“Come on out, Scorpio. I promise I’ll only hurt you a little bit!”
Jaguar stalked through the empty lab. The lights flickered, half of them shattered into pieces. Papers were scattered on the floor, many of them either unreadable or at least way beyond Jaguar’s paygrade.
“That’s it, Jaguar,” a voice chirped in her ear. “Smoke him out so he enters the ring.”
Jaguar rolled her eyes. “Listen, EE,” she muttered, “you can’t rush me here. I’ll get him where I want him, Saturn just needs to get his ring there.”
Five rooms away, brow furrowed, jaw clenched, Saturn tried to expand his ring of influence. He just needed to push a little further, just a little further, and he’d be able to zap the stupid bastard and finish this.
But then an empty socket sparked, and his concentration lapsed, and his ring shrank the few inches he’d spent the last five minutes pushing it. “Fuck!” he squeaked. “Zee, there’s a lot going on, so if you could just please try to get him somewhere I already have my ring up, it would be really helpful!”
Saturn bit his lower lip, took a deep breath, and tried to push the boundaries again. He could feel the ring expand, feel his power surge. He almost started to feel confident. But then a paper fell from a desk, and it all came crashing back down to reality. “Dammit! I mean, is it really that hard to just corner this guy?! You’re supposed to be a Jaguar, right?”
“Jaguars never had to deal with powered exoskeletons, genius,” Jaguar growled. She sniffed the air, trying to pick up a scent. All she could smell was Saturn, sweating like a pig. “Did you run out of deodorant or something?”
“Cool it, Jaguar. Saturn is way out of spec at the moment. Don’t provoke him unnecessarily.”
Jaguar rolled her eyes. Of course, she thought to herself, I got stuck with babysitting duty. Isn’t it your job to manage people’s emotions, EE?
“I’m trying–” He sputtered, face flushing red with exertion and embarrassment and irritation. “I’m trying really fucking hard over here, okay?! Y-You know that EE can’t get in my head when I’m–”
Somewhere, a faucet dripped.
“Just get him into the ring!” he shouted. A vein in his forehead throbbed painfully. Alexander just wanted to curl up and cry, but he can practically feel the panicked flashes of synaptic activity in Scorpio’s brain. So close, so close! Just a little bit more, and Saturn would be able to knock him out. “EE, can you make her do her job?! I’m– Th-This–” Alexander sputtered with a wordless sob, white noise creeping in louder and louder at the corners of his hearing. “I’ve had this ring up for– Look, this is really difficult!”
“Oh, would you just–” Jaguar paused. She heard movement. She smiled, revealing a set of fangs. “There you are.”
She moved cautiously, trying to avoid making too much noise. Even damaged, Scorpio’s exoskeleton could send her flying with ease. As she approached the source of the noise, she could hear it sparking, its servos clicking and sputtering.
“C’mon, baby,” Scorpio grunted, “keep it together… just a few more steps…”
Jaguar leapt from around the corner, activating her adrenaline reserves. “Not today, asshole!”
Saturn dreaded pushing into the frenzy of sound and sight and moving parts that erupted as soon as Jaguar flushed Scorpio from the hiding place he’d found. Frankly, he didn’t see much benefit in doing so. If Jaguar did her job correctly, Scorpio would–
Saturn shook his head and groaned as the low ache started to intensify. It was pretty clear that Jaguar wasn’t going to cooperate, and Scorpio wasn’t going to cooperate, and as his labored breathing turned to hyperventilating, Alexander’s ring of influence started to waver even more.
Saturn, listen to me. I need you to control your breathing. This is–
“No, it’s not going to work!” Saturn stammered, heart pounding faster and faster. “I-It’s going to be just like– It’s going to–” His hands shook, and even behind shut eyelids, he could see stars blinking and flashing as he sprinted towards a panic attack. “It’s– EE, it’s not going to work!”
Alexander, you need to focus! We don’t have time for this!
Jaguar felt it too. She and Scorpio were only on the outskirts of Saturn’s ring, but she could still sense his panic, the sensory overload her fight was giving him. It felt like what she imagined microphone feedback would feel like, a sharp, painful ringing in her ears that reverberated throughout her mind and body.
She pushed through it. Can’t let Alex fuck this up for me. I’m so close! She dodged one of Scorpio’s languid strikes, which connected with the hard concrete and left a crater in its wake. Scorpio was slow even on a good day, and with his suit in the state it was in, he could barely move. Even still, Jaguar had to be cautious.
She swiped at his elbow joint with her claws, severing a tube that sprayed oil all over the floor. The exoskeleton whined, and Jaguar heard a crack as Scorpio screamed in anguish. That should slow him down. Not that he needs any help.
“Shit!” Scorpio grunted. He waved his working arm around wildly, like he was reaching for something.
Saturn trembled in his suit. He was shaking, more maintaining his ring of influence with adrenaline and anxiety than any constructive focus. EE was yelling at him in his own brain, he could hear fighting going on through his feed with Jaguar, he could feel everything happening around him, all at once–
Then, suddenly, specifically, he felt someone step one foot into his ring. It was Scorpio! It had to be Scorpio! Who else could it have been if not Scorpio? Alexander choked back a sob, focused the scraps of mental energy he had left, and forced that one leg to buckle under– whoever it was.
Saturn collapsed in tandem, shivering and curled up on the ground.
Jaguar staggered to the floor. Her right leg suddenly gave out, becoming warm and slightly tingly. It was like it fell asleep, but why–
Oh. Oh, that’s just fucking great. “Saturn, you idiot” she grunted, “you got the wrong person.”
At that exact moment, Scorpio’s exoskeleton whirred to life. But it wasn’t taking another swing at Jaguar; instead, its arms, legs, and torso all opened up like clamshells, and Scorpio fell out of it onto the ground.
“Hold it right there!” Jaguar snapped. She hobbled after him, but he grabbed something off his suit and threw it on the ground.
“So long, Jaguar!” Scorpio shouted. “I’m sure we’ll–”
Whatever he was going to say next was drowned out by a blinding flash. Jaguar covered her eyes, but the flashbang had already gone off. All she could do was keep limping in the same direction in the vain hope that she might still reach Scorpio.
And as Jaguar staggered towards their rapidly escaping target, Saturn could only lay on the ground, occasionally twitching before unconscious dark finally smoothed away the panic.
When the light finally cleared, Jaguar blinked and slowly opened her eyes. Scorpio was gone.
Her hands balled into fists. EE… tell me where Saturn is. Right now.
“Jaguar, I can’t do that. He’s passed out and you are not in any state of mind to–”
“Fuck off!” Jaguar shouted, not even caring whether EE could still hear her. “He let Scorpio get away!” Her heart pounded in her chest, rage coursing through her veins. “I’m gonna get that little shit. Can’t do his goddamn job and then turns around and fucks me over? He’s dead–”
Her other leg gave out. “...dead… meat…”
She collapsed on the cold, hard ground, her adrenaline reserves giving out and leaving her completely exhausted. Her eyes slipped shut and her breathing slowed to a crawl.
Post-human crimefighting organizations were required by federal law to compile a formal report after each operation they conducted. Typically, they were released publicly during a press conference hosted by the organization in question. It was a way for the bureaucratic necessities to be turned into positive publicity, and when the organization in question was a team of “superheroes” like Generation Six, every bit helped.
That assumed, however, the operation was successful.
Something like this was going to get a private report, submitted quietly and discreetly. And while there was a questions and answers section, that was being conducted behind closed doors, too.
Alexander tried not to twitch as he pushed his bangs out of his eyes. His hair normally cooperated, even if it was a tangle of wavy black first thing out of bed. Right now, though, it was a sweat-sheened mess, clinging miserably to his scalp as he shivered on the sofa. Debriefing typically didn’t happen immediately after a mission, success or failure. This one, apparently, warranted a special response.
Not hard to imagine why, he thought with a sneer, his gaze practically dripping with venom as he glared at Zariel. Untenable. Absolutely untenable. Look at her, with that smug look on her face and that… that stupid mohawk. Who even has those anymore? He didn’t know if it was out of frustration with Zariel or himself, but he practically swatted the glass out of EE’s hand when she offered it to him. “I’m fine,” he said tersely. “Just put it on the table. If I need it, I’ll drink it on my own, OK?” He crossed his arms and drummed his fingers against his own goosebumped skin. “I’m not a child.”
Zariel chuckled to herself. “Seems you’re acting like one, Alex.” She took a sip from her own glass of water, swirling it around absent-mindedly with her hand. “Listen, Ellie, I’m all for giving this sad-sack some discipline after the shit he pulled, but what am I here for?”
“It’s Eleanor, thank you.” EE gave one of her trademark disappointed sighs. Alexander always hated that sound. “And that kind of remark is exactly why I wanted to speak to both of you today.”
“What?” Zariel leaned forward. “C’mon, you’re not suggesting that I had anything to do with it, are you? I almost had the guy!”
“You were supposed to–” Alexander twitched, throwing his hands in the air and shouting at Zariel. “We went over the plan a dozen times before we even stepped foot in the building! How many times did I tell you to herd him towards me? How many times did Eleanor say the same exact thing?!” He turned his glare towards EE and pointed at Zariel. “Look! She doesn’t listen! I can’t–” He bit his lower lip, and his fury dissolved into pathetic helplessness. “I need time to set my ring up, Eleanor! You know that, Zee knows that!” His hands balled into fists, and he slammed one on the desk. “She just doesn’t care!”
“Oh, boo-fucking-hoo!” Zariel snapped. “Maybe if you actually tried instead of bawling your eyes out at every opportunity or losing your temper anytime anything doesn’t go your way, you’d have actually done something useful for once!”
“That’s enough!” EE shouted. “Both of you! If you don’t calm down this instant, then I’ll have no choice other than to escort you off the premises and suggest you find employment elsewhere.”
“W-Wait, what?” Zariel turned her head towards EE. “Are… are you firing us?”
Alexander’s eyes went wide, and he felt his heart pound in his chest. “What? What, no, I-I’m sorry– honestly, I’m just–” Alexander shut his eyes. Took a deep breath. Tried not to think about how he’d failed– Again– Fired– Stress– He whimpered, but he refocused. She wasn’t going to fire him. She wouldn’t be talking to him if she was going to fire him. “Sorry. I. Yeah, please, go on. I’ll be–” He was about to say “good,” but Zariel would’ve latched onto that as soon as the word was out of his mouth, so instead he just trailed off into anxious silence.
“You’re not…” EE rubbed her forehead. “I’m not firing you. At least not yet. But you’re both on probation for the time being. The rest of the team can track down Scorpio on their own, and since he abandoned his suit he won’t be much of a threat.”
“So what do you want us to do?” asked Zariel.
“In layman’s terms?” EE took a slow, deep breath, like she was steeling herself for whatever she was about to say. “Couples counseling.”
Zariel stared for a moment, waiting for EE to crack and admit she was joking. But the white–haired woman in front of her didn’t break. She seemed deathly serious about what she was proposing. “Are…” Zariel tried to process the information. “Are you… fucking insane?”
EE touched a hand to her temple, scowling. “The phrasing was supposed to lighten the mood, but I’m not joking when I say that the two of you need to learn how to work together. Each of the two–person cells here are chosen specifically because each member’s abilities theoretically cover the other’s weaknesses.” EE sighed again, a terse little puff of exasperation. “Look. The two of you have the potential to be an incredibly effective team.”
“But she doesn’t listen!” Alexander protested, hating how close his voice crept up into a whine.
“And you don’t provide helpful instruction, Alexander!” EE furrowed her brow at him, only to sigh once more when he flinched away. “Alex, I was monitoring the entire operation. As soon as Jaguar began her pursuit, you should’ve been telling her precisely where your area of influence began. How is she supposed to corral someone to you if she doesn’t know where she’s supposed to go?”
“Yeah, Alex,” Zariel smiled smugly, “how am I supposed to do my job if you don’t do yours?”
“You’re not any better, Zariel,” EE said. “You keep egging him on, making his anxiety worse. He needs a clear head to be most effective in battle, and you antagonizing him will only cause more problems.”
“I need to be aggressive, though! That’s my whole thing, right? Using my anger and adrenaline to cut shit up?”
“Yes, but not to bully your teammates!” EE tented her fingers and sighed. “Listen. Here’s my ultimatum. Two months on probation, where you go to a counselor we’ve hired and work out your differences. After that, we’ll evaluate whether you can return to the team.”
Alexander took a deep breath. This wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t… not bad. He pushed away the thoughts that nothing would change, that it’d be two months of stress and shouting before he finally got fired– “Yeah,” he mumbled, eyes shut. “Yeah, I mean, that’s fine. We have to learn how to work together.” Counseling. With Zariel. He grimaced, but even if he wanted to say it wouldn’t work, he managed to keep his mouth shut. Still, he couldn’t hide the way his shoulders slumped. “A-Are we done? Can I go?”
“Yes, you can go,” EE replied. “She’s waiting for you.”
“She?” Zariel raised an eyebrow.
“The counselor. Dr. Lorelei Lawson. We’ve set up a makeshift office for her in one of the unused training rooms.”
“And you just assumed we’d accept your proposition?”
EE smiled. “Zariel, I’ve spent far too much time in your head. I knew exactly how you’d respond. And I knew you’d even work with Alexander here if it meant keeping your job. Now both of you, run along. Don’t keep her waiting.”
“Makeshift” was putting it kindly. The office, if one could truly call it that, was little more than a folding table and a few chairs. The room hadn’t been used in a while, but it also hadn’t been cleaned since the last time the team used it. It reeked of dried sweat, and the air was stale.
When Alexander and Zariel entered the room, they noticed a woman sitting behind the table. She looked up and smiled warmly, rising off her chair and approaching them, extending her hand. “Good afternoon! I’m Dr. Lawson, but you can just call me Lorelei.”
Zariel didn’t shake her hand. She didn’t shake hands. But she certainly paid attention to Lorelei’s appearance. She was almost the dictionary definition of a professional therapist, with a black turtleneck sweater and slacks, heels that were just high enough to be noticeable without seeming over–the–top, with round glasses and simple diamond earrings as the only jewelry on her body. But what Zariel noticed far more than Lorelei’s attire was her figure.
God, she’s hot… Zariel thought, feeling her cheeks start to turn red. The way the sweater hugs her body, it’s just… She stopped herself and cleared her throat. “Zariel,” she replied tersely, trying to hide her infatuation.
“Alexander Dempsey,” came Alexander’s introduction. He took her hand and shook it, mustering a smile. “Uh.” When he brought his hand away, he tilted his head to the side and laughed nervously. “But I guess maybe ‘Saturn’ is how you’d know me? Sorry, I don’t–” He sat back in his chair and glanced around the room. “I don’t know how much information you got on us before this. Uh.” He kind of scratched the back of his head, fully aware that he was already resorting to nervous tics to try and calm himself down. “Sorry, this is. Y’know, pretty new.”
“Oh, absolutely!” Lorelei sat down as well, leaning her elbows on the table and casually lacing her fingers with a smile. “Don’t worry at all, I’m here to make sure this goes as smoothly as it can. No need to fret about all this; we’re here to talk this out together and make sure everyone’s able to work as a team. Right, Alexander?”
He nodded. “Right.”
She focused that dazzling smile on Zariel. “Right, Zariel?”
Zariel shrugged, sitting in the chair next to Alexander’s. “Look, Doc, if I’m being honest here, I’m only doing this because I have to. I really don’t see a problem with my performance on the team, except when Alex here messes up.”
“And it’s that which we have to work on,” Lorelei replied. “That attitude, that… animosity between you two. There’s simply no room for that in an environment like yours.”
“So, what?” Zariel rolled her eyes. “We’re all just supposed to hold hands around the campfire? That’s not how people work, Doc.”
“Well, I don’t think that the goal here is necessarily for you two to walk away best friends.” Lorelei pushed her glasses up with her fingertips. “This is more to address some of the issues that have come up with your professional relationship. People don’t have to be pals to be able to work together effectively, and that’s what we need to accomplish.”
Alexander felt his heart begin to pound in his chest already. He looked just about everywhere but at Lorelei and Zariel, and unfortunately for him, Lorelei was more than happy to drag him into the spotlight.
“Alexander?” she said. “You seem a little nervous here. Is everything alright?”
He flinched, only to cover it up with a shaky laugh. “Oh, yeah! I’m fine. Just, uh. Like I said, this is new. And, y’know, it’s really important for our jobs, and…” He trailed off, shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath. In, two, three. Hold, two, three. Out, two, three. There. He opened his eyes and offered another fragile smile. “I just want to make sure this goes okay.”
Lorelei’s eyes crinkled with a smile, and she nodded at him. “I think that’s a wonderful attitude to have, Alexander. Now, if only everyone here had that same perspective!” She winked at Zariel. “Looks like two out of three are willing to give this a shot. What makes you the odd one out, Zariel?”
“It’s like I said, Doc,” Zariel replied, the annoyance in her voice moving beyond “a hint” and becoming plainly obvious. “I’m not the one with stage fright. I can keep my cool under pressure. He can’t.”
“And like I said,” Lorelei smiled, her voice still compassionate yet reserved, “this isn’t about your performance. I’m sure you’re very good at slicing things up with those claws of yours. But we’re here to help you and Alexander stay on the same page. If you keep deflecting like this, all it’s going to accomplish is you failing your evaluation in two months and being removed from the team. And you don’t want that, do you?”
Zariel gulped, suddenly feeling a pang of fear stab her in the stomach. “I–I, uh…” What the hell? How did she do that? She just gave me a gut punch, but she barely even blinked!
Normally Alex might’ve been happy to see Zariel get the kind of talking-to she so clearly deserved, but when Lorelei brought up that two-month deadline, his blood ran cold. “Hey–” He leaned in, placing a hand on the table. “I just want to be clear: I’m definitely willing to take these sessions seriously. I want to be a valuable member of the team, and–”
“Oh, yeah, sure you do!” Zariel snapped. “That’s why you always fuck up when we need you the most!”
Alexander stood from his seat, one hand planted on the table, the other pointing square at Zariel. “She– She refuses to listen! I can’t– I’m sorry–” He shut his eyes and balled his hand into a fist before whipping towards Zariel to shout at her directly. “Why are you like this?! I’m not trying to fight you!”
“Yeah, because you can’t.” Zariel stood up too, smirking at Alexander’s frustration. “Must eat you up inside, knowing how the team needs me so much more than they need you.”
He bristled at that before shaking with frantic anger. “You’re going to tell me that some feral animal is more useful than I am?” Alexander raged at her, but all he could really do was point and shout. “A trained dog is going to end up your replacement in two months, you self-obsessed moron!”
“And what’ll they replace you with?!” Zariel snarled. “A fucking… bottle of Nyquil?”
Both of them flinched and flipped around to see Lorelei glaring at them, her calm demeanor finally slipping and revealing… disappointment? “Are you finished?” she asked. “I can see now how pointless this is going to be. If this is going to be how you two act from here on out, I see no reason to continue these sessions.” She stood up and flared her nostrils. “I’ll inform Eleanor that your contracts should be terminated immediately.”
Alexander’s heart stopped, and his eyes went wide. He looked to Lorelei. He looked to Zariel. He looked down at his hands and more saw them shake than he felt them shake. “I– No, no, no–” He looked at Lorelei once more, vision swimming. “I want to make this work, I–”
“It’s easy enough to say that,” Lorelei said, brow furrowed as her eyes bored into Alexander’s. “But the instant anything difficult comes up, it looks like you’re more prone to just slip into bad habits.”
“No, no, no!” He shook his head, on the verge of tears. “I promise! Honestly, I want to make– I want to make this work!”
“So you’ll do whatever I say?” Lorelei narrowed her eyes at him, leaning a hand on the table.
“Zariel?” Lorelei turned to face her, the full weight of her glare bearing down on the other woman now.
“I…” Zariel looked down at her hands. When had her claws come out? She hadn’t even realized. What would she have done if Lorelei hadn’t intervened? “...yes.”
“I’ll… I’ll do whatever you say.”
Lorelei smiled, her eyes gleaming with satisfaction. “Very good.” She leaned back, returning to her professional, relaxed posture. “Now, I think we can all agree that having both of you in the same room all the time will likely result in more and more of these… incidents. So, I want to propose a solution. We break out into solo sessions, once a week, and then meet up every other week to discuss your mutual progress.”
Alexander was more or less just staring into the distance, having sat back down. He didn’t want to get fired. He couldn’t get fired. How would he get a job anywhere else? There would be forms to file, reports to obtain, a sea of paperwork. He would drown.
Alexander nodded, shivering.
“And how about you, Zariel?”
“Y–Yeah, sure.” Zariel was running the same calculations as Alexander. She couldn’t stomach the prospect of trying to find another job. She knew all too well how few places would tolerate a post-human, let alone one with her work habits. Maybe if I just play along with this therapy crap, I can scrape by and stay here.
“I’m very glad to hear that you can, in fact, agree on something. Who knows? Maybe there’s hope for you two yet.” Lorelei chuckled softly, her smile seeming more genuine now. “Would either of you care to volunteer to go first?”
“I can go first,” Alexander mumbled. “Yeah, I mean. I’m not doing anything else, I guess.” He shut his eyes and rested his face in his hands. “Can I–” He paused for a moment. “Can I go now? I need– I need to lay down, I think.”
“Of course,” Lorelei said gently. “Tensions are still running a bit high, and that can be emotionally exhausting for a lot of people. Both of you included, I think.” She straightened up and clapped her hands together. “Both of you just sit tight and wait for me to send over the time and date of your appointments, all right? For now, just try to relax.” She smiled. “I’m sure that we’ll all be cooperating once these two months are up. As long as you make sure to focus, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Whatever you say, Doc.” Zariel stood up and walked out the door, scratching the back of her head. This is probably just gonna be a waste of time. But I guess there’s worse ways to spend a couple months than chatting with someone as gorgeous as her…
The only reason Alexander didn’t leave the instant Zariel did was the desire to just be alone. Definitely not anywhere near her, not stuck in an elevator as it slowly ticked down to street level. Alexander winced as he rose from his seat, mumbling some vague apology in Lorelei’s direction without really looking at her. A moment later, he was out the door, gone to stagger home and collapse into bed.
As the door shut behind him, Lorelei felt a buzz in her front pocket. She pulled out her phone and answered the call. “Hello? Oh, yes, Eleanor, I was just about to call you.”
“How did it go?” EE asked, her voice fraught with nervous anticipation.
“Swimmingly,” Lorelei replied. “I expect everything to go exactly as expected.”
EE breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s great! Thank you for coming in on such short notice, Dr. Lawson.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble. I think I’ll enjoy this greatly, in fact. These two are quite the characters; it’ll be interesting to pick their brains over the next couple months.”
“Well, you came highly recommended. The way people talk about you, it makes you sound like a miracle worker or something. I’ll try to stay out of your hair. Just make sure they’ve sorted everything out by the evaluation.”
“Believe me, Eleanor, everything is going according to plan.”
When EE hung up, Lorelei looked back towards the door and drummed her fingers on the table. “Yes… exactly according to plan.”