Justice Wing, Short Story

⎇001JW The Excelsiors: Reorientation

Justice Wing Excelsiors: Orientation told the story of Mierra McCall arriving at the ‘summer camp’ that was her cover story for joining Empire City’s Excelsiors. In the process, she met Delia Temple (the daughter to DETAILS Agent Lynette Hardesty), Conner Church (son to fellow Excelsior Colin ‘The Cavalier’ Church), and the rest of the charter class of the new Justice Wing Institute for Parahuman Studies. But, while Mierra was meeting the future of heroism, Lynette Hardesty and Colin Church had a discussion of their own — one they had put off for a long time…


This Story is set at the beginning
of Justice Wing: Halcyon Days

Chuchyard Court
Empire City, New York

Colin Church watched Mierra McCall hug her foster parents, one at a time. Al and Nora Murrillo had a split level in Northlyn, and for years they’d shared it with a foster child. They’d gotten a good reputation with ‘problem’ kids — Nora was a social worker, Al a greengrocer. They were from the old Empire City, where neighborhoods looked out for each other.

The idea that Mierra was sent to them was somehow offensive to Colin. He knew how she looked on the outside. Fifteen years old — clearly brilliant, but seemingly unmotivated. Disappeared all the time. Grades in the B to C range when she used to flawlessly get A’s. Always mysteriously on the ‘random’ list to be drug tested at her school. All potential, no effort. And not the neatest person on Earth.

Unmotivated. Since learning Mierra’s secret, Colin had kept pretty close tabs on the young Northlyn student. There wasn’t anyone in her school half as motivated as Mierra McCall. It’s just she spent most of her ‘productive’ time a foot taller, reshaped into an animal-girl thing and covered in fur. With a tail.

Maybe — maybe if Mierra opened up with her foster families… told them that she was a superhero… that she was practically driven to be a superhero…

But she wouldn’t. Mierra had been placed in eight foster homes since she was two, not counting her time at orphanages. The Murrillos were only the second she’d spent an entire school year with. Of those seven other families, one was well meaning but totally misread Mierra — they’d reported her to the police three times to ‘scare her straight,’ and then gotten angry when the police sent her home due to lack of evidence and lack of narcotics in her pee. Two were apathetic — they cashed the checks the state sent them and otherwise didn’t much care what Mierra did. That might have worked out for the girl, but the foster system had inspections and there were only so many times they’d put up with ‘guardians’ who had no idea where their charge was at ten o’clock at night on a school night.

Three of the remaining families had been downright bad environments. One was scary strict. It was clearly before Mierra had undergone an admittedly early primary parahuman expression, so it was when she was still an A student. One did a lot of screaming — this was after her expression, and they managed to unknowingly convince Mierra no foster parent would ever understand her night job. The third bad environment—

They weren’t in the foster care system any more. Colin Church was actively pissed they weren’t in prison.

That left one foster family. The one that came after the worst. The one that connected with Mierra like no one had since her actual parents died. The one that wasn’t equalled until the Murrillos, seven years later. Ethridge and Lorraine Whitfield. They’d taken eight year old Mierra down to Catarins, to visit the Empire State Hall of Science. It was a hands-on science kind of place, founded at the Empire City World’s Fair a few decades before. It’d closed and fallen into disrepair, but it had made a comeback and it was shiny and new and perfect for an orphaned Northlyn kid whose brain was bigger than her height.

They were exhibiting meteors at the time. The terrorist organization SCYLLA had wanted one of them. They got it, wrecking half the Hall in the process. Lorraine Whitfield died getting Mierra out of the line of fire. Ethridge went back in to get Mierra and pulled her out, but got shot in the back in the process. He lingered a couple of weeks. Mierra was by his bedside when he died. She’d asked him how to repay the Whitfields for saving her life. Ethridge had told her she couldn’t. She could just pay it forward to other people who needed help.

Colin bit his lip. It was a good lesson. Mierra McCall had taken it on as an obsession. A holy cause. And then she underwent primary parahuman expression while she was in early middle school, and gained the ability to turn into an adult-looking were-rodent who could literally use variations on every ability any member of Order Rodentia possessed. It gave her everything from sharp claws and gnawing teeth to a prehensile tail to the ability to regenerate from wounds and restart her heart after nearly dying to quill-like hair, a flying-squirrel like energy canopy that let her glide and a psychic ability to tell strangers from neighbors and predators from prey.

That was all great. What wasn’t great? Was that it gave her a full on neurotic need to use those abilities to ‘pay it forward’ no matter the personal cost. It had been systemically ruining her life from puberty on. And thousands of people — honestly, the entire city — owed them her life a dozen times over as a result. Including, naturally enough, Colin Church himself.

And, because Mierra couldn’t catch a break, she got absolutely no credit for that except from other heroes, and she’d never spent a lot of time around those other heroes. Empire City wasn’t big on group meetings. The Excelsiors was actually meant to change that. What that meant was that all on her own ‘Rodent’ had become the best hero in the city and got kicked around like she was gutter trash as thanks.

SCYLLA were Colin Church’s enemies. He was the one who recovered the meteor they stole. He was the one who fought them most often. He was the one who missed their attack on the Empire State Hall of Science. That’s why he’d funded a complete rebuild afterward.

He hadn’t known it until after he’d learned Rodent was secretly Mierra McCall and researched her past, but Mierra’s whole life — especially her neuroses — were Colin Church’s fault. And because of abusive, dismissive, and apathetic foster parents, Mierra had learned she couldn’t trust anyone with her identity — most especially not whatever foster family she was living with. Not even the Murrillos, who loved her more than Colin Church could quite understand. It was clearly a parent thing, and Church was terrible at that. Which… hadn’t made his own son Conner’s life a bed of roses, but that was it’s own thing.

“You’re woolgathering.”

Church jumped, startled. The speaker was a beautiful — like, supermodel beautiful — redhead in one of the Air Force jumpsuits she wore almost all of the time. That was the closest she came to ‘civilian attire.’ She was a Special Agent with DETAILS — the government agency tasked with parahuman ‘stuff.’ And she was a parahuman herself — able to interact with technology in ways that made no sense but worked.

Her name was Lynette Hardesty. She was there to drop off her daughter at the same summer camp Mierra was officially attending. She was also there to begin setting up her field office as part of the Excelsiors experiment Colin Church was funding and housing — the attempt to take the motley pack of heroes and malcontents that ran on the streets of Empire City and make them a team, so Justice Wing — the most powerful and famous superteam — could learn how to interact with society without coming across like godlike untouchable icons. The whole thing was doomed to failure, but Church had thrown money away at worse things in his life.

Lynette and Colin had a history, of course. And when Colin had a history with a woman — especially a beautiful one — it inevitably wasn’t a good history.

“Sorry,” he said. “Just… trying to figure out how a grocer and social worker manage to afford a split level in East Northlyn. I mean, it’s one of those terrible boxlike things like from the opening of All in the Family but still. Property’s property in the five boroughs.”

“Lot of people own property in Northlyn. And all over the city. But I have to admit, you’re still a pretty good liar.” Lynette cocked her head, looking at Mierra. “She seems like a good egg. Tells truth to power like a champ. Your contribution to this ‘camp’ we’re using as Institute Orientation, right?”

“Yeah,” Colin said, watching the Murrillos get into the elevator. Mierra watched the doors close, then turned and started talking to Hardesty’s copper-haired daughter Delia. Literally copper haired, mind. Colin slipped his hand to his watch, tapping it and bringing up a sonic baffle. He saw Mierra’s back stiffen. He didn’t know she was listening in, but if they were going to discuss her he wasn’t going to give her the option to listen in, and he knew her hearing was paraenhanced even when she wasn’t in rodent-form. “She’s a good kid. Bright. And what do you mean, ‘my contribution?’ My own son’s going to this camp and to the Institute.”

“And we’ll talk about that, but right now we’re talking about Ms. McCall,” Lynette said, softly. “Who has parasenses, clearly. Nice sound-shield. I don’t think Delia’s even noticed it, unless she saw the electrical flux when you turned it on.”

“Yeah, and have I mentioned how awesome it is that you instantly know what all my tech is whenever I use it? That’s not creepy at all.”

“Well, you’re the expert on creepy, Colin. So what’s Ms. McCall’s story.”

Colin glanced at Mierra, then at Lynette. “Well, you know,” he said. “Same as always. Parahuman abilities — good candidate for extra tutoring. Whip smart. That’s why we’re doing this, right? To teach the next generation how to be good parahuman citizens in the name of the old Red, White and Blue?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Lynette nodded, but her expression was dubious. “Anyone actually buying that line?”

“You’d be surprised how many people buy my lines.”

“I’m sure I would. If she’s your ‘other’ contribution to the project, why isn’t she enrolled at the Institute? I mean, your camp’s an orientation to prepare the new kids for what’s to come, right? Why’s she here if she isn’t going with them?”

“Who said she wasn’t going to the Institute in September?” Colin asked, innocently. Or as close to ‘innocently’ as he ever got.

“Lillian Tartikoff.”

Colin paused. Lillian Tartikoff was a Senior Special Agent at DETAILS, and had been Lynette’s superior at the agency for years. She was also something of a hardass. “I thought you didn’t work for her any more,” he said, lightly.

“You’re hosting an orientation camp for the Institute she’s helping Truncheon run in the Fall. Why would you possibly think we weren’t talking to each other?”

“I’m an optimistic person by nature. We should bring the kids down to meet their fellow campers.”

“Yes, we should. And then we should have a little talk.”

“And I’m really looking forward to it, I can tell you.”


“…this is Mierra and this is Delia. And… I’m going to let you guys get acquainted while I tell the guy running this thing that you’re all here. Conner, for the love of God sit up.”

The ‘campers’ — the untrained parahumans that had been recruited by Justice Wing and DETAILS as part of the ‘charter class’ of the Justice Wing Institute for Parahuman Studies — were all in the lounge Colin had just led Delia and Mierra into. Among them was his own son, Conner, who was splayed across a couch like a drunk fraternity brother the night before Spring Break. Naturally, not only didn’t the fourteen year old sit up, he didn’t even acknowledge that Colin had spoken to him.

“…right,” Colin said, tightening his hand into a fist but otherwise not reacting. He saw one of the campers — Cosette Wight, the dye job redhead — cock her head and frown, but he ignored it. Let her think whatever she wanted to think. “Well then.” Colin turned and walked out the door.

Damn it.

He started down the hall, Lynette falling in next to him. “Seven and a half million dollars,” he muttered. “I spent seven and a half million dollars and made twelve separate technological breakthroughs to replace the organs of Corti and masses of auditory nerve he was born without, and somehow magically he still won’t listen to me. Seven and a half million dollars, Lynette! That’s more than an entire Steve Austin!”

“Jamie Sommers,” Lynette said, offhandedly.

“What?”

“Steve Austin had a bionic eye. Jamie Sommers had the bionic ear.”

“Jesus Christ.” Colin shook his head. “I don’t—“

Colin felt a tingle on his wrist. Glancing, he saw that his watch’s sonic baffle had switched itself on. And was running at 135% of its normal function.

“It seemed prudent,” Lynette said, shrugging. “God knows I wouldn’t want to hear this if I were Conner.”

“We’re out of his range.”

“Are you so sure of that?”

“I literally designed the units, Lynette. I built them, tested them, run regular diagnostics on them — I know what they can do. And he’s not in any position to change them — there aren’t any user replaceable parts in those things, and even if they were he couldn’t exactly modify them himself. The system seals off when his brain activity indicates any level above anesthetized.”

“Then let’s assume we’re keeping Ms. McCall from listening in.” Lynette didn’t sound convinced.

“Sure, why not. So go ahead. Say it.”

“Say what?”

Colin looked sidelong at Lynette.

“If you’re waiting for me to call you a bad father, you’re going to have a long wait. But I think there are dommes in Times Square that’ll do that for you if you pay them enough.”

“Oh, what? You think I’m a good father?”

“Christ, no. You’re a horrible father. I just don’t have the time or the inclination to discuss it.” The pair walked into another lounge — this one full of different teenagers. In this case, they were wearing various uniforms and masks. They’d been called the ‘Junior Justice Wingers’ for so long Colin was surprised they didn’t have matching tattoos. “Hey, Grant,” Lynette said to a handsome twenty-two year old in a sweater and jeans. “They’re all ready for you.”

“Thanks. Mierra McCall was with them?”

Colin blinked, frowning.

“Yes she was. Why?”

“And… did she freak out?”

Lynette frowned. “…no? Should she have?”

“Hopefully, not. Paragirl — what’re you seeing?”

“I’m not a huge fan of snooping on my future classmates,” a pretty, brown haired girl — light skin with warm undertones, maybe fourteen herself — said. She wore a blue minidress uniform with darker blue opaque tights — true tights, as she wasn’t wearing shoes or boots — underneath them. Colin had to admit it was smart, since she was floating off the ground. He’d known a couple of flying supers who wore skirts. He never quite understood that.

“Trust me,” Grant said. “It’s for a good cause.”

“All right…” Paragirl’s eyes twinkled. “She seems… relaxed, mostly. She’s giving them a lesson on discretion. Oo — good quote! ‘The first rule of superpowers is you don’t tell people about your superpowers until you know you can trust them!’”

Lynette’s eyebrows went up. “That’s a very good quote. I hope Delia’s listening. She’s… trusting.”

“Technically she’s in her first trimester,” Colin said. “I’m pretty sure that makes her pre-fetal. How cynical could she be?”

“Second trimester,” Lynette said, smirking slightly. “Just shy of fourteen weeks.”

“Oh. Gotcha. So, you’re just starting to put on weight, then? That explains it. She’s still a bit early to be kicking, much less walking down the hall or chatting up boys. And Darrin Bates is down there, so trust me. She’s chatting up boys.”

“I asked Cosette to watch out for her,” Lynette said. “She needs to learn sometime. And… I’m glad to see Darrin showed up. After his sister…”

“See, I’m surprised you know about his sister,” Colin said. “Does DETAILS keep tabs on Alberta, now?”

“We actually have quite a good relationship with the Canadian Parahumanity Service up in Ottawa. Shocking, I know.”

“Wow,” Crosspointe said, looking back and forth between Lynette and Colin. “I’m not sure if you two hate each other or need to get a room.”

“Oh, trust me, X. It’s hate.” Lynette smiled a bit more.

“To be fair, I earned it,” Colin added.

“What a shock,” the crossbow custodian said, dryly. “Colin Church earning a woman’s disdain. Are we doing this, Grant?”

“Hey, Crosspointe — and by the way, I’m pretty sure ‘crosspoint’ refers to a screwdriver, not an arrow, but whatever? You know, New York state has two major Renaissance Festivals on either end of the state. Weirdly, they’re both called Sterling. I’m just saying, if you want to be useful to someone…”

Crosspointe snorted. “Tell you what, Church. Go mount up in Starscream, full armament load. If you stick to robot mode? I’ll bet you seven million dollars I’ll have you in scrap before you manage to knock me over, much less out.”

“Where the Hell did you get seven million dollars?” Colin asked.

Crosspointe snickered. “Why would I possibly need it?”

“…cute. Hey, you and Andy Pope — what the Hell is this ‘Starscream’ thing, anyway?”

Grant blinked. “Seriously? You run around mounted inside of jets that transform into robots and you don’t know who Starscream is?”

“They just had a surprise arrival down there,” Paragirl said. “If we’re going to do the walk-in—“

“Right,” Grant said. “C’mon gang.” He headed to the door, and the other Junior Justice Wingers followed.

Colin watched them go. “Yeah,” he muttered. “See, that’s why I’m sending Conner to that Institute.”

“Oh?” Lynette asked.

“Yup. I’d rather he end up like them than me. But then, I have it on good authority I’m a horrible parent. Where was… whatsername? The one who works with Centurion? Black chick?”

“…please, for the love of God, never say the words ‘black chick’ again,” Lynette said. “She goes by Conduit, and the two of them are dealing with a Pa’lita Guard situation. Turns out one of their Legates was living in Missouri. Married a nurse. Had a kid. Naturally, there’s an Orgalin warfleet involved now. Conduit’s still showing up to the Institute in the fall.”

“Oh, naturally.” Colin paused. “Centurion. Mason Temple.”

“Oh, here we go.”

Delia Temple.”

“You’re a master detective. Has anyone ever told you that? Is there a problem, Colin?”

“Problem? Not at all. Just… a surprise. I mean… it’s not really… his thing, is it? I mean, that’s like he was making some kind of human connection? Not that it’s any of my business.”

“Well, you’re right about the last. Why? Are you suggesting you’d have made a better—“

“Don’t be silly. We’ve established I’m a horrible father.” He checked his watch. “Huh, you turned the baffle off. Thanks — power drain and all.”

“I recharged it.”

“Did you? That’s a new trick. Hey — Freya said you weren’t a redhead any more. Did you go back on my account?” Colin scrolled through his watch’s display, checking updates.

“Not exactly.” Lynette’s voice suddenly sounded… almost metallic. Like she were speaking down a drainpipe.

Colin glanced at her, then stared. “What the—“

Lynette’s skin had turned into some kind of metal — bronze or something like it, with a greenish undertone, and silver lines tracing along her face and chin. Her hair had turned pure silver, though it still flowed like normal hair. The whites of her eyes were now pale scarlet, the irises silver with blue pupils, which glowed slightly. Her hands were also bronze with silver accents. And her jumpsuit… was exactly the same. “You really need to stop focusing on the superficial,” she said, her voice still echoing with metal.

Colin kept staring, mouth dropping open. He looked her up and down, approaching slowly. “That… that’s not just metal. You’re not just some kind of robot or android — that’s xenotechnology.” He peered. “Not Pa’lita or Orgalin or Ne’lcor — certainly not fae. I’ve seen plenty of that. Vril-ya? No — not… what the Hell is that?”

Lynette snorted. “I knew it. You were always just interested in my body.” She rippled back into human form.

“I didn’t know that was in question.” He paused. “Delia. She’s… you went from no child to nearly post-pubescent daughter in like a day. That was your body, but her DNA’s been rewritten right? DNA patterned after you and Temple, as though—“

Lynette grinned a bit more. “I’ll give you this, Colin. You’re quick. Most people wouldn’t have put that part together that fast.”

“Yeah, I was always good at biology. Why is she anatomically fourteenish, instead of… mid twenties like you were?”

“Oh, right, I’m in my mid-twenties, because I joined the Air Force when I was twelve. Stop blowing smoke, Colin. The process burned off significant mass. The DNA reshift and rewrite compensated by making her physically younger instead of… you know. Shorter.”

“Lynette — what process? What would possibly… why would you…”

“Why am I in a xenotechnological shell with what was left of the old me remade into a completely different person?” She shrugged. “Death’ll do that to you, sometimes. Hey — we’re late for a meeting, right?” Lynette stepped around Colin and headed out of the lounge.

“…ask a question, get an answer, I guess,” Colin muttered. He followed Lynette, pulling the door shut. He glanced at his watch again.

The battery indicator claimed to have 116% charge.

“Well, that’s useful,” he murmured as he followed Lynette down the hall.


The agent was waiting at the elevator, but the doors wouldn’t open until Colin approached. Security protocol. Naturally, Lynette could have gotten them open anyway, but there wasn’t a reason to do so. They both stepped inside, turning to face the doors as they closed, and the elevator began to rise, heading for the top of Churchyard Court.

“I suppose Antonym will be up there,” Lynette said.

“That’s the plan.”

“Well. That’ll make this all a lot more fun, won’t it.”

Colin frowned, then reached over and tapped the panel, causing the elevator to stop. “Okay, that’s it,” he said. “How long do I have to stay in the doghouse?”

Lynette looked at him. “You know full well I can ask the elevator to start back up.”

“I’m serious, Lynette. Yes. I was a jerk. Yes. I was wrong. Yes, I’m sorry. How long do we spar like this? How long do you and Antonym get to snipe at me? How long do I have to stay in the doghouse?!”

Lynette rubbed her eyes. “Forever, Colin.” She turned to look at him. “You stay in the doghouse forever. There’s no expiration date.”

“What do you expect from me?”

“Nothing! How do you not understand that?” Lynette’s eyes narrowed.

“It was one night, Lynette. Just one.”

Lynette scoffed. “We’re done here.”

“It was one night! And you didn’t look unhappy during that—“

No. You don’t get to make that claim,” Lynette snapped. “Yes, I was charmed. Yes, I was into it. And yes, I was an active, willing participant with the man you claimed to be. But you lied, Colin. I didn’t know you were engaged. I sure as Hell didn’t know you were engaged to Antonym of the Pentad of Guardians! That’s not ‘one night,’ Colin! That’s Antonym and me spending the rest of our lives with this thing between us. And it pisses her off because she hates me at the same time she knows I didn’t know you were even involved. And it pisses me off because there’s no way I can just ‘get past that’ with her, and even before the Excelsiors my job meant I had to deal with the Pentad and Antonym and you made that harder. I didn’t make you cheat on your fiancee. If I’d known you had a fiancee I’d have thrown a drink in your face and stormed out. Don’t you get it, Colin? You stay in the doghouse forever, because it’s not a doghouse! It’s what happens to a selfish little boy when he gets caught.

Colin scowled, looking away.

“You’re sorry. Jesus. No, you’re not sorry, Colin. You’re uncomfortable. And the problem is, you don’t really get why I’m still upset. You don’t get why Antonym’s upset. Deep down, you still think this was no big deal, because deep down you don’t care about anyone but yourself! You didn’t become a superhero to save the world — you did it to sell more jets to the military! You want to know why Conner won’t listen to you when you never say anything useful to him! Not to mention you’re pissed off at him because his mother died and he had the gall to be born with a birth defect! He was in boarding school in the first grade, not four months after the first time he’d ever heard a sound, and now you want him to pay attention to you because he’s — what? Something to be proud of?” She shook her head. “You didn’t care what I thought about you six months ago — you just wanted me to stay away so you wouldn’t have to deal with feeling things. Why do you care now? Because I had a kid with someone else, and that threatens you even though there was no chance in Hell we’d ever even date again.”

Lynette stabbed her finger towards the ceiling of the elevator. “Every person up there — every person waiting for us? They all want to make the world a better place! Every one of them! They give, and they sacrifice, and they fight to make things better, and it pisses you off because you don’t feel that! It’d be a thousand times easier if you were the only hero in Empire City, so you could just grandstand and be a flying advertisement! And yeah, you save lives and fight evil, because losing to a criminal would offend you!”

“Then why are you here?” Colin snapped. “Why this assignment? Why you?”

“Because Justice Wing’s project is important! What they want to do here? It’s important! The Excelsiors are important, and what they’re trying to do is important! And beyond all of that, I’m here because I’m a Special Agent for DETAILS and being here is my God damned job, and that’s way more important to me and the world than avoiding you.

“Well, they’re spending a fuckton of my money in the process, Hardesty — where do you get off saying I don’t care when—“

“Oh don’t even. That’s the one thing about all this you do care about! Spending money means you get to claim all this is because of you! Giving Jayce a room for free means the bloody Lieutenant owes you for having a roof over his head! Centralizing the Excelsiors here? Means that the Pentad and the Astonishing Alliance depend on you! In fact—“ Lynette waved her arms in front of her face, before turning away, angrily.

“In fact what?

“In fact… the only thing I don’t get? Is that camp. I thought it was more of the same — finding a way to take credit for the Institute even though your part in all this ends before they even open their doors. And then I thought it was about me — making me owe you something because you’re facilitating Delia’s education! But that’s not it! I don’t—“

Lynette stopped talking. She put her hand up to her mouth, staring at Colin.

“What?”

“Mierra McCall.”

Colin looked away, angrily.

“That’s it. It’s her. That’s why she’s here even though she’s not going to the Institute. It’s not… you’re clearly not attracted to her, and thank God for that or I’d have to beat you into paste right here and now. You don’t feel paternal towards her. You don’t…” Lynette trailed off.

Colin stayed staring at the wall, flushed. Furious. Humiliated.

“When did you invite her to this camp, Colin?”

Colin didn’t say anything.

“Colin?”

“About eight days before I floated the idea of having the Institute’s orientation here over the course of the summer.” Colin took a deep breath. “I don’t care about Delia or any of the rest of them being here. I had to have a camp so Mierra would have a reason to be here. A reason her foster parents would accept without question.”

Lynette stared.

Colin didn’t say anything. He just stared at the wall.

“She’s Rodent, isn’t she?”

Colin flushed. “Great,” he said. “As if I haven’t fucked up enough, now DETAILS has her identity.”

“I’m not going to report it to DETAILS,” Lynette said. “But it’s true.” She paused. “Why? You don’t want to sleep with her. You don’t feel paternal towards her. But you clearly care about her more than your son, or Antonym, or anyone else. Why?

Colin took several deep breaths. “I could claim it’s because I hurt her, which is true enough. SCYLLA killed the one pair of good foster parents she had before the Murrillos entered her life, and they did it because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to realize they were coming. Because I didn’t get into this business to protect museums. I got into it to sell military hardware.”

“But it’s not the reason. What is?”

“She has nothing, Lynette. Nothing at all.” Colin finally turned to look at the agent. “But she fights harder than anyone I’ve ever met. She sacrifices more. She gives more. She feels more than any Justice Wing member. She’s a hero. She’s the hero. It took me a couple of weeks after the Excelsiors program started to come together to realize it, but she’s everything that…”

“That what?”

“She’s everything I’m supposed to be. Everything you’re supposed to be. Everything Doc Astonishing or Bauchan are supposed to be, but aren’t.” Colin rubbed his eyes. “Lynette, the last person I unreservedly loved was Juniper. When she died… I didn’t have room in my heart to love Conner. Ant loved me — really loved me — and I threw it away because I couldn’t fit her into it. I don’t make friends. I use people. I used you. You yelled at me for lying to you? I couldn’t have cared less about lying to you. I just wanted to prove I could get the hot parahuman spy, and Ant wouldn’t ever find out so what did it matter?”

“It matters,” Lynette said, quietly. “And I’m not a spy.”

“I don’t care. My whole life, I just… I resented the Lieutenant when he saved my life, because he didn’t do it with an agenda. He did it because it was worth doing. I resented Justice Wing and the Pentad and Sprite and everyone in the Astonishing Alliance who wasn’t Doc Astonishing because they didn’t have a plot. They just did good deeds.

“So what changed?”

Colin looked away again. “Jayce and Freya wanted that meeting with the Empirical heroes. I knew I had to have Rodent there because… I’d never met her but I knew damn well she was what they were looking for. And then… I did meet her. I was an asshole to her, because I’m an asshole to everyone. And she took me to school. And… Upsilon gave me the first hints of everything she was giving up in the name of ‘paying it forward,’ and… at first, I wanted to pull her in. Use her to feel better about myself. Same as the rest of this.”

“But?”

“But she didn’t grin and smile and thank me. She was pissed because I surveilled her. I shook her confidence in her secret identity and she immediately jumped to ‘oh God my foster parents will be killed.’ Truncheon’s working on that, by the way. She has to break that cycle now. Not my point. You saw her earlier. I said and did all the things I was supposed to do when institutional racism is blatantly called out in your corporation, and she tore me the Hell down. She’s not humbly thankful for being here. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, because she’s the real deal and she knows I’m a fraud.”

Lynette shrugged. “I’m the real deal, and I know you’re a fraud.”

“Yeah. Because you know how the world works. You can work with that. With me. You can snipe at me and put up with me and put aside the fact that I treated you and Antonym like trash because it’s more important to do this thing. Rodent — Mierra doesn’t do that. She points and says ‘hey! You’re treating people like trash, and I’m not going to put up with that.’”

Lynette didn’t say anything. She just listened.

“Look. I’m a lot of things. Genius, businessman, philanthropist, fraud, asshole… but more than any of that… deep down I’m a pilot. And… when you’re a pilot, sometimes… sometimes you lose your frame of reference. You roll. Spin out of control. You have to find a fixed point to reorient yourself or you’ll crash.”

Lynette’s eyes narrowed again. “I am literally standing in front of you wearing an Air Force flight suit with my command pilot wings embroidered on it, and you honestly think you have to explain spatial disorientation to me? Go to Hell.”

“Right. Whatever. Fine. Lynette… the day Juniper died I went into a spin and I’ve been careening at high gee ever since. I can’t see my way out of it. I can’t get an instrument read. I’m headed for a monumental crash and I know it. I can’t even eject because I don’t know if I’m level at ten thousand feet or inverted at two hundred feet. I’m going to die. I need a reference point. I need to reorient. And I know damn well I’m almost out of time. Rodent’s that reference point. I need her here… Lynette. I need a hero. I want her to save me.” His voice dropped to a hiss. “I need her to save me… because there isn’t anyone else. Not you, not Ant, not Paragon or Freya or Jetgirl or anyone.” Tears were rolling down his face, though he didn’t acknowledge them.

Lynette’s eyes were still narrow as she looked at Colin.

“Say something, God damn it.”

“That girl’s — what. Fifteen years old? She’s an orphan at least twice over. You’ve said she’s sacrificed a lot to ‘pay it forward.’ And she saves lives every day and I know damn well she gets nothing but crap for it from the media and most of the population. And now, on top of all that, you… Colin Church… the seventh richest man in America, with his own fleet of transformable fighter jet robots and proprietary cybernetic interfaces and high tech weapons and a building of his own on Vanderbilt Avenue… you’re going to put that burden on her, too?”

Colin took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.” He looked at the floor. “Fifth richest.”

“Oh shut up. And check the NASDAQ. Seventh, as of close.”

Colin snorted. “Yeah, it’s been that kind of a day.”

Lynette turned back, facing the front of the elevator again. “She’ll do it. You know that. She’ll take this on. She’ll save you. She’ll do it. So what happens if that’s the straw that breaks her back, Colin? Huh? What if your needs take her out of the game, or worse get her killed or ruin her future?”

Colin looked at Lynette, then faced forward. He thumbed the panel again, and the elevator began to rise. “They won’t. If it comes to that… I’ll crash the plane before I let it take her out.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I… I can’t… I won’t be the reason she goes down. But… damn it—“

“Okay. I’ll keep this between us. I won’t mention this to DETAILS either. But Colin?”

“Yeah?”

“In five or six years? Delia’s clearly shaping up into the kind of heartbreaker Sonata DuLay or Freya are. If I ever find out you hit on her, or so much as lay a finger on her? I will crash the Falchion with you in it and I’ll tell Rodent everything. You do not mess with my child. Are we clear on this?”

“Crystal.” He paused. “I… don’t know what I can do about Conner—“

“I’m not worried about that. Conner’s already a better person than you are. Hopefully that’ll continue.”

Colin snorted. “Okay.” He wiped his eyes with his hand. “Jesus Christ, I feel ten years old.”

“Good. That’s probably a good sign.”

The doors opened into Colin’s penthouse. Lynette strode out of the elevator. Various heroes from various organizations were there, talking. “Good afternoon, everyone,” she said, smiling and putting on her game face. “How’re we looking.”

“Oh hey,” Antonym of the Pentad of Guardians said, glancing at Lynette. “Tits Malone finally made it. Good to see you, Tits. How was traffic.”

“Good to see you too, Antonym. I see your continued adapted opposition to puberty’s going well. Hold that line. Don’t let it beat you.”

Colin walked past the two, heading for the other side of the room. He had already launched into his usual patter.

Antonym looked at him for a moment, then stepped closer to Lynette. “Insults are all fine and good, and I really do hate your fucking guts,” she murmured. “But I know Colin maybe better than anyone, Hardesty. And if I found out that you made him cry…” She paused for a long moment. “…I will give you my car.”

“Understood,” Lynette murmured back. “There were some tears. Which… I may have captured on film. Just… for the record.”

Antonym didn’t say anything for a long moment. Lynette gave her the time.

“It pulls to the right over forty miles an hour,” she said. “It really needs an alignment done and it’s been drinking oil faster than I like. It’s an ’86 Accord, though, and its MPG is insane. You’ll like it.” She lifted her fist.

“Sounds cool.” Lynette bumped her fist against Antonym’s. “Tits Malone? You can do better than that.”

“Oh, I will, Hardesty. Trust me. I will.”


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