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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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A Little Sincerity Is a Dangerous Thing

As she trotted past en route to the kitchen, Nereid noticed that Mercury, Wire, and Jet were in a huddle in the conversation pit, with Vector nearby. When she was on her way back through, she heard their voices rising, and finally, Jet's voice broke over them all.

"Mercury, as much as I've enjoyed being your token black guy," he was saying with deep sarcasm, "I think I'm going to accept the offer from Sister Power's group. Where, you know, I'm not a goddamn token, and everyone won't assume I'm queer like the rest of you."

"Hey!" protested Vector.

"Except the skinny white prom queen who everyone tries to match me up with," Jet conceded.

"Hey," Vector said, more softly.

"Oh, give me a break," Mercury said. "No one assumes you're gay because you're part of the Young Cosmics."

"Oh, you haven't heard the Junior Guardians going at it," Jet said bitterly.

"What?" Wire said.

"Guys, face it," Jet said. "The Young Cosmics are a joke in the serious hero community. Everyone's spandex spawn. Nearly everyone's gay, or bi, or whatever Brainchild is calling herself this week. But it's like your sponsor is a collector or something, sending invitations out to this select set of demographics. Next he'll be inviting someone from the Puppy Patrol. I hear one of them is queer."

Nereid hurried out, ears burning. Was she really queer? She wasn't, was she? She was interested in Pay, who was male, right? Never mind he wasn't interested in her.

But when she went into Brainchild's room with the stick of butter, she immediately noticed that Brainchild's flannel shirt was unbuttoned to mid-chest and her gaze was drawn inexorably into those shadowed and unrestrained depths. She blushed fiercely and thought, Oh NO. Followed by, Mom and Dad are gonna KILL me.

"Did you find it all right?" Brainchild asked without looking up from the oysters she was preparing.

"Huh? Oh, yeah." Nereid walked into Brainchild's brushed steel kitchen and put the stick of butter on the counter. "Did you know that Jet is leaving?"

"Yes," Brainchild said. "Well, sort of. I noticed the increased email traffic, recognized the source, and figured he was getting an offer from Sister Power. He's taking it, is he?"

"Yeah, and he's kind of sarcastic about it."

"How surprising," Brainchild said, not sounding surprised at all.

Nereid finally caught up with the conversation. "Hey, wait! You spy on our email?"

Brainchild handed her a skillet. "Take this and start melting the butter in it."

"The whole stick?"

"Yep." Brainchild turned back to shucking the last oysters. "And no, I don't spy on email. I do run an eye over the sources of incoming packets, though, to make sure we're not being attacked or spied on. By, you know, our myriad supergenius villain nemeses." The last was said with sarcasm that dripped more than the oysters did.

Nereid moved to the stove, peeled the butter out of its waxed paper, and let it drop into the skillet. "Do you think the Young Cosmics are a joke in the superhero community?"

"No more than any other 'teen' group," Brainchild said, washing her hands and pulling a plastic cutting board out of a drawer. "The Junior Guardians are more of a joke, really. Think of those stupid short pants and leggings and the little domino masks. Really. People just poke fun at us because some of us are openly queer." She drew a large knife from a magnetized array of them on a metal board hanging from the ceiling and started chopping celery.

"Jet was saying that everyone thought he was gay because he was part of the team," Nereid said, swirling the butter in the pan.

"Nice enough guy, but he's got some issues," Brainchild said. "Typically insecure for a college-aged male without a girlfriend." She minced the celery, then moved on to something that looked like giant crabgrass to Nereid -- probably shallots, she decided after a moment.

"He was kinda mean to Vector," Nereid said.

"Well, to be fair, Vector hasn't been anything like kind to him," Brainchild said. "I believe that certain ethnic slurs have been known to pass her lips from time to time. She has always been in her cups at the time, and always apologizes for them, but it doesn't really help much."

"The whole discussion started to sound pretty mean."

Brainchild stopped chopping and stared at her. "In case you haven't noticed," she said after a moment, "everyone on this team is a nasty bunch of bullies. Except you. Which is why everyone picks on you. And Pay, but no one picks on him any more."

Nereid said, in a very small voice, "Oh."

"Is the butter melted?"

"Yeah."

Brainchild gave the greenery a last desultory chop, nudged Nereid aside, and scraped the vegetables from the cutting board into the butter. She reached up and one of the robots hovering near the ceiling descended and put a spatula into her hand. "Thanks," she said. Nereid wasn't sure whether Brainchild was thanking her or the robot.

Nereid wandered around the kitchen and paused at a corkboard at the hallway junction of the living room, kitchen, and bedroom. There were photos here: a small, pale gamine with a nimbus of dark flyaway hair and a rather oversized nose, grinning impishly at the camera. The same child, nose still remarkably outsized, covered in grease and sitting on a car engine. Another, more recognizable as Brainchild, with ugly plastic-framed glasses and too-large teeth, her arms around the neck of a very round, smiling black woman in a yellow blouse and brown skirt. A graduation picture, Brainchild, in the unfortunately blue Wonder City University academicals, with slightly more attractive glasses perched on her aquiline nose, grinning and leaning against the same woman, who was wearing an expensive black suit and beaming at the camera.

"Nice photos," Nereid said. "Who...?"

"I'm her ward," Brainchild said.

"She's the Ultimate?" Nereid said, peering closer at the graduation photo. The woman was shorter than Brainchild by an inch or two.

"Yep," Brainchild said. "Currently of the Gold Stars, though they hardly ever call her out. She's like a lot of the Class 10 Big Powers: you don't call in a tac nuke strike when a punch is called for."

"I've heard of her," Nereid said, still studying the photo. "She doesn't look like what I think of as a Class 10."

Brainchild shrugged, turning off the gas under the skillet and pulling a large metal pot out of the cupboard. "She's fat -- do you know how hard it is to build up a sweat, much less muscles, when you can natively bench-press a planet? She's black -- the media likes to ignore the fact that, gosh, people of color have superpowers too! And she's a woman. The media really doesn't like to talk about the fact that approximately two-thirds of all paras are women, and 90% of all Class 10s are women. They prefer the large-chinned white guys, like Damned Yankee or Speed Dugan."

Nereid stared at Brainchild across the counter. "I don't think I ever knew about... I mean, I always knew a lot of paras were women, but I didn't know it was so skewed."

"They don't teach it in school," Brainchild said, pouring a carton of half-and-half into the pot, adding the sauteed greens and butter, and turning the heat on under it.

Nereid chewed her lower lip. "I guess my mother is more powerful than my father," she said slowly. "I mean, Mom is a class 6, I think. And I think Dad's a class 3. But they always work together and their powers are so complementary..."

"You never thought about it," Brainchild said. "Neither does anyone else. It doesn't help that your dad's name comes first whenever someone mentions them: Ebb and Flo."

"Yeah," Nereid said, her gaze falling back to the photo. "How did... I mean... I always heard that the Ultimate is sort of... an activist..."

"You mean to ask," Brainchild said, stirring the mixture, "how such a very black woman came to have such a very white girl as her ward."

Nereid swallowed hard. "Yeah, I guess so."

Brainchild poured the oysters and their liquor into the pot and continued to stir. "She's an immensely compassionate human being," she said. "And when she stumbled on a para supergenius who'd been born in a mobile home in Appalachia, with a drunk bastard of a father who prided himself on being unable to read a word and a mother in jail -- well, I guess nothing much mattered to her but getting me out."

"Wow," Nereid said. "How did she find you?"

"My first grade teacher wrote her a letter," Brainchild said, adding salt, pepper, and something red -- cayenne? paprika? -- to the pot. "She said I was in the hospital because my daddy caught me rebuilding the engines on the cars in the front yard. I don't even remember if it was true."

"Wow," Nereid said again. "That's just... wow."

"Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about it." Brainchild scooped up one of the oysters, examined it closely, and dropped it back into the pot.

"So you're not really, um, spandex spawn," Nereid said.

"Depends on your definition," Brainchild said. "Ruth -- the Ultimate -- is my mother, for all intents and purposes. I've never met my biological mother. She's been in prison since I was a few months old."

"For what?" It was out of her mouth before she could stop it and she belatedly clapped her hands over her mouth.

Brainchild smiled lopsidedly without looking at Nereid. "Murder, of course." She gestured to a towel-wrapped bundle on the counter. "Go ahead and carve us some slices of bread, would you?"

Nereid hesitantly unwrapped the towel and found a warm round boule of freshly-baked bread. She found a wooden cutting board and a bread knife after a little searching.

"My two older siblings," Brainchild said, apparently by way of explanation. "No idea why I lived. Ruth thinks it was a psychotic break and postpartum depression, or something like that. But it was messy. My father waxed rhapsodic in describing it to me. So let's not talk about it; it makes the outlook so bleak."

"Okay," Nereid said.

Brainchild snapped the gas off, obtained a soup ladle from her helpful robot, and served the stewed oysters into two large hand-thrown ceramic bowls. She dealt these onto the little glass table in the dining nook, then returned to the refrigerator. She rummaged around while Nereid managed to cut several thick slices of sourdough bread and transported these to table.

"Here we go," Brainchild said, displaying the yellow label of a green-glassed wine bottle. "Fingersmith Pinot Gris, from Australia. Okay with you?"

Nereid nodded, but couldn't help but wonder how Brainchild bought the wine and beer in her fridge. She'd checked, and Brainchild was 19, just about her own age. She supposed that a fake ID would be easy for a supergenius to create.

"Let's eat, then," Brainchild said, pouring the wine into a pair of glasses with a flourish. She handed one glass to Nereid. "Here's to my rescuer," she said, raising her own glass, "who braved skunk smell and discomfort just so I didn't have to spend the night in my doghouse."

Nereid smiled and clinked her glass with Brainchild's. When she drank, she tried to be cool and suave about the burning in her mouth and throat. However, Brainchild saw her face and burst into uncharacteristic giggles.

"Dig in," Brainchild said. "It'll help with the booze burn."

At her first bite, Nereid exclaimed with pleasant surprise. "My dad makes oyster stew at the restaurant sometimes," she said, "but yours is a lot better."

"Thanks!" Brainchild said, preening visibly. "That's high praise."

They ate in silence for a while after that, Nereid dipping her bread into the stew and eating it until her bread was gone, then trying the wine again, then back to the stew. Brainchild ate quickly at first, then slowed down, apparently savoring the food and the wine while watching her companion.

Nereid finally noticed her watching. "What?" she said, spoon halfway to her mouth.

"Nothin'," Brainchild said, topping up both their glasses. "I guess I just haven't seen you at a time when you've haven't been... self-conscious, or something."

Nereid blushed and put the spoon down. After a long silence, she picked up her glass and took a mouthful of wine. Finally, she said, "Thank you."

Brainchild looked surprised. "For what?"

"For dinner," Nereid said, "For being nice to me. For talking to me. It's been hard, being here, and I've been stupid in a lot of ways, and, well... thank you." She took another mouthful of wine, because she was afraid she was going to start crying. Brainchild had an odd look on her face.

And then, of course, when she went to put the glass down, it fell over or she knocked it over, and wine spilled everywhere. They both stood up quickly, Nereid exclaiming, apologizing, trying to get her napkin down on the spill before it reached across the table.

The napkin fell to the floor when Brainchild seized her and kissed her, though.

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