San Francisco, USA – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 11:19 AM.
The atmosphere in the room changed while Chris stood, dumbfounded, staring at the pictures on the walls. The other Wardens exchanged concerned glances, studying her expression with a wary intensity that let her know her bewilderment hadn’t gone unnoticed.
This wasn’t just a long overdue family reunion anymore. The decorations and the looks on her parents’ faces made it into something more, and Chris had a strong hunch that she was going to have a long chat about her future before she walked out of here.
Hopefully, it would be her mom who did most of the talking. If her dad got started, he’d probably send her on a nice long guilt trip.
Jeannette Chung finally broke the awkward silence with her usual hospitality. “Please sit,” she said. “There’s enough cake for everyone.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Chung,” Peter replied. He grabbed a chair, and everyone followed suit.
For the first few minutes, no one volunteered to get the conversation rolling. The Wardens accepted their slices of cake with politely murmured thanks. Chris’s mother fussed with their drinks, the arrangement of the forks and the folded paper napkins. Her dad smiled that peculiar smile that failed to reach his eyes, and Barney whimpered beneath the table, prodding Chris’s leg with his snout.
Sorry, B-Boy. I have some things to sort out with the humans today.
Chris reached down to pat the German Shepherd’s head and scratch him behind the ears. He thanked her by putting his head on her knee and gazing up at her with that boundless adoration that only dogs could pull off. It made her melt inside, allowing her to forget about the upcoming family drama for a moment.
“Hey,” Chris said to Barney. “How about we go for a run in a few days, after I’ve taken care of some stuff? Would you like that?”
He wagged his tail in response.
“That’s a good idea, Christina,” her mother said, clearly eager to buy into the idea. “It’s still a new environment for him, but I’m sure you’ll discover a new favorite trail together. The nearby forest is so much bigger than Museum Park in Averton.”
“We’ll need to wait for the villain situation to be resolved,” Chris’s dad interjected. He touched her mother’s forearm, as if gently pulling her back into reality.
Jeannette Chung cut another slice of cake and shoveled it onto Chris’s plate, prattling on with forced cheerfulness. “Oh, yes. Of course we can’t let her go running outside before it’s safe, but I’m sure it’ll all be resolved soon. Our government knows how to handle a crisis, doesn’t it? America has endured greater disasters. Li, remind me of when that big San Francisco earthquake happened? Sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century?”
The San Francisco earthquake wasn’t deliberate or hunting anyone, Mom.
Chris believed in the government about as much as she believed in Santa Claus. Regardless, she made the effort to keep a straight face.
On the chair next to hers, Peter took a sip from his glass of apple juice instead of commenting. Nora just frowned down at her cake slice, worrying her bottom lip absently.
“You got that right, Jean,” Chris’s dad confirmed, his Chinese features knitted in contemplation. “It must have been about 1905 or 1906. Most of the city was destroyed, and look at it now – bustling like a boomtown during a gold rush.” He grinned at the comparison as if he’d just made one of his patented Dad jokes. Maybe he had; his peculiar sense of humor made it hard to tell sometimes.
Chris wasn’t amused enough to chuckle, but she felt herself relax a little. If he could still dig out his jokes, he was taking the protective house arrest and the loss of his beloved work routine better than she’d feared.
Peter took the opportunity to return to his role as the most socially adept Warden. “Chris told us you’re a police officer, Mr. Chung?” he asked.
Li Chung lightened up at the mention of his favorite subject. “Oh, yes. I can’t rightfully claim to be an old hand in my department, but I’ve been around for a few years. You’re interested in a career with the police, Peter?”
Damn. He’s better at handling my dad than I ever was. Chris was somewhat impressed with his social skills, though she could tell it was all pretend. Beneath the surface, her parents were anxious and tense, distinctively different from the way they’d acted around Ryan or Helen’s friends.
Chris herself wasn’t entirely comfortable with this whole situation, but she hoped to get some alone time with her mother before too long.
“Yeah. My uncle’s with the FBI,” Peter replied, eager to make conversation. “I heard they’re doing a good job in tracking those villains, and when they catch one, they’ll be in hot pursuit of the others. I’m sure the threat of execution orders makes villains talk. I mean, they’re not as loyal to one another as members of organized crime groups usually are, right?”
“He’s right,” Nora added in a quiet, solemn tone. “The police have got the resources and everything.”
Wishful thinking. While she was looking at her parents’ hopeful faces, Chris stuffed herself with another mouthful of cake.
She suspected that they needed something or someone to believe in, and from what she could tell, they seemed to prefer an entity without superpowers. The suggested ideas involving the police and the US government helped put them at ease.
“Christina?” Her mother asked. Chris could tell from her cautious tone that whatever was going to follow had been planned, considered, and mulled over for a long time.
“What?” Chris replied slumping slightly on her seat, shoulders drawing in.
“Have you thought about returning home at all?” Mother raised her hand in a placating gesture, as if to preemptively dispel arguments. “I’m not talking about a visit, I’m talking about living with us. You’re young, and you have so many options available to you. All of-” Mother paused, visibly struggling to find the proper, non-offensive word – “…this was so sudden. You didn’t have the time to think about it, to adjust. It just happened. You know your father and I want the best for you, we always have, and that means seeing you grow up in a safe environment. You’re too young for all this responsibility, Christina.”
Do we have to discuss this in front of my friends? They’re right here. Chris sucked in a deep breath. I don’t know what I want. That’s what you’re trying to say, right?
Chris couldn’t relate to that train of thought. Sure, she was young, but she did have goals and expectations she’d set for herself. There were just way too many, and she didn’t know how to prioritize or how she was going to meet all of them.
Emily was probably at the top of her list of priorities, followed by her responsibility for Nora. Peter. The emergence of villains in San Francisco, most likely related to Chris’s highly coveted powerset. And yes, part of her longed for normality. The thought of just going home had a certain pull to it.
Something had changed, and the wall decorations said her parents didn’t just want her, they needed her desperately. They had nothing else left. Chris wasn’t sure she could reasonably deny them after Helen, after Dylan, after all the things she’d been directly or indirectly responsible for.
“That’s a pretty big decision,” Chris finally said. Something inside of her caved in beneath the weight of everyone’s eyes on her, and the words spilled out. “I have some responsibilities I can’t just put on someone else.”
She looked at Nora. You know what I mean. You need me too.
The other girl’s lips curled at the edges, not quite a smile but almost. “Your Mom’s got a point, Chris,” she said. “Should at least think about it. Your arm’s gonna need more time to heal than your ankle.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s not like I’m doing Parkour or anything.” And I promised the Covenant to stick with you, she added in her mind.
“Everything’s changing because of all the shit that’s going down,” Nora replied. “Maybe even mah case. Doesn’t hurt to ask. And you could still be the mastermind in the background who tells us what to do so we can’t screw up.”
Peter ran his fingers through his messy brown hair. He watched Nora while she talked, and when she was done, he settled a pensive frown on Chris. “I don’t want you out of the team, and I don’t think you should quit, but who knows what’s going to happen? What do you want? You hate when people tell you what to do, but have you thought this through for yourself?”
Yeah, sure. I just don’t know what comes first.
Chris glanced to her Dad and swallowed the words that stuck to her tongue. He wore an expression she’d never seen before – his face stony and rutted like dry ground that hadn’t been watered in years, and he looked old.
She realized that was what he looked like underneath the family man mask, with nothing left to keep wearing it for. That thought stung her in places she hadn’t known existed.
“We’re your parents, Christina,” he said. “We’re devoted to you, and we’re not going anywhere. Fame is fleeting. Keep that in mind.”
“I’m not interested in fame, Dad. You should know that.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he argued. “I’m talking about that hero thing. You have it in your head that people need you, and that you need to prove something. Am I right?”
Chris slid a little lower on her seat. Of everyone who’d gathered at this table, her dad was the last person she would have expected to hit this close to home regarding her feelings on the matter.
” I’m trying to do something right for once. Isn’t that what you’ve been preaching about? Giving something back to society? Joining the police academy? ”
His face lit up at the words. “I hope you haven’t given up on the police yet. We just talked about how the FBI is going to deal with those villains.”
“We did talk about that,” Chris admitted, pretending to consider the idea though it was completely ridiculous. The police academy would never accept someone with powers, and she suspected her dad was aware. He just seemed dead set on ignoring the fact that she’d gained superpowers and was sitting here with her equally superpowered friends.
“What we’re trying to say is that you should take your time to decide,” her mother added. “Your life is your own, Christina. It doesn’t belong to Mr. Turner or that counselor we talked to… Mrs. Clarens, is that her name? I’m sure she was good for you when you needed counseling, but don’t let her fill your head with silly ideas.”
She has some pretty good ideas on how my powers work.
Chris could tell her parents didn’t want to hear about her powers, so she didn’t raise that point, but it reminded her of what she’d read in Mrs. Clarence’s latest email. Maybe after everything was said and done, her danger sense feedback wouldn’t incapacitate her anymore. She didn’t know for sure if her parents had forgiven her, but they didn’t seem mad at least. Just… desperate.
Somehow, that was harder to absorb than reproaches would have been.
“I’ll think about it if we can get Nora’s case reconsidered by the UN,” Chris finally admitted, eyes drawn to the column of her child photos that hung on the wall behind her mother. “But I can’t make that decision today, I mean… it’s been a long time, and I don’t know what you expect from me. If anything has changed.” She didn’t want to bring up the past arguments, and she assumed her parents felt the same way.
Her parents exchanged glances, as if reminding one another of an agreement they’d reached in advance. Then Chris’s mother spoke up, calm and controlled. “We’ve moved on from the past, Christina, and we want to be part of your life before it’s too late for a new start.”
There was a pause before Chris had a response. Something simple to start with, something to remind them she hadn’t suddenly turned into Princess Perfect just because they had no one else left.
“I still smoke,” she pointed out.
Jeannette Chung didn’t waver. “Not inside the house, please. It could catch on fire.”
It wasn’t the answer Chris had expected. She couldn’t help but smirk a little. “I guess. It’s all wood after all. I still use bad language, too. Not on purpose, it just happens.”
“She does. It scares the villains,” Peter declared.
Li Chung’s thin dark eyebrows went up. “Does it, now? I suppose in that case, we could ignore a few remarks here and there.”
Chris wanted to continue talking about the conditions of a theoretical return, but something stopped her. She’d avoided mentioning her sister, but she could almost feel Helen’s presence in the room, demanding to be named so she could rest in peace. So everyone could live in peace. Mom said they’d moved on, but her eyes said they hadn’t. Not completely.
Neither had Chris.
She sat there staring down at her cake slice for an immeasurable amount of time, lips quivering in anticipation of the words that wouldn’t come. Finally something burst inside of her, her eyes started burning and her vision blurred for the first time in years.
“I tried to protect Helen,” she said, choking out the words.
The air was filled with a thick silence, and Chris struggled against the suspicion that her parents wouldn’t believe her. The courage and confidence she’d assembled over the past weeks melted, and she didn’t dare raise her eyes for fear that they’d be met with icy stares of condemnation.
Then her mother shattered her expectations with a tear-choked voice. “Oh, Christina,” she said.
There was a sound of a chair scraping across the floor, then footsteps. Before she knew what was happening, Chris felt herself enveloped in Mother’s arms. It brought back memories of her childhood days, when hugging a parent hadn’t been awkward and strange.
“I know you’re a good girl, Christina,” Mother whispered. Her words got Chris’s tears flowing, and Chris hugged her Mom back.
Below the table, Barney began to whimper. Chris disentangled her right arm from her mother and reached down to pat his furry head.
You’re part of this, too.
Dad, still sitting on the other side of the table, didn’t have anything to add for once. From him, that was answer enough – he wasn’t the type who hesitated in expressing disagreement.
Someone to Chris’s right made a low aw’ing sound. She blinked the tears from her eyes to see Nora and Peter grin in shared camaraderie, and she returned a weak smile, turning her head so her face was visible.
“I’m coming home,” Chris said as her mother’s grip on her was beginning to relax. “When all this is over and Emily’s safe. She’s a little kid, I can’t leave her hanging right now.”
“We understand. You’d do well in the police with that attitude, you know,” Dad commented.
Chris couldn’t quite wrap her head around all the patience and understanding he was showing her. Coming from him, it seemed unreal. She resisted the urge to pinch her arm to make sure this was actually happening.
“Take your time, Christina. We’ll be here, or wherever they take us next,” Mother said. She tucked a loose strand of dark brown hair behind Chris’s ear, then pulled a chair close to sit beside her.
It’s going to be okay. They’re not mad, and I can still go fix this mess.
Chris felt the tension wash out of her, and she was able to look at her plans for the immediate future from a fresh perspective. Her priorities were clearer, now. More easily arranged.
Emily still came first, though.
Peter’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “You know, you’re the rare kind of girl who gets really focused on something.” He flashed one of his roguish smiles. “I like that about you, actually. So yeah. Do whatever you think is right, and if it’s Wardens stuff, we’ll be there with you.”
“Today, for starters,” Nora said. “Right when Rune and the East Coasters are ready.”
“Right,” Chris echoed. “We’re starting today.”
Oakland, USA – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 07:02 PM.
The first international hero meeting took place in a rented bungalow in Oakland, courtesy of the Canadian. Chris had gotten a phone call from Rune shortly after the European heroes received the communications equipment from Athena, and once everyone had been informed, moving them to the rendezvous only took fifteen minutes. Working with a teleporter was a nice change that Chris could definitely get used to.
A few people were absent from the meeting. Crashbang had excused himself for reasons unknown to Chris. Radiant hadn’t been released from hospital yet, Rose the Red was spending time with her Covenant boyfriend Paladin, and Peter aka Overdrive had volunteered for news duty. If he learned anything new related to Sovereign or other villains, he’d send out alerts to everyone else. They knew so little about their opponent that any piece of news could affect their planning.
The heroes, all of whom had shown up in civilian outfits, gathered in the attic. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone, so they sat on a circle of pillows on the floor – not terribly comfortable, but Chris appreciated being able to see everyone without twisting or turning. That way, she was less likely to forget anyone’s powers while planning.
Rune, who was representing his team, sat cross-legged across from Chris. He was flanked by Aura, a small and mousy teenage girl with red-rimmed glasses, and Checkmate. The latter was about Chris’s age, scrawny and brown-skinned, with dark chocolate brown eyes that matched the exotic name Chris had trouble remembering. His parents had immigrated to Belgium from Sri Lanka, Chris knew. Considering his background, his French-accented English was surprisingly good.
Two of the three East Coasters – the Canadian and Umbra – had claimed pillows to Chris’s left. The Canadian intrigued her because he’d been famous long before the USA asked Canada for permission to invite him to the East Coast team. The man was the only person in the room with some real experience on fighting bad guys. He looked like a badass, too – athletic, with a well-defined upper body, a buzz cut and one scarred cheek. He wasn’t handsome, but according to rumors, the ladies loved him.
Chris wasn’t that impressed. Then again, she wasn’t exactly a lady, and the only guy who’d impressed her stopped talking to her after her transition.
“Okay, are we all linked now?” Chris asked, pressing the small button on the underside of her Athena-designed armband. It would send her position to everyone else who’d been equipped with a device.
At a glance, it was a thin band of white plastic with a small attached monitor, easily mistaken for a simple wristwatch. Depending on how long and how often she pressed the touch sensitive part at the bottom, it would convey her exact position to Checkmate and Radiant – or send an emergency alert along with the location info. One long push requested a general status update. Two short ones in quick succession sent out an emergency alert to everyone with an active armband. There were other options, but she hadn’t tested them yet.
“You should be,” Checkmate replied, checking his own armband. The equipment he’d received from Athena included a tinted visor, which was actually a monitor capable of displaying GPS relayed position information. According to Rune, the design had been inspired by Radiant’s helmet.
It was kind of amazing to be part of the first real effort at international hero coordination that didn’t directly involve the Covenant. Chris wouldn’t have thought it possible back when she first joined the Wardens. Hero related bureaucracy had been a mess, and it still was, but the emergence of villains had stirred previously passive heroes and government agencies into action.
It’s mostly Athena’s gear that made it possible. Chris made a mental note to thank her later.
“Let’s do a test,” Chris said. “Could you send a signal to everyone who isn’t here, and check if they show up on your monitor?”
“Sure,” Checkmate replied.
Everyone watched him with intent interest as he manipulated the controls of his armband. Chris’s own monitor lit up in response, informing her that he’d requested her position.
“Athena told me they’re fire- and waterproof and nearly indestructible,” Rune said. “But there’s a few more in our stash in case we need them.”
“Got everyone,” Checkmate informed them after a moment. “Even Radiant.”
“When can we expect Radiant to get out of hospital?” Umbra asked with his distinctive New Yorker accent. Like the Canadian, he was in his thirties, taller than any of the teenagers, and considerably heavier. His pale skin suited the popular night-dwelling Darkshaper clichés, and he’d tied his flaxen blond hair into a tiny ponytail that revealed his shaven temples.
“He’ll be out on Tuesday,” Rune replied. “Most likely pumped full of painkillers, but we’re going to get our flying artillery.” He flashed a wolfish grin. “He’s owing favors, and he knows he does.”
“Screw Radiant,” Checkmate muttered in a quiet, hostile tone that went unnoticed by almost everyone; at least they didn’t react to it. Chris decided to do the same.
“What if we need him today?” She asked. If given the choice, she would have preferred to resolve this villain situation without having to wait for Tuesday and a possible trap. The constant threat of a surprise attack had kept her team awake for most of the past night.
Rune shrugged. “Maybe. Let’s hope we don’t need him, though. He’s drugged up to the point where he might be a liability.”
No one disagreed. Nora was looking in Chris’s direction without really looking at her, seemingly buried in thought. The Canadian sat with his arms curled about his long legs, towering over everyone else. Aura had her attention on the small stack of photographs she was leafing through. She sat cross-legged and leaned forward, her glasses resting on the tip of her nose.
“Let’s talk teams,” the Canadian suggested. “Who goes with who?”
“I’m useless for subtle work,” Rune said. “So it’s up to the six of you. Three pairs might be best. Cover more ground in more time.”
“We don’t want to check the whole city,” Chris objected. “We want to check the right places. And if shit goes down, a pair is more vulnerable than a small group. I don’t think we should split up.”
“Depends on the pairs,” the Canadian said. “And the range of your forcefields and danger sense.”
“My range is around a block, something like that. But that’s just for the danger sense, the forcefields are a line of sight deal. Here’s what I propose.” Chris drew in a breath to focus and get her thoughts in order. She had gone over this at least a dozen times in her head, and her idea made sense to her, but the two other hero team leaders were almost twice her age. They wouldn’t root for her ideas as easily as the Wardens had.
“Four of us will scout in a car,” she began, pulling a folded San Francisco city map from her bag. “It’s safer that way, and we’ll draw less attention. I’m thinking of myself, Nora, Umbra and Aura. Basically everyone who can scout with powers and figure out if there’s villain activity in the area we’re driving through. I’ll go with them to keep them safe, and Noire comes along because she’s my conjoined twin and great as combat support. She actually kicked Legion’s ass.”
Umbra’s eyebrows shot up, and he glanced to Nora. “She did?”
Nora lowered her chin to her drawn-up knees and averted her gaze, clearly uncomfortable with the attention. “Wasn’t me. That was Mr. Black who pissed all the Canadians off.”
“Just what actually happened in Canada?” Checkmate asked.
To Chris’s relief, that conversation didn’t go any further. Rune’s index finger flicked up in a not-so-fast gesture. “Wait, let’s stay on topic. No one’s filled me in on Umbra’s powers yet. I only know that he’s a Darkshaper who can scout.”
Umbra leaned his massive frame forward, arms draping over his knees. “The short version is that I see into dark places, even if there’s walls in between. Oh, and I can turn incorporeal. If I do, I’m drawn to certain places or people I define. And yeah. I slip through keyholes, like a ghost in a horror flick.” He raised both hands to wag his fingers threateningly.
“What places and people?” Rune asked.
“Anyone I know, if they’re in range. I teleport to shadows or dark places in my range, which is about fifty meters. The teleport accuracy is better if the location’s in my field vision, but I can teleport through walls if I have to. And I can keep one person blinded if they don’t have dark vision.” He flashed a self-satisfied grin. “Most don’t.”
“Are you visible when you’re ghosting around?” Nora asked. “Mr. Black is, and it’s a real pain in the ass. People always freak out.”
“No,” Umbra replied, his grin widening. “Cool, huh?”
Nora shrugged and glanced away. “I guess.”
“Any more questions, while we’re at it?” Chris asked. When no one spoke up, she unfolded the city map she’d pulled from her bag and continued outlining her plan. “The car team – four people, I’ll get to that in a minute – is going to be on foot when we reach the destination. I’m including everyone who can scout with powers and figure out if there’s villain activity in the area we’re driving through.”
“I’m one of them,” Aura said. She was the youngest circle member by a few years, and being wedged in between Umbra and Rune – both of whom were bulky in different ways – made her appear small and fragile. Looking at her like this, pinned between the bulky guys, Chris felt a tingle of Guardian protectiveness. It nearly made her change her mind about the team composition.
Maybe we shouldn’t take her along. She’s barely more than a child.
“I’m not sure about leaving me and the others behind,” the Canadian objected. “That doesn’t seem right to me. And you mentioned a specific destination? We haven’t talked about one.”
“Yeah. We’ll discuss the destination in a minute,” Chris said. “If we need anyone else, Checkmate can bring them in. We tested the armbands, they’ll let him know exactly where we are.”
“We haven’t done any testing in the field,” the Canadian said.
“Athena made them, so I’m pretty sure they work. But hey, if you wanted, you could easily scout a different location from us. Just pull the mask over your eyes and go invisible.”
“Fair enough,” he replied.
No one asked for details about the Canadian’s powers. He had been one of the first transitions in 2011, and everyone knew the rogue who’d worked as a lone vigilante for more than a year. Despite never having been elevated to official hero status, but he was one of the very few Evolved outside the Covenant with actual field experience.
His powerset was extremely efficient for fighting crime which was ironic, because it required him to be blind and deaf for maximum effect. If lowered over his face, the painted wooden mask that had become his trademark covered his eyes completely. His combat outfit also included a set of Technician-designed headphones shut out any noise.
If he couldn’t see, no one saw him. When he was deaf, not even a dog’s sensitive ears picked up any sound from his movements. His powers provided him with new senses that allowed him to find his way while blind, including but not limited to the ability to pinpoint people by their emitted emotions.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the man was an absolute beast in unarmed combat. Chris envied him a little. He could disable bad guys without killing them and potentially causing a power surge elsewhere in the world. If she tried the same, she’d have to be much more careful.
“So, about our destination,” Chris began as she spread the city map of San Francisco out on the floor. Then she lowered her finger onto a section of the city at random. “We’ll go here to scout. ,. Like I said before, it’ll be me, Noire, Aura and Umbra in a car. We’ll drive around a bit, but stay in this general area.”
“You’re not making the decisions, girl,” the Canadian objected though he sounded more amused than offended.
It was such a typical ‘adult’ reaction that Chris wasn’t even annoyed, not when they had more important things to discuss than inter-team pecking order.
“I am right now,” she said. “Aura, look at our pictures. What’s going to happen?”
Someone gave an ‘oh’ of acknowledgement. Chris couldn’t tell who, but she could tell from the reactions all around her that most of the other heroes understood her plan. No one interrupted; everyone’s eyes settled on the petite girl with the glasses and the stack of pictures she was holding.
The girl’s face lit up in acknowledgement. She let her gaze roam over those assembled, pursing her lips a little before she was ready to respond. “Um, nothing. Your auras don’t change much, you’ll just get a little bored and frustrated.”
“How about here?” Chris asked as she slid her finger to a different location on the map.
This time, Aura’s small face fell, and her fingers dug into the fabric of her skirt in dismay. “Don’t go there,” she said with a small voice. “Everyone’s going to die.”
“Holy shit,” the Canadian mouthed after a moment of stunned silence. “We found them. What location is this?”
Chris glanced down at her finger on the map. “Laguna Heights,” she said. “That’s pretty central. Whoever these guys are, they’re feeling confident they won’t get caught.”
“And we know they’ve got some serious firepower,” Rune said. “We have to assume they’re ready for us. The last time Aura told someone they’d die, we literally had to go drag his sorry ass out of the fire, and I lost a teammate.” His expression darkened.
“So, where do we go, then?” the Canadian asked. “We need to get some kind of early advantage.”
Chris glanced down at the map again. Fifteen minutes later, the heroes had agreed on a location.