Paragon City Stories: Darkness, Digitized
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act II, Scene 3
Place: Founders' Falls
Several days have passed since your misadventure in Brickstown. During that time your team mates have refrained from contacting one another. The lack of communication is unsettling, especially considering the revelation you uncovered thanks to your efforts with the Crey researcher.
Now, after time spent for rest and resupply, you’ve convened in Founders’ Falls to decide what your next course of action should be. Once again, you have a choice to make:
Stand Together - There’s strength in numbers. Though your last excursion together was fraught with problems, the fact remains that you’re stronger as a unit.
Work Alone - While working together has its merits, it’s clear that the level of distrust among your team mates has reached a dangerous level. It may be better to approach the situation in smaller groups.
Devereaux stands in Williams Square, sunlight reflected by the magnificent fountain there glinting off his sunglasses. He checks the time on his phone. It’s nearly ten o’clock in the morning and Paige should be arriving soon. He made a point to contact her specifically after the team’s escape from the Crey facility in Brickstown.
“C’mon, girl. We’re high on priorities and low on time,” he thinks to himself. “What kinda superhero runs late for a meeting because she’s finishing her homework?”
Paige is seen jogging across Williams Square from the direction of the University after getting off of the Train Station, in sneakers and workout clothes. She wears a white ballcap with her hair tied back and sunglasses, not her usual look.
“I love Founder’s Falls… it’s so beautiful here. Perhaps after I graduate, I should look at condos…” she says to Devereaux after approaching, “But I suppose Steel Canyon has it’s charms for now. What’s up?”
“You’re late,” he replies. Though his tone is serious, a smile makes its way to his face. “Good to see you, kid. I wasn’t sure you’d show after our little fiasco a few nights back.”
He walks toward the fountain and leans with his hands on the edge. “I called to check up on you. You did well in Brickstown. No sign of evil mind ghosts trying to take over your body. Still, I need to know if you’re good to keep going. Assuming you trust me not to put a knife in your back, that is.”
“I’m an orphan. If I don’t start with trust, I can’t do anything with new people… It’s forgiveness that’s my problem. And I’ve had a lot of people let me down in my life. So far, you’re not one of them.”
“As for my unwelcome passenger, I’m not going to lie. She’s been around. But I have her where she’s under control: I can take a bad dream or three. It’s what happened last summer that had me losing it: when I screwed up my admissions forms registering as her. When I was lurking around her apartment trying to get in after the landlord boarded it up for repairs. When I almost attended a magic and sorcery class, which I’ve NEVER had an interest in.”
“As long as it’s my dreams, I’m fine. It’s when she slips into my actions that has me concerned, and so far, it’s been two months since my last slip-up. And when she tries to get into my dreams, I force myself awake. I’m less and less afraid of her, and the therapy is helping.”
“I didn’t want to tell Linuial or Tahquitz about it. They’d take any hint or thought of it as a panic sign, and I love them for that, but as long as I maintain control I have confidence I can keep going. When she takes control of my actions, even passively, you’ll be the first to know. I promise.”
“Glad to hear it. The first few months dealing with a psychic remnant like that can be tough but you’ve got the skills to handle it. Don’t let anyone tell you different, especially not Blondie.”
He turns away from the sparkling waters to face Paige. “Tell me straight up. What’s your take on her and the cat?”
“She means well. You know she does… I’ve talked to Tahquitz about the argument a few days ago, and my thoughts on it, but he cautioned me not to meddle too much in your affairs, so I’ll just say I want you both around. She’s your missing conscience, and you’re her missing courage. Maybe that’s enough to find value in working together.”
“Bubastis scares me to be honest. Which is weird, because she’s been nothing but polite and kind to me. I have no reason for it, but I’m afraid to talk to her, as I’m not much of a cat person to be honest… not that she is like a pet or anything. But I don’t doubt her dedication to Linuial for a second.”
Devereaux nods in acknowledgement. “Missing conscience, huh? There’s a movie about that in this dimension.” He chuckles to himself. “A puppet swallows a cricket or something, right?”
The amusement is only momentary. Seriousness creeps back into his voice as he responds to Paige’s analysis. “Frankly, I don’t care what she means. My problem is that she thinks she’s judge, jury and executioner. As for Bubi, I don’t think Blondie really understands her anymore than whoever stuck them together in the first place. There’s more to the cat than meets the eye but Linuial’s too wrapped up in saving another lost soul to see it.”
He sighs, resigned. “Just remember that bit about me never letting you down when we talk to the others. They should be here any minute.”
“No problem. Thanks for not making another cricket joke in my name. Tahq really won’t let that nickname go.” Paige smiles back.
Nyght lofts over the tops of the brownstones to the north of the Square, landing lightly on top of the massive columnade surrounding the Square.
She pauses a second to get her bearings and scope out those below, and then drops easily from there to the pavement of the Square itself, landing East of Devereaux and walking toward them, with the sun at her back.
“Mornin’,” she greets them as she approaches. “Hope Ah’m not late.”
The tiny blonde woman in the light blue mini-dress appears, flying low across the pavement from the direction of the Talos Island tunnel. Her expression is mild, slightly smiling, as she approaches. She draws up, hovers for a moment, then descends to a soundless landing. She nods to all three, approaches to within conversation distance, settling herself on the edge of the fountain.
She tilts her head back, closes her eyes. “This is my favorite piece of music,” she comments, to no one in particular. “I could listen to it all day.”
“Isn’t it nice out today? I had the money for cab fare, but I felt like jogging.” Paige said, stretching her legs.
“Where’s Basti? Is she coming?”
Nyght settles cross-legged by the fountain as well, pulling her cape close around her and tugging her hood further forward, but doesn’t comment on the weather or the day.
She does give everyone a tired smile, though.
Linuial opens her eyes, gives Paige a warm smile. She raises a hand, and points toward one of the two seated lion statues on the upper colonnade. A tawny-gold figure can just be seen, sitting in front of the stone lion, on its base.
Nyght raises a gloved hand and waves to Bubastis, high on her perch.
“Clever girl…” Paige said, echoing one of her favorite movie lines growing up.
The cat-woman raises a clawed hand to wave, but retains her position on the base of the lion statue.
“Nyght, you okay? Are you tired?” Paige asks, seeing her avoid the sun actively.
Linuial sighs, deeply and contentedly, then turns to the shrouded woman. “Nyghtshade, would you prefer we moved to the shade, or indoors?” she asks, then turns to Devereaux without waiting for the answer. “Direct sunlight is uncomfortable for her. Can we at least get under the colonnade?”
“Thanks, but Ah’m OK as long as Ah don’t expose any skin. Serge was right that the costume blocks the sunlight well enough, and the cape’s an extra layeh. As foah bein’ tired, just a long night, that’s all,” she explains.
“Please, don’t feel like you all have to make any concessions foah me. Ah’ve been dealin’ with it foah yeahs. Really, Ah’m OK.”
Though he doesn’t respond to Linuial directly, Devereaux obliges the request. “Let’s move. This won’t be a short conversation. I think there’s a cafe around here somewhere. It’s priced for tourists but at least you won’t melt.”
Nyght dips her head to him in acknowledgement of the concession, and rises gracefully to her feet. “Thank you,” she says quietly. “Ah won’t deny movin’ to the cafe will be moah comfortable. But will it be private enough?”
“The University seems to be open…we could adjourn to the study and get comfortable.” She stretches, catlike, rolls onto her feet.
“Works for me,” he says curtly and begins the short walk to the Paragon University campus.
Linuial looks up at Bubastis, waves her hand and then points toward the University main entrance. The cat-woman stands in response and gallops ahead of them, reaching the door first, and vanishes inside.
“There’s some perks to being a student…” She pulls out her wallet and shows her ID, “I can reserve a study room in the Library. No cameras, a whiteboard, and a table with chairs. Mostly soundproof. Should be perfect for our needs, and midterms are over, so most students are back to their dorms goofing off.”
Nyght follows the others, alert to Dev’s reaction to Linuial’s suggestion. He really doesn’t like bein’ second-guessed, she thinks to herself. Guess it was too much to hope he and Linuial might have worked things out the last few days. She sighs, and moves to catch up to the group.
The blonde woman takes a step, glides gracefully into the air, and skims the distance before landing and letting herself inside.
Inside the university lounge, Devereaux takes a seat on a cushioned stool. Keeping his hands in his pockets, he waits for the others to be seated and get comfortable.
“All right, let’s get straight to the point,” he says once they have. “We’ve got some issues that need to be hammered out. To be honest, I considered cutting you all loose and finishing this with a different team. In the end, I decided not to but that doesn’t change the fact that our last attempt at working together ended…well, it was a shit show.”
As she makes her way through the lobby, she nods to Bubastis, who is now sitting on the main stair landing, then continues after Devereaux and follows his lead in taking a seat.
Nyght nods ever so slightly in response to Devereaux’s assessment, glad it’s finally being addressed.
“Either this will be catharsis, catastrophic, or closure. I hope it’s not closure.” Paige thinks.
“I don’t like the idea of mixing it up with Crey again with the four of you at my back,” he continues. “So, I have a proposal.”
He sets his gaze squarely on Linuial. “As usual, you’ve made a point of contradicting me every chance you get. It’s clear that’s not gonna change. So here’s my offer. We split the team. You and Bubastis, myself and Paige.”
“You,” he says to Nyghtshade. “You’re free to go with whoever you prefer but since stealth seems to be more your thing, I’d recommend you come with us.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear what Paige and Nyghtshade have to say.” She is smiling, her eyes mild, relaxed.
“It’s yoah team, Mr. Devereaux,” Nyght replies quietly. “Ah admit, Ah had concerns too durin’ the last mix-up with Crey. Ah don’t know anythin’ about yoah background as a team, Ah’m new heah, as you pointed out. If this is yoah final decision, Ah defer to yoah arrangement, and Ah’ll work with you and Paige.”
“But… splittin’ the team doesn’t solve any issues, might in fact exacerbate them.”
Nyght pauses, and then adds mildly, “Ah could tell you what Ah saw durin’ the fight a few days ago, and what Ah’d suggest foah sortin’ things out, if yo’ah interested. Or, Ah can shut up and take ordehs… Yoah choice.”
Paige is confused… she looks flustered.
On one hand, Linuial has been keeping her and everyone else in good form, and able to keep fighting since she started. She’s sweet, considerate, and full of conviction. But that conviction is fortified by centuries of experience, which makes her as hermetic and cautious as a near immortal woman should be. Paige thinks to herself if she was in her shoes, she’d be bitter and disenchanted if she grew to the same age herself… and she’s amazed Linuial has any faith at all.
On the other hand, Devereaux has been a capable leader, delivering time and again on his promises to make the deadline and do whatever it takes to get the job done. But he’s made no bones about his intent. Do the job. Get paid. While it’s unclear how this job affects that bottom line philosophy, or how he behaves once a job gets personal, Paige isn’t sure it will end well for her ultimately… but so far his actions have proved more noble than how most folks treat her. And that there is more to him than he lets on.
And in a childish manner, she cares very deeply for them both and wants them to work this out… even though it’s clear in the short term they absolutely won’t. And the longer they’re like this the long term looks less clear as well.
Perhaps time apart will give them both to expand their leadership capabilities, which both of them do have.
Damn it! If Tahquitz were here, it would be cake: send him with Linuial, then there would be more balance… he’d hate hesitating so much, but he’d live.
“I… uh, I– I don’t know.”
“Go ahead, newbie.” He laughs but the sound is without humor. “You’re about as unbiased as we’re gonna get.”
“You want it straight? Splitting us up is avoiding the problem instead of dealing with it.”
Paige sees frustration beginning to radiate across the group.
“I’m not asking for miracles here… You two aren’t going to magically like each other at some point, and if you did, I’d KNOW something is wrong. But if we can’t reach a detente or a truce, putting it off for later will just make it far worse. Where I’d never see the either of you together in the same place again.”
“Chalk it up to my background, I’ve got abandonment issues. But if this might be the last job we do together, let’s at least finish it.”
Nyghtshade leans back in her seat, pausing for a moment to choose what she hopes are the right words, then takes a deep calming breath and begins. “Mr. Devereaux, it’s cleah yo’ah a professional, and get results. But in the last couple of encountehs, it’s also pretty cleah you don’t like any kind of questionin’ of yoah authority, that you seem to deflect it with sarcasm or irritated impatience, even if theah might be some reason foah anotheh’s concern. And if you’ve reasons foah what seems like recklessness, you don’t seem keen on sharin’ them befoah-hand, befoah we’ah in the thick of a firefight, so that we could all know how and why we’ah chargin’ in afteh you. Maybe it’s just yoah command style, and maybe Ah just don’t know you all well enough to get the fineh nuances, but that’s how it seems to a newcomeh.”
She turns to Linuial and continues. “As foah you, Linuial, wheah to start? When Ah was married, mah Motheh-in-Law found fault with eveh single thing Ah did or said. She was always, always criticizin’ and correctin’. If Ah so much as commented on the weatheh, she’d criticize and correct that. And the thing was, even if any of her concerns weah warranted, the fact that she put mah back up eveh time she opened her mouth made it a shoah thing Ah’d neveh want to listen to her.”
“From what Ah’ve been seein’, you seem like a carin’ woman, wantin’ to protect those who work with you. And you cleahly have concerns about the way Mr. Devereaux does things. But if you constantly criticize and correct him, and even worse, in front of eveh’one else, it’s shootin’ yoahself in the foot, because why would he even want to heah what you have to say, much less think about it?”
“If you have problems with how he’s leadin’ the team, then find a time - like now, instead of in the middle of a firefight - to ask him about them. Not lecturing him, and not fehmenting mutiny, but sortin’ things out. Respectfully talking to each otheh, respectfully listenin’ to each otheh. Because if you all don’t figure out how to trust each otheh, we won’t need a foe to take this team down.”
“Anyway, that’s what Ah saw, and those are mah concerns foah you all.”
Nyght had leaned forward during this, eyes pinned first to one and then the other, her concern plain. Now, finished and well aware of how far out on a limb she’s gone, she settles back again, and waits to see if she’s about to be given the boot from the team.
Linuial smiles, free, easy, a smile without sarcasm or guile.
“I agree completely with both of you, Paige, Nyghtshade.” She favors the undead woman with a particularly warm expression. “Nyghtshade, we should go to lunch some time. Chew the fat. Shoot the bull. Share war stories, get to know each other.” She laughs, softly, pure amusement and anticipated pleasure, without a hint of negativity.
“There is a bit of a paradox in your approach, however, isn’t there? How am I to talk things out with Xavier, without saying anything that he might take as critical? How would we ‘work things out’ if I can’t talk about anything negative about him…isn’t that the problem? If he were perfect, we would have nothing to discuss, and we wouldn’t be here today, right?”
Her smile reveals no hidden agenda, it is simply humor and enjoying the day. “Those would be rhetorical questions, of course. No one has the answers to those questions, they are almost as old as the human race.” She laughs, raises a hand to lift the long blonde hair at the side of her face, revealing the pointed ear hidden there. More sober, but with a kindly tone in her voice: “I am not human, however. As Xavier and Paige well know, I am over five thousand years old…I have no idea just how much older, as my older memories get jumbled up. Who am I? Where did I come from? Did I have a family? A childhood? Perhaps not, I have a vague memory that some of my people came into being as full-grown adults.”
“As far as I know, I am the last of my kind. My people went…elsewhere, the memory of where and how is lost to me. The language you hear me speak when I heal is our language, older than the human race itself. If anyone besides myself remembers it, or that it even existed, I have not found them in over five thousand years.” Her smile takes on a slightly sad tone.
She turns to Devereaux. “You are very angry with me, and you don’t want to be around me. I will make a bargain with you. Splitting up the team would create even more danger for Paige. I will agree to remove myself entirely, so that you can keep the team together, if you will agree to answer a few simple questions, and listen to what I have to say in response.
“Is it a deal?” The smile is happy once again.
Devereaux’s laugh is as sarcastic as always. “Ever think about a career in psychology?” he asks Nyghtshade. “You sound just like those therapists Paige is so fond of. You do make some sense though. By the way, there’s no need to look so pensive. I don’t fire people for having an opinion.” He jerks a thumb toward Linuial. “If I did, Blondie here would’ve been out the door a long time ago.”
He turns on the stool to look at Linuial. “I’ve got a counter proposal but let’s hear what you’ve got to say first.”
Nyghtshade raises on eyebrow sharply at the sight of Linuial’s pointed ear and the revelation of her age. “Yes, we should have a chat soon,” she agrees noncommitally.
She meets the Praetorian’s gaze, calm, relaxed, smiling as always.
“Six months ago,” she begins, “you told us many times that you were only on the mission ‘for the money’, and you indicated several times that you thought less of ‘us’ because we were Heroes, and interested in saving lives. Do you still feel the same way?”
He ponders the question. It wasn’t the one he expected. “I suppose. I do what I do because it pays, there’s no denying that. But you’re wrong if you think I belittle you because you’re heroes. I’m not that self-righteous,” he adds with another bit of laughter.
“We’ve all got our own reasons for moving through the world. Mine aren’t any more right or wrong than yours.” He shrugs. “They’re just different. If you wanna wear the cape, be my guest. I’ve got better things to do than sit around and judge you for it.”
Linuial’s smile broadens, slightly. She glances over at Paige to see what her reaction is.
She nods to Devereaux. “Have you ever taken a ‘job’…I’ll be more specific, a dangerous one…with no expectation of pay, or any other form of remuneration? In other words, taken a risk, a real one, to life, limb, or sanity, with no expectation that you will gain anything you want if you survive? All risk, no reward?”
Devereaux’s brow furrows as he tries to discern where this line of questioning leads. “I worked for the Syndicate most of my life. We were professional criminals. If the job didn’t pay, we didn’t do it. I handled some co-op work with the Resistance on occasion. Gotta pay your debts and all that. Regardless, all of my work is dangerous. You don’t get into espionage for the health benefits.”
“Is there a point to all this?” he asks. “I know you well enough to figure out when you’re trying to get somewhere. How about we ditch the scenic route and get down to brass tax?”
“Remember our agreement,” she chides him, then laughs softly. “You don’t want anyone to second-guess you, but have no problem with doing the same yourself.” Her smile broadens, and she waves an index finger at him, like a teacher admonishing a small child.
“Do you care about Paige?”
Nyght ducks her head to hide a grimace at what feels a lot like condescension from Linuial towards Devereaux, while wondering if it’s the result of feeling 5000 years superior to short-lived humans. Perhaps something to discuss if they do have that chat.
“Let’s be clear about something, Blondie. I don’t care what kind of exercise you think this is. Check your attitude,” his tone brooks no arguments.
“As for Paige,” he gives the girl a nod of apology for talking about her as if she’s not in the room. “She impressed me the last time we worked together. She’s got real talent as a psychic. In Praetoria she’d have been a great recruit for the Syndicate if she was lucky. Or, if she wasn’t, she’d have ended up a Seer. Besides all that, she’s got a wild streak. Despite your best efforts, she’s not afraid to take a gamble when the price is right. I like that.”
She nods. “You are very good at avoiding the questions I am asking. You didn’t actually say whether or not you have taken a job…or any other activity…that was all risk, no reward. The implication is that either you have not, or it was so insignificant that you didn’t think of it immediately. You say you ‘like’ Paige, but that’s not what I asked…I asked if you care about her. About her well being. Would it hurt you if she died?” She pauses. “Would you risk your life to help her, to save her, even if there was no reward other than her continued life?”
“I already did. Or did you think that little mind dive six months ago was just for shits and giggles?”
“I don’t make a habit of handing out my phone number to every teenager in a pair of tights. For all that concern you put on display, you’ve never been able to help, not really. You don’t have a clue what it feels like to have someone else inside your head, trying their damndest to erase everything that you are. No amount of ancient wisdom or mystical mumbo jumbo can fix that.”
Devereaux continues, his voice calm and steady as if he’s going over the details of a mission. “Didn’t you find it odd that I was the first call she made when she realized that Mistress was still hanging around in her psyche? It’s not like I’m the healer around here.”
Her smile doesn’t fade.
“No, I don’t find it odd at all.” She sighs. “Both Paige and Tahq all but worship you. You are confident…overly so…you take risks that others wouldn’t, so far your luck has held out…and a pair of teenagers are impressed by such things. They don’t see the downside any more than you do.
“By the way…your assumption that I’ve never had anyone attack my mind is incorrect. Someone far stronger than you…which is why you don’t frighten me. But that is irrelevant to the topic now.”
She turns to Nyghtshade. “There is a bit of backstory I think you should know. I probably should have told you this before, but I thought we could ‘keep it in the family’, so to speak. Not air our dirty laundry. But if Xavier won’t allow me to protect Paige, then you are going to have to take my place, as I asked of you before. And you need to know exactly what she needs protection from.
“Paige, Tahquitz, the teenaged boy we have spoken of, Xavier, and a Hero named Steelhelm were contracted for a mission by Hero Corps. Xavier was just an outside contractor, the other 3 were licensed Heroes. They were offered two million dollars if they completed a mission within 24 hours, to be split 4 ways. That is ‘dollars’, not INF, not Hero trade script. Within two hours, Steelhelm, a tank, was dead. I was passing by, and felt him die, and I ran to join them and save whoever I could. When we were debriefed by the PPD, I was asked to fill in for the deceased Steelhelm. I was offered his portion of the money…which I turned down. As a result, Paige, Tahq, and Xavier split the two million three ways instead of four. I didn’t need it, my needs are meager, and I felt it could go to better use going into the college funds of the two teenagers.
“Had he wanted to, Xavier certainly could have taken his extra portion, and also given it to the teenagers. As far as I know, he did not do so. He did, however, offer Paige money to help her get started on her dream goal; to finish college and work with orphan children. You see, Paige herself is an orphan.
“The first thing we did was have lunch, and talk about the situation. I am not the only empathic healer in Paragon, but I was careful to lay out for them how I work, and how they could help me keep them safe. I explained that I would be following Xavier, I explained about line-of-sight healing, and about ‘buffs’ to increase everyone’s abilities.
“We were interrupted by a Rikti attack. After Paige defused one bomb, Tahq and I joined Xavier and I applied buffs to help him defuse a second one.
“It was at that point that he called to Tahq, and ran, without warning, into the middle of the Rikti troops, without giving me time to buff them, dragging Tahq along with him. Had Paige not returned to the restaurant without our knowledge, in direct defiance of my direction for her to follow me and stay close, she, too, would have been drug into the middle of the fighting inadequately prepared.
“A few hours later, I took Xavier out of the earshot of the teenagers, and spoke to him about what he had done. If I had cursed him out for endangering the children he would have deserved it, but I didn’t.
“Not only did he not take me seriously, he laughed at me, and then let me know in no uncertain terms that he was proud of what he had done, that he had done it deliberately, to ‘prove a point’…that these two children were not children at all, but Heroes, and they needed to be ready to die at any time. He was very specific with me that ‘they didn’t need a mother’…despite the fact that Paige is an orphan, and Tahq’s mother died when he was very young.”
“Fortunately, later on, he seemed to tone it down a bit, and we were able to finish the mission and get them their bonuses without anyone getting hurt. When Xavier says that I have not been ‘any’ help, he is not speaking factually. You can talk to Paige about that.”
She turns to the Praetorian. “Perhaps I might have been more help with Paige had I not just volunteered to help you torture that woman, and absorbed as much of her terror, rage, and agony as I did. I know you noticed then…it is disingenuous of you to deny it now in Nyghtshade’s presence.”
Nyght looks from Linuial to Devereaux, to Paige, and back again to Linuial, but declines to comment. Instead she looks again to Devereaux.
Devereaux sighs in frustration before ruffling his hair. The aluminum bands cinched around his dreadlocks jingle like loose change. “This is going nowhere,” he groans. “We can debate the finer points of leadership all day. It won’t come to anything. You’re no more likely to get off your high horse than I am to start singing with the stars or whatever it is you do for fun.”
He takes a hand from his pocket. In it is the flash drive they recovered from the Crey facility in Brickstown. He holds it up in a fist. “This is the only thing that matters right now. In case you forgot, there’s an evil conglomerate out there building a psionic weapon for some spook sitting in their office, waiting to laugh maniacally as they bend others to their will. I don’t know about the rest of you, but as far as I’m concerned that takes priority over this little group share.”
Returning the device to his pocket, he continues. “I tell you what, Blondie. You think you know what’s best for everyone? Fine, you lead the next raid. Hell, I’m keen to see what your kinder, gentler style is all about. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a hit. More likely, we’ll spend the rest of the day trembling in fear for the well being of others but, like I said, I’ve got a thing for people who take risks. It’d be hypocritical not to take a few myself.”
“That might work, actually…” Paige thinks about it, “Of course, the same critique Nyght had with her applies to you as well as us, Devereaux. If she decides something, we run with it and question it after it’s over.”
“Linuial, mind taking point?”
“It’s only fair,” Devereaux says with a noncommittal gesture. “It wouldn’t be a proper gamble if the rules weren’t set. So yeah, I’ll hold my tongue.”
Linuial takes a long moment to think about the offer as she watches the Praetorian from beneath blonde lashes. Her smile broadens, slightly, taking on a fond cast.
She finally sighs, before she begins. “Xavier, you are, as I have said before, extremely intelligent, or you would not have survived and thrived as you did in Praetoria. You are a superb tactician and strategist, a master at what you are experienced with. I have no doubt that few could match you…certainly not me.
“At the same time, you are demonstrating a very common human weakness: you seem to believe that because you are a master in one field, that makes you a master of other fields as well. I have no doubt that you have led teams in Praetoria, and perhaps in the Rogue Isles here on Primal Earth…I suspect the rules would be very similar. But here in Paragon, people are different. Here, people expect to trust their leaders, and be trusted by them. Money can motivate them, particularly in the millions…but most people weigh their risk versus reward decisions based on other factors: how likely am I to survive? Will my leader do his best to keep me safe, or take unnecessary risks? What non-monetary reward will result?
“If you fail to take the emotional state of your team members into account…if you are sarcastic, or fail to take their concerns into account…you don’t have to do what they think is best, just let them know that you have heard and understood those concerns…you will soon find that you have no team at all.
“I am not going to make the mistake that you have, assume that my tactical abilities are as good as yours. I know my limitations. The team is safer with you making those decisions.
“However…until you learn those very valuable Paragon leadership skills, you need to be second-guessed, as much as you hate it. I’m sure in the past you’ve done jobs that involved doing things you hated…but you did them anyway, in order to finish the mission and get your pay.
“Here’s a little example: the best leaders always have a second-in-command, someone who can, without fear of reprisal, call the leader out, challenge them on their decision, if they see a need for it. Any leader can make a mistake…and we have a saying that “two heads are better than one”. A bit of second-guessing can drastically increase the probability of a successful mission.
“Xavier…” she stands, walks over to the stool Devereaux is sitting on, kneels next to him, bringing her eyes to a level just below his, “…the wisest choice is for specialists to do their job, and only their job. To divide responsibilities according to capabilities.
“My only objection to your first demand, is that you were determined to separate me from Paige. Had you suggested splitting the team and putting Paige on my team instead of yours, I would have been happy to comply, without argument. I still think the team is stronger, safer together, but if you want to play fast-and-loose with your own life, you are an adult, you have the right to do so. Paige has a right to all the protection she can have, if she is going to ‘act like a adult’ and ‘be prepared to die like a Hero’.”
She gives him an affectionate smile, stands, and returns to her seat.
“Might I interject one point heah?” Nyghtshade asks deferently, one gloved hand slightly raised.
“Considering we’ve talked ourselves right back to square one?” Devereaux responds. “Please do, Doctor,” he adds the title with a light hearted roll of his eyes.
“By all means…” Paige said, with a smile.
Nyght leans forward a little, gaze seeking out the small blonde woman. “Linuial, you said that ‘Paige, Tahquitz, the teenaged boy we have spoken of, Xavier, and a Hero named Steelhelm were contracted for a mission by Hero Corps. Xavier was just an outside contractor, the other 3 were licensed Heroes.’ That’s a very important point, Linuial. You yoahself say that Paige and this otheh person, Tahquitz, are ‘licensed Heroes’. Moreover, you say that Hero Corps specifically contacted them about a mission. Not just any mission, but an important one, if the reward is any indicator, and a dangerous one, as you pointed out.”
Nyght’s eyes meet Linual’s. “If Hero Corps feels that Paige and this Tahquitz, despite theah age, are up to the task, or at least capable enough to be entrusted with it, then they are not helpless children. Ah know it’s important foah you to protect eveh’one, but you must remembeh that they are Registered Heroes, same as any of us. They have strengths, same as we do. They have weaknesses, yes, same as the rest of us do. But they also cleahly have resolve and strength of will, and presumably some kind of common sense, if Hero Corps trusts them with this.”
“So, while it’s admirable to want to heal us and protect us, we can’t go wrappin’ Paige or the otheh one in cotton and puttin’ them away somewheah safe while we do all the work. Ah think that’s kind of important to keep in mind.”
She settles back again in her seat. “That’s all Ah had to say.”
The tiny blonde woman smiles again. “I certainly respect your opinion and perspective, Nyghtshade.
“Your concerns might be the ones that should overrule everything else. Consider this, however: if I were intent on preventing Paige from facing any danger, if I thought she were incompetent as a Hero, I wouldn’t be trying to be present so I could ‘heal’ her as I do any adult Hero, I’d be calling her official guardian right now to ask if he or she even knows about this clandestine operation.
“That huge bounty? Paige’s legal guardian, the state of Rhode Island, put the money away for her where she can’t get her hands on it until she reaches the age of majority. That, alone, tells us that in their opinion, and their opinion is what matters, Paige is not an adult, ready to make all her own decisions.”
She turns, addresses the girl directly. “Paige, that would not be true if you were an ‘emancipated minor’, a legal adult in the eyes of the law despite your age. I am familiar with the concept as one of my SG members, Jon Smith, the cyborg you saw on Peregine Island, was made an emancipated minor when he was 15, so that he could become legal guardian of his ten year old brother after both their parents died, with no family left. Jon was extremely mature for his age, even then.
“Once you reach the age of majority, or the state of Rhode Island declares you an emancipated minor, allowing you access to your money without supervision, I, too, will treat you as an adult, as is your right. If you want to run off with Xavier and get yourself killed, I’ll be happy to volunteer to act as your team healer, but I will not interfere in your decisions in any way.
“Until then…yes, I will interfere.” She nods to emphasize the point. She turns to Devereaux. “Perhaps you don’t realize it, but if you were her parent or legal guardian, traipsing her into danger the way you have been doing might be considered child abuse, and CPS might step in to terminate your parental rights. You have only gotten away with it so far because you are a stranger…and a stranger circumstance I cannot imagine, but here we are.”
“One more thing.” She turns to the teenager. “Paige, tell me…how much did Xavier offer to pay you in exchange for risking your life, and your life dream?”
“But I’m not,” Devereaux cuts in. “I’m not her father, her brother, or anything else. We’re…” he turns to Paige. “What, colleagues? Partners?”
Returning his attention to Linuial, he continues, “It doesn’t really matter what you call it. We trust each other to do our jobs. You should try it sometime, Blondie. You might learn something.”
He considers saying more but decides against it. Instead he leans back and motions to Paige. “Look, the fact is this comes down to you, kid. What’s your take?”
“I’m not a princess, but I’m not invincible either. I know I can’t charge into a scene alone. That’s got nothing to do with my age or sex, that’s my abilities. Two thirds of the time, if I work alone I wind up in the Hospital. I can’t be a hero without a team.”
“But I know there’s risk in things like this. If it was safe, they wouldn’t call us heroes. It is what I’m going to be for now… and the last job was lucrative enough to do this, even with no promise of pay. Later ones may have me reconsider, but I’ve yet to realize my potential with my abilities, so I’ve got further to go. And you can’t learn if you don’t try.”
Paige is feeling an undercurrent of what she felt back at the diner in Talos Island… That nagging feeling she was able to better suppress then, but is slowly rising to the surface now: that she is more of a liability than an asset at this point.
“So, to answer your questions… Xavier, I’ll take the colleague label. I know you don’t cotton to the idea of having friends. I trust you to keep me in good shape in combat, but I’m subordinate to you, not because you’re a leader or that I admire you… and even with that, if I admire anything, it’s the experience and control you have. I can’t get there overnight, but I think I could learn quite a bit from you despite your reluctance to teach. As you said, Psi Shift doesn’t work the same as more typical Psychic abilities, so I’ll relate as I can. In fact, you have a Carnival of Vengeance imprint you were able to call up a few days ago, so I might be able to learn more from you than you think.”
“Linuial, risking my life and my life dream is the price I pay for being a hero right now, period. If Xavier wasn’t here and it was someone else, I’d have the same price. I appreciate your consideration in taking care of me and looking after my best interests. The minor rights part is fine and all when it comes to drinking, fighting darker things that even Crey isn’t forward about doing like Human Trafficking, or if we were involved in a Casino Heist. But if I wasn’t a minor, would you watch over me as much as you are now?”
She lowers her head and looks at the ground… “When I turn 18, I won’t be magically stronger than I already am. I won’t have any defenses that I can use past what I have at the moment. I’ll be just as frail then as I am now, and I suspect you’d be just as protective. You can’t help it.”
Paige’s eyes are turning red. She uses a finger to wipe the side of her right eye, then addresses them both.
“This is the third time we’ve come back to this same issue, and to be honest, I’m starting to get the feeling that this mission would be easier for all of you with one simple change. That is, if I wasn’t here… I have more to gain from you all with being here than you would be able to gain from me in any amount. Could you guys assume more risk and have an easier time at stopping Crey if I went back home and sat this one out? If this is getting too rough to tag along as everybody’s sidekick, I understand.” She’s sniffing a little from the feeling of helplessness.
“You’re nobody’s sidekick,” Devereaux says sharply. “You know that. Don’t waste your time pretending otherwise.”
“You’re right about one thing though. We’ve run this thing into the ground. We can keep talking about it until we’re blue in the face. Nothing’s gonna change. We’ve got a job to do so let’s go do it. We can hash out the rest later.”
He reaches down and picks up the familiar black bag. “I’ve got the details on the second key. It’s right here in Founders’. That’s why I wanted to meet here. So…you in or out?” He sweeps his gaze over the assembled heroines, silently challenging each of them in turn.
“Paige, you are exactly as capable as you should be, right now.” She turns to Devereaux. “This is partly what I feared…that you might be pressing her too hard, too fast…and instead of her feeling more competent, she feels less.”
“Paige, you tell me what you want me to do…and I’ll do it. And the grouchy Praetorian in the room can do with himself whatever it is Praetorians do.”
“I wouldn’t be crying if I didn’t want to finish this. I want to stop Crey from doing to others what they’ve done to us.” Paige said with resolve. “I want the Carnival of Vengeance stymied for what they’ve done to Mirelle McClune and Steelhelm…”
She’s a little upset at the moment and forgets that she didn’t want to clue Linuial and the others in on her mental state, but her passion got the best of her: “…and me! I don’t believe my therapist when she tells me that this pseudo-schizophrenic nonsense might be my new ‘normal’… I want to work on getting Shiara completely out of my head– not just for the next couple of hours or today, but once and for all.”
“Then, I’ll be what I want to be. Again, not a princess, but not invincible… just myself.” Paige said, grabbing a facial tissue from a box on the shelf and clearing her nose.
“She’ll live,” he says, his voice casual. “I asked all of you a question. Are we doing this or not? Crey’s not going to take itself down, y’know.”
“Of course, I’m in.” Paige said, “Look, I’ll be right back…” She excused herself to the restroom to take a breather and clear her eyes for a second.
Without a word, Linuial jumps up to follow the teenager.
“Paige,” she says softly, opening the door. “I meant what I said. I’ll do whatever you want. I know you don’t want for me and Xavier to appear to be fighting. I’ll do whatever I can to stop that.”
She reaches for a tissue and hands it to the sniffling girl.
“If you just want to be treated like an adult, that is what I will do. If you want me to leave the team, I will. If you are okay with Xavier making it impossible for me to be with you, I will do that as well. I know you are confused and don’t really know what you want. But whatever you do know, and can tell me, I will do.”
She holds up a hand, inviting contact, or even a hug. “You are not going to make anything worse by speaking out, and telling us what is right for you. Xavier and I have completely different world views, and we are not going to be able to resolve that, today, or possibly ever. But that’s not your fault, and it’s not your responsibility to fix.
“Let me help you. Whatever form that ‘help’ takes, whatever is right for you.”
“And if what you want should turn out to be different from what Xavier wants…you mustn’t be afraid to let him know. If you need me to speak up on your behalf, I will. If not, I won’t. But you mustn’t be afraid of disappointing him, OR me. That wouldn’t be fair to you.”
She sighs. “I was trying to get a concession out of him, that he would allow me to be close to you. I couldn’t even get that. I can’t guarantee you anything, Paige, not even to protect you. If you are all right with that, I am as well.”
Nyghtshade has watched and listened to Paige with considerable sympathy, as Paige’s comments had sounded painfully familiar in some ways to some of what Nyght had experienced when she first began ‘heroing’ in Paragon.
As Paige dashes off, followed by a clearly concerned Linuial, Nyght squares her shoulders and turns back to Devereaux.
“Ah’m in, Mr. Devereaux. Ah’ll work on yoah team. But befoah we take off, is theah anythin’ else about mah abilities, mah… nature… that you need to know, to help us work togetheh smoothly?”
“Let’s see.” Devereaux reaches for his phone again. He taps the screen a few times and presses his thumb to the side. “Nyghtshade, registered Hero under the Controller Archetype. Primary Powerset, Mind Control. Secondary Powerset, Kinetics. Other documented abilities include but are not limited to: stealth, the exact limit of which is unknown but is believed to be an extension of her psionic abilities; some form of essence drain which may be linked to either her Kinetic or telepathic powers.”
He smiles at the hooded woman. Not a sly or guileful expression but rather one of simple knowing. “Did I miss anything? These Hero Corps profiles are usually redacted so I can’t always grab as much information as I’d like.”
“Well, let’s see. You know Ah’m telepathic. You know Ah can confuse the enemy into attackin’ one anotheh ratheh than us. And you’ve seen Ah can mentally attack them so painfully –and yet not damagin’ them– that they don’t even know we’ah theah any moah. You’ve seen –or maybe not seen, that’s kind of the point– that Ah can mentally influence people to ‘not see’ me. Sort of makin’ them look anywheah but right at me. It’s not invisibility –-and Ah can’t maintain it if Ah’m attackin’ someone, that kind of cancels it out– but it helps foah sneakin’ past people.”
“Ah’ve mentioned that Ah can move pretty fast, and jump like a flea. That’s not an exaggeration, I can jump right up the sides of buildin’s, or cover ground movin’ rooftop to rooftop if Ah need to. And Ah’m a lot strongeh than Ah used to be. Ah can take a fair amount of damage and heal it right up again, if theah’s someone around Ah can fee… draw energy from.”
“And Ah do draw energy from people, that’s one of mah primary powehs. The folks at M.A.G.I. call the energy Ah take “lifeforce”, and it’s still not cleah even afteh so many yeahs whetheh the person Ah take it from can regenerate it oveh time, or if Ah’m, well, shortenin’ theah life. So it’s not a very heroic ability, but it’s what Ah am now. Some of the energy Ah drain off is to sustain me, some to heal me or give me moah energy, some to share the same way with othehs if the’ah standin’ close enough to the person Ah’m targetin’. Some even to speed me or mah team-mates up, fasteh reflexes, fasteh healin’, fasteh to recharge theah own endurance, fasteh speed foah travelin’. Not, by the way, advisable in tight cornehs - people tend to run into walls.”
“That same drain works the opposite way on enemies, slows them down, weakens theah ability to focus and aim, takes away strength and energy. Helpful foah whittlin’ down a boss and makin’ them an easieh target foah the team. And helpful too, to confuse the bosses’ crew into attackin’ him instead of us. Eveh little bit helps.”
“Mah senses are sharpeh, quite a bit sharpeh than they used to be: hearin’, sight, even smell. Ah can ramp it back with warnin’, but let’s just say seweh mission’s really play havoc with the nose now. What else…. oh, Ah don’t have to breath, unless Ah need to talk. So, that’s a… a tactical plus, Ah suppose.”
“Mah skin reacts badly to direct sunlight, which is why Ah’m covehed up all the time. Ah work best at night - it’s hardeh durin’ the day to keep mah energy up and stay focused, but Ah’ve had yeah’s to work on that, so it’s not impossible. But if, durin’ the day, um, fatigue ovehtakes me, then Ah could be out foah the count. Sleepin’ like the dead, you might say. So best foah me to stay movin’ durin’ the day.”
“But if that does happen, if Ah do end up ‘out foah the count’, to all appearances Ah’ll seem dead. Ah won’t be, but you wouldn’t know it. Just sayin’, because Ah don’t eveh want to wake up in a morgue again.”
She pauses, then adds carefully, “If you’ve looked at mah Hero registration file, you know that Ah’m classified as ‘Undead’. They aren’t lyin’. Will that pose any problem foah you?”
As Nyghtshade expounds on her powers, Devereaux swipes his thumb across the screen of his phone, making hasty notes. “Out for the count,” he repeats. “Got it.”
He looks up from the mobile and catches her eye. “I worked with an undead guy once. At least that’s what he claimed to be. Called himself ‘Blood Drinker’ or some other stupid cliche like that. His talent for choosing a nom de gurre was complete garbage but he could deadlift a bus. Decent enough guy but when he started eating the flesh of his enemies I decided to cut my loses. That’s not your thing, right?”
He laughs to ensure the bit of black humor is understood. “Remember, for me this is work. I can’t afford to take moral objections just because someone’s not exactly human. Hell, I deal with Blondie and she’s some kinda star child with a penchant for annoying me to no end. Just keep doing your job, Nyghtshade. Beyond that, don’t worry about it.”
“No flesh-eatin’,” Nyght nods, with a ghost of a smile then adds with a bad Southern attempt at a Romanian accent, “And Ah don’t drink… blood.” Dropping back to her normal accent, she adds, “Or anythin’ else, foah that matteh. Can’t eat anythin’ either. But otheh than that, life’s pretty good.”
“Looks like we can cross impressions off your list of abilities,” Devereaux says with a chuckle and a thumbs down. “Shame about the whole no food thing. When I’m not listening to Linuial preach, I’m a bit of a gourmand,” at the last word he reaches up and twirls an imaginary mustache.
“Seriously, though, you’re a good fit for this group. Up to now, I’ve been the only one really suited to covert work. It can be…a little restrictive in terms of my powers. Having another asset in the black will be useful.”
“I don’t want you to go.” Paige said, “I just don’t want to be the center of attention in this discussion… I guess that’s why I suggested that I leave. I think my problems are getting in the way more and more.”
“Linuial, I appreciate you very much. And you might not believe me, but I admire you, too… You know what you want and you go after it. You’ve got enough confidence for fifteen women, and you don’t apologize because of it. I wish I could be like that,” Paige said to her, drying her eyes with the tissues Linuial offered.
“I’ll offer the same as well, Linuial, if you need me to do anything, don’t hesitate. I’m right here.” she said as she reaches for a hug.
The tiny blonde woman wraps her arms around the girl, gently, holds her. She croons a few words in her own language.
“Paige, I understand that you might want to sort of fade into the background, just a little. I’ve been talking to Xavier where you could hear it, so that you know what both he and I think and feel. I don’t see any reason that we need to explore those issues any further…I don’t expect you’ll feel like the center of attention in the future.”
She leans back, brushes a stray hair from the girl’s face, without letting go entirely. “You’re, what, fifteen now? Sixteen? As much as you might want to be an adult…your body is not going to allow it. Until you are 19, 20, possibly 21, your body is going to continue to grow, to change, to mature. Your hormones are going to be all over the place. That is going to cause your emotions to do the same.
“Being an adult is not something you can do by willpower alone, however much you might wish it was. Being an adult is not just your intellect, it is also your emotions, and your sense of self-confidence. Those things will come, Paige, I promise you…it always does. But however much Xavier pushes you to be an adult…you simply can’t.
“There will be times you want to be adult Paige…and times you will wish you could crawl back into your child’s body once again, when you didn’t have all these changes going on. It happens to all humans, as they cross the bridge from childhood to adulthood.
“I want you to know that you can always be now Paige with me, whoever she may be. Child, adult, mixed up teenager, confused, confident. You don’t have to be an adult all the time, nor do you have to be a child. You can always come to me for a hug, or advice, or a shoulder to cry on. And don’t be afraid to cry, Paige…sometimes a good cry is exactly what we need…even us adults. Especially with that shoulder available.”
“Thank you.” Paige says, clearing her eyes one last time. “I’ll definitely take you up on that in the future. Shall we return?”
Though the negotiations were fraught with contention, frustration, and even a few tears, your team has managed to hold together. A good thing, because the challenges ahead are only going to grow more difficult. As the conversation turns from strife to strategy, you can’t help but wonder if the little progress you’ve made toward harmony will be enough. For your team’s sake, it had better be.