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Machinations - 5. Arc 1, Chapter 5

Coral hummed and tapped her wheel in time with the radio, creating sparked lights on her hands. It was a very minor power, but still entertaining on the long drive to work. The traffic was light, her gender was female so she wouldn’t get misgendered today, and she’d had pancakes for breakfast. All in all, it was looking to be a great day.

Her mood soured as soon as she saw who was managing the shift and standing in the doorway. “Carol,” Nurse Robin Sergeant said. Coral had been very amused to find out that was her actual name, but not amused by pretty much anything else about her.

“Who?” Coral asked. “I don’t think we have any residents named Carol.”

You,” Nurse Sergeant said. “We have a new resident coming in today. I want you to get her settled in.” Nurse Sergeant eyed Coral’s wrist, where a bright pink bracelet sat, and then turned to Prudence, who was tidying up the reception. “Make sure they get it done.”

“They who?” Prudence asked.

Nurse Sergeant sighed in disgust and walked off. “You know what to do,” she said over her shoulder before entering the office.

“You know,” Coral said, “she’s old enough that she could be a resident under us.”

Prudence looked gleeful at the thought, but only for a moment. “She’d just keep bossing us around as a resident.”

“But I’m sure we’d treat her just as well as she treats everyone else,” Coral said. Honestly, the woman was a truly impressive bigot. She managed to misgender Coral on purpose even when Coral was female. Not to mention calling her Carol, even though Carol wasn’t her birthname, just because she didn’t think Coral was enough of a name. The last time Coral had brought up a baby name website to show her that it was, Nurse Sergeant had confiscated her phone even though she’d brought it out after her shift was over.

“We can only dream,” Prudence said. “Anyway, new resident’s in room 315. She’s currently in the checkup room. Here’s the chart. I’ll do your first round for you so you can get her settled in.”

Coral took the chart and held it up to hide her grimace. Prudence was nice… to her fellow caretakers. Sure, Prudence always got her pronouns right and played the Who Game with Nurse Sergeant, but she was decidedly lax on resident safety. But there was something about the chart. “Lili Neuman,” Coral said slowly, turning the syllables over in her mouth. “Sounds familiar. Have you heard it before?”

Prudence shrugged. “Dunno. Can’t be too important if she ended up here.”

“That’s the truth,” Coral said. “Well, maybe I’ll recognize her when I see her. Later.”

An hour later, Coral watched the new resident, a very elderly woman with a large torso, shuffle in. Her power sense was going off, too. That was interesting, but didn’t solve the mystery of her name. Superheroes, after all, wouldn’t fight crime with a civilian name. “Hello,” Coral said with a wave. “My name is Coral and I’m here to settle you in.”

“Lovely to meet you,” Lili said. Her voice was strong, despite the careful way she lowered herself onto the bed. “I have to be honest, I feel quite settled already.”

“Bringing home with you so everywhere’s home, huh?” Coral said, smiling. “Me, I can’t call anywhere home until I have a remote and lost it once. Speaking of which…” She pulled up the bed remote. “This thing not only controls your TV, but it also controls your bed. And me, if you use the Call Nurse button.”

“Ooh, fancy,” Lili said.

“Wanna try it out?”

By the end of the orientation period, Lili had found the perfect angle for the head of her bed, found her desired lunch, found several activities to participate in, and found several channels she wanted to watch. Coral, on the other hand, had not found out where she heard the name before, and it was really bothering her. Well, there was one other thing she could do to figure it out.

“Last thing, visiting hours. As you can see in the brochure, they’re 7 AM to 9 PM, so plenty of time to hang out. We can bring board games to your room if you like, or we can let them come along to many of our scheduled activities. There’s no limit on how often you can have them over.”

“That’s wonderful!” Lili said. “I do hope they’ll visit soon.”

“I hope so, too!” Coral said. Hopefully she wouldn’t be abandoned. Too many of the residents here were left alone. Not that some of them didn’t deserve it – last time Mr. Wirth’s daughter had visited, he’d yelled and made her and her kids cry – but Lili was lovely so far. “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Neuman.” Coral held her hand out.

“And lovely to meet you, too, Coral.” Lili grasped Coral’s hand with both of hers, and Coral took the opportunity to swap out her colorful sparks with whatever Lili had. The sparks came from Polly and Polly was a hugger, so Coral could get those back at any time. But this power… this was a strong and varied one. There was the standard Flying Brick package, flight and strength and invulnerability, but then there was something else. Sonic powers? She poked at it a bit. Ability to absorb, redirect, and amplify sound waves. Something this strong had to belong to a superhero…

The Nightingale. Well, technically she was Nachtigall, but that was German for Nightingale. Nightingale was a local hero known for her powerful singing, which produced even more powerful sonic blasts. When Coral was ten, she’d seen a news report where Nightingale shattered every window in a druglord with wind power’s hideout while singing the Queen of the Night’s aria. What was the villain’s name… oh, right: the Abominable Blowman. Back in the 90s, she’d singlehandedly taken down X-Tremity, a foot-based villain who caused the Second Dancing Plague across half the continent. And, of course, she’d been key to taking down End Ringer and Endling. More impressively, she survived unscathed, even when other invulnerable heroes didn’t.

What was Nightingale doing here in a crappy retirement home? More importantly, why had Coral heard her civilian name before? Although there’d been speculation, mostly because of her singing prowess, that her civilian identity was an opera singer. Coral had heard a bit of opera before. “Before I leave, I have a question,” Coral said.

“Well, you’ve answered so many of mine, I’d say it’s only fair you get to ask one,” Lili said.

“Have you ever sung opera before?”

Lili looked surprised. “Why, yes. Off and on.”

“Queen of the Night? Magic Flute? Roughly fifteen years ago in this city?” Coral asked.

“Yes, I believe so. Did you see one of my performances?” Lili asked.

“I think I did,” Coral said. She’d gone after rewatching Nightingale’s shattering performance. “I knew I heard your name somewhere!”

“Impressive,” Lili said. “Especially since I didn’t perform as often as I’d like.” She sighed. “I loved it. But I had… other things to deal with, so I never got a full career going.”

“Like family?” Coral said. The local team was said to consider themselves family.

“I suppose you could say that,” Lili said with a mischievous smile.

“Well, if it kept a powerful voice like yours off the stage, I bet it’s one amazing family,” Coral said. “I’d love to meet them.” Not just because she wanted to borrow powers from them. That was certainly part of it; after all, it wasn’t every day she got to play around with hero-level powers. But they’d been responsible for saving the city, time after time. Coral didn’t believe in the city and the government enough to put her life on the line, but she could still dream and play, couldn’t she?

“When they come to visit, I’ll be sure to introduce you,” Lili promised.

They never came.

Over the course of the next month, Coral watched Lili’s smile slowly droop, one day at a time. No visits, no letters, no calls, not even a postcard. “If you like, we could send a message to them,” Coral said. “Try and arrange a visit.”

“No, no,” Lili said, peeling her eyes away from a news report of the local superteam defeating a mad scientist. “If they’re busy, I don’t want to disturb them. And there might be some privacy concerns. I’ll just… let them come on their own time.”

But they didn’t.

Coral was incensed. They allowed this sweet old lady, The Nightingale, savior of the city and the world and humanity, to go to this bottom-of-the-barrel nursing home when the government easily could have paid for the best home for her. Not only that, but they didn’t even do her the tiniest favor of visiting her every once in a while? They couldn’t even call and let her know that they still gave a damn about her? What kind of heroes were they if they couldn’t take care of one of their own? But it wasn’t like Coral could go up to the team and tell them that they needed to go visit their former teammate. Even sending them a letter suggesting that they go visit would probably kick up some security alarms and convince them the world was going to end.

Coral snorted. Lili only got to see her former comrades when there was news about a robbery or a supervillainous scheme. Well, then. Maybe Coral needed to make sure Lili could see her former teammates more often. Maybe the stupid government needed a reminder of how their heroes were more than cogs in an ever-grinding money printer. Maybe it was time to take these powers out for a test drive.

***

Eric stared at the loan officer. “Denied?”

“That is what the bank recommended,” she said.

“But I have a stable income and enough for 25% down! I have good credit! Some of my coworkers have gotten home loans from this very bank in worse situations!” Then again, those coworkers were white.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I don’t have much say in the decision. The bank reviewed your details and decided that it was too risky.”

Eric slumped back in the chair. “I suppose telling you that it was my mom’s childhood home won’t help?”

“As I said, this is completely above my head.” She gave him a sympathetic look. “If you like, you’re welcome to try again if you have a higher income or co-sign with someone who does.”

“No,” Eric said. “Not with this bank. I’d like to close my accounts. Who do I talk to for that?”

The manager spent some time trying to talk him out of the decision. Apparently, the money that wasn’t worth a loan was worth quite a bit to the bank. Still, they wouldn’t give him a mortgage, and so that was that. He walked out with a check, but not enough to cover the cost of an entire house. Fortunately, it was close to the beginning of the month, so he’d have time to switch over all his payments to whatever new account he created. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have enough time to get a new loan approved before the house was off the market. The realtor had hinted that the family who owned it was looking to close fast, and the next best option was a developer who wanted to tear the place down.

Mom would be so disappointed. She’d finally split up with Dad and needed a new home. When Eric saw the listing the day he heard the news, he knew it was fate. He wanted to give his mom a place with history, but not any history with Dad. The family who currently owned it wanted to move overseas and so they wanted to give it to someone who would appreciate it. It was perfect. Except apparently it wasn’t, due to the banks.

It was ridiculous. He’d calculated the amount of money it would take and it was easily affordable. Even more affordable than renting, even when he took the full cost of repairs on himself. So why was it considered more financially risky to buy a home than to rent?

But he really needed to stop thinking about it. His hands were starting to flame up, and that was a bad idea in public. People already thought firestarting was a villain power, so revealing he could set himself on fire? Not a good move. Once he got home and into the shower, he allowed the fire to course up his arms and sizzle out the water droplets. Fortunately, heat shielding usually came with the fire power package. Otherwise, he would be very dead.

So, what to do about the house? Loans weren’t an option, at least not from banks. Problem was, he didn’t know anyone who was wealthy enough to buy the house outright without causing financial problems. Unless he could somehow get enough cash to buy it, he was out of luck.

Unless…

No. That was a ridiculous idea. Just because he had superpowers didn’t mean it was a good idea to rob a bank. Even if they deserved it for potentially getting his mom’s home razed. They were probably just fine when not dealing with home loans, right?

One search later and he sat back from the computer, fuming. That bank, the one he’d trusted his money to, was using their clients, fraudulently opening accounts in their name to make arbitrary quotas, profiteering from overdraft fees, making openly sexist comments about their female employees… Well, that put the loan officer’s comment in a whole new light. Oh, and they were racketeering their mortgages. Really a good thing he didn’t get a loan with them, then.

Yeah. They were going down.

***

Eric felt pretty stupid in his costume. It was a slightly modified devil suit and mask he got at another city’s discount Halloween store, complete with pitchfork. That was the best he could find on short notice and buy with cash. Where exactly did the big name villains get their costumes from, anyway? The heroes at least could get the government to shell out for it. Was there a black market trade in super costumes?

Whatever the case, he made himself invisible, entered the door, and went to the exact middle of the room. His plan was to appear suddenly, announce it was a robbery, and then throw some fire around until everyone cooperated. No deaths, no injuries, just hand over any cash on hand. Since it was right next to the country club, they often catered to the rich folk, so they should have at least a few hundred thousand on hand. With that money, he could easily buy the house, he’d get revenge, and that was that.

Before he could start, though, someone else dressed in blue kicked open the door and blasted sonic waves across the room. Eric stumbled, but didn’t fall over. Everyone else around him went for the ground even before being told it was a robbery. The villain – well, the other villain – went straight for the tellers. Whoever it was, he didn’t recognize them. Neither, it seemed, did the tellers. “250,000 from each account. If less, clean it out,” the villain said, though their voice was distorted.

Well, this had gone completely off the rails. What was worse, if the other villain robbed the bank first, then he couldn’t get the money. And the other villain was taking only the FDIC maximum – only the money that would be replaced. Maybe they weren’t doing this to hurt people? They might actually listen to him. He made himself visible again. “Hey!” he said, trying to make his voice deep and gravelly. He was probably failing. “I was here first! I got dibs!”

The other villain whipped around. “Dibs!” the villain… well, not said. The word came back in his own voice, but distorted and screechy. Mocking, obviously.

“Look, I need the money. Can you cut me some slack?”

The other villain tilted their head. “Need,” they repeated.

“Okay. How about we split it 50-50, then? My powers can get us out of here. And I can help fight off the heroes. So, deal?”

They paused for a moment, and then shrugged. “Deal,” they repeated.

“All right, do what the blue villain here said,” Eric called over to the tellers. “Or you find out why I’m in a devil suit.” He waved the pitchfork at them. They didn’t look impressed, but they did start piling money into a blue bag. Probably banking on the heroes coming soon.

“Devil suit,” Blue repeated, looking him up and down. Even though their mask didn’t change at all, he could feel it judging him.

“Yes,” Eric said, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he felt.

Finally, the tellers tossed the bag onto the desk. “That’s all we have up front,” one said.

“Up front,” Blue repeated, looking into the bag. They stood back and let Eric look in. If those were all hundreds, then he was more than rich enough even with the split.

“Well, we can take you into the back,” the teller said. He looked like he was challenging them. That was probably a bad sign.

Fortunately, Blue shook their head and picked up the bag. With a wave, they yanked Eric toward the door. “Get us out,” they repeated.

“Right,” Eric said, bending light around them. By the time they reached the door, they’d disappeared entirely. Heroes were beginning to show up, based on the bright colors nearby. Eric grabbed the blue villain and pulled them along, dodging one who was probably Angelica, based on the white costume, though she didn’t have her wings out. Soon, they were clear, but Blue grabbed him and lifted him off the ground. It took a monumental force of will not to scream. Blue landed them in a small park with no cameras. Eric pulled off his costume and motioned for the blue villain to do the same. They eyed him. “Look, if you turn visible again with the costume on, they’re gonna be able to track you,” he said.

They sighed and pulled off their costume, stuffing it into the bag and motioning for him to do the same. Underneath was a woman, or someone who looked like one. “You’d better not be an undercover agent,” she said.

“Nope. I’m Eric,” he said.

“Coral,” she said. “So, I think we need to have a chat. Ready to sit?”

“As long as I get the money afterwards,” Eric said.

They got food and drinks at a nearby stand and then sat down far away from anyone else. “What’s your story?” Coral asked, munching on a hot dog.

“I imagine it’s similar to yours,” Eric said.

“No. No, it’s not,” Coral said. “Spill.”

That piqued his curiosity, but he doubted she’d tell him without his story. Eric sighed and explained his situation. “…So I got a costume and you know the rest. Not all that exciting.”

Coral nodded. “I did it because I know a retired superhero. The government stuck her in a terrible place and none of her former teammates visited her. So I figured, why not make the government focus more on providing for their heroes? Make them really appreciate them. And that bank is the literal worst, so I figured I’d deal out some justice in the process.”

“Okay,” Eric said. “You weren’t kidding about it being different.”

“Yeah. I’m honestly not planning much with my share of the money. So if you want it, you can have it.” She pushed the bag over to him. “Just in case it takes more than you thought.”

Eric looked down at it. “What about your costume?”

Coral shrugged. “Last-minute ensemble. I’ll get a new one.”

He looked down and then shook his head. “We split it fairly. 50-50.”

“All right, then. Make us invisible.” After he did so and nodded, she opened it up. “It doesn’t look like they put a dye pack in there.” She reached in and pulled out a stack of bills. “Wonder why.”

“What, you were willing to let me have it all because you thought it was trapped?” Eric grinned at her. “Last time they put in a dye pack, a young superhero opened the bag and things got messy. Apparently, they had some kind of triggered attack. Not only did they get the dye on their face, but they also ended up blowing up the money and their civilian identity. Then there was the time Arson-Knight got hit with one, then marched back into the building and, well, lived up to his name. With everyone inside. So they don’t use dye packs anymore for supervillain robberies, though I think they still do with regular robberies.” He frowned. “What were you planning to do?”

Coral shrugged. “The money wasn’t the point, so I was just going to dump the bag. Maybe I’ll donate it.”

“Good thing I’m here, then,” Eric said.

Under the cover of invisibility, they split the bills. As he thought, he had more than enough. Coral turned the bag inside out, which made it a different color, and then put her money back in. “Well, good luck, then,” Coral said, shouldering the bag and walking off.

Eric watched her leave. Their business was done. And yet, robbing the bank had felt so good. Even now, he could feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins. His power felt calmer, too, not raging against his skin. It wanted to be used. She wasn’t a bad guy, either. All she wanted was to make a lonely old lady happy. So… why not?

“Wait,” he said, jogging to catch her. She stopped and turned. “You’re planning to do that again, right? I want in.”

Coral raised her eyebrows. “You got what you wanted.”

“Yeah. But I think your cause is a good one. And I have useful powers. So why not?”

“Hmm.” Coral put her hand on his face and pulled it back to examine it. “Firestarter and light bender. I think this has the potential for flight, too. Not a bad set.”

Really? Not only did she have sonic powers and flight, but she had power scanning as well? Talk about getting the jackpot. “So, am I in?”

“What’s your name? Your undercover name, that is?”

“I wasn’t really thinking about it,” Eric said. “I think the closest I got was Flame On.” Coral looked unimpressed. “You know, flame on. Like game on but with flame. Because fire.” He sounded so stupid right now. “But I’m up for changing it. Constructive criticism and all that.”

Coral shrugged. “I’ll think about it. Give me your number and I’ll call you if I need you.”

Eric nodded and wrote it on a napkin. “Not the weirdest way a girl got my number.”

“I’m not a girl,” Coral said.

“Oh,” Eric said. “Non-binary?”

Coral smiled. “Your chances just went up. I’m genderfluid. I do happen to be female right now, but not always. Mostly girl and non-binary, rarely masculine.”

“I can live with that,” Eric said. “I’m cis male, just to be clear. And bi.”

“I guess you might hear from me soon then, cis-bi Eric.”

Eric went home, purchased a house, and presented it to his mom. She cried and hugged him and cried all over him while hugging him. They moved in together as soon as they could and Mom gave him a tour of the house, telling him all the stories of her childhood. Sure, they dragged on a little, but that was nothing compared to seeing his mom finally happy and blooming. He was content.

A week later, he got a call from Coral. “Got something better than Flame On?” they asked.

“I do,” he said. “Ready for another adventure?”

“I am.”

Eric grinned. He was happy.

***

“So,” Coral said, sliding into the seat opposite Eric, “you came.”

“Of course I did,” Eric said. “Like I said, I want to help.”

Coral nodded. “You did say that. So, I was thinking we should discuss the future.”

“That’s a bit much for the first date, don’t you think?” Eric asked. Coral gave him a wry smile. “What are your pronouns now, by the way?”

“They/them.” Coral held out their right arm, where a yellow bracelet sat. “I wear a pink bracelet when I’m using she/her, yellow for they/them. And also blue for he/him, but that’s rare. Most of the time, I don’t even bother carrying the blue one around.”

“Makes sense.” Eric leaned on the table. “So, you come here often?”

“Occasionally. It’s usually dead around this time. Really great fries, though.”

A server came up to them. After the drinks order was sorted out and the server left, Eric glanced around. Nobody there. “So. The villainy thing. What are you thinking about that?”

“Straight to the point,” Coral said. “I can respect that. First things first, I don’t really want to rob banks all the time.”

Eric nodded. “That branch was pretty unusual, and I doubt even that one’s going to keep that much money around once they realize they’re being targeted. So, for money, it’s not worth it.”

“Yeah. I looked things up afterwards. Way too many safeguards in place. We could get more money by robbing a gas station.”

“Especially with the price of gas,” Eric said.

Coral grinned. “Yeah. Honestly, though, cash is going out of style. You need to be a hacker to get any real money. And it tends to be high risk and too close to breaking the unofficial rules. I want to get attention, but not to get arrested or even hunted.”

“I wouldn’t mind driving that particular bank out of business, though,” Eric said.

“Me neither. So, robbing banks is a sometimes food. What does that leave?”

Eric shrugged. “Well, what’s our goal? Mayhem and destruction?”

“Destruction, no. Mayhem?” Coral leaned back in their seat. “Well, that implies that we have order to begin with.”

Eric raised his eyebrows. “Are you talking about a certain resolution last month?”

“That the country club doesn’t have to stop polluting the river as long as it pays its fines? Why, yes, I am. That and many other things.” The drinks arrived. They thanked the server and ordered food. Once the server left, Coral took a sip of their drink. “Remember last year?”

“I’ve been here less than a year,” Eric said.

“Ah. So, last year, the mayor announced that the city was going to regulate track and field competitions because a girl who won happened to be trans.”

“Wait,” Eric said. “I did hear about that. That was here?”

Coral nodded. “Never mind that multiple trans girls also scored in the bottom ten, and the girl who won also hit first place in boys competitions. Clearly she was only there because she was too pathetic at boys sports to win.” Coral rolled their eyes. “You know what’s truly pathetic? The family who brought up the issue to begin with? Their daughter scored ninth place. There were seven cis girls who beat her. Even if all the trans girls were kicked out, she would never have even gotten a medal. And the trans girl in question has lost to cis girls before and after that competition. The family's just whining to make their daughter look better by focusing on one kid so it looks like that’s the only barrier to her success.”

“Not to mention all those stupid screening laws,” Eric said. “Did it even occur to them that they’re going to be forcing cis girls to get examined, too? Their own daughters? And that any measures to ensure they’re cis are likely to be invasive and humiliating?”

Coral snorted. “Oh, I’m sure some of the people supporting it are perfectly fine with making underage girls spread their legs to get into sports.”

“Well, that makes more sense than anything else.” Eric shook his glass, making the ice clink. “People suck.”

“Absolutely,” Coral said. “The rich and powerful hijack justice, and they’ve somehow convinced people that it’s something worth defending.”

“So what can we do about it?”

Coral smiled. “I think that’s where the mayhem comes in. Take the country club, for example. They’re polluting in the course of business, mistreating their employees, and funneling money to blocking labor laws. So what happens if someone shuts them down?”

Eric raised his eyebrows. “You’re not suggesting burning the place down, are you? That would get us arrested so fast.”

Coral shook their head. “Nothing that drastic. And, I mean, they’d just collect the insurance money and rebuild if we did that. It needs to be something minor enough that super insurance has an excuse not to pay out. I was thinking something more along the lines of seedbombing the golf course. Planting endangered sequoia trees in their parking lots. Maybe a robbery or two. Make them so unprofitable that they have to shut down. Destroy their reputation. Get people out of the habit of visiting them.”

“They’d probably have insurance against robbery. Their customers wouldn’t, though. Super robbery is only meant for buildings.” He looked up to see Coral with raised eyebrows. “I work in an insurance firm. But I think this could work.”

Coral smiled. “Anyway, that’s what I think we should do. Strike back at the rich and powerful and anyone else who tramples on the minorities. Even if you’re only in it for the money… Well, they have a lot more money to steal than anyone else.”

Especially the country club, Eric noted. “I’m not. But I think I’m in.”

“Great,” Coral said. “Got a costume?”

“Actually, I’m thinking I don’t need one,” Eric said. When Coral raised an eyebrow, he continued. “I’m immune to fire, so why not just cover myself in fire?”

“Wouldn’t that burn your clothes?” Coral asked, sitting back and looking him up and down.

“…Yeah. That’s kind of the sticking point. But I think if I hold it far enough away, then I can pull it off.”

“Or you could just do crime in the nude,” Coral said. “Armed robbery, destruction of property, public indecency. A fine lineup.”

“Be bare, do crime doesn’t have quite the same ring to it,” Eric said. “I want to get a suit, but if I can’t, then being covered in flames is next best.”

Coral looked thoughtful. “Pyrebrand apparently made his costume out of stolen firefighter suits. I mean, I don’t think you’d use his methods to get them, but it should be possible.”

“Excuse you, I would totally seduce dozens of firefighters.”

“Ah, my mistake.”

Their burgers arrived. Eric tried a fry. “You’re right. These are awesome.”

“Yeah, aren’t they?” Coral took a bite of their burger. “Though I guess we could also steal Pyrebrand’s original suit.”

“Really?” Eric asked.

“Yeah. Supposedly, it’s here in town. Harmon is supposed to have this huge super memorabilia collection, both hero and villain, and Pyrebrand’s original costume is in there.”

Eric scrunched up his nose. “As much as I like the idea of screwing over Harmon, he’s gotta have ridiculous security on that thing, if it even exists.”

Coral nodded. “Yeah. Maybe not a good idea. And I’m happy with my costume as it is. Just need a good name and I’m all set.”

Eric perked up. “I can help with that. You have sonic powers, right?”

Coral smirked. “No.”

Eric frowned and sat back. “But I saw you using them.”

“Yep. You can figure it out.” Coral took a long sip of their drink.

This was a puzzle, wasn’t it? Eric gave Coral a long look. If they could use those powers, but didn’t have them, then that meant they were borrowing powers? “You’re a copier?”

Coral nodded. “I can copy all of a person’s powers with a touch and use them like they were my own. Once I get them, I can analyze them to see how they work. I can have five power sets at a time, and if I want something different, I have to let go of one of my existing powers to free up a slot. Oh, and I can sense people with powers.”

Eric stared at them. “Do you even need me, then?”

Coral shrugged. “I can only use one set of powers at a time. Sure, I could use your powers, but then I can’t use any of my others at the same time. Plus, it means I don’t have to keep a slot occupied. And you’re hot, so I can keep you around.” They grinned.

“Reduced to the eyecandy sidekick,” Eric sighed, then faked a sob.

“It makes it a lot easier to get a costume,” Coral said. “Just put on some gym shorts and cover your face in flames.”

Eric snorted into his drink. “But anyway. A name for copier powers?”

Coral shook their head. “I don’t want it to be that obvious. Given where I got the sonic powers from, it’d be too easy to track it back to me. Though I will admit I’d like a subtle nod to being a copier. Just for laughs.”

Eric put his elbows on the table and propped up his head. Sonic, but copier. A sound that was a copy. A recording? A repetition? A… “Echo,” he said.

Coral tilted their head. “Echo,” they said thoughtfully.

“Echo,” Eric said, just because.

They laughed. “I love it. So, would that make you Narcissus?”

“Well, I am certainly awesome.” Eric curled his bicep and then kissed it. “But I don’t recall the part of the myth where he’s set on fire.”

“Yeah. Probably a better name for water powers. Or flowers. Or someone who’s very bendy.”

“Or a cloner,” Eric said.

“Ooh, yes.” Coral grinned with a special touch of wickedness. “Anyway, thanks. What about yours? Please don’t say Flame On.”

“Kinda stuck,” Eric said. “There were a bunch I wanted, but they’ve all been taken and I don’t want to steal someone else’s name. Especially from fire powers.”

“Why?” Coral asked. “You’re fireproof.”

“Yeah, but my home isn’t. And fire is usually a villain power. I mean, how are you supposed to stop crime with fire? Burn people to death? Not really heroic.”

“Little tricky, then,” Coral said. After a moment, they spoke up. “What about translating one of the names you really like?”

“Into another language?”

“Yeah,” Coral said. “Like Nightingale. She was originally Nachtigall, since there was another hero named Nightingale at the time. But that other Nightingale faded into obscurity and everyone started using the English version. There’s other examples, too: Goblin and Kobold, Crow and Corbeau, Metamorphosis and Henkei, and so on.”

Eric tapped his chin. “I should ask my mom about that. Hang on.” He pulled out his phone and tapped out a quick query with some of the words he could remember. Even if he was reasonably fluent in Cantonese, that didn’t mean he knew every word.

“Is that really a good idea?” Coral asked.

He looked up. “What do you mean?”

“Well, wouldn’t it narrow down your civilian identity?”

Eric shook his head. “What, so I should conform to European culture?”

“You’re going to be a villain. You want to associate yourself and the people around you with that? But it’s your call.” They put their hands up in surrender. “Clueless white person here.”

“You might have a point,” Eric said. With current events, Asian people – and Chinese people in particular – weren’t very well-liked by the masses. He could see his dad using a Chinese villain as an excuse to demonize Asian people. Not that he really needed an excuse for that. “I’ll think about that. Check out some other options.”

His phone lit up and he took a peek. The top choice was translated as Jatmin. Not quite the feel he was looking for.

“Anyway, I think that’s about all we can do tonight. Unless you want to brainstorm some ideas for crime and profit.”

“Not here,” Eric said, glancing around. There was still nobody by them, but the restaurant was beginning to fill up. “Honestly, I think we’ve been more open than we should.”

“Maybe a little,” Coral said.

There were still fries on the table, so they might as well stay. “So maybe we should get to know each other? I mean, if we’re going to be partners, we should know stuff.”

“True.” Coral looked down. “So where…? You said you moved here a year ago. Where from?”

“You were going to ask where I was from?” He was more amused than annoyed.

“I thought that might come off the wrong way.”

Eric nodded. “I’m from Pennsylvania. My mom lived here when she was a kid, so when she and my dad divorced, we moved back here.”

“Didn’t want to stay with your dad?”

Eric shuddered. “He was a white supremacist.”

Coral raised their eyebrows. “But…” They gestured at Eric. “Why?!”

“I don’t know. He didn’t get really bad until a couple years ago, so maybe it’s recent? I can remember some really weird things he said when I was a kid, though. Whatever the case, he crossed all sorts of lines. Like telling me he’d disown me if I didn’t get surgery on my nose and eyes to look white. Eventually my mom and I got fed up and left.”

“Good,” Coral said vehemently. “Screw that guy.”

“Yep. What about you? Who’s your family?”

“They’re dead to me,” Coral said. “They were religious in the really bad way. Then they found out I was genderfluid and bi and things got really bad. They were talking about conversion camps at one point. I pretended to see the light until they sent me to college, and then I escaped. Sometimes they send me messages. Half the time I suck and ruined their lives forever. Other half, they miss me so much that it’s killing them that I’m gone. Sometimes in the same message.” They shook their head. “So I don’t have a family now.”

“Ugh,” Eric said. “I’m really glad my mom was supportive. Well, she tried to be supportive until she got it right, at least.”

“That sounds like a story,” Coral said, propping their head up.

“Yeah,” Eric said, grinning. “So when I told my mom I liked guys, she didn’t know what I meant at first. Kinda got sexuality mixed up with gender.”

“Oh no…” Coral looked like they were holding back giggles.

“I came back one day to find that she’d basically set up a private gender reveal party. Huge pink banner saying She’s A Girl across the living room and a bunch of gifts. Pink razors, girl-branded shampoo and stuff, and some perfume.”

Coral laughed. “I mean, if you had been trans, that would have been awesome.”

“Yeah. I cleared it up pretty quickly, though, and she hadn’t told anyone. Oh, and she got me some dresses. They were actually my size, too.”

“Oh?” Coral raised an eyebrow. “Did you look good in them?”

“Of course I did,” Eric said. “Here.” He went over to Coral’s side and pulled up the photos on his phone.

“Ooh,” they said. “You rocked those. Very sexy.”

Eric could feel his cheeks heat up. “Thanks. I don’t still have them, though. Mom ended up taking them back. That’s her.” He swiped to another picture, where he had his arm around her.

“Aw. I wish I had a mom like that.”

“Well…” Eric grinned. “She’s pretty friendly. I think if I introduced you as my partner, she’d adopt you on the spot.”

Coral looked deeply amused. “Is that your way of proposing to me?”

“Maybe.”

They considered it. “We have some stuff in common, at least, and I have enjoyed talking to you. Seems like we’re compatible on that level. Next question is, what’re you like in bed?”

His cheeks were heating up again. “Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

“Guess I have no choice, then.” They slid their hand onto his thigh. “Want me to take you through my apartment? I’ve been told the guided tour has a very satisfying climax,” they purred.

He nearly choked. “Yeah. Yeah, I’d love to come and… um. Sightsee. Snorkel.”

“Wonderful.” Coral leaned in, and Eric followed suit. Heat spread through his body when they kissed. When they pulled away, Coral fumbled for their wallet and put a hundred dollars on the table – more than twice what the bill would be. “Let’s get out of here.”

***

Eric looked at the world through illusory flames. Real flames didn’t work too well, it turned out – having an oxygen-consuming substance by his oxygen-consuming nose was a bad idea – but he did have his lightbending powers to deal with it. Coral was beside him in her new costume. Still blue, but the cut and helmet were different.

They flew through the heavy clouds to the country club, alighting in a tree just outside the golf course. “Coast is clear,” Coral said, her voice coming through in an oddly clear voice. Apparently, she could direct sound in a narrow beam, so only he could hear it. “Let’s do this.”

Coral pulled out a slingshot and some seed bombs. As she fired them, Eric drew a line of fire in the grass and shut it down instantly after the grass died. Stop polluting our river, he wrote. It was surprisingly difficult, at least to keep it in check. The fire just wanted to spread.

“Done,” Coral said, putting away her slingshot. “Let’s see if that made an impression.”

“Wait. One more thing.”

“All right,” Coral said, glancing up at the sky. “Looks like the rain’s about to start, though.”

Eric added a tag to the message. Love, Echo and Couronne. He added a heart on the end. “Perfect,” he said.

“Good work, Couronne,” Echo said, reaching out her hand.

“Same to you, Echo,” Couronne said, taking it.

They flew off together, hand in hand, as the first drops hit the ground and awakened the seeds they’d sown.

Thank you for reading!

Copyright © 2021 Flamboyant Chatoyant; All Rights Reserved.

Thank you for reading!

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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