At 18, everyone receive a superpower. Your childhood friend got a power-absorption, your best friends got time control, and they quickly rise into top 100 most powerful superheroes. You got a mediocre superpower, but somehow got into the top 10. Today they visit you asking how you did it.
“Power absorption?” you ask him over your pasta, which you are currently absorbing powerfully. in the background, a tv is reading out what the Phoenix extremeist group has done recently. bodies, stacking.
tim nods, pushing his salad around. “it’s kind of annoying.” he’s gone vegan ever since he could talk to animals. his cheeks are sallow. “yesterday i absorbed static and i can’t stop shocking myself.”
“you don’t know what from,” shay is detangling her hair at the table, even though it’s not polite. about a second ago, her hair was perfect, which implies she’s been somewhere in the inbetween. “try millions of multiverses that your powers conflict with.”
“did we die in the last one?” you grin and she grins and tim grins but nobody answers the question.
now she has a cut over her left eye and her hair is shorter. she looks tired and tim looks tired and you look down at your 18-year-old hands, which are nothing.
they ship out tomorrow. they go out to the frontlines or wherever it is that superheroes go to fight supervillains; the cream of the crop. the starlight banner kids.
“you both are trying too hard,” you tell them, “couldn’t you have been, like, really good at surfing?”
“god,” shay groans, “what i’d give to only be in the olympics.”
in the night, tim is asleep. on the way home, he absorbed telekinesis, and hates it too.
shay looks at you. “i’m scared,” she says.
you must not have died recently, because she looks the same she did at dinner, cut healing slowly over her eye the way it’s supposed to, not the hyper-quickness of a timejump. just shay, living in the moment when the moment is something everyone lives in. her eyes are wide and dark the way brown eyes can be, that swelling fullness that feels so familiar and warm, that piercing darkness that feels like a stone at the back of your tongue.
“you should be,” you say.
her nose wrinkles, she opens her mouth, but you plow on.
“they’re going to take one look at you and be like, ‘gross, shay? no thanks. you’re too pretty. it’s bringing down like, morale, and things’. then they’ll kick you out and i’ll live with you in a box and we’ll sell stolen cans of ravioli.”
she’s grinning. “like chef boyardee or like store brand?”
“store brand but we print out chef boyardee labels and tape them over the can so we can mark up the price.”
“where do we get the tape?”
“we, uh,” you look into those endless dark eyes, so much like the night, so much like a good hot chocolate, so much like every sleepover you’ve had with the two of your best friends, and you say, “it’s actually just your hair. i tie your hair around the cans to keep the label on.”
she throws a pillow at you.
you both spend a night planning what you’ll do in the morning when shay is kicked out of Squadron 8, Division 1; top rankers that are all young. you’ll both run away to the beach and tim will be your intel and you’ll burn down the whole thing. you’re both going to open a bakery where you will do the baking and she’ll use her time abilities to just, like, speed things up so you don’t have to wake up at dawn. you’re both going to become wedding planners that only do really extreme weddings.
she falls asleep on your shoulder. you do not sleep at all.
in the morning, they are gone.
squadron 434678, Division 23467 is basically “civilian status.” you still have to know what to expect and all that stuff. you’re glad that you’re taking extra classes at college; you’re kind of bored re-learning the stuff you were already taught in high school. there are a lot of people who need help, and you’re good at that, so you help them.
tim and shay check in from time to time, but they’re busy saving the world, so you don’t fault them for it. in the meantime, you put your head down and work, and when your work is done, you help the people who can’t finish their work. and it kind of feels good. kind of.
at twenty, squadron 340067, division 2346 feels like a good fit. tim and you go out for ice cream in a new place that rebuilt after the Phoenix group burned it down. you’ve chosen nurse-practitioner as your civilian job, because it seems to fit, but you’re not released for full status as civilian until you’re thirty, so it’s been a lot of office work.
tim’s been on the fritz a lot lately, overloading. you’re worried they’ll try to force him out on the field. he’s so young to be like this.
“i feel,” he says, “like it all comes down to this puzzle. like i’m never my own. i steal from other people’s boxes.”
you wrap your hand around his. “sometimes,” you say, “we love a river because it is a reflection.”
he’s quiet a long time after that. a spurt of flame licks from under his eyes.
“i wish,” he says, “i could believe that.”
twenty three has you in squad 4637, division 18. really you’ve just gotten here because you’re good at making connections. you know someone who knows someone who knows you as a good kid. you helped a woman onto a bus and she told her neighbor who told his friend. you’re mostly in the filing department, but you like watching the real superheroes come in, get to know some of them. at this level, people have good powers but not dangerous ones. you learn how to help an 18 year old who is a loaded weapon by shifting him into a non-violent front. you get those with pstd home where they belong. you put your head down and work, which is what you’re good at.
long nights and long days and no vacations is fine until everyone is out of the office for candlenights eve. you’re the only one who didn’t mind staying, just in case someone showed up needing something.
the door blows open. when you look up, he’s bleeding. you jump to your feet.
“oh,” you say, because you recognize the burning bird insignia on his chest, “I think you have the wrong office.”
“i just need,” he spits onto the ground, sways, collapses.
well, okay. so, that’s, not, like. great. “uh,” you say, and you miss shay desperately, “okay.”
you find the source of the bleeding, stabilize him for when the shock sets in, get him set up on a desk, sew him shut. two hours later, you’ve gotten him a candlenights present and stabilized his vitals. you’ve also filed him into a separate folder (it’s good to be organized) and found him a home, far from the warfront.
when he wakes up, you give him hot chocolate (god, how you miss shay), and he doesn’t smile. he doesn’t smile at the gift you’ve gotten him (a better bulletproof vest, one without the Phoenix on it), or the stitches. that’s okay. you tell him to take the right medications, hand them over to him, suggest a doctor’s input. and then you hand over his folder with a new identity in it and a new house and civilian status. you take a deep breath.
he opens it and bursts into tears. he doesn’t say anything. he just leaves and you have to clean up the blood, which isn’t very nice of him. but it’s candlenights. so whatever. hopefully he’ll learn to like his gift.
squadron 3046, division 2356 is incredibly high for a person like you to fit. but still, you fit, because you’re good at organization and at hard work, and at knowing how to hold on when other people don’t see a handhold.
shay is home. you’re still close, the two of you, even though she feels like she exists on another planet. the more security you’re privy to, the more she can tell you.
you brush her hair as she speaks about the endless man who never dies, and how they had to split him up and hide him throughout the planet. she cries when she talks about how much pain he must be in.
“can you imagine?” she whispers, “i mean, i know he’s phoenix, but can you imagine?”
“one time i had to work retail on black friday,” you say.
“one time my boss put his butt directly on my hand by accident and i couldn’t say anything so i spent a whole meeting with my hand directly up his ass,” you say.
her eyes are so brown, and filling, and there are scars on her you’ve never noticed that might be new or very, very, very old; and neither of you know exactly how much time she’s actually been alive for.
“i mean,” you say, “yeah that might hurt but one time i said goodbye to someone but they were walking in the same direction. i mean can you imagine.”
she laughs, finally, even though it’s weakly, and says, “one time even though i can manipulate time i slept in and forgot to go to work even though i was leading a presentation and i had to look them in the face later to tell them that.”
“you’re a compete animal,” you tell her, and look into those eyes, so sad and full of timelines you’ll never witness, “you should be kicked out completely.”
she wipes her face. “find me in a box,” she croaks, “selling discount ravioli.”
you don’t know how it happens. but you guess the word gets around. you don’t think you like being known to them as someone they can go to, but it’s not like they’ve got a lot of options. many of them just want to be out of it, so you get them out, you guess.
you explain to them multiple times you haven’t done a residency yet and you really only know what an emt would, but they still swing by. every time they show up at your office, you feel your heart in your chest: this is it, this is how you die, this is how it ends.
“so, like, this group” you say, trying to work the system’s loopholes to find her a way out of it, “from ashes come all things, or whatever?”
she shrugs. you can tell by looking at her that she’s dangerous. “it’s corny,” she says. another shrug. “i didn’t mean to wind up a criminal.”
you don’t tell her that you sort of don’t know how one accidentally becomes a criminal, since you kind-of-sort-of help criminals out, accidentally.
“i don’t believe any of that stuff,” she tells you, “none of that whole… burn it down to start it over.” she swallows. “stuff just happens. and happens. and you wake up and it’s still happening, even though you wish it wasn’t.”
you think about shay, and how she’s covered in scars, and her crying late at night because of things nobody else ever saw.
“yeah,” you say, and print out a form, “i get that.”
and you find a dangerous woman a normal home.
“you’re squadron 905?”
“division 34754,” you tell him. watch him look down at your ID and certification and read your superpower on the card and then look back up to you and then back down to the card and then back up at you, and so on. he licks his chapped lips and stands in the cold.
this happens a lot. but you smile. the gatekeeper is frowning, but then hanson walks by. “oh shit,” he says, “it’s you! come right on in!” he gives you a hug through your rolled-down window.
the gatekeeper is in a stiff salute now. gulping in terror. hanson is one of the strongest people in this sector, and he just hugged you.
the gate opens. hanson swaggers through. you shrug to the gatekeeper. “i helped him out one time.”
inside they’re debriefing. someone has shifted sides, someone powerful, someone wild. it’s not something you’re allowed to know about, but you know it’s bad. so you put your head down, and you work, because that’s what you’re good at, after all. you find out the gatekeeper’s name and send him a thank-you card and also handmade chapstick and some good earmuffs.
shay messages you that night. i have to go somewhere, she says, i can’t explain it, but there’s a mission and i might be gone a long time.
you stare at the screen for a long time. your fingers type out three words. you erase them. you instead write where could possibly better than stealing chef boyardee with me?
she doesn’t read it. you close the tab.
and you put your head down. and work.
it’s in a chili’s. like, you don’t even like chili’s? chili’s sucks, but the boss ordered it so you’re here to pick it up, wondering if he gave you enough money to cover. things have been bad recently. thousands dying. whoever switched sides is too powerful to stop. they destroy anyone and anything, no matter the cost.
the phoenix fire smells like pistachios, you realize. you feel at once part of yourself and very far. it happens so quickly, but you feel it slowly. you wonder if shay is involved, but know she is not.
the doors burst in. there’s screaming. those in the area try their powers to defend themselves, but everyone is civilian division. the smell of pistachios is cloying.
then they see you. and you see them. and you put your hands on your hips.
“excuse me, tris,” you say, “what are you doing?”
there’s tears in her eyes. “i need the money,” she croaks.
“From a chili’s?” you want to know, “who in their right mind robs a chili’s? what are you going to do, steal their mozzarella sticks?”
“it’s connected to a bank on the east wall,” she explains, “but i thought it was stupid too.”
you shake your head. you pull out your personal checkbook. you ask her how much she needs, and you see her crying. you promise her the rest when you get your paycheck.
someone bursts into the room. shouts things. demands they start killing.
but you’re standing in the way, and none of them will kill you or hurt you, because they all know you, and you helped them at some point or another, or helped their friend, or helped their children.
tris takes the money, everyone leaves. by the time the heroes show up, you’ve gotten everyone out of the building.
the next time you see tris, she’s marrying a beautiful woman, and living happily, having sent her cancer running. you’re a bridesmaid at the wedding.
“you just,” the director wants to know now, “sent them running?”
hanson stands between her and you, although you don’t need the protection.
“no,” you say again, for the millionth time, “i just gave her the money she needed and told her to stop it.”
“the phoenix group,” the director of squadron 300 has a vein showing, “does not just stop it.”
you don’t mention the social issues which confound to make criminal activity a necessity for some people, or how certain stereotypes forced people into negative roles to begin with, or how an uneven balance of power punished those with any neurodivergence. instead you say, “yeah, they do.”
“i’m telling you,” hanson says, “we brought her out a few times. it happens every time. they won’t hurt her. we need her on our team.”
your spine is stiff. “i don’t do well as a weapon,” you say, voice low, knowing these two people could obliterate you if they wished. but you won’t use people’s trust against them, not for anything. besides, it’s not like trust is your superpower. you’re just a normal person.
hanson snorts. “no,” he says, “but i like that when you show up, the fighting just… stops. that’s pretty nice, kid.”
“do you know… what we are dealing with…. since agent 25… shifted….?” the director’s voice is thin.
“yeah,” hanson says, “that’s why i think she’d be useful, you know? add some peace to things.”
the director sits down. sighs. waves her hand. “whatever,” she croaks, “do what you want. reassign her.”
hanson leads you out. over your shoulder, you see her put her head in her hands. later, you get her a homemade spa kit, and make sure to help her out by making her a real dinner from time to time, something she’s too busy for, mostly.
at night, you write shay messages you don’t send. telling her things you cannot manage.
one morning you wake up to a terrible message: shay is gone. never to be seen again.
you’re eating ice cream when you find him.
behind you, the city is burning. hundreds dead, if not thousands.
he’s staring at the river. maybe half-crying. it’s hard to tell, his body is shifting, seemingly caught between all things and being nothing.
“ooh buddy,” you say, passing him a cone-in-a-cup, the way he likes it, “talk about a night on the town.”
the bench is burning beside him, so you put your jacket down and snuff it out. it’s hard sitting next to him. he emits so much.
“hey tim?” you say.
“yeah?” his voice is a million voices, a million powers, a terrible curse.
“can i help?” you ask.
he eats a spoonful of ice cream.
“yeah,” he says eventually. “i think i give up.”
later, when they praise you for defeating him, you won’t smile. they try to put you in the media; an all-time hero. you decline every interview and press conference. you attend his funeral with a veil over your head.
the box goes into the ground. you can’t stop crying.
you’re the only one left at the site. it’s dark now, the subtle night.
you feel her at your side and something in your heart stops hurting. a healing you didn’t know you needed. her hands find yours.
“they wanted me to kill him,” she says, “they thought i’d be the only one who could.” her hands are warm. you aren’t breathing.
“beat you to it,” you say.
“i see that,” she tells you.
you both stand there. crickets nestle the silence.
“you know,” she says eventually, “i have no idea which side is the good one.”
“i think that’s the point of a good metaphor about power and control,” you say, “it reflects the human spirit. no tool or talent is good or bad.”
“just useful,” she whispers. after a long time, she wonders, “so what does that make us?”
it’s a long trek up into the mountains. shay seems better every day. more solid. less like she’s on another plane.
“heard you’re a top ten,” she tells me, her breath coming out in a fog. you’ve reclassed her to civilian. it took calling in a few favors, but you’ve got a lot.
“yeah,” you say, “invulnerable.”
“oh, is that your superpower?” she laughs. she knows it’s not.
“that’s what they’re calling it,” you tell her, out of breath the way she is not, “it’s how they explain a person like me at the top.”
“if that means ‘nobody wants to kill me’, i think i’m the opposite.” but she’s laughing, in a light way, a way that’s been missing from her.
the cabin is around the corner. the lights are already on.
“somebody’s home,” i grin.
tim, just tim, tim who isn’t forced into war and a million reflections, opens the door. “come on in.”
squadron one, division three. a picture of shay in a wedding dress is on my desk. she looks radiant, even though she’s marrying little old me.
what do i do? just what i’m best at. what’s not a superpower. what anyone is capable of: just plain old helping.
This is absolutely fucking remarkable.