Port City, USA
A block away from Dockworks Telecom
In the middle of a rainstorm
5:31 PM, Friday
"Don't send me away this time," Tanya says softly and urgently, a step behind her villain.
"There's nowhere for me to go."
"Behind the truck, there." Sterling nods, a gesture which isn't missed.
"I WILL REMOVE THE TRUCK, IF YOU WISH TO HIDE," Axe bellows. "YOU WILL SURRENDER."
"What then?" Tanya asks.
"One step at a time."
"IF YOU WILL NOT SURRENDER, THEN I WILL BRING YOU IN HOWEVER I CAN."
"He can do it," Tanya replies. "He can just knock it onto us if he wants to hurt us."
"That'd probably kill us." Sterling raises his voice. "And Brights don't kill."
"MAIMING IS NOT KILLING," Axe points out. "YOU DO NOT NEED BOTH LEGS TO WORK FOR YOU TO BE ALIVE."
Tanya pipes up. "Threatening civilians, Axe? Think the Society might want to hear about that."
"TELLING PLAIN TRUTH TO CRIMINALS," the barbarian replies. "THIS IS ENOUGH TALK." He starts to advance on the pair.
"Split up?" Sterling suggests.
"No. Not again."
He looks at Tanya. "What is it?"
"I can't be a good minion if he's between us!"
"You can't be a good minion with your arms broken."
Axe is halfway across the street and advancing steadily.
"No arguments. Go. Don't get caught. Stay nearby."
Without another word the two of them head in opposite directions.
"OH GOOD. MAKING THIS FUN." Axe laughs.
"Come on, brute," Sterling taunts the hero. "It's me you want anyway."
"THE ARSONIST IS THE TOP PRIORITY."
"It's me that Gerald hated. I'm a much more obvious suspect than a computer nerd."
"YOU ARE AN EASIER TARGET. ONCE I AM DONE WITH HER—"
"I'll be long gone, and you'll have missed your opportunity." Sterling pauses behind a minivan parked at a thirty-degree angle from the curb. "The man Flamehammer hit, the one Arctic Angel froze, the one your entire organization has been itching for a reason to put down, you don't want to be the one to let that man get away." He chuckles confidently. "Surely my inability to be captured has become Bright legend."
Sterling can almost hear the divided loyalties and the confusion coming from Axe's lack of response. Good start, now... where to next, and what to do when I'm there? How long can I stall for? Can I get to the Angel? More importantly, can I get to the Angel before she gets to me?
Sterling pauses at that thought, and another. Axe doesn't know I'm Silver Tongue, I should be thinking like Sterling Grey. He curses himself for his last taunt. Sterling Grey hasn't been under Bright threat except for the past couple days. He's getting careless.
A loud crashing sound brings him back to reality as the minivan rolls up on its hood before falling on its roof, impossibly undamaged thanks to Axe's protective power. Sterling, thinking quickly, moves with it, keeping at least a few steps ahead of Axe.
"THIS TIME I WILL NOT MISS!" The superhero advances on Sterling's position, holding his axe-shaped energy field across his chest.
"Maybe I don't want you to. Maybe I'm distracting you, keeping you from other important work." Sterling laughs as he dodges around the upturned vehicle. "I know you won't hurt me."
Axe just gives a wordless growl in reply and hits the minivan again, sending it sliding a few feet down the road. Sterling misjudges his movements and gets clipped by the bumper, and before he realizes it he's on his back on the hard pavement, the air forced from his lungs. For the second time that evening, he's seeing stars with a superpower providing a looming capture threat.
"THERE, YOU SEE? YOU ARE NOT DEAD, YOU ARE NOT EVEN HURT BAD." Axe looms over him, holding a pair of Mechanician's restraints. "AND IF YOU WANT TO STAY THAT WAY, GIVE ME YOUR H—"
Axe is cut off as a small, dark blur flashes out from behind a nearby car and runs right into him, planting a shoulder into his chest. At the same time, Sterling, looking straight up at the sky, sees a silver streak closing rapidly in on them.
Tanya's about to get brutalized, Arctic Angel is descending on us, we're going to be frozen or hurt or jailed or some combination of the three. He sighs to himself, steeling himself against the inevitability. This is just about as bad as it gets.
The streets of the docks district
She's rushing very quickly at Axe, faster than she'd moved in a long time.
I guess this is what a good minion does for her villain, Tanya thinks as she does something incredibly stupid.
Her shoulder connects with Axe's side at high speed. It fails to knock him over. She hopes the momentary distraction is enough to buy Silver Tongue enough time to do something. Anything.
It is an interesting feeling, being hit with a full swing of Axe's weapon. It doesn't hurt, not in the way she had expected it to. If it weren't for his power, surely ribs would have been broken, at least, with that force. Her spine would have shattered, given how hard she hits the building, and she lands roughly on her knees, and then her face, from about twenty feet up, which could have broken legs and messed up her nose at least. The moment she feels the concrete under her forehead, she senses, through some unknown awareness, that Axe's protection has faded.
Even without being physically hurt, the shock of the blow combines with her body's expectation of damage and leaves her gasping for air as she lies face down on the ground. Her heart is pounding. She's soaked, she hopes only from the rain, although she doesn't seem to be bleeding at all.
I have to get back, she thinks, and she hates herself for it, even as it motivates her to stand up. A good minion doesn't abandon her villain in the middle of a fight.
She gets to her feet just in time to see a silver-white blast streak down from the sky and cover the intersection with ice.
Fight's over. Fucking hide. Silver Tongue or not, I can't do anything for him if he's frozen.
She staggers to a doorway, tries to catch her breath, and pulls out her new smartphone, which is somehow miraculously undamaged. Two taps and she's back where she needs to be.
"I hope you've still got your communicator in," she says into the phone, "because you and me, bitch? We need to have a talk."
The first thing Jim sees as he turns the corner is Axe knocking a small figure into the air. The diminutive woman flies out of sight, spinning like a child's ragdoll, roughly thrown.
And then Sterling lying on the ground.
And then he sees Arctic Angel speeding towards them overhead.
If Axe takes Sterling in...
Communications isn't far away. Thomas could be next.
He can feel the raindrops.
Not the rain, not the precipitation that makes everything wet and cold, that's been falling on him since he walked out into the street, but each individual raindrop, each drop in the air between him and Axe, every bit of the mist that reaches up to where the Angel flies.
He sees the bright flash of silver and white originating in the clouds that means that the Angel is using her power, and feels the droplets vanishing from his awareness as they're absorbed into the onrushing column of ice.
His instincts kick in immediately. A layer of rain just above Sterling pauses in its descent, forming a cushion of water, which then heats up rapidly until it flashes into steam. But it's not Jim's goal to block the blast; that seems impossible, anyway. Instead, he diverts it around his neighbor, pushing it away from Sterling and to the ground on either side, forming an arch of ice around him.
Arctic Angel's power is indiscriminate. Axe is standing stock-still, frozen in the follow-through of his swing. A lump of ice lies on the ground next to him, and Sterling lies under that lump. Jim can tell that that Sterling isn't frozen, himself, that there's liquid water under that ice. He's probably not all that comfortable, though, and likely needs a rescue. Fortunately, the Angel seems to be chasing after the girl that Axe hit, and after a quick circle overhead, she turns and flies towards the water.
The middle of the road
He sees the silver light blazing down on him from above.
He anticipates the darkness that doesn't come.
Instead of cold, he feels a blast of terrific heat, as though he'd just opened an oven door. His eyes close against the warmth. When he opens them, he's still on the ground, a shell of ice very near to him, almost touching his skin. He can't move against it. He's heard stories of people buried in avalanches, and this sounds a lot like that.
He tries to breathe, and it's difficult, but not impossible. The cold is very uncomfortable. He focuses on that discomfort, because the alternative is sheer panic.
The sky over the docks
"Are you hurt?"
"I just flew a fuckin' city block and hit the fuckin' concrete at mach fuckin' ten, I'm just fuckin' peachy."
"Where are you?"
"Nuh uh, no fuckin' way you maniac. We can talk like this."
"I just froze Axe."
"Yeah, and Si... Sterling."
"To keep him safe."
"Bullshit. You're gonna haul him into prison. Fuck, the Brights'll just dump him in a stasis chamber like Sharon, and—"
"—Jesus fuck I just did it again, didn't I."
"Why would the Brights care about—"
"He's fucking Silver Tongue, Chels! He's a goddamn mind controller and the instant anyone figures that out, he's a dead man, don't you get it? And fuck, I figured it out, and so did the goddamn pizza girl, so even the shithead Brights can't be so thick that they..."
"Do you see it, Chelsea?"
"Because everything just fuckin' clicked for me."
"I've seen Mechanician's schematics. I've been hangin' out with a fuckin' mind controller. And so have you."
"Nope. Not Sterling. I mean, fuck, yes, Sterling, but also—"
"Oh holy shit."
"Yeah, no kidding, right?"
"I have to... one sec."
"Chels, what's going on?"
Arctic Angel lands in the intersection and makes a show of removing her earpiece and of tossing it in the road.
Tanya tentatively peeks out from the doorway where she's hiding from the weather, and the various Brights wandering the streets.
Arctic Angel is brushing tears from her eyes as she walks towards Tanya.
"I can't hear him right now."
Tanya understands what she means—not that she's unable to hear Flamehammer, but that listening to him right now would be dangerous.
"Something Silver Tongue taught me," Tanya says. "The more you're exposed to mind control, the more you're vulnerable to it."
The Angel nods.
"And I'm willing to bet that there's been a fuckin' subsonic inducer pointed at you for a couple months now."
She sighs. "That's probably right." She puts her hand to her temple and takes a deep breath. "What are you doing with Silver Tongue?"
Tanya rolls her eyes. "Well, y'know, my two best friends are fucking him, I figure I might as well join in. Gah, I'll just give you the whole story another time, in short, I'm a fucking minion now and I hate how much it suits me. Christ, I thought that if I was going to have a shitty identity crisis it'd be around sexuality, not work."
Despite herself, Arctic Angel smiles, her hand moving to cover her mouth. "Tanya, I just... I feel so..."
"Well you are. No, shut up, if you wanted comfort you shoulda gone to Sterling instead of icing him. You're an idiot. So what? Big fuckin' deal. You got used, but you got used without even knowing it. You couldn't have done anything about it. You wanna know what I did with my information? I walked right the fuck into Sterling Grey's apartment and I told him that I knew who he was. You think you're an idiot? You think you're stupid? Shit, Chels, that wasn't even a fucking week after walking into the cafe by myself and nearly burning to death, and I was practically asking to get whacked! You got made a fool of by an overgrown manchild with fancy toys, I did it to my own stupid fucking self!" Tanya shakes her head, eyes blazing. "God only knows what the fuck Sharon's gonna think about all this when we get her out of containment, huh. Or Crystal, if I tell her."
"Oh shit, Sharon," Chelsea says, and a sob wells up unbidden.
"Yeah, you're probably lucky that she's the understanding and forgiving type, or I doubt you'd be seeing those beautiful tits ever again." Tanya puts a comforting arm around her friend. "Also, if you're gonna change back, you're gonna wind up naked, I didn't make that dress to shrink."
"Fuck it." She feels the wings dissolve in the mist. "I can't be the Angel right now. I just... I can't. She's... She's not me anymore. She's taking on a life of her own, and I can't seem to stop her."
Tanya frowns. "Something else the supervillain taught me. If you try to turn someone into something else, and they have a reason to stay that something else, you basically make them into a... I dunno, a parody, I guess? I didn't exactly understand, but... Your Angel's like a flat cartoon version of herself, what the Bright Society and Flamehammer imagines that she should be. But, uh, yeah, he's the expert, not me, so he can probably answer questions better."
Chelsea flushed. "A reason to stay as the Angel," she says, starting to shrink. "A job, a dream, a lover."
"Yeah, three fuckin' things I got now, finally. A job with the telecom, a dream to be a perfect little minion—thank you very fucking much, I hate it—and a girl I can finally see myself with. If she ever gets out of containment."
Chelsea tilts her head. "You don't mean Sharon."
"Huh? No, fuck no, that ship's long sailed, and besides, you're at the helm now. You take her." Tanya carefully holds up her friend's dress to keep it from dropping off her narrowed frame. "Besides, we have other crises to deal with right now."
"What to do about Flamehammer."
Tanya nods. "What to do about fuckin' Flamehammer."
The two women sit on the wet doorstep.
"If he starts talking to you—"
"Yeah. I have to stay away from him."
"You're fucking him?"
"I was. Or, uh, I guess the Angel is." Her tone turns bitter. "I don't think he wants anything to do with me."
"So if he asks you a question, it'll be the Angel that answers."
"And that scares me."
Tanya laughs. "It fuckin' should! It scares the Christ outta me."
"What's different, for you? Oh Jesus, it just... what you said just started to—"
"Yeah, yeah, we'll get there, you have an important question there, and I think I know the answer, so shut up a second."
"You think I don't know what he is?" She laughs again, sharply. "But there's a difference. Oh fuck me, now it's sinking in, this is the shit he told me, too. And I don't have time to go into this, but Jesus fuck we're going to have a lot of suppers and late night talks I think if we get out of this shit alive. Anyway! Listening to you and thinking about all this shit the only thing I can keep hearing is how much different my experience of all this shit is from yours. And I bet I could find you a dozen people, easy, who have a much better story than you do, and I think you should listen to mine at least." Tanya stands up and shuffles a bit on her feet. "Gah, I'm fuckin' freezing out here. Whatever. Minion-me isn't a whole lot different from normal-me, you get it? It's like there's a shift inside me, but I'm still Tanya. Do I look or sound any fuckin' different to you? And I'm still all here for you, too, I'm not here because he sent me out to bring you down, I'm here because you need me, and right now—"
"—No, shut up, I'm on a roll here. What I'm saying is that Flamehammer's made the Angel different from you and that—"
"Tanya." Chelsea points down the road, making Tanya turn around to see an impossibility.
The expert is approaching. Tanya breathes a sigh of relief, not having to worry about explaining anymore. Everything could be nice and simple again.
On the road
What feels like hours later but has probably only been a moment or two
Heat and cold are mixing very uncomfortably, and it seems like whichever is winning out, Sterling's just getting more and more wet, which, even when he's warm, makes him shiver. But with each pass of warmth, he finds himself able to move just a little more.
By the time he can push through the ice and sit himself up, he's soaked to the skin. A familiar hand attached to a friendly face helps him up.
"Jim. Th-Thank you," he stammers.
"Sterling." Jim looks as though he's been working hard, and likely would be covered in sweat if not for the rain. He's breathing heavily. "You're alright."
Sterling shivers. "I'm alive, anyway. I'm freezing."
Jim nods. "You're soaked. I'll see what I can—"
"You've done more than enough, thank you," he says sincerely, brushing ice crystals and water from his suit jacket. "Besides, we may need your powers soon enough, you should conserve them."
"Right." Jim blinks. "Wait, how do you—"
Sterling puts his hands on his neighbor's shoulders and looks him in the eye. "I am sorry that we have to do this this way."
"Who am I?"
Jim stares. "You're... Oh God, you're..."
Silver Tongue nods.
"And for the last fifteen years..."
He nods again. "You're catching up. Take it easy. You know all this, it's just been buried, to keep us all safe."
Jim takes a deep breath. "Okay. Okay. I think I can handle this, at least for now. Where's Thomas?"
"He's fine. He's..." Sterling takes a moment to collect himself, trying to keep from shaking with cold. "We got hit by the Mechanician and Psilocyber. They're neutralized, or I wouldn't be here. Mechanician knocked me and the three senior engineers out, including Thomas. Psilocyber dosed up the others. There's nothing going on there right now, and I don't... recommend that you go in." Sterling shivers again. "Mark Spirit and Vanessa Silva, who are lovers, couldn't contain themselves once Psilocyber hit them, and their physical expression of love seems to have been somewhat... contagious. So if you really want to check in on Thomas, you'll find him passed out in the heart of the Communications department, on the other side of the ménage à quatre."
"Definitely. So long as the police and the remaining Brights are kept clear..."
Jim smiles grimly. "My power's back, Sterling, I can deal with them."
"Let's hope you don't have to." Sterling wipes water from his face and shudders. "Do you mind coming with me, Jim? I might need your power presently."
"What is it?"
"We're going to see Arctic Angel."
Chelsea rises, her shimmering dress falling to her feet, and holds out her hand. "Chelsea Angela Donovan." She stands naked in the rain, unashamed, dignified.
Sterling takes her hand in a respectful greeting. "Sterling Semyon Grey. Silver Tongue, if you like." Soaked to the skin as he is, he feels less well-dressed.
"Your hand is cold," she says softly.
"Yours is warm."
"Hey," Tanya cuts in. "Nauseatingly cute as you both are, it's fucking raining, and somewhere out there Flamehammer's getting ready to beat the shit out of at least two of us, so maybe save the puppy eyes for somewhere else. Also who the fuck are you?"
"Jim Tyler," Jim introduces himself. "Security."
"Oh, great, security, that's awesome, I don't suppose you know where I can find my girlfriend who also works in security? Crystal, over six feet tall, beautiful deep voice, former hockey star, pretty much built like you but with nicer breasts?"
Tanya hears and turns. "Oh, don't tell me you're the one who sent her to containment."
"No," Chelsea says, hands over her mouth. "No, no. Not..." Her knees buckle, and Sterling helps her to sit on her dress. "This is too sick. Too much."
Tanya shows an uncharacteristic concern, moving to her friend's side. "Chels? What'd you do?"
"I didn't," Chelsea sobs insistently. "I didn't. She did. I couldn't. I wouldn't. I was... I was frozen, Tan, I couldn't stop it, I couldn't stop him, or her, I wasn't... I was there, but it wasn't me!"
"Chelsea," Sterling begins, crouching down beside her, "You know who I am, now, and you know what I can do. Right now you need strength and stability. Will you let me use my power to help you?"
Swallowing hard, right on the edge of breaking down, Chelsea nods. "Yeah, I... I trust you. I dunno why but I trust you. Or... Or at least I want to. I..." She looks up at him, the pace of her words quickening. "I can feel her, Sterling, she's right there, ready to come out and let me stop thinking about everything, and if she does—"
He puts a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I know. We'll get through this."
"Tanya," Jim says, "I think we should probably go on the lookout for the police or Flamehammer."
"You do it," Tanya snaps, rounding on him. "I'm not leaving my friend."
Sterling looks up at them. "Tanya, didn't you set up remote access to communications? Can't you do something from here?"
She nods. "I'd need to get out of the rain to work my phone, but yeah, I can get in there."
"Anything useful you can remotely?"
"I dunno, probably?"
"Go check. Stay nearby, keep us in sight, and stay together."
"Yes sir," Tanya says with a quick nod. "C'mon Joe."
"Jim," Jim corrects her as the two of them head off in search of shelter nearby.
Sterling shivers, sitting on the curb next to Chelsea. She looks at him, concerned. "Are you alright?"
He shakes his head. "I'm very, very cold."
"Being soaking wet doesn't help."
"Sure doesn't." He shivers again and smiles. "Don't worry about that for now. I can deal with it later."
Chelsea nods. "We'll get you warmed up once we're done here."
The power flows from him unimpeded as he puts his arm around Chelsea's bare shoulders. The purpose it gives him is something like warmth, anyway. "It's time to be strong, Chelsea. You've been dealing with two competing mind controllers for some time, with two different visions of who you are. Each of us, intentionally or otherwise, have been shaping you into what we would like to see, what we would like you to be. But it's time now for you to be who you want to be."
Chelsea closes her eyes and nods. "I can feel you shivering, Sterling."
"You're going to ignore that. It's normal to be cold, especially in this weather." He doesn't need her reminding him. He's impossibly chilled, and it takes all his control just to keep his teeth from chattering and his voice from wavering. "This moment is about you. This talk is about you. About who you are, about who you can be, about who you want to be. If you're Arctic Angel, if she is in control, if you're nothing but Arctic Angel, then..." He hesitates. "Then as with last week, I will be frozen again. As with a few minutes ago, you will use your powers in offense against me and I will be captive. But if you're Chelsea Donovan, if you're the woman I..."
There's a momentary pause. Sterling shivers. Chelsea opens her eyes.
"Say it, Sterling. Please say it. I need to hear it from at least one of you."
He nods. "If you're the woman that I'm coming to love," he continues, and he feels her tense up in a way that he can't read, "then perhaps you'll make a different choice. Perhaps you can come unfrozen, free yourself from the emotions of the night before, let the words come to you. Whoever you are, whoever you want to be, you can find strength and stability in that decision. You no longer need to be divided. You can be of one mind, and—"
"The girl Tanya was talking about," Chelsea interrupts, her voice quiet and calm. Her eyes had fallen closed again as Sterling was speaking. "Last night. She had a meeting with Flamehammer, on a boat on the marina. It went badly. We froze her and threw her overboard."
There it is. "Can you find her?"
"Not on my own."
The shivering keeps Sterling from growling in frustration. His guilt at putting Crystal in danger, of not paying close enough attention to what she was walking into, threatens to make him lash out, and the wrong words, even the wrong tone, could send a delicate and suggestible Chelsea retreating into the Angel for comfort. He thinks carefully, trying to focus on anything but the cold. "Could you guide a search-and-rescue team?"
"Yes." No hesitation in her reply. Chelsea's eyes come open again.
Sterling gets to his feet and helps her up, arms and legs shaking. "You and Tanya head to the medic station. They coordinate ocean rec—uh, rescue. She knows how to get there."
Chelsea lets out a slow sigh. "Okay. Okay, I can do that."
"Good." He takes a shuddering breath. "Stay away from Flamehammer. If he's out there with an inducer..."
Chelsea nods. "Sterling..." She hesitates. She turns away. "If you see me in wings..." She shakes her head. "If you see the Angel, run, and don't look back. Don't let her get you."
Unable to form coherent words through the shivering, Sterling makes a noise of affirmation as he waves in the direction that Tanya and Jim had gone. When Tanya pops out of a doorway, he pulls his arms down into a hug across his own chest. His fingers feel stiff, and his head is swimming, which he assures himself must be the aftereffects of Mechanician's sonic attack.
Lots of time to warm up later.
Tanya and Jim return. "We checked in on Telecom, everything's just as we left it."
"Just as we left it," Tanya repeats. Jim looks a little red in the face.
Sterling nods. "A-alright."
"Boss? Your teeth are chattering."
"Silver Tongue. Stop. You can't use your power if you can't fucking talk."
Chelsea wraps her arms around him from behind. "What happened to you?"
Jim clears his throat. "Probably my fault."
Tanya looks at him. "Alright, what the fuck did you do? And why are you dry, it's raining."
"I can do things with water. I'm powered. I made a superheated cushion between Sterling and the blast of ice and—"
"Whoa! Help!" Sterling hears Chelsea say as his knees buckle, and for the second time in an hour the world collapses into blackness.
Somewhere, on a soft bench,
A soft dry bench, more importantly,
He's stripped down to his boxers.
He's surrounded by warmth, despite this.
His eyes open. His head is still spinning.
He tries to sit up. A gentle hand, soft and cool, pushes him back down.
He looks up into the brown eyes of Chelsea Donovan.
"You okay?" she asks, a worried smile on her face.
He shivers. He makes a noise something like an affirmative response.
"He's awake?" a deep male voice says from behind the bench. He recognizes his neighbor, Jim Tyler, without looking away from those beautiful eyes.
"He's awake," Chelsea responds, also without looking away. He can still feel one cool hand on his chest. "You're exhausted, Sterling."
He nods, sort of, barely lifting his head from the soft bench.
Tanya's voice cuts in, sounding like she's reading from a list. "Not getting enough sleep. Using your power a lot, which these two tell me is hard work. Stress on the job. Mild hypothermia." Despite the cold nature of the recitation, he can hear his minion's worry.
"The fight's...." he starts, his thought only half-formed.
The pressure on his chest increases a little. "The fight will wait."
Sterling takes a deep breath. "This has to stop now."
"Christ, boss," Tanya says, appearing next to Chelsea. "Give it five fucking minutes, would ya?"
"Come with us," Chelsea entreats. "We'll go rescue Crystal. We can talk about what to do after that."
His strength is returning. "No," he says. "I want him off the docks. I want—"
"Told ya," Tanya cuts in with an air of smugness.
"You did," Jim replies. "Do you have the communication thing?"
"You're not the only one who can come up with a plan," Chelsea explains with a gentle smile. "I can't go anywhere near Flamehammer, just in case he can still get in the Angel's head. But he's going to be on the boat where we need to be."
Jim speaks next. "In this weather, they're probably going to need my help to do search and rescue."
"And I wanna be there," Tanya continues. "Your loyal minion or not. If you tell me not to—"
Sterling finally starts to sit up. "No, Tanya, you go. But that just leaves me to—"
"Be the distraction," Chelsea says, helping him get upright. She's still naked, he notices. "Hold him off. Keep him occupied."
"What do you think?" Jim asks, sounding a little distressed himself.
Sterling manages a smile. "I absolutely hate it, and it sounds like exactly the sort of plan I would have come up with."
"I'm pretty sure we all think it's shit," Tanya growls. "But we couldn't come up with anything better. Time's getting short, the cops are at the far end of the docks and coming this way. It took the water boy and the nurse five minutes to get you inside, strip you down and warm you up while we were talking. And I fuckin' hate the idea that I'm abandoning you, which is abso-fucking-lutely something we are going to discuss at length when we have the time."
"Which we don't have now," Chelsea cuts in. "Jim says he can dry your suit."
"Easy," Jim says. "No worries about hurting you."
Tanya sighs. "I had to take care of the suit." She waves, and Sterling finally looks past Chelsea to the rest of the room. He recognizes the space, now, the interior of a disused bus station that had become known as the Community Hall. Large meetings take place here. This is where the rally had begun a week before, a rally that had ended with him and a few dozen other people frozen in place. His suit has been laid out in its component parts on another soft bench, flattened out to dry.
"Trust the costumer to know what she's doing with good clothes," he says. "Good job, Tanya."
She smiles and flushes briefly before her scowl returns. She wanders over to other the bench and picks up a small object. "This is Chels' earpiece. It should operate on the Brights' frequencies, so if you wanna submerge Flamehammer in suggestions, now would be a good time."
Sterling, with Chelsea's help, rises to his feet and shakes his head. "I've tried hundreds of times to get my power to work over electronics, everything from a land-line telephone to a hi-fidelity lossless recording from a professional sound booth. It only works when I can speak directly to people." He makes his way across the room. "I'll think of something we might do with that, though... Jim, could you dry off my pants? I'd like to get dressed up."
"Hey, what's with the goliath, anyway? He said he's got superpowers and—"
"I'm right here," Jim says, amused. "You can ask me."
Tanya snickers. "I've learned that when this fucker's around, he's usually got more information than anyone else in the room. So anyway, what's your deal?"
"I'm Thomas Holfers' partner. You know Thomas, I think." Jim concentrates for a moment, focused on the pants Sterling is holding up. "I applied for the Brights years ago and got rejected on account of my orientation. I was angry. Sterling here, one sec," Sterling finishes slipping on his pants and retrieves his undershirt, and Jim glowers at it a bit. "Sterling was my life coach, helped me get my anger, and my powers, under control. Made me think that I had lost my abilities when I got a handle on my anger, which was important for getting rechecked by the Brights and being taken off their list."
Sterling puts his t-shirt on. "It's not quite dryer-fresh, but it's at least dry."
"You want 'em scalding hot? I can oblige." Jim chuckles. "Anyway, I'm a much calmer man now, and when the moment came for heroics, I guess, the hold Sterling put on my powers let loose and—"
"Not a lot of point in controlling a superpower if I can't use the power for my own benefit." Sterling notes. "Jim's been practicing his powers everyday—"
"And believing that I was failing."
"And now he has almost perfect control of his powers."
Jim nods, drying off Sterling's shirt. "And my anger. Does Thomas know, by the way?"
"Some." Sterling puts his shirt on. "Just the jacket now."
"Thomas isn't the best at keeping secrets," Sterling explains. "Not from you."
"He kept yours."
Sterling slips his dry jacket on. "No, he didn't. I've had to clean that mess up a couple times. He's been slowly getting better about it."
Jim laughs, and so does Chelsea. Tanya makes a strangled sound like a cough interrupted by a scream.
"Frustrated?" Chelsea asks her friend.
"You have no fucking idea," Tanya replies. "Alright, Silver Tongue, what do you want me to do with the communicator, if you can't use your power over it?"
Somewhere in the docks
The maze-like structure of the docks and the unmarked buildings have left Flamehammer completely confused. The silence in his ear only makes things worse. He passes the same set of parked cars for the third time from a different angle, and his ire builds.
An unfamiliar voice in his ear. Sounds like a young woman. "WHO IS THIS? HOW ARE YOU ON THIS LINE?"
"Oh, I picked up Arctic Angel's communicator from the street."
"WHY IS SHE NOT—"
"Shut it, firebug. Here's the fuckin' story, you get it? Four of your heavy hitters are out of commission. You're alone. You wanna pull out a fuckin' double-you from this shit, or do you wanna pack up with your tail between your iron-plated legs and cut your losses?"
"WHAT ARE YOU—"
"Psilocyber's drugged out. Mechanician's the same. Axe is on ice. Angel's out of commission. It's just you... and him."
"WHO DO YOU MEAN?"
"Who do you think, flamebrain? He's been watching, and he's not happy."
A chill runs through Flamehammer, and it's not a chill of fear. Excitement. Anticipation. "SILVER TONGUE."
"Bang on the fuckin' money, douche. You wanna meet him? You wanna test your skill against him? He'll be at the corner where you hit the protest last week. Water and Pardie." There's a slight pause. "Come alone."