A party felt like a stupid idea.
But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.
More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.
The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.
“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.
She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”
He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”
“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”
He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”
“Except for the retinue.”
I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…
Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.
After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.
Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.
“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”
I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…
“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.
“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”
I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”
She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”
I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”
She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”
“Please don’t start calling me that.”
She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”
I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.
“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.
I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”
She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”
She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.
Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”
“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”
She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”
I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”
“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”
Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.
“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”
“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”
She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”
“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.
The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”
“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”
“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”
The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”
“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”
“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”
The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”
I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.
“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”
I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”
She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”
“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”
“No, of course not.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”
“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”
Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”
She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”
She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”
“No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”
“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.
Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?”
“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”
I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”
Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”
I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”
“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”
She gave me a sidelong glance.
I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.
“Crap,” I muttered.
Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”
I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”
Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”
“Glad you find my pain funny.”
She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.
“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”
She flipped me off with a winning smile.
We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”
“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”
“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”
“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”
I groaned. “Butler knows.”
“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”
“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”
At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.
She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”
“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”
I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”
“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.
“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”
“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.
“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”
Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.
Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”
I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.
“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”
“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”
“How is your new job treating you?”
She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”
“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”
“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”
“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.
She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”
“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”
“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.
She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”
I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”
“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”
Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”
Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”
“Exercises, then. No needles.”
“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.
His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”
“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.
Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”
“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”
He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”
I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”
“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”
Ferenil slapped him across the face.
“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?”
“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”
Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.
“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.
Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”
I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”
“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”
“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”
The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”
“What does he drain?” I asked.
“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.
“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”
The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”
I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”
“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”
While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.
I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”
“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”
They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”
I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.
“Be careful,” I told her quietly.
She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”
“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”
She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.
“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”
He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”
I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”
“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”
Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.
“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”
She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”
I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”
She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”
George nodded. “Probably for the best.”
I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”
He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”
“Not what I meant.”
He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”
I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”
She shrugged, and signed something.
“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”
She signed something else.
“The biters have it worse.”
I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.
“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”
He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”
“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”
“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.
“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”
Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”
I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”
George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”
“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”
“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”
“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”
“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.
The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.
“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.
“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.
“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”
“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”
She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”
“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”
“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”
“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”
“Yes, I got that.”
She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”
“What do you—oh.” Huh.
She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”
“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”
She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”
I opened the door for her. “After you.”
Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.
Behind the Scenes (scene 269)
I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.