teke keeps going on about how great it is to have another woman on the team, which, like, fuck, and how awesome it is that their names are almost the same or some shit, I don’t know, it’s a really lame attempt at bonding, so I’m trying not to be mad at them because they don’t deserve that but god damn I cannot fucking handle any more dirty looks

“and Brawn won’t turn in literally any of his paperwork. And I need to have these guys camera-ready in less than two weeks, and how much do they listen to me? None. None is how much. It doesn’t even matter how I dress, and honestly, I’ve tried that every fucking which way, but no, they are not giving me the slightest smidge of attention and it will be a miracle if any of them even wait their turns to talk we’re going to have to replace the entire team with body doubles.”

“Wow,” I say, my eyes sticking straight out of my head like a horrified cartoon, with some sort of little dancing animations swirling around me. And maybe sound effects.

Ash laughs and runs a hand through his hair, fidgeting with his necklace again. “Yeah, sorry, people you don’t know doing things you don’t care about.”

“Hey, at least it’s mask division, this time,” I say, “could be harder to follow.”

He groans and falls out of camera range with a quiet thunking sound. “How many of those do you have over there? You’re picturing the entirely wrong people, I’m sure.”

“Well, we don’t have a Wizard,” I say, “although it’s kind of made up for by the fact that I’m in fairly consistent contact with two wildly different Paragons.”

He pops back up. “I thought you didn’t have a Teke, either? Oh, wait, no, new guy.”

“Uh, yeah,” I say, “do you really have a magic user out there in the boondocks?”

Ash starts cackling into his fist.

“Ashley,” I say. Or maybe kind of growl.

He laughs harder, jabbing a finger at the side of the screen, and moving to adjust his own computer. With a sigh, I toggle my secure connection crap on, too, which takes me a minute, because I forget the fucking password, why can people not just call me at work?

“You’re Teke, aren’t you?” he says, still laughing.

I sigh harder. “Yes, Ashley, I’m Teke, I thought everyone knew this already.”

He shakes his head. “Oh my god, you have no idea how much funnier that makes the rumors I’ve heard about you.”

“You really have nothing better to do out there in the land of every extranormal already belongs to the agency, do you?” I ask. “Fine, do your worst. Whatever. I don’t even care.”

He stops laughing abruptly, and his eyes widen. “Hey, are you okay?”

I raise an eyebrow.

“You ran into, uh, bad news, I heard.” He frowns.

“You can say ‘Klepto’,” I tell him, “preferably not talk about it that much, but, sure, I’m fine, relatively speaking. I was barely injured. And I’m healed now.”

“Well, as long as your ducklings made it back alright,” he says. “Right?”

I nod. “All the little assholes accounted for.”

Ash grins again. “Not getting along with the brats?”

I wave a hand. “As well as can be expected, I guess. Do you remember the tiny horrible racist?”

Ash makes a face. “What, Gatling?”

“Well, he grew up into a larger horrible racist, now with even more sexism and homophobia,” I tell him, “and he won’t listen to a word I say.”

“Like, says okay and then doesn’t do it, or like ‘la la la I’m not listening’ kind of won’t do what you say?” Ash asks.

I shake my head. “Like actively tells me he won’t. To the point where he’s suggested, multiple times since I’ve been put in charge, that I’m going to physically or sexually assault him.”

Ashley’s eyes widen. “Wow. That’s.”

“And by physically assault, I do mean he specified I would shoot him,” I add.

“Hon,” Ash asks, “are you sure you’re okay?”

I roll my eyes. “Got a refill on the night-night pills, anyway, but, no, I’ve just had a bad week, it’s fine. You sound like you’re dealing with a lot more assholes than I am, anyway.”

“Mm,” he says, “that reminds me, Red’s heading up to visit sometime, so, uh, look out for that.”

“Yeah,” I say, “that already happened, but thanks for the heads up.”

“Wow, sorry,” Ash says, shaking his head. “You really have had a rough week.”

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Dinner

When Perry and Priscilla arrive, my throat closes up, and I lean over the table trying to catch myself. It’s been a while since the thought of going out to dinner put me this on edge, but I can work with this. At least I’m sitting down already.

Of course, I keep staring at Priscilla’s sweater vest. It’s argyle. It’s nice. It’s not the usual pinstripe vest I typically see her in, but it’s fine. It’s good. Her pants don’t even have the normal brass or nickel accoutrements, so it’s not like one of her preferred vests would – fuck. It’s because the last time I saw someone dressed just that much off standard –

“Sweater vest,” I manage to mutter, waving a vague hand at her, before I duck my head into my arms and just lie still for a while. I don’t bother to parse the talking I hear, and someone’s opened the bedroom door and wandered inside. I don’t have the energy to care about that, either. At least one of us has picked up around here fairly recently, anyway. A hand rubs my back.

“Hey,” Priscilla says, some time later, tugging at a ragged, faded sweatshirt. “This okay?”

I stare at her for a minute. The logo isn’t one I recognize; it’s probably one Darren’s old ones, but it looks enough like what Pris wears at home that I feel my breathing slow, so at least I’m not actually heading into that panic attack anymore. The feeling doesn’t really fade, but it’s kind enough to start stabbing at the backs of my eyes instead of trying to strangle my lungs, so that’s okay.

“Yeah,” I say, finally. “That’s fine.”

“This is really soft,” Pris says, sticking her thumbs through holes by the cuffs.

“It’s old,” Darren says, with a snort.

“It’s nice,” Pris defends.

“You can have it, if you’re that enamored,” Darren says, and shakes his head, pulling me up from the chair. “Dinner still on?”

I nod.

“Lucky we’re going someplace casual, then,” he says, then calls out for Perry.

“What?” she says, from what sounds like the center of all of my clothes.

“Stop trying to steal clothes,” he shouts.

“It’s not stealing if you never call me on it,” she says, returning with a hat that I haven’t worn in years and probably looks better on her anyway, and a belt that I definitely do need.

“Perry, that’s my belt,” I say.

“Yeah, it’s your cufflinks, too, but, no, you care about this?” she gestures. “This is plain black and probably the cheapest thing you own.”

“It’s more expensive than it looks, and it’s the only belt I keep at that level of formality,” I tell her. “I don’t even like those cufflinks. You can keep them.”

She preens, playing with the cufflinks. “Why do you bother keeping a specific belt for this? This is, like, what, casual dressy? But, like, office casual dressy, what’s even the fun in that?”

“That’s why I only have one,” I tell her. “Which I need, because if you’ll remember, I work in an office, and I’m sometimes required to wear that belt.”

“You’ll get it back,” she tells me. “Look, I tell you what, I’ll buy you a better one.”

“Perry,” I say, “for fuck’s sake, you are not going to buy me the belt you’re thinking of, because I am not going to wear that to any sort of formal event, ever.”

She flips me off. “You don’t even –”

“I’ve seen your taste in belts, and I’m lucky if it doesn’t have anything written on it,” I tell her, “and you tell me my belts are too cheap.”

Pris laughs. “The ‘fuck off’ belt actually cost about 800 dollars.”

I stare at her.

She shrugs. “Don’t look at me, it wasn’t my idea.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t want a glitter belt that says ‘fuck off’,” Perry says, tucking her thumbs in her belt loops as if she’s not currently wearing the most boring belt in existence, “actually, do you want one? Because I can get you one.”

“That’ll go over great with my boss,” I tell her.

She beams.

“That was a no, Perry,” I tell her.

“Oh, I know,” she says, “I’ve just decided what I’m getting your team lead for Christmas.”

Darren cracks up.

As Perry starts bickering with him over the funniest way to present that, Priscilla walks over to me, murmuring, “what was it about the vest?”

“I,” I say, licking at my lips, “it’s. Too different from what you normally wear. But too similar.”

“Oh,” she says, about to ask another question, then thinking better of it.

“It, uh,” I say, closing my eyes, “yeah, it’s new, it has to do with Klepto, please don’t make me explain why, and I really fucking hope it doesn’t stick around.”

She nods. “Hey, you stopped carrying your wallet on the right for me. Ain’t one thing for you to worry about, okay?”

I smile at her, but it’s probably not that convincing.

“I tell you what,” she says, “we’ll split a pizza this time, and let these assholes fight amongst themselves on toppings.”

I do manage a smile at that one. “Finally coming around on jalapeno-pineapple?”

“You know what?” she says, “I think I am. Toss some caramelized onions on there, and I’m your man. I’m still getting a pitcher of sweet tea, though.”

I offer my arm to her. “You know they make it just for you, right? That’s not actually a normal part of their menu.”

She tucks her arm around mine. “Well, you know what they say about more flies.”

“I know what I say about more flies,” Darren says, walking up behind us, then immediately clears his throat, “anyway, yes, pizza, time for pizza? Let’s go.”

“Oh, so you and Perry decided what you wanted on yours?” Pris says as we walk out the door.

I take in the smell of rug shampoo in the hallway, hold my breath for a second, and let it out. No, it really was just the vest. The restaurant should be fine, let’s hope.

“Wait, what the fuck did you say?” Perry asks, pulling the door shut behind us just a little too hard. “Who the fuck did you insinuate I’m sharing a pizza with?”

“Me?” Darren says, “you’re the one who wants mushrooms on everything.”

“This assclown better not get his disgusting tomato bullshit on my side of the pizza,” Perry says, looking directly at me for some reason.

“Disgusting?” Darren says, “tomatoes are fucking delicious and you know it.”

“It’s a pizza!” Perry throws her hands up. “It already has tomatoes.”

I laugh, flicking the lock closed behind us.

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Four and Twenty Blackbirds

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” slurred a voice, pointing at the ground, “hold up.”

At the mouth of the alley, there sat a small bird – well, small for a raven – favoring one leg as it hopped around experimentally, occasionally fluffing its wings. It cocked its head, staring at the newcomers, and bounced towards them, cawing pitifully.

“It’s hurt,” muttered one of the figures, “bro, it’s hurt, we got to do something.”

“Okay,” said the one who hadn’t spoken, “let me try to catch it.”

“Halt, citizen!” called a loud voice. Thunder crashed and lightning lit the alley. A six foot tall blackbird stood, hands on hips, facing the three friends.

Then another six foot blackbird turned off the speakers, stashing them back in a duffel bag, along with the storm lantern, and walked up next to the first.

“God, I love saying that,” said Maggie the Magpie.

“What,” said one of the stoners.

Maggie the Magpie held out a hand, shaking each of theirs in turn. “Hey, we heard there was a hurt bird over here. We’re from Parliament Bird Sanctuary.”

“We were going to help it,” said a different one, “right little buddy?”

“Yeah,” said the third, “we were going to name him Leaf Erikson.”

“Uh,” said Maggie the Magpie, “huh, well, that’s alright, we’ll take over from here.”

“Don’t touch hurt wildlife,” muttered Corey the Crow.

“’Cause then their moms won’t take them back?” asked one of the stoners.

Corey the Crow glared. “Because you might hurt them more. Leave it to the experts. Which is us.”

“Alex,” Maggie the Magpie admonished.

“Oh, right,” Corey the Crow said, “I mean, begone, evildoers!”

One of the three made a hurt face. “We’re not evil.”

“It’s fine,” Maggie the Magpie said, patting two of them on their arms as she tried to lead the group away from the bird, “we’ll take it from here, that’s all.”

“No, man, we got to,” said one of them, “we have to make sure he’s okay.”

“I’m sure the bird will be fine,” Maggie the Magpie said, “it doesn’t look very badly hurt, alright? And we’re bird experts.”

“Oh, dude, bird experts,” said the other one, trailing behind.

Maggie the Magpie fielded three enthusiastic if confusing hi-fives, and turned back to the hurt blackbird that her colleague was gently cradling. She touched it softly on the unhurt leg, looking at trailing data about its health, relieved to discover that all the damage was things they could easily accommodate back at the aviary.

“Pretty bird,” the raven said, looking quite pleased with itself.

Picnic

Darren makes aggravated noises as I go to sit down.

“What?” I say.

He makes some more vague motions with his hands, snorts at me, rolls his eyes, and then reaches into his bag, pulling out a huge blanket. Oh. I wonder if he has snacks in there or anything, or whether I’m going to have to grab the actual picnic from the coffee shop that’s fortunately just right across the street where I can, you know, pop over there and back real quick. I mean he couldn’t possibly have packed coffee in there, right?

He glances up at me. “Oh, fine, get your coffee.”

I grin. “You want anything?”

“Yes,” he says, “I want a macchiato and a sandwich and whatever kind of fruit rollup thing they have that isn’t actually a fruit rollup because it’s for adults and if they have yogurt I want yogurt too.”

“Sure,” I say, and hurry across the street.

“And water,” he calls after me, “get water.”

I race into the coffee shop, breathing in the heavenly scent of fresh-roasted beans, wonderful, absolutely wonderful. The décor’s a little all over the place, like they redecorated three or four times without completely getting rid of the old stuff but it smells amazing. I glance through the food they have in the display. None of the fake fruit rollup stuff, but they do have the dried fruit that’s almost the same, and I glance through them – oh, no, papaya – I put them back.

I pick out something that looks like a granola bar but purports to be fruit instead.

Oh my god they have soup. I point at it. “What’s today’s flavor?”

The barista, with an impressive array of shades of green hair spiked up all over the place, glances back toward the soup of the day sign. “Chili today.”

“Great, I’ll have two,” I say, “it’s not going to have any nuts in it, is it?”

“It’s vegan,” the barista says, fiddling with their bracelets as they input the soups, “wait, did you say nuts?”

I nod.

They give me an inscrutable look, then shrug. “No nuts.”

“Okay,” I say, “give me the grilled cheese on white.”

The barista nods. “Anything to drink?”

I drop two water bottles on the counter. “Macchiato and –”

“A real one, or…?” they ask.

“Yeah,” I say. “A real one. And…ooh, hazelnut.”

“I thought you said no nuts,” they say.

“Good point,” I agree. “Let’s go with this blueberry flavor drink, then.”

“You know that’s got coffee in it, right?”

I laugh. “Well, I hope so.”

“It doesn’t have that much coffee. I can add a shot to it, if you want.” They shrug again.

“Sure,” I say. “Do you happen to have any yogurt?”

The barista shakes their head. “Is that all?”

“Yep, thanks,” I say, pushing over the fruit thing and a couple cookies. And then my card.

“Cool. Be out in a minute,” the barista says, running my card and handing it back.

I tuck the water and cookies and fruit thing into my bag as I sit down on the bench, pulling out my phone. Waiting for your food, the barista mouths at me when I glance up.

where the fuck did you go Darren texts, and I just send back SOUP

A minute later, they start to make my drinks, and the kitchen hands out the food just after they finish. It’s packed up all nice in little trays for me to carry and everything. I grab the trays and drop a tip in the jar, calling out a thank you I hope they can hear in the kitchen, and head back outside. I almost lose track of my wallet; it’s too similarly shaped to the wrapped sandwiches without having the decency of being the same size, and my hands are currently full of soup and utensils.

“What soup?” Darren asks, suspiciously, staring at the little containers.

“Chili,” I say.

He perks up. “Yeah?”

“Chili and grilled cheese,” I say, handing over a soup and a sandwich, freeing a hand to finally grab my wallet. I know they told me which was which, but I have to sip both drinks to find his macchiato.

He happily dips his sandwich in his soup. “Chex mix isn’t as good a picnic as this.”

I stretch out on the blanket and drink my blueberry drink. Well, I got what I paid for, at least. “How is it?”

“Amazing,” he mumbles, through another bite.

I don’t really take Darren’s word for it when it comes to this particular meal. It is, however, far better than my aptly named ‘Blueberry Blitz’. The grilled cheese isn’t much to write home about, but the soup has a lot going on. I give up on counting how many different beans there are. “It is good, isn’t it?”

Darren takes a sip of my coffee. “This is horrible, why did you order it?”

“It’s blue,” I say, which is technically true, if semantically uncooperative.

“Don’t order it again,” he advises. “Do you need some of mine?”

“I’m okay,” I say, picking it back up again. God, it just gets worse with every sip.

Darren leans back on his elbows, looking up at the sky. Here in the park I can see what he means about fall. Not just the leaves on the couple of trees out here, but there’s a certain way the wind seems to blow right now that it doesn’t at other times of the year, and, yeah, maybe there’s sort of a smell. I think that’s the leaves again, though. A pigeon sits on the swingset and stares incredulously at me from all the way across the park.

“They didn’t happen to have yogurt,” Darren asks.

I shake my head, passing him the fruit bar and a water bottle. “What’s with the sudden craving for yogurt, anyway?”

“I have no idea,” Darren says. “I woke up really wanting some. Blueberry, preferably, and your coffee seriously did not help with that. I’m going to go to the store.”

“Do you have your EpiPen?” I ask.

He pats his pocket. “Yeah. Why?”

“I almost got hazelnut,” I say.

He sticks his tongue out at me. “Fuck you, Kuiper.”

“Well, I didn’t,” I say. “You’re fucking welcome, Donahue.”

He takes another sip of the horrid blueberry drink. “Honestly, I’m not even sure whether or not I should be thanking you. Anaphylactic shock may be more enjoyable than this.”

I laugh, pull out my book, and lie down to read for a while.

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Mug Shop

“Shopping, really?” Darren says. “It’s this nice out and you want to go back inside?”

I laugh. “It’s one thing, Darren, it’ll just take a sec.”

“It’s the last nice day of the year, I bet,” Darren grumbles, but he follows me inside.

I walk towards the back, where I remember the mugs being, and stop short when I realize they’re right next to me. I guess I haven’t been back here in a while. Darren bumps into me, stumbles, and digs his nails into my neck trying to hold himself up. I grab his arm to keep him upright.

“What the hell, Fox?” he says.

I point to the mugs. “They rearranged the store.”

“Mugs?” Darren says, gesturing in exasperation, “this is what you dragged me in here for? This is why we’re inside while outside smells like fall, is mugs? You really need more mugs, immediately now?”

“It’s doesn’t smell like fall, it smells like pollution,” I tell him.

He raises an eyebrow. “Maybe you can’t detect the changes in the air, city slicker, but I know what fall is like, and this is it.”

I grin. “Anyway, it’s not even for me.”

Darren rubs his forehead. “Shit. I forgot a birthday, didn’t I?”

I shake my head and try not to laugh at him. “I’m buying you an agenda.”

“Say it and I’ll bite you,” he tells me.

I give him a Look. “I’m getting you a calendar so you can write down the dozens of birthdays you keep forgetting, because I don’t know any of your team’s birthdays, so I can’t even help you there.”

“Yeah, I know. I was using an app to keep track of it, but it kept emailing me,” he says.

“Is it not supposed to do that,” I ask.

He huffs at me. “Look, by the time it notifies me of someone’s birthday, I’ve already forgotten to buy a card and/or present, okay.”

“Hence the calendar,” I tell him.

“Whose birthday is it, anyway?” He waves a hand. “Or are you pointedly avoiding the question? It’s not yours. I know it’s not yours.”

“No one’s,” I say, “it’s for Arsenal.”

“Arsenal? Why?” Darren frowns slightly. “Did he get bumped up a level or something?”

I shrug. “The poor kid doesn’t have any mugs. It’s sad.”

I push various mugs to the side looking through them, trying to decide whether duplicates are badly organized, or if there just mostly aren’t more than one of any given design. There are a lot that look similar to each other, and I can’t tell whether they’re different colors of the same mug, or just mugs that happen to look the same. There are a lot shaped like owls, though, and I can see Darren debating over whether we really need more owl mugs.

“So?” Darren snorts, “give him one of yours. Hell, give him ten of yours.”

“He had a special request,” I say, reaching towards the back and, ha, pulling out exactly the mug I’m looking for. They always have at least a few.

Darren takes one glance at it and says, “aw, Fox, no, that’s not okay. He’s going to think you’re in love with him.”

“It’s just a crush. It’s harmless. Let him have his fun,” I say.

Darren sighs. “You’re going to break his heart. You know that, right? Has he ever even had a crush before?”

“I’m sure he’s had a crush before,” I say, trying to decide between owl mugs.

“No, I mean,” he gestures absently, “like, an actual adult crush on another adult, one that he’s considering in that sense.”

“In what sense?” I ask.

“The relationship sense,” Darren says, giving me an inscrutable look.

I stare back at him. “Arsenal knows I’m not going to date him.”

“Does he?” Darren shrugs. “I’m not sure, and I definitely think this will send the wrong message. Maybe you could just buy him a regular mug, and not a special subtext mug.”

“It’s not a subtext mug,” I say.

Darren rolls his eyes. “I know that. You know that. Eighteen year olds? Don’t know that.”

“Whatever,” I say, “I’ll just stick it in my mug cabinet and pretend I had it all along.”

“Sure,” he says, “and then you can just be like, ‘oh, keep it’ and he’ll be all like, ‘wow, Travis drank out of this mug, it’s like I’m kissing his face,’ and like make googly eyes at you or something.”

I frown at him.

“Or, worse yet, he’ll be all like, ‘oh, I couldn’t take your property,’ and use it as an excuse to constantly come into your office and ‘borrow’ your mug,” he concludes.

“I feel like you’re speaking from personal experience,” I say, “and also my office door is literally constantly open and anyone’s free to come and use my mugs.”

“Yeah, well, you better get the rest of your team on that, just saying,” he says.

“Well, I was planning on,” I tell him, trying hard to cross my arms with a mug in each hand.

“You could always buy a mug for everyone,” he says, “then it wouldn’t seem weird.”

Darren sighs at what must be an enormous grin, but goes off to get a basket, anyway. I look through the many, many glorious mugs, trying to figure out which unique and artistic drink container is absolutely perfect for each and every member of my wonderful team. I probably shouldn’t get Boomerang the ‘I’m with stupid’ mug. Fuck, what does he actually even like? I settle on a pretty, marbley looking enamel thing that matches his suit. The handle’s kind of weird, but it’s fine.

Which is the hard part down, anyway.

Laces gets one with little grinning cartoon airplanes. I don’t know why they grin. It’s like someone took one of those unbreakable plastic cups they make for little kids and remade it out of actual ceramic and paint. I consider getting the same one (in a different color) for Bartok, but a handpainted violin catches my eye, and I end up picking out a mug with a little orchestra dancing around it instead. (Literally, they’re dancing, they have little arms and legs.) Stranglehold gets the always classic, ‘you wouldn’t like me when I’m decaffeinated’, and I’m really, really tempted to get the cat mug for Sass, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate the joke.

Darren quietly makes fun of me as he adds that last mug to the basket. I think I may have bought it before. Once or twice.

I finally settle on a drip-design mug for Sass, light blue on dark blue, very shiny. It almost looks like waves. It’s very relaxing to look at, and it’s got a nice balance to it, so hopefully she can stop using styrofoam cups, what, does she just do that to annoy us I mean there are mugs right there, honestly, I already told her she could borrow any of mine even if she didn’t have her own, which she does, she has a lot of them, what is this a pointed protest of.

Hunch gets a #1 Boss mug, because I know he’ll glare at all of us and then drink out of it constantly, plus this one has an ugly tie.

“Ooh,” Darren says, sarcastically, “this means you can get one for yourself.”

I beam at him, and yank that cat mug off the wall after all.

He rolls his eyes so hard he almost drops the basket.

The bored cashier happily chats with Darren about the weather, and they reach some sort of consensus about the changing fall atmosphere, which, seriously, does not exist, I have no idea what they’re even talking about, and the cashier scans through my mugs (and a couple other items Darren must have found while I was distracted).

When he gets to the rainbow flag, he winks at us and says, “you kids have a nice weekend.”

Darren shoots a look at me, hurrying out the door while I make sure all the mugs are snug in my tote bag. I smile and wave to the cashier, then follow Darren outside.

Also, I think he added a second one of the owl mugs to my purchase, because I swear I picked out the green one, not the orange.

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Case File: Normal Force and Extranormal Force (re: Paragon)

Confirmed that they know his address. Other than the vandalism (which seems to have died down), further security measures are keeping them from breaking and entering. Paragon reports occasional harassment as he leaves or enters his home. Only one confirmed incident so far, when Apollo interrupted the pair egging Paragon’s car; they shouted insults at both as they left.

Paragon states with certainty that the pair know his phone number, email address, and a fair amount of other personal identifying information (including, obviously, full name and birthdate). While we have no record of this, Paragon has stated to satisfaction of several memetics (see appendix F) that he knows this to be true. Investigation is ongoing as to whether the pair have memetic powers of their own, or access to such, to convince him of these facts. (Note: if so, patterns gives 78% likelihood that they managed to glean the information through the same methodology.) Addendum: overall likelihood they have the information is upwards of 97% – patterns

They have publicly stated that they consider Paragon to be their archnemesis. (See list of interviews, see list of articles) So far, this seems to involve leaving insulting messages on his home and car, and calling him out in the press and online. No incidents yet of them interfering with investigations or causing physical altercations, although they have interfered with several arrests. It’s possible they’re being hired as a distraction or stressor, or setting up for a larger event down the line. (Note: likelihood of being mercenaries less than 18% – patterns)

Patterns has compiled a complete list (from available information) of facial expressions and mannerisms of Normal and Extranormal (see list) (see abridged list) (see comparison videos). Their body movements are typically identically, and keep in mind that both usually fight with gravity manipulation powers. Don’t look for differences in costuming, either; differences that seem to persist across interactions are meaningless, since we’re pretty sure they switch costumes (on purpose? They look the same) from incident to incident. Differences in immediate context seem to be an intentional distraction, or possibly meant to psychologically disarm opponents. They seem to switch accessories frequently.

Typically, Extranormal Force will use broader or more expansive gestures, and will speak with more variance in cadence. Normal Force is more restrained in both gesture and expression. If they’re both frowning at you, Extranormal is probably the one that looks angry, and Normal is probably the one that looks brooding. If you happen to get them naked – please try not to engineer this situation; they’re generally fairly non-combative – Normal has a scar in the center of his lower back that Extranormal does not. However, keep in mind that they may have created a (fake or real) scar on Extranormal to make them harder to distinguish. Also, twins frequently learn to mimic each other’s voices and mannerisms in childhood, so they may just be fucking with us. (Or could at any point.)

No word yet on what exactly they want with Paragon. Though they seem to indicate that he should know (as far as I know they’ve never said outright?) what they’re looking for, in both public and private (speaking to other masks), Paragon states that he doesn’t know what they want. He’s repeated this in many interviews, especially when evidence is laid out before him (they make him go to patterns about this way too much), and 8 out of 10 memetics agree that he definitely has no idea what they’re looking for from him. The other two indicate respectively that: it’s inconclusive whether he knows or not, and that he ‘should know but doesn’t’. (See interviews, see memetic analyses)

Addendum: only stated once outright – “Paragon knows how to fix this.” (see clip)

Addendum: Presumably, looking for apology or reparations. “He knows what he did.” “Ask Paragon why.” “I hope he has trouble sleeping at night, after that.” (here, here, and here)

Note: Paragon is now locked out of access to this file from any account. Sharing the file in whole or in part with him will result in a writeup.

When confronted with ‘what he did’ Paragon displays clear nervous behavior, although he insists he doesn’t know what they’re talking about. 9 out of 10 memetics state that he’s definitely lying (the other again finds it inconclusive); those that have gathered information on why obviously can’t share it. We’re waiting for further developments to seek a warrant if necessary, although as long as Normal and Extranormal Force remain low-confrontation, it doesn’t seem like a good use of time. Paragon has been formally reprimanded.

Further investigation into their methodology and goals is encouraged, although we can skip over the ‘why’ for now.

Addendum: you guys, is it bad that Hecate does nothing but glare constantly and Bubble won’t even look at him anymore?

Their costume manufacturer is a dead end; it’s the same one that does most of the villain costumes in the city, shipping to P.O. boxes that change with fair frequency. All previous addresses are defunct, and the new owners of those that have changed hands have no information. Tracking has so far been unsuccessful, presumably due to one or more mirror powers. The use of ‘Norm’ as a nickname is almost certainly a joke or for convenience.

Although most villains seem to know of them, contact remains low across all groups. No one has so far indicated knowing what they want, how they’re going to get it, or even why. Neither CI’s nor covert operatives can shed any further light on the matter. Some vigilantes report contact with them, although most are obviously quite uncooperative. Only consistent contact seems to be with Spiderbitch, or at least as consistent as her friendships get. When questioned further, she denies all knowledge of them. She’s stated on at least three occasions she’s never met them. (Possible memetic interference? Note: really, really low chances – patterns)

News reports are conflicting, and give all sorts of false details about them, in addition to creative reporting. Many stories are highly improbably if not impossible; others paint the pair as unsung heroes or activists for one cause or another (none of which they have any public affiliation to). They have made guest appearances in several TV shows, but all in costume. (see filmography)

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All the world’s a stage

I open the door to the sound of low-budget porn soundtracking. Ah, there’s what I put down all that speaker money for. I slam the door as loud as I can (without bothering the neighbors).

“Hi, Darren, I’m home,” I scream at the top of my lungs (still not actually), staring at the ceiling.

A thump. Fabric rustling. The ringing absence of shitty music.

“Um,” Darren says, “hey.”

He’s staring at the floor, shamefaced, trying to keep his fingers still where they’re interlaced above the pillow on his lap. He kicks one foot against the couch.

Honestly, he can be so weird about stuff sometimes.

“I’m just going to go…derp on the internet, or something,” I say.

“Sure,” Darren squeaks.

“I’ll put on headphones,” I tell him.

I pull the bedroom door shut behind me, tugging on my headphones. The tinny sounds resume. I play something loud with a thumping backbeat to drown it out – Darren’s music. I don’t know how he can stand listening to porn without ever telling me how it’s not mixed right. Some time later, Darren puts his hand on my shoulder and I shriek, but I think it’s probably my fault for playing jumpscares.

“So, did you,” Darren says, kind of blushing and shifting from foot to foot, “want to watch a movie, or like, go somewhere, or….”

I shake my head at him, amused.

“Calliope Group is doing a light show in the park,” he offers.

“Oh, yeah?” I stretch, rubbing the back of my neck. “Anything good?”

“Supposedly a reinterpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream, so 50/50.” He shrugs.

“Ooh, fairy lights,” I say.

Darren snorts. “In this city? Special Guest Star: Lavender Lad.”

“Darren,” I say.

“What?” Darren says, holding his hands up, “I just mean he likes a good Bottom.”

I snicker. I snicker harder when we get there, and Lavender Lad does actually happen to be playing with them tonight.

Darren drops his head into his hands.

He’s narrating. He’s narrating, and he’s dressed as a geode.

Anyway, it’s all very pretty, if largely unrecognizable. No speaking lines, anyway, pretty standard Calliope Group fare, although they use Lavender Lad’s powers to good advantage; they have him paint up an elaborate variety of sets, plenty solid enough for us to appreciate the intricacy, but still transparent enough we can see the actors through it. He’s gotten a lot better. He must have practiced like hell for this production – although it has been a while since I saw him last.

The music is high quality, if kind of recycled sounding. I’d guess if it’s extranormal at all, it’s someone who can reproduce concert pieces, but it’s probably just a fancy projection system.

Afterwards, the players walk around selling rocks and little plush donkeys.

Darren finishes off the last of his caramel corn. “We should buy one.”

“A geode, or a donkey?” I ask.

“A geode,” he says. “We can name it after –”

“Did somebody say my name?” Lavender Lad asks, offering up his little tray.

“No,” Darren says, “you didn’t let me get to that part yet.”

Lavender Lad winks at him.

“You were pretty impressive up there,” I tell him. “You’ve improved since I last saw you.”

He grins. “Oh? When –”

“You were quite impressive. I think maybe our files aren’t up to date,” Darren says.

Jeremy scowls at him. “Want a rock?”

Darren dutifully looks at the rocks, comparing them for size and color.

“A couple years ago,” I tell him. “A benefit show.”

“Oh, right,” he says, “when we partnered up with Extratronic. That was a disaster.”

“I thought it turned out pretty well,” I say.

Jeremy shrugs. “I mean, sure. It looked good. And we raised a lot of money for a good cause. No, I just barely remember anything about it except a whole bunch of bigwigs hanging around complaining the whole time about their visibility.”

“God,” Darren says, “don’t you just hate rich people thinking everyone should look at them?”

I roll my eyes at him.

Jeremy snorts. “Then they start talking about how to franchise benefits, and I just gave up.”

I laugh. I apologize, but I have to laugh.

“That’s about how I felt,” Lavender Lad agrees.

“How much is this one?” Darren asks, trying to hold up a blue-green geode to the light.

Lavender Lad helpfully casts a little more light at it, so Darren can see it easily. He ends up not liking the shade and picking out a different one. We haggle over prices a little bit. Once we settle on it, and money changes hands, Darren seems a little more relaxed.

I take my change. “Thanks.”

“See you around,” Jeremy says, tucking one of the toy donkeys into my shirt pocket. Then he wanders off into the night.

“Stop that,” Darren tells me.

“Stop what?” I ask.

“Flirting,” Darren says. “I saw that.”

“I wasn’t flirting,” I protest.

“He’s going to think you’re into him and everything’s going to get really awkward and you’re going to have to, like, pretend to date him so that –”

“Darren, this isn’t a romcom,” I tell him.

Darren crosses his arms. “Does he know that?”

“Yes,” I tell him, “I’m pretty sure Lavender Lad knows most of his fans aren’t hitting on him.”

“You don’t know,” Darren mutters, “maybe now he thinks you’re soul mates.”

I cover my mouth to stifle the thing I’m pretty sure would upset Darren the most in this situation. “I don’t think Lavender Lad thinks we’re soul mates, Darren.”

Darren stares darkly at the little sand-filled toy. “He gave you a donkey.”

“You might be reading too much into donkeys,” I tell him. “As far as I know, they’re not all that typical of a token of love.”

“Donkeys now,” Darren says, “next it’ll be iambic poetry, and velvet curtains, and eventually your very own stage, and who knows what he’ll have planned then. Probably a proposal.”

I pat him on the shoulder. “I promise I’ll let you know before Lavender Lad proposes to me.”

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The roof, the roof

“So,” Stranglehold says, trying to smile at me.

I nod back at him. Arsenal watches me intently, and Boomerang stares menacingly at his tray, and everyone else glances quickly at me then won’t meet my eyes. I sit down.

“What, um,” Bartok asks, “what movies has everyone seen lately?”

“Are we seriously not going to talk about this?” Laces snaps.

I turn to look at him. Everyone else is aimed carefully away.

“Seriously, that kind of liability could get us all killed out in the field.” His hand shakes as he picks up his drink.

“It was just cause we were going to the,” Arsenal tips his head vaguely upwards.

“The word isn’t going to bother me,” I mutter.

Boomerang starts singing Fire Water Burn under his breath.

That bothers me. I mean, not in a panic-inducing way; it’s just irritating.

“I, uh, saw this French one, the other day,” Stranglehold says. “It was about –”

You,” Laces says, pointing his fork at me, “you need to go home. Or go meditate or something. You can’t go back out with us.” The tines wobble.

“Oh, yes?” Bartok says, raising her voice enough that a couple people at nearby tables turn to look at her, “was it subtitled, or…?”

“You need to talk to someone,” Laces growls, “okay? You need to get your shit sorted.”

“It had closed captioning, I think,” Stranglehold says, voice carrying across more than just our table, “but I didn’t check to see whether that was for the dubs or not. I can look for you?”

Laces grits his teeth and balls up his napkin.

“Laces,” I say.

He shoves his tray away from him and walks out of the cafeteria. Hunch follows. Boomerang glances up towards them and curls in on himself a little.

“Is Laces okay?” Arsenal murmurs, tugging on Bartok’s sleeve.

She drapes an arm over his shoulders. “It’s just been a while since he had to deal with one of his teammates, uh,” she looks at me.

“Having an episode,” I suggest.

She shrugs. Arsenal picks at his food.

“It wasn’t the door,” I tell her. “You can tell him that. It wasn’t the door, it was the sunlight.”

She shrugs again.

“Hey,” Arsenal says, too quickly, “do you have my mug?”

I look around for it. I find it sitting next to Hunch’s tray, pick it up, and finally take a look at it. It has a paw print pattern circling the bottom, with a cat walking at the front. Cute.

Arsenal grins sheepishly as I hand it to him. “Sorry. It’s my only mug.”

“That’s fine,” my voice rings out. “I have plenty, if you need to borrow one.”

“It’s true,” Sass says, elbowing me very gently, “there’s a whole shelf full of them in the kids’ gym office. One of them had, like, a heron or some shit.”

“Fuck,” I say. All eyes turn to me. “I, uh, that one’s Darren’s. I should give it back.”

Stranglehold laughs slightly. “It’s a crane, anyway.”

“What are you, an ornithologist?” Sass says, “fuck you.”

“I basically,” I say, giving Arsenal a grin, “buy a mug every time a see a good one.”

He taps his fingers against his wrist. “Oh? What counts as good?”

I clear my throat. “Oh, uh, funny messages, interesting designs, cute animals,” I gesture as his own mug.

He nods. “I have a couple more like this at home, but they’re all handmade, so my parents won’t let me bring them in. And I thought my school logo one was. Maybe a little weird.”

“That’s not weird,” Boomerang says, cutting his food into tiny little pieces. “I brought one from my school. I see school logos everywhere.”

“Yeah,” Arsenal says, quietly.

“Well,” I say, picking a fry out of the pile, one of the piles, why did I get so many fries, “you can have one of mine, if you want. I probably won’t miss it.”

Arsenal smirks slightly. “Yeah? Got any with rainbow flags?”

Boomerang’s knife makes absolutely the worst sound as it scrapes against his plate.

I frown at him. “Well, I can –”

“Hey did anyone see the notice about bring your dog to work day how interesting I wish I had a dog to bring in is anyone else bringing in a dog?” Boomerang says.

“I’m bringing in my dog,” Stranglehold says, “when is this?”

“On Tuesday,” Bartok says. “You have a dog?”

“I will by Tuesday,” Stranglehold says.

“Do you even know how to take care of a dog?” Sass asks. “Do you know what they eat?”

“I’ll get one of those tiny white ones,” Stranglehold says. “It’s easy to figure out what they eat; they label the cans for that kind of dog.”

“You know, like, a lot of dogs can eat that food,” Arsenal says, brow furrowed. “Not just Westies. It’s just small dog food is all.”

“Yes,” Stranglehold says, shaking his head. “I do know that. I was joking.”

“You can still get a Westie,” Sass says, “you really, really can.”

“I thought I didn’t know how to take care of a dog?” Stranglehold says.

“What,” Sass says, “you give it some water and take it for walkies, how hard can it be. You need to get a Toto.

“Toto’s a Yorkie,” Boomerang says.

“It’s a negative Toto,” Sass says, “he knows what I mean.”

“What? No,” Stranglehold says, “I’m not helping you make cursed images, Kitty, no matter how hard you beg. That is not happening. No.”

“You wouldn’t even be helping me,” Sass says, “Toto would be helping me, what a good boy.”

“Well, now he’s going to end up with a Great Dane,” I say.

“Even better,” Sass says.

Stranglehold drops his head into his hands.

“I guess I’ll take you off the list for Tuesday, then,” Bartok says, clucking her tongue.

“You think I can talk my parents into letting me bring our dog?” Arsenal asks.

“They don’t even trust you with cups, they’re going to trust you with the dog?” Sass says.

“Well, I’ve never fallen down the stairs and dropped a dog now have I?” Arsenal asks.

“Dogs don’t typically shatter when you drop them, either,” I add.

The conversation falls silent.

“What,” Boomerang says, grudgingly, “what kind of dog do you have.”

“Oh, uh,” Arsenal says. “A Golden? Her name is Marzipan.”

Bartok makes a face. “How do you even carry a Golden up and down the stairs?”

“Oh, didn’t you know?” Arsenal says, “my superpower is having unlimited guns.”

All of us groan before he even starts making ridiculous poses.

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