The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About

… is, of course, not being talked about.  And while I’m sure that’s not exactly what the wonderful Oscar Wilde meant, in our case, being talked about could well prevent our families from being killed.  Well.  The families of the other girls, at any rate.  My family – or those members of it who anybody could reasonably connect to me – are all quite capable of looking after themselves.

Keller wants to meet in the park, at the spot where he first accosted me a few years ago, when I was just starting out in town.  It’s near enough to the café that I think this could be a good idea: the last place Keller is likely to go looking for a superhero ‘hangout’ is immediately next to where the superheroes agree to meet him.

I didn’t have time to sleep last night, because I’ll be leaving as soon as we’re done with this interview, to go find Rhadamanthus, and I had to spend most of the night clearing up my hideout and my flat, to give the fill-in guy a place to work from.  And then he arrived in Foundry City at five in the morning, and brought his sidekick with him.  Mother’s former partner gave me a location on Rhadamanthus, and told me that he knows what the device I found on the corpse last night is, but he’s going to run it past Mother and the fliers before he gives me the information I need to act.  So I just have to hope nothing too drastic happens while I’m away.

The girls are all getting their costumes arranged, in the café backroom, when I arrive at two in the afternoon of a three o’clock meeting.  I can’t help smiling when I see what Lannis has chosen: a sky-blue coat and cargo pants, with a paler blue veil in a floaty fabric, wound over her head and across the lower part of her face.  It’s an unusual departure from the traditional domino mask, but for some reason it works.  I was right: Clarity is a floaty blue-and-silver name.  And that reminds me.

“Does everybody have their name in order?  That’s possibly even more important than the costume – clothes you can change.  A name sticks.”  I lean over to disentangle Lannis’ veil from the zipper of Audrey’s discarded jacket.  “Lannis I know is Clarity.  Audrey?”

“Nightblaze.”  And with her black shirt, shorts, and tights, that works.  She lights up a jet of flame in her palm, almost but not quite scorching the ceiling.  “Do that to Jason Keller’s camera?”

“I’m sure we’d all rather you didn’t,” Rebecca says softly.  For all she’s so quiet, the murmur of the room drops back to silence when she speaks.  “I’m Remedy, Star.”  And she’s dressed like a Golden Age hero, in green and gold and armor – and a cape.  I have no idea how she pulled that together in the time she had.

“I’m the Watcher.”  Saxon showed up early, sword glimmering in and out of visibility in the sheath slung over her back, a sharp contrast to her apparently commonplace clothing.  The effect is eerie, unnerving, otherworldly – perfect.

“And I’m Starlight,” I say coolly.  “The main thing to remember today is not, under any circumstances, to call each other by your home names.  Clarity.  Nightblaze.  Remedy.  The Watcher.  It’s a pleasure to meet you all.”  I glance down.  “Why are three of you wearing sneakers?”

“You gave us twelve hours,” Saxon growls.  “I only just had time to get to Max’s for my sword and some more durable clothes, let alone finding shoes.”

“Calm down,” I say.  “Didn’t you just hear me tell you you can change your costume later?”  I’m almost shouting.  Not good.  Shut up, Starlight.  Cool and levelheaded again, I continue.  “It would help if we started putting the thought-parameters in place.  The difference between your working self and your other self.”  I don’t like to call it real – behind the mask is my real self.  To illustrate, I take my mask off, look around the room, and say, lightly, in my street voice, “I’m Zielonya.”  Mask back on.  Voice back on.  “And now I’m Starlight.”

“Zielonya?  That’s such an awesome name!” Rebecca glows at me.  “Is there – I don’t know – a story behind it?”

“There is.”  And that will be all for now.  The story is not one I enjoy telling.  “Now, if we’re all ready…? It would be best to get to the meeting point before Keller does, so he can’t see what direction we’ve come from.  Oh – and if you can manage to alter your voice for when you’re masked, that would be wonderful.  I know Saxon does that already; the rest of you… different accent, different pitch, different speech patterns, something.”

Jason Keller appears at three on the dot, with a cameraman in tow.  I don’t recall giving him permission to bring a photographer, but I suppose I can see why he had to.  This is only the biggest story of his career.  I go over to meet him, shake hands cordially as if I don’t know he is out to destroy me.  Not knowingly, perhaps, but to one who works in the shadows, the least exposure is death.

“Jason.”  He doesn’t know how old I am or am not, and if calling him by his Christian name keeps him from guessing, well and good, I’ll break with the Southern manners I was raised with.

“Starlight.”  He glances around, and it doesn’t take Clarity’s powers to tell he’s torn between nervousness, euphoria, and awe.  “Ladies.  I’m honored to meet you.”

We are all crowded around one of the big octagonal picnic tables under a grove of beech trees, superheroes on three sides, Keller and his colleague across from us.  He starts badly, by moving to take a Dictaphone from his messenger satchel.

“May I record -”

“You may not,” Nightblaze says firmly.  “I know that device is switched off; you will keep it switched off.”

“Okay,” Keller agrees readily, fishing a legal pad and what looks like a Mont Blanc pen out of his bag.  “Now, I was thinking, I’ll ask a question, we’ll go around and each of you give your own answer.  Obviously nobody has to answer anything they’re uncomfortable with.  That all right?”  He’s asking me, and that is not all right.

“Clarity brought us all together, Jason,” I say.  “Why don’t you go ahead and behave like she’s in charge?  It’s close enough to the truth for our purposes.”  With any luck, that will send her bang-smack into the middle of the front page, and give me some much-needed leeway to ease out of the scene for a week or two without being noticed.

“Sure.  So.  What are all your names?  Codenames, working names, whatever you call it.”

That’s safe to answer.  So is how long have you been working together?  So is do you have any connections to metas in other areas?  So is what made you decide to be superheroes?  It’s when he gets up to the tricky stuff, the stuff you need to be a veiled-speech artist to answer, that I start to get nervous.  The first danger sign is what exactly are your powers?  Remedy is about to answer, but I place my hand on her arm and interrupt.

“Jason, it could be quite dangerous for us if that becomes common knowledge.  Nobody’s answering that one.”

“Well, how did you get your powers?”

I glance around, predicting that Nightblaze will be problematic.

“Born with them,” say the Watcher, Clarity, and Remedy, almost together.

“And as for us,” I say, draping one arm over Nightblaze’s shoulders, hating myself, but smiling broadly anyway, “our moms gave them to us as birthday presents.”  It’s not too far from the truth for either of us, and, as hoped, Keller seizes on the bait, ignoring the far bigger question of how it is even possible to be born with teleporting or healing or psychic powers.

“So you two are related?  Aw, how sweet.”

“No way!” Nightblaze almost yells.  She tugs at a lock of my hair, holding it next to hers, to illustrate.  “Black hair, red hair.  Blue eyes, brown eyes.  Related?  Nuh-uh.”

“Okay, okay.  I take your point… uh… Nightblaze.”  Keller glances back at his notes.  “Is this a girls-only club, or would you take male heroes if any showed up?”

“Girls-only,” says the Watcher, and “Find us a good male hero and we’ll give him a trial period on the team,” Clarity says.

Keller is looking from one to the other in bewilderment, and I sigh.  “Girls… there are plenty of good male heroes.  I’ve worked with most of the current crew at one time or another.  Just none of them are currently working Foundry City.  Anything else, Jason?”

“Just one I thought up since arriving: your clothes.  Bearing in mind that I don’t know many superheroes, you’re not exactly industry-typical, are you?  I mean, the necklines, the hemlines, the cut, the no-skin-showing…  what’s with that?”

“We’re superheroes, not models,” I snap.  “The gear has to be practical: we are very industry-typical, but maybe not the industry you were thinking of.  Would you have asked that question if you were dealing with a team of guys?”

For the first time, Keller grins.  “Guy heroes acting as kick-butt as you and dressed as uptight as you?  Yes, I would.”

“Was there anything else you wanted to ask?” Remedy says.

“Um… no.  No more questions.  Can we get a photo of you girls together?”

So we pose, and we smile, and the photographer snaps half a reel of film, and Keller goes away all but crying with joy at his scoop.  When he’s well out of sight, I nod.

“That’s me done, then.  I’ll see you all in a week, if nothing goes wrong.”  I scribble the phone number of my flat on a piece of paper, hand it to Clarity.  “If any of you is really stuck for anything, call here.  Leave a message and someone will get back to you the next day.  Don’t hesitate to physically go to my flat and bang on the door if the Big Bad shows up in person.  During daylight hours someone will be there.”

And then, because that is all I needed to say, I leave.  Places to go, Greek demigods to see, things to do.

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