Penny watched the press conference, hugging a pillow and drinking a cup of hot chocolate. It was still afternoon on the west coast, but it was already evening in Richmond. The broadcast opened boringly with recorded statements by the president and by the minister of defense. When they were finally done, the live feed switched over to the actually exciting part:
Penny smiled like a little girl when her hero entered the stage under a hail of camera flashlights. She was beautiful as always. The bright lights reflected in her silken hair like a thousand stars. She always looked like a Hollywood star was playing her part, but that was just how she actually looked. She was so incredibly pretty.
She started speaking, and Penny held her breath as Elementa described in detail what had happened that night when she'd fought Negatron in the heart of a volcano in the north pacific. Elementa never embellished or exaggerated. She only ever reported what she'd done in accordance with the Metahuman Operations Transparency Act. Not that she needed to embellish in order for it to be exciting and impossibly cool to listen to her accounts of how she had tracked down the resonance and defeated Negatron's army of warp beasts on the slopes of a fiery mountain.
Before it was time for questions, as always she thanked the government and the Metahuman Division of the military for their close collaboration.
Penny rolled her eyes. She hated it. She always left them out of her stories, because they were the most boring part about superheroes. Who wanted to read about government regulations and compliance to international law? They should be thankful that people like Elementa had decided to step up and help them!
Sure, nowadays there was a lot the military could handle by themselves. As military technology improved, metahumans had become a weapon of last resort, one step before nuclear warheads. It had turned out that a lot of trans-dimensional threats were perfectly vulnerable to hellfire missiles and hypersonic tungsten projectiles.
Still, there was plenty for the heroes to do, and without metahumans, the world would be nothing more than a smoldering heap of ash with monsters on top.
Sometimes, Penny wished it was like the old days, back in the thirties, when otherworldly threats hadn't appeared every week, only to be strafed by stealth fighters. It had been a golden age for metahumans. Silverado, Hexagon, even Astroman, who'd only had super strength. They had been classy, swashbuckling personalities, larger than life, superhuman in every way.
Elementa was like that, unlike the rest of the so-called heroes of today.
Penny felt sorry for her. She was too good for this. For bureaucracy, for working for the government as a glorified soldier. For press briefings (even if Penny enjoyed watching them). She wished it would be like it had been. Man against man or woman against woman, with no bullshit red tape and legislature to drag it all down. So what if there was collateral damage? The world just got saved!
Elementa was taking questions. A reporter from the Washington Post was asking her about the relations with Singapore and Russia after the dark energy crisis, and Elementa deflected the question, referring to the minister of state. The question got followed up by a young woman from CNN asking about Elementa's physical condition. Elementa thanked her for the concern and asserted that she was doing well.
Of course she was doing well! These questions were always so stupid. No one ever asked her the interesting questions.
What does it feel like to fly supersonic? When you entered the Mirror dimension during the CERN incident, did you meet yourself? Are you extra ticklish on the magical runes under your skin? What's the craziest thing a villain ever screamed at you? Have you ever dunked a baseball from the stratosphere? Do you have to condition your hair or does it just magically stay that way?
Instead, Elementa had to answer dry and frankly hostile questions about policing and her political allegiance towards some presidential candidate or another, all of which she had to give careful non-answers to.
Penny muted the TV in disgust and went to the kitchen to put her now empty mug into the sink. She felt so bad for Elementa. She always had to act serious and holier-than-thou, and she was in the public eye constantly. She probably never got to have fun. She should have some fun.
Hey, there's an idea!
Penny returned to the couch, opened her laptop and started writing.
Elementa was bored with interviews because they were always so dull and uninteresting they were a chore. A reporter asked her a question but she wasn't listening anymore.
"I am done," she said and got up from her chair. The reporters wanted to ask her more questions but she wanted to be somewhere fun now.
From the corner of her eye, Penny could see that on the live broadcast, Elementa was getting up from her chair as well. What a coincidence. Penny pondered for a moment where Elementa would go to have fun until she came up with something.
Elementa left the building and flew up into the sky. She headed southeast to Disneyland, flying low over the city and many people saw her flying and looked in wonderment at the awesome heroine. She saw the roller coasters in the distance and descended down to them and flew over the park where there were many children screaming for her because they wanted her to notice them and take a picture. She waved back at them.
There was a roller coaster going around a track, and she flew close to it at the same speed, going along with it. The people in the roller coaster laughed and looked at her in awe. They went through a loop and to them it looked like she wasn't moving at all because she was so good at going the same speed as them.
"Nice day," she said, smiling widely. Then she flew away and dove under the waterfall in the pirate cove and splashed some children and she had lots of fun. The children were all laughing.
Elementa remembered what she had been like when she was a kid. She wasn't allowed to be like that anymore. She had to be an adult and serious and responsible but she didn't want to always be responsible like that. It was fun to let herself go.
Penny kept writing, but something kept nagging at her. She remembered one comment that had been posted under one of her stories that had infuriated her. Some jerk had complained that her stories weren't realistic. They had complained that in real life, Elementa was a member of the military. An air force Captain. It had probably been written by some militaristic asshole – the kind that scared children by insisting on open-carrying a gun because it was "his right".
Why couldn't those people get it that the point of her stories was imagining a cooler, better reality without all those clunky, stupid rules? What was wrong with a little bit of wish-fulfillment? Nothing, that's what.
There was no room in her stories for that kind of stuff. It got in the way of the fun. She would never mention them in her stories. As far as she was concerned, there was no such thing as Metahuman Division.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Badger asked over the radio in her ear.
Elementa blinked, suddenly confused. Yes. What was she doing?
"Public relations," she said. "And giving the press something to occupy themselves with as we sort out the cataclysmic and possibly malignantly memetic threat of Awthora."
There was a moment of tense, busy silence on the other end. Elementa flew another loop around Big Thunder Mountain before doing a close dive over the river, shooting spray up behind her.
"Listen, Captain," Badger said finally. It sounded alarmingly like he had written down a list of things he was about to say. "I need you to abort. This might actually not be a bad idea, but you're violating a no-fly-zone and trespassing on the property of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, and also you–"
Something weird happened.
One moment, she'd been listening to something. Now there was only the wind in her ears and the distant cheers of onlookers.
She felt like she'd forgotten something.
She did another few rounds of the park, trying to remember. But she couldn't. She decided to let it go and enjoy the little bit of fun she was allowing herself. She knew that this was supremely silly and childish, but when was the last time that she'd flown just for fun, not just as a means to get somewhere? Years, probably.
Also, it really will be a distraction for the public as long as I'm still figuring out how to track down Awthora. The fewer people know about her, the better.
She somehow wondered how she'd come to that conclusion, but it seemed right. Something told her that her reality-altering powers might become stronger if more people knew about them and believed in them. Something she'd read once, somewhere. What had the word been? Memetic? Like the things you posted on the Internet? Infectious Ideas.
She wished she had someone to help her. But being a superhero was a solitary endeavor. She had immunity as long as she wasn't criminally negligent, but the government was strictly hands-off in meta-natural affairs otherwise.
But on the other hand, she was glad not to have to work with a bunch of pencil-pushing bureaucrats. She couldn't imagine the feet-high stacks of paperworks that would go along with that. No, thanks.
She waved at the masses below her one last time before flying off towards east. Her chest felt tight, but she knew she had to. If she wanted to find Awthora, she would have to meet the League, and inform them of the threat -- even if she and the League were on less-than-amicable terms since the last time they had collaborated. Even if almost all of them were singularly self-possessed. They had to listen to her, and they very probably would. After all, they were still the good guys, and even with their giant egos they would have to admit that this was something they wouldn't be able to face alone.
The only thing that still twisted her stomach into a knot was one particularly nasty piece of unfinished business. Something that she prayed to all the Gods had stayed between the two people involved.
If Ballistic had told anyone in the League that they'd had sex, she would take his rifle and beat him to death with it.
Penny was tired. She'd written a fun chapter she reckoned. In it, Elementa had finally had some fun with her superpowers. She might be famous for being restrained and sensible, but that couldn't be who she truly was, all the way through. Penny knew that she knew Elementa better than that. She had seen obvious glimpses of it in interviews and other public appearances.
Penny understood her. Penny felt trapped, too, sometimes. Having to do chores, having to be an adult when she didn't feel like an adult at all. It felt like yesterday when she'd still gone to high school, even if it had already been five years, and she lived in her own shitty apartment and had her own barely-above-minimum wage job.
At least Elementa knew what she was good at. Penny had tried several community college classes, only to jump ship after two semesters not twice, but three times. English lit was boring. Business was... ugh. Psychology had started out fun, but she'd soon discovered that there was math involved. Statistics! Yuck!
At least she had her writing. She might not be the best at it, but she knew that she wasn't bad, and she had fun doing it. Maybe, one day, she'd find the heart to write a serious novel and publish it.
She looked at her screen, at the chapter she'd just written. It was kind of silly, but not everything had to be high art or make sense, despite what the misogynist pricks in the comment section seemed to think sometimes.
She brushed her teeth and went to bed. When she'd turned off the light, she didn't even check reddit or twitter on her phone before closing her eyes. She was really tired. Her thoughts felt heavy and dense, like a thick soup. It was as if her creative energy was somehow moving a heavier weight than usual – like her thoughts had more substance and gravity to them than they should. Normally, she couldn't stop thinking when she lay in bed. Now, she felt exhausted and spent, and her thoughts quickly settled into stillness as she fell asleep.
Elementa arrived in upstate New York in the small hours of the night. She could see the headquarters of the League of Heroes from miles away. It lay in the middle of a large patch of private land owned by Sir Hendrick Pauli, the no-longer secret identity of Obsidian, crime-fighting vigilante.
Pauli himself had hung up his cape in the late 1980s when old age had finally caught up with him. His former protegé had taken up his mantle. But Pauli wasn't out of the superhero business. He and his tech empire funded the lion's share of the League's operation. The headquarters were built on the foundations of his burned-down family mansion.
Elementa approached over the mile-long driveway, passing over the long avenue of sycamore trees that marked the central axis of the estate. She landed at the front entrance. There was a more direct way to the Obsidian Cave that lay beneath the mansion, and she probably still had biometric access. But it would feel rude to just let herself in like that.
"Miss Marlowe!" a supremely British voice called out as the large oaken doors swung open, casting a long ray of light down the sprawling marble stairs leading up to the mansion.
"Elementa is fine, Arnold," she said, smiling. He's still kicking, then.
The positively ancient butler of the Pauli family beckoned her in, and she walked up the stairs. When she'd arrived at the portal, she fell into a hug, careful not to squeeze him too tightly. She had no idea how old he was, but he had to be pushing ninety years old. Obsidian had probably told him to retire more often than he'd beaten up gangsters, but the old man was as stubborn as he was unfailingly loyal and polite.
"Good to see you," she said.
"Likewise, Miss Marlowe,"
"What are you doing up so late,"
"Oh, don't worry, Miss. I don't need as much sleep as I used to anyway," he said with a smile, then guided her inside, shutting the door behind them.
"Where are the boys?" she asked, and Arnold nodded gently, not perturbed in the slightest by the dig.
"The Masters are downstairs, as they usually are. They know you have arrived, of course. They await your presence. If you would follow me, Miss."
"I know the way Arnold," she said, doing her best to sound concerned and gentle instead of rude. "You don't need to bother yourself with me."
"Nonsense. You are our guest, and I shall see that you enjoy the hospitality of this house. Also, I have been commanded not to let you unsupervised. There is still some... let us say... lingering tension from the last time you were here."
"It's not like I could stop you from wandering off," he said with a chuckle, "but thank you for humoring this old man."
Elementa smiled warmly and nodded. Arnold was a good man.
"After you," she said.
"Certainly. Right this way, Miss," he said and led the way into the bowels of the restored mansion.