While She Was Gone

This should be a happy occasion. I’ve been convinced of that much all day. All five of us, still alive, back together after all that’s happened- has it really only been a week since Starlight left? It feels like much, much longer. All the more reason we should be excited, cheerful at least.

But we aren’t. I don’t have to be an empath to tell that much.  We’re on edge, every one of us. It was obvious ten minutes ago, when we sat around Starlight’s- Zielonya’s- table, eating sandwiches and salad and making polite conversation about the last week, avoiding any discussion of the real reason for our meeting. It’s even more obvious now, since we’ve run out of polite conversation and are left to fill the silence with cookies- supplied by me and Lannis- and chips- supplied by Starlight- while we wait for Swordsman and the flier to Skype in to our meeting.

Not that most of us are eating. Lannis has a plate of chips and a cookie, but she’s mostly just crumbling those up and trying to look like she’s not nervous. Beside her on one couch, Audrey sits without any snacks, looking defiant. Saxon and I face them on the other couch. Saxon’s the only one who seems to be actually enjoying the food, though she’s nearly as tense as Audrey. I’m nibbling a snickerdoodle, on the principle that food, like fancy coffee, makes everything better, but I can barely taste the treat. And Starlight- I guess she must be Starlight, because she has her mask on- exudes an air of impatience that not even Mom’s homemade German chocolate cake could possibly fix.

Swordsman appears in the Skype window first, looking tired and a bit less intense than usual- but not as upset as he probably has a right to be. Like Starlight, he’s in costume, though unlike her, he looks more like a character from The Lord of the Rings than a classic superhero, with his red-brown beard and dark brown tunic and not-quite-black cloak. Only his hat doesn’t quite fit- brown and broad-brimmed, with a stiletto knife where a feather ought to be, it looks like it came from a few centuries after the rest of the costume, though somehow it works. He greets Starlight like a friend- I guess they probably are friends, at least kind of- and seems as glad as the rest of us to hear that her powers are properly back.

The flier- Lady Invidia- appears a few minutes later, bearing that same air of detached calm and control that Starlight usually possesses, but in a way that suggests she’s silently judging the rest of us, Starlight in particular. Her greeting only emphasizes that impression, as she and Starlight trade “Hello”s so cold that I’m surprised the air doesn’t freeze over. That makes no sense; Starlight’s the only person here who actually knows what she’s doing and hasn’t made a mess of things this past week. But I’m definitely not going to ask questions- not of Starlight, whose past is her own to tell us or not tell us as she thinks best; not of Lady Invidia, a classic Hero in regal purple who’s probably one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever met- excepting the ones on the other side of our mess.

Now that we’re all here, Starlight wastes no more time: “All right. Someone finally tell me: what happened while I was gone?”

The four of us trade glances, uncertain where to start, and then look hopefully at the screen. But neither Swordsman nor Lady Invidia comes to our rescue this time. In the end, it’s Lannis who replies: “Well . . . It started when Audrey found a lead, or thought she’d found one, about Gr-”

“I did find a lead about Gr,” Audrey interrupts. “We’ve all agreed on that. And I did get information.”

“We agreed it was a lead,” Saxon shoots back, blunt as ever. “We didn’t agree it was a good one, and we got a lot more than information.”

“It didn’t totally blow up,” I add, hoping that it’ll make Audrey stop looking like she’s ready to set something on fire. “Not much, anyway. Literally or figuratively. And the literal blowing up wasn’t Audrey’s fault.”

“Anyway,” Lannis  pulls the explanation back on track, “yes, Audrey decided to investigate on her own when the rest of us were hesitant. She went-” A pause. “Actually, maybe Audrey should explain this bit.”

Audrey lifts her chin as if Lannis were offering a challenge rather than an invitation. “Fine. The lead didn’t get me right to Gr- it was about one of the groups under him. So I went to the place where the group sometimes met and bluffed at the guy in charge- like I knew a lot more than I did, but I wasn’t going to turn them in because I wanted in on what they were doing- and he blustered back at me until-” Audrey pauses, thinks better of what she’s going to say, and goes on- “Until I convinced him to listen.”

I glance at Starlight, whose gloved hands are clenched on the chair arms, her face tight with controlled exasperation, and wonder if she guesses what Audrey’s not saying outright: “Until I caught his hat on fire to get him interested.” Swordsman and Lady Invidia don’t know that bit either- but Audrey told us three, in private, and got enough of a scolding that she’s apparently keeping it quiet.

Audrey is still going on: “So we talked, and I fished for more information. You know, claiming I already knew it so he’d talk about what he knew. The group that I went to, they’re in the black market, but Gr, whoever he is, I still didn’t get his full name, has lots of different people under him- including some super-powered guys. He’s got kind of big plans, but I couldn’t find out what. And then I ran out of things to say, and the guy I was talking to said he was done and he’d get back to me, but I should leave then- with more threats involved. You know. So I left. And then I snuck back in to snoop around some more, but I didn’t have time to find out much.”

“Because she got caught,” Lady Invidia says, finally speaking. “By that point the other young ladies had realized she was gone and guessed she was in trouble. They wisely went to Swordsman for help . . .”

Lannis takes over again: “Which is about when Audrey texted me the first time about how she’d gone to investigate and a little of what she’d learned. She told you most of it already- what she didn’t include then but did tell me over text was that there was another meta there- a fire-manipulator like her.”

“Better than me,” Audrey interrupts, and not for the first time I wonder how much she’s unbent her pride to say that. “I know what I’m doing, but I’m still figuring out how he did some of his tricks. And he does explosions- I can’t do those. Yet. And he had other powers on top of those.”

Yet. I wonder how long it’ll take Audrey to figure that out. But Lannis is talking again: “So, yes, between him and the others, the non-powered people, and the fact that they could call other metas if they needed to, Swordsman decided that we’d need some help, and that’s when he called Lady Invidia.”

“I couldn’t get ahold of anyone else,” Swordsman interjects. “And Audrey’s description of the meta reminded me of someone who Invidia had dealt with before. Thankfully, she was available and got here quickly.”

“Audrey texted before that, though.” Lannis glances at Audrey, and I remember how she- how we all- nearly panicked when we received that message. “Not much, just- help. So I tried to look in on her mentally, and thankfully I could- I wasn’t sure if she’d be too far away- and that’s how we found out she’d been captured. Though she wasn’t quite captured then; she was trying to bluff her way out, and then fight her way out, but with the fire-wielder nullifying her attacks . . . it didn’t really work.”

“Major understatement,” Saxon mutters, and I agree- I’m the one who freaked out most when a concussion on Audrey’s end left Lannis momentarily stunned, and who put Audrey’s fractured ribs back together after she got out- but Starlight’s more tense now than before we started, so I try to hurry up the explanation.

“Anyway, yes, Audrey was captured, and Saxon tried to go rescue her before Lady Invidia got here, but there was something that kept her from teleporting right into the building- I think Swordsman said it was probably a device of some kind, but I don’t remember really- and so we had to wait for Lady Invidia to arrive. But she got here fast, and she and Swordsman had a plan together almost as quickly.”

“It was a fairly routine operation.” This is Swordsman now. “You can probably guess our basic plan. Lannis got the information we needed about the layout of the base and the people there from Audrey, we determined the best time and route, and in we went, not just to rescue your friend but also to see about stopping their operation for the time being. Lady Invidia took the main group by surprise, while I extracted Audrey.”

“The plan went off fairly well,” Lady Invidia says- by now, she and Swordsman are really the only ones who can tell the story. “Your friends proved surprisingly helpful. Clarity did well at communications between all parties, and while I would have preferred that the Watcher stay where I told her to, her disobedience did save Swordsman and Audrey a fight.”

“Some of the guys there had found them trying to get out.” Saxon grins. “But I found them first. And whatever keeps people from teleporting in doesn’t stop them from teleporting out. I got close as I could, snuck in, found Audrey and Swordsman, and got us all out.”

“Good.” Starlight doesn’t sound approving, exactly, but she  doesn’t sound disapproving either. “And what blew up?”

“A few parts of their base,” Lady Invidia replies, casual as if she were talking about what she ate for lunch yesterday. “Anyone who deals in weapons- explosives particularly- should think twice before including fire-wielders in their crew. I’m sure you understand my meaning?”

“Clearly.” Starlight finally relaxes just enough to lean back in her seat- no more. “I assume that the damage to other buildings was minimal, since I haven’t heard anything about this on the news?”

Lannis nods. “It was- I don’t think what happened even made the news. Not significantly, anyway. The base was still pretty intact on the outside even after the fight; just the inside got messed up, I think. Or that’s what Lady Invidia implied.”

“Small blessings,” Starlight mutters, quietly enough that I’m not sure the pair on Skype can hear. Maybe that’s intentional. “I don’t suppose anyone happened to tell any authorities about this?”

“I left a tip for them with as much detail as I could give without exposing Audrey,” Swordsman replies. “But I suspect that the base would have been cleared out by the time any police arrived.”

“Naturally.” Starlight takes a deep breath. “Well. Thank you two for your help.” Her voice is stiff, as if her words take some effort. “I guess now all that needs to be done is for us five to figure out how to deal with this.”

“Was that a hint, Starlight?” Swordsman stretches, a half-smile breaking his seriousness. “If so, I’ll take it. See you later, and keep me updated on what happens. Good night, everyone.” With a tip of his hat, he disappears from the screen.

“Really, Starlight, if that’s a hint, your subtlety is slipping.” Lady Invidia raises an eyebrow behind her mask. “But, as Swordsman said, good night, and good luck.”

“We don’t need luck, but thank you, and good night,” Starlight shoots back as Lady Invidia also disappears. Then she grabs a cookie from the plate on the table and leans back in her seat. “Well. I suppose that could’ve been worse. Audrey, I assume you’ve learned your lesson about going off and doing this sort of thing without backup?”

Audrey nods sulkily. “Yes, thank you; I’ve already heard two lectures on it.”

“Since when do I lecture?” Starlight doesn’t give Audrey a chance to answer. “Admittedly, it would’ve been useful if you had been patient and waited until we could make a plan and you could actually infiltrate their group instead of getting yourself caught. But as it is, we’ll just have to do our best with the information you were able to gather. Such as it is.”

“It’s better than nothing, isn’t it?” I ask, hopefully. “How many Big Bads can there be with that many connections?”

“Plenty,” Starlight replies. “And always more than you think. They hide themselves well.” She’s about to say more, I think, but the doorbell rings before she can. I’ve never seen someone turn into a different person so fast: on the way to the door, she tosses her mask and cape into the kitchen, swipes her deep-red lipstick off on her sleeve, and throws on an outsized grey college sweater she snatches from a hook by the door.

Curious, we all turn in our seats to see the front door. The man outside looks – well, not quite familiar, but like I’ve seen him somewhere before. Starlight obviously knows him, as she greets him by name: “Daniel. Hello.”

“Hello-” the man pauses, noticing us. “Oh. You have friends over?”

“Yes,” Starlight replies. “Sorry.” She doesn’t seem especially sorry.

“We can go,” Lannis says, standing up. “I didn’t know you were expecting other company.”

“None of us did.” Saxon doesn’t stand, but she’s staring at the newcomer- Daniel- in interest. “Who’s this, Star?”

Starlight takes a second to answer, like she’s deciding what information to share and what not to share. Then she comes to a decision and says: “Someone with whom I occasionally do business.” Turning back to Daniel, she indicates us. “We should be done soon. Give us another half-hour or so? An hour at most?”

She’s asking- but she doesn’t really seem to be giving a choice. Even so, I feel obliged to say, “We really can go if you need us to, Starlight.”

“It’s fine. I can wait.” Maybe there’s disappointment in Daniel’s voice. Maybe bitterness. I can’t tell. “I’ll see you soon- Starlight.”

“Right.” Starlight waits until Daniel turns away before shutting the door firmly. Then she returns to her seat. “Now, time to make plans.”

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