Distant Thunder: The Tumble Dry Lowdown

Sarah “Piper” Elliston’s Basement

Detroit

 

The room was dimly lit by a couple of bulbs hanging overhead. The walls were covered with layers of posters – Oathkeeper, Dr. Atlas, Excalibur, Winged Liberty, Shadow Mask, Rooster. Most of the posters had been thrown up with scotch tape, and were crunched and faded with age. Others were scribbled over. Dr. Atlas’s grin was covered in red ink that someone had hastily scrawled MISSING, DEADBEAT DAD in.

 

Piper’s mother had given her friend a wan smile before gesturing them into the basement to join the girl who called herself the Number One Hero Researcher in the Nation, and insisted on the capitalization being just like that.

 

“Hey, your mom says to turn over the laundry if it’s done,” her friend Ruby said, bounding down the stairs in twos. Ruby was a childhood friend, and the only one who had stuck with Piper through this Hero Research phase, partly because it was sort of interesting and partly because she was kinda worried about Piper.

 

“LAUNDRY?!” Piper exploded, pushing her chair back from the computer. “Laundry?! Who can think about LAUNDRY at a time like this?! Ruby, are you watching the news! This is the story of the century!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty huge,” Ruby hurdled over the back of the ratty curb-rescued couch, “I had to look up what the word ‘polyamory’ meant.”

 

Piper reluctantly began to pull clothes out of the laundry machine, but she kept talking as she worked. “That’s not even the biggest part of it! You know the Pariah? The Paranormal I’ve been following for weeks?”

‘Following’ could be used in either the social media and online sense most people used these days, or the literal sense, which could also be rephrased in the less polite sense as ‘stalking’. Ruby could never be sure which one Piper meant these days.

 

“Yeah I remember Pipes, you musta said her name to me like ten thousand times. You keep track of her nasty transformations like people keep track of their babies learning stuff.”

 

“Except one of those is actually worth studying!” Piper flung her arms out to accentuate her point, and sent some wet socks flying. She seemed to either not notice or care. “Look, okay, look. None of the tabloids will accept any of the PICTURES I took. That’s weird, don’t you think?”

Ruby had seen the pictures before, taken on Piper’s extremely expensive Infiniti camera that she had scraped and scrounged to be able to afford. It turned out that the camera wasn’t enough to make Piper into a good photographer. Most of her shots of the Pariah were, well… a mess.


“Not really,” Ruby picked up one of the cookies that she’d mysteriously neglected to tell Piper that her mom had baked from the plate and took a bite. “But you’re gonna tell me why I should think it is, right?”

 

“The tabloids LOVE pictures of bad guys in the act! They eat them up! But here I am with…” She fiddled with her camera. “Nine hundred and seventy four pictures of things that are either Pariah or look a lot like her, and no one will talk to me! So if they don’t want my pictures, she’s not a bad guy, and if she’s not a bad guy, who’s killing people and leaving her mark on them?”

“Maybe it’s a conspiracy,” Ruby chuckled, not realizing what she had just done.

 

Piper dropped the laundry all over the floor and gaped. “Ruby,” she whispered. “You’re a genius.”

“Mmm?” Ruby blinked, mouth full of half-chewed cookie.

 

Piper sprinted to her desk, nearly slipping on a damp sweater, and grabbed a spool of red yarn and some push pins. She stabbed a push pin in on the Oathkeeper’s face. “The Legion haven’t recruited Pariah. Why?” She asks.

 

“Maybe she didn’t wanna join?”

 

“Ruby,” Piper said, very seriously. “Have you ever heard of Murphy’s Law? You know, the idea that the simplest explanation to a problem is never true? No, no, it’s part of the conspiracy.” She stabs another pushpin into Rooster’s face, and links the two with thread. “One that goes to the Freelancers.”

“Why would the Legion not hiring her go to the Freelancers? They ain’t hired her neither. And anyway, that’s Occam’s Law.”

 

“Because!” Piper said, dramatically. “The Freelancers and the Legion are in CAHOOTS.”

“Sarah!” A voice called down the stairs. “I don’t hear the dryer!”

“It’s PIPER!” The Number One Hero Researcher in the Nation yelled back up the stairs, but she started gathering the laundry back up.


“But we know they’re in cahoots. You been goin bonkers over how they working together for weeks now. What’s all that got to do with the Pariah?”

 

“She’s not playing the game!” Piper said, confidently taping a foggy picture of what looked like a sand column up between the pushpins on the board, and connecting that with red string too. “She came out and no one made an announcement about that. She’s gay and trans AND Jewish! Think about it! And the Human Supremacists and Paranormal Supremacists both hate her, right?”

“Well yeah, they do, but—”

 

“Like you said, it’s a conspiracy! Everyone thinks the Pariah is guilty! Someone’s framing her!”

“You think the HS and the PS are working together to frame this one vigilante.” Ruby’s voice couldn’t have been more skeptical.

 

“I just need proof.” Piper shot back. “And I’m gonna do whatever it takes to find it. Starting right now -”

 

“SARAH!” Her mom yelled down the stairs.

 

“Starting right after the laundry’s done.”

Distant Thunder: An Unlikely Alliance

“7 Sociale” Italian Restaurant

Detroit

 

The restaurant had been cleaned out except for one table, two chairs, and an extremely nervous looking waiter who was holding the wine menu with shaking hands.


Jorja’s guest had yet to arrive.

 

She drummed the table with her fingertips for a few minutes, then looked up at the waiter and smirked. “How you doin’, buddy. What’s your name.”

 

“R-Robert. I’m just fine, Ms. Stephenson.”

 

“Nice. You have a good week?”

 

“Yes, Ms. Stephenson.”

 

“Well. Ain’t that nice.”

 

The waiter began to relax. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. “Can I get you something to drink, Ms. Stephenson, or eat?”

“Tell me about yourself, Robert!” Jorja continued, grinning. “You live with your parents? Got a girlfriend? Married? Kids?”

 

“I’m married, and we’ve adopted two beautiful boys.” Robert said, smiling widely. “My mom moved in to help with the daycare, and I work here, while my husband works as an electronic DJ.”

“Is that right!” She leaned on the table, seemingly enraptured.

 

“That’s right, he’s starting to do some bigger shows, even went to Chicago last year for Scott McGowan’s birthday. And I, well, I have a passion for food, so I’m hoping that in a couple of years I’ll have found a chef job, or maybe start culinary school…”

“Scott McGowan’s birthday,” Jorja shook her head. “You musta been real happy to see the Oathkeeper on TV the other day, standing up fer what she believes in.”

 

“I thought it was absolutely beautiful, yes, Ms. Stephenson.”

Jorja leaned forward, grinning like a purple-haired wolf. “Your heroes are going to die alone and in pain thanks to people like me, Robert. Every. Last. One of them.”

 

Robert blanched and moved his eyes back to the safety of his wine menu. “Well,” he ventured. “I’m sure you’ll do your best to try, Ms. Stephenson.”

“It ain’t just me, Robert. A storm’s coming. Humans have been pushed around long enough. And if you ever wanna fuck your husband in the ass again, you won’t breathe word one that I was here. Do you understand me?”

 

“Perfectly, Ms. Stephenson.”

“Good. I’ll have the cabernet.”

 

“Ah,” a British voice boomed from the other side of the restaurant. Vanguard was approaching, wearing a suit and a smile. “I knew you two would get along wonderfully. He’s a human, you’re a human, you both have… human things to talk about. I’ll have something red and seasonal, Robert, and an order of garlic bread.”

He took a seat, stretching his long legs off to the side and perching one arm over the back of the chair.


“Jorja.”

“Vanguard,” Jorja put both elbows on the table, laced her fingers, and smiled. “D’ya prefer ‘Van’ or ‘Mister Guard’?”

 

“If you absolutely have to refer to me by some crude nickname, I’ll accept sir.”

“Vanguard it is. Right. What a world, eh? That we have to sit across a table from each other like civilized people and pretend like we don’t wanna kill each other dead.”

 

“It is odd. I mean, darling, you wouldn’t stand a chance. But it is endearing that you think about it anyways. Like watching a kitten trying to walk upright.” He smiled. “And yet, here we are.”

“Least you think I’m cute,” Jorja toyed with her pendant, a small disc that glowed faintly with hidden LEDs. A poison sniffer. “But we could sit here all day and circlejerk each other about all the mutually assured destruction we’d bring upon each other’s houses, and meanwhile the Pariah would keep dismantling our cities brick by brick. Eh? Let’s talk.”

 

“I’ve checked with my sources in the Big Two, and she isn’t on the payroll of either of them. She’s Independent, truly Independent and alone, and there’s nothing in this world or the next more dangerous than an Independent with an agenda.”

“Yeah. She’s picking up allies,” Jorja scowled, “and one of them’s a filthy fucking shifter. Not like her, a doppelganger. And it’s good. She also has some kind of specialist. She’s becoming a huge pain in the ass, even if our PR campaign seems to be gaining ground.”

 

“A shifter, huh? How good of a shifter are we talking about here, exactly? Say… On a scale of one to ten?”

“Seven or better, definitely. Hard to say; it don’t come out much, and not at all since we hunkered down.”

 

“Well, only so many of those in the world, and it’s not one of mine. Could be a freshly Emerged kid – that means they just got their powers, dear – or it could be one from the Big Two. I’ll investigate, see if I can turn anything up. And her specialist?”

Jorja scowled even deeper at that. “We think it might be the Stray Hounds.”

 

That knocked the smug look off of Vanguard’s face. He nodded, brushing his thumb against his jaw in thought. “Alright, Jorja, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want the Hounds in this city, a Shifter who’s using anyone’s face needs to go, and in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather have you folk around than these people. I’m good for a truce. Are you?”

Visibly a bit anxious and trying not to show it, Jorja adjusted the dead man’s switch bracelet on her wrist. “Your squad didn’t have much of a foothold in Detroit before this, though,” she squinted, “it was almost all our territory. You coulda hung back, let the Pariah wear us down, and then hit hard. What’s your angle here?”

 

Vanguard turned his face to show the scar that ran from his forehead down to the bottom of his nose – the blow that had nearly cost him his eye. “Remember when you inflicted this on me?”

“Ahyeah,” Jorja said wistfully, “good times.”

 

“Here’s what I figured out since then. We kind of need a few humans around. A few. For the end game. And hell, I figure your folk might be good candidates for when that time comes. I’d rather you not get whittled down and exterminated before I have a chance to explore that idea further.”

Jorja gave Vanguard the kind of look that most people reserve for teen relatives who just discovered Ayn Rand. “Oh-kay,” she said, “I guess… that’ll do it? Fine. Your people and my people, we don’t fight until the Pariah is taken care of and we meet again. Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. Shall we shake on it?”

“Fine.” Jorja stood and extended her hand. “To the enemy of my enemy.”

 

His grip was firm, and he grinned. “To the enemy of my enemy.”

 

Distant Thunder: Keep the Receipts

A PARK BENCH

ROCK CITY

 

The most famous woman on Earth sat on a bench, wearing a heavy hat to hide her short hair – but the scowl was evidence that this was Alice McGowan in the flesh. Her arms were crossed in annoyance, and she tapped the toes of one boot against the concrete.

 

Callister ambled by. Hands in jean pockets, he wore a dark red shirt with the words “Fuck your Unicorns”, a couple of leather bracelets, and just one decorative belt looped loosely over his hips. He came to a stop several feet away from the bench, and slouched indolently. A lollipop stuck out from the corner of his mouth.

 

Alice assessed him from the bench, and then lifted the wide brimmed hat to glare at Callister.


Callister shrugged back. “Chuppachup?” His hand came out from his pocket with a handful of candy.

 

“Are you seriously offering me candy?”

Geeze you don’t have to take it.” He crunched the one in his mouth between his teeth, and unwrapped another to replace it.

 

There was a long pause. “If Tabitha knew I had actually followed up on this, she would be furious. So, for her sake, I am going to try diplomacy. …Are you the son of Anathema?”

“That’s what it says on my birth certificate.” A lazy shrug followed that.

 

“Do you know what she’s done?”

Callister shifted the chuppachup around his mouth with his tongue. “Do you know what you have done?”

 

That surprised her. “If you think I’ve committed crimes, present me with the evidence. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”

“You made her, you know. You pushed her to this.” His tone was almost bored.

 

“By doing what? Saving the world? Being the Oathkeeper? Healing the sick?”

“By milking every bit of sympathy from your sister’s death. Can you even sing? Mother says dying crows sound better than you.”

 

Alice’s face twists in hurt. “What does Mary have to do with this? I… Singing? I was in choir, at church? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t have heard about it. Poor little Alice, her sister died. Can’t tweet two notes, but let’s kick Hyacinth out and let’s put put pretty Alice in the choir.” He played with his bit of candy with his teeth, hands seemingly sewn into his pockets, they hadn’t moved.

 

“Hyacinth?” Alice was staring at Callister, mouth slightly open. “I… She was in the choir? I didn’t make that decision, they just told me there was room for me, I never even brought Katie up, I would never have -”

“So, can you sing? Are you really worse than dying crows? Makes you wonder why they invited you to the choir, huh?”

 

“I don’t know, I – I think I’m alright at it? I never thought -”

Callister gave her a bored look. “Like, I don’t care. Whatever. Here’s the receipts.” He pulled out an envelope from the back of his jeans and tossed neatly to the seat beside Alice. There were two movie stubs and a receipt from a burger bar in Rock City, and a strip of photobooth snaps of Callister and a young man several years older than him. They both held up the receipts, Callister smirking, the young man with a bemused smile.

 

Alice looked at the receipts and the photos, and her face turned from hurt to confusion. “You’re… dating him? Does he know who you are?”

Callister shrugged broad shoulders. “Will probably tell him eventually.”

 

She continued to stare at the photos. “What’s your end game with this?”

Callister just stared at Alice. In another person, it might be construed as confusion. “What fucking endgame?”

 

She shoved the receipts and photos back into the envelope and tossed it at Callister. “You threatened to kill me. You’re evil. You don’t date people and have fun with neat people like a – normal person.”

“Whatever. That’s Mother’s fight with you. Anyway, I’m late for mass.” He turned on his heel.

 

“Wait!” There was something desperate in her voice, but not threatening; she didn’t give chase or sound angry. “Wait, please. Just two more minutes.”

He half turned, waiting.

 

“I… I’m sorry. For what I just said. And I’m sorry for what I said in the cafe. I… know I’m… not perfect. I… Nat’s like another kid to me, and… When I find your mother, there will be a reckoning. But until then, can we call a truce? I can’t keep living with this hate in my heart every time I see you say something or be with one of my friends.”

Callister gave her a long and even stare with his ruby red eyes. Eventually he said, “She wanted me to deliver you a card to leave on your hospital room bedside. I never did it. You and mother fight it out. You win and she dies, we may be enemies. But for now, truce.”

 

“Okay. Truce.” Alice extended a hand.

 

Callister took it. His grip was just firm and measured.


“Okay.” she said. “Truce.” She took a long pause. “And if you want to….. Bring Nat over…. For dinner some time. To our place.”

The words were physically hurting her to say.

Callister looked amused. He let her hand go. “Nah. Nat and I aren’t like that.” He turned again, slouching his way back the way he came.

 

“H-Happy Easter!” Alice calls at his back, and then stares at her own hands.


“Callister,” Tabitha nodded politely as she approached him, wearing a fine fitted trenchcoat and approaching from—where??

 

“Ma’am,” he replied like he wasn’t dressed like he was part of a goth-punk rock band.

 

Alice looked up from the bench, saw Tabitha approaching, and her eyes widened. She pulled the brim of her hat down and hunched in on herself in an attempt at hiding.


“How’d things go with Alice,” Tabitha asked casually.

 

“Oh well, you know.” Callister shrugged like it meant something.

 

“Of course. You’ll treat young Benny Schuster all right, yes? His sister drives the most dangerous personal tank in human manufacture.”

 

Something like a challenge appeared in Callister’s eye. He gave the moonless sky a speculative glance and the corner of his mouth lifted to a hint of a wolfish grin. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He made it sound like sounds like a good fight. “Yeah, Benny’s sweet. I don’t hurt people who don’t want it.”

 

“Thank you. Tell your mother I said ‘see you soon’.” She nodded to him, then walked past, toward the flawlessly-disguised park goer. Callister shrugs and slouches his way away.

 

The park goer remains still on the bench, hat pulled down low. There’s a long, awkward silence.

 

“How’d it go,” Tabitha asked.

 

Alice lifted the brim of her hat. “We called a truce.” She admits.


Tabitha nodded for a few moments, making a kind of ‘not bad’ frown. “Good. Glad to hear it.”

 

“I apologized.” She adds. “For… some things. And I have to talk to Dr. Meda about… other things.”

“Understood,” Tabitha nodded, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m very glad that it went alright. I wasn’t looking forward to intervening.”

 

“…I think I can return to the field. I… I’m doing better, Tabitha.” She gestures in the direction Callister left. “I’m doing better.”

Tabitha looked at her for a while, then nodded. “I’ll bring it up with the other Generals, okay? Maybe we can get you back on the field soon.”

 

“Okay.” Alice said, and then, after a long pause. “I wanted to hit him a little.”

Distant Thunder: What the Devil Wants

Las Vegas Airport, Nevada.

 

It was a quiet, average day at dusk at the Vegas Airport. Lots of people moving around. A businessman conducts a phone call quietly, a homeless man sleeps in a corner, with a change bucket and a sign that asks, “please help!” A married couple dotes over a baby in a baby carriage, waiting for their flight, another, younger couple giggles quietly to themselves as they look at small, inexpensive rings on their hands.

 

And a certain phone, in a certain airport locker begins ringing, playing “Sympathy for the Devil.”

 

Nat’s face was a stony mask as ey peered at the phone. This was it. Be cool. This phone call could save lives, if ey managed not to be a god damn teenager about it.

 

Well. We’ll see.

 

Ey flipped the phone open and held it to eir ear. “Yeah.”

 

“Hey there, kiddo. How’s things?” Sin’s smooth voice was loud and clear, amused and absolutely arrogant. “Thanks for taking my call. Thought you might still be pissed.”

 

“I am,” Nat’s voice was cool, but civil, “but this seemed important.”

 

“Awww, don’t be mad, cutie.” He laughed.

 

He seemed supremely confident for being the most wanted man in the world, one who everyone knew. “Yeah, okay, right to business then? Or do you want to tell me how Callister’s doing? He kinda adores you, know you. Biiiig crush.”

 

“Right to business, please,” Nat monotoned.

 

“Tch, you’re no fun.” He sighs theatrically. “Fine. Good news. I’ve got news on Anathema. I’ve been working with her for a bit. Bad News. She’s still really, really, really, REALLY hates Oathkeeper and company. Pretty sure she’s pissed at you, too. Possibly being a bad influence on Callister. She’s planning something big.”

 

Nat squinted. “That’s… that’s it?” Eir voice was genuinely incredulous. “That’s your intel?”

 

Sin laughed. “No, of course not. I’ve got names, dates, places. Even better, I’ve got location on Anathema. I know her plan, because, hey, I helped develop it. But that’s all you’re getting until I get what I want.”

 

“…and what’s that,” Nat inquired in the same tone of voice one might say ‘i am sorry, solomon swift.’

 

“Full, blanket pardon, that covers anything that I’ve done up until I sign it. A hundred thousand dollars, and an unlimited passport to anywhere I want. Oh and maybe full use of Legion Teleporters without question. I’m flexible on that last one.” He takes another breath. “Oh, and just as an added tidbit, to whet your appetite. I can reverse Anathema’s mind control.”

 

“Yeah, you aren’t getting that last one, I can tell you that right now,” Nat rolled eir eyes. “If Adam Nova can’t use our teleporters—anyway, I’ll… pass along word. Why did you call me? You know I can’t authorize any of this on my own.”

 

“Heh! True enough. And I picked you because out of all the people there, you kinda treated me all right. Did some research. An’ you have an uncanny knack for diplomacy, it seems. And opportunity. Luck was a kind lady to me, seeing you in the Club.” None of those were lies, but it did sound like Sin wasn’t telling em something, other than the plans and such.

 

“I treated you all right because I thought you got a raw deal,” Nat growled. “What Estelle did was fucked up. But you didn’t have to do what you did to Alice.”

 

“What was it you said? I’m scum… hold on…. I’ve got it right here.” There’s the sound of tapping, like at a computer. “Ah, here we are. A fucking worthless piece of trash. Gutter scum. A fetid, rotting asshole.” There’s another laugh, mocking.

 

“I’ll admit, I’ve got a temper. And maybe what I did to Alice was a bit much. Eh.” There’s so much… nonchalance in the recollection that he nearly tore apart a person.. “Maybe they’re right? Maybe you’re right. But you know what? It really doesn’t matter to me, as long as I get what I want. Fun part of playing this game, Nat?

 

Death’s just a bad roll of the die. Sometimes your time is up. Almost was, for Alice, but…. “ He chuckles. “Listen to me, going on about this. Anyway, you know what I want. I’ll call again in a few days, maybe a week or two. Gotta keep being valuable.” He laughs again, wickedly.

 

“Wow,” Nat smiled coldly. “What Alice said about you was spot on. Talk soon.”

 

Click.

 

Distant Thunder: Redeeming the Pariah

VERA AND MARIAH’S HOUSE

DETROIT

 

“It’s kind of ironic when I say it, because, y’know, shapeshifting, but… we have an image problem, people.” Vera said, as she flipped through a magazine of BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS.

 

“Yeah, I am getting sincerely unhappy about turning on the news,” Pariah grimaced.

 

“What do you think about a breakfast nook, though?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

 

“A breakfast nook!” Tallboy chimed in, grinning from ear to ear. He almost seemed happier about the upcoming nuptials than the couple did. “It’s like a little mini-room with some storage and room for a table. Usually got a window and a nice view.”

 

“I think Vera has a point.” The Hound on speakerphone chimed in. “There aren’t any breakfast nooks in prison.”

 

“Right, right, we’re just…” Vera clears her throat. “Strategizing about a new HQ.”

“We told you the good news, right Hound?” Mariah allowed herself a little smile.

 

“I….don’t think so.” Was his honest reply. “I like good news though. What’s up?”

 

In unison, Vera and Mariah sang: “We’re engaaaa-aaaaged~!”

“Wow! That is great news!” Excitement betrayed itself through the robotic filter. “All the more reason we should make sure we aren’t all arrested.” He added at the end, a bit of seriousness in the light tone. “But yeah, I suppose that explains why we need a “New Headquarters”.” A hint of sass.

 

“Okay but for real someone’s framing me for murder,” Mariah’s expression sobered. “Have you been able to find anything, Hound?”

 

“Well, for starters, it appears that The Family and Jorja’s goons are a bit more disciplined than we thought. There’s no infighting like we planned.” Disappointment was clear in his voice. “As a matter of fact there seems to be less, and movement is a lot higher. I wouldn’t put it past them to off one of their own next time you give someone low enough on the totem pole your mark.” A pause. “Oh yeah, I should have mentioned. I am sure it is HS doing this. They’ve done well to cover their tracks but I know it is them.” Another pause. “But I can’t prove it.” More disappointment as the Hound waited for a response.

 

“Maybe we can play Paranormal Supremacists off them? Get them at war with each other, buy us some time.” Vera said, flipping through another page.


“Aren’t they always at war with each other?” Mariah asked.

 

“We could try it Vera, but our last attempt seemed to only unite them further.” A few ticks. “They were until they weren’t. Which is now. Any chance our newest member might have an idea of what’s going on? How The Family and Jorja could have possibly united after the stunt we pulled?”

 

“Hey, let’s not get our factions mixed up,” Tallboy cut in. “The Family is mob, but it ain’t supremacist nothin’. Or at least it didn’t used to be. Jorja’s crew was pushing us—them—closer to it by the time you two appropriated me, but I didn’t hear nothin’ about allying with no Paranormals. Best I can imagine is that the Family and the HS came together after they had their little problem with Carolina, and then somebody from HS met with PS and they all made nice in order to deal with the, uh, shared threat.”

 

“Sounds possible. I guess we could look for old wounds to pull open. I think I saw those two from the other night still roaming around. Pyromancer and camouflage. They didn’t take too well to getting shot at.” A few seconds as he thought. “It might be too obvious if we just point them right at Jorja. What if we point them at the family instead?”

 

“Well,” Vera said with a sly smile. “It should be easy to sow some dissent in their ranks. After all, we have Vanguard just waiting to talk shit about his new allies.”

“That does sound like something Vanguard would do….but what venue should we use. What platform.” There was the faint sound of a keyboard being clicked. “You know what might be even better than just shit talking? Having Vanguard reveal some…incriminating evidence. Something that hurts more than just pride. Has real effects that can’t be ignored.” A pause. “What do you guys think?”

 

“First we need that evidence. We can’t just make shit up.”

Pariah sighed. “It feels like every day, there are more variables coming in that are out of our hands. If we can find something, I’m all about it, but… how?”

 

There was more keys being clicked. “Well….hmmm. Let’s see. Knowing the PS and HS are working together….considering current events chances are it was HS who approached PS first…and…hmmm….” The typing was vigorous. “It would have taken more for PS to accept along the simple lines of just “you leave us alone we leave you alone”. Something else is being traded. Used. And if something’s being traded it needs to come from somewhere….” A final solid click. “Bingo. The Family has bought out a series of apartments that are frequented by the UPS much, much more than they have any right to be. Background check on the driver shows some very….suspicious background. Prison twice. To top it all off,” He sent a photo to the phone. It was a photo of the camouflager from the bridge event, walking through. “Seems worth investigating.”

 

“Oh dang, that’s… wossname. Blank. I guess Vanguard hired them after all,” Pariah squinted, peering at the phone.

 

“Yep. Now all we need to do is figure out what is in those packages, and have Vanguard reveal it. That would pretty much doom the deal they have going in as many ways possible, especially after the police raid.”

 

“It’s a start,” Pariah murmured. “It’s definitely a start. I can’t believe I have Para and Human Supremacists both so mad that they’re willing to set aside their differences in the shared goal of putting me in the ground.”

 

“You have a…” Vera paused, then diplomatically offered: “Talent!”

“Thank you, pumpkin.”

 

“When you encounter enemies, you are going the right way.” Hound added with mild humor. “Let’s see if we can’t get Vera to disguise herself as our UPS deliveryman.” More clicking, then send. A photo of a gaunt man covered in playing card tattoos.

 

Vera grimaced. “Tattoos are always kind of a bitch. You have any more angles on them?”

“Hmmm. Could be camoflauge girl. Would be a bit of a problem if a situation arises where she is supposed to activate her powers though. More risk.”

 

“Okay, let’s give it a day or two. Hound, please keep an eye on that facility, and I’ll keep my ear to the ground in my way.”

 

“I’m on it.”

 

“And in the meantime, you never answered me about the nook.”

 

Distant Thunder: Together Again

TOP OF THE ROCK RESTAURANT

NORBRIDGE ROCK CITY

 

“I’m underdressed,” Benny fretted, adjusting his bow tie and smoothing down his fitted vest. “I’m underdressed. I look like some kind of hipster fuck.”

 

“You’re fine,” Buster scolded him. “You’re better dressed than I am.” That, at least, was true. At least she wasn’t in BDUs, but Buster wasn’t about to dress up formal for something as simple as going to dinner at a fancy restaurant with an international celebrity. She was wearing slacks and an untucked button-down, the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. She didn’t even bother taking off her dog tags.

 

“Yeah, but you can pull it off,” Benny shot back, checking the tuck of his undershirt into his slacks.

 

“Whatever. You’re hot stuff. You’ll be boning the Damselfly before the evening is over.”

 

“I’m sure ey didn’t bring us here to hit on us, Buster.”

 

“Dream big, buh!” Buster grinned, then strode up to the Maitre D. “We’re the Damselfly’s guests, my good man! Lead us to your finest… table that we have reserved.”

 

Buster—”

 

“This way, madam,” the host seemed unfazed, nodding to Benny too. “Sir.”

 

The siblings followed, and were led to a smallish table near one of the windows. Window tables at Top of the Rock were what made the restaurant famous, and for good reason—it was fifty stories up, looking out over the entirety of Norbridge Rock City, all the way to the Canadian shore.

 

“Whoa,” Buster breathed. “I know I live on the moon, but damn.”

 

“Kinda dizzying,” Benny agreed.

 

“So, been practicing your pick-up lines?” Buster smirked.

 

“Would you stop?” Benny scolded. “I thought you’d let up once I had a boyfriend.”

 

“Why stop at one, though?”

 

“Forget it. Seriously, though, why do you think the Damselfly wants to take us to dinner and drinks? Us, of all people? We’re nobody special.”

 

“Speak for yourself!” Buster folded her arms and leaned back in the seat.

 

“You know what I mean. We’re not… superheroes, or celebrities. There’s nothing that should make us stand out.”

 

“Oh, I dunno,” a voice came from above. “You seem pretty distinctive to me.”

 

The twins looked up. Above them, floating in air as if laying tummy-down at the edge of a bed, was a slight, freckle-faced redhead grinning down at them. Ey was wearing a pair of loose pants made of some wispy fabric, a scoopnecked top, and a full face of evening makeup with colors to match.

 

“Um,” Benny said.

 

“Hi.” Buster added.

 

“Wow, you…” Nat floated down, grabbing the back of eir own chair. “You two look totally different. I never would have…”

 

“Different from what?” Buster blinked.

 

“Um nice to meet you Mx. Damselfly,” Benny stammered.

 

“Right! Hosting.” The Damselfly was positively beaming. “Do both of you like red sangria? I seem to remember that you both liked sweet wines when we were little.”

 

“When we were… what?” Buster asked.

 

“Oh my god,” Benny murmured, eyes wide. “Oh my god.”

 

“And Benjamin gets it,” Nat said quietly.

 

“What—OH.” Buster’s eyes went wide too, staring at Nat.

 

“Petey?” Benny’s voice was tiny.

 

“Not any more,” intense emotion crept into Nat’s voice. “I’m so happy you made it out, sibs.”

 

With a voice-breaking cry, Buster lunged forward and swept Nat and Benny into a tight hug. “Oh shit,” she wailed. “Oh shit, oh shit! We’ve got our kid back! We’ve got you back!!”

 

Benny, too, clung to Nat, sobbing. Finally overcome by the emotional display, Nat burst into tears too, and the three held each other for a while.

 

 

Only a few minutes later, they were all at their seats again, a pitcher of red sangria on the table in front of them, a full glass in front of each sibling.

 

“So,” Nat began anew, snuffling. “Hi. My name is Nat Zygoptera. They call me the Damselfly. I’m kind of a big deal celebrity superhero. It’s.. really nice to see my brother and sister again.”

 

“I’m uh, Beth Schuster, but everybody just calls me Buster,” Buster smiled, clutching her sangria glass in both hands. “I drive the best tank that PHALANX makes. Also, I’m bi and a girl.”

 

“And um. I’m Benny. I make coffee. Also, I’m gay.”

 

“Look at this queer little family,” Nat got a little misty again, and took a sip of wine. “Oh! That reminds me. Benny, you know how your boyfriend was asking you about whether you were exclusive.”

 

Benny stared, a blush creeping across his freckles.

 

“Yeahhh, I kind of fucked him. Sorry, I didn’t know he was yours.”

 

“I mean, um. I guess I don’t mind if… you don’t mind?”

 

“Oh. Also, he’s kind of maybe possibly a supervillain?”

 

Benny stared, his face flushing red.

 

“Well, maybe. We know his mom is one. The Oathkeeper’s sworn nemesis, actually. He might be okay.”

 

Benny stared, face bright crimson, looking faint.

 

“You’re fucking a supervillain?” It wasn’t clear whether Buster was addressing Benny or Nat. “I feel way better about myself now.”

 

“I feel like there’s hope for him,” Nat shrugged a little, “I dunno. Just… wanted you to know.”

 

“Should… do I need to break up with him?” Benny’s voice was a little small.

 

“Nah. Don’t. I’ll let you know if you should. Let’s talk about literally anything else.”

 

 

Two hours, three fancy entrées, and two full pitchers of red sangria later, all three siblings were flush-faced and loud.

 

“An’ then,” Buster slurred, “he says, I know a place. In public! That has a real nice view. Of the lunar sunrise! And do you want to go there. For sex. He didn’t say that last bit.”

 

“Doctor Lydes did that?” Nat clutched the edge of the table to keep from floating away. “You propositioned Simon fucking Lydes and he suggested a public place to fuck you in??”

 

“Buster,” Benny said sagely, “is magical.”

 

“I’m a fucking unicorn,” Buster agreed, “and yes. So like, he takes me up there, and it’s legit one of the nicest views I’ve seen in Dreamlight. And he bends me over the railing and fucks my brains out. It was amazing.”

 

“Holy shit,” Nat whispered, “I have to get in on that.”

 

“I recommend it highly.”

 

“Maybe we should hook you up with Callister too, Buster,” Benny suggested, giggling.

 

“Ehhhhh.” Buster waved off the notion derisively. “Too pompous. I don’t wanna fuck no world of wartime blood elf poet shirt limpdick.”

 

“His dick is really very not limp,” Benny pointed out, and Nat nodded agreement.

 

“Whatever! You know what I mean. Anyway that was kind of something. So Nat are you like. In a relationship, or just fucking everything that moves.”

 

“Both,” Nat sipped eir drink. “I am in love with a girl, though. Her name is Fiona. She’s… awkward. You’d like her, Benny.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“You’ll have to meet my polycule,” Nat nodded, “you’d love the hell outta the other couple, Buster. It’s all gotta happen. How many days before you have to head back to Luna?”

 

“Three.”

 

“Okay. Just. Wow,” Nat smiled, eyes tearing up again. “I’m drunk with my gay as fuck siblings. I’m drunk and gay with my siblings.”

 

“Drunk and gay,” Buster agreed. “Fuck.”

 

“Here’s to being drunk and gay with real family,” Benny raised his glass.

 

“Drunk and gay!” Nat agreed, and they all toasted.

 

And then Nat made everyone drink a ton of water so they wouldn’t be hung over, the end.

 

Distant Thunder: The One Good Thing

SOUBRIDGE EDGE PARK
ROCK CITY, THE SURFACE

 

Benny was still wearing a vest, bow tie, and button-down tucked into khaki slacks. He looked good. He gazed over the edge of the park, to the end of the Rock City Bridge, a higher vantage point than his apartment but lower than the restaurant he’d just been to.

 

He was waiting for his boyfriend.

 

“Hey. You look nice.” Callister slouched out of the shadows, hands in pockets, hair in a loose ponytail and wearing a plain black tee and grey cargos.

 

Benny turned around, saw Callister, and blinked. “You… look nice too. That’s more casual than I’m used to seeing you, but honestly it’s a good look for you.”

 

Callister shuffled and muttered something that sounded like “Laundry day, but thanks.” Then he stared awkwardly at Benny.

 

He adjusted his vest and took a few steps forward. “You wanted to talk.” He didn’t look upset.

 

Callister took a few steps forward too. “Yeah. Erh. So yeah. Nat told you about me and em and about my mother, huh?”

 

“Ey told me the basics,” Benny looked up at the Rock City Center, the tall building that contained the restaurant where he’d eaten with his siblings. “That your mom is the Oathkeeper’s sworn enemy, that ey slept with you.”

 

And then he met Callister’s eyes dead-on, blue to red. “Ey said that there was hope for you. And that I shouldn’t break up with you.”

 

‘Yeah. Mom is Anathema.” Then he shuffled. “Yeah?” His tone was one of optimistic embarrassment. “Fuck. Dunno if I’m doing something wrong or right, then.”

 

“You’re probably doing both,” Benny took slow steps up to Callister, and took both of his hands. “But I’m… I’m happy to have my sibling back. Thank you.”

 

“Erh….sorry for fucking your sibling.”

 

Benny laughed. “Cal,” he smiled up, “I really don’t care. Keep fucking em, if you want. Just don’t hurt em. Okay?”

 

“Yeah, wasn’t intending to.” Callister finally relaxed into a grin. “Right before we figured out you two were siblings, I invited em to come meet you and we could bring em out for desserts. Think ey’ll like Petey Cat?”

 

“Ey will,” Benny smiled, “and approves of the name going to a cat. Nat said that the cat would be ‘more responsible with it’, which I guess sort of makes sense.”

 

Benny took a deep breath slow, and let it out even slower.

 

“I was worried you were gonna dump me in advance because this all freaked you out too much,” ey admitted.

 

“I, yeah, was worried about the same. I mean, I’d be mad if someone I dated turned around and screwed with my younger sibling.” Callister shrugged. “Not that I have one.”

 

Benny chewed his lip for a moment. “Learning that we could screw anyone, at all, ever was sort of a huge revelation for me and Buster. She sorta took it and ran with it, I kind of got scared and sat on it. But neither of us really has the same kinds of moral feelings about it that most people seem to. If you want to sleep with Nat, that doesn’t really bother me unless it means that you don’t want to sleep with me.”

 

“Nah. That was a one time thing, I’m pretty sure. ‘Sides, it’s dangerous for me to spend too much time with Nat. Eir power drives me a little crazy if I don’t take care.” Callister dropped Benny’s hands and slipped an arm around his waist to bring his boyfriend flush against his body. “Besides, don’t wanna talk about Nat anymore. Wanna kiss you instead.”

 

Benny drew in a hitching breath involuntarily. “Y-yes please.”

 

Callister bent his head and did just that.

 

Benny Schuster wrapped both arms around his boyfriend, head tilted up, and let himself forget that anything else existed except the two of them pressed together.

 

Distant Thunder: Bye Bye Benny

Callister entered Benny’s shop, the door tinkled as he stepped inside. He wore dark glasses over his red eyes, his hair pulled back into a sedate bun. He was quiet he waited for Benny to notice him, his eyes unreadable behind the shades.

 

Benny was ‘In the Zone’, doing that thing he did where he’d get really into a repetitive task and just do it until he was done, ignoring everything else. It probably would have taken him minutes to realize that Callister was there, but his coworker (a tall, rail-thin boy with spiky black hair) jostled him from his daze with a greeting.

 

“Hi there! Can I get you something?”

 

Hearing this, Benny looked up, saw Callister, and grinned. “Babe!”

 

Callister responded to the grin with one of his own. It lit his face up. “Hey. When are you off?”

 

Then, while he was there he addressed Benny’s co-worker, “Cappuccino, tall, with a shot of hazelnut, thanks.”

 

“Aight,” the barista replied, smirking a little as he watched Benny bound up to Callister like a blond, apron-wearing puppy.

 

“Um, I have a few more hours to go, but I can probably take my break now. It’s not very busy.”

 

Callister smiled, “Get you a drink too?” He placed a hand on Benny’s waist, but limited his public display of affection to that at Benny’s job.

 

That got an immediate response, though; Benny did that thing he did whenever Callister touched him in anything resembling a possessive or affectionate fashion, where his eyes looked distant for a second and he took in a sharp breath.

 

He recovered pretty quickly, though, and smiled a bit coyly. “You know I’m going to mark out your cappuccino anyway, right? I don’t pay for drinks in my own shop.”

 

“I’ll make you a Benny, Benny,” the other barista offered.

 

“Thanks Caleb!”

 

Callister smiled at Benny’s reaction, a different sort of smile from the one he wore when he first greeted Benny. This one had more than a hint of promise and affection, and also more than a little bit of smug satisfaction.

“Good to know I can always come by to bum drinks off you.”

 

“As long as you don’t abuse the privilege. So um. To what do I owe this lovely visit?”

 

The smile faded a little. “Tell you when we’re outside. What’s new with you?”

 

Benny laughed. “You know you’re the only exciting—well, okay, now that I know Nat’s my sibling, you and Nat are the only exciting things in my life that aren’t Buster.”

 

Callister made a rude noise. “That means I gotta work harder to be the most exciting thing.”

 

“Nat’s rough competition there,” Benny admitted, but then the edge of his mouth quirked up in a sly smile. “But you have some advantages over em that you can leverage.”

 

“Hazelnut cappuccino and a Benny,” Caleb called from the bar.

 

The door tinkled as the little bell went off, and a pale man in dark sunglasses, and a dark suit with a blood red tie walked in, a sharklike smile on his face. His hair was pretty much perfect, and he walked like he looked good, and knew it, too. He went up to the bar, and nodded at Caleb.

 

“Hey. Get a mocha frappuccino, easy on the milk?” He looked over his sunglasses at the barista, and around the small coffee shop. He waved one hand at Callister.

 

“One blended latte it is,” the barista said a little more acidly than was professionally appropriate, then added, “what size?” “Medium, please.” The guy placed a twenty on the bar.

 

“Do you know that guy?” Benny frowned.

 

Callister had become quiet. He was still mostly relaxed and calm, but the hand on Benny’s waist had begun to rub against his lower back. “I do. Let’s get our drinks and go outside. Meet out out,” he said to Sin, carefully not mentioning him by name.

 

Benny blinked, then glanced over at Caleb, who shrugged and made change for Sin, then rushed to make the drink.

 

Sin left a tip of ten dollars in the tip bucket, ‘cause, what the hell, he can be nice. Sometimes. Rarely. When he has obscene amounts of money. He nods at Callister as the red haired man tells him about ‘out out.’ And waits patiently for his drink.

 

“Cal,” Benny pushed through the front door, his apron over one shoulder and an iced coffee drink in his hand. “What’s going on? That guy in there looks like a mobster.” He whispered that last sentence, his eyes straying in the direction of the man still waiting on his drink.

 

Callister slipped his hand all the way around Benny’s waist, holding him close enough that Benny could hear Callister’s rapid heart beat. “Don’t panic. That’s Sin. He must have followed me here. I’m sorry.”

 

Now it was Benny’s heart that was racing, his face going pale. “Sin?” His voice was barely audible as it shot upward in pitch. “The guy who nearly murdered Nat?”

 

The door tinkled again as Sin left, his medium BLENDED LATTE in his hand, as he takes a sip. He eyes Callister and Benny. “Well. Nice t’ meet ya, Benny.” The man smiles, and pushes up his sunglasses with his free hand.

 

“Sin. Nice of you to trail me.” Callister took a sip while casually holding Benny closer to him. Whether this was for Benny’s sake or his, that was up in the wind.

 

“Woah, easy. When you said you were going out for a few days, thought I’d meet your boyfriend. That’s all. Wasn’t intending to trail you, mate. You’re your own man.” Sin held up both of his hands, palms facing the two of them, apologetically. “Honest.” Of course, Sin is an accomplished liar.

 

Benny’s face was wan, and he looked like he was about to faint. He probably would have been wobbling on his feet if he weren’t clinging to Callister’s chest. He looked like he may have been trying to say something—a greeting, perhaps—but noise just wasn’t coming out of the boy’s face.

 

“Hmm. That would have gone down well.” Callister took another sip of his drink. “Benny, this is Sin. Sin, Benny. Sin, Benny’s scared of you because you tried to kill Nat. Nat is Benny’s younger sibling.”

 

Sin blinks, and looks at Benny over his sunglasses with icy blue eyes. “Wait, what? No way. Damn, small world. Honest, no issue with Nat. The whole thing was a huge cluster fuck. Wasn’t even trying to go after eir.” He takes another sip of his drink, and tilts his head. “Well, okay, yeah, wasn’t going to introduce myself as Sin, dammit. Just wanted t’ get to know the guy who you were on the phone with for weeks while we were working. Damn.”

 

Benny squeaked something that may have been reassurance about water under the bridge, or perhaps swearing revenge, or maybe just asking to go use the restroom. Who knows. All that came out was a sad little squeak.

 

“Blake Smith, Benny Schuster. Benny, here, hold my drink, take a sip.” Callister handed the cup to Benny without letting him go.

 

“Okay, the squeaking? Fuckin’ adorable. I can see already why you like the guy.” Sin takes a sip of his drink, chuckling, but watches Callister carefully.

 

Benny somehow paled and flushed at the same time, taking Callister’s drink out of his hands and taking a sip of his own.

 

Callister shoved his hand into his pocket. “I like him for plenty of reasons.” He grinned. “But ain’t gonna kiss and tell.”

 

“Good man.” He takes a long sip of his drink, then looks at it. “Damn. That is pretty good. Was gonna put the guy through the expresso machine, but…. eh. Anyway, Benny. Just wanted to let you know, ain’t got anything to be worried about from me.” He takes another long sip. Yeah, he’s probably addicted to coffee.

 

“Thanks,” Benny managed. It was quiet, but he managed it.

 

“Yeah, thanks for not doing that. Would like Benny to keep his job.” Callister nodded.

 

“Oh, Benny wouldn’t get blamed for it, sheesh. Like everything, it’d fall on me.” He sighs. “Anyway, just wanted to say good luck, you too. You both deserve a happy ending. Thanks for sticking up for me, Cal, I know you did, even if you didn’t have to. Benny, like I said, I know the whole villain shtick loved ones all that bullshit may come up in your guy’s relationship, but that ain’t me. I might be a full blown murderous monster, but just because Nat stands up to me, won’t be comin’ after you. Same if Cal said fuck you, to me. You ain’t in my way, so no reason to do anything to you. I know there’s some guys out there that would, but that’s not my style.” He pauses, and takes a long swig of his drink, finishing it off. The drink flies off into a nearby trash bin.

 

“Damn, that really is a good drink. But yeah, I guess that’s mostly what I wanted t’ say. Get across. Not sure how I’d do that if you didn’t know who I was, so guess it worked out better this way. Anyway, ya two chill, have a good night. I guess, hope I don’t see ya around.”  With that, Sin shrugged, and headed past Benny and Callister.

 

“Hey, Sin.” Callister partially turned. “Thanks for putting up with me, too. And helping with Grandmother. I’ll be back in a couple of days, got some business to wrap up, got some things to think about.”

 

Benny blinked, confusion at the news cutting through his terrified demeanor.

 

Sin laughs. “You ain’t so bad, Cal. Do whatever you need t’do, just like I’m gonna do.” He waves as he walks away, chuckling.

 

Callister watches Sin walk out of sight then guides Benny around the corner where there was a bench and sat the blond man down, sitting down beside him. “Take your time.”

 

Benny put his head down, clutching it, and spent a little while trying to regulate his ragged breaths. “I’m,” he gasped, “I’m okay.” He clearly was not okay.

 

Callister rubbed his back. “It’s okay. Just breath into three, breathe out to three. Slow count.”

 

After about a minute of deep breathing and calm reassurance, Benny finally sat up slowly and leaned his head against Callister’s shoulder.

 

“Thank you. I’m—I’m sorry. I… I decided not to join PHALANX because I always got so scared of danger compared to Buster. I don’t handle that kind of stress all that well, I guess.”

 

“I don’t blame you. Sin’s okay…to me. Then again, I’m…sturdier than you are. I could probably take him on. You couldn’t. But trust him to keep his word, don’t betray him, and he won’t bite. He’s like a cobra like that.” Callister continued to gently rub Benny’s back, moving his hand up his spine to the back of his neck.

 

As Cal touched his neck, Benny relaxed more, making a little “hmmn” noise and leaning more against Callister. “Okay. I trust you.”

 

Callister leaned down and kissed his brow, holding Benny tighter against him. “Okay. So tell me something normal about your day.”

 

“I.. well. It’s not that normal, but it made me happy. You know that coworker I made friends with, Janet?” Benny took another deep breath and let it out, slowly losing the anxious tension. “I got in contact with her sibling, and they’re gonna get together.”

 

“Yeah? That’s great. Janet’s an AI, right?” Callister paused, frowning. “Sibling? How does that work?”

 

“They said that they’re the prototype that the other models were based on. I hope it goes okay, but if this ‘y’ character is anything like Janet, it’ll be great.”

 

Callister nodded. “So what else has happened?” He was obviously trying to get Benny talking to distract him from his scare.

 

“Well, I mean, since… since meeting Nat, not much…” Benny frowned, recalling something suddenly. “Cal, what did you… mean about the business that you had to wrap up? Is… it your mom?”

 

A heavy sigh. “Yeah. It is. I’ll be going to Twin Falls.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Benny closed his eyes and nodded. “I understand,” he said, his voice oddly calmer than it had yet been. “Please do everything you can to come back to me alive, Cal, okay?”

 

“Yeah. Gonna try. I…don’t intend to fight. And I don’t get hurt easy…” Callister paused, organising his thoughts. “What I mean is. I don’t know what’ll happen. I think I know what I’ll do…but I don’t know yet.”

 

“O-okay,” Benny nodded, “thanks. It’s a relief to hear that you’re gonna try not to fight.”

“Yeah.” He paused looking down at Benny. “You’ve seen the cafe video right? You know I manifest armor? I don’t get hurt easily. I’ll be fine.”

 

“I believe you. I mean, I trust you. But I’m a worrier, Cal, you know that. I get nervous every time Buster gets deployed.”

 

“Okay.” He kissed Benny on the temple. “Okay. I’ll be careful. I’ll contact you as soon as I’m able, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Benny murmured quietly. “Thanks love.”

 

Well, that got a response form Callister. He paused a moment, then tilted Benny’s face up and kissed him deeply and soundly, eliciting a little whimper from the smaller man, who reached up and wrapped both of his arms around Callister’s neck.

 

They stayed there for a little while, lip-locked and wrapped around each other.